Sunday, July 16, 2006

The Modern West and the Bible: Paradoxical Progress

The farthest way out, is the shortest way home.

— Russian proverb

Since the Protestant Reformation in the early 16th century up until today, the modern West has been engaging in a vast and complex process of a deconstruction of the Judaeo-Christian Bible.

Part of the complexity involves the co-existence and persistence of individuals, groups and subcultures within the modern West who resist, to varying degrees, this process of deconstruction. Some resist the process obtusely, holding on to a Biblical inerrancy like a child holds on to a toy he will not let go. Others resist the process more intelligently, accepting some of the implications and conclusions of the process, while disputing others with reasoned counter-arguments.

Some rarer souls have argued that the Bible is strong enough to weather even its own deconstruction: that, indeed, this is part of the wondrous and perplexing adventure of faith as it wends its way through the mystery of history toward the eschaton of whose final realization the Bible itself declares “of that day and hour knoweth no one, not even the angels of heaven, neither the Son, but the Father only.”

This process of deconstruction of the Bible, of course, was part of the larger process of the dissolution of the Christian civilization called Christendom (roughly spanning from the 4th century A.D. to the 17th century A.D.—give or take a century or two), which in turn was part of the process of the secularization of the modern West—the latest expression of the wondrous and perplexing adventure of faith.

Another aspect of the complexity of the process involves the fact that, in certain respects, the Bible itself contained, from the very beginning of its construction, the logic of its eventual deconstruction. Of course, the Bible has many passages that would seem to bolster a Koranic view of its timeless inerrancy. On the other hand, the Bible’s formation during the first few centuries of the Church, and the Church’s openness to the extra-canonical value of tradition, helped to percolate through the era of Christendom an amorphous sense that the Bible is not the direct word of God independent of any mediation—it is the word of God filtered through the medium of imperfect human beings, their hearts, minds, lives, families and societies, over many centuries of time and many different regions and circumstances. The Bible, in this view, is a complex and rich document of the encounter of God with Man, the dialogue of God with Man, and finally, at its apex, the logical conclusion of the Incarnation of God as Man.

There is no real encounter or dialogue, if Man is merely a mute, dumb animal submissively and passively receiving the perfect words of God as though they were alien meteorites landing intact on Earth, impervious to any genuine emotional and intellectual response from the humans who find them. This is the Koranic view, of utterly passive submission on the part of the human, receiving the word of God as a pure holy object to be followed as an external command, rather than, as with the history of the Judaeo-Christian Bible, as the long and slow appropriation of an interior voice that becomes experienced as continuous with one’s own heart.

This is not to say there have not been throughout the history of Judaism and Christianity many believers who tend to take the passive submissive view that the Bible is the inerrant commands of God from outside, delivered to his slave who must not ask questions, must not wonder and wander, sometimes lost, wending his way as a child growing up as his Father looks on, letting him go his own way, knowing that if his child truly follows his heart, he will find his way home again.

In Part Two, we will look more closely at the actual mechanics of this process of deconstruction of the Bible as it has become realized in social, political, legal, philosophical, cultural and institutional ways.

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