I have realized that a sometimes intractable obstacle to right-left dialogue is the often intransigence of the right on their understanding of scripture. I don't want to debate the issue of inerrancy as much as I want to explain my own position and how I got to it. My intent is to demonstrate that many of us who reject the principle of inerrancy still hold the Bible in high regard and use it as a guide for living. The implication for the culture wars is that there may be a number of valid Christian positions in the public square. I don't want to shout down the voices to the right of me, I just want my voice to be heard and validated as genuinely Christian.
Let me start with my reason for rejecting inerrancy. I had found myself "jumping through hoops" in sorting the cultural influences out of scripture (you know, things like seeing Paul not so much as a sexist but a product of his time) when I finally came up against something I couldn't find anyway to excuse within the confines of a belief in the divine authorship of scripture: cherem. For those of you not knowledgeable in Hebrew, that is the word used to describe the style of warfare used in the conquest of the Promised Land. Simply put, the principle is if you win victory over an enemy by your own power you are entitled to the booty (e.g. the land, the cattle, the gold, the people...) BUT if you are outnumbered or out-gunned and you pray to your god for victory and receive it then the booty belongs to the deity. The way that the god claims the spoil was typically through burnt sacrifice. I describe this generically since it was the prevalent form of warfare on all sides during that time. But that means that we read of a number of massacres (at least a half-dozen) in the Bible that are directly ordered by God. There is even a verse that I mercifully can never seem to re-locate that says that YHWH was pleased by the aroma of the burnt human offering.
Now I could have responded by saying "that was then, this is now" but that would fly in the face of the equally biblical principle that God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow (actually, there is a good evidence in the biblical story that God does change, but that is clearly not part of Evangelical theology). I found myself faced with a choice between obedience to a bloodthirsty god, a slippery slope of a potentially ever-changing god, or an acceptance of the Bible as a human document in which the victors write the history. I chose the last position as the most viable way to retain the reality of the personal relationship I had with God. That left me with the danger of "throwing out the baby with the bath water." It also meant that I could now read the Bible as our human attempt to understand what we can never fully understand instead of as God attempting to explain the inexplicable to mere mortals. The change in perspective is liberating, frustrating, exciting and frightening all rolled into one.
The good news is that I'm not alone in this journey. Many, many Christians today (as well as in the past) take this approach. In my next blog entry I'll address the way that other elements strengthen my faith and mold my theology. If you want a preview, consider the Wesleyan quadrilateral.