Friday, March 4, 2011

Living humanly in the time of the Fall.

Christians ethics, according to William Stringfellow, is the attempt to live humanly in the time of the Fall. Faced with dilemmas, we have no direct access to the judgment or opinion of God. To attempt to determine and then enact God's judgment dehumanizes us. It disrepects both our vocation as humans and God's vocation as final judge.

Some might reply that we do, in fact, have access to the opinion of God - in the Bible. There are several problems with this, but I'll focus on one that Stringfellow notes. The Word is event: not a dead letter but a living testament. The reason the Bible is important isn't because it is Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth or a magic book (thank you, Michael Spencer). It is important because it is the instrument through which the Spirit teaches us about both Jesus and ourselves. It is closely associated with the sacraments. The Spirit works on us through it - and demands our response. To use N.T. Wright's analogy, the Bible is like the first acts of an unfinished play. It gives us our starting point, sets our trajectory, and then calls us to finish it.

A limited view of the Bible - one that sees it as an inerrant holy book to be interpreted (to use that horrible word) literally - denies this dynamic relationship. It puts us in a straightjacket, rather than liberating us to live it out in our own context, to join in the ongoing conversation. Here's Stringfellow:

Any literalistic interpretations of the Bible are a false pretense - a substitute for rather than a type of exegesis - which violates by their verbatim mechanics the Bible's generic virtue as a living testament. They devalue the humanity of the reader of listener by assigning the person a narrow and passive role depleted of the dignity of participation in encounter with the biblical Word which the vitality of the Word itself at once invites and teaches.

Or, as Thom Stark says, inerrancy stunts your growth as a moral being. All sorts of evils are justified in the name of inerrancy. Genocide, for example, is excused because the Bible says God ordered it. "God's ways are not our ways". Well, yes, but God's ways are not evil either. If I have to choose between 1. The Bible is inerrant and therefore God ordered genocide or 2. The Bible is wrong about God ordering genocide, then I will unhesitatingly choose #2. No view of the inspiration and authority of the Bible is worth the price of #1.

So we do not have in the Bible as book of God's opinions. What we do have is a book used, in conjunction with the sacraments, as an instrument of God's action in our lives. There is no need, in the name of biblical authority and inspiration, to use the Bible to justify believing or doing things that either dehumanize us or monstracize God.

Rather than attempting to peek into the mind of God we should attempt to live as Jesus lived - in love, prayer, and self-sacrifice. He was not afraid to overturn what was previously understood to be the clear will of God if it meant living in a more fully human way. It is our duty to live in humble imitation of him, always with the "kyrie eleison" on our lips.


  1. Amen that the Bible is not a record of God's opinions. It is a record of God's people's journey into God. Sometimes they got it, sometimes they didn't. Certainly Peter had trouble getting it. But from generation tot generation tot generation, God's people understood more and more as God drew them closer into God.

    Just fifty years ago we thought racially integrating was the it. Now, God is drawing us to embrace GLBT people and our brothers and sisters of other faiths.

    Be well

  2. Yes, you are right that we should live as Jesus lived. And we do not have to take a dim view of Scripture in order to do so. In fact, I am amazed that Thom Stark thinks we need to abandon faith in the word of God in order to avoid genocide while Jesus embraced the word of God as His reason for rejecting genocide.


About Me

I'm Rachel's husband and Darcy's daddy. I'm a Hoosier, an accountant, and an Episcopalian. Politically, I'm a progressive who believes in the preferential option for the poor. I use the blog as a sort of journal - to interact with my reading and sketch out ideas.