Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Literalism and the Spirit

God has made us ministers of a new covenant,
not of letter but of spirit;
for the letter kills, but the spirit gives life.
II Corinthians 3:6

In a recent issue of “Context,” Martin Marty reports that since 1991, the percentage of Americans who believe in some form of Creationism has risen from 47 percent to 65.5 percent. My guess is that when I was growing up the percentage was much lower than in 1991.

Creationism is bad science, but it is worse theology. The point of the story is that God is the source of all that is, the Ground of our Being. When we try to make it into a scientific explanation of the way the world was made, it loses its cosmic significance. Ultimately, theology is rooted in truth. It is rooted in the conviction that all truth (scientific, historical, philosophical) belongs to God. That is part of our creation-faith. That is lost when we try to substitute the theological truths of Genesis for the on-going truth seeking of science.

The belief in Creationism is linked to biblical literalism. So biblical literalism is growing at a time when biblical literacy is declining. Fewer people know what the Bible actually says, but more people say that they believe it absolutely. At first that may seem contradictory, but it isn’t. When we live into the biblical word, we understand it in ways that transcend literalism. We look for meaning and purpose. We listen for the Spirit. As we live into it, the biblical story becomes our story. We are involved and committed. The meaning is deeper than the words on the page. Literalism reduces the meaning to the words on the page.

Atheism and biblical literalism are both growing, and that makes perfect sense. As far back as when I was in college, one of my professors reported with some amusement that the atheists and the fundamentalists (there weren’t very many at Wesleyan) shared a common belief that the Bible was meant to be taken literally. He found it amusing (and frustrating) that he could not budge either group.

St. Paul was right, “the letter kills.” The problem with literalism is that is reduces the Bible to a dead letter. It no longer speaks to our lives because the life has been taken out of it. “But the spirit gives life.” When we trust the spirit, the text comes alive, and the spirit gives life.

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