Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Battle for the Bible?

Just the other weekend I traveled with others to gather in Invercargill, at the southernmost point of (mainland) New Zealand for my first Dunedin Diocesan Synod. Having received various 'nods and winks' which suggested to me that Synods were met with approximately the same degree of enthusiasm here as they were in England, the experience further reminded me that often only a broader perspective can teach us truly to appreciate what we have :) Synod's here are only once a year (in England we had three Diocesan and three Deanery Synods annually) - the food was excellent in its own regard  (comparing Most favourably with the good food I used to enjoy at my Diocesan Retreat House, let alone Synod . . .) And - perhaps due to the small size of the Synod in numerical terms - relationships and discussion even on the thorniest of topics displayed  little rancour and much grace.

Of course this is the Anglican church and so the subjects for debate were wearily all too familar, including one on the ordination of those in same sex relationships. For some this whole issue has been portrayed as something akin to the battle of Rorke's drift, or perhaps even the Alamo - a final (?) stand to try and defend the place and authority of Scripture in the church - but what I heard from the debate only served to further reinforce my view that the church has been unable to Hear the Word for a very long time now. As I listened it became plain that those on both sides of this argument were in a sense reading the Scriptures in the same way, yet coming to radically different conclusions.
             Both perspectives (if I might grossly oversimplify) reduced the Scriptures to a dead letter rather than a living word - put otherwise it had become an Object, some Thing to be Used in disputation (proof texting we might say) - to tell others that they were wrong -  or some Thing to be examined and found wanting on Critical grounds. Nowhere was there any sense of how God might speak to us Through the Scriptures - it felt to me as if we were wandering into a place where either we could do without God, 'because the Bible is sufficient', or our understanding of God needed to come from elsewhere 'because the Bible is insufficient'. [I leave aside for now the rather vexed and unaddressed question of ecclesiology  - do we believe in an 'Us' to whom God speaks??]
           Both 'perspectives' are obsessed with the literal and / or historic meaning of the text and are but children of the enlightenment and the radical Objectification of everything. Thus all is dust - no longer it seems is Earth or indeed the Scripture -  'crammed with heaven . . . every common bush afire with God'. Much preaching either meticulously and 'biblically' nails Life down, or Nails the Bible and instead looks to the world for life.
            The One who is irreducibly Subject disappears from view when The Bible speaks for Him or when The Bible gets in the way of our apprehending Him. Both of these approaches so Objectify the Scriptures as to make them opaque. The One who seeks to speak to us Through the word cannot be heard and the Scriptures less understood in practice if not in doctrine, as a place of encounter with the Living God.
            [It is I suggest interesting to ponder whether the over emphasis on materiality found in the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation - an early herald of the philosophical shifts that were in time to lead to the enlightenment-  does not find a Protestant mirror image in the Objectification of the Scriptures?]

Just yesterday I was reading a young and promising theologian, (I declare an interest which will be clear if you link to the blog :) ), who commented on her desire to hear God in her Bible reading. She quoted something of Karl Barth which I'd love to say I'd forgotten, but fear I must admit I'd never read, who sought to "hear the Word within the words". These  resonated with my sense that we must try once more to hear God Through  the Scriptures. Surely it was such an Objectification of the Scriptures which Jesus pointed to when he accused the Pharisees of diligently searching the Scriptures - 'because you think that by them you possess eternal life' - yet failing to recognise the one to whom they referred. The One who is in the words of St Paul, 'the image (ikon in the Greek) of the invisible God'.

The idea of an ikon, is I suggest a  fruitful way of  exploring how  we might begin to visually imagine how we attend to God in Scripture, and perhaps a more fruitful one than the dead ends of objectification prevalent in Modern thought. Ikons in Orthodox practise are understood as windows on the eternal - it was a failure to apprehend their transparency that so readily led to iconoclasm - and Christ is The Ikon of the invisible God so Through Him we apprehend the Father, and to see Him is to See the Father.(John 14)

Objectified, the Scriptures have I suggest become shutters rather than a window, an end in themselves. All we need is the Bible, we do not need a relationship with God - or we can apprehend God without the Scriptures as all we find are shutters
            I suggest it might be more Life giving to  understand the Scriptures also as an Ikon, a window? We must have the window for without the window we have no light, BUT we may also create the illusion of light. As I sit at my desk typing I can see out of the window. I can see a view. I could put up shutters and project a bright picture onto those shutters which would perfectly represent what I am now looking at - But, if I move from my seat and walk across the room the view changes in a way that I cannot replicate using a projector and cannot predetermine. What is more the wind in the trees outside the window means that that which I apprehend is patently Living and Active. My whole being is affected as I participate in that which I see beyond my window.
I suggest that at best much of our reading of the Scriptures has become as it were on shutters, be they ever so artfully illuminated. 'What the Bible Says' is concretised either by some as patently obvious, that there is nothing there which will surprise alarm or dismay us, for 'we know the Scriptures, or patently ridiculous for any number of critical reasons. Which of us as protagonists in the arguments at Dunedin Synod and indeed any other Synod, actually came to that meeting suspecting that possibly God might speak to us in many ways through the Scriptures and in ways that we did not think possible, so used had we become to the painting on the shutters, 'The Answer'?
           Without the Window there is no light but also if we shutter the window, similarly there is no light - and it seems to me that many of our debates in the contemporary church generate much more heat than light.

As God seeks to bring to birth the fruit of the Spirit in us, that constant exposure to his Light and Life Through the medium of the word seems to me to be essential.

Of course there are many who continue to grow in the fruit of the Spirit as the transforming word comes to them through the window of the Scriptures, but I suggest that for many that is not the case. Perhaps we need to recapture something of the richness of reading of earlier times when allegory, typology, spiritual reading , mystical meaning (anagogy) - all were part of our understanding of the word along with the concrete Literal and Historic that seem to now be the sole means of approach to the word. And along with Older ways of understanding Scriptures, perhaps also the devotional reading of Scripture as in Lectio Divina - an approach which always comes to the word seeking above all to be in Relationship with the Author - to know the warmth of Divine Light or indeed to sense the sharp cut of the Loving Gardener.

My young friend in her desire to come to Scripture and be faced with God Himself expresses for me something of that sense that the Scriptures might be for more of us again a Window. After all if Scripture Is to be believed then He is the One whose ways are not our ways and whose thoughts are not our thoughts, the One whom encounters us leaving us prostrate, unable to speak for days on end, the one who speaks Words of Life that raise the dead.

Thus my final reflection on Synod is that there were no moments when we were reduced to speechlessness at the presence of Living God. That which was Right was not suggested to us by the cloud of his Presence. This suggests to me that the Bible had become for us shutters rather than a window.

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