“The search for God is not the search for comfort or tranquility, but for truth, for justice, faithfulness, integrity: these, as the prophets tirelessly reiterated, are the forms of God’s appearance in the world” from Nicholas Lash, “Creation, Courtesy, and Contemplation” in The Beginning and the End of ‘Religion’
Does one read the Bible like any other book? R.W.L Moberly begins his The Bible in a Disenchanted Age: The Enduring Possibility of Christian Faith with this question. In exploring this question, Moberly works with a three-fold typology, based on what he takes to be the three main ways people read the bible–as history, as classic, and as Scripture. In each of the main chapters, Moberly offers comparative readings of the Aeneid, especially Book 1, and Daniel 7 as a way to explore these three approaches–history, classic, Scripture. So why is that we should read the Bible any differently than we read something like the Aeneid? It’s worth reading the whole book to see the ways he grapples with this question. Here I want summarize the contrastive reading he offers of Aeneid and Daniel 7 on the question of empire.
In Aeneid 1 Jupiter speaks of the coming Rome as a “limitless empire,” and in Daniel 7 the Ancient of Days promises “a kingdom that will not pass away.” So what is the difference? Moberly observes that Daniel’s vision stands in sharp contrast to the Roman vision of endless empire. In the vision of Daniel 7, the prophet beholds the bestial violence of earthly empires as they clash and jostle for supremacy. In contrast to this bestial violence, the promised “son of Man”, the truly human one, inherits a kingdom from the Ancient of Days. But in a strange ambiguity in the text, it seems that the kingdom entrusted to the son of man is then entrusted to holy ones, the saints of the earth. Because of their humanity these holy ones are able to resist the temptation to meet beastly force with beastly force. Beastly force must be met with a human serenity which itself rests on divine sovereignty.
The apocalyptic vision of Daniel 7 initially terrifies, both Daniel himself and any reader who dares to envision the horrifying parade of beastly empires. The horror and the violence these beasts perpetrate on the world and each other is all too real. It is precisely such bestial violence that Aeneid, if not commends (for Virgil is subtle in theses matters), at least inspired in Rome. For this reason the book of Daniel speaks acutely, both then and now, to the persecuted, to those who face the beastly. The encouragement is not to meet fire with fire, to fight a beast with beast, but to stay your eyes on true humanity, on the son of man, who resists the turn to the beastly, who refuses both coercion and violence.
As Moberly observes about Daniel, “the wider book portrays faithfulness and loyalty, and also wisdom, as the qualities of life expected for resisting the four beasts for as long as they have their dominion…A good case can be made for the thesis that the book of Daniel as a whole, in its own right, is subverting any straightforward notion of dominion and is reconceiving where, under the God of Israel, true power and dominion lie” (120;123).
And yet Christians have found the Virgilian vision of empire very tempting. In rehearsing the reception of Virgil by Christians, Moberly recognizes that throughout the history of the Church, “the vision of endless empire posed a particular temptation for Christians” (127). In other words there has always been a temptation to replace the Daniel 7 vision of human patience and faithfulness in the face of the beastly, with the Roman vision of conquering the world in the way of the beast.
But as Moberly rightly notes, these two visions cannot be conflated because they rest on different understandings of power:
“The ’unending dominion” of Daniel 7 thus is of a different order than the “limitless empire” of Aeneid 1, because Daniel 7 is not speaking of any prospect of power in the same way…The appeal of Daniel 7, however, appears to be less straightforward and more demanding. A positive appropriation of Daniel 7 would in principle entail a willingness at least to sympathize, and perhaps to identify, with a small and regularly oppressed people who have a strong commitment to faithfulness in adversity, and who through that faithfulness maintain confidence in the ultimate triumph of their vision of a just God" (128).
For the Christian the Daniel 7 vision of human resistance to the bestial forces of violence and coercion is only possible within a faithful community. It is only the faithful community, the church, who receives Daniel 7 as Scripture who can have any chance of living the kind of resistance it envisions. The Church, in other words, makes such living not only possible but first it makes it plausible. Using the Peter Berger’s sociological language of “plausibility structures,” with an ecclesial assist from Leslie Newbigin, Moberly describes the church as that faithful community: “The church functions as a plausibility structure not only through its contemporary witness but also through its persistence through the centuries in maintaining the importance of a particular way of God, the world, and ourselves” (156).
The church as plausibility structure is the place in which the Bible is received as Scripture. Though the Bible can be fruitfully read as history and as classic in virtually any context (even within the Church!), it can really only be read as Scripture within a communal context that not only receives it as Scripture but also tries to faithfully live it.