Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Thomas Merton on the how to approach the Bible

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You may recall my mentioning the late Fr. Thomas Merton as offering a mature and approachable vision of God and Christianity. He was asked to write an introductory essay for what was to be a special Time-Life edition of the Bible. This essay was edited and published under its original title, "Opening the Bible". The following excerpts come from pages 12-18 of this volume and highlight seemingly timeless concerns about how to approach that sacred text.

Nor does Merton pull any punches or shy away from controversial or troubling aspects of wrestling with the Bible. See for yourself how this introduction to the essay seems to be written in response to some very contemporary complaints, reservations, and objections.
From the very start, then, we must clarify the meaning of the Bible's basic claim to be the "word of God." We must understand that this claim does not mean that the Bible is an entirely unworldly book, a message from eternity, a contemptuous dismissal of the world in a promulgation issued from "out there" beyond the confines of time and space. The Bible is not a denial of the world, a rejection of man, a negation of time and history and a condemnation of all that has been done by man in his world and in history. Nor is the Bible something that is meant to be superimposed on the world, man and history from the outside, an added revelation of an extra hidden meaning, something beyond man's everyday concerns and his ordinary existence, something that has to be accepted even though superfluous, and given preference over the ordinary familiar reality which seems to us more important.

In other words, the basic claims of the Bible are not to be interpreted in terms such as these: "Yes, there is an ordinary world in which you live your life with your fellow men. But this world is wicked and you are insignificant. While continuing to live in it and obey its rules, you have to carefully learn a whole new body of truths which will seem to you senseless in incomprehensible, and you must add this superstructure of strange ideas on to what you see and know by your natural reason. You must now live in two worlds at the same time, one visible and the other invisible; one comprehensible and the other incomprehensible; one familiar and the other frightening and strange; one where you can be yourself and one where you must strive to be unnaturally 'good'; one which you instinctively take to be real, but which you must repudiate for the other which is truly real, though to you it seems totally superfluous.

This divisive and destructive pattern of life and thought is not the Bible message at all. The message of the Bible is precisely a message of unity and reconciliation, and all-embracing and positive revelation from which nothing real is excluded and in which all receives its full due and its ultimate meaning. One-sided distortions of the Bible have made it seem partial, and have restricted it to narrow, exclusive areas of "the sacred" and "the devout", as if to understand God's message one had to shut out God's world and man and history and time. As if faith meant the formal acceptance of the irrational and the absurd. As if one had to live by reason and common sense while at the same time repudiating and ridiculing them.

When viewed in this way the Bible becomes a kind of an enormous cinder lodged in the eye of the world, blocking all normal vision and substituting pain, darkness and tears for the joy of daylight. In saying that we must expect to be outraged by the Bible, I am not trying to maintain that we must let it insult our intelligence. The Bible may be difficult and confusing, but it is meant to challenge our intelligence, not insult it. It becomes insulting when it is distorted by fanaticism and foolish religiosity; but we must not blame the Bible for the distortions imposed on it by others.

This is a really important message that contradicts the expectations many of us hold because of how it has been presented to us. The Bible is intended for the here and now. Dealing with this common misconception, he moves on to another - whether the the Bible is still relevant to the here and now of modern times...

Nevertheless, and quite apart from the question of theological faith (which is a special problem in itself), modern man may find himself wondering, in all honesty, whether the Bible is even readable. So much of it is archaic. So much is seemingly exotic, utterly alien to life as we know it. True, our own civilization is still full of resonances from Judeo-Christian culture, therefore from the Bible. True, that in "searching the Scriptures" we may find, if not Christ as a living reality, at least some echoes of familiar ideas. But should we read the Bible merely for the comfort of discovering the source of a few religious cliches?


In order to read the Bible honestly we have to avoid entrenching ourselves behind official positions, whether religious or cultural, whether for or against the Bible itself. The book is surrounded by every possible kind of myth and superstition, whether religious or anti-religious, theistic or atheistic, scientific or anti-scientific. The reader is plunged into a field of conscious and unconscious tensions even before he opens the book. He has to take this into account, too, and try to live with it. It is nothing new, and it is not even peculiar to modern man. It was known even in the so-called ages of faith when the Bible was set up, not against Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche, but against Homer, Virgil, and Sophocles.

Jerome, the fourth-century monk and translator of the Bible into Latin (the Vulgate), faced this problem in his own peculiarly ambivalent way. He knew that the Greek and Latin classics were in fact better than the Bible merely as "literature," and that there were far different reasons for reading the Bible. Yet nevertheless the quality of the Bible is something quite peculiar, because the literary qualities of the authors (hence too of the understanding of the reader) is more than literary. It is religious, sometimes even to the point of being "prophetic" or "mystical" or "eschatological." Yet the prophetic and eschatological qualities of the experience are grounded in ordinary life.

In other words, even to appreciate much of the Bible as literature one has to come to terms with the fact that it gives literary expression to an experience that is more than aesthetic. Not only is it beyond literature, it is also in a certain sense beyond "religion"--beyond the doubt and cleansing awe of initiation into ritual and mystery, beyond the healing and transforming sense of moral transcendence.

And then of course, there is the question of what kind of authority the Bible claims to hold:
The Bible claims to contain a message which will not merely instruct you, not merely inform you about the distant past, not merely teach you certain ethical principles, or map out a satisfying hypothesis to explain your place in the universe and give your life meaning--much more than that, the Bible claims to be: The Word of God.

But what is this "word of God"? Is it simply a word of extreme and incontestable authority? Does it impose on man an outrageous doctrine which as no real meaning for his life, but which has to be accepted under penalty of going to hell? Once again, this utter distortion of the Bible is the result of fragmentation, division, and partiality. The prophets themselves protested, in God's name, against the perversion of the word of God in the interests of sectarianism, nationalism, power, politics. (See Jeremiah 23:23-40.) To set up some limited human interest as an absolute to be blindly believed, followed and obeyed even unto death is to set up a "dead word," a destructive and idolatrous word in the place of the "living word" of God. "For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart" (Hebrews 4:12).

The basic claim made by the Bible for the word of God is not so much that it is to be blindly accepted because of God's authority, but that it is recognized by its transforming and liberating power. The "word of God" is recognized in actual experience because it does something to anyone who actually "hears" it: it transforms his entire existence.

With these issues out the way, the essay goes into much more depth about the message and meaning of the Bible. Whatever your beliefs or views on religion, I recommend reading the rest for yourself!

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  1. very good and so needed. Atheists have just about convinced themselves the Bible doesn't even exist.


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