“Respect for life”, Ehrfurcht vor dem Leben, is a phrase that occurred to Albert Schweitzer in September 1915. He saw it as the value to be cultivated in order to reverse the decline of humankind toward barbarity. Schweitzer’s language is rather cloudy, demanding a sympathetic intuition from its hearers: “What is respect for life, and how does it arise in us? The most immediate fact of human consciousness is: ‘I am life, that wants to live’. In every moment in which the human being considers himself and the world around him, he grasps himself as will to life amid will to life”. This brings a sense of unlimited responsibility to the totality of the biosphere, the duty to foster all life in its development and to resist all that thwarts this development.
Respect for Life, in this sense, is still not a widely approved virtue. Making a distinction based on the two Greek words for “life” one may say that selfish humans cherish the life they are leading – their bios –, but not the life by which they live, the zôê of the cosmos. Full of the arrogance of life, hê alazoneia tou biou (1 Jn 2.16), they see the life of others as an encroachment on their space. Rather than a communion of zôê we have a rivality of bios, leading to violence. To revel in our own lives, as a possession, is to disrespect the lives of others. Instead, Schweitzer would urge, we are to tune in to the life of the cosmos, in a dying to self, on the model of the Johannine Jesus who “lays down his life” (tên psychên autou, Jn 15.13; cf. Jn 10.15-18) “for the life of the world” (kai zôên didous tô kosmô, Jn 6.33; cf. Jn 10.10).
Another reason why the holistic ideal of Schweitzer fails to enchant is that we find morally objectionable its apparent implication that an individual life is not absolutely sacred. To insist on preserving an individual life at the cost of the biosphere or of the life of the community is immoral in Schweitzer’s eyes, but such a scruple never occurs to those who have an individualistic conception of the sacredness of life, a conception no doubt rooted in a self-centred clinging to life, to bios as an imagined possession of our imaginary ego. Ancient religious texts challenge this absolutization of individual life by their glorification of martyrdom and of mortification and renunciation. Even texts we find morally shocking, wherein parents are commanded to slay their children (Genesis 22) or to offer their enemies in battle as a holocaust to God (Dt. 13.16; Isa. 34.6; Jer. 50.27) or as the warrior’s equivalent of the brahmin’s sacrifice (Bhagavad Gîtâ) can serve to shake us out of a blind clinging to life that we confuse with high moral principle.
There is an idolatry of life that is in reality opposed to respect for life, and that has more to do with hê alazoneia tou biou than with having life in abundance. One sign of this is that it prizes life selectively. Thus the life of an embryo – which is a full individual human life in potency, but not yet in act – becomes more sacred than the life of mothers, or of the doctors targeted by zealots. The collateral casualties of war, children lured by the cute-looking bomblets packed in cluster bombs, and maimed, blinded or killed by them, count for little, as do the lives of the criminal underclass. The tortured bodies of people in a permanent vegetative state are kept alive by families who cannot let go and who ritually denounce as murderers those who follow common sense and classical Catholic moral tradition in this matter.
The “seamless robe” ethic that would cherish all life cannot be merely the automatic application of the rule, “Thou shalt not kill”; it must also be prevenient, labouring primarily to undo those conditions that give rise to the taking of life – poverty, war, aggression, vengefulness – and to replace them with conditions that make for respect for life – equality, peacefulness, forgiveness.
In the economy of older Japanese society it was often thought necessary to send newborn infants “back to the gods” (see William Lafleur, Liquid Life: Abortion and Buddhism in Japan, Princeton, 1994), and old people would likewise go away to die (see Shohei Imamura’s 1982 film, Ballad of Narayama, for a bleak view of such a world ); suicide, too, in a wide range of circumstances became virtuous. Morally unacceptable as this may be, it bespoke a serene recognition of the limits of life, an ability not to cling to it in aggressive self-assertion. To condemn it as merely a “culture of death” would miss the distinction between a mode of living rooted in respect for the total biosphere and one based on territorial aggression that refuses to take the wider context into account at all.
Leaving these delicate topics to the expert hands of the moral theologians, I should like to look again at the scandalous scriptural texts mentioned above. For centuries the Church was not very keen on allowing the laity to read Scripture. After Vatican II many pious Catholics found themselves repulsed by the contents of the Bible now thrust into their hands. The same reaction is seen among diligent lay readers of Scripture in the Renaissance. Lucien Febvre recounts the reaction of Marguerite de Navarre:
Hélas! mon Dieu, mon frère et vrai Moise,
J’ai estimé vos oeuvres estre vice
she cries in the Miroir, after a reading of the historical books of the Old Testament, filled with wars, massacres, cruelties, gleefully perpetrated:
Vous nous faites de mal faire défense,
Et pareil mal faites sans conscience.
Vous défendez de tuer à chacun,
Mais vous tuez, sans épargner aucun
De vingt-trois mil, que vous faites défaits.
… Je venais à douter
Si c’estoit vous, ou si par aventure,
Ce n’estoit rien qu’une simple escriture.
(Lucien Febvre, Amour sacré, amour profane, Gallimard, 1996, 201-2. “Alas, my God, my brother and true Moses, I esteemed your works as vice… You forbid us to do evil and do the same evil without conscience. You forbid anyone to kill, yet you kill, without sparing anyone, twenty-three thousand whom you cast down… I came to doubt whether it was you or whether perchance it was only a mere piece of writing.”)
Note, however, that is it not the cruelty of biblical wars that offends Marguerite, but the extreme punishment meted out by God for fornication. The 23,000 to whom she refers are the victims of the plague caused by Israelites having intercourse with Moabite women, a plague stopped by Phinehas’s spearing of one such couple; the number is given as 24,000 in Num. 25.9 but 23,000 in 1 Cor. 10.8. Older periods had not cultivated our scandalized reaction to the exterminating warrior-God of the Pentateuch, since their own war ethic was hardly more refined. The unconsciousness with which the Inquisition and the massacres of the Crusades were accepted scarcely prepared people to be scrupulous about biblical stories of bloodshed in war. Even today, to take offence at these stories is the privilege of the left.
Phinehas, by the way, was glorified for his noble deed. His priestly lineage was held in high esteem. He provided inspiration for Mattathias in the Book of Maccabees. Along with Samson, slayer of Philistines, and Jephtha, sacrificer of his daughter, he is recalled as a hero of faith in Hebrews 11.32. What strikes us today is the hatred of sexuality underlying his deed. Warnings against porneia as not making for holiness or for human flourishing are one thing (1 Thess. 4.3); but a zeal for holiness that expresses itself in hatred is another. We have not even begun to analyze, or to psychoanalyze, this murky dimension of Scripture. Of course it is urged that the zeal of Phinehas was directed not against sex but against idolatry. But hatred of idolatry often takes on a sexually phobic hue in Scripture, as in the rage against the feminized religion of Canaan or Paul’s view of lesbianism as punishment for idol-worship. The question arises whether monotheism can avoid the traps of such patriarchal rigidity and intolerance.
It is perhaps only today that the violence of Scripture has become truly scandalous to us. For reasons that are obvious, including the extermination practices of the last century, the bloodthirsty aspect of scriptural texts, Jewish, Christian and Islamic, has become a neuralgic point in current religious reflection. Ancient Israel rejoiced in the gift of life, but regarded rival tribes as encroachers to be eliminated. There was no thought of celebrating a communion of life with them. Wars of extermination were as intrinsic to the religion, polity, law, culture and spirituality of ancient Israel as crusades and inquisitions were to those of the Catholic Church for centuries. The latter also are phenomena that we used to gloss over, despite the efforts of Protestant and Enlightenment critics to rub our nose in them; now we feel a duty to gaze on “the unacceptable face” of church history and draw what lessons we can from it (see John Kent, The Unacceptable Face: The Modern Church in the Eyes of the Historian, London, SCM, 1987). One need look no further than the tortured efforts of fundamentalists to justify this violence to see how dangerous these ancient texts still remain, at least to the degree that they dull the intellectual and moral integrity of such apologists and the numerous believers they represent.
Even though the enlightened conscience of humanity today cannot be squared with a God who commands the slaughter of women and children, and the abduction of virgins as war booty (Numbers 31), these tales hold a morbid fascination for us. Their sublime, sacral style, the sanctification of violence they enact, comes from a primitive stratum of human history, like voices from an exotic other planet. This aura has led biblical inerrantists to glorify the genocidal activities, blaming their victims. Glenn Miller writes:
This action/atrocity by the Midianites is an intensely sordid and depressing tale, of greater scale than even that of Sodom and Gomorrah, and of greater anti-Hebrew malice and calculating treachery than even that of the Amalekites. The removal of this exact sub-culture (without impacting the Moabites or the rest of the Midianites—for good or ill), while mercifully sparing a very large number of innocent young girls, yet without sparing the guilty Israelites, seems neither cruel nor unfair nor unwarranted, given the horrendously dehumanizing character of this crime, and given the unavoidable consequences of conflict upon children in the ancient world. (http://www.christian-thinktank.com/midian.html, May, 2001)
This seems quite perverse. Yet a lot of biblical violence still fails to stir any unease even in Christians who are far from fundamentalism. The discomfiting of the Egyptians, for example, the drowning of Pharaoh and his host in the Red Sea, has been so well integrated into our Easter typology that it hardly troubles us as the fate of the Midianites does. We jauntily sing: “Kings in their splendour he slew, for his great love is without end” (Ps. 135). But maybe even in such cases some belated scruples might not be out of place.
Virgins are again taken as booty in Judges 21.11, in a war of extermination against fellow-Israelites, punished for not taking part in a previous war of extermination against the Benjamites, who had refused to extradite the gang-rapists of a certain concubine. The four hundred virgins are given to the six hundred Benjamite males who are the sole survivors of that war so as to keep the tribe of Benjamin from disappearing entirely; an oath prevents the Israelites from giving the Benjamites their own daughters; but the requisite two hundred virgins are nonetheless supplied by allowing the Benjamites to abduct them at the festival of Shiloh. Exegetes seek to give an edifying gloss to all these rather barbarous doings. They discern that the war against the Benjamites was entered on hastily, on the basis of a distorted report and without a divine command, so that God allows Israel to be twice defeated – giving ambiguous responses in the manner of a pagan oracle – before giving them victory on the third attempt (before which they consult him more humbly than on the two previous occasions) (See Robert Boling, Judges, Doubleday, 1975, 288). As for the abduction of the virgins at Shiloh, it allowed Israel to provide wives for the Benjamites without forcing the girls’ fathers to transgress their oath. In any case the girls deserved their fate: “At Shiloh the venerable covenant sanctuary had reverted to older Canaanite patterns of celebration. But even the evil that men do, the redactor seems to be saying, could be providentially exploited on that occasion, thanks to the quick-witted reasoning of Israel’s elders” (The Interpreter’s Bible, ad loc.) The second, homiletic column in The Interpreter’s Bible must often resort to resort to ad hoc comments, embarrassed and desperate efforts to wring edification from the text at any cost; its comment on Numbers 31.22, for instance, grasps at the straw of a spiritual significance in the reference to the purging of anything that will stand fire.
Such attempts at edification are themselves disedifying. But they also shield us against the full force of the texts. Magical consultations of Yahweh belong to a world in which to be seized by the Spirit of God is to become a frenzied killer, as in the case of Samson (Judges 14:19). A good literary critic will seek to feel the full archaic power of such representations, so foreign to the modern mind.
Is the Samson-mentality really a thing of the past? It is kept alive at least on the plane of fantasy by biblical inerrantists. Tackle them, say, on the bashing of innocent babies’ heads against the stones (Ps. 137), and they will reply: ‘First, who say they were innocent? Second, can you deny that God appoints humans as agents of his vengeance? Third, who are you, a corrupt sinner, to criticize the Word of God?’ That dogmatic rhetoric may be old-fashioned, but it is intoxicating, and can be reactivated at any time. In the past, at least, such attitudes translated into deeds. The English Puritan revolutionaries “saw themselves as ‘Saints of the Most High’, commissioned to execute judgment on kings and nobles. Oliver Cromwell drew a parallel between his revolution and the Exodus and proceeded to treat the Catholics of Ireland as the Canaanites. He even declared that ‘there are great occasions in which some men are called to great services in the doing of which they are excused from the common rule of morality’” (John J. Collins, “The Zeal of Phinehas: The Bible and the Legitimization of Violence”, in J. Harold Ellens, ed. The Destructive Power of Religion, Praeger, 2004, I, 13). This is an example of what Karen Armstrong calls antinomian fundamentalism (The Battle for God, Knopf, 2000). The genocide of Indians in America was based on similar biblical imagination. The obsession with inerrancy is peculiar to America today, and does not seem widespread in Europe. It goes hand in hand with a readiness to see even the most ill-thought-out and illegal military aggressions as somehow commanded by God. The inerrancy of Scripture translates into my inerrancy and my country’s inerrancy, and inspiration, as it reduces the word of God to a magic oracle, letting it lead them into one catastrophic misadventure after another.
One apologetic tactic is to claim that Israel’s practices of extermination differed from those of its ancient neighbours in that here God used the weak human proclivity to violence and channeled it for a divine purpose as opposed to a merely tribal one. Thus the violent texts can be read with an eye to this divine purpose, as testifying to divine holiness, while we overlook the unsatisfactory ethical understanding of the time as a limited, culture-bound aspect. But this forestalls a more disturbing question: What if the sense of divine purpose made the Israelites not less, but more ruthless in their ideology of extermination?
Ben Witherington, asked about inerrancy on his website, engages in a characteristic apologetic shuffle.
Inerrancy is a negative word which leads one to have to define (or redefine) what amounts to an error. I prefer saying that the Bible is totally truthful and trustworthy in what it asserts… Its provenance is telling the truth in the main about history, theology, ethics and those sorts of subjects... The sun doesn't rise or set, but it certainly appears to do so, and truthful phenomenological language is found in many places in the Bible… I see no reason to doubt the veracity of the Bible on what it tries to teach us, so long as it is rightly understood taking into account genre of literature and the like. (http://benwitherington.blogspot.com/2006/02/2-tim-316-on-inspiration-and-authority.html)
Phenomenologically, the Israelites no doubt understood God to be on their side in wars of extermination; but for us it is a fallacy deriving from their general sense of having God “on tap”.
Pious hermeneutical principles, such as Luke Johnson’s claim that “God’s wisdom is somehow seeking to be communicated even through the impossibilities of the literal sense” and that we must wrestle with apparently difficult texts instead of condemning them “until they yielded a meaning ‘worthy of God’” prevent one from reading the texts with full sensitivity to their literary texture. They prescribe in advance that the texts must have an edifying sense. This approach is theologically as well as literarily objectionable. When John J. Collins proposes that “this material should not be disregarded, for it is at least as revelatory as the more edifying parts of the biblical witness’, what he means is that it is revelatory of the all-too-human, culture-bound roots of the construction of monotheism: “The power of the Bible is largely that it gives an unvarnished picture of human nature and of the dynamics of history, and also of religion and the things that people do in its name”. I would say that the power of the Bible is primarily that it corrects these evils, offering a medicine-chest for the religious pathologies of humanity (as Gregory Baum once remarked). But the evils do show themselves clearly, and are not entirely controlled, analyzed and overcome by Scripture itself, even at the last redactional level, though perhaps they are if we take into account at every step the total vision of the entire canon. If the Bible tells us something about the divine it tells us much about the human, and in the end the divine is best revealed in the process of humanization that the Bible attests.
Official Catholic statements on this question are often unsatisfactory as they tone down the literal force of the scandalous texts. “No one who has a proper idea of biblical inspiration will be surprised to find that the sacred writers, like other men of antiquity, employed certain techniques of exposition and narrative, certain idioms characteristic of the Semitic language, certain exaggerated, often paradoxical expressions designed for emphasis” (Divino Afflante Spiritu, 1943). This rejects crude ideas of what inspiration entails, but does not meet the problem of massacres presented as divinely sanctioned. This problem is addressed head-on in the 1994 document of the Pontifical Biblical Commission (no longer an organ of the Magisterium) on “The Interpretation of Scripture in the Church”, where we read:
The Bible reflects a considerable moral development, which finds its completion in the New Testament. It is not sufficient therefore that the Old Testament should indicate a certain moral position (e.g. the practice of slavery or of divorce, or that of extermination in the case of war) for this position to continue to have validity. One has to undertake a process of discernment. This will review the issue in the light of the progress in moral understanding and sensitivity that has occurred over the years. The writings of the Old Testament contain certain “imperfect and provisional” elements (Dei Verbum, 15), which the divine pedagogy could not eliminate right away.
This remains evasive, for it suggests that extermination of civilian populations is not intrinsically evil but had validity under the circumstances of pentateuchal times. Concern to safeguard scriptural inerrancy seems here to be opening the doors wide to an extreme moral relativism.
The herem or ban was a common institution of antiquity and is clearly blessed and commanded by God in Scripture. These texts reflect a real-life violent world. John J. Collins cites a ninth century parallel, the Moabite stone : “And Chemosh said to me, ‘Go, take Nebo from Israel. So I went by night and fought against it from the break of dawn until noon, taking it and slaying all, seven thousand men, boys, women, girls, and maidservants, for I had devoted them to destruction for (the god) Ashtar-Chemosh’ (I, 13)” (Collins, 20). Biblical texts as late as the seventh century BCE glorify the herem, and its spirit lives on in much later texts. The four volumes on The Destructive Power of Religion, edited by J. Harold Ellens (see D. Andrew Kille, SBL annual meeting, Nov. 2005; http://psybibs.home.att.net/2005/kille.destructive_power.pdf), offer an airing of this nightmare history, though the healing response it proposes is sometimes short on theology and too facile in its psychological generalizations. The Church still wants to hold that it has no authority to deplore this tradition, but the question of moral judgement is forced on us again and again, and there is a sense that to fudge it out of respect for the archaic but inerrant texts is to have lost the legitimate freedom of Christians in their handling of Scripture.
Perhaps the root of all the forms of violence Scripture harbours, or at least of their perpetuation, is the violence of the claim whereby Scriptures impose themselves as having divine authority. Churches that make peremptory use of scriptural proof-texts, or who use their own official statements as even stronger proof-texts and criteria of truth, as well as fundamentalists who build castles of closed-mindedness on rigid understandings of literal inerrancy, are all building on a foundation laid in the sacred texts themselves.
But here again, one can go beneath the dogmatist layer and discover a more gracious sense in such declarations as, “This is the word of the Lord”. When the prophets use that expression, it is in the context of a concrete intervention in some troubled situation. They are claiming that the word of God has come to them – the biblical God is always a “God who comes”. He has given them a burning word to be uttered here and now, not one to be used to bully people three thousand years later.
Biblical triumphalism is at the root of the evils of sectarianism that have blighted Christian history. A scruple holds us back from sharing in it today, and notably in the case of New Testament passages directed at various parties in Judaism or at the Jewish people itself. Beyond this, the bullying tone of Scripture is no longer something we are ready to accept as “good for us”. Rather we detect here a root of the violence that emerges in more scandalous forms in texts advocating murder or genocide. We resist what we perceive as moral blackmail, as Scripture laying a guilt-trip on us. The resistances expressed by the critics of Christianity since the Renaissance are now knit into our own contemporary sensitivity. We are suspicious, as well, of the authoritarian attitude that discourages the mind from searching after truth and discourages society from developing a democratic culture of debate and consultation.
Biblical conservatives may rail at those who dare to stand in judgment over the Word of God, yet increasingly their rhetoric is losing its power, as we see the role such biblical conviction has played in the wars of the new century. Christians do in fact stand in judgment on the Bible, and they also devoutly wish that Muslims would do the same for the Qur’an. Biblical authority as traditionally understood is increasingly being unmasked as an imposition and as an obstacle to human progress.
HOW SCRIPTURE CORRECTS ITSELF
Scripture is always correcting itself. An obvious way it does this is when later redactors take some old text and modify it or join it with other texts in such a way as to make it more acceptable as an expression of Israel’s faith. These redactional efforts to impose an edifying reading offer a clue on which exegetes may build. The old allegorical method of finding an edifying spiritual sense – taking Samson as a type of Christ, for example – has lost authority. But attention to the theological vision of the Book of Judges as a whole may discover an initial theological reaction against the Samson lore in its primitive original form (see Dieter Böhler, “Was macht denn Simson in der Bibel?”, Theologie und Philosophie 80 (2005), 481-9), and reference to the wider canon may discern here a pointer to values worked out more fully further along the Bible’s trajectory of moral reflection. Scripture is sui ipsius interpres and also sui ipsius critica. But, against Luther, it is when it is read by the Church that Scripture best effects its own self-critique, the Spirit overcoming the letter that kills.
Vatican II seeks to edulcorate an earlier stress on literal inerrancy, monumentalized in the embarrassing decrees of the Pontifical Biblical Commission early in the twentieth century: “the books of Scripture, firmly, faithfully and without error teaches that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the sacred Scriptures” (Dei Verbum 11). Such inerrancy does not entail that Scripture must be free of all historical inaccuracies, or even failures of moral insight due to a less developed state of reflection. Even the New Testament points beyond itself to deepening insights that will unfold in the future: “I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come” (Jn 16.12-13). This suggests that there is room for a broadening of moral vision beyond the conventional accounts of vice and virtue that the Pauline literature picked up from its environment. One may take it that the total effect of the biblical record, in the dialectic of its inner development and subsequent interpretation as enfolded in the Church’s canon is to transmit that saving truth. This allows a wide space for letting the texts in their original historical texture be what they are. Factual error is hardly a problem if it is recognized that the literary genres of Scripture, even in the historical books, do not aim at literality. But moral error is another matter. And it seems that humanity progresses to truth through a process of trial and error, a process that is going on within the pages of Scripture as well.
We could reinterpret inerrancy as a regulative ideal. It means that “the Bible cannot be wrong”, that is, it urges us to use the Bible in an “inspired” way, so that we draw from it only healing truth, while leaving in obscurity texts that could create attitudes incompatible with the Bible as the Church now interprets it. The Bible stands over against the Church and judges it, to be sure, but only insofar as it can be actualized as a living word. To take dusty passages from little-known corners of Scripture and jump them on people as the Word of God would be a bizarre parody of effective scriptural authority, which depends on the Bible being voiced in a church context of spiritual discernment. It is a fundamental abuse of the Bible to make it an arsenal for polemic purposes. Its authority never comes from outside, from an unexpected lateral angle, but from within the life of the Church and the vital role it fulfils within the life of the Church. It is interesting that the stories of Sodom and Gibeah, some obscure verses of Leviticus, and a little-regarded obiter dictum of Paul in Romans 1, skipped over in the ancient commentaries are the main scriptural ammunition of anti-gay Christian voices – texts that have never lived and breathed in the Church’s worship.
The Bible corrects itself but it is also corrected by the wider revelation of the divine that is coterminous with the spiritual history of humankind. If it is cut off from that background even the New Testament becomes a sectarian and violent text. A more nuanced attitude to inerrancy – which distances the Church from fundamentalist literalism – allows us to take on board the genuine insights of the Enlightenment critique of religious scriptures, while allowing the scriptural texts to speak to us anew with power. The trajectory of Scripture encourages us not to put our faith in authorities but to trust the instinctive reaction of reason and conscience. There is nothing to apologize for if we find biblical language barbaric and intolerable. We need to discover this freedom of discernment, within a general respect for the overall message of Scripture. The values of the Enlightenment often clashed with biblical and ecclesiastical orthodoxy. But insofar as those values were based on reason and conscience, they have triumphed, and force a rethinking of biblical and ecclesiastical tradition.The enlightened conscience of humanity has its authority too, a divine authority. Our appeal to it can find a warrant also in the radical texts of the prophets and St Paul that speak of the law written on our hearts. “And they shall all be taught by God” (Is. 54.13; Jn 6.45). The rebellion of modern poets and thinkers against an abusive God is thus in large part divinely inspired.
Critique of Scripture can proceed “from outside”, laying bare dangerous strands in scriptural culture and the Wirkungsgeschichte of scriptural texts. Such cool, rational critique of past moral attitudes will take on board all the perspectives of a hermeneutic of suspicion (Feuerbach, Nietzsche, Marx, Freud) while going forward to a rational reappropriation of the sense of the text as an anthropological document. There is nothing wrong with this. But it will not disclose the full depths of the scriptural text.
To a disillusioned secularist gaze Scriptures are at best products of religious experience and speculation, to which an undue authority has been given by communities that have taken them up as texts enjoying sacred authority. This conferral of intrinsic authority is seen as spoiling the original value of the writings, removing them from the milieu of free critical judgment to which any human writing should be exposed.
Scholarly hermeneutics without a faith-investment will seek to grasp the historical and literary texture of the scriptural writings in all its richness. It will reap the anthropological insights these texts contain just as it draws out the anthropological vision of Greek classics. When it comes to ethical judgment, the secular scholar will argue freely with the scriptural text, assessing its codes without respect for their hallowed status in still living traditions. Differentiation between what is viable and what is unacceptable in scriptural ethics will emerge in this process, and the Bible will become a repertoire both of classical ethical mistakes, or primitive bypaths in the genealogy of morals, on the one hand, and of seminal ethical breakthroughs of the Axial Age on the other. This critical reappropriation of sacred scriptures as part of the heritage of secular humanity provides a broad basis to which the specifically religious retrieval of this heritage would do well to attend.
The critique of Scripture can also proceed “from within,” in a broad hermeneutic sympathetic to the religious texts that may play off their religiously significant aspects against other aspects that seem to clog that significance or to be in contradiction with it. The task demands a balance of empathy and critique, ripening into the position where the critique becomes the natural supplement or outflow of the empathy.
But the fullest form of critical overcoming and reappropriation occurs when an engaged faith-community uses the text as an occasion of potential revelation, or enlightenment for present action. The sacredness of Scripture lies then primarily in its unexhausted capacity to produce effects of liberation and enlightenment in the present.
The naturalistic outlook on Scripture has entered theology through the critical-historical study of Scriptures, which recovers their human, historical texture, reconstructing the real motivations of the authors in their contexts. Such demystified reading of Scriptures is a resource for liberation from the many oppressive effects of Scriptures whose authority has been swallowed hook, line and sinker. Liberal theologians believe that it can also be a resource for the demystified reappropriation of Scriptures by religious communities, empowering them to use the texts with creative freedom rather than being shackled by their archaic letter.
None of this honesty in exploring the human, historical texture of Scripture entails a denial of the holiness, inspiration and inerrancy of the biblical message. Indeed, as we confront residues of evil in the mentalities of the scriptural world, we discern within Scripture the prophetic values that overcame this evil in the past, at least in principle, and that in the spiritual reading of the Church continues to overcome it in new ways here and now.
Scripture records a divine pedagogy, a growth in awareness of the divine and the values it entails. If one wants to square this with the traditional doctrine of Inspiration, something like the following picture may emerge. The locus of Inspiration is the people of Israel, in their ongoing quest to understand and be faithful to the God of the Covenant (as Karl Rahner argued). Their scriptures are inspired as part of this graced effort.
Israel was a people who opened themselves to God, came before the Holy One and experienced their own wretchedness and sin under his gaze. But as they persisted in their quest for, and orientation, to the divine they found also a God who was attested in respect for the life and rights of one’s neighbour, a God of justice. Biblical holiness is more a matter of justice than of spirituality or mysticism. The phrase “I, the Lord, am holy” is appended to commandments concerning social justice (Lev. 19). Further acquaintance with the God of justice revealed that he was also a God of mercy and forgiveness. A culture of justice could not come to fruition without becoming a culture of mercy and forgiveness as well, something we still need to learn. In the Christian dispensation we bring our sin to Christ and receive in exchange his righteousness, and in this more intimate exchange of human and divine all the rougher earlier projections of a fearful God of vengeance are allegorized or integrated as lower stages or, with Luther, as an “alien work” of God, preparing his “proper work” of forgiveness and redemption.
That is the general direction of the biblical trajectory, but in practice elements of the older projections persist unchanged even in such summit documents as the Gospel of John, with its insidious polemic against “the Jews”. Human nature shows its violent side even as it confides itself to the mercy of Christ, and the God it projects remains a barbaric killer or torturer. In defusing the notion of Christ’s sacrifice of the idea than an angry God is calling for blood we might draw on the softer soteriology of Luke, for whom the death of Christ has a saving impact due to the remorse and conversion it inspires rather than as a blood-price.
The Bible sets up a vast dialectic about the idea of God, overcoming lower conceptions of God by higher ones, pathological ones by therapeutic ones. Yet this dialectic is not a completely unambiguous advance from lower to higher. The last book of the Bible is among its most violent, and the Gospels themselves use too freely the language of dire threats and visions of torture. The dialectic continues in the interpretation of Scripture across the centuries, as we learn to discern between the wholesome uses of the ancient text and its latent poisons. A canon within the canon emerges, and in practice the Church proscribes the use of the more scandalous texts.
Today we can see Scripture in historical and interreligious perspective with a clarity of vision that has no precedent. As we open ourselves to the challenge of Scripture we need not be afraid to challenge it in return. “Wrestling with difficult texts” is not a matter of apologetical acrobatics, but of frank pitting of our misgivings against what seems brutal in the old texts. The freedom with which Jewish exegesis tackles Scripture, with the sense of equality that a son has before a Father, could be a model for a less constrained Christian relationship to the sacred texts. [A colleague objects: “Jewish interpretation allegorises and spiritualises the violent texts more than any other approach”; “much of Jewish exegesis of the Book of Job does its best to squirm out of any suggestion that the author intended to present a God who is capable of acting cruelly against one of his just servants.”] Scripture often quarrels with itself. Jewish readers of Scripture down the centuries have not hesitated to quarrel with God. The freedom of such a quarrelling hermeneutics can release in Scripture the power to give illuminating ripostes to our questions. Reading the old violent texts today we think, “that is how God spoke in those troubled times – how does he speak now?” The prophetic record becomes a stimulus to our own prophetic discernment as church.
The dialectical relationship thus opened up is full of paradoxes. The Bible was cited as a warrant for slavery, yet the Bible has been used as the greatest ideological weapon against slavery. Similarly the Bible has shored up patriarchy, yet if discerningly read it can become an effective weapon against patriarchy. The Bible has often been used to cement unjust relationships of power in society; to block progressive and democratic arrangements; to spread guilt and obscurantism about sexuality and love; to foment suspicion and discrimination among peoples and faiths. Yet on all these fronts a discerning community can hear the Bible speak with another voice as well, and it is when the Bible is heard in this way that one recognizes its power anew.
Christians judge the Bible not only from the standpoint of the modern conscience, but also under the impulsion of the Holy Spirit. The real, spiritual authority of Scripture – its capacity to elicit faith and inspire hope – emerges when they wrestle with it in prayer and loving debate. They are moved to correct, in charity, Paul’s occasional sexist, homophobic or anti-Semitic remarks, but they do so in order to free the core teachings of the Apostle and make them audible today. They work on biblical traditions, cleansing them of their toxins, in order to retrieve them as living traditions for today.
The Christian Church has always enjoyed freedom over against Scripture, seeing it as a book to be used. Revelation is not handed to one on a plate; it is an event that occurs when one reads Scripture in community and in dialogue with the “signs of the times”, the phenomena of human joy and hope, war and reconciliation, need and promise, which were an essential point of reference in the theological thinking of the Hebrew prophets and which were again pointed to as an essential frame of reference by Vatican II. The theological claims about inspiration and inerrancy must be nuanced and modified in light of the actual dealings of the community with the hallowed text. These dealings have always been marked by selectivity; the community has trusted in its own instincts and in the leading of the Holy Spirit in deciding which texts in Scripture spoke loudly and clearly and which others were best consigned to a decent obscurity.
For Christians the New Testament has been Scripture in a more immediate sense than the old (as Joseph Ratzinger insists, in K. Rahner and J. Ratzinger, Revelation and Tradition, New York, Herder and Herder, 1966), and its message has not been passed through the filter of allegorization and other domesticating devices. Thus it is harder for Christians to attain a critical distance over against the New Testament. But gradually we are realizing that no written words can be immediately identified with the Word of God. The words of Scripture are exposed to all the vicissitudes of ancient historical writings, even at the level of textual transmission, and even such sublime writers as Paul and John were men of their time, using conceptual instruments that no longer fit contemporary mentalities. With Karl Barth we come to see Scripture as attesting the Word of God, as a trace left by the long wrestling with the divine of the peoples of the old and new Covenants. We continue to develop that tradition, but critically, not taking any text of the past as a blueprint to be followed blindly. The same Spirit that confers on Scripture its power is at work in the use and interpretation of Scripture in the Church today.
Fundamentalists in the Anglican Communion accuse alleged liberals of rejecting the sovereign authority of Scripture over Church. Yet the Church has always lived in a perichoretic relationship to Scripture. Scripture founds the Church and embraces it; yet it is the Church that established the Canon of Scripture and it is the present community of faithful who embrace Scripture with their understanding and bring forth its sense for today. What in Scripture becomes obtuse and unmeaningful cannot be cited as exemplifying that authority which Scripture has over the Church. There is no need to seek divine meaning in words that can perfectly well be explained by reference to the mores and mindsets of the ancient cultures in which they were formulated.
The Bible is a record of growth in the understanding of God from a primitive beginning, but the continuation of that growth depends on our own mature and responsible reading of the Bible. The Bible is a fictional machine for making God speak, by putting him on the stage in dialogue with human agents. Unless the dialogue continues today, the voice of God in Scripture becomes a dead letter, or a crushing imposition.
Magical thinking stands in the way of this mature Christian use of Sacred Scripture. Such thinking embraces a literal understanding of scriptural sentences ripped from their contexts and thought to be transparently meaningful today. The sentences may be sheer absurdities – but that makes them all the more satisfying to one who brings the heuristic approach of magical thinking. A classic instance of magical literalism is Origen’s alleged implementation of the Gospel saying about becoming eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom.
To be sure, an element of magical thinking may be essential to religion: icons, relics, texts are merely what they are, but devoted love projects onto them numinous power, and they then indeed do become sites of healing and illumination. We must not banish such magic, but must translate it from the register of irrationality or superstition into that of a wise handling of “skilful means”.
Some will resist the application in scriptural hermeneutics of wimpy contemporary notions of political correctness. They are happy that Scripture is so full of blood, as it ensures the realism of the scriptural record. Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ, is praised on similar grounds, as bringing the terror of demonic violence, as unleashed against Christ, closer to modern consciousness. A sanitized Bible, pacifist and feminist and gay-friendly, would be as tasteless as the Pali Canon.
Yet the bloodlessness of Buddhist scriptures speaks a quiet word of reproach to us, urging us to advance to a new level of critical discernment in handling our own scriptures. Gloating over the defeat of enemies, even if they are God’s enemies, and reveling in threats and fantasies of punishment, are attitudes that belong to a warlike culture. Scripture was born within such a culture, but ultimately tends to its overcoming, just as Buddhism overcomes the warlike culture of earlier Indian religion.
The above-cited colleague objects that the pacifism of Buddhist scriptures is facilitated in that they do not have the Old Testament concern with interpreting history through narrative. He adds: “If the Scriptures are a reflection on history, an attempt to see the guiding hand of God in the history of a people, the writer obviously has to deal with the issue of violence, because what people does not have its origin in violence? In that sense the Jewish scriptures are at least an honest acceptance of the violence inherent in Israel's history. The role of the exegete could therefore be one of helping contemporary communities to come to terms with their origin in bloodshed. Scripture then becomes a narrative of the tension between a people bathed in its own blood and that of its neighbours, and a God who continually calls that people to a different reality. There is something refreshingly honest and humble in both the Jewish and Christian approach to texts that are clearly obscene to modern consciousness. Just as the sacred writers who edited the sacred texts apparently never deleted anything but rather added to them and made corrective insertions, so today we leave what is there out of respect for it as a sacred text. Jesus replied to the question on divorce: ‘It was because of your hardness of heart that Moses wrote this commandment’ (Mk 10.5), and he then went to use scripture as its own critic. Applying this to a hermeneutic for interpreting the violent texts of the Jewish scriptures, one could say that in the Christian dispensation ‘hardness of heart’ can no longer justify the former injustices perpetrated out of fidelity to divine commandments.”
The problem remains, however, that in literal fact the divine voice in Scripture is not one that “continually calls that people to a different reality.” Ultimately, such a voice prevails, but its continued prevalence is ensured by the discerning and spiritual use of Scripture in the church community. “Hardness of heart” refers to a legalistic attitude to marriage, against which Jesus points back to the original blessing of Genesis 2. The institution of the ban is surely another case of such hardness, but one could hardly paint it as a divine concession; rather it is treated in the early texts as a supreme manifestation of divine holiness. This demands that the power of Scripture to correct itself be allowed to reach deep, overturning very basic misunderstandings, including those that continue even today and of which we are not yet conscious.
THE LACK AT THE ORIGIN
A Jewish psychoanalytical writer, born in Morocco, Daniel Sibony, has probed the dark side of monotheism. His work can be read in tandem with Karen Armstrong’s work on Jewish, Christian and Islamic fundamentalism. Both writers help Christians to self-knowledge by showing them their own reflection in pathological aspects of Judaism and Islam.
All three religions live by a myth of the purity of their origins, a myth that breeds violence when it is threatened. Each religion offers a supremely satisfying identity, and the last word about the riddles of life and death. But supposing the identity is based on denial, on a papering over of cracks and flaws in its original construction? Some will attain intellectual and spiritual growth by opening up honestly to a recognition of these cracks and flaws. Others will see such honesty as apostasy and will bunker down in traditionalism and absolutism. The repressed insecurity of threatened identity will show itself in hostility to the rival who embodies the threat and becomes a scapegoat, as the Jews were for Christians throughout history. Throughout the centuries each of the three monotheisms proclaimed its own legitimacy in refuting that of the others. This fruitless apologetical debate is itself a fixational behaviour that indicates the true nature of the three religions. The splitting of human community into elect and reprobate, sheep and goats, is an intrinsically violent structure, pervasive in Scripture. The teaching of Jesus, “love your enemies”, and his reaching across barriers to build inclusive community, go against this, but this is a virtuality that has to be drawn out of the texts by dint of careful spiritual and ethical discernment. In time of friction, this aspect of Scripture is ignored; “love your enemies” has hardly been the favoured slogan of the USA since 9/11. Instead the old dualism of good and evil comes into play.
The more relaxed vision of Vatican II marks a certain retreat of the question of identity, under the auspices of an inclusivism invoking the universality of grace and of divine self-revelation, in the spirit of the stories of Cornelius or of Paul’s preaching at Athens in Acts and of the broad Logos-theology of the Apologists and the Alexandrian theologians of the second and third centuries. Unfortunately the spirit of sectarianism has revived as part of the general regression from the vision of Vatican II, tainting various Vatican documents such as Dominus Iesus (2000). The renewed worry about rival claims, which is causing ecumenism to flounder, perhaps indicates that ecumenical idealism about shared origins is bound to collapse back into the old game of “my origin is better than yours”. Sibony proposes an alternative:
Perhaps these three monotheistic currents will one day tolerate and pardon one another not because they derive from the same God and are ‘brothers’ (that kind of fraternity produces more wars than agreements, more rendings than ententes), but because they will find in themselves the same deficiency, the same type of infidelity to what founds them; because they will recognize themselves as children of the same original lack: each marked by a flaw at the origin, a flaw imputable to no one, in any case not to one’s neighbour, a flaw intrinsic to the human and which other humans outside the religious field face as best they can. (Les trois monothéismes : Juifs, Chrétiens, Musulmans entre leurs sources et leurs destins , Seuil, 1997, 10)
A recognition of lack at the origin has surfaced occasionally in theology, only to meet with sharp repression, notably in the Modernist controversy. Some space must be made for what Dominus Iesus rejects, the sense that Christianity on its own is a broken and incomplete project, which needs to reach out humbly to other spiritual paths to find its proper role. Christ may be complete, but Christianity enjoys in practice only a very partial understanding of Christ and has to work on its legacy of deadly misunderstandings.
Recognition of the historical and unfinished nature of the Christian, Jewish and Islamic projects, and of the violent foreclosures that launched all three and that recur throughout their career, would certainly have a humbling effect on these traditions. Renouncing absolutism, they would think of themselves as modest and imperfect paths, and would refrain from brandishing the name of the God who unites and divides them as a warrant of legitimacy and superiority. Our construction of God is a powerful fiction, into which we have invested all sorts of delusive passions as well as the higher spiritual discernment that overcomes those passions. The voice of God in Scripture is in the first place the voice of a dialectic going on within human consciousness, both individual and collective. The scandals of this discourse, even when canonized as infallible, bear witness to the divine in a negative mode : “the ultimate is not here, seek it elsewhere”, or perhaps, “do not seek the ultimate at all, but live modestly in the conventional; do not seek certitude, but abide with questions”. This, of course, brings us into the vicinity of Buddhism, especially the Madhyamaka philosophy of conventional and ultimate reality and the Zen saying, “If you meet the Buddha, slay the Buddha”.
It might be objected that if Christianity had begun by talking like this it would never have conquered the Roman Empire. It would have remained one of the spiritual talking shops of the ancient world, something like the Neoplatonists. No doubt we must discern in the rise of Christianity the powerful appeal of a liberating message on the one hand and abusive extrapolations on the other. In between them we can recognize necessary and legitimate moves, such as the formation of a strongly disciplined institutional church, which brought the danger of abuse. In the third century Origen honoured the critique of Christianity by Celsus, written eighty years earlier, with a long response in eight books. In the fourth century the critiques of Christianity by Porphyry and Julian, no doubt more informed and dangerous than Celsus, were unceremoniously burned. Repression replaced dialogue. The Church was simply unprepared to meet the critical questions raised by these thinkers. Porphyry’s demonstration of the inaccuracies in Daniel and the after the event status of its prophecies, for example, could have sparked an earlier birth of the historical-critical method in scriptural studies had the Fathers been able to face up to it honestly. But a battle for survival did not permit such disinterested investigations. Intra-Christian heretics received the same short shrift, their writings usually surviving only in quotations from orthodox opponents. The Vatican has apologized for certain excesses of certain Christians in their zeal for truth. But the violent repression of critical voices is coterminous with the exposition of Christian truth from Constantine to the nineteenth century. The insistence on the inerrancy of Scripture is of a piece with this.
Psychoanalysis, like Buddhism, brings to awareness the passional projections that lay behind so much past certitudes and the coercion or violence to which they led. The history of the Church and of Israel is largely – but not primarily – a record of these passions and delusions. To trace what is truly divine in it we must make a bonfire of our illusions, that is, not a casual or angry rejection of them but a penetrating analysis and dismantling, painfully, one by one.
For Sibony, religions are human constructions built in defence against feelings of peril, the anxiety of the unfounded, and the more religious become autonomous worlds (as the imaginative world of Israel and again that of the early Church largely are) the more they give the measure of the fear they attempt to exorcize. Fortress religions seem unbeatable, the gates of hell cannot prevail against them, but the very necessity to build a fortress at all testifies to deep fear. Listening with the third ear to the questions, debates, solitary ruminations that religious themes arouse, one can detect in them a basic tone of anxiety. A sense of crisis, obscure guilt, a vision of the world as forgetting God or forgotten by God, rage against religious institutions, there are so many forms of religious maladjustment and alienation, and all of them have an intrinsic connection with the nature of religion itself. A false provision of origin cannot allay the anxiety of the lack of foundation. Detachment and trust are the religious response to the sickness of religion, a condition reached only by a working through of anxieties.
Defects at the basis of monotheistic constructions emerge in the course of their historical development. In Islam, a too great proximity of the divine voice, which speaks in the language of the people, prompts a too rigid adherence to the Qur’an that impedes modernisation and dialogue. The origin is too satisfying, too perfect, covering the original abyss with the veil of a fascinating language, that of the Qur’an; but this perfection “encumbers it, prevents it from ‘moving’ on the collective as well as on the individual plane, and seems to withdraw it from time and thus from history” (19-20). The original imperfection engenders perpetual unease in the historical career of a religion. Denial can be sensed beneath the most firm affirmations, the secret suffering that they try to banish. Sibony sees the Jews as suffering secret guilt before the call of a God projected as demanding father, Muslims as suffering from the suffocating maternal fulness of their origin, Christianity as depending on the “Christic coup de force: ‘an event of being’ in which a man, Jesus, rises and fills or accomplishes the fault-lines of the Law” (Nom de Dieu : Par-delà les trois monothéismes, Seuil, 2002, 19). Sibony see the doctrine of forgiveness as another way of filling the existential fault indicated by the notion of God. Jesus merely “gives them back God as the unforeseeable break that certainly is repaired and forgiven, but precisely they retain only the forgiveness” (61). Religion is a play of anxious projections. God he sees as “a figure of narcissism, individual or collective; narcissism of the origin, of identity, of becoming” (155). “If our reason does not reach ‘God’, it is not because it is limited; it is that one cannot aim at a relation in which one is grasped and which operates exactly there where all our grasps fail; nor take for object a bond which serves us as subject or origin” (234). In this situation, the distinction between belief and unbelief becomes secondary: “The border passes between those who have a relation to that fault and those who do not” (317).
Sibony may be in thrall to a Lacanian metaphysics of lack. The joy of the resurrection is a positive phenomenon, or rather a “saturated phenomenon” (Jean-Luc Marion) that exceeds in reality the human categories we bring to bear on it. To reduce it to a violent coup does not do justice to the phenonenon. In general, humanity does not live from lack alone but from the givenness of the real on every level, a plenitude not a penury.
Buddhist vacuity accords with Sibony’s God as lack. “When that fault is filled in by a definitive call, this is named a ‘saviour’. Today one thing is clear: the fault has triumphed over all the saviours, it traverses them” (318). What if Jesus and the Buddha are saviours in virtue of their capacity to let themselves be traversed by the fault, by emptiness? Emptiness here does not triumph over salvation but is the key in which salvation is proclaimed.
“All that is is marked by a lack of being that makes of it a being in lack” (12). We project onto God the same lack of being, in the passions he expresses in Genesis. The fulness of divine being bespeaks the sense of lack in those who project this vision of fulness. Buddhism takes its cue from that very sense of lack in order to open up to emptiness, rejecting characterizations of the ultimate as fulness of being – these would be the heresy of substantialism or eternalism, which is considered just as poisonous as its opposite, annihilationism or nihilism. The texture of reality as we know it should be our guide to the nature of ultimate reality.
When Scripture warns us not to aim at equality with God (Adam, the tower of Babel), could it not be read as warning us implicitly against the very projection of the kind of God that humans would wish to be – the projection of absolute power, immunity, self-sufficiency? From our very experience of lack and vulnerability can we not conceive of the divine otherwise, as some biblical texts begin to do. The inflated jargon of kenoticist theology, which has pressed the language of Buddhism into its service as well, misapprehends this need to rethink God as a kind of speculative gnosis. But the breakthrough required lies more in a dismantling of our false conceptions of God than in the erection of a new conception. Abiding patiently with the sense of lack we trust in the graciousness of the ultimate.
In attempting to tackle the scandal of biblical violence, we find ourselves asking questions about the construction of monotheism itself and drawn into the project of rethinking the nature of the divine. This is not a vain exercise in speculation, but has a moral necessity, inspired not only by the modern conscience, but also, as I have tried to suggest, by the basic thrust of Scripture itself. Scripture is not a dead letter but a text that comes alive whenever it is used as Scripture, as a means for contemplating and sensing the presence of God. We know that it is not functioning properly when it produces rigid and violent mindsets. The overcoming of these, and of everything in the text that can breed them, is a necessary stage on the journey to a contemporary Spirit-filled understanding of the sacred text.