For the past two years (approximately), Peter and I have been, in our own different ways, reading and thinking about the Bible.
Our ways are different--Peter says that he is attempting to read the Bible as a writer, and, in order to do justice to the original authors, he works to squirrel out as much information on translations and the evolution of the texts he reads as he can.
I don't have much use for that approach. To me, the books of the Bible are much too much like a centuries old game of telephone, and the version that is on any of the printed pages we have tells me little or nothing about the men and women whose ideas may have been the original seed for the words. I just can't bring myself to trust the ideas that far back.
As for any original divine intent... lets just say that I find myself comfortably one of those Quakers who regard the Bible as words about God rather than the word of God.
But I am reading the Bible, and trying to take it seriously as a body of literature.
Without going into detail, it's pretty obvious that a lot of the uses that book has been put to over the millennia have been "bad for children and other living things," as the slogan goes. So why should I, a non-Christian Quaker, even bother with it?
It has to do with goodness.
Let me be clear. I think that anyone who offers a claim that the People of the Book have a unique claim on goodness are pretty clueless. Setting aside whatever wrongs have been propped up by Biblical argument, the Holy Spirit clearly is multi-lingual, and can speak as fluently in Sanskrit as in Hebrew, in Xhosa as in Greek. Goodness of the sort I wish to speak about is not the exclusive domain of any religion, any language, or any body of humans on earth. And this is because the sort of bone deep, reverberant goodness I am referring to is not (I believe) simply a product of humanity at all, but rather reflects a partnership of humanity and Spirit that transcends anything we homo sapiens sapiens have ever thought or planned or built on our own. And what limits we have to our understanding or availability for this partnership do not apply to the Spirit.
We don't own God, and no religion gets to slap a brand name on Her. Period.
She goes where She wants to go, and those of us who are wise will take notes and try to keep up, not pretend we understand Her limits in terms of human institutions, cultures, or languages. That's just bosh.
And one of the places I see God is in the eyes of a very few deeply good human beings I have known in the course of my life.
I'm not talking, at the moment, about ordinary goodness: people who resolve to live honestly and with integrity, whose words and actions are ethical and kind on a routine basis. I've known a lot of people like that, and I'm grateful to be able to say so, too. I'm also grateful for the things that have brought me to a place where I think I can describe myself this way: an ordinary person, who lives a life of ordinary goodness.
However, I have known personally at least three people whose goodness is of a different type somehow. (There may well have been more, of course. I do not take my lack of vision for a lack of something to see.)
The fact remains, in at least three examples of the people I have known personally in my life, I have encountered something rare and extraordinary. It's not so much any particular thing they have done or neglected to do--but something in them is more fully awake and open to Spirit than is the usual thing.
In them I think I see reflected something I will call the face of God; these people have each been, I think, in partnership with the Holy Spirit for a significant part of their lives.
The first of the three was an agnostic college professor, whose eyes, whose whole being, was nonetheless suffused with an uncommon sweetness and joy that I truly believe was holy. He did not pray, and he did not preach--in any commonly understood way, at least. But he had a deep and overflowing love for the mysteries of science, and he approached the intricacies of his discipline with the gentleness of a father taking up his newborn child. His passion for teaching and learning and experimentation went well beyond an intellectual pleasure--and it extended to other parts of his life as well. His mind and his heart was always open, and I cannot think of a man possessed of greater compassion than his. I met him when I was seventeen, and came to know him well. I'm grateful for a lot in my life, but knowing him is very high on the list, because if I had not known him, I might never have known what goodness a human being could manifest.
I believe that, for that man, the mysteries of the natural world were the shape which Spirit took when She partnered with him to create a kind of holiness. Science has never called to me in this way, but I know that it can, because of the reflected glory I saw so often in Earl's eyes.
The second two men I know who carry that unusual holiness are Quakers.
One certainly was Christian at one point in time, but I'm not sure exactly what he believes about God right now.
I think this is at least partly due to a humility about God, and that that's partly what allows Spirit to be so close to him. I know he knows his Bible; he has helped both Peter and me to find passages we had only vague memories of, but which were tickling our brains. But I do not know what his theology is.
What I am sure of is that he lives his life as though he were a summer cottage with all the doors and windows flung open, so that the slightest breeze of Spirit passes through the whole frame.
I've heard him speak of how rarely he gives vocal ministry in meeting. I am not sure he knows that his silent presence in meeting is a ministry, a silent ministry, that is far more potent than most spoken messages.
I don't know if he believes in God. I know he walks with God.
Finally, I know a third man, another example of this kind of holiness. He is also a Quaker, and like the man I just described, his witness from silence is more potent than the vocal ministry of all but the most inspired. There is a warmth that comes from his silence that is not his alone, but is a reflection of that Holy Spirit. Just to worship in company with this man is a gift.
He is Christian. Explicitly so, and the rare vocal ministry he gives is often couched in scriptural language.
I have been lucky enough, in my life, to have known three people who live in nearly constant communion with the Holy Spirit. Two of them are Quakers; one of them is Christ-centered, and understands his spiritual encounters in scriptural terms.
If I know three paths to holiness, and one of those three paths is explained in Biblical language, why would I not try to learn this tongue?
Though I did not become a scientist, I most certainly studied science more seriously and more deeply in order to converse with Earl.
Though I may not ever become a Christian, I would be a fool not to study the Bible, in hopes of better understanding the voice of God when it speaks through Friends.
Is the Bible the only language God speaks? One out of three encounters with human holiness say, no. Is the Bible capable of yielding more bitter fruit than my Friends have taken from it? Experience of the world's Christians says, yes. But it's not the Bible I'm interested in, but the relationship with God that, at least sometimes, has been mediated by it.
My desire is the poet's desire, the mystic's desire. I'm much less interested in the archeology and history and ideas of people long ago gone in the Middle East than I am in the stirrings of God within Friends I know in worship. I need to understand imagery and the metaphors of deeply lived spiritual lives. I want to come closer to the deep, still waters I know these Friends drink from.
Maybe I'll get to drink from them, too--and maybe not.
But I'm certainly willing to try.