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The Constitution of the United States of America is often referred to as a “living document.” We use this term because, by some miracle of foresight, careful drafting or the simple adaptability of the generic, the Constitution remains responsive to changing societal conditions. The same document has governed this nation from a time of agrarian society where industrial power was provided by the sweat of draft animals to the digital age.
When Supreme Court justices interpret the Constitution, they often speak in terms of “discovering” new doctrines of law rather than creating or adopting them (the doing of which might be a violation of the Constitution). While we’ve amended the document on many occasions, the principles of the core of the Constitution remain the foundation of American government and jurisprudence. It seems that the Constitutional well never runs dry when faced with new and difficult questions—questions that would never have been considered by the nation’s founders.
If the Constitution is a living document, the Bible is even more so. Given its length and breadth, there’s a lot of material to draw from, but even the same passage read repeatedly on different occasions will reveal different things to the same reader. This layering of meaning in the text of the Bible is one of its most defining features, I think.
Partially, this is a matter of the rich metaphors used by the Biblical authors and by the style of the writing itself. However, I believe that the multiplicity of meanings in and the always-something-new attribute of the Bible runs deeper than the skill of its writers—this is where I would say that the Bible is God-breathed, that it has a mystical way to speak to us afresh and to address our own situation no matter what that situation may be.
The Bible is more alive than the Constitution. The Constitution is alive because we return to its principles as we expand the law to deal with new social, legal and technological issues. In that sense, the Constitution is also dead—without the necromantic power of the person reading and interpreting the document, it is simply words on a page. Interpretation is uncertain, perhaps dangerous even, and best combined with a healthy bit of skepticism and careful evaluation.
The Bible, though, is alive in a different way. The true power of the Bible is that, in reading it, studying it, and living with it, one might have an encounter with the Living God, a personal encounter that transcends words on a page in meaning and power to change a person and a life. That was my experience.
For all of my intellectual theologizing, I did not understand Christianity (to the extent that I do at all) until I personally encountered Christ while reading the Bible—and that occurred only a few years ago. For all my talk of mysticism, that was only one of a very small handful of experiences in which I can say I had a direct encounter with the divine in my life. And yet, it changed me in ways that can never be undone, and neither would I want them to be.
Without the intervention of the divine upon the reader, the Bible does not possess the full power that it might. It would be a collection of wisdom, of valuable words, of a truth not fully containable within words, but it would be dead. The Bible is alive because our God is alive.
As Barth might put it, the Word of God (Christ) often comes to us through the medium of the word of God (the Bible), but the two are not the same and do not always coincide. Priority must be given to the Christ.
That is a difficult thing. How do we discern what an encounter with the divine really means? How do we interpret the messages we believe we’ve received from God, particularly when God has such a mastery of the subtle? We can argue fairly about the meaning of a passage of scripture; it becomes much harder to argue with someone about the Truth with which they feel they’ve been convicted.
If that feels dangerous, it’s because it is. For a historical example of the worst potential from those who claim to hear the voice of God but who act in ways clearly against God’s desires, go listen to Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History Series called “Prophets of Doom.” (While you’re there, stay a while with Mr. Carlin; his podcasts are terrific).
On the other hand, much has been done with the Bible itself that is counter to God’s desires, without a need for God’s involvement at all. See Gary Oldman’s character, Carnegie, in The Book of Eli for a (fictional) example of that.
While we must deal with the problem of interpretation of the divine message, that problem exists whether received in text or direct experience of the divine. The existence of such problems really does not change the way we prioritize the person of Jesus Christ and the scriptures.
As I’ve argued in other posts, the human mind is limited in its ability to understand the divine. Nevertheless, Christianity is a religion (despite its many fractious denominations) deeply focused on orthodoxy, that is, proper belief. But perhaps we ought to focus more (as Christianity also attempts to do) on the substance of the relationship with the divine, which is transformational even without being understood.
To that end, perhaps we ought to talk about the Bible as a kind of entheogen.