Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Bible: take it or leave it?

I have just been followed on Twitter by an atheist whose slogan is "The Bible... Believe ALL of it, or, Believe NONE of it!"

That is such a simplistic attitude that I nearly didn't respond, thinking it was scarcely worth it. However, I had one of those xkcd moments... so here goes.

The Bible is a book (or better, a collection of books) with different authors, all of whom seem to have had very different ideas about God, and what God wants. The earlier books of the Bible have YHWH demanding blood smeared on the horns of his altar; then the prophets bemoan the hard-heartedness of Israel and their inability to just be nice to people for a change (see Amos 5:24 for example). The theology expressed by Jesus is quite different from that of Paul, which is different again from James and Peter. (I think that's why I found it so very confusing when I tried, a very long time ago, to take it at face value.) All this is well-documented by liberal biblical criticism.

If you don't want to take liberal biblical criticism as your source, try Richard Dawkins, who says we should regard the Bible as a work of literature. Quite right - it is a work of literature, and has just as many insights into human nature as any other pre-modern work of literature.

Obviously (if you read other things I have written on this blog), I do not literally believe the cosmological accounts given in the Bible. They are metaphors, just as Pagan creation myths are metaphors. I also don't believe in the resurrection of Jesus, but I do think his mythology is a version of the stories of other Middle-Eastern dying-and-resurrecting vegetation gods, and if you read it as mythology, it is a good account of the archetypal experiences of the human psyche (the death of the ego and resurrection of the greater self, as outlined in the Hero Journey).

The method I use for interpreting the Bible is to compare it with the wisdom texts of other spiritual traditions. If you read what Jesus and other prophets said in the light of what the Buddha said, or what Lao Tsu said, it makes a lot more sense. Personally I find it easier to read the Buddha and Lao-Tsu, because I don't have to filter out the noise of conservative interpretations of Jesus' thoughts that I was brought up with. But this doesn't mean that the Bible is worthless. It means that if you're going to read it, you should read it carefully to see if its ethical guidance resonates with your own experience. And if it doesn't (as in some of the very dodgy statements in the Pentateuch), then reject it. It's not a supernaturally inspired book, it's a document of the spiritual journeys of a bunch of people, and should be read as such.

As the Buddha said,
"Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense."
I wonder if this is what Jesus meant when he said "He who has ears to hear, let him hear". If so, I wish he had been a bit less cryptic!

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