As I have mentioned in a previous post, I am not a biblical literalist. I think that many of our stories are mythic or are mythic remembering of events. Trying to convince people that there was an ark with two of every creature is both an exercise in futility (this written as the son of an entomologist, whose father studied wasps that were too small to be easily seen without a microscope) and a stumbling block to the life of faith to which Jesus has called us.
There is, of course, a danger in not being a literalist, which is that the line between myth and history becomes quite blurry. If one doesn’t think the Garden of Eden represents a real location or the Noah story an historical account, what about the miracle stories of Jesus or the resurrection itself? Part of the reason that literalism breeds apologists, folks writing in an attempt to prove the historical accuracy of the text, is the fear that if one part is questionable, the whole package is suspect.
I don’t have a simple answer to the issue. It is one with which I wrestle regularly. Thankfully Jesus never requires us to believe in a text. He never makes salvation dependent on our belief in crossing the Red Sea on dry land or walking on water. The church is not called to prove the stories nor can it prove the stories. We have no photographs of aqueous strolls or empty tombs. Instead we are called to live in the light of the stories. We do not have to prove the resurrection. Instead we are called to live in the light of that resurrection. We are called to live in love.
Fundamentally, this is where our scriptural stories point us. Now you may argue that stories of Israel conquering the promised land, divinely instructed to wipe out the Canaanites are not stories of love. You may argue that the story in Acts of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5) who are struck dead for failing an apostolic financial audit does not foster a community centered on love. In fact it is a fairly simple exercise to cherry-pick the scriptures and create a vision that celebrates intolerance, obsessive purity, separation or personal growth and success as the fundamental value and goal of faith.
I would argue that, for Christianity, the primary voice we need to hear is that of Jesus. It is Jesus, who when confronted with questions of the law declared that the greatest commandment is the love of God and the love of neighbor (Mark 12:28-31). It is Jesus who, when given the choice between ritual purity and compassion, chose compassion (Mark 3:1-6). It is Jesus who, when given the choice between judgement and acceptance chose acceptance. (Luke 7:36-50) It is Jesus who, on the cross, given the choice between condemnation and forgiveness chose forgiveness (Luke 23:34). It is Jesus who shows that love is the direction of the path of discipleship.
What the church has discovered and continues to struggle with is that the path is not as simple as it sounds. As mainline traditions struggle with issues of sexuality, we are questioning the limits of love. Can the direction of love move us beyond the bounds of scripture and tradition and how far? As Christians in the United States consider illegal immigration, we are really continuing the discussion of what it means to love our neighbor. As Christians deal with issues around addiction, we may struggle with the question of just how far love should lead us. When does love become enabling? When does enabling stop being love?
Thank God that we are dependent not on our getting it right, but on God’s love for us. God sets us in a universe formed in love. God shows us in Jesus as example of life shaped by love. God invites us to be loving, knowing well that we will fail despite our best efforts. The good news is that our failures do not permanently break the relationship. God who is love invites to love again, knowing that we will not be perfect, but hoping that we will grow. May gift of God’s love shape our faith, our community and our conversation. May the task of loving help us grow in love for God and one another.