Sunday, July 22, 2012

What makes a document sacred? Thoughts on Visit to the National Archives

The National Archives Building in Washington, DC

Most Sundays I go to the pulpit and preach a message that I seek to root in my reading of Scripture.  The biblical text is an ancient document that most Christians consider to be sacred or holy, even divinely inspired.  Some believe they are inerrant or infallible, others don't, but still believe that God can and does speak through them.  Some read the texts flatly, with little attention to critical reading.  Others, focus on their attention on questions raised by a critical reading.  I'm of the opinion that while the text isn't infallible or inerrant, God is in the midst of them.  Perhaps the old Lutheran understanding of the Eucharist applies here -- "in, with, and under."   If you listen carefully and thoughtfully, you will hear the voice of God.  

During my recently completed trip to Washington, DC, my family and I, took a few moments out to visit the National Archives, which are located just off the National Mall, and near both the Capitol and the Supreme Court Building.  We couldn't take pictures inside the building -- the original documents, written by hand by a scribe with a quill pen on parchment, are too fragile.  

As you enter the rotunda where the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights reside behind protective glass, you get this feeling. There's something sacred about these documents. They're not inerrant or infallible.  They're not divinely inspired.  But, they are in a way, sacred.  They are the founding documents.  As they lay before you behind the glass, it's difficult to read.  The ink has turned brown and the signatures on the Declaration have faded.   Still, there's something special about this room and its contents.  You can read these words on line, if you should desire or in a book, but looking at these texts reminds you that something special happened more than two centuries past.  Documents declared our liberty and gave us guidance for how to live together in peace and with justice.  

The documents are not perfect and like scripture parts are time bound and require interpretation if they are to speak to us today.  The Supreme Court reigns as the arbiter of what these texts mean.  The justices, like preachers, are fallible instruments.  They, like me, must make determinations about what these words mean and despite suggestions otherwise, they, like me, bring their ideologies and their biases to the fray.  Not too long in the past, we heard the justices make important rulings with deep political and social implications.  Not every agreed -- indeed, not all of the justices agreed with each other.  And even when the majority agreed, it was clear that they didn't all agree on the same basis.  

So, what makes a document sacred?  Isn't it divine inspiration?  Perhaps, but not necessarily.  Does it have to be perfect or inerrant to be sacred?  I don't think so.  I don't believe the Bible is inerrant, though it is clearly a sacred text that I take great care in reading and interpreting.  There is nothing divine about the nation's founding documents.  They were written by human hands in a particular time for political and social reasons.  The Constitution is especially hallowed, even though it never mentions God once.  The only reference in the Constitution proper is a ban on religious requirements for holding office.  But, if you go into the rotunda and stand before the documents, you get this feeling that something special is laying before you.  You can't help but be moved.  But, having been moved, the question is -- how do you respond?  What are these documents calling out for you to do?  

1 comment:

Scott White said...

thanks for a lovely post, Bob. Thinking citizenship and thinking spirituality are estimable things.