Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Thanksgiving as a Way of Life

This week, Americans will celebrate a treasured holiday in our nation’s history, Thanksgiving Day. On this day, families will gather around the table to share turkey, dressing, and all the other fixings before they laze away the afternoon visiting with relatives, taking naps, or watching football.

Many families will take a few moments at the table, before they partake of the delicious food, to give every person a chance to express their own thankfulness. These expressions of gratitude will continue around the table until everyone has had the chance to articulate thanks. But when this national day of thanksgiving ends, and the turkey, dressing, and fixings are put in the fridge for leftovers, the expressions of Thanksgiving Day are often put away until it is necessary to bring them out for the next Thanksgiving Day.

Don’t misunderstand me. I am not being cynical about this holiday. I appreciate the fact that we have a day set aside for the purpose of giving thanks. I also believe that this day serves a grand, and yet, humbling purpose as a yearly reminder of our need to give thanks to God and to appreciate what is truly valuable in this life. But thanksgiving must be more to us than just a day.

Scripture tells us that we are to give thanks continually and in all circumstances. Thanksgiving is not something we do only on one day out of the year when we feel all warm and cozy in our nice homes and around the people we love. No, as Christians, thankfulness is something we are to feel and express everyday of the year as we live, work, and play, and as we struggle, suffer and mourn among our family, friends, acquaintances, and yes, even strangers and enemies.

But I don’t mind confessing that having a constant attitude of thanksgiving is very difficult, if not impossible. Daily we are confronted with issues, events, and yes, even people who challenge our ability to be thankful, even our desires to be thankful. I think that particularly during these difficult times when our nation is facing very challenging barriers to progress, we are more apt to be less thankful. Instead, it seems easier for us to complain about the state of our existence in this world.

Certainly there is room for these kinds of feelings. We only need to read some of the psalms to find out that those who wrote these poems were not always thankful. Indeed, while there are those psalms that express joy and thanksgiving for God’s orientation of goodness in our lives, we can also find those psalms in which the psalmists call out to God in anger and protest because of the pain, struggle and disorientation of life. In fact, although giving thanks might be considered a Christian virtue, even Jesus expressed a lack of thanksgiving and an honest anger at God from the cross as he called out, “My God, My God. Why have you abandoned me?” Not the most thankful expression one could voice to God.

Such expressions of protest, anger, and even lack of faith are normal for us to voice to God. In a real sense, when we express such feelings, we express a degree of discontentment that we must embrace that keeps us from becoming too complacent and comfortable about ourselves, the world, and the delay of God’s justice. Doing so causes us to see life in realistic terms, and not in sappy clichés. No matter how thankful we are, we must always be discontent with the evil and injustice that remains in our world.

So we face a struggle in our Christian living between following the command to give thanks in all things on the one hand, and the reality that there are issues, events and people that challenge our thankful attitudes on the other.

As I have thought about the command to give thanks, I have come to think of thanksgiving as more than simply an attitude, and certainly more than the expressions we offer on a particular day of the year. It seems better, theologically at least, to view thanksgiving as a way of living, perhaps even as a virtue.

To think of thanksgiving as a way of living is to carry out one’s life with a deep sense of God’s presence regardless of the circumstances. No matter what I may face, or what others are facing, I can have an abiding sense of contentment in the midst of discontentment. I am not speaking about a kind of faith that some express in which we talk about our struggles by using platitudes such as, “God will work everything out.” These kinds of statements are not only banal, they are somewhat false. God does not always work everything out for us, and to suggest that God can or will is presumptuous on our part.

What I am talking about is the realization of God’s indwelling and empowering presence that offers to us hope in the midst of joy and pain. It is an inward transformation of our lives to the extent that regardless of the situations we and others face in life, we can, at the same time, be both discontent at what is happening in this life, and content that God’s quiet, but powerful presence is moving creation to God’s glorious redemption.

The realization of God’s abiding presence in our lives means that in the ebb and flow of life, during the good times and the bad times, in moments of contentment and in moments of discontentment, we find hope that can elicit from us thanksgiving even as we call out to God in anguish, anger and protest.

But there is something more we must consider if we are to move from merely voicing expressions of thanksgiving to living out the virtue of thanksgiving as a way of life.

To express true thankfulness to God for what we have, we must do so through tangible acts of love and service to those around us. Expressing thanks to God and to others is a way of living that is articulated through real and radical acts of gratitude, service and love. True thanksgiving is sharing in the blessings God has given us through our participation in God’s work by sharing the blessings of God with those around us.

In most cases, those who claim to be thankful merely mouth words of thanksgiving about what they have. These expressions are good and necessary for any of us to truly be thankful. But these are not enough. To be thankful is to reevaluate all that we have not only in light of God’s grace upon us, but in light of God’s call for us to love our neighbors. True thanksgiving is not simply voicing how thankful we are. Authentic thanksgiving it is a way of life that is expressed in our sharing, even our giving away, that for which we are thankful.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Should we ever Question the Bible?

I was recently engaged in an exchange on Facebook when the question of Paul was raised. In the course of the discussion, I mentioned the fact that some of Paul’s teachings had been used to support the subjugation of women and others. One responder replied to my comment by first insulting me, and then by skirting the evidence that indeed there are teachings in Paul’s writings that have been used to oppress women and others, regardless of whether or not this was the intention of Paul; something we will never no.

While I refused at that point to engage in any further debate with my interlocutor, as I have chosen not to debate with those who resort to name calling and insults as part of their argumentation, this exchange raised again for me the issue of how diverse we are in seeing the Bible, and how, for many Christians, the Bible, along with its historical and theological claims, is true and unquestionable.

Such attitudes raise a fundamental question about how we view the Bible and how we ought to approach the Bible. Can we ever question the Bible? Can we critique, and yes, even forgo some of its historical and theological claims? Or, are we bound to some unwritten and universal rule that forbids putting the Bible under the same sort of scrutiny we do other works of history and religion?

For me, no question is off limits, and this is particularly true when it comes to the Bible, theology, and the practice of faith. Such matters are so important to me that I must ask serious and often difficult questions about them. I am not completely satisfied with the idea that if the Bible says it, then that settles it. I am open to new ways of thinking about the Bible and theology, for in my mind Jesus’ statement that the truth will set you free is the hallmark of our quest. I also encourage others to ask such challenging questions.

One reason for my determination to raise critical questions about faith, and why I encourage others to do the same, is that I grew up in a fundamentalist tradition in which dangerous queries about the Bible and faith were not appreciated. This was particularly true when one tried to ask questions about the inconsistencies found in the Bible, or when one tried desperately to harmonize a belief in a good God with the reality of suffering; something the Bible cannot answer sufficiently.

As a teenager I was told that such questions are not important and even dangerous to ask; only knowing Jesus and believing in him were necessary. I became satisfied with this answer. After all, there is a great deal of comfort in naiveté!

This remained true for me until a later time when I began to discover the intellectual obstacles one encounters when approaching the Bible for definitive answers. It was then that I returned to ask those serious questions, which opened more questions, and which eventually led to evolutionary and revolutionary changes in the way I view the Bible.

A second reason for my critical approach to the Bible is that I perceive a regrettable weakness in the way many churches see the Bible. More liberal minded churches have almost abandoned the Bible as a source for faith. While they may read from it in worship, many of them see little or no value in looking to the Bible as a source of theology and practice. Though I may have serious reservations about much of what the Bible says, I have not reached the point in my Christian journey where I am ready to throw the whole thing out.

On the other end of the spectrum, more conservative traditions have emphasized the so-called inerrancy and infallibility of the Bible, holding a view of the Bible that ignores the discrepancies in the Bible, and more importantly, the long and complicated history of the Bible’s transmission. For these Christians, if the Bible says it, then it must be true. I have moved from this position, which I was taught at a younger age. For me, it is intellectually dishonest to place that much authority on these ancient texts written by folks who could not foresee our modern and scientific world.

A third motive for my critical look at the Bible and faith logically follows the second, and concerns an insufficient education in our faith and in the Bible on which our faith is based. Not only has this deficiency in religious education led to biblical illiteracy, more tragically, it has led to ignorance when it comes to biblical interpretation and theological thinking. Many folks cling to the Bible as if it fell from heaven, and they look to it as if it has all the answers we could ever seek for our questions.

Many Bible study materials and the groups that use them do not seriously consider the complexities and conundrums inherent in reading ancient texts. Instead, they focus on how we as individuals can improve our lives, and the discussions usually center on what the Bible has to say to me about my life. While this is important for people of faith, it is secondary to delving deeply into the text of the Bible. Failure to take this major step in biblical interpretation will only lead us to assume what the Bible says, or cause us to make it say what we want it to say without giving careful thought and attention to the text itself.

But perhaps my greatest motivation for questioning the Bible is the nature of much of its content that sanctions oppression, violence and war; and it does so with what is taken to be divine authority. Passages that command the killing of others and the subjugation of still others ought to be abhorrent to our modern minds, but for some reason, since these are in the Bible, we evade them.

We must understand that not every part of the Bible witnesses equally to God’s character and will, and it is the passages that sanction violence and oppression that do not bear witness to God’s character at all. The historical fact is that the Bible was not written by God, but was penned by historically situated humans who were seeking to understand God, humanity and the world. At times, these people got it wrong, horribly wrong, and they erroneously legitimized their violence and oppression as the will of God.

In raising critical questions about these tests, we can assess them in light of those that speak more fully about the God who loves all life. Thus, it is intellectually, historically and theologically responsible for us to raise critical and difficult questions about the text we call the Bible. In fact, not raising these questions may be the greater sin.