Why Read the Bible?

Thursday, September 25, 2003



Throughout my essays, one will find references to Biblical passages and Church documents. Since I am usually writing with a Catholic audience in mind, this makes sense. Afterall, I want my sisters and brothers in faith to understand how our own teachings lead me to conclusions that are sometimes considered controversial by those who share this faith.

Yet, there are at least three broadly defined groups of potential readers that will find these quotations more confusing than helpful. The three groups are as follows:

1) Protestant Christians: This group will appreciate the Biblical references, but may be put off by references to other Church documents, such as Ecumenical Councils, the Catechism, or the writings of a Pope or saint. This group will accept coherent arguments that square with their understanding of Biblical texts, and may even find a particularly Catholic interpretation of a Biblical passage intriguing (such as verses used to explain purgatory or devotion to saints). However, appeals to extra-Biblical documents will carry no weight unless they are backed by Biblical support.

2) Non-Christian Religious Believers: This group may appreciate the style of textual appeal, but will not appreciate the particular texts being used. This group may also like appeals to religious reasoning, but may not agree with many fundamental assumptions (such as the divinity of Christ). Appeals to the Bible and Church documents will carry far less weight than the coherence of the argument itself.

3) Atheists, Agnostics, and Human Secularists: For the most part, this group will find appeals to all religious texts annoying. This group will not accept the authority of the texts, and also finds religious argumentation generally hard to follow when based on texts. This group wants no appeal to authority whatsoever, and instead seeks an appeal to human experience and human reason.

Let me address the concerns of these three very different groups in the reverse order presented above.

First, to the atheist, agnostic and human secularist, I want to say that the vast majority of the world's people are religious. It is actually a direct appeal to human experience to say that I have had some sort of encounter with a mysterious power that I choose to call "God". Given that other people share this experience, there is nothing more unreal about this subjective experience than the subjective experience of dreaming, enjoying a particular food, having a headache or other subjective experiences that are yet shared in common.

Indeed, since atheism and agnosticism comprise a very small minority of the world's population, it could be argued that lack of a religious experience could only have a few explanations. The lack of religious experience may be due to a sort of disability, like being blind. It may be that the God of the universe simply has chosen not to reveal himself to a particular atheist yet. Perhaps the atheist knows the experience of transcendent mystery, and refuses to trust it. Finally, it is possible that the atheist is some sort of unique genius who is sees things as they really are, but the rest of the human race is hopelessly blind.

Looking at the enormous body of religious literature in the world, I assert that people seem to be born with an inherent awareness of an ineffable mystery that is at once transcendent and immanent, beyond the world, and yet present throughout the world.

This transcendent and mysterious ineffable power is variously named God, Deus, Allah, Yahweh, Brahman, Tetzl, Jah, Muungu, Chi, Ra, the Great Spirit and all the other various names by which various cultures refer to this common human experience.

What I am driving at is that the language of spirituality and religion all describe a reality that is available to everyone. The Muslim and Catholic are not describing two radically different realities by referring to Allah or God. Rather, we all mean that there is one reality beyond speech and we have different paradigms and different culturally shaped language for expressing what we know about this single mystery.

It is true that the Evangelical Protestant will sometimes say that the Muslim or the Hindu worships a false god. This creates the impression that there is absolutely no similarity between Allah and Brahman and Biblical Christianity. However, I would argue that rather than three different ultimate realities, we have three different perceptions of the same reality. We can debate these differences, but the ultimate and underlying cause of the debate is perception of a reality that objectively exists.

The human person conceives of God because God reveals himself to each and every person. Humanity is naturally spiritual. Humanity is naturally religious. The fact that this one ineffable mystery is a similar experience in nearly all religions is demonstrable by the fact that the same attributes are often ascribed to the mystery. God is variously described as the creator, the sustainer, the source from which all emanates, the ground of all being, the omni-present and so forth.

There is some disagreement between the East and the West over whether this ineffable mystery is "personal" or not. The Buddhist tends to speak of the ground of all being more as a force, almost like electricity. The Christian speaks of the ineffable mystery of absolute being as an all knowing and all powerful being with a personal will. So, we can honestly say that there are similarities and differences. The differences are substantial, but the similarities are also substantial enough to demonstrate that we all refer to the same reality.

Furthermore, human intelligence and reasoning can even come to a philosophical certainty of the existence of God. This philosophical certainty does not mean all doubt is removed. The solopsist can have some doubt about all reality, yet he looks both ways before crossing the street. Even the most ardent believers in empiricism know that science is always open to new developments. Few people are entirely consistent in their beliefs, and few people reach levels of absolute certitude about anything.

The certainty I speak of, or what the Church calls the certainty of natural reason, is a certainty no greater than we can be certain of anything. I sometimes feel that the atheist and agnostic have so much trouble believing because they expect to reach a certainty that is more certain than the human mind is capable of reaching.

If we accept that the experience we all know of transcendent mystery is real, and maybe we bolster that experience with some rigorous philosophical inquiry into the existence of God, the next step is trying to articulate our experience. This is where religious writing comes into play. Organized religion is nothing less than a given culture's tradition of God-talk.

Now, the atheist, agnostic, and human secularist may be asking at this point why we would turn to such traditions? If the experience of transcendent ineffable mystery is available to everyone, why should I let someone else's experience have authority over my own personal encounter with the divine?

To me, this is a bit like a person looking at a dog and asking why they can't make up their own word to describe this animal. I suppose you have every right to invent your own language, but why would you want to do such a thing?

By it's nature, language is a shared reality. We all want a word to describe the experience of holy mystery, so we call it "God" in the West. Then we agree that if the word "God" is going to have any shared meaning whatsoever, we need to try to come to some agreement what we mean.

Indeed, when people say "I don't believe in God", I often want to ask "What exactly do you mean by that?"

Is the sentence "I don't believe in God" more like saying "I don't believe in unicorns" or "I don't believe in piblywhacks".

To say I don't believe in unicorns has more meaning than I don't believe in piblywhacks. I completely made up the word piblywhacks, and it refers to no known object. A unicorn exists in the world of shared meaning and shared imagination as a horse with a horn growing out of its head.

If the atheist is saying "I don't believe in God" in the sense of saying there exist nothing to which the word refers, then the entire statement is just nonsense. It's no different than saying one does not believe in piblywhacks.

If the atheist is saying "I don't believe in absolute being experienced as ineffable mystery", then she or he is affirming the meaning of the word even as she or he denies the reality of the meaning of the word. In denying the reality, the atheist affirms an experience of the reality, if only in the imagination. And this affirms my statement that God reveals himself to everyone!

At this point, I hear the atheist saying, "Wait a minute. Just because I can imagine a God does not mean God exists. I can imagine unicorns and they don't exist."

This misses my point. Unicorns only exist in the world of shared meaning in cultures where the myth of the unicorn was known. If unicorns existed in the real world, all cultures would have a word for that reality. However, because they do not exist in reality, they also do not exist in all cultural myth.

Yet, the "myth" of a creator-sustainer power at work in the universe is universal. In denying the reality of the myth, the one making the denial is affirming the experience. I would posit that not a single human being has ever existed who has not imagined divine holy mystery! Let's be empirical about this. If there is someone who has never conceived of the divine, demonstrate this.

Think of it this way...if atheistic communism had succeeded and taken over the world and destroyed all religion from the face of the earth, does anyone really believe that the people raised in such a world would not re-conceive of a God? What would life really be like in a world where the atheist never had to defend his or her lack of faith, because there is no faith anywhere to be found? If you really believe that the idea of God is hard to believe, is such a world more believable?

So, there is this shared experience...an experience that even the atheist affirms in her or his denial...an experience that appears to be universal...and we desire shared language to describe this reality. Yet, when we begin discussing our experiences, we are confronted with the fact that we have different perceptions of the same reality. We know it is the same reality, because of the similarities we share. Yet, our differences are so extreme at times that people have killed one another fighting out these differences.

This is where I believe the study of religious texts is important. We can even say that texts about God and texts that describe religious experience are "divinely inspired". If we are to resolve our conflicts, we need to delve into each other's language and try to understand the various perspectives on what the underlying reality behind the text really is. Through this study of text in context, my own image of the divine and my own ability to articulate my experience is further shaped and sharpened.

Through the study of religious texts, I am broken out of my own subjectivity to begin to imagine and discover the objective reality of divine holy mystery!

Thus, the religious opinions of others are as important as the scientific opinions of others. Just as science forms different disciplines and schools of thought, so too, theology forms different disciplines and schools of thought. Indeed, one reason to read the Bible is that it contains 72 books written by various authors and editors over about 1,200 years. Each author has a unique style and experience, but all are within a single coherent tradition. Thus, through the Bible, the empirical study of religious experience is well respresented in one continuous narrative.

Up to this point, the atheist or agnostic may have followed my reasoning so far. However, many individual believers in a particular religion may be in a rage.

The rage is due to the cherished belief that many of feel certain that whatever tradition of religious texts we each follow is the ultimate or absolute final word on who God really is. For the Muslim, the Holy Q'ran is incomparable. To the Protestant Christian, the Bible is solely sufficient. To the conservative Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Christian, the Bible interpreted in Sacred Tradition is divinely inspired, but other religious texts are considered inferior. The Hindu will have a preference for the Upanishads or Vedic traditions. The Mormon will look to the Book of Mormon and the Pearl of Great Price, etc...

It would sound almost like jcecil3 is arguing for a dangerous religious syncretism that blends all religions into one by glossing over their inherent incommensurability and inconsistency.

That's not quite what I actually believe, so let me explain a bit further.

First, I would argue that, if for no other reason, the Bible is worth examination because it is one of the oldest religious texts, and simply the most popular religious text in the world. It has been translated in more languages, and distributed to more people, and studied by more people than any other religious texts. Assuming there is a God, and he is revealing himself to each human person, and the texts of those describing this experience are worthy of examination, the Bible is the most rational place to start.

Yet, I would not limit myself to the Bible alone, or even my subjective interpretation of the Bible alone. All texts should be studied in context. Therefore, the Bible should be studied with at least some use of tools of the literary academy, and where there is legitimate debate about the meaning of the texts, various opinions should be considered. Furthermore, there is a wealth of Biblical study and criticism from our ancestors, and this is part of what comprises the Catholic and Orthodox notion of Sacred Tradition.

But I do not believe we need to limit ourselves to Christianity. Many atheists and agnostics ask me why a person cannot read the Gospel of Thomas, or some other Gnostic work. My answer is "By all means, go ahead. I've read the Gnostics myself. Just don't read the Gnostics exclusively."

Eventually, as one reads several religious texts, one will run across contradictions of fact.

For example, Sura 4.157 of the Q'ran implies that Jesus was not crucified. The 27 writings of the New Testament clearly say that Jesus was crucified. Either the New Testament is mistaken, or the Q'ran is mistaken. We cannot believe that both writings are infallibly true.

On the other hand, because at least one of these sacred texts is mistaken on a particular point of fact does not necessarily mean that the entire text is false. Both the New Testament texts and the Q'ran were written to describe an experience of divine holy mystery. Both tell truths about God, even if they disagree on particular points of fact.

As a Christian, I believe the New Testament records the more accurate history of what happened to Jesus. However, I do not necessarily need to be a Christian to reach this conclusion. Many human secularists and atheists accept that Jesus died on a cross.

But there is a higher criterion by which we can settle this dispute of fact. I call it the criterion of beauty. If the Q'ran is correct, Sura 4.157 states that it is Allah who made Isa (Jesus) appear to die upon the cross.
That they said (in boast), "We killed Isa the son of Mary, the Apostle of God"; - they killed him not, nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them, and those who differ therein are full of doubts, with no (certain) knowledge, but only conjecture to follow, for of a surety they killed him not:" Sura 4.157
I am told by middle eastern Muslims who speak Arabic that the phrase "but it was made to appear to them so" should more accurately be translated "but I made it appear to them so". It is Allah, himself, who makes this appear, and this is clear in the Arabic.

If this is true and an accurate rendering of the Arabic, it means that Allah is a deceiver, which is absurd, since we all experience God as absolute truth and pure goodness itself.

On the other hand, the Christian narrative tells us that by dying on the cross, Jesus reveals that God is with us in our suffering, and that the resurrection conquers death. This is good news! It wins out on the criteria of beauty.

There are some both within Christianity and outside of Christianity who will argue that this criterion of mine is non-sense. Catholic Christians may be uncomfortable with the subjective nature of this appeal. The others will claim that parts of the Old Testament are not so beautiful, and that it is close-minded discrimination and prejudice to claim one religion is more beautiful than another. There is some validity to this critique, but it can also be overstated.

Regarding the Old Testament, I interpret it in light of Christ, so that I have difficulty accepting that God really did or said certain things that are not consistent with the teaching of Christ. For example, I do not believe that God literally spoke to Moses (or other Old Testament figures) advising the death of certain people. Rather, I believe that Moses and the others had a strong sense of God's love for the oppressed, and sometimes misinterpreted his experience of the divine mystery to mean killing the oppressor.

Where the criteria of beauty shines most brightly in my own religious search is in the person of Jesus Christ. The person portrayed in the Gospels is the most beautiful person who was ever imagined. Furthermore, this person was a real and historical person. The end of the "book" called the Bible sheds light on some confusing portions of the earlier works. (Note that I am very aware that the Bible is not a single book, but a collection of books).

The Gospels may employ some culturally conditioned literary devices to tell the truth about Jesus in the manner of expressing truth in the first century of our common era. These literary devices can confuse a twenty first century Westerner, and almost seem fraudulent in the way the authors weave snippets of Jesus' life together from fragments of memory as though they are telling biographic history according to our methods of history. We need to remember that the authors are not part of our culture, and they have a different way of expressing history and truth. All religious texts should be read in historic and literary contexts.

Nevertheless, the story of the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus is a beautiful story. It is an inspiring story. Indeed, I would argue that when one reads the texts with an openness to listen to what the author intends to convey, one encounters the most beautiful image of God conceivable.

This is not intended as a put down to other religious texts. The Q'ran contains beautiful truths about God, and I am told that the Arabic is absolutely beautiful poetry. The beauty of the Gospel lies not in poetry, per se, but in the narrative story line. The Hindu traditions have their own beauty as well. Each tradtion expresses beauty differently, and God IS absolute beauty!

Perhaps we are all culturally conditioned such that our own traditions seem the most beautiful to us. Some of us then turn to reason and secular sciences to settle our disputes. We'll try to settle through secular history what really happened to Jesus. Others look for supernatural signs (such as Christians appealing to prophecy in the Bible as future telling, which is not what the authors necessarily intended).

All of these types of debate and intellectualizing are intriguing and worthwhile.

However, despite the limitations of admitting a subjective preference, I am convinced that the ultimate reason I choose Christianity and its sacred texts and traditions is that so far, it is the most beautiful expression of the encounter with divine mystery for me! If Christians loose sight of this subjective experience of the beauty of the New Testament, we will fail to convey the "Good News" to others.

Nobody really becomes a Christian based solely on a logical syllogism. Rational arguments are sometimes helpful, but there is something else the apologist needs to highlight. The Christian apologist needs to appeal to the text to highlight what is beautiful, life giving, and obviously has the stamp of the divine.

Which brings back to how and why I use the Bible and texts from Church authority. The Bible is a beautiful book written under divine inspiration culminating in the story of the most beautiful person who ever lived. Appeals to Catholic Church documents highlight that I am interpreting the Bible not purely according to my own subjectivity, but according to a tradition that Catholics believe is guided by the Holy Spirit. Throughout my appeal to all authoritive texts, I am trying to demonstrate that there is beautiful meaning in these texts!

My purpose is always to highlight how what the Roman Catholic Church teaches as infallible is fantastic and beautiful news for human person - the ultimate form of humanism.

Yet, I openly question the non-infallible texts or interpretations of texts that seem a little ugly or dehumanizing. I hope that in doing so, Christians will see that the beauty of our tradition is that God became human and suffered with us and conquered our greatest fear! The God of the Bible and the God revealed in Jesus is the greatest humanist who ever was, is, or will be!

Why read the Bible?

Because it's a really great and beautiful book!

It really is that simple...

Peace and Blessings!

Those interested in this topic may also enjoy the following essays:

Does God Exist?
The Mystery of Suffering
Creation Science? Is it Science?

Readers may contact me at jcecil3@attglobal.net


posted by Jcecil3 4:14 PM

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