Three Steps Forward, Two Steps Back
Truth is eternal. Our knowledge of it is changeable. It is disastrous when you confuse the two.
- Madeleine L’Engle
The Jewish prophets had the uncanny gift to recognize when people were confusing partial and passing knowledge/information/data with eternal truth, as L’Engle says above. When they exposed this common religious confusion, they were usually killed, according to Jesus (Matthew 23:31-36), and by religious people who forever confuse means with ends. For example, the washing of hands is merely a symbolic means indicative of the goal of having a clean heart. To grant hand washing equal importance would be a form of idolatry in the eyes of the prophets. This is a central and key principle for correct Scripture interpretation: one must be able to distinguish the essentials from the accidentals, the symbols from the substance that the symbols represent.
The Bible doesn’t just give you the conclusions (which is what we want), but it does reveal some basic patterns of Divine Intrusion in to the world and thus creates a tangent for history. Our job is to connect the dots as they move history forward, and only then can we recognize when we are retreating from that trajectory. Such wisdom is surely a gift of the Spirit, and explains why the Bible has done so much harm in history when it was put in the hands of immature people, angry people, power-hungry people, fearful people, and people grasping for identity and superiority (which is all of us before conversion!).
Only inner spiritual experience of the meaning of a text can do the job–not just proof texts or memorized answers. Spiritually speaking, it does not help to give people quick and easy answers–which the ego always wants but will then misunderstand or misuse–unless they have also gone on an actual inner journey. The genius of the biblical revelation is that it doesn’t just give us conclusions. Instead, it does three things: 1) it tells us that the spiritual journey is real, and invites us into that journey; 2) it charts the process of going on that journey toward God, and there seem to be many patterns in the Bible itself; and 3) it thus offers us both the inner experience and some outer confirmation to trust that God is actually with us and will guide us. That is about all we need. The rest is all window dressing.
Life itself–and Scripture too–is invariably three steps forward and two steps backward. It gets the point and then loses it or doubts it. In that, the biblical text mirrors our own human consciousness and journey. Our job is to see where the “three steps forward” texts are heading (invariably toward mercy, forgiveness, inclusion, nonviolence, and trust), which then gives us the ability to recognize and guard against the “two steps backward” texts (which are usually about vengeance on enemies, supposed divine wrath, law over grace, forms over substance, and technique over relationship).
In its entirety, the Biblical text moves us toward transformation of both the self and history. The low level substitute for this true personal transformation is to settle for automatic and magical “transactions” (do this, don’t do that, believe this, practice a certain ritual in this exact way, belong to the right group, etc.). This has allowed untransformed people to think they are much farther along the path than they really are because they perform the right “transactions.” (Catholics and Orthodox did this with a vending machine notion of the Sacraments, and Protestants did it when they used the Bible as their private fortune cookie!) In other words, deep understanding of Scripture cannot happen until you have also experienced God actively and lovingly working in your own life! Then it all begins to make sense. Without experiencing God, Scripture interpretation is often lethal and egocentric, and it becomes false power instead of the vulnerable powerlessness we need to know God. As Paul courageously says, “The written letters bring death, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6).
Richard Rohr, Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality, pp.