Thursday, May 5, 2011

Man does not live on answers alone

Here is some more food for thought from the book I'm reading, The Rise and Fall of the Bible:

What is the meaning of the word religion? We're all familiar with the word and probably have an assumed definition of it in our heads, but what was it originally intended to mean? Most say that the Latin origin of the word is religare which means to re-bind or re-attach. "Religion is then about being bound and re-bound to a set of beliefs, doctrines, institutions and scriptures." But another possible  Latin origin of the word is relegre which means to re-read or read again. "Take this as the origin and we have a sense of religion that is less about the binding and more about the ongoing process of rereading. It's about reinterpreting sacred scriptures and other religious traditions in order to make them speak meaningfully to new horizons of meaning."

Timothy Beal asks this question about religion in his book but I ask it again here because I thought it profound and fitting considering the nature of the Bible, as a book that is constantly referencing itself. Here is a graph that a PhD student at Carnegie Mellon created to represent the data of the 63,779 cross-references between the Bible's 1,189 chapters: 

The authors and characters are, from chapter to chapter pulling out bits and pieces of the Jewish Scriptures and using them in new and sometimes extremely creative ways. Even Jesus participated in this process. In the Sermon on the Mount, he quotes a passage that appears three times in the Torah, "You have heard it said 'An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth' but I say to you, do not resist the evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well..." 

According to Beal, the Scriptures are meant to engage us in a creative dialog, where we join the saints before us in interpreting what God is saying to us now, in this moment. On the one hand this seems scary, "a slippery slope" as my roommate Melissa commented after yesterday's blog. But is this really so different from what we already do as a community of believers? None of us has the corner market on the exact right interpretation of Scripture, as much as we might believe we do. There's strength in numbers, but even the masses can sometimes be proved wrong by the gradual and inevitable turning of time. I think the difference is that we drop the pretense that the Bible is meant to be a book of answers, we instead view it as "an unfinished  conversation, a work in progress." Beal continues, saying:
The Bible creates community by providing space for community to happen. It offers storied world and theological vocabularies around which people can come together in conversation about abiding questions. It calls for creative, collaborative participation. This is true especially for Christians. It is "our" library of questions and pool of imagination, the place we gather to read again in order to find meaning in new situations. In its many voices, perspectives and contradictions, it both embraces the diversity of voices among us and provides a context in which we can affirm unity within that diversity-not by agreeing about what it means but by joining in the creative, meaning-making process of interpretation that it hosts.
This idea resonates with me. It fits with my experience of reality which is one of more questions than answers (this many only be a personal reality); our intrinsic understanding that the world surrounding us is made up of so many diverse things, people, and ideas, our universal desire to make sense of it all. I have to believe that the Scriptures are the way they are because they reflect the reality of living out of sync with the Creator. It makes sense to me that God would use such a polyvocal book to inspire truth, creativity and unity within such a polyvocal Church.

1 comment:

  1. I think what you're describing would also describe a lot of the idea behind how texts are used in common law and Judiasm.