A Clear, Honest Confession Of Progressive Faith — A: The Bible

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MY LIFE WITH THE BIBLE

by Bob Cramer

For an adult class in a series on progressive Christianity, co-taught with
my new progressive pastor, I’ve been reviewing how I’ve thought about the
Bible ever since I first heard stories from the Hebrew and Christian
scriptures. It turns out I was progressive from early childhood. And that
was a long time ago (I was born in 1932)!

Fellow members of my northern California UCC congregation, knowing I was
ordained by American Baptists, still find it hard to believe I don’t
believe the Bible is the word of God: who ever heard of a Baptist like
that? They easily comprehend, I suppose, that I was never taught to take
any of it literally; but I sometimes worry about what they’d think if they
knew I really believe there is very little historical information in
either testament. In other words, it’s pretty much all imaginative
story-telling. The stories may or may not be built upon historical
recollection. But even if they are, I was taught long ago, as a literature
major, what psychologists now affirm: that everyone’s memory of the same
event differs, always; and the stories told by the same person, over time,
can change in detail and even in the point they try to make. So with the
Bible, created by humans.

The Pentateuch and much more of the Hebrew scriptures were
(re-)constructed at the time of the Babylonian exile. Stories about Jesus
were told differently by different people at different times. What we have
is gospels that, if they were not in the Bible, would be called historical
fiction. It is painfully evident from material in the gospels themselves
that followers of Jesus didn’t pass on any specific data they might have
had about his birth and childhood, for instance. By the time the birth,
infancy and maturation stories were written, no one remained who ever had
experienced life with Jesus. Even the death and resurrection narratives
are imaginative.

Was I taught those stories were not true? Absolutely not. Their truth
lies within the realm of myth — stories developed to help people
understand not facts but meaning, not Truth but truths.

Does any of this make any difference to anyone? I hope so, but I can say
with conviction that it matters to me. As a lifelong progressive I am less
interested in some universal Truth located in indisputable fact than I am
interested, vitally so, in truths about the nature of life and death and
human values that comport with the basic thrust of virtually all
religions: that the original and creative life force that is called by
many names is present in us and in all creation, and that all who live or
have lived — not just defined by breathing but by simply _being_, like
soil and water — are sacred and are to be treated as such.

My mother was trained as a Christian educator in a mainline (American
Baptist) school, founded in response to the fundamentalists who, after the
Scopes “monkey trial,” aggressively recruited young men into so-called
Bible schools established in the 1920s to combat “modernism,” which was
their put-down of what I am calling a progressive approach to faith. As a
laywoman she led the little American Baptist congregation in which I grew
up in calling pastors from the seminary from which I was later graduated
— now Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School. They taught us — kids
and adults — about the Bible. It was not to be read literally. It was not
all that historically true. It explored the meaning of life from very many
viewpoints, drawing many different conclusions. I was taught not to say,
“the Bible says …”. Instead, “Luke writes,” and things like that.
Whatever one says the Bible says can be contradicted, often directly, by
something else the Bible says. If one can understand this, one is ready to
think theologically about God, Jesus and the church in what we are now
calling a post-modern way: all viewpoints are relative; there is no
revealed Truth, only insights we can learn to value as truths,
incorporating some of them into our lives which already are infused with a
kind of truth we call the spirit of God.

In our church we celebrated Christmas joyfully even though some of us
kids — with whom our pastors could be more honest than with some of the
adults — were learning that there are two genealogies in the New
Testament, both purporting to show that Jesus was born in Bethlehem as a
son of David, but both distinctly disagreeing in substance. We believed he
was born in Nazareth to Mary and Joseph, but we celebrated Christmas
traditionally because we were heirs of two thousand years of tradition. We
celebrated Easter the same way even if some of us were aware that Jesus
appeared to many afterward but in very different ways, none of which were
in the same bodily form in which he had died. What was important was what
people in that time believed. We were taught to figure out how we too
could believe that when Jesus was willing even to go to the cross with his
faith in God intact, God said “Yes! That’s how I meant humans to live!”
People in earlier times imagined all that quite differently than we can
imagine it today. So we were taught to decide if Jesus was worth giving
our whole lives to, as we also gave them to the God Jesus, and we,
worshipped.

I share these thoughts as a work in progress, just as I am sharing them
in my church. I tell folks that I am far from being alone, far from being
apostate from a Christian point of view. Progressive Christianity is alive
and well and growing in a society that seems devoted to recovering some
kind of religious past that never was, even a biblical past that never
really was what “the Bible says.”

Progressives believe facts mutate as they are encountered by people
endowed with creative intelligence. They did when biblical writers wrote,
when medieval theologians and mystics wrote. Facts don’t themselves convey
meaning. We create meaning, creating “facts” as necessary to fill out or
explain a story. So it always was, so it is now, for progressive
Christians.

One thought on “A Clear, Honest Confession Of Progressive Faith — A: The Bible

  1. Bob…I just read this, and like it. Unlike you, I grew up in a Bible-believing (Dispensationalist variety) background, and it took me about 40 years of real Bible study to arrive at a position similar to yours. But it has been an immensely satisfying experience.

    Perhaps in future installments (“A” seems to indicate a “B”, at least, to come) you will indicate how you interface your understanding of the Bible with your denomination’s expressions of belief on this point. As a Presbyterian, I currently accept the Bible (critically understood) as the basis for the formation of denominational statements and symbols, while welcoming extracanonical writings and academic studies of the times in which the various Bible documents were written, as aids to interpreting the canonical documents.

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