How Worldviews Impact Scripture

It is imporant to note that the Bible was written in a time when people understood the nature of the universe very differently than we do in the 21st century. If we are to correctly interpret scripture and see how it applies to our modern world, we must first attempt to understand it within it’s ancient worldview. Further, we must understand how the past 2,000 years of church history, along with it’s shift in understanding the universe, has impacted how we view ourselves and scripture.

The Ancient World

The ancient world saw the universe in three layers. The top layer was the Heavens. This is the sky that sits like a dome over the earth. The celestial/spiritual beings dwell in the heavens and rule over us. The middle layer is the Earth, where humans and animals live. The lower layer is the underworld, which is the realm of death. 

Every part of the universe was infused with spiritual energy and each local region had its own gods. Most of life was tribal warfare over land and a power struggle between the gods.

The Medieval World

The Medieval World saw the universe as a series of concentric circles. The Earth is at the center. The celestial bodies rotate around the Earth, and the spiritual realm/God is beyond the outer sphere.

The universe was constructed with a hierarchy of being. God was on top, followed by the celestial beings, then rich and powerful men, lesser humans, slaves, and animals. The goal of spirituality was to escape the physical/evil world and climb up to the realm of God (Heaven).

The Modern World

The modern world sees the universe as a vast, nearly infinite space filled with stars and planets that have no central point. The earth is just one tiny speck in an endless, seemingly random collection of stars and galaxies.

The early modern world looked to rational thought and the scientific method as a higher source of truth than the Medieval and Ancient beliefs in a spiritual realm and divine authority.

So what?

The majority of the Bible was written within and ancient context. It is very strange to the modern reader and can feel obsolete.

So, what do we do?

The first step to seeing how the Bible might connect with our current moment in history is to read the Bible for what it is: an ancient document. It was written by real people, in a real time and place (multiple times and places, actually), that had an authentic encounter with the divine. They tried to make sense out of their encounter within their understanding of the universe.

We, the modern reader, must bring our authentic encounters with the divine (ultimate reality as we experience it) and bring it into conversation with theirs. Their stories give us anchor points to understand how our stories connect to and progress the ultimate story.

Ancient Cosmology

The Universe, in the ancient world view, consisted of three levels. The Heavens is the place where the Sun, Moon, planets, stars, clouds, birds, etc. live and move. The Earth is where humans and animals live. The Underworld is the place of shadow and death. (note: Heaven is not a separate place to which you go. It is the Heavens in which the gods live and move)

The Sun makes his daily trek across the Heavens, then plunges into the Underworld and fights to the other side to rise again each morning.

The Moon makes her monthly cycle, changing along the way, living in both the day and the night.

The planets each follow their own paths.

The Stars are a great chorus that marks the seasons and journeys with us.

And EVERYTHING is a god.

Some cultures believed that humans were an accidental byproduct of divine violence. Humans were viewed, by the gods, as either a) an annoyance, like cockroaches, or b) cute bunnies that can be loved until they eat your vegetables and then you eat the bunnies.

Humans constantly lived in fear of the gods and did everything they could to appease the gods and cojole them into producing protection and bountiful harvests. This fear-based worship inlcuded sexual acts/prostitution, child sacrifice, self-mutilation, and oppression.

Each tribe had their own version of the gods, which led to Tribal Warfare and “My god’s bigger than your god” battles.

Some cultures grew large and became highly organized systems, led by one ruler, usually a man. The Emperor viewed himself as either a god, or as one who would become a god after death. The Emperor led in a top-down, command control system and built the Empire on the backs of slaves and by conquering other nations for resources.

Whenever the Empire arrives at your door, the four horsemen of the Apocalypse lead the way: War, Famine, Disease, Death.

A couple named Abram and Sarai lived within this universe, under these Word Power Systems. Then one day, somehow, they encountered a different version of the divine. 

God made a promise, not a demand.

“I am with you. I am for you. I created you and called it good. I want to bless you so that all nations will know this promise and live in peace.”

Abraham and Sarah struggled to embody this promise, but they did move into it.

The children of Abraham became enslaved by the Egyptian Domination System.

Moses encountered the Divine. When asked “who should I say sent me” the Divine simply responded, “I AM.”

The Divine Promise came down from Mt. Sinai, and pitched a tent. The Divine did not lord it over the people like an Emperor, or extort the people. Rather, the Divine made a Covenant, an official Promise, to be with the people.

The Book of the Covenant gave concrete ways the people could live in the world that would keep them safe, and empower them to Love God and Love Neighbor.

What is happening here?

The Divine is not the Sun, Moon, or Stars. The Divine is not contained within the cosmos. The Divine is the creator and sustainer of all things and is beyond and within all things. And is FOR all things.

When humans live into this promise, it is SHALOM.

This Covenant was written on a scroll so that the following generations would never forget the Promise.

Medieval Cosmology

The Rise of Empires

Technology for travel and warfare continually improved. This technology, combined with the human lust for power, led nation states to expand their ambition and begin to invade and conquer neighboring countries. 

One Empire grew larger and engulfed the preceding, smaller empire. Israel found itself caught between each of these beasts, continually trounced by the invading, warring superpowers. 

Most of the Hebrew prophets either warned against the coming Empire, or tried to make sense out of why Yahweh would allow Israel to be destroyed by one.

An Expanded Universe

The Greek philosophers suspected that there was something beyond the ancient concept of the Heavens. As people were able to travel farther, they observed that the stars remained constant and were not fixed to one specific region, as the ancient worldview believed.

Plato, a Greek philosopher, observed the horrors of god-induced war in Athens, and speculated that there must be something higher than the heavens and the gods of Greece. He taught that there was a realm above the Heavens that was pure spirit/mind. It was a realm of perfection. The human could shed the mortal flesh and ascend to the spirit realm, if only the person could attain the right knowledge. The is known as Platonic dualism, which ontologically divides the spiritual realm from the physical realm.

The empirical observation that the celestial bodies were further up than the ancients believed, combined with Platos philosophy of a realm beyond the Heavens,  led to a cosmology that looked more like a set of concentric spheres.

A Shift in Theological Imagination

The earth sat at the center of the universe. The Celestial bodies–sun, moon, planets–revolved around the earth, each fixed on its own sphere. The stars comprised the outer sphere. Beyond the stars laid the realm of pure spirit, perfection, God.

Now there was a physical gap between God and humanity on earth. The theological question shifted to “How do we bridge the gap between us and God.”

The shift from the ancient cosmology to the Medieval cosmology began during the late part of Israel’s story in the Hebrew scripture. The religion of the Persian Empire–Zoroastrianism–was built upon an early model. The supreme god was high above the Heavens and a staircase existed between god and earth. Spiritual beings–angels and demons–fought on this staircase, trying to help or prevent humans from climbing up to god.

Hints of this theological imagination can be seen in the later prophets, especially the writings of Daniel.

Jesus and the Changing World

Jesus lived during an epic shift in his region of the world:

  • Israel was on the brink of violent revolt against the Roman Empire.
  • The theological imagination was shifting to the broader, expanded universe, as dicussed above.
  • Travel allowed more ethnic groups to interact on a regular basis within the Empire, thus forcing people to figure out how to peacefully coexist with the stranger. This was especially challenging for the Jewish worldview which found its identity in being separate from the stranger, and privileged by the one true God.

Jesus’ teaching prepared the way for an expanded theological imagination where all people, regardless of ethnic identity or social class were welcomed into the family of God. The book of Acts demonstrated the expansion of the Kingdom of God across geographical and ethnic boundaries. The Letters wrrestled with the tension that this expansion caused in real time.

Constantine and The Medieval Church

The followers of Jesus lived in peaceful resistance to the Roman Empire for the first two centuries of its existance. Sometimes the church was persecuted, sometimes it experienced peaceful coexistance.

The Roman emperor, Constantine, legalized the Christian religion. Eventually, Christianity became the state religion of Rome. When the Roman Epire fell around 500 C.E. the Latin world looked to the bishop of Rome for leadership.

The Roman Church rose to power in Western Europe and ruled, both religiously and politically, for 1,000 years. 

The theological imagination of the Roman Church was shaped by the newly expanded cosmology discussed above. The belief that God was “up there” and “out there” and the theological question, “How do we get up to God” led the Medieval Roman church to ascribe to a belief in a fundamental hierarchy of being. God and spiritual beings were on top. The church was next, followed by powerful and wealthy men, followed by aristocratic women and children, followed by peasants, followed by slaves and animals at the bottom.

Much of the theology that we have inherited in the late 20th and early 21st century has come through the lens of the medieval church trying to make sense out of the scripture within its own context.

This video quickly describes how Platonic Dualism led to the Medieval cosmology and structure of the universe.

more to come…

The Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, and the empirical observations of Copernicus and Galileo blew open the Medival cosmology and worldview.

The hierarchy of being, the power of the church, and the divine right of kings all came into question. Europe was thrown into Political, Philosophical, and Theological war. Millions of people died. 

Suddenly, the earth was no longer the center of the universe. The Roman church was not the center of power. The earth was round and there was a “New World” to be “Discovered” and conquered.

Welcome to the modern age. For the first time in human history humans entertained the idea that there might not be a spiritual realm of God or the gods at all. The material, physical world is all that exists. The power of human reason and emprical science is the only source of knowledge that can be trusted.

The Christian church was fractured in many ways. On the one hand, it was splintered into warring factions: Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and the continually splintering factions of protestants who argued over everthing.

On the other hand, the church became complicit in the European political imagination of white supremecy and European domination. The global south was colonized by European Empires in the name of Jesus and his Church.

This video attempts to outline how the Western world shifted from the Medieval to the Modern Worldview.

Beyond the Modern Imagination

By the mid 20th century, after two world wars and the Great Depression, the world was

  1. tired of the Church and its corruption, and
  2. ready for another revolution.

So, here we sit, in the 21st century, tryng to make sense out of the ancient texts of scripture. It is important to keep all these lenses in mind when we read the Bible. 

We are not ancient people, reading the text written to us. However, it is my assertion, that the divine spark the inspired the ancient authors to write these texts, in their context, is the same divine spark that draws us to the text. We are inviteed to read these texts in community, and together, discern what the divine is doing today and how we can join in on it.

more to come…

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