The Word of God: The Danger of Fear and Good Manners

In A Hidden Wholeness, Parker J Palmer writes about the “moral exoskeleton” most of us put on hoping to prop ourselves up. This is not just for religious groups. This is everyone. We decide what it is we value and we prop ourselves up with it, as though we were inexorably hollow beneath it all.

We hold onto shitty relationships that are slowly but surely killing us because society says a successful relationship is a long one. We hold on to shitty jobs that give us money, so we can waste our lives being unhappy but with money. We sticky-tape ourselves together with selected Bible quotes or axioms we recite nightly, saying: “life just works this way”.

What if it’s all wrong? What if the religious foundations that have become the basis of our culture, mainly out of “respect”, is just pandering to ignorance? What if there isn’t much difference between those who are creating themselves based on the “Word of God” to those who are striving to create themselves around a custom-built list of ethical attributes?

God-loving Bishop and author John Shelby Spong wrote the book Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-religious World to draw attention to the fact that there is a lot of unfortunate ignorance around the Bible, particularly that it is “The Word of God.”

“It was a bold claim. It is also a claim, I was destined to learn, that depended for its sustenance on a great amount of biblical ignorance.” Spong explained. “One surely does not want to read much of the Bible if that claim is to remain intact.”

He uses examples such as the passage where the prophet Samuel instructed Saul, the King of Jews, to engage in a war of genocide against the Amalekites, in God’s name, in which he was to kill every man, woman, child, suckling, ox and ass (I Sam. 15:1-9). Spong asks “what kind of God could inspire the psalmist to write in God’s ‘Holy Word’ that the people of Israel would not be happy until they had dashed the heads of the children of the Babylonian enemies against the rocks? (Ps. 137:8-9).”

“Beyond those rather bizarre episodes, what is one to do with the biblical definitions of women as subhuman, the biblical acceptance of slavery as a legitimate social institution and the biblical admonitions to execute homosexual persons? All of these attitudes are quite clearly present in the Bible. For people to maintain with any real conviction that the Bible is the ‘Word of God’ means their minds have been closed to the truth…”

I might remind you here, this is written by a man who very strongly believes in God, but not the God of the Bible. Interestingly, he goes on to explain how the Bible came about, and he doesn’t beat around the [burning] bush about it.

“Certainly no thinking person can today still view the Bible as a revelation of God that dropped from heaven, fully written, divided into chapters and verses and bearing the divine imprimatur.

“We know that the Bible is a small library of books composed over a period of about one thousand years between roughly 1000 BCE and 135 CE… some of them were edited and re-edited over as long a period of time as five hundred years before they reached the form in which they found inclusion in the Bible. Can the ‘Word of God’ actually be edited?”

He goes on to explain that Moses had been dead for three hundred years before the first word of the Torah was put in written form. David did not write the book of Psalms. Solomon did not write Proverbs. The gospels were not written by eyewitnesses. The virgin birth was a ninth-decade addition and the ascension of Jesus was a tenth-decade addition.

He asks: “Given these realities, we need to ask just how the claim made by anyone that the Bible in any sense is the ‘Word of God’ can be sustained for even a moment without violating every rational faculty that human beings possess.”

Spong also discusses the firm protective shield around Biblical beliefs that we often don’t even really recognise, making the topic of religion fairly untouchable.

Indeed, even my favourite Sydney Morning Herald columnist Richard Glover, who describes himself as a non-believer, posted an article titled Sticking up for the Believers, where he states: “To deride someone else’s spiritual beliefs is, at its simplest, a lack of manners. Have some respect. The big questions of meaning and existence have not been settled so definitively that we can deride the answers achieved by others.”

When it comes to people simply poking fun at others for their beliefs I completely agree. I deleted my old Facebook account partially because I got sick of the elitist culture where it is ever so trendy to belittle people for being Christian. It seems our culture accepts pointless mockery from afar, but genuine discussion about religion and its effects on society is taboo.

While belittling people isn’t on my agenda, discussing a book whose words have become part of our everyday, normalized culture is. While Glover speaks about being respectful, why can’t we be both factual and respectful? Why must we remain quiet out of politeness when our Christian colleagues claim to believe that the world is only 6,000 years old, that women should know their place in the family, that homosexuals will burn in hell?

It just isn’t OK to spout ignorance and hate stemming from a culture thousands of years old and claim it to be “The Word of God”. I guess people are just too fearful to consider the fact that the Bible may not be as special as they thought it was, and that all their suffering and sacrifice during this lifetime has gone to waste (which it has), as though the only alternatives are Christian or atheism.

People like Glover say that Christianity is not hurting anyone, but I don’t know. If it’s combined with ignorance, which it often is, I think it does hurt people in the long run. People are so desperate to hold onto their beliefs that they become frantic and hateful, expending enormous amount of energy condemning others.

Speaking of hateful, in Richard Dawkins’ Book, The God Delusion, he includes letters written to Einstein by staunch Christians after Einstein dared say that he “did not believe in a personal God.”

An American Roman Catholic lawyer wrote in reply that “In the past ten years nothing has been so calculated to make people think that Hitler had some reason to expel the Jews from Germany as your statement.” What a disgusting thing to say!

Another told Einstein that if he did not believe in God, “you should go back to where you came from.” Amazing how fearful people are of different beliefs, and how the racism pours out so freely when the opportunity arises.

I must say that apart from a few sections, I didn’t like The God Delusion much. Richard Dawkins would have fit in well with the elitists I spoke of who openly mock religion, posting smug atheist memes just for the “likes”.

John Shelby Spong was perhaps speaking of Richard Dawkins when he wrote: “When I read books written by the new breed of militant atheist writers, who have become both best-selling authors and household names, I find myself perplexed as to how to respond to them. I have no desire to attack them or rise up to God’s defence. The religion, the Christianity and the Bible that they reject are the same religion, Christianity and Bible that I reject. My problem with such writers is not located there. It is rather in the apparent fact that they do not seem to know that there is any other way. Why should they, since the church has worked so hard not to allow other possibilities to become visible?”

Oddly, Spong still likes the Bible. I’m not sure why or how, but at least he approaches it knowledgeably and does not consider it to be “The Word of God”. And while I appreciate a lot of what Spong says, I’m not about to turn around and become his disciple. I think that’s the problem–we are always looking outside ourselves, as though it could ever work that way. Why would one person have the answers and another not?

My opinion is that God, or “the Good”, is a part of who we are. We weren’t born on this earth with our only chance for salvation being that we were born in the right part of the world so that we would be exposed to the teachings of the Bible. We don’t need saving, we just need to live, to let go and “unlearn” some of the layers of bullshit we’ve enveloped ourselves in to find the light which has almost been suffocated within, through our normalised culture.

If we find the idea of that fearful, and we think the depths of ourselves holds nothing, perhaps that’s a problem.

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