Saint Hilda's House

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My Strange Relationship with Scripture (Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bible)

Reading the Bible on the Maundy Thursday vigil, 2014.

Reading the Bible on the Maundy Thursday vigil, 2014.

By Ed Watson

 You can also read this piece in the St. Hilda's House Winter Quarterly.

My relationship with the Bible has been an interesting one.  I have moved from treating it as an ancient and irrelevant artifact to according it a central place in my faith life.   I used to try and discount its authority: I now lead a Bible study geared towards discerning how its most abstruse contents might inform our Christian living.  I used to think of it as nothing but a collection of historically unreliable and contingent writings; now I believe it to be a collection of historically unreliable and contingent writings through which the Word of God can speak to the Church today.  

I can see my younger self rolling his eyes in despair at these changes, and, to be honest, I'm fairly confused by them today.  So, I thought it'd be worth writing a short piece about what it was that changed my attitude to Scripture, to try and figure out why I went from bashing the Bible to (sort of) Bible Belt.  I hope it's interesting, and not too self indulgent.

Back in the Day

Let's start close to the beginning.  About six months after I converted to Christianity, I preached my second ever homily in Oriel College Chapel, on the subject of Biblical authority.  You can read it in all its glory here, but the key excerpt is this:

'[I don't wish to advocate the wholesale rejection of Scripture]. I wish to advocate the rejection of the authority of Scripture. I don’t believe that we should root our faith in the letters of a misogynist (by modern standards) and the fragmented accounts of unknown men. Of course, I do not claim there is no truth to be found in the Bible: I simply claim that what truth there is is not enough to justify the Bible’s status as the ‘the source of all saving truth and moral teaching,’ and thus the foundation of Christian faith.' 

It's fascinating re-reading this sermon (and I imagine this post might make amusing reading for one James Crocker, if he happens to be perusing these words, as he delivered something of a Homiletic smack-down against me in the same chapel the next week!).  Aside from the youthful brashness of my tone (not that I'm not still youthful and brash) coupled with a basic ignorance of the nuances in Biblical interpretation, my overriding concern was with whether or not Scripture cohered with modern sensibilities, with whether or not Christianity had undergone the necessary paradigm shifts to bring it into the 20th Century, with emphasising personal acceptance of personal faith set against subscription to centuries of tradition.  

These concerns are, in and of themselves, easy enough to explain: I was newly Christian, moving from what I'd thought to be a hard-headed rationalism into a realm of faith I'd never considered worth considering before.  I didn't want to abandon the standards I'd held before, and I was overjoyed to find prestigious theological writers who felt the same way.

The easiest and most obvious target for all of this was, of course, Scripture. There was and is no religious document more vulnerable to criticism.  It wasn't written by accredited scholars and it doesn't attempt to argue its case; it frequently fails to meet even the lowest standards of philosophical, theological, and historical rigour; it contradicts itself on numerous occasions; it makes frankly unbelievable claims; it says many things which run directly counter to what we in the modern day take to be unquestionably true; it contains enough horror and violence to make almost any Christian blanch.  Yet this collection of books was supposed to be authoritative within the tradition I now felt I had to be a part of?  'Not on my watch,' I thought to myself: 'let's try and bury Scripture once and for all.  After all, it's not like it hasn't been tried about 2,000 times before...'  

Offering an explanation as to why I took this stance, then, is not too hard. The interesting thing is to look at what changed and how.

Changes

The first strange thing is how little of my mindset back then has changed.  I still believe all of those Biblical frailties listed to be true, and will vehemently argue for each and every one of them.  I still brashly and arrogantly tend to try and find the intellectual high-ground in almost any disagreement of which I am a part, and I still have to resist the temptation to try and pick apart things which don't seem to measure up to what I take to be the stringent standards of rational thought (though there are those that might chuckle at the idea that I currently have stringent standards for rational thought,).  This is far from my most attractive quality, but it is still constitutive of the person I've grown to be.  

If these factors have not changed, however, then what has?  I think the answer itself is quite simple, though it contains complexity: I left Oxford to start living in community and working with the people of New Haven.  In other words: my relationship with Scripture was not altered by a change of attitude, but a change of context.  

At Oxford, my concerns regarding faith were almost all intellectual.  The conclusions I felt I started to reach certainly had practical effects, both in my outlook and in the way I conducted myself towards others, but these practical effects were almost always answerable to prior reasoning.  This makes sense: Oxford is a place of thought and intellectual endeavor (among other things), where any theory must be subjected to rigorous criticism by both peers and professors.  It's not that none of us are practically minded people (as evidenced by the ever inspiring friends I made during my time there); it's just that the so-called life of the mind tended to come first, for me at least.  

At St. Hilda's, however, facts were always too fast for my theories.  Coming into community was a disorientating experience: even a year of teacher training in British classrooms hadn't prepared me for the diversity of personal approaches to community living or the constantly fluctuating mode of living they informed.  The same was true of working at St. Martin de Porres Academy: I was experiencing a word that I had theorised about at great length, but never actually ventured into  (not, to clarify, a world of poverty, but a world of proper necessity).  And though I still relied to a great extent upon my ability to intellectually process data in order to navigate the joys and sorrows of this particular form of living, the limits of this ability (both in itself and insofar as it is mine) were very clearly revealed.  

This revelation of limitation was, of course, a long process, and it is still ongoing.  Running parallel to it, however, were the community practises of Morning Prayer, Didactic, and Spiritual Direction.  In all three of these I was being exposed to Scripture in a new way: not as a text to parse or analyse historically, but as something to listen to.  

Now, for my first six months or so at St. Hilda's I was very conscious of not listening: I would just switch off during the readings at Morning Prayer.  As my abilities to sustain myself really did begin to reach breaking point, however, I found myself suddenly paying attention.  I found the lectionary hitting upon the exact difficulty or joy that I was tackling with that day.  I found Psalms I detested reflecting feelings in myself that I had wanted to ignore, showing me that suffering and anger are a visceral part of any human life, even and especially a Christian life, and that these aspects of existence too have their place in the book of God's salvation.  I heard Paul speaking not just of whether women should have spiritual authority (they should), but what it means to be gentle with each other; and I felt myself both reprimanded and built up by him in a way that I had closed myself off to before; reprimanded for the pride with which I approached certain relationships, reprimanded for my modern sensibilities.  For the first time I started hearing the prophets, the epistles, and the Gospels recounting a story of which I was a part. Before long I started reading Scripture as a spiritual resource of my own volition: it set a context within which I could read extended passages of Scripture as the Word of God.  I'm undisciplined in this, and I don't turn off my critical faculties to do so (I hope not, at any rate), but it happens.   

A third factor within all this is that my more abstract theological and philosophical thought was undergoing a radical shift.  I was reading a philosopher I'd always relied on in argument (Wittgenstein) and seeing how the very claims I'd been reliant on in fact ran directly counter to my prior sensibilities.  Through re-reading Wittgenstein I arrived back at Barth, a theologian I'd either ignored or derided as an undergraduate, and was humbled to see how catastrophically wrong and arrogant I'd been in my first estimation of his writing.  Without going into an in-depth account of my current philosophical stances, they began to both inform and be informed by this new sense of dependency: dependency on prayer, dependency on Scripture, dependency on God, dependency on my community (which includes those of you who might be reading in Britain, who I miss more than words can say).  And within this new scheme, I came to believe without realising that the paradigm shifts I'd called for in my second Oriel homily weren't required of Christianity, but of me as a Christian: that if I wanted to walk the walk of all these high ideals, what was required was not a reimagining of the tradition I so feared before, but an acceptance on my part that the standards I had so highly valued before should be dependent on the Word of God as well, such that they too were answerable to the double love commandment.  And this in turn meant that it became my responsibility not to try and change a tradition, but to listen to and live into the life and love of Christ as it had been carried down in that tradition.

Now

Which brings us more or less to the present day.  I still argue against a certain type of Scriptural authority, but this time it is against the claims of individuals to claim Scriptural authority as theirs; this time it I am trying to argue from the assumption that Scripture really is authoritative (for more of which, c.f. this piece on Biblical Literalism).  I'm writing a spiritual commentary on the book of Ecclesiastes, when I have the time, a practise which is proving of immensely spiritually fruitful.  I'm leading a Bible Study at Christ Church, where I have been privileged to witness first hand how much wisdom can reveal itself in different people through reflection on Scripture.  I now believe that philosophical theology must be answerable to Scripture before an abstracted notion of reason, and that Christian practise must follow from Scripture before it follows from a sense of secular justice. Most remarkably, I am constantly returning to the Bible in the hope that I might encounter the Word of God, and with the genuine belief that there's every chance I will.  In this (and this is, I think, the biggest change) I am actually hoping to have my eyes turned to Christ, where before I had claimed the name Christian for myself without ever paying much attention to the reality of Jesus Christ, very God and very Man, who became incarnate and was crucified for the sake of my salvation, then on the third day rose again.

Again, I can see my younger self rolling his eyes or responding indignantly.  Honestly, he might be right: it may be that I have surrendered the better part of myself to a blind tradition founded upon a criminally unreliable source of teaching.  It may be that my current position is just plain irresponsible.  All the same, I hope and pray) that I am today a kinder person than I was then; I pray that I am a more responsive (and thereby responsible) person; I pray that I am more loving; I pray that I am closer to living out the values I had tried to proclaim back when I thought my own reason to be the measure of value.  In short, I hope that I am doing a slightly better job of being a Christian than I was when I took to the pulpit in Oriel Chapel four or so years ago.  If I am, meanwhile, I believe that it is in large part down to the shift of my relationship with the Bible.