Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Seeing the spiritual forest for the fundamentalist trees; or why some atheists are right about the Bible (and how that makes them wrong about the Bible)

46 is the earliest (nearly) complete manuscrip...Image via Wikipedia
Despite the impression given by some evangelical fundamentalists in the Christian world, the Bible is generally not seen as a direct memo from a Super-Person dwelling up in the sky. The context in which the writings that compose the Bible were created and how they came to be included are essential to approaching the Bible in a more meaningful way and how it might inform us in today's world.  This is connected to another conundrum, the issue of discussing and appreciating (religious) mystery.  We need to recall that everyone is limited in their intellect and imagination and that we draw upon our culture and personal insight when trying to paint a picture of timeless themes or overwhelming experiences that are beyond our comprehension.  Nor should we neglect the fact that linguists and historians already have several areas of consensus on how and when many parts of the Bible were composed, theories about the origin of particular source material, etc.  That is to say, we know that many of its components have been edited, redacted, revised and embellished at different times. The idea that it was laid down consistently and sequentially in its current form and is free of any contradictions or historical or factual errors is not an idea that any serious Biblical scholar would accept.

Nor should anyone except the ultra-literalist crowd, which has never been the theological majority in the history of Christianity (let us hope that remains so), remain unaware that the Bible mixes parochial or politically refined versions of history with mytho-poetic language and imagery to make larger points and to serve as sources of inspiration.  In religion imagination is not seen as an inferior cousin to the intellect, nor is the heart.  They are all essential to spiritual maturity. Where one of these faculties begins to falter or fade, another can kick in to pick up the slack.  But all of them, through sacred texts and liturgy, are nudging us toward something that none of them can fully process or express.  And while Western scholasticism has fostered and nourished the linear causal perspective so influential to 19th and 20th century science, that is not the pattern by which elements of religious invocation and invigoration operate.  Indeed, applying such a reductive perspective can lead to legalism and fundamentalism.  I recently read a Coptic admonition that we must rise above the "deadly literal meaning" of the Bible.  I think that is quite the apt sentiment.

With that said, we can look at criticisms such the massacres and atrocities which are attributed to God's will in the Old Testament, or the similarities between Biblical stories in those ancient Hebrew texts and the myths and gods of neighboring cultures.  These are fairly typical and are representative of the content of Biblical critiques.  The response is either to try to embrace things like violence as justice or to avoid or downplay such passages.  Yet they are actually quite interesting and useful to more than just irreligious critics of the Bible.  Let me unpack that idea a little bit.

Yes, the ancient Israelites could be very hostile and aggressive.  Yes, they often had the same kinds of religious views as their neighbors, and frequently borrowed and shared such cultural elements with them.  Yes, at times their beliefs were more or less polytheistic and quite bloody, full of animal sacrifices and honor killings.  Yes, like their neighbors they worshiped their own version of a Bronze age tribal sky god who could be petty, jealous and violent.  There is really no avoiding that.  Efforts to try to make-over or cover-up these facts are ill-conceived and ineffective.  Plus I have no interest in doing so.

I will not repeat the entirety of what writers of religious history such as Karen Armstrong have written on the subject (for a decent summary see The Case for God).  What is interesting to me about the Bible isn't the similarities we see with neighboring societies or the religious syncretism.  That is logical.  That is to be expected.  It isn't particularly surprising.  What interests me are the differences.  Subtle at first, but growing over time and conflicting with the standard dominant paradigm of religious ideas and beliefs.  This reflects a shift in consciousness away from tight dualistic thinking -- black/white, us/them, good/evil -- towards a more mystical perspective, one in which dualism is rebuked but is not reduced to strict monism.  A perspective which acknowledges limits in human understanding, respects mystery, allows for uncertainty and paradox, and which emphasizes compassion.

Of course, such a perspective arose in other ancient cultures as well such as India, and was further refined by enlightened figures as a Siddhartha Gautama, most commonly known today as the Buddha.  Yet the while the Buddha did challenge many conventions of his day, the practices of cultivating compassion, the virtue of non-harming, and the acceptance of contemplation and meditation were long established as respectable avenues for those seeking a holy life.  In ancient Palestine, as the Bible and other historical documents attest, the atmosphere for the emergence of such beliefs and behaviors was a bit more challenging as one city-state or kingdom was perpetually conquering or being conquered by another.  This is not to suggest that the Indian subcontinent was a peaceful place free of conflict, but rather than they seem to have had a bit of a head start in cultivating their own mystic elements.

So then in fact, the more "barbaric" or "common" one wants to paint certain factions and traditions in ancient Hebrew culture, the more remarkable it actually is that this mystic consciousness was not only able to emerge and survive but to contend with the more dualistic traditions and their more extreme jingoistic and xenophobic manifestations.  In that sense, if God wanted a chosen people, one could wonder why he wouldn't have chosen better.  Humor aside, in fact God is frequently depicted as being disappointed in the Old Testament with his chosen people.  But really, how many of us think we would honestly do much better?  We can see in the stories told by and about the ancient Israelites our own vices and virtues, our strengths and weaknesses.  And we can see in their collective story the conflict that we all experience in our own lives, between wanting  retribution and vengeance, of wanting a short-cut to fame and wealth, to assuage our fears and uncertainty with power and control, and the competing impulse to be kind, generous and merciful, to forgive and be forgiven, to trust and to let go. 

Of course, there are many, many beautiful things to celebrate in the Old Testament.  Pleas for mercy, justice and humility far outnumber cries for death and destruction.  There are repeated calls for the rich and powerful to be wary of their indifference to the poor and the outcast. Jim Wallace and some of his colleagues once literally cut out all of the references to compassion and social justice in a Bible and found that what as left was a severely shredded and incomprehensible wreck.  This fact does not somehow negate or hide the uglier parts, but it is important in reminding us that there are competing views of God and humanity in the Bible. This is what people usually mean when they say that the Bible is a record of the unfolding efforts to know God or of a portion of humanity's ongoing relationship with God as opposed to a memo dictated by a Big Boss.  We  need the context to appreciated just what the point of a particular story is supposed to be rather than assuming that every elements of action and speech by a "hero" or exemplar is to be emulated.  We also need to be reminded of examples where people got it wrong as much as we need to have examples of how to get it right.  There is much wisdom to be found in humility and in recognizing our capacity to go offtrack and miss the mark (i.e. "sin").

In the branch of Judaism that eventually became Christianity, Jesus as the Christ is referred to as Emmanuel.  God with us.  That has been the source of many theological arguments, but at its core it says, "If you want to know what it would look like for a human being to actually be fully aware of God and act out that awareness, look as Jesus."  Or in simpler but even less accurate terms, "If you want to know what God would want you to do in this situation, use Jesus as your example."  And no, I am not a fan of the WWJD merchandise, but that's another topic altogether.  One could also take a similar tack as with the OT and ask how much of what Jesus said was misremembered, intentionally altered or embellished.  A lot of ink has been spilled arguing that point.  But again, what is remarkable is the consistency of the picture that does emerge about the values and strategies that Jesus demonstrated.  This is in part I suspect because there were likely two primary sources of inspiration  for such modification.  One would be to make Jesus relevant to the audience at hand (a coming of the messiah to messianic Jews, the embodiment of wisdom ("logos") to Hellenistic Jews and Greeks, etc).  The other would be to emphasize the impression people had of the person of Jesus. 

This doesn't mean that the tension between hard dualistic thinking and the more compassionate mystical approach vanished in Christianity.  In the letters written by various apostles to different Christian communities that became a part of the New Testament, this conflict is still detectable, and in many ways it became the framework for the history of the Church.  It's something all religions continue to struggle with because it is part of our nature.  Of course, with more and more people seeing religion in general and Christianity in particular as jingoistic, xenophobic, bigoted, self-absorbed, immature or violent, it's no secret which tendency is winning the PR campaign with the general public.  Nor is this an argument intended to make people accept Christianity as their own path on the spiritual journey.  You will have to look elsewhere for such apologetics if that is what you seek.  It is however a suggestion that what some atheists see as the weakness of the Bible is, in fact, a testament to its strengths and of value to those who desire an honest appraisal of the human condition.  A healthy skepticism of taking the Bible at the surface level is just that -- healthy.  If only more people would take that path rather than the extremes of vapid cynicism or a fear of any Biblical critique.

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  1. "Of course, with more and more people seeing religion in general and Christianity in particular as jingoistic, xenophobic, bigoted, self-absorbed, immature or violent, it's no secret with tendency is winning the PR campaign."

    This sentence....?

    Other than that, all I can say is: Great! You so eloquent these days, TT. Just to be able to summarize it all so succinctly. :D

  2. Oh, typo! Should be "which tendency.


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