Tag Archives: scripture

The Amazing Thing About Christian Belief

The amazing thing about Christian belief is that, somehow, among the billions of possible planets, and the billions of people on this one, divided into innumerable sects and shades of belief — somehow, against all odds, my group got it right! Isn’t that amazing? God could be gods, or no god; they could have four heads or five hooves, or could speak only in the language of Zoltran — but no! None of that! By a coincidence beyond “inconceivable,” somehow, when it comes to God, I’m the one who wound up being completely right! about everything!

Nothing arrogant about that, right? I mean, obviously, this core belief is as good a reason as any to get mad at people — the ones who don’t recognize my superiority, that is — and call them names, ridicule their claims to know more than I do, even kill them. Not that contemporary Christians would do any of that, or at least not the killing. That’s medieval. That was when Christians had the power to do such things. They don’t anymore, and they won’t, and that’s too bad — because, aside from the tortures and the murders and the bad science and all that, at least the Middle Ages did give people the Kingdom of God. Right?

And so the question at hand is, how can we get back to that? Because that’s what God would want and, of course, he can’t do these things without our help.

Well. I’m no authority, but I’d say the first thing to do is to make sure God stays in his place. So let’s start with theology. The science of God! Gotta chuckle about that one. Theology tells us that God has to be a Trinity, even though the Bible itself doesn’t say so, and nobody can make sense of that — because, without a Trinity of just the right configuration, certain Bible passages will contradict each other. And that’s not acceptable because that would mean God wrote an imperfect Bible. Which, in turn, is not acceptable because it would mean that God didn’t actually write it and/or that we should not treat it as a legal document, replete with numbering of chapters and verses that God, himself, forgot to add. Neither of those options is acceptable because, really, how can you ever hope to have a religion that completely departs from practicing its founder’s most important message about the treatment of other people, if you don’t have an infallible scripture with which to overrule him?

So, like I say, the first thing is to help God explain who he is (the Trinity, I mean), and help him provide that explanation in a form that we can lawyer into submission — because, rather pathetically (for an all-knowing deity), he failed to realize that we would need this, so as to have specific reasons for burning people at the stake. Frankly, there are a lot of things that God forgot to put into that Bible, starting with a list of the books that it should include, so that our forbears wouldn’t have to spend centuries (continuing to the present) disagreeing about which books those should be, and also including an explanation of how the Bible can be the word of God when it says that, no, Jesus was the word of God.

The question posed by Ms. Olmstead is this: “To what extent are we called to flexibility and empathy in our doctrinal choices?” In other words, if the Bible says something, can we disregard it? For virtually all Christians in America, the answer is a resounding yes, if it happens to be something we don’t wish to make part of our religion. There’s that classic scene in The West Wing about that, but really we don’t need TV for this: everyone knows we can come up with reasons not to stone people, regardless of what God’s supposed laws might say. I mean, you have to keep the divinity in his place. He has his laws, and we have ours, right? Am I right?

Ms. Olmstead’s title asks, “Where Should Christianity Draw a Line in the Sand?” Because you can only put up with so much guff from these people who (like oneself) selectively decline to treat the Bible as it does not ask to be treated. Because, as I say, by some unbelievable (and I do mean unbelievable) coincidence, when it comes to drawing lines in the sand, it’s like Phil Collins says: Jesus, he knows me, and he knows I’m right!

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This post was submitted as a comment on an article by Gracy Olmstead in The American Conservative (2018).


The Universal Scripture Wiki

Some of the claims that religions make are unique to them, and to the religions and sects that derive from them.  The specialness of the Jews and the divinity of Jesus are examples.  But many of the things found in religious scriptures are, or could be, shared among multiple viewpoints.  One need not believe in any god, or follow any religion, to support a commandment against stealing, to agree with the sage advice found in a proverb, to accept a historical account of some ancient event, or to feel the emotions captured in a psalm.

Moreover, even the narrowest religious content is subject to adaptation.  One does not have to be a believer in the Bible to echo its sentiments toward one’s own preferred god(s).  And when religious people use their own scriptures, they often do so in diverse ways.  Christians have fought wars over things like the significance of Communion, and present-day believers within a given religion, denomination, or sect can be divided over such topics as abortion or the qualification of priests.

In short, the nonbeliever-believer dichotomies commonly cited these days (e.g., atheist versus Christian) conceal a more complex reality.  The people who claim to believe in “the Bible, the whole Bible, and nothing but the Bible” often turn out to be quite selective about what they really believe within that scripture; and meanwhile, as suggested above, the people who supposedly do not believe in a scripture probably do sympathize with much of what appears in it.

These observations raise the possibility of developing a universal scripture.  Not everyone would agree with everything it said, but that is true of the Bible or any other scripture.  Not everything that it said would necessarily be consistent with other things it said, but that, too is familiar:  people will sing songs or adopt beliefs that can be somewhat unclear, illogical, or self-contradictory.  Religion is not science.

In essence, people who turn to a scripture have a right to home in on what they want or need in a particular situation.  With a universal scripture, as with any other, scholars could still debate technical points; indeed, people could probably continue to engage in substantially the same kinds of activities that any existing scripture supports:  counseling, analysis, reflection, and so forth.  A universal scripture would thus provide substance for skeptical, uncertain, or nonbelieving users who may wish to contemplate or advise upon spiritual matters in moments of crisis.  It might, in fact, provide a common ground, supporting efforts by noncommitted mediators to assist in the reduction of tensions among warring religious factions.

It seems that a universal scripture could bracket content that would only interest people of a particular religion.  An example of bracketing would be to say that the following chapter presents the story of Jesus, as understood by his followers.  That is, bracketing would take a step back from the content, perhaps offering it with various elaborations and caveats (e.g., “On this point, Roman Catholics believe that …”), rather than simply presenting it straightforwardly as a part of the scripture, as might be appropriate with history, proverbs, and songs.

It goes without saying that the potentially clunky, uninspiring way in which a lawyer might phrase such matters could be open to more inspired treatment by poets and other gifted writers.  In other words, this would hopefully be a scripture, not an encyclopedia.  Technical commentary about a given passage would best be relegated to a supporting role, in footnotes, concealable sidebars, or accompanying documents, to make room for creative wordsmiths who might offer more personally meaningful, liveable phrasings.

Before the advent of the Internet, it would have been impracticable to attempt to meld significant portions of the world’s scriptures into a single book.  A wiki can now accommodate a project of that nature.  An important goal of the wiki might be to work toward getting people on the same page, so to speak, with respect to various religious topics that now tend to be walled off in separate fiefdoms.  So, for example, if the universal scripture wiki has a major section called “Songs,” it might serve to introduce Christian songwriters to adaptable content from other faiths.

A universal scripture wiki would surely require decisions on such matters as structure and format.  There would be many challenges.  Some might require years to work out satisfactorily.  Nonetheless, a source of this nature could be enormously valuable in many ways.

Bible Study: John 1:1. The Bible Is Not the Word of God

This item was previously posted on October 24, 2007 on my other blog. It drew a few comments there. I have left the empty post and those comments at that location.

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Everyone agrees the Bible is a book, written by humans. Some think those writers were inspired by God; and of those, some think it is appropriate to examine the words of the Bible with great precision. This is not the message of Jesus, however.

Jesus emphasizes that the religious lawyers of his time were on the wrong track. “Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge. You did not enter in yourselves, and those who were entering in you hindered” (Luke 11:52). The writers of the New Testament books took a similar approach. They did not number the passages of their writings (that was a human addition), and they generally did not argue specific passages with anything like the precision that now appears in many Bible commentaries.

Jesus himself does not seem to have been too concerned about literal precision in his own statements. There are many instances when he says something, and then later contradicts it or seems to be saying something quite different. For instance, John’s gospel has him saying, “If I bear witness of myself, my witness is not true” (John 5:31) but also “I am the one who bears witness about myself” (John 8:18).

If Jesus was a human being, then surely he was aware that you can’t freeze statements in stone — that the thing you say on one occasion turns out to be only partly true or relevant on another occasion. It would have been a mistake for him to insist that his words could reliably serve as a guide to every other person, at every moment in the future.

Some Bible interpreters go to great lengths to argue that Jesus and other Bible writers never contradicted themselves or each other. But the Bible does not actually command these interpreters to do this, nor does it explain which procedures they should use. In pursuit of that self-appointed mission, they rely on entirely human ideas, not clarified in scripture: that a certain passage is literal or figurative; that God inspired the original Greek or Hebrew statement but not the translation into English; and so forth. Indeed, they take it upon themselves to develop detailed creeds and carefully worded statements to explain what God meant. Again, the implication is that God himself was not capable of doing the job properly without their assistance — that the Bible is actually not complete and perfect. Thus, Bible commentaries disagree with one another on many things — yet each is nonetheless sure it is right. Inevitably, the Bible — in the interpreted, commentated form that readers contemplate — becomes a truly complex mass of disagreements, contradictions, and falsehoods.

People sometimes come to a form of Christian faith because they believe Jesus taught a simple gospel. Maybe he did. But when that gospel gets mixed up with the attempt to have a completely perfect, divine Bible, the simple gospel loses out. As Jesus said, you cannot serve two masters (Matthew 6:24). If you insist upon the text, with all its history, complexity, and imperfection, you will lose some aspects of Jesus; and if you focus on Jesus, you will move — with him — away from a preoccupation with texts.

The approach of focusing on the text has created a collection of conservative Christian denominations and beliefs that sometimes erupt in bitter and even bloody fights. As shown at various times in Christian history, people will kill for the sake of a Bible passage. This is very far from the concept of a unified body of Christ that appears in some New Testament passages (see e.g., Romans 12:5). When matters reach such a point, it is reasonable to conclude that people have departed from the Jesus who praised peacemakers (Matthew 5:9).

The books of the New Testament do not claim that they, themselves, are God’s word. There is one passage that makes the briefest possible reference to the concept: “All scripture is inspired by God” (2 Timothy 3:16). That passage is not helpful. The Bible itself does not clarify which materials “scripture” should include. God, himself, either failed to understand the importance of this question, failed to answer the question intelligently, or did not consider it an important question. In other words, humans created the issue, and then had to fight about it over a period of centuries, before arriving at a state of permanent disagreement that continues today.

Sometimes, people pretend to be speaking about someone else, when in fact they are drawing attention to themselves. A classic example is Mark Antony’s speech in William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar:

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him; The evil that men do lives after them, The good is oft interred with their bones

So it is with people who try to help God by creating a Bible of the sort they prefer. The attention gets shifted to the interpreters. The preachers and interpreters may claim to be humble people, and in some ways, many of them are. Yet there is a monstrous pride and arrogance in their enterprise. “I am humble,” they seem to say, “but I happen to possess the truth of life and mankind — and it’s a good thing someone like me was there to add the chapter and verse numbers, and the many explanations, that God forgot.” Thus, the spotlight turns to them, to help people understand a God who (in their telling) is unable to explain himself adequately. They have the answers — but, in fact, they don’t. All too often, what they say is nonsense.

There is another, better way. The better way is for the preachers and interpreters to stop making claims that do not stand up to reason, that were not clearly authorized by God, and that have the blasphemous effect of making God out to be an idiot.

Imagine you are God. You are watching humanity try to figure out which books to include in the Bible, how to interpret them, what passages to emphasize. You can see that the disagreements begin almost immediately. Your solution? Screw it. Let them fight it out. But make sure they keep preaching about love and forgiveness. That’s the God that the Christian Bible-thumpers give us.

There may actually be no God of the kind that conservative Christians imagine. If there is a Christian God at all, he’s supposed to be far more competent than these Bible interpreters are willing to allow. That, anyway, is the message of the gospel of John. In its very first words, that gospel makes clear that a textual orientation is absolutely the wrong orientation. The Bible, John says, is not the Word of God. Here is John 1:1:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

Not, “In the beginning was a Book, and God ordered reprints.” According to John, God did not make the mistake of thinking that a written text (which is the most they had, in New Testament times) would capture things as clearly as audio or video recordings could have done.

God did not attempt to convey his message in words that lawyers would argue about. Instead, according to John, he conveyed his message in flesh and blood. Jesus came into the world as God’s Word to mankind. Obviously, if God wanted people to keep getting the message loud and clear, then Jesus needed to stick around. That didn’t happen, and that raises some questions about God, Jesus, and John.

Those questions are a starting point. To think about difficult things and unpleasant possibilities: that is the challenge of growth. But, of course, a person could insist on staying with what s/he knows. That’s what the Jews largely did. And so, if you believe the Bible passage (Matthew 7:23), Jesus is going to come back someday; and when he does, he will be approached by all kinds of people who will say, Master, remember all the things we did in your name? And he will say, Get away from me. I never knew you.

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