The Bible Meets Modernity

By Erhard S. Gerstenberger
Fasanenweg 29
May 2012

Presupposing an all-round contextuality of biblical messages, we have already admitted a tight affinity between ancient cultures and biblical concepts of the world, mankind, God, etc. The Word of God always came into and grew up in definite historical situations, being part and parcel of their culture, religion, social, and economic philosophies. Thus we have every reason to investigate Biblical ways of thinking and believing in strict correspondence to Mesopotamian, Old Persian, Egyptian, etc. mental and spiritual patterns (cf. E.S. Gerstenberger, Israel in the Persian Period, Atlanta/Leiden: SBL/Brill 2011). But in order to communicate with God and realize God’s truth in our present times and environments, we certainly have to shoulder a formidable task of interpretation. There is, without doubt, a rewarding, straightforward reading of the Bible by anybody capable of understanding translations of the old Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek originals. After all, human destinies have not changed that much from some millennia ago until our own day. The immense joy of being alive and the deep sorrow of having to pass away have practically been the same all along. For this reason, many biblical stories, songs, prayers, and reasonings about God and humankind are directly persuasive in giving advice for a fulfilled existence and comforting in deep distress.

But there are, of course, quite a few areas in which living conditions, epistemological frames, and social structures have fundamentally changed. How does one take account of these shifts which necessarily influence the meaning of “God’s Ancient Word”? That means: If we are to recognize the Biblical truths and put them into practice within our re-modeled world, we have to ponder not only the biblical messages but also the values, truths, and directions rampant in our present societies and in the globalized world today. To what extent do modern conceptions of reality, society, and nature – the Divine itself! – take precedent over ancient ideas?

To give some concrete examples:

a) World views have developed considerably over the past two or three millennia. The Biblical notion of the universe was a real cozy one. The earth, a flat disk floating on the primeval ocean, over-arched by a solid sky embroidered by countless stars was the sole purpose of creation and humankind its prime concern. Through the centuries, human mental construction of the world changed into a helio-centered and gradually into a non-centered universe. Nowadays we are, scientifically speaking, lost in endless space and time expecting with great certainty the day when life will be discovered on thousands of other celestial bodies. What do these “hard facts” (in reality: “scientific constructions”) do to biblical truths about God, creation, human nature, finality of life, and the end of the world?

b) Along the same vein, we fully realize that human understanding of physical and chemical processes have undergone considerable alterations since antiquity (by no means for the better in every single instance). Thus medical knowledge nowadays no longer rests so much on spiritual analyses of the body and environments but on assumptions of microscopic beings and chemical reactions which make up for the well-being of any living being. There have been developed, through human geniality, countless treatments of sick persons through pharmaceutics, physio- and psycho-therapy, and chirurgical interventions which are utterly amazing. (To be true, however, a good number of ailments do resist modern treatments and rather stays, if at all, approachable by ancient persuasion and magic.) How do our new insights into the inner workings of health and sickness determine our faith in God the creator, provider, and healer?

c) Social and political structures and values in a way are pretty much patterned according to ancient models (family, kinship, neighborhoods, friendships, gangs) and economic enterprises of modern times can be traced back to quite ancient roots. Still, there has been a dramatic turnover of ideal forms of governance since biblical times. About two centuries ago the hierarchic form of government, believing in a divine reign extending from heaven to the people by mediation of royal dynasties and noble elites was toppled and substituted by the inverse notion of “all power originating with the people,” our cherished idea of “democracy.” The Bible certainly has some traditions of tribal and family rights (cf. Judg 9:7-15), but in large parts is firmly convinced of a royalist order giving the king (or priest, prophets, sages) a crucial role in divine-human relations. How does our contradictory claim of power sprouting from below affect the biblical descent-theory?

d) Here are just two special consequences emerging from enlightened concepts of human-centered world order. For one, sexes, races, professions, religions, nations, and other categories used to discriminate between human types are considered, by modern Western standards, to co-exist on the same level, on equal grounds. Everyone with a human face in our world supposedly is to usufruct equal rights and chances. Not so in Biblical writings. In spite of the fact that many texts, especially of the Old Testament, try to protect down-graded elements of society (fighting e.g., for foreign residents, widows, orphans, and Levites [Exod 22:21-24; Lev 19:9-10; Deut 10:18-19; 16:11-12 etc.], or disabled persons [Lev 19:14]) and in spite of the famous rule: “love your neighbor as you love yourself” (Lev 19:18, cf. v. 34) there remain, from our vantage points, intolerable distortions of human rights. Males and females, slaves and proprietors, kings and subordinates, Israelites and Canaanites, Yahweh-believers and “heathens,” pious and impious often are juxtaposed and not treated as equals. – The other point is equally disconcerting: Modern industrial societies have left behind the high appreciation of family and kinship bonds. Working and living conditions at large are such that the primary or intimate group – no work- and life community any more – stopped providing vital functions of survival for its members. Everyone has to stand on his or her own feet, gain a place in the general struggle for life, and found his own cells of communion. Unrestricted individualism has become the trademark of our time, and we shall see whether the new techniques of Internet and iPod use or the twittering and chatting will be able to establish a new sense of togetherness. In any case, however, times and modes of cultivating relationships have profoundly changed.

Which way we should go? The following ventures propose some answers.

One basic outlook seems to be clear: Looking for the “right” theological postures and confessions today, we cannot possibly just quote Scripture verses, as if they were literarily the frozen, eternal truth. Every bit of Biblical faith appearing in the Bible has been formulated contextually in a situation different from our own. We have to ask for the meaning of biblical sentences in their proper place and time of origin. Then (if not first, as in many Latin American approaches to the Bible) we have to turn to our own situation analyzing in depth the details of our cultural and social life, including hopes, anxieties, and values of our fellow-beings. In the third place, a dialogue between present and biblical positions has to take place. The outcome of this ongoing serious debate, waged in congregations, seminars, retreats, and conferences as well as among friends and in families should be some agreement as to how to “apply” biblical truths to our own daily lives. Provisionary indications direct how such talks could possibly take:

a) The universe has expanded unfathomably. Thinking now of God (“Ground of Being,” P. Tillich), we are much more confounded than our forebears (cf. Psalm 139). The mystery of one divine permeating this boundless entity should make us mute. Let us quit the outrageous theological claim to speak for the whole of Being. Let us confess our ignorance and trust that our infinitely tiny, absolutely insignificant planet or solar system does serve some good end. Within our planetary environment, on the other side, humankind has to assume more responsibility for the future, trying to implant just and sustainable conditions for life on earth.

b) Natural science, e.g., in the realm of medicine, has produced enormous insights and powers for mankind. We have to be conscious of possible abuses be it in the field of manipulation of life, causing global catastrophes, or usurping divine prerogatives. What is a human being? He/she is “Almost God” (Ps 8:6 [NRSV 5]), but only “almost” because humans are limited in space and time. Healing, in particular, still is not propriety of human doctors, although they many times perform miracles. Their skill is part of divinely authored and mysterious force of life.

c) Power structures today are, ideally, inverted. So we have to struggle with this new construction of the Divine residing or complying with the masses, an unbearable thought for traditionalists, but not more annoying than the old royalist conception of Divinities working through the upper classes only. The Bible is, at times, critical of both ideologies. A good and thorough study of Scripture will teach us that God is working from below, but He/She/It is not congruent with the people’s voice. Concern for the lower and suffering masses, however, certainly belongs to Biblical tradition and is a vital message for our outrageously unjust world.

d) Human rights, equality of all persons before the law, dignity and well-being are supreme goals of ethical consciousness. Shame on Christian churches if they did not draw these consequences all along from extant biblical witnesses but did practice discrimination and oppression through large parts of their history! Blessed are those who are working in the forefront of human liberation from misery and subjugation. The exaggerated valuation of the individual, on the other side (consequences of man-made destruction of socio-economic structures) has to be reconsidered in dialogue with the Scriptures. Individual liberties certainly need to be made secure; responsibility for open and warm human organizations has to be taught to our young people.

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