So, back to my story. At first glance, life as a biblical literalist was really quite straightforward. Every question could be answered with “What does the Bible say about it?” Was the world created in six days? Yes, the very first chapter of the Bible says so. Should women be allowed to lead or speak in church? No, the writings of St. Paul make it clear women should be silent in church assemblies. Is homosexuality a sin? Were humankind and all the animals saved from a world-wide flood by being carried away in a giant boat? Did Joshua cause the sun to stand still so there would be more daylight to kill more Amorites? Should I spank my children when they disobey? Yes, yes, yes and yes, said the Bible.
Of course the problem with literalism is that it has its limits, at least if one is to function within a normal contemporary society. I don’t remember any of my friends having their rebellious sons stoned to death. Some women prefer their hair cut short and some men like their hair long (as a teenager I was once told I was living in sin because my hair was shoulder-length). For that matter, some men like to shave. My wife, having grown up on Vancouver Island, really likes mussels and oysters and clams. Is she a sinner? And then there’s bacon. Mmmmm…bacon.
And so every literalist is, in reality, a selective literalist. Everyone of us employed some sort of filter, some mechanism by which we determined what in the Bible we allowed to be definitive for our lives and what, on the other hand, we read with interest (or puzzlement), but otherwise ignored.
At about the same time that I started to realize the disingenuousness of my selective literalism, I also became a member of an Anglican church. Living in Amsterdam and going to a Dutch-language church, our children were growing up in an English-speaking home but knew little about corporate worship in English, and so we cast about for an English-language church with a Sunday School. We ended up in the local Church of England parish.
At the time, in the early 90’s, the congregation was quite diverse socially, but also theologically (it may still be, I don’t know). The poor sat next to the wealthy and the conservative evangelicals sat next to progressive liberals. Gay couples came forward for Communion along with evangelical missionary families, and no-one seemed to be terribly bothered. All of this was new to me and strangely attractive. Here, under one umbrella, was an immensely diverse group of people sharing the peace of Christ and tolerating their differences. I started to wonder how this was possible; what philosophy or theological understanding lay behind it?
It wasn’t long before I discovered that the Anglican approach to pursuing spiritual truth was not based on the Sola Scriptura doctrine which had long been the basis of my own faith. Scripture did not stand alone in determining what was true or how we should live. Anglicans, greatly influenced by thinkers such as Richard Hooker, tried to find a balance between the biblical record and the demands of reason (including science and experience) and tradition (other sources of collective wisdom from our ancestors). And this approach necessitated a generosity of spirit, a willingness to accept that none of us had the whole truth. We could recognize each other as genuine followers of Christ even if we disagreed.
In this way of thinking the Bible is still seen as our primary guide, THE Word of God, but in practice it is not the only way in which God communicates with us. This approach recognizes that God might speak more clearly to us in some instances through other Words: Science can be a Word of God. Logic is a Word of God. Reason is a Word of God. Tradition is a Word of God. Nature is a Word of God. Experience is a Word of God. And as I said before, Jesus Christ is a Word of God, a particularly clear and unambiguous Word. God speaks to us in many and varied ways and if what God is telling us doesn’t match up with what the Bible says, well, perhaps we need to consider the possibility that we are not reading the Bible correctly.