Today I encountered a valid critique of my concept of development which I made use of in my essay on dealing with "contradictions" in the Bible. The critique is that I lumped all of the Old Testament into a lower developmental level (that of a child) as compared to the New Testament. In turn, both the OT and NT were lumped into a lower level than current culture.
This brings up the conception that I think the OT is "child's play", and even worse, that we are somehow morally superior to ancient cultures. This is patently untrue, since by any objective calculation the 20th century was the most brutal and violent on record.
My first response is to say that this objection is dealt with by understanding what I mean by "development" in my essay on developmental revelation. It clarifies a few things:
My point in comparing human society at a "childhood" developmental level to society at a "teen" or "adult" level was not to make a point about the moral progress or goodness of society at any particular time. When we talk of individuals, we all know good kids and bad adults. We also know very spiritual kids and very jaded adults. Age and development is not an indicator of moral or spiritual progress.
Rather, I was speaking of development in terms of capacity to understand, synthesize and act in Reality. In terms of individuals, it is clear that an adult is more developed than a teen who is more developed than a child in terms of physical capabilities and intellectual capabilities. The more developed you are, the more capacity you have to understand and do things.
This development CAN be taken in a positive moral direction (such as finding a cure for cancer), or it CAN be taken in a negative moral direction (such as finding a way to engineer biological weapons). In fact, the more developed you are, the more capacity one has for goodness or badness. A 2 year old throwing a tantrum is a lot less dangerous than a teen throwing a tantrum, who is a lot less dangerous than a tyrannical dictator throwing a tantrum.
Now, when we move from individual development to social development, it is clear that two things happen as well: (a) Over time, as a society develops, there is more capacity to understand, synthesize, and act as a society; (b) That such capacity creates the opportunity for greater goods and worse evils.
So, it is NOT that our society is BETTER than NT society which is BETTER than OT society. It is that our society has a greater development, and more total resources available for understanding and action, than NT society. And NT society in turn has greater development and more resources than OT society.
And this is not to say that the writings of the OT and NT are not intelligent and complex. In our culture, it requires a well-educated adult level of individual development to begin to really understand what is going on in Scripture. This is true even of the earliest parts of Scripture which were written to the least developed culture.
To be sure, the INDIVIDUAL writers (and readers) of the Bible were intelligent by the standard of any society, no matter how developed that society was/is as a whole. Surely, St. Paul was more intelligent than me, and the writer of Ecclesiastes was wiser (and that just scratches the surface!). Likewise, many of the arguments made in Scripture are complex and nuanced. But they are complex and nuanced in a certain cultural context which must be understood within its own level of development.
Thus, when I speak of social development and "developmental revelation", I am talking about:
- Development as a society, NOT development of individuals.
- Development of within the context of the communities who received the Biblical writings, NOT that Biblical writings (and writers) somehow lacked complexity and nuance.
- Development of capabilities, NOT development of morality/holiness, or development of spirituality
- Development of TOTAL resources which contribute to the horizon of a societal world-view.
These total resources would include access to food and water, social stability, uniform laws, the conceptual capabilities imbedded in language, the conceptual options available in surrounding cultures, the taboos and social limitations on thought and communication, and dozens of other factors.
For instance, let's take two rather complex concepts: "The Triune God who is transcendent and immanent" and "The sanctity of human life, leading to universal human rights".
While to you and I these may be fairly simple concepts, and even "self-evident" in some sense, think about the immense web of social resources required to both realize and sustain these concepts. Those concepts rest on three millennia of hard work, not only in Scripture (which provides the trajectory toward these ideas in embryonic and disconnected form) but also in society. It requires both the Hebraic and Greco-Roman thought-worlds to accomplish. And those thought-worlds are in turn based on several sets of interlocking social factors that make them possible.
So, the OT provides some great insights from brilliant and holy people who lived in a certain developmental context. In their immediate context (at the time that they wrote) their ideas had a certain limited field of meaning to the original intended audience. But, when those ideas are brought into a wider developmental context (like ours) dimensions of meaning and applicability are added to the same concepts that the original authors and audiences would not have been fully aware of.
To use CS Lewis' analogy of raising complexity to different dimensions: Someone can draw/paint a very complex picture in two dimensions, and it can be absolute world-class genius. If another takes that same picture and then raises it a dimension into three dimensions as a statue (assuming the artist is as good as the original) it then takes on even more complexity and depth. Then let's say someone in the 22nd century brings the same portrait into a 4th dimension we are barely aware of now. And then later a 5th dimension, etc., etc.
The raised level of dimensionality in no way diminishes the genius of the original piece. In fact, serious art students would ALWAYS study the original, and then the higher-dimension renderings as well. However, it would be untrue to say that the original work was as dimensionally complex as the derivative works based on it.
I think that is what I am trying to say about the development in Scripture, and the further theological development that is derivative upon Scripture. The concepts provided in Scripture are spiritual and moral genius, and they have a high level of complexity by any standard. However, many of these concepts are presented in embryonic form at a lower dimension of social development. They await further application and appreciation as we raise these same concepts into higher dimensions of social development.
A final concrete example:
The command "Love your neighbor" has a certain limited sphere of meaning in an ancient land-based culture of the OT. That same command raises to another dimension when culture moves into the pan-Mediterranean world of the Roman Empire of the NT. It further expands in the pan-European culture of the Middle Ages. It further expands in our age of multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic globalism. And, assuming we find sentient life elsewhere in the galaxy (which I think we will), the command will expand dimensionally at that point as well. And, even beyond this, what if we become able to interact with beings in other literal dimensions, or other versions of our world in multiple time-lines? Who knows how the 3000+ year old command to "Love your neighbor" might grow in dimensional complexity?
Copyright 2011 (c) The Rev. Nate Bostian