When I was in college, Stendahl's Paul Among the Jews and Gentiles was the first Lutheran book I ever read. As I read it, I was moved to tears by the clarity and depth of Stendahl's writing. His ideas opened to me the possibility that there was more to the Bible than I had imagined. As I discussed the writings with my campus pastor, the conversations we had led to my eventual decision to go to seminary.
Stendahl had many interesting and provocative ideas about the Bible, Paul and religious plurality. Below is an excerpt from an article he wrote for the Harvard Divinity School Bulletin this past winter (the passage is adapted from a speech he gave in 2001). The article is Stendahl's opinion on five things the Bible is not. This excerpt is his fifth "not"- it's a bit long, but he makes some interesting points. I'm not going to offer any interpretation of my own because I believe this is a passage to ponder in your heart. (I might post another section tomorrow.)
"[The Bible is not so universal.] And here I come full circle. I said in the beginning that I read the Bible as if it was just about me. And now I say, the Bible, my beloved Bible, it is indeed my Bible. There might be other holy scriptures—and that might not be as threatening as some people think. Not to claim universality and uniqueness? I always felt that to speak about the uniqueness of Christianity or the uniqueness of Christ does more for the ego of the believer than it does for God. Has God Only One Blessing? is the wonderful title of a recent book. How can I sing my song to Jesus with abandon, without telling negative stories about others? What one religion says about another religion, what one beloved scripture claims to be over against other scriptures, comes pretty close to a breach against the commandment "Thou shall not bear false witness against your neighbor." What we say about the others is usually self-serving. We say, Is it self-serving? Oh no, it is just giving God honor. But think about it. Think about the scriptures themselves. Jesus said, "Let your light so shine before people that they see your good deeds and become Christian." That's not what it says. It says, "Let your light shine for people so that they see your good deeds and praise your father who is in heaven" (Matt. 5). Your father—so that people have a reason to be happy that there are Christians in the world, instead of getting irritated at them, if not worse. Jesus said, "You are the salt of the earth." But who wants the world to become a salt mine?
We are born as a minority religion, as a religion among religions. And we are heirs to the Jewish perspective on these things: that's what I learned from the scriptures. It says, to Israel, that Israel is meant to be a light to the nations. That's what Jesus speaks about: a light to the nations. The Jews have never thought that God's hottest dream was that everybody become a Jew. They rather thought that they were called upon to be faithful and that God somehow needed that people in the total cosmos. What a humility, but we called it tribalism. From the enlightenment, everything had to be universal. But when Christianity started its universal claim, and got power, it led to the Crusades. We couldn't really think that it was not God's hottest dream that everybody be like us. So I say, no, the Bible is my Bible. This is the breast that I, as a child of God, have been nourished from. And for the little child, when the child is born that's the whole world, the mother's breast. But maturing means to recognize that other kids have sucked other mothers' breasts. That belongs to growing up.
Now this is my Bible. It was given to me as a gift, and it is full of love, for which I am deeply grateful. If I have found a doctrine, that is my doctrine. I don't need to bad-mouth all others. This is the lesson in a plural world, which is the new chapter in Christian theology for the next generations. Paul was on to that. Paul, late in his mission, had to learn to deal with plurality."