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March 2, 2008: “A Liberal Look at the Bible”

Isaac Asimov, the renowned scientist, author, and humanist, has written a wonderful book called Isaac Asimov’s Guide to the Bible, an excellent resource for liberal thinkers. He describes a cartoon, showing a globe, blue, and green, poised in the middle of space. On the globe is portrayed a prominent tree, a bright red apple and around the trunk of this tree is twisted a serpent and under its spreading branches stands a naked man and woman. It shouldn’t be too hard to figure out that this is the earth, right after the creation story, because there above this picture, smiling benevolently down on his handiwork (cartoons aren’t usually in inclusive language-sorry), is the Creator, just as Michelangelo would have painted him- the stereotype of God: long flowing white beard and long white and radiant robe.

But above this God, with even longer, whiter, and more flowing beard and robes is another figure, who points to the globe and says to God, “And for this you expect a Ph.D.?”

An old Universalist was talking to an old Unitarian about the Lords Prayer they learned as children and the Universalist says, Ill bet you $10.00, you don’t remember it. The Unitarian took the bet and began, Now I lay me down to sleep I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.

The old Universalist said, OK, you win, Here’s the ten dollars.

Which Bible story from your youth do you find hardest to believe? Perhaps all of them? Do you have a favorite? Are there verses which can still mysteriously comfort you? Do you “believe” the Bible? Who wrote the Bible? Why don’t we read from the Bible more in our liberal religious worship? Or perhaps you might be one of the many Unitarian Universalists who think that since the Bible is so sexist and outdated that we should just “do away” with the Bible. Why does the God of the Old Testament seem so different than the God of the New Testament? Some early Christians  believe that there were two separate Gods. Joseph Campbell gives us a clue to understanding this by quoting  from an East African tribal saying: “They say that although God is good and wishes good for everybody, unfortunately he has a half-witted brother who is always interfering with what he does.”

I would hazard a guess that there is not one of us here this morning who is completely objective about the Bible; indeed, I would guess further that most of us here today have tremendously mixed and confused feelings about the Bible. I would continue my speculation by saying that most us here are very misinformed, perhaps even ignorant of the Bible. How many people here have read the Bible all the way through?  How many people would want to? How many have seen the movie?

Theologian and humorist Mark Twain: In religion and politics people’s beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at secondhand, and without examination, from authorities who have not themselves examined the questions at issue but have taken them at secondhand from other non-examiners, whose opinions about them were not worth a brass farthing. In religion and politics people’s beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at secondhand, and without examination, from authorities who have not themselves examined the questions at issue but have taken them at secondhand from other non-examiners, whose opinions about them were not worth a brass farthing. Sounds like Emerson saying that religion must be got by intuition, not second hand.

According to a recent article in TIME magazine, The Case for Teaching the Bible, TIME 3/22/07- 1963 Supreme Court ruling in Abington School District vs. Schemp struck down prayer and Bible reading in public schools. The Schemp of that case was a UU, had been a member of the very fellowship where I had first discovered UU’s,!   Stephan Prothero, chair of Boston University religion department new book Religious Literacy; according to poll, -UU According to Religious Literacy, polls show that nearly two-thirds of Americans believe the Bible holds the answers to “all or most of life’s basic questions,” but pollster George Gallup has dubbed us “a nation of biblical illiterates.” Only half of U.S. adults know the title of even one Gospel. Most can’t name the Bible’s first book.

Last yea, I sent out a recent article on people who are shocked that Democratic California Congressman and UU, Pete Stark admits that he doesnt believe in a Supreme Being; you would have thought that he said he worshipped Satan and sacrificed children! Little do they realize that most of our founding fathers were also Unitarian and didn’t believe in the Christian version of God either. They were described as Deists, who believed that God created the world, just as the watchmaker makes a watch, but then has nothing more to do with it.  And no Trinity either. Most of them viewed the Bible as humanly written and perhaps divinely inspired, but many like Jefferson, didn’t believe in the miracles and divinity of Jesus! He decided to make his own Bible by  cutting and pasting a new version called the Jefferson Bible that dwelled on the ethical and religious teachings of the human prophet, Jesus

So, let me make a radical statement. There is no such thing as THE  Bible!. What I mean is that the term “Bible” is misleading. The Catholic Bible is not the same as the Protestant Bible and both differ from the Jewish Bible. The Jewish Bible is what Christians refer to as the Old Testament, but to the Jews that is still the only Testament, and so we should properly refer to the Old Testament as  “the Hebrew Bible”. And that’s not all the confusion, for while both the Catholic Bible and the Protestant Bible agree on what books belong in the New Testament, they don’t agree on what belongs in the Hebrew Bible. The Catholics include 7 books not included in the Hebrew Bible and therefore also not included in the Protestant Bible. These 7 books in Protestantism  are called the Apocrypha.

I just started reading an interesting and timely book published by Beacon Press Getting on Message: Challenging the Christian Right from the Heart of the Gospel, Rev. Peter Laarman Editor, which  includes an essay from our UUA president, Bill Sinkford, in an essay by professor Bill McKibben, titled,  The People of the (Unread) Book, he says that from a recent survey, only 40% of Americans can  name more than five of the 10 Commandments, 12% believe Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife and most importantly 75% of Americans believe that the Bible says: God helps those who help themselves, when in fact it was uttered by Ben Franklin.

Then to make it even more  confusing there are a variety of translations of the Protestant Bible- The New American Bible, New International Version, The New English Bible, New Revised Standard Version, Phillips Modern English , as well as a variety of paraphrase Bibles like, The Living Bible, Good News for Modern Man or even The Cottonpatch Version of the Bible for Southern vernacular. The one most progressive seminaries and scholars, now use is The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version

A seeker asked the sufi mystic, Rumi, if the Koran was a good book to read. Rumi replied, You should rather ask if you are in a state to profit from it.
A Christian mystic used to say of the Bible, However useful a menu, it is not good for eating.

When I use the word, “Bible”, I am using it as a generalization, a handle to get a hold of, so that we can address how liberal religion, and more specifically, how we can look at the Bible as well as how we look at our feelings about this strange, mysterious and yet still powerful book made up of many different books, some dating as far back as 4000 BCE.  We are free to interpret how we wish, either negatively or positively; we are free to figure out for ourselves how we will use the Bible.

“The Bible is a pilgrim wandering through history to merge past and present…” writes feminist theologian Phyllis Trible, in her book, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality: “Composed of diverse traditions that span centuries, it embraces claims and counterclaims in witness to the complexities outside itself to generate varied applications though out the ages.”

This ancient book of books is so many things to so many different people and faiths; from the fundamentalist who claims that every word is literally true and comes directly from God to the liberal who finds it merely confusing, the Bible reflects what we wish to see, even if it be mirage or magic. Some believe it solid fact- others pure fiction. Some claim it should be taught in school as history and science combined, while others don’t want it mentioned. Say or believe what we wish as a free creedless religious people, it has had a profound influence on the world for thousands of years and on millions of people. It will not just go away because we may be uncomfortable with it due to our discomfort with our previous religious tradition or because we have seen it so drastically misused by orthodoxy.

I view the Bible as sacred myth, not using the word myth to mean a lie or falsehood, but the way Joseph Campbell uses it in his remarkable writings on mythology. “Myth,” he says in his book, Hero With a Thousand Faces, “is the secret opening though which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into the human cultural manifestation.”

The ancient book of Ecclesiastes, for instance, continues to bring comfort and sheds its wisdom on life and death: To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven… is usually the passage read at funerals and memorials, but this well known passage ends with a question that you don’t usually hear but may be at the hear of the reading: What gain has the worker from his or her toil?   and then comes this  one answer to the  existential question only a few verses later  from that same chapter:  I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; also that it is Gods gift to us that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their work. Remember, the Bible says!

The Bible says… depends on which Bible, who’s reading it, and how they interpret it; therefore any argument which starts with that phrase is suspect and means that the arguer is claiming Gods authority when one can only claim ones own opinion about what God says, wants, or does.

Yet, I have admit that I cannot read the Bible without feelings being induced by God-knows- what. I feel defensive sometimes when I read this mythical mystery and other times I sense great and timeless wisdom. The Bible does not “tell me so”, because the Bible says nothing; it just sits there until someone picks it up, reads it, and then gives his or her interpretation.

I call the Bible sacred because of the great religious wisdom it contains, as do the “official holy books” of other religions- The Koran of Islam, the Dharmapada of Buddhism, the Upanishads of Hinduism, the Tao Te Ching of Taoism, the Analects of Confucius, and countless others which for a variety of strange and mysterious reasons have brought wisdom for thousands of years. We can read any of those, experience any of those, except the Koran without feeling defensive; maybe some day we can view the Jewish Bible, the Christian Bible, and the Koran as having great wisdom and spiritual direction, but it all depends on who’s quoting what as authority for their particular prejudice or interest group.

Contradictions, complexities, even cruelty abound: like all holy scripture which has evolved over the millennium, different times and circumstances produce mixed messages. The goal of reading or studying the Bible, like any other holy book is to glean the wisdom that seems to ignite that mysterious inner spark which responds with that feeling that we have all had, which Gestalt Psychology calls the “aha!”  experience. There is no one right way to read or even try to understand the Bible, but only our way, each one of us having a different unconscious waiting to be tapped.

Asking whether or not the Bible is true is asking asking the wrong question. The Bible is not only myth, but metaphor, as are all holy books. Metaphor like myth is not a true or false test, not an “either- or, but a “both-and”. Metaphor, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. The Bible is more the library of ancient beliefs, wisdom, and yes, superstition than one book.

There are the archetypical themes of life in the Bible- creation, fall, judgment, exodus, exile, estrangement, family strife, restoration, even salvation and incarnation; all open wide to the seeker of wisdom. Indeed, much of western literature draws from the symbolism and  metaphors and stories from the Hebrew and Christina Bible.  There is a faith history, not necessarily a factual history, but a blending of the two into a primordial myth- telling of Western Culture that has shed great light and cast giant shadow upon civilization.

So let us get to the heart of the matter about discussing the Bible. Sometimes I think we share a certain trait with the Biblical fundamentalists; sometimes we, too, take the Bible literally-  so that we can reject everything it says. The point is whether the Bible can still speak to us, still show us wisdom, still give us comfort, still shed understanding on the basic human condition, whatever our age, religion, or gender. I believe it can.

“This Bible, this ubiquitous, persistent black chunk of a best seller,” writes Annie Dillard,” is a chink- often the only chink-through which winds howl. It is a singularity, a black hole into which our rich and multiple world strays and vanishes. We crack open its pages at our peril. Many educated, urbane, and flourishing experts in every aspect of business, culture,  and science have felt pulled by this anachronistic, semi barbaric mass of antique laws and fabulous tales from far away; they entered its queer, strait gates and were lost. Eyes open, heads high, in full possession of their critical minds, they obeyed the high, inaudible whistle, and let the gates close behind them.”

I have not quoted from the Bible; indeed I have talked about the Bible in the abstract, as part of an intellectual and hopefully spiritual quest, but not limited to one particular religious point of view. Perhaps there is a part of me, of us, still that fears getting too close to the mystery, though I, we, claim to seek it. I want to argue that when Christians began using the Apostles Creed for doctrine, the message of JEsus about love and ethics get perverted into what seems like simply, the requirement of true belief about the divinity and trinity of Jesus. In his book, Honest to Jesus; Jesus for a New Millennium by Jesus Seminar scholar and professor, Robert Funk writes:     The Jesus movement very early on exchanged the vision for the visionary. Those first enthusiastic followers were enthralled by the world Jesus encapsulated in the parables and aphorisms, but, since they   were unable to hold on to the vision in those verbal vehicles, they turned from the  story to the storyteller. They didn’t know how else to celebrate the revelation. They turned
the iconoclast into the icon.

At the heart of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, and I emphasize that word, heart, is the reaching and encouragement of a profound love- a religious love of life, each other, ourselves, and the whole world will be as one. The prophet Amos writes: “I hate, I despise your feast days, and I will not take delight in your solemn assemblies. Though ye offer me burnt offerings…I will not accept them…Take away from me the noise of thy songs; for I will not hear the melody of thine harps. But let justice run down like waters, and the righteousness like a mighty stream.” (5:21-24)

Jesus also preaches love as  social justice, not a church tea party! The age old argument about which is more important, faith or good works, should be laid to rest by saying both- and rather than either-or; we UUs must have a great faith in the transforming power of love, reason, tolerance, and what I call, the religious dimension which is universal in history, but particular in cultures. Each book in the Jewish and Christian Scriptures must not only be read, but yea, also discussed! Doubt is not the enemy, but woe to those who are conceited thinking that only they know the truth, but condemn those who disagree. The message of 2 3, even 4 millennia ago must be brought up to date, yea the Koran as well must be made relevant for today to unite the world rather than divide it. The religions of the book  have scriptures that tell a story of an evolution of culture as well as religion, as creation myths for a people , that must be updated for every age until, one might say, until we get it right!, Until together the religions of the world teach us that we are all one, but have different languages of religion. A liberal look at the Bible encourages us to look at those ancient books which have lasted for two thousand years for some reason. Let us not be the conceited ones who think we have all the answers not the ones who worship the questions only. Let us be transformed by the spiritual peace that passes all understanding and the religious love that makes it all worthwhile.

Amen, Peace, Shalom, Assalaamu Alaikum , Namaste, Blessed Be, Vaya Con Su Dios,