Why reading the Bible with reason and emotion alone doesn’t satisfy us

Our two usual modes of reading Scripture, rationalism and emotionalism, ignore an essential way that we make connections and maintain satisfying relationships with God.

(RNS) — Nearly half (48%) of all Americans used the Bible regularly in 2019, according to the American Bible Society’s 2019 State of the Bible report. Presumably, most did so to make a connection with God and deepen their faith.

It’s surprising, then, that only about half of those who use the Bible regularly (24%), according to ABS’ survey, said they had discovered the connection and transformation they were looking for.  

Protestant traditions about biblical interpretation may be partially responsible for our struggle with Scripture. Article 6 of the Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, for example, states that “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.”

In other words, if it’s not in the Bible in black and white, we can’t require you to believe it. 

The irony, of course, is that this articulation of scriptural sufficiency exists within a careful outline of faith outside of the biblical text. Individual interpretation guided by reason is encouraged, but only in relation to some form of philosophical framework or systematic theology that establishes boundary lines between orthodoxy and heresy, between what is credible and what suspect.  

There’s nothing wrong with having a philosophical or theological framework, of course. No one reads or interprets religious texts in a vacuum.  Whether reading along the grain of the Westminster Catechism or exploring the tensions of a narrative with womanist critique, Protestant categories of Scriptural engagement are deeply rationalistic.

We also recognize that reason is only one way we engage with Scripture, since we also can’t ignore human emotion.  

The tendency to conceive of Scripture in emotional terms can be seen in the same American Bible Society study. Soliciting views of the Bible’s overall intent, the choices on the survey were: (a) a rulebook or guide to live the best life, (b) knowing what God expects of me, and (c) a letter from God expressing love or salvation.  Of these three choices, two are highly rational (rules or expectations) and one is highly emotive (a love letter). 

Photo by FotoRieth/Pixabay/Creative Commons

But these two choices, rationalism and emotionalism, ignore an essential way that we make connections and maintain satisfying relationships with God.

Think of our relationships with other people. Using reason alone, we may learn a lot about someone, but can’t really “know” them. We may read People magazine, for instance, and learn all about our favorite celebrities, but the people themselves still remain strangers. On the other hand, we can be attached to someone emotionally but not really know or understand them. A toddler is highly emotionally attached to their caretaker but doesn’t have the capacity for a mature relationship. 

Complete relationships with other people, and with God in Scripture, also require imagination. Why? Because imagination creates the context for empathy.  

When a friend shares the story of their being bullied by a boss or co-worker, we don’t have to have had the same experience to empathize with their experience. We can imagine what it’s like to be bullied. We can imagine what it’s like to worry about an unhealthy work environment. And, having imagined, we can show empathy to our friend. 

Imaginative reading invites us to use observations about language, context, repetition and conflict, to place ourselves in the midst of the unfolding drama. We imagine the story as a participant within rather than an outside observer. Reading with the imagination transforms habits of heart and mind in ways that reading for information, understanding and even moral exhortation does not. 

One of the most profound of Jesus’ teachings, for example, is found in the Gospel of Luke, the parable of the good Samaritan. The parable emerges out of a lawyer’s desire to experience the eternal life Jesus was preaching about. A lawyer asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus’ response points out that the lawyer already knows the answer. If he wants to experience God’s life, he needs to love God with everything he has and love his neighbor as himself. 

Jesus’ challenge, “Do this and you will live,” masterfully draws out the lawyer’s real obstacle. Loving our neighbor as ourselves is much easier said than done. And so, as lawyers do, he asks Jesus to define his terms. “Who is my neighbor?” 

Jan Wijnants’ 1670 painting “Parable of the Good Samaritan.” Image courtesy of Hermitage Museum/Creative Commons

Imagine yourself in this dialogue.  Imagine what it’d be like to be the lawyer, hungry for life. What emerges?

The story of the good Samaritan doesn’t answer the lawyer’s question directly. Jesus draws us into an imaginative scenario where a wounded and vulnerable man is left on the side of the road to die. Religious experts notice the man and pass him by.

Not the Samaritan. In a remarkable twist, Jesus says this religious and ethnic outsider experiences splagchnizomai — a churning inside — toward the wounded man. A verb derived from a Greek word for the bowels or inner organs, Splagchnizomai in the New Testament refers metaphorically to deep compassion, empathy or mercy as Jesus preaches and practices it. Luke inserts the term here in a move that links the fictional religious and ethnic outsider with Jesus himself.

This is a model for how to read Scripture imaginatively. It creates space to aesthetically explore layers of meaning in the text, layers that pull heart and mind together, enabling the reader to see, consider and experience the story and themselves in fresh perspective.

While easiest to do in narrative, imaginative readings of Scripture are possible across different genres: What happens, for example, if you read Paul’s letter to Philemon from the perspective of the former slave Onesimus?

Imaginative readings also refine our moral reflection. It’s not just that the Samaritan “feels bad” for the wounded and vulnerable, he aches internally, seeing the earlier traveler’s plight. This gut-wrenching compassion compels the Samaritan to act. The Samaritan, a man outside the law of God, disadvantages himself for the sake of this nameless, faceless other. Then comes the punchline, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” Jesus said. 

Reading this story imaginatively, from the inside, we experience its sting. Do we experience splagchnizomai when we look out the window and see kids on the playground of the failing school across the street? Are we willing to disadvantage ourselves for them? What about the neighbor across the hall with a broken leg, the one fighting breast cancer or the mom heartbroken about her son?

Jesus’ story answers the lawyer’s question by reshaping the lawyer’s and our definition of neighborNeighbor is not defined geographically, ethnically or categorically, but by the compassion and activity of the one who sees others in need. We first practice hospitality and mercy, and by so doing become neighbor to those around us. 

What if all of our times in Scripture led us to these kinds of connections?  What if we read with our imagination and discovered ourselves drawn into a dynamic friendship with God? Imaginative reading would help more of us find the transformation we’re looking for.

(Jason Gaboury is the regional director for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s undergraduate ministry in New York and New Jersey and the author of “Wait With Me: Meeting God in Loneliness.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)