15 Simon Peter and another disciple followed Jesus. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest, 16 but Peter was standing outside at the gate. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out, spoke to the woman who guarded the gate, and brought Peter in. 17 The woman said to Peter, “You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?” He said, “I am not.” 18 Now the slaves and the police had made a charcoal fire because it was cold, and they were standing around it and warming themselves. Peter also was standing with them and warming himself.
25 Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. They asked him, “You are not also one of his disciples, are you?” He denied it and said, “I am not.” 26 One of the slaves of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, “Did I not see you in the garden with him?” 27 Again Peter denied it, and at that moment the cock crowed.
Earlham School of Religion Professor of Old Testament Studies Nancy Bowen is known to say that no theological argument can be resolved by appeal to the Bible.
I tend to agree – because of the contextual nature of the text, the differing styles and approaches of the various books, and the interpretative lenses that we and others apply and have applied to that text it’s essentially impossible to simply say, “The Bible says this” and have it be the end of any conversation.
Now, that might be disconcerting to some, but I think it can be enriching if we allow it to be – to open up dialogue and – in good Quaker fashion – to ask what it is that the text is calling to or asking of that of God within us.
Now, I didn’t always view the Bible this way, and I certainly didn’t always view theology this way. In fact, when I first came to ESR my intent really was to figure out the true Quaker theology so that I could then articulate it to myself and others.
Of course, I have come to realize that Quakers definitely can’t agree on a single theological claim and the reality is that the vast majority of the world simply wouldn’t care even if we were able to.
Part of my education at ESR and among Friends congregations was to help me realize the futility of this quest, and to approach both the Bible and theology with the greater humility it really deserves.
So, I have come to see theology in more fluid terms that can’t be so easily nailed down.
The poet David Whyte gives a powerful illustration of this in his book The Heart Aroused. He tells the story of how one day in 1799 a young Samuel Taylor Coleridge “gazed out of his carriage window and saw in the distance an immense flock of starlings sweep across the sky.”
If we’re willing to understand theology in this way we can, as Whyte suggests, “stop trying to create permanent order or throw up our hands at the seemingly permanent chaos and instead start paying attention to the swirling patterns rising and disappearing before our eyes.”
I think it’s a beautiful idea, and it’s one that helps me live into a place of having more questions coming out of seminary than I had going in. To react hopefully with more generosity and less kneejerk judgment of views that differ from my own.
I think it’s also a vision suited to our postmodern times – where institutions and authorities face ever more scrutiny and bold faith claims meet with skepticism or derision.
Here’s where things get tricky for me, though.