E.P. Sanders on "The Gap"
Mark Goodacre mentions an interview with the reclusive E.P. Sanders. In response to a question about “a necessary gap” between historical criticism and modern relevance, Sanders says:
“I think there’s a gap, and I think there’s a tension. And since I’m going through life with this gap very strongly in my mind, it becomes difficult for me to listen to sermons because I keep thinking of what this meant at its time. And the proper business of the clergyman is to make sense of what this could mean for us today. That’s his job, and as I said, he doesn’t have time to work the issue out from the ground up, to go back to its origin and march forward. So, we all end up lifting bits from the Bible or other ancient sources and using them as it seems best to us, and I don’t think that this is evil. I think it sometimes has unfortunate results, but I don’t think Luther was evil to read Paul and be inspired by it, although his Paul is not quite the Paul of the first century. I don’t think Calvin was evil to read the Bible and derive from it the majesty of God, which led him from point to point so that he built up this enormous and wonderful structure (with somewhat biblical roots). But this sometimes ends up departing quite widely from what’s in the Bible. I think it’s a question of the quality of the person who does this. Luther and Calvin were great men, something I can’t say about the fundamentalist system-builders.”
I have a considerably lower opinion of Luther and Calvin than Sanders does, but never mind. For now I’m more interested in the tensions Sanders experiences while hearing sermons from the pulpit in his own church. Even as a non-Christian I can relate to what he’s saying. Consider the way Jesus is defined in my own Unitarian tradition:
“We do not believe that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin, performed miracles and was resurrected from death. We do admire and respect the way he lived, the power of his love, the force of his example and his system of values. Most UUs regard Jesus as one of several important moral and ethical teachers who have shown humans how to live a life of love, service and compassion. Though some of us may question whether Jesus was an actual historical figure, we believe his teachings are of significant moral value.”
I disagree with a lot of this: I think Jesus was a popular exorcist-healer. There’s plenty not to admire about him as much as there is. He wasn't an ethical teacher; more like a prophet of doom. By all indications, he hated as much as he loved; was callous as he was compassionate. My point is that Unitarians practice Christology, just like Christians. This is understandable to an extent (as Sanders acknowledges), but it gets irritating to those of us who spend so much time in the history of it all. Bart Ehrman echoes this in his critique of The DaVinci Code:
“The ability of film directors and book authors to affect public sentiment and to shift public thinking is neither a good thing nor a bad one...But when the images they create for their viewers or readers are erroneous -- well, it means people misunderstand history as it really was and substitute fiction for facts. Maybe there’s no real harm in that. But for those of us who spend our lives studying the history, it can grate a bit on the nerves.” (Truth and Fiction in the DaVinci Code, p xvi).
We say it’s okay to reinterpret the past, yet in the same breath express unease (Sanders) or irritation (Ehrman) with it. There’s something disingenuous about this. Perhaps that’s why I’m so fond of Philip Esler’s approach to theology, which sees the gap between us and the ancients, and asks everyone to see just how wide it is; to heed the biblical authors on their own terms, disagree with them, follow them, to whatever extent applicable and as conscience dictates. Perhaps that’s reinterpretation properly understood, so unlike the revisionism seen in Lutheran theology, Unitarian humanism, or “DaVinci” sensationalism.