Toward a Natural Social Theology (Part 2)

 [W]e are now vividly conscious that whatever the Bible may contain of divine self-disclosure, it is also the record of a very rich and significant human experience. (William Temple, Nature, Man and God, p. 6)

Working on a “natural theology” of anything means that you can look to the facts of a religious tradition and use them as a basis, but you can’t appeal to “revelation”.  To some people, that means you probably can’t use the Bible as a foundation for making a natural social theology.

I disagree, and I disagree because even if it can be agreed that the Bible is divinely revealed by God (and what exactly that might mean)–and I’m not sure we can agree on that–the Bible itself is a fact.  It is not “said to exist”, but it demonstrably does exist, as possibly the single most influential and most translated text in the history of Western civilization at the very least.  Despite what some Christians believe, the Bible is alive and well and still providing us with fuel for the imagination, although in some ways this might be somewhat at the subconscious level.  We ask whether we are our brothers’ keepers, we admonish our children about the Golden Rule.  One particularly rainy day years ago, when my way to work was under flood threat, my co-workers started calling me Mrs.Noah because I made it to the office.  Even Richard Dawkins (in his pre-batshit crazy days) titled one of his books with a clearly-understood biblical reference:  River out of Eden.

Biblical narrative, language, imagery–these have shaped our consciousness for millennia.  Whether God spoke directly to the authors, or through prayer and other spiritual practices the writers of the Bible became preternaturally sensitive to divine prompting, is not what is important to the pursuit of a natural social theology.  (I’m not sure how important the mechanism is to any theology, really.)  What is important, and very difficult to argue, is that these writings have endured for so long, and gained their authoritative status as recognizably sacred texts, because readers and hearers have consistently found them to ring true to their own subsequent experience.  Often, that experience is in vastly changed circumstances that the original writers could never have imagined.  People have believed that the collections of words we now call the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures have helped them in their attempts to become more sensitive to, and form relationships with, what they believe to be divine.

This is observable fact.  Even if someone is not himself religious, it is hard to deny that the Bible has been one of the supremely influential literary collections in human history, that it has had an enormous impact on western civilization (literature, art, music, architecture, law, education, healthcare, economics), and that a substantial portion of humanity has, over a long period of time, held these writings in esteem that is usually reserved for exceptionally important things.  Whether one does so himself, it is difficult to argue that a good many people turn to various parts of the Bible for encouragement, guidance, comfort, and celebration throughout their lifetimes.  It has, in roughly equal measures, motivated and inhibited various behaviors–and in roughly equal measures, those actions have been for good and ill.  It has motivated great goodness and justified great evil; it has inhibited great evil and great good.

For that reason alone, even for the non-religious person, it is not a bad idea to get to know this collection of stories, poems, sayings, and ordinances.  Understanding what influences and motivates people usually does more good than harm.

So, a natural theology of society would involve a bit of looking at the Bible to think about what people have believed they were saying when they prayed–and continue to pray–the Lord’s Prayer, “your Kingdom come”.  What does that kingdom look like?


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