Updated: Jul 14, 2019
Does shedding religion mean discarding the Bible?
Curious about my spiritual life outside of organized religion, people often ask me if I read the Bible. In my second book, Wide Open Spaces, I devote an entire chapter to how my view of the Bible has evolved. For many years I read the Bible daily as a personal spiritual discipline. I also studied the Bible academically in seminary. And then of course I taught the Bible several times a week for many years as the head minister of a church. These days I don’t sit down and read the Bible as a regular practice. That doesn’t mean I don’t think people should. And it doesn’t rule out that I might read it more regularly in another season of life.
I don’t think there is a right or wrong answer to how people relate to the Bible or how they choose to incorporate it into their lives. Of course the caveat would be that is unacceptable to use the Bible to rationalize or justify hatred, bigotry, misogyny, injustice or any other injurious way against other human beings
Christians look to the Bible as their authority on the subject of God and for answers to life’s big existential questions, as well as guidance on matters of ethics, morality and the directing of one’s daily life.
The Bible is Not Great for the Reasons it is Purported to Be
The Bible is a series of books written, edited and assembled over thousands of years. People claim the Bible is special because, despite the diversity of authors, time periods and places it was written, it presents a seamless story about God. If the Old Testament writers and editors were hoping to present a coherent, comforting, stable view of God, they failed miserably. In the Old Testament. God is presented as capricious, cruel and narcissistic.
What's fascinating to me is that whoever wrote and edited this content didn't feel any need to alter this picture of God or put a more positive spin on it. It's also important to point out that Old Testament stories and themes predate the OT writings. In other words, they were not entirely original to the OT writers. So you can't necessarily pin these stories and ideas entirely upon them. It's interesting to me that they felt the need to continue telling and perpetuating these stories and themes with their own twist.
Jesus was not a Bible teacher
In many religions, authority is based in a sacred book or Scripture, and often, by extension, to those who are deemed most knowledgeable or equipped to interpret and understand them. Jesus’s religious tradition, Judaism, was very much a religion anchored in a sacred text, the Torah and the rabbinic commentaries. In Notes from (Over) the Edge, I write extensively about how Jesus challenged this system.
From what we know about Jesus, however, he was a sage and story-teller, and typically did not take his point of departure from texts of Scripture. In his core sayings and parables, the Scriptures are conspicuously missing.
The province where Jesus spent most of his public life and drew most of his support was in Galilee. This was a region noted for its more cavalier or indifferent attitude toward the religious traditions of Judaism. The crowd who followed Jesus, for instance, was declared to be under a curse because they were ignorant of the Torah or Holy Scripture. Yet there is no evidence that Jesus took on the role of a Bible teacher to remedy their Scriptural deficiency. In fact, the only people he chided for their ignorance and misuse of Scripture were the orthodox elite.
Neither did Jesus write anything, or instruct his apostles to record what he said or did. It was not Jesus who commissioned the writing of the New Testament. Instead, Jesus confronted the religious elite, finding them guilty of what amounted to Bibliolatry – the glorification of a scared writing. Jesus said to these religious leaders, “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life."
Jesus was continually challenged, “By what authority do you say this or do that.” He never answered by appealing to the authority of the Bible. He laid no claim to a vision from any kind of special revelation. In fact, what makes Jesus immeasurably greater than any religious guru is precisely the fact that he spoke and acted without authority and that he regarded “the exercise of authority” as a pagan characteristic. Jesus chastised the religious leaders of his day for burying their noses in their sacred text, and missing the plain and simple truth.
Jesus’s perception and teaching of the truth was direct and unmediated. He did not even lay claim to the authority of a prophet. Unlike the prophets he did not appeal to a special prophetic calling or to a vision in order to legitimize his words. Jesus never used the classical prophetic introduction, ‘God says…’ What gave weight to the words of Jesus were the words themselves. Jesus was unique among the men of his time in his ability to overcome all forms of authority-thinking. The only authority which Jesus might be said to have appealed to was the authority of the truth itself.
There is no single orthodoxy
Throughout history and spanning the world, people have related to the Bible in many different ways. It would be a gross misrepresentation of even Christian history to say that there is only one way to view or relate to the Bible. People will often say, “My authority is the Bible.” It would be more accurate for them to say, “My authority is what they told me at church the Bible means.”
There are at least 14 Factors that influence what one comes up with in the Bible:
1. Your views regarding the inspiration of Scripture.
2. Whether you would favor a literal or figurative interpretation of a given passage.
3. Your knowledge and awareness of other “related” Scriptures dealing with the same issue, including the immediate context and the broader context of the entire body of Scripture.
4. Your knowledge and understanding of the background and motivation of the writer.
5. The way in which a given interpretation fits into your over-all theological belief system.
6. Your level of understanding of the original language in which the text was written.
7. The various interpretations and commentaries to which you have already been exposed.
8. The ways in which you process information. Some of you tend to emphasize reason and logic, while others depend more on personal experiences and intuition.
9. The degree to which you are willing to accept logical inconsistencies as part of your belief system.
10. Your willingness to change your views in the light of new information.
11. The degree to which you are satisfied with your current views.
12. The amount of time you are willing to devote to your theological study and inquiry.
13. The unwillingness to consider alternative interpretations that diverge from your religious tradition.
14. Your overall view of God that has been conditioned by many different life experiences and relationships.
Based on the above variables, does it surprise anyone that there are many different ways the Bible is interpreted? This is especially problematic because many people view the Bible as something to be “right about.” In my most recent book, Inner Anarchy, I challenged the traditional Christian interpretation of Jesus, and offered an entirely different framework from which to understand him, his life and his message and teachings. I build this framework from the Scriptures themselves but with a different hermeneutic.
Humans have always done stupid things and pinned them on God
I do not believe the purpose of the Bible is to create a belief-system about God. In my view, the Bible tells the story of humankind’s relationship to and with God, the divine or ultimate reality. The Bible opens with a picture of God and humankind in harmony and one, and then the story takes a disastrous turn when human beings begin operating out of fear, alienation and disunion. The story continues with humankind trying to hash things out through religion. At times that story is beautiful, and at other times it’s ugly. We discover in the story that humans can be inspired by their beliefs in God to love each other, and at other times to rationalize about anything, including killing people in the name of “God’s will.” That’s all part of the story. We still do this today. Jesus shows up in the context of his people, his day, his times, and his religious tradition. His central claim was, “I am the truth,” which was meant to abolish the false notion of separation from God, and to unveil the long forgotten reality that God and humankind are one. Jesus taught that this truth was the secret to unfurling the kingdom of God on earth.
Jesus taught it was necessary for him to leave the earth in body so that his followers would not create a personality cult around him, but instead learn to listen and follow the same spirit within them. But as the story and human goes, some of the earliest Christ followers organized themselves according to the same mentalities of their previous religious orientation. The bulk of the New Testament is essentially a set of letters written by a few of the most prominent early Christians, addressing various issues that came up as different Christian groups tried to work out their devotion to Jesus in the context of their times. Sometimes this was done beautifully, and at other times it was a train wreck. But it’s all part of the story.
Maybe, we should not write off the Bible
Is it possible that the Bible, rather than God's binding word to humankind to be believed literally and followed legalistically, is a fascinating work of literature that explores themes of deep psychological significance?
What if the Bible is a collection of meta-stories - ancient stories that evolved over thousands of years by combining the distilled truth out of hundreds of smaller stories until they were finally written down in their final form.
What if the Bible is a collection of writings, giving different snapshots of humankind’s relationship with the ultimate questions of life assembled into one volume?
What if these snapshots tell a story that we somehow find ourselves in at every turn, including moments of profound beauty and goodness, and moments of deep heartache and sorrow?
What if the story includes chapters where people are getting things horribly wrong and justifying hatred and atrocity in God’s name, and other chapters where people are getting it right and living as powerful expressions of love in the world?
What if it’s a human story, a timeless story, and a cultural story happening, evolving and intertwined all at once?
What if there is an unnamed brilliance, depth and mystery to the story that requires one to look deeper, read between the lines, and listen with your heart?
What if the primary plot or theme of the whole story is strangely fulfilled in the birth, life, and death of a divine nobody?
What if the story has the power to inspire love, peace, beauty, healing, wholeness, harmony, and goodness in the world, and transform humankind’s relationships with ourselves individually and collectively, with others, and with life itself?
In my view, the story of the Bible could have value for all of humankind, regardless of your religious tradition or no religion at all, if taken this way. We can all agree that one’s religious, spiritual or philosophical beliefs can either be used as an instrument of division, hatred and violence, or harmony, solidarity, and love. The bottom line is that wherever you read in the Bible that people are acting in division, hatred, oppression, injustice, or violence in the name of God, then it should be taken as the part of the story where we corruptly co-opt God for our own self-serving and less than noble purposes. We should learn from this; not keep repeating it.
Is theology dead?
Contemporary theology is unquestionably in a state of crisis for multiple reasons. One of them is the relationship of dogmatic theology to its biblical ground. We know that the Bible was written in and from a view of the world that was reflective of its particular culture and time. Scientific knowledge and sociocultural evolution has rightfully dropped those outdated views. It has opened up a different understanding of the Bible altogether from being some sort of theological treatise for carving out an orthodoxy about God to a story of humankind’s relationship to the divine from which we must each work out it’s meaning and significance for our own lives.
The world of the 21st Century is very different from the world of the 1st Century and even of the 19th Century. Yet, too often Christian understandings are still based on the worldviews of those antiquated time periods. For example, we no longer accept that there is a religious explanation of natural events and processes. We understand a great deal about life and cells, about the laws of physics and of the atom, the origin of the universe and the movement of the stars, about space and time, about the evolution of life forms and the earth’s geological formations, about forces and matter, about causation and result.
Christianity has yet to come to terms with the world of the 21st Century and as a result has lost what is central and essential in Christianity. When the Christian church is faced with the fact and implications of 21st Century thought, it panics and retreats backward into a theological fortress where it has tried unsuccessfully to defend an outdated worldview that is incomprehensible to many of us. By failing to interpret Christianity to our generation in terms and concepts that this generation could understand, Christianity has lost its power to speak authoritatively and meaningfully to us, and that has resulted in a Christianity that is increasingly seen by many as irrelevant.
The Bible Requires A Different Kind of Question
People argue back and forth about the Bible on the question of whether the Bible is true. But true in what sense? Historically true? Scientifically true? Transcendently true? Is the Bible to be taken as rules to follow or evidence for the existence of God?
I find the value in the Bible relates to a question that would go something like this:
What does this particular piece of biblical writing (cosmic story, historical narrative, prose and poetry, commandments and laws, God/Jesus/Spirit-themes) tell me about how human beings work out questions of ultimate meaning and deep psychological significance, and what can I/We personally learn and gain from this?
For example, in my mind it's nonsense to argue over a literal Adam and Eve, Garden of Eden, and the Fall of Man. However, I find it meaningful and instructive to investigate what these stories represent and why.
The field of the Philosophy of Religion is the philosophical examination of the central themes and concepts involved in religious traditions. The philosophy of religion is different from theology in that theology's critical reflections are based on religious convictions. The Philosophy of Religion is an intermingling of philosophical inquiry with religious themes and the broader enterprises of philosophy.
The importance of philosophy of religion is chiefly due to its subject matter: alternative beliefs about God, the sacred, the varieties of religious experience, the interplay between science and religion, the challenge of non-religious philosophies, the nature and scope of good and evil, religious treatments of birth, history, and death, and other substantial terrain. A philosophical exploration of these topics involves fundamental questions about our place in the cosmos and about our relationship to what may transcend the cosmos. The meaningfulness of religious language, philosophical reflection on the concept of God, and exploring of religious experiences are all part of this area of inquiry.
William James described religion in this way, "Were one to characterize religion in the broadest and most general terms possible, one might say that it consists of the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto."
I do believe there is an unseen or nonmaterial reality that human beings experience. A piece of art or music moves us, deep feelings of love and belonging arise in close relationships, peak and euphoric experiences make us feel exhilaratingly alive, there are moments we are filled with awe and wonder, and we touch beauty, joy, sadness and sorrow. These are but a few ways we encounter an unseen or nonmaterial reality that cannot be adequately explained with test tubes and formulas. In my mind it's a leap to say that this "unseen order" is limited to only one particular and right religious or belief-system. In a previous blog post I wrote extensively about a non-religious, even secular spirituality.
I can accept the William James definition of religion, however I feel obliged to say that there is never a valid justification, including a religious one, for: - The hypocrisy of claiming to know God but demeaning people - Disparaging people of other faiths as a sign of devotion to yours - Cating judgment upon others while giving yourself a pass - Dividing the world up into “us” and “them” - Fostering fear of God - Telling people they are inherently bad - Repressing individuality and demanding conformity - Casting disapproval on those who question - Perpetuating a superiority class structure of “clergy” and “laity” - A performance-based system of earning God’s love and approval . - Assigning maleness to God and esteeming men over women - Allowing differences of beliefs to prevent working alongside others to alleviate suffering in our world - Praying for divine intervention without taking direct action - Claiming a close relationship with God while perpetuating discord and hostility in human relationships - Using religious beliefs to rationalize or justify hate, violence, injustice, oppression, discord, bigotry, misogyny, dehumanization, or the affliction of human or planetary suffering