Tuesday, February 08, 2011

An imperfect revelation

People seem to have a peculiar need to see some things as perfect, as without flaw. There are those who treat the U.S. Constitution, for example, as if it were perfect (particularly the bit about the "second amendment"), neglecting that whole nasty piece about how African-Americans would be considered as less than a whole person. Similarly, there are those who desire to view scripture as inerrant, and who go to great lengths to assure us that obvious biblical discrepancies (e.g., about where exactly Jesus was born) are in fact entirely consistent with one another.

But why? Why are people so fervent in their insistence that such documents are without error?

My own personal belief about this is that believing that such documents are inerrant allows for someone to have a kind of dangerous certainty about their own beliefs. They can believe that they are on God's side, that they are on the side of the framer's of the Constitution, etc. They can believe that they are, in a word, right.

But rightness is dangerous; it leads us to believe that we are justified in putting down those who are "wrong." I daresay that the vast majority of atrocities in the history of our world have been accomplished by those who believed (even fervently believed) that they were right in doing so. Humility, even some degree of doubt, is less comfortable but far less dangerous. Or, better, we should value compassion more dearly than our need to be right.

But going back to revelation for a moment, it seems to me that revelation cannot be anything but imperfect. For one thing, if we view God as attempting to communicate Godself to us through revelation, then we have to see that God has a host of problems. For one thing, revelation has to be translated into words, which are limited and imperfect and prone to misunderstanding. Second, God has the limitation of having to communicate words through people, who we know impart their biases and political objectives into what they say (arguably despite...or even because of...the best of intentions). Third, God's revelation occurs in a historical context, in response to a particular set of problems and needs faced by the people of the time.

But what then does it mean to say that we follow an imperfect set of revelation? Is there something lost in the glory or majesty of religious belief? Or are we called upon to engage our religious texts more fully, to seek layers of depth and meaning in the texts? Do we not grow in some meaningful sense if we wrestle with difficult texts, understanding the context and limitations of the source material? Does it perhaps call on us to have some humility and perspective on our own sense of what is right and true?

1 comment:

Brazen Hussy: Words on the Wind said...

Westby - I enjoyed this post and came back to re-read it before responding. A favorite bumper sticker I remember seeing reads, "The religious right isn't." I agree with your revelation and wish more people would see their faith as a journey, rather than a finite set of rules.