Tag Archives: Bible

T is for Truth

At a recent workshop, someone challenged me for using the word ‘truth’ differently in describing two different positions. I was comparing the two, so although these might sometimes constitute different contexts, they’d come very close together on this occasion – and it’s a fair point. The word ‘truth’ does have a lot of different uses.

The truth. The Truth. My truth. Your truth. Objective truth. Emotional truth. Telling the truth. The Quaker Truth Testimony.

In particular, we can recognise a complex category of things which are true but not true: stories which contain truth without being true stories. In explaining this concept, we’ve got the concept of truth as emotional or mythical truth (in the sense that novels and plays can be described as ‘truthful’ even when they are completely fictional), and also the concept of true as fact, the way the world actually is, which is the opposite of fiction.

My workshop was looking at possible religious understandings of the world. We were considering a possible position which we might call pluralist, in which many different religions exist in the world but none of them are completely right or completely wrong – they all contain some element of truth, of pointing to the way things really are. For want of a better term, let’s say that this is a position in which all religions have some measure of Truth.

I contrasted that with a position which we might call fictionalist, in which many different religions exist in the world and none of them are completely right or completely wrong – they all tell stories which don’t contain facts or what might be regarded as ‘scientific’ truth, but which do contain emotional, psychological, or otherwise mythical truths. Again lacking a better term, this is a position in which all religions have some measure of ‘truth’.

I hope from these outlines that it’s clear both why these positions are closely related – they make a number of very similar claims and might lead people to behave in very similar ways – but also that they are different and that it will be useful to distinguish them. Both positions are concerned with the truth of religion: one claiming that religions do, or can, point to Reality or Truth, and the other claiming that religions contain truth of the kind also found in fiction. In speaking about these things, it’s easy to slip between the two uses of the word truth – especially because the kind of Truth spoken of by the pluralist position isn’t necessarily objective or factual truth, of the kind which might be verified by scientific investigation of some kind. (And if objective truth exists at all without the colouring of the subjective position of the people who generated the knowledge… a debate for another day.)

I also run into this problem when people ask for my opinion of something like the Bible. Is it true? Well, some bits of it might be historically true, but I’ve got doubts about a lot of it. Is it truthful? Well, it contains a lot of stories which are full of emotional truth and recognisable situations. Is it True? God knows.

S is for Spirit

Spirit is a word Quakers use a lot – but it also has a lot of non-Quaker uses. Here are some examples:

  • “When the Spirit moves you to speak, remember to stand.”
  • “She’s a spirited child.”
  • “The Holy Spirit descended in the form of a dove.”
  • “Beers, wines and spirits sold here.”
  • “The Light might also be called God, the Spirit, the Tao, etc.”
  • “The sculpture captures the spirit of the place.”

Quaker use is a long way from “beers, wines, and spirits”, and perhaps most closely related to “the Holy Spirit” – and yet Quakers do not, as a group, have the kind of clear Trinitarian picture of God which helps to make sense of the Holy Spirit (if sense can be made of the mystery of the Trinity!) in some other contexts. The term ‘holy’ has usually been dropped, to make it just ‘the Spirit’ – although the capitalisation is usually kept, partly as part of a general trend to capitalise most if not all of the ‘terms for God or whatever you call it’, and partly, I think, to maintain the distinction between the Quaker and secular uses of ‘spirit’.

What is the Spirit? In some Christian theology, the Holy Spirit is one person of the Trinity, where God the Father and God the Son, Jesus Christ, are the other two persons. Older use among Quaker did retain ‘Holy Spirit’, although not in every case. Modern Quakers, furthermore, are often happy to include ‘the Spirit’ in a list along with ‘Christ’ and ‘God’ or to talk about the Spirit of Christ or the Spirit of God – for example, “this Spirit, or Light, or God” (Janet Scott, accepted by the community by inclusion in Quaker faith and practice), and Advices and Queries 2 refers to ‘the spirit of Christ’. The Spirit is often spoken of as something one can be in, or can follow: a meeting might be “held in the Spirit“, or be “in loving dependence upon the spirit of God“.

The Spirit is often described as something that an individual or meeting might follow, and as a source of guidance. This puts the concept of the Spirit at the heart of a number of other key Quaker ideas. Thus, a true concern is a leading of God’s Spirit, and testimonies are the formalisation of shared leadings of the Spirit.

One aspect of this way of speaking which bothers some Friends is that the Spirit is described as an external force or thing. Some, of course, do think of the Spirit, and indeed of God, as external to themselves and the world. Others find this unacceptable – because not true to their experience, impossible to comprehend, or unscientific. With this in mind, I have often heard Friends connecting the Spirit to another common Quaker phrase, ‘that of God in everyone’. That key word here is ‘in’ – the phrase produces a picture in which God is internal, not just to the world but to each person in it.

Very occasionally, Friends connect back to the Biblical roots of the idea of the Holy Spirit: for those from a Christian background the key text is usually the story of Pentecost, although phrases like “the Spirit of God” are also found throughout the Hebrew Bible (more in some translations than in others). Overall, though, the concept of ‘the Spirit’ is a general one, more defined by the Spirit’s actions in the Quaker community than by older stories or abstract theology. The Spirit guides, leads, and is followed.

Book review: Paul Among the People, Sarah Ruden

Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time, Sarah Ruden

Paul is, as Sarah Ruden rightly points out, a misunderstood, misinterpreted, and widely disliked author – and one who is generally regarded as, at least, down on women, sex, and fun. Ruden does a good job of arguing that much of this is misunderstanding, brought on chiefly by a complete lack of contact between people who study the Bible in Greek and people who study other Greek texts written at around the same time. Ruden, having started out as a Classicist reading material from the polytheistic Greeks and Romans, is in a good position to bridge this gap by bringing her knowledge of the classical languages and cultures to bear on Paul’s writings.

In fact, in this slim volume that’s most of what she does. It’s often effective, sometimes shocking, and often challenges accepted views of the Greek world as well as common views of Paul. For example, she challenges the view of the Greek world as a “gay idyll”, arguing that reading Plato but not other texts, less philosophical and perhaps closer to reality, has given a misleading picture (p58). On the one hand, I’m a bit sad to see this picture torn down, because a picture of a society in which sexuality is viewed very differently is a useful one in all kinds of ways. On the other hand, my feminism survived the destruction of the myth of a matriarchal past, and these pictures can be useful even when known to be fictional.

In quoting extensively from classical texts and trying to offer a more accurate picture of what Paul was saying, Ruden uses blunt and modern translations which do not shy away from sexually and other explicit language – which is, I’m sure, to the benefit of the translation. It’s easy to see why people might not want to read this in church – but also easy to see an argument that this is because some of them have a mistaken, overly prettified, view of what is acceptable in church. I found her section on Galatians 5, one of the rare cases in which she takes on the King James Version directly, especially interesting. She offers transliterations of the Greek words in cases where no suitable translation is available, and goes to some lengths to point out how far from that worldview we are now. (She attributes much of the change to Paul – and I’m sure he had a big influence, although I can think of some other possible candidates as well.)

One drawback I found in Ruden’s writing style was a tendency to make her point, and offer her evidence – and then move on to the next point, without wrapping up neatly and restating the conclusion. Sometimes this worked well, and at other times I found myself going back to the beginning of a section to read it again and understand properly how this evidence support that point. However, I didn’t find points which weren’t supported by anything at all – and many of the points she makes suggest that readings of Paul should change a long way from those currently accepted in the traditions of Biblical interpretation (mostly ‘ordinary’ or folkloric) which I encounter most often.

I didn’t come away from the book as converted to Paul-following as Ruden obviously is. (I think that would be difficult to achieve anyway.) I still find writing attributed to Paul, and some probably genuinely by Paul, used as ‘clobber passages’ or turning out to be ‘texts of terror’. However, Ruden is doing her bit to change misinterpretations, and filling out Paul’s context with suitable Greek and Roman material is obviously a helpful step in that direction.

D is for Divine

I spent a while trying to work out which letter to put this under. G. S. D. L. W. In my recent academic work I’ve talked a lot about the ‘or whatever you call it’ style of talking about God (or the Light, or the Spirit, or… you get the idea). I’ve written about this both here and for other sites before; recently I used it as an example of disagreement success. I think it’s fair enough, though, to ask: what actually is this it which we might name in many ways?

Well, I’m not even sure that it is an it in the sense of being an object, for example. I sometimes get the feeling that we are lumping more than one thing together under the same label: Stasa wrote a post after one of my workshops in which she explored the possibility that this is the case. I also think it’s possible that the Divine is multiple at one level and single at another level, maybe even multiple in different ways at different levels or from different perspectives. I absolutely would not want to say that one of those levels was ‘better’ or ‘more enlightened’ than another – do you know Douglas Hoffstadter’s analogy about the ant hill? (It’s about minds, not God, but never mind that for now.) The levels from the single ant to the whole system are all real, and all worth studying, and none of them can be called ‘wrong’.

As a Quaker, I do have a personal position on what the Divine is like. Some of it is actually about what I know God isn’t like: along with Giles Fraser, I don’t believe in the God Stephen Fry doesn’t believe in. I don’t believe in the omni-this, omni-that Deity whom we might call the God of the philosophers. I find some religious stories helpful, and others not so much; my reasoning mind revolts at miracles and I have to work quite hard to see the narrative power of them. That said, some of the stories I do find helpful come either from the Pagan traditions or from the Bible. After many years of thinking about language in this context, I’m quite relaxed about it – it’s hard to shock me with a new word or bore me with an old word, partly because in both cases I’m less interested in the word itself than the ways in which it is used. I do believe – in fact I’d say that I know from experience – that there is some kind of Divine will with which a person or a group can be aligned (or not aligned). This is the ‘will of God’ which Quakers seek in Meeting for Worship for Business; it’s always a bit provisional, it’s ‘what we who are here should do now’, rather than a command to others or for all time. I believe, but I don’t know, that if we do faithfully what we are asked to do we will be taking tiny steps, one after another, towards the Kingdom of Heaven (or the Divine Commonwealth, or the realisation of our true natures, if you prefer).

I also think that our experiences of the Divine – whatever They might really be like – are heavily influenced by our imaginations, our bodies, our world, and our societies. I know that my experience of the Goddess Brigid is very shaped by the reading of Pagan books which I did as a teenager, that my experience of God’s will is very shaped by my participation in the Quaker community and Quaker practice, and that my choice to label some of my experience ‘religious’ (but not ‘Christian’) is very shaped by my encounters with those terms in all sorts of, sometimes irrelevant, contexts. I assume that, whether they like it or not, this is broadly true for other people and act accordingly, trying to understand what the influences are in a particular case before trying to tease out where our understandings might agree or disagree.

B is for Bible

The Bible is one of those topics on which I feel profoundly ignorant, and a lot of people assume that I’m an expert. Both are probably true: on the one hand, I have both read the Bible and studied it, and on the other hand, I know some people who specialise in Biblical Studies and are always ready with some aspect I’d never known about or considered before. Because I did joint honours for my BA, I was excused from languages (I did logic instead, basically) and have never formally studied either Greek or Hebrew (although I have dabbled in both in informal settings). I am interested in the Bible, but I’m not interested in quite a lot of the questions which are asked about it. For example, I understand the intellectual interest in asking which sentences of which letters were actually written by Paul, but I’m not very moved by the argument that we should excuse the misogyny of some letters because it’s not original to them – it’s still there and still damaging, and unless you’re going to edit the canon or print all the Bibles with strikethrough text for those passages, it’s part of the Bible and who cares who wrote it originally?

That said, I do think it’s important to realise that the Bible is not a single text, and that even apparently single texts have multiple authors and editors. My Quaker Bible Study group are reading Exodus at the moment, and with the aid of the notes in my study Bible, I gave them a five-minute run-down of the J/E/D/P theory about the sources of the text (which I haven’t studied since 2006, but at least I have studied it…). In that setting, even a simple version of the theory helps to open up questions about what this text means, at what level it can be said to be true, and how narrative devices are employed within it.

Sometimes a simple version is not enough, though. I do get asked highly technical questions about the translation of particular Biblical phrases, especially when I am talking about religious language. My research focus is on religious language as used today, but this is hard to convey to people, and when a debate begins in a workshop they often turn to me as an expert. Even if I have heard an answer, more by luck than effort, I’m not confident to give it with the air of an expert opinion – because I’m really not an expert – so I end up shrugging. That’s okay inasmuch as it allows me as a facilitator to refocus on the real issues in the workshop (getting stuck in intellectual or historical stuff rather than talking about what we think and feel now is a common problem), but sometimes I sense people’s frustration with it. There is often a desire to know more about the Bible, and a hesitation about where to start reading.

I can relate to that because I experience it too. Having learned some things about the Bible, and found many of them useful and interesting – I wrote recently about John Shelby Spong‘s explanation of the Gospels as liturgical texts, for example – I know I’d like to know more, but where to begin? I’ve read the Gospel of John, but never really studied it. At one time I tried to blog about the lectionary readings for the week, but didn’t know enough to say anything useful in the time available. Sometimes I’ve used the plans in the Gideon Bible or a Bible-reading phone app to have daily passages, but found myself wanting more commentary and context than this approach provides. Reading right through the Bible helps with context – you know which passages come before and after this one – but not with understanding them. I’ve heard fascinating things about Isaiah, but wouldn’t know where to start. And so forth – in a complex library like the Bible, where do you begin? The obvious answer – Genesis – does not turn out to be an easy beginning, nor is it automatically the most interesting one.

In the end, I’ve concluded that the kind of Bible knowledge I want needs to be built up, piece by piece, over a lifetime, rather than gained in a single reading or qualification. Biblical texts really become interesting to me when they relate to my experience, and that cannot be forced, although I can encourage it by asking the right questions. The other thing which really interests me is the way in which sometimes a Biblical reference or allusion will appear in my speech or writing without my noticing at first; somehow it has snuck in through my general knowledge or the English language and it only comes to me later that this refers to a Biblical source. Tracking these down, and understanding why and how they have come to be meaningful to me, can be very rewarding – and serendipitous.

Book review: Jesus for the Non-Religious, John Shelby Spong

(Amazon; Bookfinder)

This book is basically an overview of John Shelby Spong’s view of what Christianity should be. In the first part of the book he spends a long time breaking down why traditional or literal Christianity is no longer believable, and looking at the historical circumstances of the writing of the Gospels. The upshot of this is that he ditches miracles, supernatural stuff generally, and a lot of historical claims (not all – he offers a clear explanation for his acceptance that there was a historical Jesus, about whom we know very little but more than nothing). He expects his audience to be upset about this, and he often offers reassuring asides or encouragements to hear him out. I found these unnecessary because I wasn’t upset, but I accept that I may not be his intended audience.

In the second part of the book, he looks at the stories we have about Jesus in the context of the first-century synagogues in which they were (he argues) created. Throughout the first part of the book, he was constantly relating stories about Jesus to stories from the Hebrew Bible – mainly as evidence that they are stories, recurring motifs borrowed from elsewhere, rather than history. In this second part, he builds on this awareness of the Jewish origins of Christianity, and describes very clearly how the synoptic Gospels can be understood as liturgical texts within the context of the Jewish calendar. I’ve heard of this theory before, but found Spong’s presentation of it both clear and convincing.

The third part of the book, meant to be a discussion of the core of Christianity as Spong understands it, felt a little weak in comparison with the foregoing. It’s slightly less carefully argued. Some of the concerns about historicity are dropped before the reader has fully understood why they are no longer relevant – Spong’s point is actually that the stories are spiritually true rather than historical, and that if we understand them as non-literal attempts to share the heart of the Jesus experience, rather than the facts of the life of Jesus, we can learn a lot from them. He does make this explicit, but I think it would have been better said slightly sooner. He also – and this is interesting in light of my previous post – uses the term ‘theist’ not for all God-belief, but for the kind of God-belief he doesn’t like (external, interventionist, supernatural, patriarchal, paternal). I found the explanation of how theism came to exist, which is framed in terms of evolutionary psychology, less than helpful – to do it in this space, or, I fear, at all, one must generalise so much that it becomes almost meaningless. Rather than trying to go back in evolutionary time, and falling into some of the same problems which Freud encountered in Moses and Monotheism, it would be enough to point out that now and in recorded history people have experienced self-conciousness, fear of death, and a desire to survive even at the cost of other lives. It’s probably safe to assume that the human condition is known to your readers, and skip the bit about it dawning on prehistoric people – although I suppose it does serve to demonstrate that Spong fully accepts evolution as an explanation of our existence.

Spong is, then, a non-theist (under his own understanding of theism) and a Christian. In particular, he is a Christian in that he takes the character and story of Jesus to be primary. The message which he derives from the Jesus story, and which he wants to detach from unhelpful baggage and express in modern terms, is that we come into the life of God when we are fully human. When we drop tribalism, prejudice, and boundaries between people, we can “step into a humanity that opens to all people the meaning of life and thus the meaning of God” (p247).

Overall, I found this a good read – it’s dense but clear, and contains a lot of material, especially in the first part. For people who are interested in whether/how Christianity can reform itself into something for today and tomorrow, it’s got a lot to offer. For those who are interested in the history of Christianity and the relationship of the New Testament texts to the Hebrew Bible, this book lays out one common and scholarly approach in an accessible way. Those who have already made many of Spong’s early moves, such as rejecting a supernaturalist reading of the New Testament and embracing a more poetic approach, might find some of this disappointing in that it covers old ground, but also reassuring and at times illuminating of details. In particular, Spong’s positioning of the Jesus story as a continuation of the Elijah/Elisha and Isaiah/Zachariah stories, and his continued and respectful attention to Judaism, are helpful.