“The Bible.” Just that phrase is enough to invoke an involuntary gag on my part, slightly disgusted at all the baggage it inherits from the particularly noxious American (and Southern) brand of toxic, evangelical Christianity I grew up with.
There are two basic approaches to “The Bible”: one is faith-based, the other is…more critical, for lack of a better word.
I think, ultimately, it boils down to your tolerance for miracles.
For some, it’s much easier to just see the world as mostly composed of a series of miraculous occurrences, with the natural explanations of science only playing a modest role in what is keeping our world clanking ever onwards in time.
In this respect, the Bible becomes just one miracle among many, and we don’t have to think very hard about the circumstances of its coming together and the meaning thereof once edited, compiled, and translated into a cohesive and singular book modern Christians call “The Bible.”
Instead, the Bible is a miracle from God, inspired miraculously through mortal men, but qua miracle, perfect and without any flaw whatsoever. God’s miraculous intervention is so grand that it even influenced the editing and compiling and translating, making modern translations a God-given miracle and gift which perfectly represents His Thoughts and Will without any fear of corruption along the way.
There become no real mysteries in the Bible: it just stands before us as a complete and perfect representation of what God wanted us to know in writing. How convenient! Almost too convenient…
However, there are some of us that, while we do begrudgingly recognize the metaphysical possibility of miracles, it is not our predisposition to see the world that way when there are more down-to-Earth, messier, human explanations available.
On this alternative view, the Bible is 100% a human product. And since 100% of human products are not perfect, the Bible is also not “perfect,” if by “perfect” we mean 100% accurate and true among all dimensions: historical, moral, theological, scientific, rational, literal, etc.
Moreover, “perfect” is necessarily judged through the eyes of 21st-century moderners; we can no more cast off our modern/post-modern lenses than a horse can stop seeing the world as a horse sees it.
I won’t elaborate on the numerous ways in which the Bible is not a “perfect” Holy Document. It is messy. Complicated. Written by dozens of different people across centuries of time, edited and compiled together for complicated political and theological reasons, “The Bible” is an incredibly complicated set of texts and there’s a reason why scholars have been debating it for thousands of years and still wildly disagree on what it means.
It is human, all too human as Nietzsche would say.
But why read it? If the Bible is so flawed and human and messy as a set of texts, why would I even bother? If it was not “written by God” as if God literally sat down like a scribe and took control of human bodies like a puppeteer, can it still be sacred, holy, or true?
If it is not literally true can it still be True in some other, deeper sense?
For me, the answer is yes.
This “other, deeper Truth” is notoriously hard to articulate because by its very nature it escapes the logic of a true-or-false binary.
Take the sentence: love is a rose. Is it true? Well, literally, no. Love is not a rose. But are roses not beautiful and fragile and also thorny just like love? Yes, they are. So we might as “love is a rose” is a metaphorical truth.
But I would just call it truth, because even so much of “regular truth” is undergirded by metaphorical truth so much so that some cognitive scientists think that metaphors and analogies are the “building blocks” of cognition.
These analogical building blocks start off very much grounded in bodily and physical and perceptual metaphors and work their way up in complexity to abstract concepts like “freedom” or “God.”
Much of these metaphorical structures we are not conscious of. It is like the primordial language of the brain, which acts as a scaffold upon which “propositional cognition” is built.
So, when I call something “metaphorically true” that is not an insult to its truth status. It is the highest compliment, for metaphorical truths are understood more deeply within our mind than any other type of truth. Metaphorical truth is Soul food, pure and simple.
So what if the Bible has some errors and inconsistencies as a historical and scientific document. Might it not also have some metaphorical and poetic truth? Truth that cannot be reduced to simple binaries of literalism?
For some Christians, all this is too human. Too psychological. It doesn’t have the pure smell of Eternity or Transcendence on it. It reeks of frailty and contingency.
For some Christians, unless it is perfectly simple, perfectly transcendental, it is ugly and meaningless and not fitting for the spiritual life.
I find this position ironic, given the central importance of Christ’s incarnation as a 100% frail and contingent human. You cannot be 100% human and not reek in the stench of contingency, the pain of embodiment, and all the limitations thereof.
Peter Enns wrote in his book Inspiration and Incarnation that we might learn a lesson from Christ in thinking about the “humanness” of the Bible. Is Jesus not an ideal blueprint for how something could be 100% human and yet also perfectly divine?
We must not be too wedded to what our limited human concepts of “perfectly divine” might look like from the perspective of 21st-century humans. Our own expectations and standards will probably be considered barbaric 500 years from now, let alone 2000.
So might it be strangely in tune with the agenda of an incarnated (and thus messy) God to also incarnate wisdom into some Holy Texts while also making them fatally limited and human?
And while She was at it, might God not have also incarnated some of Her Wisdom into the Holy Texts of other religious traditions, just to make things a little more interesting? Personally, I have found just as much spirituality if not more in the pages of the Tao De Ching than I have any Biblical text.
So why not just be a Buddhist or be a Taoist?
I can’t quite articulate it clearly, but insofar as Christianity has been so influential to the unfolding of Western Civilization and given I am a Westerner, and my ancestors were Westerners, it seems as it is a spiritual home to me, even if I might find it terrible and guilty of many historical crimes.
But it is not all terribleness. When I walk into a Cathedral and see the grand beauty it takes my breath away and reminds me of the power of art and spirituality to inspire great things, even if those great things are stained in the blood of injustice.
And in my own life, I can credit my spiritual sensibilities for giving me a better attitude on life, so I would assume that in other people religion can also be a force for good.
Clearly, it is also a force for bad things too. And nobody but God can calculate whether the positive outweighs the negative. And She is probably too busy being incarnated and messy to worry too much about that.
I guess I am drawn to Christianity because I feel compelled to confront my cultural and intellectual and religious heritage. Terrible things have been done in the name of Christianity. Many good things as well. But it is the terrible things that seem to have left their mark on history, and I feel compelled to react to that. To do whatever small part I can to clean up the mess.
I feel very small in the face of 2,000 years of complex, global, religious-political history.
But perhaps with a word here or an example here I can make some small impact on reforming Christianity from the inside.
But lest you think I am only interested in Christianity out of guilt or a desire to “fix” it, I also have selfish reasons: it just seems to “work” better for me to stay so close to the roots of my own intellectual tradition.
I don’t necessarily want to wade into the tricky topic of what does or does not count as cultural appropriation in spirituality, but needless to say, for me, I have found that, as a Westerner who grew in the Christian tradition, indeed who has spent my life studying the religious and philosophical traditions of the West, it feels more “at home” for me and thus also more powerful.
The power comes, I think, from tapping into my roots. This is not to say I want to make any kind of prescriptive or normative claim that “tapping into your roots” is always better than not doing so.
It’s just that for me, exploring these non-Western systems of religion, while deeply influential, beautiful, and inspiring to me, I feel a bit like a tourist. It is lovely to visit and learn and appreciate them for what they are. But the feeling of being a tourist never seems to go away.
This leads me to the conclusion that Christianity is not necessarily the Ultimate Truth for all people in all times and all cultures. I have zero interest in converting people or erasing other religions or cultures and replacing them with Christianity.
For me, Christianity and the Christian Bible are true relative to a particular tradition, but can by no means make a case for being what all rational humans must believe. A Buddhist is not wrong, immoral, wicked, or irrational for being a Buddhist and not a Christian. They are not going to burn in Hell. They are not separate from God.
Even an atheist, worshipping Spinoza or Einstein’s God: The Mystery of Nature, even they are not immoral or wicked or going to be punished for doing so. For that is their Truth, in the way it has come to them.
God does not need to appear to humans as “The Christian God” to appear to us at all. She appears to us in many ways, most of which we are not even conscious of. She need not even appear to us as a God.
So why do I read The Bible?
Is it a perfect document without flaws? No.
It is a very human document. And it shows. But it is also quite special. For one, it is ancient. And we ought to appreciate ancient wisdom for its own sake, regardless of whether it measures up to our modern standards.
It is also connected to tradition, which has its own inherent value, so long as tradition for tradition’s sake doesn’t become a weapon wielded against the fight for progress and justice in today’s modern world.
And who knows, perhaps there are some small miracles associated with its moments of all-too-human inspiration. Maybe. Maybe not. But a text can be sacred without necessarily being a miracle.
A text can be worthy of study and reflection even if it is not a perfect holy miracle from God’s own lips. A text can be holy and spiritual and deeply archetypal in its wisdom even if it is not 100% literally true. It can resonate with us in its history, beauty, tradition, poetics, and theology without thereby becoming a sacred dogma in and of itself, reified into something static and fixed that its very own authors never even anticipated.
The Bible doesn’t have to be the sole source of all spiritual wisdom. There is spiritual wisdom to be found in studying fungi, or in how a forest communicates. There is wisdom in the waves of an ocean. In the flight of a bird. In the infinite complexities of the heavenly sky.
There is wisdom in the wind. And wisdom in the Earth. There is wisdom all around us, not just some ink squiggles on dried tree fragments.