Change In Scriptural Interpretation Is Inevitable

By Father John Walsh on June 26, 2014

All religious traditions are facing the same reality; we are struggling to emerge in a new way from a re-interpretation of our sacred texts.  Brian McLaren in his book "Everything must change" states the matter succinctly as "when the world’s biggest problems and the teachings of Jesus collide." 

Have we experienced enough of the dog- eat-dog-world to know its futility?  Will we be content with a callous and cold world?  Hope may erupt when all our faith traditions are in compliment with each other and together we refuse to accept conflict and confrontation to resolve whatever differences we may face together.  

Modernity and a post-modern world cannot be avoided; it is the ‘stuff’ of good theological reflection. We must ask ourselves, “What would happen if the most difficult of the world’s problems were faced head-on and interpreted with a renewed faith of Christians, Jews and Muslims?   We can begin by envisioning an interreligious solidarity with the leadership and the rank and file membership of all religions being in dialogue with one another.  

Dialogue is not the first or last resort; it is the only resort to understanding.  It is with the wisdom of each religious tradition upon which close relationships of trust are built.  Courage is the hallmark of individuals and communities who face the need to change.   It takes courage to unseat ourselves from the throne of a self-centered world to accept the humility of becoming a welcome mat upon which others will gain the courage to move forward.  The acceptance of change is inevitable when a brighter future is presented as an alternative to a past that encountered too much rivalry and that lead ultimately to fear of each other.  

In the Catholic tradition there is a marked change from a maintenance church to a missionary church. Missionary doesn’t mean proselytizing but going out into the world where God is working for the good of all humanity.  All religions hold beliefs that are open to re-interpretation because many beliefs were drawn from a too literal interpretation of our sacred texts without taking into account that the sacred texts were written at a time and in a culture which is not today and today’s culture.

In a thought-provoking book by Joel Baden entitled, "The Historical David – The Real Life of an Invented Hero"  Baden presents a realistic picture of David as a person whom the authors of the Bible invented.  It is not a factual and historical portrayal of David for no historian could know what is written in the biblical account: private and unverifiable elements, including events that occurred behind closed doors, dialogues, and even internal dialogues.  The Bible as information is not sufficient and not particularly reliable.  To quote the author:  "To rediscover the historical David is to realize that behind the accumulated legend there was a living, breathing man, in a distant place and time, whose deeds, and the telling of them, were responsible for much of who we are today." It is this link across the millennia that make the search for the historical David both risky and necessary.   And the author concludes:  "To deal with the historical David is to accept, maybe even gladly, that he was a fairly dislikeable man."  

We know enough about the ancient world to know that many aspects of it stand in opposition to our own cultural standards; slavery, the treatment of women, bloody animal sacrifices, monarchy itself, to mention the most obvious.  For all our reverence of it, none of us would want to live in the world of the Bible.  David is part of that world not ours.  We have spent the last three thousand years evolving as a culture, developing and cultivating values that we hold dear, that we teach our children and inscribe in our cherished documents.  The difference between the David we want to see – the David we have created – and the David who actually walked the earth three thousand years ago is the difference between the world that we have chosen to become and the world we have left behind.  If the historical David doesn’t strike us as problematic, it would speak rather badly of our cultural growth in the intervening millennia.  The more that we can see that David is not like us, but is deeply different, the more we can recognize how far we have come.  Appreciation of history allows us to see ourselves more clearly.    

Thomas Merton, a Trappist Monk who worked tirelessly for a better Christian-Buddhist dialogue, candidly states the case:  "God is not someone else and our idea of God tells us more about ourselves than about him."


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