Carol Howard Merritt: Getting Under Our Skin: The Role of Scripture for Progressive Christians


Editors' NoteThis article is part of the Public Square 2014 Summer Series: Conversations on Religious Trends. Read other perspectives from the Progressive Christian community here.

I paced back and forth in a frenetic circle at the foot of my bed. Holding my cell, I concentrated on each syllable coming from the headphones. I was interviewing my mom for a book, when I realized the pent-up energy in my dizzying march. I wondered why my interrogations had such urgency, as I longed to fill in the holes in my incomplete memories, as I yearned to make the fuzzy edges of my recollections sharp.

I glanced at my paper, pen, and computer, abandoned on the bed. Unlike most of my interviews, I wasn't tapping a keyboard as I peppered my mom with questions. I wasn't exactly trying to get to the facts. I didn't care as much about the hows. I wanted something more than that. I wanted the whys. I wasn't worried that I'd forget her answers, because the stories she told were a part of me. The stories were me.  Because what are we, if we are not our stories?

At each funeral, I realize this. People stand up and give witness to a person. They describe who that person is, not by reporting the height, weight, age, hair color, white blood cell counts, or blood pressure stats. Instead, they relay settings, plot lines, and character developments. That's how we know someone-through the humor, drama, resilience, and mystery that make up a life.

As progressive Christians, we understand the Scriptures in much the same way. We know there are different types of knowledge.

There is the sort of knowledge that tries to get at the how.  It is textbook knowledge that travels to the desert, looks at the sparkling sky, and explains the gasses that make up the stars. It is the knowledge that sees love and tells us about the endorphins and evolutionary drive to procreate.

Then, there is the knowledge of why.  It is the sort of knowledge that comes when someone looks at the stars with awe and connects the dots, while writing mythological poetry about that blanket of lights. The rhyme and meter speak to a truth that the scientific explanation could not quite get at.

The knowledge of the why feels love and creates a melody to try to capture the ephemeral emotions. It moves us with story, beauty, and song.

As progressive Christians look to the Bible, we come to the text with the curiosity of people longing to know why We don't argue about how a six-day creation could have happened six thousand years ago. We don't worry about how Cain and Abel found their wives or why snakes don't talk any longer. We don't try to figure out how a man can live in the belly of a fish for three days. We have different questions. We understand that the Bible was not trying to get to the scientific hows of existence; rather, it reaches deep down for the whys.

When a loved one dies, we want to know the medical reason. Professionals will put a label on the illness he had, relay the pain he endured, and inform us of the precise time he stopped breathing. There is certain comfort in those facts. But after we have all of that data, an itch forms under our skin. The physiological details are not enough for most of us. Learning the hows may move us from shock and denial, but the grieving process is full of whys.

And that is when we reach for Scripture, because the wisdom of our ancient text pulses with whys. It's not that the poetry or narratives answer why in every case, but they allow us to sit in the murk of human suffering with friends and understand that our shadow of death is thousands of years old. And through the wonder, pathos, and struggle, we learn something about ourselves and about our God.

Since the Enlightenment, our thirst for the hows and our ability to answer that question have created extraordinary achievements for humanity. And Christians should never turn their backs on the pursuit of the how. In fact, John Calvin had great respect for science. He explained that whenever science and the Bible conflicted, then the Scriptures ought to be reinterpreted. He called those who abandoned modern science "frantic persons."

As Christian progressives, we step into a long, flowing history of liberation as we search the streams of why in Scripture. With the social gospel, we plead "thy kingdom come" as we understood God's reign as a struggle for the world as it ought to be. Through African-American theology, we listen to how the story of how the cross shapes our history of the lynching tree. We even invite suspicion into our interpretations, knowing that suspicion and restoration often work together. In our Feminist theology, we look at the texts of terror. And while the conservative neo-Calvinists take the media spotlight, the steady work of liberal Reformed theologians wrestle with trauma and teach us the grace we can find through Calvin and the Psalms.

Through these voices, we do not have to struggle with literal interpretations, trying to force them into a scientific worldview. Rather, we can allow the text to live and breathe and struggle with a deeper knowledge. The stories can flow into our lives as longings for justice, voices of the powerless, and a balm of healing. We can wrestle with the whys, and we can allow the narratives of scripture to get under our skin and become a part of who we are.