I am often amazed at the power of scripture in our society. As a scholar of religion and as a practicing Christian, I dwell in these texts as words valuable to interpret and which interpret me. Buried in the pages of ancient holy writ, I often loose sight of their potent force in today’s culture. Like a father who spends every day with his growing child, great beauties lose their mystery in the mundane.
So, when during the inauguration events (a rare moment of cultural display in the U.S.) both Rick Warren and President Obama referenced “the scriptures”, they had my attention.
To quote Krister Stendahl, “God may be one”, but there are many scriptures, and the Bible is one permutation among many existent writings. More so, when you say ‘scripture says’ rather than ‘the Bible, or Koran, or Zohar says’ you are saying something quite specific about the set of writings you reference. You are moving beyond the particulars of some collection of ancient human writing. You have appealed to that writing as authoritative at least in its direct ability to speak to and guide us and at most as a transcendent text given to us from the spiritual and divine beyond.
So, for the pastor and the president to both appeal to the ‘scriptures’, we must ask: how did, on that day, the Bible find its place as an authoritative text, and what does it mean for us living in this pluralistic post-Christian society?
In his invocation prayer, we expected Pastor Rick Warren to appeal to the Bible as scripture. Regardless of your personal impression of his performance or content, we must observe how strange it seemed to have Christianity cozied up against the U.S. Government. And for all those who misunderstand the separation of church and state, this was not an instance of government sponsored religion, though I could see how it seemed so. No, it was President Obama’s free choice, religious or political, to express his religious convictions by appointing Warren. And yet, strange it seemed.
Warren, in his opening, began by saying, “Scripture tells us ‘Hear oh Israel, the Lord is our God; the Lord is one.’ And you are the compassionate and merciful one, and you are loving to everyone you made”. He began with that foundational section of Moses’ sermon ushering his people into unwavering monotheism (though that’s not how things turned out). He also chose to leave out the second half of Moses’ point which Jesus reinterprets: “You shall love your God will all your heart, mind, spirit, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourselves”. Warren replaces this second half with his conviction that God is compassionate and merciful to everyone he made. I have no doubt that Warren meant “to the horizons of humanity”: every living person. Rather than placing responsibility on humanity to react and relate correctly to God and humanity, Warren used the opportunity to say more about the character of God.
So, Warren appealed to the scriptures as if it were an autonomous voice: “Scripture tells us”. In his view, scripture (in this case Jewish and Christian scripture) speaks to us and offers some piece of sage advice that we would do well to take into account. After all, the Hebrew word for ‘hear’ carries the meaning of ‘listen, obey, understand, test, or examine”. Warren was inviting, like Moses, his audience and particularly the now President Obama, to embrace, try on for size, just see what happens, if you give the Jewish and Christian God a chance. And his emphasis was on the character of that God. Incidentally, Warren believes that the God of Israel created all humans.
So, Obama and Warren, by giving Warren the chance to pray, exercised their freedom of speech and religion on one of the biggest national televised events of the decade. I understand Warren’s move, though it did make me feel a little awkward. Because I value the freedom of religion and its ability to allow me to freely worship whomever I please, and knowing that the line between sponsorship and expression is very delicate, I get uncomfortable when we are on that line. So what seemed expected and uncomfortable with Warren turned into a strange surprise when President Obama himself appealed to ‘scripture’. And again, it was an appeal to the Christian scriptures.
President Obama is a Christian and is able to choose his own religion just like everybody else. But when he used ‘scripture’ to appeal and persuade this nation, my ears immediately perked. Here’s what he said:
“We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things, to reaffirm our enduring spirit, to choose a better history, and to carry forth the promise that all are equal, free, and deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness”.
Our President appealed not to Paul, or the Bible, but to Scripture. He chose a less forceful understanding of scripture. Rather than it containing its own voice that we would do well to try on for size, he presented Scripture as ‘words’ for us to examine and explore. Of course he was referencing Paul’s great oration on love in I Corinthians 13. After Paul muses on the true nature of love (versus the Corinthians’ version of Spiritual Power Playing), he begins to talk about the judgment day.
A great day will come, says Paul, when everything will be exposed for what it truly is. In the case of Obama’s vision, a lazy and weak spirit will be revealed for what it is even if we pretend we are now strongly enduring. If we have chosen the low road in this age of globalism and terrorism, says Obama, one day we will not be able to pretend that it was the highway. And if we as a country have renigged on our promise of equality, freedom, and the open road to happiness, then we might be able to pretend for now that we are the beacons of liberty in this world; but, a day will arrive when we will be exposed for what we truly were, the greatest perpetrators of inequality, captivity, and oppression in the world.
Obama does not make this case; he does not go that far. He merely implies that we shouldn’t fool ourselves into believing that we are something we are not. We should become what we say we are. We should walk the walk of liberty, rather than talking the talk.
Now, for Paul, coming of age symbolized the end of days. So to mature was not something we do on our own, but happens to us when God makes all things new. And his point is this: some day God will set things right. You will be known better than you’ve ever been known. Many things will fade away: injustice, pride, broken relationships. Our temporal faith and hope will morph into some thing else. If now we have faith without sight, then we will believe because we see clearly. If now we hope in a hopeless night, then we will hope in the fullness of day. But, one thing will not change: love. So, let’s go about learning to love immediately, because it is the only way we can bring heaven to earth in the here and now. And Paul thought we could do so. Paul thought we should do so. Paul encourages us to bend our minds to learning the way of love.
Does Obama’s vision match up to his reference in scripture? Perhaps. Equality, Freedom, and Happiness (the root of this virtue being holiness), will stem from a society of great lovers. But will our political and national vision of human greatness bring about God’s kingdom. Perhaps not. If we could match Obama’s political vision in step with a national movement of genuine love, perhaps. But then again that would be the derailment of the American dream of manifest destiny and replacing it by embracing our destiny to serve.
In the end, both men appealed to scripture in an authoritative way. Warren did so to highlight the character of God, to acknowledge Jesus before humanity. President Obama did so to persuade us to become our higher selves and to begin to walk the walk of freedom, equality, and happiness. Both did so with the help of scripture. The difference is that Obama appealed to the heart of a society once Christian; Warren appealed to a world ‘not yet so’.
What does this mean for our nation? Perhaps we are not as far beyond our Christian heritage as Christians and evangelicals now lament. Perhaps there is still room for Christians to appeal to the Bible as a valid authority and make their case. Maybe they should do so with creativity and care, but there might be room yet. And perhaps this means that the authority of the Bible might just endure through the era of enlightenment and critical scholarship, maybe because it speaks directly to the human experience in a profound authoritative way.
For Warren, his way was noble, but was not, I dare say, our beacon of hope. Warren, even with relativized prayer, “as far as his conscious would allow”, still seemed to be saying: “You need to know this merciful God; but you can’t know him except through us”. We need a larger vision of God’s work in this world far beyond our perceived borders, far beyond the work of our hands. Paul was indeed right when he said to the Romans that God had worked upon the heart of all who have lived. We must join him there.
Mostly, this all says to me that there exists, in our midst, a book of wonders. At least we should mine its pages for the wisdom of those who have gone before us. For others, we should consider more seriously its potential to guide our civilization down the path of truth and justice. At most we should consider its logic as that which springs from the mind of the creator God who did, it seems, create us all.