by Steven Siciliano | 3 December 2020 |
We live in a highly polarized time, not just in regard to politics but almost every topic of interest and import, including religious faith. When it comes to beliefs about the Bible in particular, the positions that get the most exposure are the two extremes: either a hyper-literalism that argues for the scientific and historical veracity of every verse, or a disparaging atheism that writes off the entire book and its millennia-long tradition as outdated, if not dangerous.
As with most issues, however, there are less contentious midway points along this continuum. For the sake of conversation I have drawn up a kind of taxonomy of faith that outlines various approaches ranging from one pole to the other. My hope is that the list will evoke rational analysis as well as personal story-sharing, but please note that this is not a philosophical research paper and likely does not exhaust all possible options. In fact, it’s a simple list of definitions or categories intended to serve as a starting point for discussion.
Ways to view biblical faith:
I have distinguished seven different ways to view the Bible and its teachings:
- They are myths in the negative sense of being fictitious stories and moral prescriptions deriving from an outdated worldview that do not correlate with empirical reality but often contradict it. They do no real good but only delude people, impede social and scientific progress, and deserve to be jettisoned as soon as possible.
- They are myths in the positive sense in that they impart moral lessons. The bible’s stories and concepts do not mirror any real, unseen beings or processes but function more like helpful fables or parables.
- They are culturally important stories that not only teach life lessons but provide a foundational worldview to live by even though the alleged entities referred to do not really exist.
- They are positive myths that provide moral guidance and an overarching worldview but also connect us with otherwise indescribable or undetectable realities like “spirit” or the inexorable law of justice. They serve as language and thought frameworks that mirror things that do exist “out there” in the same way that scientific models help us predict outcomes and prescribe behavior even though they may not describe things as they ultimately are.
- They are a record of the Judeo-Christian tradition’s evolving views about God, morality, and the human condition. Phrased differently, they are a record of God’s progressively more accurate revelation of himself, the nature of the world, and how we should conceptualize both. They are couched in language and concepts that suited the people and times in which they were written but they can be, and perhaps should be, sifted for principles that apply universally.
- They are inspired words that not only connect us with unseen realities in an approximate way (as in point four) but correlate closely with the principal entities or phenomena they refer to, such as: a personal God who is present and committed to covenant relationship with the world; the reality of alienation from God and from one another due to human unfaithfulness; the need for reconciliation through Jesus; access to the life of God living in us through the Spirit, et cetera.
- They are inspired and fully accurate propositions that provide a compendium of true and reliable facts regarding every topic they touch on, including history, morals, and science. For this reason, they both judge and take precedence over all other opinions and worldviews as well as the claims of various academic disciplines.
To repeat what I said at the top, this list is a terse attempt to define and distinguish different ways of viewing the Bible and its teachings. I invite readers to develop, combine, reshuffle, or dispute them. Even more, I’d like to hear how you feel about the fact that there are more than two options, and what their potential value may be for promoting dialog and shaping experience.
Can we have a conversation?
Steven Siciliano is pastor of the Jackson Heights and Hartsdale Churches in the Greater New York Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.