Suspending Disbelief For The Sake of Belief

A couple of days ago, I wrote about belief as foundational for belief in regards to how we come at reading the Bible as Scripture.  I want to expand some of those thoughts here, as I began to wonder this afternoon about what that really means.  When we speak of something as Scripture, whether for ourselves or for some other group of people (i.e. the Vedas as Hindu Scripture, the Qur’an as Muslim Scripture, etc.), what does that mean?  What do we mean by the word ‘Scripture’?  I don’t think we spend too much time analyzing language that we use such as this, but I think it’s important to reflect upon.

To call something ‘Scripture’ (for someone else) is to say, “That group of people over there think that this book is soaked with divinity, cloaked in mystery, and full of meaning and truth.”  Whether we speak of Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, or Christian texts as ‘Scripture’, we mean that for at least that group of people, the book they read is somehow endowed with some sort of power and ultimate truth…for them.

Likewise, when we stand outside a given tradition and read that tradition’s ‘Scripture’, we don’t often experience that power or truth in the way the other does.  We read their ‘Scripture’ like we read any other book.  It’s just a book.  There might be some ‘truth’ lying within it, but it isn’t transformative for us.  If it were, we would call it ‘Scripture’ for ourselves.  We just read it, analyze it, and put it on the shelf alongside all of our other non-Scriptural books, like Twilight or Lord of the Rings.

Within Christianity, we are often guilty of doing the same thing to the Bible.  We read it, analyze the historicity and context of what was written by whom to whom and when, and then put it on the shelf.  Do those things matter, ultimately, if the Bible is truly Scripture?

Yes.

And no.

History, context, authorship, and purpose matter when they enhance our reading of the Bible as Scripture.  Whether or not Moses wrote any of the first five books of the Old Testament (Torah) doesn’t necessarily effect the way we read those books.  In fact, for me, understanding that historians generally agree that Moses didn’t write any of those books helped me believe them more.  That knowledge helped me see the Scripture in the book.  Likewise, believing that Peter actually wrote 2 Peter (another contested authorship), or not, doesn’t effect the content of that book for me either.  I would say it doesn’t necessarily enhance my reading of 2 Peter as Scripture, but it doesn’t adversely effect it either.

But, eventually, we might come to a point in which we don’t really know who wrote what book when and to whom and for what purpose, and then start to doubt that the Bible is anything more than a book.  If all of our traditional understandings of these things are called into question, it’s very possible that we start distrusting not only the Bible, but our own faith tradition.  If my pastors and teachers were either deceived or deceptive, why should I trust anything that I previously believed as settled, true, and good?

It might be better to instead change the formulation that belief is foundational for belief to this: Suspension of disbelief is foundational for belief.  What I mean by that is this:  Perhaps the way that we, in a post-Enlightenment, post-liberal, post-historical critical, post-modern world can read the Bible as Scripture is to suspend disbelief in order to read and be read by the Bible as Scripture.  Despite what may have been ‘learned’ in the last 70 years as a result of historical criticism in regards to the authorship and/or date and context of the books that comprise the Bible, if we suspend our disbelief, we might be able to be transformed through the reading of the Bible as Scripture.

What it comes down to is still belief.  Belief that what is written in the book we call the Bible is capable of transforming our way of thinking about God, creation, and humanity in such a way that we become good news to the world as a result.  Peter said to Jesus, when Jesus asked the disciples if they too were going to abandon him in the book of John, “‘Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and come to know, that you are the Holy One of God”‘ (John 6:68-9).  If these words really do lead to life, then we are better off listening to and trusting them, no matter who wrote them or why.

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