Thursday, April 25, 2013

A Faith That Is Not Our Own Making

This is the final installment in CY's series of guest posts on the importance of the Old Testament for Christians. Previous guest posts in this series can be found here, here, and here.

The Rev. Dr. D. Jonathan Grieser is a friend and priest in the Episcopal Church.


A few years ago, when I was still teaching Religious Studies at a liberal arts college in the South, I made an off-hand reference to Adam and Eve in class one day. A student raised her hand and asked, “Who are they?” We live in a culture increasingly alienated from its past. That is as true of Christianity as it is of contemporary secular culture.

Why does the Old Testament matter? On a fundamental level because it is a powerful record of human beings struggling with the most profound and most difficult questions of human existence, questions we all ask (or should ask) from time to time. Job’s struggle to understand the causes of his suffering is shared by all of humanity. His unwillingness to accept the easy answer and his demand that God answer for the world’s evil are as relevant today as they were 2500 years ago. The call of Amos for a just society that cares for the widow, orphan, and alien challenges us as profoundly today as it challenged Israel’s political and religious elite in the 8th century BCE.

For Christians, though, the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) is more than a set of texts that shed light on humanity. The authors of the Hebrew Bible have provided the framework and context for our faith. Something quite remarkable happened in the 5th century BCE. In the Ancient Near East, if your people were conquered by another nation, that was pretty conclusive evidence that their gods were more powerful than yours—and it wasn’t logical to continue holding on to your old gods. That had happened when Assyria conquered the northern kingdom of Israel. It dissolved into the mists of history surviving only in the memory of the people of Judah. In the 5th century, Babylon conquered Jerusalem and Judah and carried off into exile the political and religious elite of that kingdom. If the exiles had had any sense, they would have acknowledged the clear superiority of Marduk and the Babylonian pantheon to Yahweh, the God of Israel. Instead, during the exile, they continued to believe in Yahweh and they shaped a new theology, a new understanding of God and themselves that made sense of their experience and gave them hope for the future. During the exile, these men and women compiled and edited much of what we know as the Old Testament and they brought it with them when they were freed and returned to Jerusalem.

These authors articulated an understanding of God that continues to shape the Christian tradition. They provided the language and theology that Jesus used in his ministry. It was they who provided the vocabulary and perspective that Paul and other first-century Jews drew on as they struggled to understand their experience and make sense of their faith in the Risen Christ and to embody that faith in a new community of disciples. Cast adrift from the traditions of the Hebrew Bible and of Judaism, Christianity loses touch with its past and fails to explore the depths of its theological traditions and its God.

Studying the Hebrew Bible is also an important intellectual and spiritual discipline. Our tendency in so much of life is to ignore or discard anything that doesn’t seem relevant to our current situation. If a movie or TV show doesn’t immediately grab attention, we turn to something else. Christians tend to assume that the sayings of Jesus or the writings of Paul have direct relevance to our lives and to our faith and we also tend to assume that those sayings or writings can be easily interpreted. When we encounter texts from the Hebrew Bible that are difficult or obscure, that recount events with no other historical evidence, or seem to portray a God who is capricious, violent, or full of human emotions, or depict social conditions far different from our own, we wonder what, if any, relevance they might have for 21st century Christians. It’s helpful to know that Christians have had the same sorts of questions about the Hebrew Bible for nearly two thousand years. Before us, and alongside us, Jews have asked many of the same questions and have struggled as well to understand these texts that both religions regard as the Word of God. One of the great revelations of my education as a scholar and as a Christian was to read the Church Fathers, especially Augustine of Hippo, as they sought to understand and interpret the difficult texts of the Hebrew Bible. As I listened to his questions, and discovered with him how God might be speaking through strange stories, languages, and worldviews, I learned that I was not alone with my questions about the text and that the effort to seek God’s word in those texts is part of what it means to be a faithful Christian.

Reading the Hebrew Bible forces us to confront the views of people from very different cultures and contexts, views that may be offensive or seem misguided or wrong. Reading the Hebrew Bible forces us to confront a God and a faith that is not of our own making and to discern within those texts, in the faith and in the God witnessed in those texts, the work of the Holy Spirit, and the possibility, nay, the certainty that the Spirit continues to speak to us through them. Reading the Hebrew Bible teaches us humility.  Reading the Hebrew Bible helps us develop discerning minds and hearts. Reading the Hebrew Bible expands our faith and deepens our understanding of God.

The Rev. Dr. Jonathan Grieser is Rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Madison, WI. Jonathan is also a former professor of religion and currently serves on the Board of St. Francis House, the Episcopal student ministry of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Read Fr. Jonathan's blog here.

1 comment:

  1. Love this:

    "Reading the Hebrew Bible forces us to confront a God and a faith that is not of our own making and to discern within those texts, in the faith and in the God witnessed in those texts, the work of the Holy Spirit, and the possibility, nay, the certainty that the Spirit continues to speak to us through them."