Religion on the Level: #2
What is the Use of the Bible? [Continued]
We will find that there is a whole world of significance in that idea of the
collective consciousness of the human race, and that it has particular
importance when we meditate on the enduring power of the religious narratives.
It is the anonymity of the religious narratives that is the secret of their
power. All great art is essentially anonymous in its impact. We do not need to
know anything about its provenance for it to have its effect. We do not know
who or how many people were behind the writing of Genesis or the Iliad, and we
need not care, because these texts communicate truth to us at a level that
goes beyond the artistry of any particular individual.
That is why they go on touching us long after we have abandoned the official
theories or teachings that have been derived from them. For instance, we do not
know for certain who wrote the four gospels or when, but they still have
power to connect with our lives today, so that, reading them, we sometimes have
to put them down and look into the distance as their words strike ancient chords
The difficulty that many of us face today is that we find ourselves, to some
extent at least, spiritually homeless, or semi-detached. We are no longer
comfortably and unselfconsciously established at the heart of any of the great
traditions. And it is with the nature of tradition itself that I want to start.
There are a number of formulas that try to capture the atmosphere of our
society in the final months of the second millennium, but the one that I think
is the simplest and easiest to expound is the end of tradition: ours is a
post-traditional society. A tradition is a system of ideas and practices
based on a set of assumptions or premises from which a complex social or
religious structure has evolved.
Let me give you an example of a theological system or tradition that might
help us to understand how some of these human constructs work. Here are some
verses from the Letter to the Romans, Chapter 5:
It was through one man that sin entered the world,
and through sin death, and thus death pervaded
the whole human race, inasmuch as all have sinned.
But God's act of grace is out of all proportion to
Adam's wrongdoing. For if the wrongdoing of that
one man brought death upon so many, its effect is
vastly exceeded by the grace of God and the gift
that came to so many by the grace of one man,
If, by the wrongdoing of one man, death established
its reign through that one man, much more shall
those who in far greater measure receive grace
through the gift of righteousness live and reign
through the one man Jesus Christ.
It follows then, that as the result of one misdeed
was condemnation for all people, so the result of
one righteous act is acquittal and life for all. For
as through the disobedience of one man many were
made sinners, so through the obedience of one man
many will be made righteous.
It would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of that passage in the
formation of the Christian theological tradition and its effect on human
self-understanding. Let me pick out a few details.
Paul takes it for granted that his readers will know the story of Adam
and Eve from the Book of Genesis. Using that ancient narrative as a foundation
or premise, he builds up his theological system.
First of all, he suggests that human death is the direct consequence of the
sin of Adam. He then goes on to suggest that the primordial disobedience
of Adam passed guilt on to us like some kind of
Paul does not spell it out here, but we know that the tradition as it later
developed, held women to be disproportionately responsible for the Fall and its
tragic effects, and that is why later Mariological developments took the
form they did. Mary alone of all her sex was miraculously preserved from
original sin, and was therefore not subject to physical death and instead was
assumed bodily into heaven.
But the Christological implications of this ancient narrative were even more
profound. The first man's disobedience infected us with guilt; but the second
Adam's obedience and self-sacrifice intervened mystically to switch off the
offending gene that had condemned us to death. So Jesus becomes the solution,
the cure, to the problem created for the human race by the original disobedience
of Adam and Eve, and the punishment of death it had brought upon humanity.
Once you accept the originating assumption, the premise on which the system
is based, it works with captivating simplicity. And it has enormous
dramatic power. It has profoundly affected the poetry of liturgy and hymnody, as
well as the mechanics of evangelistic preaching. As a working tradition,
its echoes are all around us, outside as well as inside the Church. People who
have never read Genesis or Romans get the cartoon significance of Adam and
Eve, the snake, the apple and the fig leaf.
But what happens when you question the premise, the originating
assumption, on which the whole system is built? What happens to a tradition when
you no longer believe the claim on which it is built?
We know that the story of Adam and Eve is a myth, a narrative device for
conveying abstract truth; it is not history; it does not account for anything,
except its own meaning.
We know, for instance, that death is not a punishment for sin, but a
biological necessity, an ineluctable fact of life. We experience it as a loss;
it fills us with fear; we rage against it; but we know it is not a punishment
handed out to the human race because of Adam's disobedience. We also know
that, captivating as such myths are, there was never any pre-lapsarian golden
age of human innocence, any Garden of Eden from which our parents were banished.
The myth is still powerful, of course, because it expresses the tragedy of
the ways we all go on ruining our own happiness, but it is not a historic event
upon which we can build a sustainable system.
Women are not disproportionately responsible for human sinfulness and their
subjection to men was an aspect of patriarchy, not a punishment from God. When
we use the Adam and Eve myth today, therefore, we do not treat it as history, we
do not build arguments upon it, we use it as a more or less instructive parable
of the human condition.
There are religious communities that still use ancient narratives like this
one in theological and moral argument, as though it were a fixed and established
fact like the multiplication table, but the society in which we live does the
opposite. It questions the premises on which all traditional systems are based;
and it repudiates the claims of religious revelation to decree infallibly how
the rest of us should live.
For example, when tradition, quoting its scripture, tells society that women
should be subordinate to men or that same-sex lovers should be condemned,
society asks why, wants to understand the reason behind the prohibition.
And here we come to the main difference between contemporary society
and traditional religion.
Post-traditional society is quite prepared to identify certain kinds of
conduct as wrong, but the basis for the wrong has to be demonstrated, reasons
have to be given.
It is strongly opposed, for instance, to abusive sexual relationships
because it believes consent is an important ethical value, even in
marriage. Traditional religions, on the other hand, operate on the basis of the
authority of their claims, not their rational defensibility. That is why when we
ask them why same-sex love is wrong they do not offer us an argument that is
persuasive, they offer us a text, they point to the tradition as though it had
no history, they refer to it as if it were beyond argument. That is what we mean
Anthony Giddens defines fundamentalism as "defending tradition in the
traditional way". A non-religious illustration might help us make the point.
Take the British monarchy: this is one of our oldest traditional systems. If
you were asked to justify the retention of the monarchy today, you'd probably
offer a number of pragmatic arguments: you'd say it was a valuable symbol of the
continuity of the nation or that it was good for the tourist trade or
for British exports or that it guaranteed us against ending up with a President
The monarchical fundamentalist, however, would scorn these attempts to
rationalise the office and would point instead to the divine right of kings to
rule over us. In other words, the fundamentalist defends tradition in the
traditional way, and refers to original assumptions as though they were valid
for all time and required no new justification.
In times of accelerating social change, fundamentalism is an obvious refuge.
Its refusal to negotiate with the new consciousness is its greatest strength,
but for those of us who find ourselves within the new consciousness, its
insistence on holding on to the original meaning of ancient traditions renders
them inaccessible to many of us, because it places the interpretation of the
text beyond any kind of negotiation.
For instance, as far as the tradition we are looking at goes, the
fundamentalist would simply state that the Adam and Eve story is a historic
event and Paul's exposition of it literally true. Death is the wages of sin. The
woman did fall to the tempter. Everyone is born guilty of an aboriginal offence
committed by our original parent. Christ's mission was to rescue us from
the destiny forged for us by the sin of Adam by substituting himself for us.
The tragedy of this approach, for those who cannot receive it, is that it may
work to cut us off from the other possibilities the great religious narratives
offer us for the exploration and illumination of our own condition.
I would like to suggest that some of the themes in the Hebrew
scriptures offer us the opportunity for personal and social exploration leading
to human wholeness. There are three complex and enduring human experiences
expressed by the ancient biblical narratives. There is the theme of falling
into captivity. Next there is the theme of liberation through the wilderness.
Finally, there is the discovery of the promised land and the regret and
disillusion which accompany it.
There are not too many human themes or archetypes, but falling into
discontent and then falling through discontent into some sort of prison or
captivity is one of them. We can see it at its most dramatic in the simplest and
starkest of human dramas, that of addiction bred of deprivation.
If you are a young man living without hope in a desperate housing project in
New York, Liverpool or Glasgow, then heroin is going to offer you a way out of
your discontent, for a time and at a price. It's the Sinatra imperative
again, something to get you through the long night of the soul, to dull the
pain, to lead you into merciful oblivion.
There may be ways of escape, mechanisms of fall, that do not have terrible
landings, but they do not seem to have been invented yet. The cruelest part of
the human paradox of discontent is that the instruments or places of release
or escape themselves become the place of imprisonment. The substance that takes
us out of ourselves, the secret relationship that gives us something to live
for, become the instruments
that take away our peace. In the case of the addict, no matter what the
addiction is, the means of escape inevitably becomes the bondage from which
there is no escape.
Addiction seems to be one of the characteristics of our era though it is not
obvious why this should be so. It may not take much insight to follow the logic
of oblivion that prompts the kid from the housing scheme on the edge of town
into addiction and death, but there are plenty of examples of generalised
addiction in our culture.