|Which is the more alien, the Bible's "original meaning" or the interpretations of liberal theologians?|
We'll look now at a subsection discussing what Kugel calls the liberal approach to Scripture. Unlike the approach taken by Fundamentalist Protestantism, the liberal view has sought to reconcile the Bible and the conclusions of modern biblical scholarship.
Kugel points out the diverse forms that liberal approaches can take, yet he notes that overall these approaches accept the Bible as something less than absolutely true in its historical facts. This Bible, embellished here or taking certain narrative liberties there, has more abstract value in this approach. The Bible is about not history but faith, and theology, and more.
Its truth operating at a more abstract level--some might say a "deeper" level, but this is perhaps a biased view--the Bible cannot be apprehended by only a mere surface understanding of its text. The Bible's liberal champions used such assumptions to distance themselves from biblical details such as Israel's nasty wars against neighbors or God's demands for revenge or so-on-and-on. These scholars focused instead on biblical "themes" and theological "centers."
In short, the liberal approach sought to de-emphasize the plain meaning of at least some biblical passages, placing them in the interpretive background or to render them altogether unimportant. Freeing the Bible from its details also allowed liberal theologians to detach it from potentially troublesome items in modern science, common sense, or our contemporary knowledge of ancient Near Eastern history and civilization. The Bible wasn't really talking about that, that nature, that miracle, that event--so just ignore it and focus on the larger or deeper spiritual "truth." This was the liberal approach.
Kugel notes that liberalism joined with broader scholarly discussion over hermeneutics, "the nature of a text's signification and meaning." Without going into detail on specifics of the discussion, suffice it to say that liberal theologians generally felt justified in developing their own understanding of the Bible as an alternative to the Bible's "original meaning"--insofar as that original meaning could be clarified at all by modern scholarship.
Kugel also highlights the connection between liberal approaches to scripture and gradual movement away from the idea of the Bible's divine inspiration. In fact, liberal theologians developed several understandings of inspiration. Some of them:
- Limited verbal inspiration
- Strict verbal insipration
- Nontextual inspiration
- Content inspiration
- Inspired experiences
- Social inspiration
Kugel criticizes the liberal view somewhat. He says that the liberal approach doesn't really have a claim to unbiased or artificial interpretation, at least no more a claim than ancient interpreters (we may note that this is a rather postmodern stance from a scholar who seems to disdain "postmodernism."). He also points out the rather thorny problem that the Bible of liberalism is somehow lesser than the Bible of fundamentalism. The liberal Bible is "more of a human document than ever before, which is to say that its power to command and even instruct has been diminished." Liberalism, Kugel suggests, accepts two fundamentally opposed ideas: the Bible is more human and less divine than it has historically been taken to be, yet the Bible can continue to act in society as a spiritual (and, one suspects, a moral) guide containing teachings of relevance in the modern world.
In the end, Kugel is ambivalent toward the liberal stance. It seems not to have reconciled the biblical document and the Good Book, and what's more it seems unable to square that particular circle. Kugel leads us, then, back to the Bible's first readers, back to when the words of the Bible were "all-important." A perceptive reader may detect a hint of sarcasm in my last sentence, as I wonder if Kugel is here lapsing into an idealistic, idyllic picture of a "pre-Fall" Bible, when its words and meanings were united and whole. Now, I am not being altogether fair, as Kugel does not completely make this lapse, yet he certainly seems to approve of the interpretive view that privileges words and meanings. If the liberal view is troubled by the Bible's seeming lack of historical veracity, the ancient interpreters know no such trouble. As Kugel summarizes the ancient view once again: "the events of the past are one thing, but the words of Scripture are quite another, and it is the words that count for us."
In he next section, Kugel discusses the "change back" from liberalism, a change bypassing fundamentalism too.