Why Read the Bible?

I wanted to write a few words about the Bible, and explain why I think it is a book of great spiritual value but is not, especially in present form, a perfect and infallible guide to all truth. I’m in a bit of a quandary of how to begin, because what I generally like to do when trying to write persuasively is to first map out the points on which I agree with my intellectual opponents, and then move along to the points of disagreement. I find that people read what you have to say more openly when you convince them that you understand and respect their point of view first. (As an aside, this was something which my self-selected patron Thomas Aquinas taught me. He understood and presented his opponent’s arguments so well that modern readers are sometimes a bit confused about what position he is actually arguing for).

The problem is that the people I’d like to persuade fall into two drastically different groups – those who take a very literal view of biblical infallibility, and those who find no value in it at all. So…let’s go in chronological order and talk about what the Bible IS before talking about what it BECAME.

Our Bible critics correctly point out that the Bible contains contradictions. It contains points of view that are historically inaccurate and scientifically naïve. It endorses laws, customs and behaviors that we would find barbaric, and prohibits others for what seem to us to be no good reason, often crystallizing behaviors which seem to us to be merely outdated social customs into eternal moral precepts. It contains works from a wide variety of sources (some of them pagan) from different historical periods, and these sources have different and even contradictory points of view on spiritual and even factual issues. It contains several works which purport to be authored by individuals who almost certainly did NOT actually write them. Finally, both the old and new Testaments have been redacted, perhaps several times, by editors who re-wrote sacred history, included some sources and discarded others, and made editorial changes to the whole collection – in order to suit their own point of view.

So why read it?

Starting from the ground up, we need to read it because of its immense cultural significance. The Bible is not simply an attempt to record history – the Bible IS history. The book itself has had a more profound influence on Western civilization (for good and bad) than any other work. It has affected our law, our educational system, our philosophy, our systems of government, our customs, our social institutions, etc. It’s impossible to understand our world without understanding the Bible.

Secondly, we read it because of its literary value. Just as we read and appreciate the Iliad or the histories of Shakespeare for their own internal beauty (in spite of the fact that neither is good history or good science). The Bible contains the writings of gifted authors, containing poems and stories and writings full of beauty, savagery, pathos and glory. It has been a source of inspiration for countless works of literature, music, painting and sculpture. The poetry of Dante and Milton, the music of Handel and Bach, the painting of Rembrandt, the sculpture of Michelangelo… all steeped in Biblical themes and influences. Not to have read the Bible makes us artistically handicapped.
Then there is the element of scholarship. Because the books of the Bible have been regarded as sacred for much of their history, they have been preserved with as much care and accuracy as ancient methods allow. In fact, even many of the textual errors introduced into the Bible were for the sake of accuracy. Scribes would sometimes copy marginal notes into the text when recopying a manuscript, for fear that the notes might have been part of the original text, and being unwilling to take the chance of discarding holy words. Because of this, the Bible preserves layers of historically invaluable material which can help understand earlier periods of history.

It is true that it requires quite a bit of training and considerable research to understand what the Bible REALLY tells us about the times it was written in, and disputed opinions are many. During much of the time the Bible was authored, the concept and standards of writing “history” or “biography” as we know it today were unknown. The historical and biographical (and other) forms of the Bible have to be understood on their own terms, and not on ours.

Finally (and for many, most importantly), what about the SPIRITUAL value of the Bible?

In spite of the differing viewpoints and historical development mentioned earlier – in my position as someone interested in mystical spirituality and the Perennial Philosophy – the Bible is irreplaceably valuable. Let me explore for a minute a couple of concepts from Ken Wilber’s work on human spiritual history – the concept of stages vs. states.

Mankind passes through stages of spiritual, moral and social development. In the normal course of things, this can generally be regarded as “progress” (although there are pitfalls at each stage). These stages, which I’ve mentioned before, move from animism and shamanism up through goddess-centric horticultural societies, power-gods, mythic-membership societies, mental and intellectual abstractions of spirituality and eventually integral spirituality. (For some explanation on this development, see Ken’s essay ‘Which Level of God Do You Believe In at http://www.beliefnet.com/story/153/story_15318_1.html) While there will always be a few forward-looking individuals who are several stages ahead of their culture, they will usually end up at odds with the culture as a whole until a critical stage of development is reached.

But the second factor to consider is extraordinary STATES of consciousness. At every stage of development, both culturally and personally, there are occasions when we have access to extraordinary and unusual STATES of consciousness. While the stages of consciousness need to be EARNED by hard work and development, these extraordinary states are often a free gift. From out of nowhere, Saul of Tarsus may be knocked off his horse or Ezekiel may see visions of strange symbolic beasts, or the tribal Shaman may enter a trance. We can group these (roughly) into nature mysticism, deity mysticism, formless mysticism, and nondual mysticism. And anyone can experience any of these, at any stage of development. BUT, on returning to their ordinary state of consciousness, they will tend to interpret these experiences in the context and language and trappings of their stage of development. An experience that a Greek might interpret as a visit from Apollo, for example, a modern Jungian might interpret as an experience of an inner archetype.

The reason for this slightly long explanation, and the application is this: Mystical states and truths are described in the Bible. They were experienced by prophets and seers and poets of various ages and at many stages of human development. But they are reported in the language of the stage of development the authors find themselves in. The Psalms, for example, which at times sink into bitter recriminations or lash out at enemies, are also full of poetry which proceeds from deep mystical insights from several states of consciousness. Spiritual insights, most likely the product of these experiences of extraordinary states of consciousness, abound in scripture.

In addition to the insights of extraordinary prophets and seers, the Bible contains many stories rich in universal archetypes and mythic themes. The need for powerful and expressive mythology seems to be fundamental to human spiritual development. Witness the popularity of modern mythological creations such as the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the entire fantasy genre is sparked, or the mythology of George Lucas’ ‘Star Wars’, which explicitly and deliberately utilized the work of mythologist Joseph Campbell in creating his storyline. Campbell described mythology as “the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human manifestation”, and believed that a lack of mythology had severe negative consequences for society and individuals. Mythology allows people to identify their own life and situations with universal patterns and themes, to feel connected with the cosmos. Whether we are David fighting Goliath or Joseph forgiving his brothers, we can find indispensable mythic images in the Bible that resonate with our life situations – particularly at certain stages of development.

It has been suggested that my method of finding valuable insights and patterns in the Bible is similar to finding shapes in a Rorschach ink-blot. I see the “higher message” because I’m LOOKING for a higher message. But this isn’t all I see. I’m quite aware of problems, provincialisms, contradictions and barbarities preserved in scripture. In addition to this, I find profound spiritual value. Perhaps the Rorschach criticism points both directions. It’s possible to read the Bible and see ONLY the difficulties – because difficulties are what we want to see.

But, granting that there is spiritual good in the Bible, wouldn’t it be better to simply extract that good and throw away the rest? Couldn’t a book with mystical insight and mythic purpose be written that was as good as or better than the Bible? While I’m all in favor of such books, I don’t believe they would replace the Bible for this reason: having been written from a variety of viewpoints at different stages of spiritual development, the Bible SPEAKS to all those viewpoints and stages, and can be used as a tool to lead us from one to the next. The individual at the “power-god” stage will find plenty of heart-warming stories in the Bible that assure him how much better and more powerful HIS God is than other gods. Meanwhile, such a person can be approached with the more subtle teachings of Jesus or Paul that call them to a higher stage of understanding. The “power-god” person is not going to even pick up a book by Krishnamurti or Eckhart Tolle. Which brings me to a final point about the Bible.

While I respect the right of others to disagree, I find something profoundly “providential” in the way the Bible has managed to come together out of apparently contradictory viewpoints to form a more balanced whole than any of it’s individual sources could have imagined or intended. In the Old Testament, some sources saw God as distant and transcendent. Others saw him as immanent and approachable. What results is a unique harmony of both views that see divinity both in the absolute and in the manifest. Lawgivers in the Old Testament are balanced by charismatic and iconoclastic prophets. In the New Testament, some sources emphasize Jesus’ humanity, others his connection with divinity. Some books argue for grace and others for morality. In the balance of these opposites, more profound truths are achieved than in either extreme.

It occurs to me that this is a long enough post without getting into the next part – how Bible reverence went awry. I’ll try to post on that presently.

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