Sunday, June 10, 2007

Continuing canon

The questions raised on the canon(s) of scripture by John Hobbins will not go away quickly. The pluriform nature of canonical material will be disturbing if not to some present day believers, at least to the community of past saints - "What!", they say, "Were we wrong to think that 'that which is perfect' had arrived?" I refer to a memory of the closed-table brethren friends of mine who considered that the canon of Scripture met this requirement of perfection in 1 Corinthians 13:10.

The person of the Son of God was put into one-to-one relation to the canon, every detail of the life and character of the Son. How can anything be lacking? While I can appreciate the metaphorical gymnastics (and some of the wonder) required to put the Scriptures into such a raiment, verbal perfection is not confined to my friends. Some Jews and Muslims also hold to doctrines of inerrancy of a similar ilk. It can't be the Word of God if it has a 'mistake' in it. My blogging partner who writes on the Psalms (that's me, actually) just made a silly goof in a calculation - divide what you've done by what you haven't done to get a % complete! - and of course computers only do what you tell them, not what you meant. (Shades of Talpiot statistics).

My silly goof does not reflect on the love of God shown to me in teaching a leaky old brain a new language. So I will praise the LORD to the end of the age לְעֹלָם (that might be mine) וָעֶד and for ever. I have made it my life's work to understand silly goofs - we call them bugs in the programming trade and we counter them with growth in understanding, good problem definitions, peer reviews, testing, recognition that some problems are harder than others, prototypes, the 80-20 rule (let's get some benefit from the code, so do 80% of the job and let the remaining 20% emerge and evolve.)

One of the great strengths of the Jewish Christian canon is that is is not the product of one human or one school or one period or one culture or even one church. It has had testing, peer review, (maybe a bit short on problem definition - but these things were not understood in a day) and perhaps it is also a product of the 80-20 rule. (Perhaps it is more of a 20-80 rule in this case - but is the 20 sufficient?) So Paul was embroiled and distracted with the gulf produced by the circumcision issue - in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek - on which he wrote much of his response to questioning congregations. But he could scarcely touch on the slave-free and male-female divides. The germ for dealing with these power-imbalances and abuses is in the canon - both Old and New, but it is not fully worked out. (Just consider the recent posts on Better Bibles Blog by Suzanne McCarthy.)

But back to the letters of fire - what a lovely image of God giving the Torah to Moses. And it has been used well by the Rabbis over 2000+ years to move forward and frame joy, consternation, conflict in interpretation, faithfulness, and hope. They seem to know how to deal with a canon: show that you have to beat it. Find 77 ways to kosher a lizard. So every אֵת gives opportunity to say: God created more than you have figured out yet. That's partly how Rabbi Steven Greenberg deals with homosexuality in his book Wrestling with God and Men (see my 2005 review here if interested).

This morning we read Galatians 1:11. The gospel I preach did not come according to a human. I immediately thought of the issue of canon that John has raised. Paul puts himself out on a limb in Galatians - and I think they cut it off, but I enjoy going there with him. His message is I think more human than any other I have known and there was a time when I was not known by it. The words are not perfect. Paul is hard to fathom, and the translations are for better or worse. The circular reasoning that Chris Heard refers to is avoided but the avoidance is not within the canon - and I doubt that it should be. But the pattern is there.

If the canon were trying to be self-sufficient, it would have been like the grass, florishing in the morning and in the evening it is cut down and withered. May the pride, labour, and trouble flutter away (Psalm 90). The canon is testimonial - and like my software, it is buggy and misleading at times. It was not meant to be a substitute for God. But it won't flutter away, of course, because like a lot of things, the Spirit births and cherishes us through it in spite of our pride, labour, and trouble. God answers the prayer of Moses and turns to us - and sighs over us (וְהִנָּחֵם) through these words.

This works for us humans. These words are life. They are different from other words because they are covenant dialogue and they invite covenant dialogue. We don't need more of them in print, just the response that makes us commensurate with them. There is a certain terror in this for one asks: what am I missing? But what does the Psalmist say: your loving kindness is better than life itself. (Psalm 63 - not there yet) But we know we love life ... right?

This reminds me of a true story of a phone call from prison: I wrote on it here when starting this blog. A man called his father, whom he had never met. The only word he said to him was "I am glad you did not have me aborted". The man is on the street, a product of European colonialism in the 10th generation, mentally disabled by alcohol from his birth. These words of the call are the only ones the man has ever spoken to his biological father. What it shows me is that love of life is primal even for those with brain damage. He is missing a great deal but there is something fundamental that is still there.

There is a dialogue here on reasons for a canon - too late now for my further thought and I have to be in Ottawa for a few weeks so blogging may take a back seat to getting business. But I think some reasons for canon apart from authority are emerging: one of them is the experience of the transcendent. Such is outside the text, but the text is itself also a wonder of metaphor.

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