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The Bible: New Every Moment
We were married in New Orleans (may it rise again!), in the middle of Loyola Boulevard, by Russell Pregeant, a Methodist minister and Cajun in good standing who happened to be a colleague of my husband (Alan Anderson) at Curry College. A number of New Thought friends were in attendance, the main event being an academic conference that had brought us all to the Big Easy.
Russ is also an expert on the Gospel of Matthew and a process thinker. Recently, Alan had been doing some office rearranging and came across a book by Russ, Christology Beyond Dogma: Matthew’s Christ in Process Hermeneutic (Fortress Press, 1978), which he tossed into my lap. Although I still can’t distinguish hermeneutics from exegesis, I do have some interest in the idea that the Gospel of Matthew is older than a lot of people thought it was and might therefore have been written at a time when eyewitnesses to Jesus in the early Christian congregations might have stood up and objected if what was written was not what they had observed. So I wanted to see what Russ had to say about Matthew, and I started to read his book.
The book was interesting though difficult going for a non-expert, but what struck me as a New Thoughter was the introduction to Part I. Russ begins:
If the glory of scientific exegesis is that it has freed biblical interpretation from the grip of supernaturalism and ecclesiastical dictates, its shame is that it has obscured the very nature of the documents it seeks to illumine. For in its attempt to exhibit the meaning of a text in its original setting, this method has in effect presented a dynamic process as if it were a "still."
He goes on to point out, "It is simply impossible for any interpreter to view any text with absolute objectivity," because the text has to have "a point of contact in the interpreter’s own experience." The reader is bound to bring "certain questions, values, and perspectives" to the text. In other words, as physicist William Powers put it, all perception is subjective, because if you are going to be objective, whose retinas are you going to use? If you don’t have something in your own experience to relate to what you are reading, it will be unintelligible to you. New Thought, with its interest in science, certainly welcomes an approach to the Bible "freed . . . from the grip of supernaturalism and ecclesiastical dictates."
But it gets even better. Russ continues,
The subtler point is that the text itself is interpretation. It is constituted precisely by the reworking of former tradition, whether oral or written, from the vantage point of the writer’s life-situation, with the explicit intention of shaping its readers’ futures. It is thus by nature only one rather arbitrarily delineated component in an ongoing process.
Wow! It’s all very well to study the times, conditions, and audience for whom the Gospels were written; and all these are important; but the real bottom line is that the text is speaking, and was intended to speak, directly to each of us today! It was intended to change your thinking and change your life. "What the authors intended," notes Russ, "can by no means be equated with what their audiences actually heard." This reminds me of the semi-serious gag, "I know that you think you understand what you believe I just said, but I am not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant." Any communication should involve active listening to attempt to get what is included between the lines. The text has the potential, continues Russ,
to come alive in the interpreter’s present in a significant way—not only to merge with that interpreter’s world-view but to challenge it, to claim his or her existence, to create a dialogue that goes beyond the level of intellectual apprehension . . . the text, by virtue of its very nature, has the potential to claim this reader also.
Jesus taught in parables, because metaphorical language is one of the best ways to send a message down the ages and have it stay fresh, without interpreters able to say that they have wrung the last of the juice out of it, if you’ll pardon the metaphor. Symbolic (metaphorical) Biblical interpretation is one of the glories of New Thought, with such notables as Emmet Fox and Catherine Ponder embracing it, not to mention Charles Fillmore’s Metaphysical Bible Dictionary as a resource. Although the tradition is ancient, New Thought almost exclusively has kept it alive. Russ and another process thought colleague to whom he refers, Schubert Ogden, do not concern themselves with symbolic interpretation, but their approach is not at odds with it. They are in general agreement with Rudolf Bultmann’s idea of "demythologizing" Scripture, but not at the cost of obscuring the text’s ability to speak to each of its readers throughout the ages. According to Russ, Bultmann contends that "the New Testament itself clearly presupposes human freedom and unity in its constant use of existential language—language which calls for personal decision."
Russ concludes his book:
If the Christ figure of the New Testament no longer appears as the exclusive irruption of grace into history, he nevertheless appears to those who are grasped by his words and deeds as the full and definitive disclosure of a grace always and forever being given in the universe . . . . A process analysis dose not reduce the word of the New Testament to a "meaning"; it rather exposes, all the more clearly, the objective of the witness: the experience of grace, the act of trust, the deed of mercy.
Grace is the unmerited blessing of God, new in every moment of our existence. If we can trust in that grace, give and receive mercy, guided by the Bible and the "still small voice" it describes, no wonder Emmet Fox and Catherine Ponder treat the Bible as a textbook on prosperity. As New Thoughter Edwene Gaines defines it, prosperity is "peace of mind, health of body, harmonious relationships, and all the cash you can spend." Live long and prosper!