For nearly all Christians, both liberal and conservative, the word “Biblical” expresses confidence that an idea, practice, or value is true, good, or reliable because it is in alignment with the teachings of the Bible, which itself is seen to be a reliable source of truth and wise guidance. Christians themselves, however, vary widely in just how reliable and how literally true they consider the Bible to be, with liberals generally seeing scripture as inspired in some way, but also largely metaphorical and suggestive (and/or merely human and therefore fallible). Religious conservatives and especially fundamentalists, on the other hand, most often consider the Bible to be the wholly trustworthy Word of God, both inerrant and infallible (other religious conservatives believe the Bible true as far as it is translated correctly).
Nevertheless, nearly all Christians, both liberal and conservative, recognize that “what the Bible says”, or seems to say to them, is at least partly filtered through their own fallible human interpretation, and so it is generally admitted that there may be different opinions about what is or is not “Biblical”. Fundamentalists, on the other hand, tend to believe that the meaning of scripture is not so obscure as to require much interpretation at all, and that it is therefore not too hard a task to determine what is and what is not, in fact, “Biblical”.
It is primarily in response to more fundamentalist currents of Christianity that many liberal Christians and secular folks find themselves cringing at the word “Biblical”, as it seems to them merely a cover for personal opinions or prejudice or even bigotry. The other side of the coin, of course, is that it is largely in response to an increasingly liberal and secularized culture that fundamentalists (and conservatives) see the need for being rooted in more traditional religious values backed by what they embrace as the divine authority of scripture. While “Biblical” used in this sense can mean “ultimate truth,” it may also offer no legitimacy to differing perspectives which may be viewed as hedonistic and self-serving.
One way to engage in conversation across this divide has been suggested by Phil Neisser, which is: for conservatives folks to tentatively experiment with framing their views in secular terms (I personally am against gay marriage because X, where “X” needs to be something other than “the Bible says so”), and for liberal or secular folks to try framing their views in terms of the ethical or spiritual values that inform them. If the religious can speak from their “inner secular self”, as it were, and if the secular can speak from their “inner spiritual self”, perhaps some tentative bridges of communication can be built…?
In this way, dialogue can offer a safe-enough space for people to explore their differing understandings of what “biblical” means when applied to their beliefs (e.g. on scientific or social issues) and to discover colors that are obscured by the often black-and-white nature of discourse on these issues in religious contexts. One ‘conservative’ participant in a dialogue about homosexuality and Christian faith was surprised to learn that her ‘liberal’ speaking partner would study the Bible and pray every day. And the speaking partner was surprised by his partner’s advocacy for civil rights for homosexuals.
QUESTIONS TO PLAY WITH:
-Does the word “Biblical” feel positive or negative to you? Explain what leads to your answer.
-Why do you think the Bible has come to be increasingly divisive in the larger cultural conversations taking place?
Arthur M. Peña, Bob Stains, Phil Neisser
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