As I shared earlier this year, the Bible is “a text in travail.” Sometimes the biblical writers catch a glimpse of God’s true character–love, mercy, and justice–and sometimes they lose sight of it. Old Testament scholar and theologian Walter Brueggemann traces the evolution of human consciousness through three sections of Hebrew Scriptures: the Torah (the five books of the Pentateuch), the Prophets, and the Wisdom literature (including Job, the Psalms, Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes). Just as children must begin with structure and rules, religion starts with setting boundaries, rituals, and rules about who is in and who is out. It’s all about protecting the status quo, our tribal and egoic identity. But eventually we have to develop the capacity for self-criticism, as the prophets did, which is the necessary second stage. If we do both of these stages well, we will normally be catapulted toward wisdom and holiness.
Another way to look at this is a series of Order > Disorder > Reorder. Most conservatives get trapped in the first step and most liberals get stuck in the second. Healthy religion is all about getting you to the third, Reorder. There is no nonstop flight. You must learn the wisdom of both the first and second stages before moving on. Much of the chaos and instability of our time stems from many young and sophisticated people now beginning life in the second stage of Disorder and criticism, without first learning deeply from Order. It appears to be a disaster. The three stages must be in proper sequence for life to unfold somewhat naturally.
Throughout Scripture, even in the first books of the Torah, there are wisdom statements such as this: “I will do the work for you; you only need to be still” (see Exodus 14:14). From the very beginning, we see the message of divine grace forming. But the biblical stories quickly move back into legalism and priest craft, painting a picture of God as demanding “smells and bells” and purity and debt codes. Sometimes in the same paragraph you’ll read an absolutely enlightening line that just oozes with grace, and the next line is punitive, accusatory, and shame-based. Grace and fear keep taking turns on center stage. This is how life is for each of us, if we’re honest.
The Bible clearly affirms law, authority, and tradition, as most literature in history has done, but then it does something different and even rare: it affirms reform, change, and the voiceless. The Bible idealizes the victim, contrary to most of the world’s stories and histories. Think of David and Goliath, the story of a young boy victorious over a giant. Yet when that boy becomes a king, the prophet Nathan chastises and corrects him. The biblical text keeps self-correcting. This is what makes the Bible an inspired book. It reveals an alternative consciousness; it critiques itself.
This is the necessary Disorder that keeps all Order from becoming idolatrous and self-serving. The prophets always present Israel with “The Great However” that stops them in their tracks. This “but” dispels any idealization of perfect order, any so-called normal, forcing the people to recognize their own hypocrisy and phony self-interest. The prophets help them see that they are using religion to worship themselves and not Yahweh. Prophetic criticism is never good news for pretenders and opportunists–which is just about all of us until we learn the compassion, mercy, and forgiveness that Disorder teaches us.
In my mind, liberation theology, the Prophets, and the view from the side of pain, is absolutely necessary to move us into the third stage of true Wisdom. To pass through to Wisdom, we need to experience a major humiliation to our ego. This often comes through suffering or failure–anything that brings us to readiness before Grace and Mystery. But that very desire for grace and God is best created by an initial experience of love, order, meaning, purpose, and direction. The easiest path of growing up spiritually, and in many ways the most natural, is to start with some “law and order.” Then we must critically recognize that Order cannot solve all or even most problems, especially pain and suffering. Finally, without rejecting either Order or Disorder, grace will move you toward God’s Reorder. This is enlightened awareness, which is not nearly as common as we would like.