Biblical Humanism

“The world come of age is more god-less and perhaps just because of that closer to God than the world not yet come of age.”  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letter dated 18 July 1944

Years ago, when I was interim pastor of a small church in Tennessee, a woman in the church stopped me in the hallway between Sunday School and worship to ask for prayer.  I am terrible with names, so, anticipating that she had news of illness, death, or difficulty in the life of a church member, family member, or friend, I took out the note pad I kept in my pocket for such occasions to record the particulars.  As it happened, this woman and her family had invited me to lunch after church that Sunday.  Her prayer request hinged on the fact that she had gotten to church and now could not remember whether she had put yeast in the rolls that should be at home leavening.  I acknowledged the request, put my note pad back in my pocket, and continued down the hallway to the sanctuary, thinking privately that God had greater concerns than whether I ate well-leavened yeast rolls that Sunday noon and that, in any case, God would not likely tinker with the natural order for such a trivial matter.  In fact, asking God to do so in such a case might border on self-importance.

Reflecting on that experience over the years, I have come to see it as a prime example of many believers’ “failure to launch” as mature children of God.  Christian teaching rightly stresses our dependence on God – in whom “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).  It emphasizes the fact that God cares intimately for every aspect of our lives just as God lays claim to love given with all our hearts, all our selves, and all our strength.  It proclaims God’s power to liberate Israelites from Egyptian bondage and to raise Jesus from the dead.  Unfortunately, however, believers sometimes hear these messages without also discerning the importance of God’s mandate that humankind, created in God’s image, manage the world (Gen 1:28) and till the garden (Gen 2:5).  Unfortunately, believers sometimes fail to recognize that God intends for this, real, world to have meaning.  It is not a cartoon.  God honors human decisions and actions by permitting, and sometimes even enforcing – the consequences.  God cannot be found primarily where God “bursts” into the created order to disrupt it; instead, God is ever-present, sustaining and perfecting that creation.  To seek God in the “miraculous” is to misperceive the wonder of the “ordinary.”  It may be just an everyday oak tree, but I challenge you to make one!

Yes, we are God’s children, but, like any parent, God must surely expect and delight in our maturation.  The Bible surely celebrates people who exercise their God-given intelligence and ingenuity, daring and determination, rather than expecting God to intervene to make their rolls rise.  Perhaps not coincidentally, three of the most outstanding examples of this humanism were women who found themselves in extremis to a great extent because the patriarchal systems of the time provided no clear mechanism of escape.  Tamar, Ruth, and Esther were trapped unless God were to intervene or they could create a way out.  Their solutions were risky and even risqué, but successful.  Israel celebrated their stories.  Space permits us to focus on only one.

Judah’s daughter-in-law, Tamar became a widow before becoming a mother (see Gen 38).  In the patriarchal society of the time, a woman’s identity and social status derived from her relationship with the primary male in her life.  She was some man’s daughter, some man’s wife, or some man’s mother.  Coupled with the importance patriarchal societies assign to a man’s heritage, situations such as Tamar’s required a remedy.  Israel addressed such cases through the institution of “levirate marriage.”  The brother of the deceased married the widow and the firstborn male of that union counted in a legal fiction as the child of the deceased.  Accordingly, Judah’s next son, Onan, married Tamar, although apparently against his will.  He did not wish to father a child that would not be considered his own.  God was displeased, Onan died, and Tamar was, once again, a childless widow.  Judah suspected that Tamar was accursed and sent her back to her father, planning to leave here permanently in limbo rather than chance another son.

Tamar, however, was not willing to accept circumstances.  Instead, disguising herself as a prostitute, she tricked Judah into fathering twin boys.  When Judah learned of her pregnancy, he initiated her execution for adultery.  She produced evidence that he was the father, however, and Judah was forced to admit that her actions, although certainly unorthodox, were nonetheless more righteous than his own had been.  Now, Tamar was the mother of sons, Judah’s heirs just as her husbands had been. Her status was restored – without divine intervention.

The story of Ruth features not one, but two childless widows who, like Tamar, take bold action to escape a dire future.  Ruth sneaks into Boaz’ ‘sleeping bag,’ as it were, in the dead of night asking for his protection.  Ironically, Boaz descended from Tamar’s son, Perez (Ruth 4:18) and was the great-grandfather of King David (Ruth 4:20-21).  The book of Ruth celebrates Naomi’s ingenuity and Ruth’s courage, not God’s intervention.  The book of Esther does not even contain the word “God.”  Like Tamar and Ruth before her, Esther found it necessary to rely on her wits –and her sexuality – to deliver the Jewish people from the threat of annihilation.

The stories of these women and many others (including men, Joseph is an example) in the Bible manifest the influence of Israel’s wisdom tradition.  It held that God created human beings with minds able to discern and understand.  The heroes of these stories display this divine gift of human ingenuity.

I have four young adult children, all of whom hold graduate degrees.  I hope that they know that they can count on my help when they need it.  On the other hand, if my oldest son were to call me to say that he has a flat tire and to ask me to come to his aid, I would be dismayed and disheartened, certain that I had utterly failed as a father.  He is a capable and intelligent grown man; he does not need me to change a flat tire for him.  He can find my help by looking to the fathering I have already done in his life.

Any time a human being acts wisely, those around can observe the divine image.  A human being truly “come of age” will not look to God to make yeast-less bread rise.