HOT JUPITERS AND PRIVILEGED SCRIPTURAL FRAMES
As part of an ongoing Scriptural commentary series for the Community of Christ, David Brock, the church’s Presiding Evangelist, recently posted a statement about Scripture that I quote below in part.
Scripture can’t be used to oppress or control other people. God is no respecter of persons… If God loves all people our job is to uphold the worth of everyone.
Scripture is treasure in an earthen vessel. Revelation of God is found there, but it comes through humans—amazing, but imperfect and flawed humans. It reflects the times and cultures and languages of the many voices heard within its pages. It is not inerrant.
Scripture is best interpreted through the life and teachings of Jesus, who came to serve, to break down dividing walls, to heal, to share good news, to instill hope, to save.
Scriptural interpretation is dependent on experience, tradition, and scholarship. We pay attention to our own life experience. We draw from the wisdom of our forbearers, who interpreted the same writings in their day. We use our own intellectual ability and the latest discoveries and insights of the best minds.
Scripture is illuminated by God’s Spirit working within us—if we are attentive and receptive enough. The same Spirit that moved on the waters at creation moves in our hearts and minds to guide and direct us today.
David states a theory of Scriptural interpretation that reflects consensus views within today’s Community of Christ. However, notice that it is a theory with which just about any mainstream Protestant theologian could be comfortable, despite the fact that mainstream Protestants do not use two of the books of Scripture that the Community of Christ does.
But that makes this a theory really tested on one case – the Bible – and then too easily presumed to guide how we view our other Scriptures as well. And, unfortunately, theories tested on one case remind me of hot Jupiters!
You see, astronomers spent much of the last half of the 20th Century devising a very good theory of how our solar system formed. It correctly predicted that the solar system would have “dwarf” planets — only astronomers would call something as large as the earth a dwarf — made of rock closest to the sun where temperatures were highest. It also correctly predicted that farther out from the sun, planets would grow large enough to accrete vast amounts of gas and grow into giants like Jupiter and Saturn. Farther out, as raw materials tapered off and temperatures fell still further, planets would shrink into dwarves made of ices before disappearing into the realm of comets – planetary fragments that never collected into planets because the volumes of space they inhabited were too vast. Everything else was details, and astronomers assumed that other solar systems would look fairly similar.
And then we devised technology to look for other solar systems. The technology we first developed would be able to see planets like Jupiter, but only if you looked for a long enough time. It would find such Jupiter-like planets even faster if they were close to their stars, but our theories said such planets could not form there because the temperature exceeded the point above which most planetary raw materials volatilized. So we deployed our technology and sat down to wait.
Except that these “hot Jupiters” started to show up by the dozens! Astronomers questioned the first observations, and then started looking for special scenarios to explain what they were seeing. After all, everyone naturally assumed that giant planets were too large to have their orbits significantly moved by anything but other giant planets or stars.
However, that was an assumption that was dead wrong, and no one bothered to question it until we were confronted with cases of solar systems unlike the one with which we were familiar. It turns out that a general theory of solar system formation must allow for the interaction between forming planets and the dust and gas cloud from which the parent star is condensing. Such actions can cause planets to spiral either inward or outward; even giant planets do not end up in the orbits in which they first formed. Indeed, once we recognized the effect was important, astronomers soon realized that it accounted for some of the most important remaining mysteries about events in our own solar system.
Theories of Scripture validated on single cases are subject to surprises from the same kind of hidden assumptions. What kind of hidden assumptions might exist in our theories of Scripture? Well, consider just one thing that appears unique about us: we live in the most progressive culture we know about.
Here I don’t use the word “progressive” in its political sense; I’m talking about something that’s so deep in our cultural bones that it has spread across the globe as an essential aspect of modernism (if not post-modernism). Things are expected to change, and to change for the better. That makes us prone to an attitude for which, if I recall correctly, the columnist George Will appropriated the term “chronological determinism” – the idea that today’s views of reality are better than yesterday’s, not just in areas of science, that precocious child of the Enlightenment, but in government, philosophy, religion, ethics and art as well.
In short, we have difficulty in extending the notion of the “worth of all persons” expressed in our theory of Scripture above into the past. We regard ourselves as having a “privileged frame of reference” with which to judge the insights of others regarding Scripture. For example, we try to value non-Christian cultures extant today and seek to find and understand fundamental truths they may hold. We assume there are areas of understanding where they are correct and we are wrong. Are we as quick to extend to the Scriptural and theological understandings of our less-educated 19th Century (let alone 6th Century BCE) predecessors the notion that we may be the ones in error?
We expect to be judged by the 23rd Century perhaps – that expectation is itself implicit in the notion of progress. And we accord a second “privileged frame” to the 1st Century Eastern Mediterranean on the basis that cultures there were direct or second-hand witnesses of the historical Jesus, and so expose ourselves to judgment in the light of those cultures. But, even then our vulnerability to chronological determinism is inherent in expressions such as “the latest discoveries and insights of the best minds” or our interpretations of what Jesus came to do – interpretations that were not shared by many Christians who regarded themselves as faithful throughout history. Indeed, we sometimes stray into use of the term “prophetic” as a synonym for those in the past whose understandings can most closely be interpreted as mirroring our own, and are quick to almost treat the “Old Testament” as if it were an “Inferior Testament”.
In fact, David’s commentary emphasizes our vulnerability on this very score later when he says:
“But, alas, I am confessing what I consider the faults of others whom I believe misinterpret scripture. I’m quite proud of myself, frankly, that I do not use scripture to advance sexism, racism, homophobia, classism, creationism, apocalypticism, or salvation for me and mine over against the rest of creation. That sounds a lot like the man in the Jerusalem Temple who prayed loudly in a prominent place for all to hear and admire, “Thank you, God, that I am not like those other people!” Jesus was not impressed!
“…What about me? What is God asking me to confess and repent of in my misuse of scripture? It likely remains for other sisters and brothers and spiritual companions to guide me through my own blindness to a place of confession and repentance.”
Just as we were best able to make further progress in understanding the planets when confronting solar systems that didn’t play by our rules, perhaps we can best make progress in understanding the prophets by confronting Scriptures whose origin, assumptions, and content don’t play by the rule of chronological determinism. In science, confrontation with anomalies drives revolutions in understanding; they are the big prize.
And the Book of Mormon is one gigantic anomaly when it comes to the Community of Christ’s understanding of its mission and its interpretation of Christianity. The Book of Mormon asserts that there is another privileged frame of reference for interpreting Christianity – based on exactly the same standards on which we’ve granted privilege to the other two frames.
It asserts that the people of Mesoamerica also knew the historical Jesus just as did the 1st Century Mediterranean. Arguably, it asserts, Mesoamerica knew the historical Jesus better than did the Mid East because His divinity was presented to Mesoamerica unambiguously, anticipation of His coming guided their religious debate for generations beforehand, and adoption of His teachings was widespread in the generations following His coming.
The challenge of the Book of Mormon to our own chronological determinism is in some ways even more “in-your-face”.
Oh, in tone it is gentle, loving, pleading for us to heed what their prophets are telling us. But its content can be as annoying as the little brother or sister taunting “I know somethin’ you don’t know, and you’d bet-ter lis-en!”
It purports to have seen our times, to know which parts of our fates are subject to change and which are “locked in” by divine command. It claims to be in position to evaluate our understanding as Christians the way we normally evaluate theological writings of the past. It challenges us to accept it as a divinely-prepared means – not just our “sisters and brothers and spiritual companions” – to show us aspects of our blindness and lead us to a place of confession and repentance.
One can accept the challenge. Or, one can regard it as unworthy of refutation. There is significant scholarly evidence for both points of view. (See here for a review that I’ll discuss more extensively in future posts.) However, this particular “coin” is unlikely to come to rest standing on edge in some sort of theological compromise – it’s probably going to come down heads or tails.
Even to follow the suggestion of Jan Shipps that the Book is “sacred fiction” does not avoid the challenge. Instead, the terminology tends to devolve into supporting chronological determinism (by emphasizing the “fiction”) or simply restating the challenge by moving the third privileged reference frame to 19th Century North America (by emphasizing the “sacred”).
That’s why questions about the historicity of the Book of Mormon are not distractions from the call to pursue peace and justice. Their answers potentially tell us important things about how to pursue peace and justice, because they potentially change the progressive “chronological determinism” understanding of how God has put reality together, what He is doing, and why He is doing it.
That kind of disorienting potential is what makes the Book of Mormon a “hot Jupiter”. Knowing that our theories of solar system formation were distorted by focusing on a single case probably doesn’t matter much. However, if the Book of Mormon is waiting to rock the way we interpret Scripture and the intent and nature of the Master, such knowledge probably matters intensely – especially when said Book claims to come postmarked specifically for civilizations of our time.
Entry filed under: astronomy, Book of Mormon, CofChrist history, Community of Christ, Mormon Scripture, Mormonism, Science and Theology, scripture, theology. Tags: Book of Mormon, Community of Christ, Mormon history, Science and Theology.