Accepting Religious Curiosity in Context

I was catching up on NPR’s “On Point” from February 16th, where Tom Ashbrook was interviewing Richard Watts, author of various books, the most recent of which is “Hungers of the Heart: Spirituality and Religion for the 21st Century.” The entire podcast is worth listening to, but toward the end, Watts and Ashbrook got into some interesting territory.  In general, Watts is very interested in “the historical Jesus,” looking at the man and historical record and the context in which the Bible was written, as opposed to focusing on what could be considered the more “mystical” aspects of the Bible.  We pick up this transcript as Tom Ashbrook is reading a comment off the internet:

Ashbrook: “…but then here’s Elmridge who says of you ‘but he is denying the divinity of Jesus.’  What about that, Rev. Watts?”

Watts: “Well, one of the things we need to do is we always need to read texts in context.  When we don’t do that we get into big trouble.  Now, for example, if I tell you that there’s…that I know someone in the first century that’s called ‘divine,’ ‘the son of god,’ and ‘the savior,’ you know, who do you suppose I’m talking about?  Well, most people would say you’re talking about Jesus.  No, I’m talking about Caesar Augustus.  Caesar Augustus received all of those divine titles, and so when Christians talked about Jesus and what they had encountered in his life, they used titles which were very counter-cultural, they were saying, look, if you want to know what life is about, if you want to know what real power is, if you want to know where divinity is, look at this peasant going around talking about creating a new community of compassion and love.  Don’t look for the seat of power for the emperor in Rome.”

Watts: “Christianity in the very beginning, before it was called ‘Christianity,’ Tom [Ashbrook], it was called ‘The Way.’  And it was a way of life.  It was a lifestyle.  It doesn’t mean that lifestyle was devoid of a basis of belief, of course it was, but it was a lifestyle long before it was a creed, and I think we need to get over our hang-up with absolute creeds and get back to the lifestyle, a lifestyle which is non-violent, which is compassionate, which is inclusive, which creates community rather than holding people off at arm’s length.”

There was another interesting exchange later in the podcast.

Ashbrook: “You know very well, as do many other preachers, that the kind of mainline protestant churches that you’re describing that may be most open to this kind of open-minded, liberal conversation, are the ones that have seen their attendance just go through the floor in the last decade.  Now why is that?”

Watts: “Part of that, that’s a great question, and part of the problem is, that, I have to lay at the feet of clergy.  It seems to me that an awful lot of clergy don’t bother to teach the people what they themselves have learned.  And so, people are sort of fundamentalist by default because they, these sorts of questions that you and I are talking about today are not often raised and I know that in mainline churches there are all kinds of people sitting there never receiving permission to raise their questions, never having the opportunity to engage in give-and-take about what their life experience has taught them, or what their life experience has asked them.

Let me tell you a very brief story.  There was a scholar in the Jesus Seminar, which works to uncover the facts about the historical Jesus, that was giving a talk to a group of Missouri Synod Lutherans, a very conservative denomination, and he was talking about New Testament documents, and the document “Q,” which is a lost document of the sayings of Jesus.  And then came time for the question period and he wondered, he felt like Daniel in the lion’s den, and a woman stood up and, instead of addressing the speaker, she turned around to address her preacher in the pew behind her and she said to him, ‘did you know about Q?’ And he said, ‘well, yeah.’  And she said, ‘why didn’t you tell us?’  And I think that’s a very powerful parable, that our churches are full of people that are questioning, who are curious, but who aren’t being adequately taught…”

I won’t write much about this, as the post is already long enough with these transcripts included.  I just wanted to say that this is the kind of thing I like to hear about, the historical context in which the Bible was written, and how that context can help inform what we know and what we don’t know about religion.  Moreover, I think that if there was more of this being taught in our churches today, there would be fewer “black and white” interpretations of what the Bible tells us, and we would all be more accepting of each other.

It’s a shame when pastors and educators shut down the intellectually curious.  We should all be fostering curiosity in ourselves and in our kids in order to better understand where we come from and who we are, rather than asking someone to tell us, and then accepting that information blindly.

Questioning and thoughtful investigation is the way of science.  It should be the way of religion, too.

2 Replies to “Accepting Religious Curiosity in Context”

  1. I think taking an historical-critical view of the bible, particularly the old testament (because that’s what I’ve studied the most) has really deepened my appreciation for the bible and ultimately my love of Christ.

    Instead of making it less magical it has only made the mystical things MORE mystical and awesome. Of course, they are different than what someone with a different view would see as mystical.

    The parting of the Red Sea (really the Reed Sea) is a great example- It’s currently thought that they went through a swampy type of area north of the Red Sea (one full of reeds- hence the reed sea) during a weird weather phenomena causing it to dry up but remain muddy. This leaves the band of Gods People to flee but traps the large army behind them in the mud and muck.

    I am fairly convinced that Moses didn’t part a giant sea with his staff- but I’m also struck by how beautifully and simply it is that God led his people out of danger.

    Is it less miraculous that Gods nostrils didn’t actually come from the heavens and part the sea? For me, seeing God work in a real way like that- through the rules and laws he developed- that is miraculous. And that’s what the people who actually wrote it wanted to convey. “Look at this freaking awesome thing that happened!!”.

    I have to agree with them- the whole deal is pretty freakin awesome.

    1. Unfortunately, Nathan, I’m afraid you’re in the minority. At least, it’s my perception that there are lots of people out there that simply “don’t want to know” because they’re afraid of what they may learn. That they may find out they’ve been wrong this whole time. That there’s little basis in the Bible for what they’ve believed, or that they have rebuked others around them based on something that was never the case.

      Generally speaking, I just think it’s a good idea for people to have more information, rather than less. And this is true in religion, science, politics, etc.

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