You and I do not live in the past, and we do not live in the future either. We live in the present. We do not understand meaning two thousand years ago. We understand it now. All meaning is now because I am always now.
I cannot go back to the past. I can only try to see it from now. I encounter it only as it meets me now.
So this is a game we play. It seems important for humanity to find meaning in the present on the basis of the past. Yet the purpose of finding that past and the function of telling that past is all about the present. More often than not, we use the past as a mirror. We go to the past in order to see what we already want to do in the present.
2. In few areas of life is this dynamic more in play than in the area of religion. Few Christians have any real understanding of the Bible. Indeed, the experts often disagree widely over its historical meaning. (To be fair, they often all agree that certain more popular understandings are wrong.)
Yet the Bible is claimed to be at the heart of a million points of great contemporary debate. We speak of a biblical worldview or being biblical Christians, but this language often has very little to do with the real Bible. It more often has to do with contemporary issues where we are wanting to defend positions we already have by slapping some verse on them. Thus we don't have to argue for our opinions by using evidence or reasoning. We can pretend that our gut opinion has already been endorsed by God.
3. So how do we ground our positions and values? For religion especially, some continuity with the past seems essential. God can't just start to exist today for Christianity to be valid. He has to have been around for some time. In the same way, if Jesus did not really rise from the dead, then Christianity as we know it unravels. We would have to fall back to some broader theism or Judaism.
The past does matter. The past matters in areas of the broadest foundation. At least a few people should know as much about history as we can know at this point in time. If for no other reason, their expertise can be used to call into question mirror readings that are potentially harmful, to burst the bubble of over-zealous use of the story.
4. But here is a crucial point. The function of these "reminders of the past" is as a reference tool. They are not authorities on where to go or what decisions to make. They are not final authorities or the obvious leaders. The goal is not to go back--we can't. We inevitably live in the present.
When our "reminders" are serving us best, they help us find the elements of the past that most resonate with where we need to go in the present. They help us reframe the story to move forward. They have always done this. We only have thought that we were going back. We have never truly gone back. We have only always been retelling the same story in a way that resonates with the present.
5. I wish I had the words to capture this dynamic. It is true even if we cannot bring ourselves to see it:
- God speaks to us (and to the NT authors) through the version of the Bible we have in front of us, not the original manuscripts we don't have.
- God speaks to us through Matthew as we have it, not Q or its original sources. God speaks to us through the Pentateuch as we have it, not through J or E or D or P.
- God speaks to us through Jesus as we see him in the biblical text, not from the videotape of him in Galilee that we don't have.
- God speaks to us through the English Bible we can read, not through the original Greek or Hebrew we can't read.
- God speaks to us through the understanding of the Bible we have inherited from the Christian traditions we are a part of, not through the understanding we don't have.
- God speaks to us in terms of how we need to live today, not in terms of the bubble above the apostle Paul's head.
6. But even if you know Greek, even if you know as much we can know about the original meaning, even if you can make a good case for a reconstruction of J or Q, God will still only be meeting you in the present. God will still only be meeting you in your current understanding. God still only meets you with the Jesus you know, not the Jesus of a videotape.
So by all means, study. Learn. Improve your understanding as best you can.
But don't do so because you think the answers are back there. Don't think that if you can just "get back" you will have finally arrived. Don't think you will finally be the appropriate leader because you have uncovered ancient knowledge.
God is the God of the living, not the dead.