Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Babies, Bathwater and Bibles

In these blog posts I have made no secret of the fact that I do not believe in God. I used to be a practicing Christian. Indeed, I used to be an Anglican minister. I stepped onto that path because of a number of experiences that I would broadly describe as “mystical”. I do not believe, any longer, that these experiences point to any supernatural entity. They are part – a very important part – of our human nature, akin to our appreciation of beauty, poetry, music and other equally “useless” things. But they have nothing to do with religion per se.

Having made that clear, I want to emphasise that this does not mean that I reject everything in the Christian tradition as pointless or harmful. This is true of other religious systems also. Consider the Bible, which is the religious text with which I am most familiar. People who reject the teachings of the Bible completely, or regard them as totally irrelevant for today, are essentially committing the same error as Biblical fundamentalists: they are failing to understand the text of the Bible within its cultural and historical context. The writings that we now call the Bible were written over a period of some two thousand years, many starting life as oral traditions. Earlier writings have undergone various revisions at various times. As with any text, they reflect the values, beliefs and circumstances of the day. There are some Biblical teachings that we rightly reject today. There are others that retain some value, when they are properly understood. The Bible, Old and New Testaments, is not easy to understand, and we are foolish if we think that we can simply sit down and read it, without any historical and cultural background. Some things we will get; many, if not most, we will not. The danger is that we think we do. Whether we like it or not, the Bible requires careful historical and literary study in order to fully understand it. The same is surely true of any historical text, whether religious or not, written long ago in one or several ancient languages. Again, we are foolish if we do not see this.

I would be equally foolish to reject some genuine wisdom, simply because of a prior prejudice against the Bible. It contains human experience and reflection on that experience, much of which remains relevant, much of which no longer is. It records and interprets an important part of human history, and we would be foolish to ignore it completely, and dismiss it all as nonsense. Of course we know things now that the authors did not know then; of course it reflects many values and beliefs that we no longer share; of course there are errors of fact and history; of course there are inconsistencies. It reflects a long period of history and the ideas of many people in many different times, places and situations.

Properly understood the Bible can be a source of wisdom, as can the writings of Plato, the Qur’an, the Bhagavad Gita, the teachings of Confucius and the unwritten traditions of indigenous peoples. We can learn from all of this; but we need to understand it. And, we must admit, this usually requires the guidance of scholars.

As usual, an interpretation of the Bible as somehow divinely inspired, or, even worse, dictated verbatim by God, obscures its true value for us today. It alienates people. As a result the baby is thrown out with the bath water. And remember, even when the Bible gets it wrong, this can still provide us with a useful starting point for thought, discussion and debate.


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  1. Hi Phil it sounds to me like you haven’t completely cut the umbilical cord of religion but more so have been touched by an experience that has changed your perception.
    I am not religious and often see religion as something that can be manipulated to its own end. If we could only take the best parts of all religions and make them compatible for all this would be good! But then we would also be accused of manipulation ourselves. The bottom line is that you treat others as you wish to be treated yourself. And those that don't rather with ignorance than animosity!
    I heard someone interviewed on a chat show and he was asked what his political and religious beliefs where. His answer! Whatever is wrong it needs to put right! Whatever is right it needs to be applauded! But not everyone can see what is wrong or right! Compassion and understanding is inherent in some but in others it’s a harder pill to swallow!

    PS: I like your book great read!

    1. Thanks for your comment. I have cut the umbilical cord - I think we all need to do that when we are finally born. The Bible for me is just one more potential source of human wisdom, insight and folly. I emphasise: HUMAN. If I were to dismiss the Bible entirely, that would demonstrate that I was still emotionally (if not umbilically) bound to it.