By Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal
“Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon, The maker’s rage to order words of the sea, Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins …”
– from “The Idea of Order at Key West,” by Wallace Stevens
Too often the discipline of Christian theology gets reduced to what literary scholars call proof-texting, finding a passage in scripture that appears to support an argument, then using it as cudgel to attack anyone who disagrees.
There’s no room here to discuss the infinitely complicated business of biblical translation, which, of course, has a great deal to do with any meaning a reader could hope to take from scripture.
For the sake of argument, we’ll assume that any passage a person reads in his Bible says more or less what it appears to say. We’ll assume the author really meant to say that Jonah was swallowed by a whale, for example.
Even if we had a crystalline understanding of what the Bible says, which I’m not at all sure we do, otherwise we wouldn’t disagree so often about this or that word, that by itself would not, it seems, give us a complete and exhaustive source for doing theology.
No book ever exists in a vacuum. The meaning that’s to be found in any book emerges through the act of someone reading it, through the encounter between human intelligence and the world of the text.
What is the meaning of a passage like John 8: 3-11, where the authorities bring before Jesus a woman caught in adultery? Let’s assume the story says exactly what it appears to say.
The meaning, it seems to me, emerges when the story is brought to bear on my life. Jesus doesn’t condemn the woman. He shows her mercy and compassion, and he shames those who judge her.
My life – that is, the life of the contemporary world, of human existence – then becomes a second source of theology. It is not, I believe, blasphemous to say that the Bible is meaningless unless it’s read by people and applied to everyday life.
The story of Jesus and the adulterous woman then functions as a kind of symbol, as something on which my imagination begins to work and to extract from ideas of what it would be like to live in a world where mercy and compassion took precedence over judgment and scorn.
The concern over whether or not the story actually happened as it’s written becomes subordinate to the goodness and faith the story inspires in me.
Reading the entire Bible in this light, I become much less concerned about the correct translation of this or that word, and more concerned about the way of being in the world that the book in its entirety reveals.
I matter in this equation. The Bible ceases to be an unassailable thing forever mounted on a pedestal but instead becomes a cache of stories and symbols that are relevant to my life.
The theologian Paul Tillich said human life has a religious dimension. It’s the part of us that’s interested in and inspired by the symbols in the Bible. It works on a thematic, non-literal level.
David Tracy built on Tillich’s belief and wrote a book called “Blessed Rage for Order,” borrowing a line from the poem by Wallace Stevens, that speaks of the desperate attempt by the imagination to understand the meaning of what seems a random and chaotic world.
Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at (662) 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org