Thursday, February 19, 2009

Why Bother With the Bible?

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.

Why?

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.

So.

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.

14 comments:

Jeff Lilly said...

Very cool, Cat. Is it hard to skip over the bits that you feel are "off"? I keep thinking of Thomas Jefferson's version of the New Testament -- a version where he basically took out everything he could feel was somehow wrong...

Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

Well, see, that's the thing. I'm not approaching the Bible as a history or a prescription for goodness, but as the poetry of goodness. (Well, a poetry of goodness.)

I have no faith in the book itself. God is too big to fit inside any one religion, let alone any one book. But poetry does what poetry always tries to do--allow us the vocabulary with which we can clothe the experience of the ineffable.

I think what I'm saying is, given the fact that at least one of the few holy people I've ever known finds that Spirit speaks to him in this language, I need to become fluent in it, too.

So I needn't concern myself with "right" or "wrong" in the book itself. It's sort of like the ways I would be aware, as a psychotherapist, that the advice I was giving one client, in one situation, would be totally wrong for another client in another situation. One reason I've never written a book on trauma recovery is how easily the wrong advice for a particular person or situation can be misapplied.

Quakers--at least the ones I hang out with--wait for the promptings of Spirit to guide them even in Biblically-based ministry. And where someone has actually got a strong ongoing relationship with the Holy Spirit, they are able to offer even words of this so-often toxic book in a way that heals and redeems.

You know, the old chestnut about, "the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life." I am coming to trust the ministry of Friends who know how to lean on the Soul of the World, on the Light I experience among Friends.

But I have to do my homework. I need to be fluent in the metaphors and imagery in order to recognize them and drink the full meaning from them when they are given to me. And, you know, it adds depth--for instance, the speech Martin Luther King gave just before his assassination, "I have been to the mountaintop, and I have seen the promised land," means so much more when you know the Biblical story behind it: how Moses was shown a glimpse of the future home of Israel, but told by God he wasn't going to get to go there with them.

I don't have to love the (possibly, allegedly) historical Moses to be rocked by his story in the mouth of a modern prophet like King. But I need to know the story to understand the full depths of what King was saying.

I am at a point where I'm regarding the Bible almost the way I regard the imagery of the Tarot or of trance journey: a collection of images easily manipulated by Spirit to speak truths.

So it's not important to me that there are all these odd "off" rules and horrors. After all, in my mind, the Bible is merely the work of men.

But some of those men (and women) probably walked with God from time to time--as do my friends today. So there are echoes.

Anyway... nice to see you here, Jeff--especially since I'm a little worried about seeming like Cat of the Borg, assimilated into Abramic religion, in this post. (I don't think I am... but I can see the nervous sweat on my Pagan friends' brows lately, waiting for me to start testifyin'!)

Jeff Lilly said...

Cat, I'm sorry -- I didn't mean to make you write a follow-up post! :-) But I totally understand what you mean. One of the things the Waldorf school does is devote a whole year to Biblical stories (and a whole year to Norse stories, and a whole year to Greek stories...). It's been great for the kids to be exposed to it in-depth, and it was also fascinating to compare their responses to the stories from year to year. I'll always remember, mid-way through the Bible year, my oldest daughter asked, "Why couldn't the people just BE GOOD??" That took some answering -- but it was SO worthwhile.

And you can be Christian if you want. Some of my best friends are Christian. Ok, well, most of them. :-) And I do believe in Jesus -- even in Jesus the Son of God. But I also believe in a bunch of other gods, and they tend to talk to me a lot more than Jesus does.

Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

A fine essay, Cat! I found myself nodding in agreement again and again. And I loved your description of your three friends.

Gregory LeFever said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gregory LeFever said...

Fascinating and provocative post. It reminded me of something by the late Indian mystic Osho, when he writes:

"All of the great scriptures of the world are written in sutras, aphorism ~ because the people who wrote them went through this flood of catharsis. When the catharsis was complete, then diamond-like, small sentences ~ simple, aesthetic, beautiful, complete ~ started bubbling in the consciousness. It is from that consciousness that the Vedas were born, and the Koran. And it is from that consciousness that the beauty of the language of the Bible arises. Never has it been surpassed.

"Jesus was illiterate, but nobody has ever surpassed that clarity, that penetrating reality of his assertions. Behind it is great meditation. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali or the Brahma Sutras of Badrayana or the Bhakti Sutras of Naad ~ small sentences, the smallest you can conceive, almost telegraphic ~ but so much is pressed into them that each sentence has atomic energy. If you lovingly take it into yourself, to your heart, it will explode and you will become luminous through it."

I think he said it well. From what you said, Cat, you want, and will, become luminous.

Marshall Massey said...

Just speaking personally, I'd take interpretations like Osho's with the proverbial grain of salt. Like other Hindus I have known (and I've known quite a few, having lived two years in a guru's ashram), he presumed that Jesus was a holy person in the Hindu mold. But in truth, Semitic culture and religion was vastly different from Hindu culture and religion. The assumptions about the nature of reality were profoundly different. Even the languages were profoundly different.

"Jesus was illiterate"? Luke's gospel says otherwise: "...As his custom was, he went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read." (Luke 4:16b) A Hindu saddhu's virtue is all the greater if his wise speach does not come from reading, so Osho may be forgiven for jumping to conclusions here. But a Jewish rabbi? His learning is a valued part of what he has to offer!

The standard Hindu view is that Jesus was an avatar of Vishnu, who meditated the way all holy figures do. But Jews did not meditate; they prayed. And early Christians believed that what Christ said was not meditational wisdom but the direct word of God.

Reg said...

You said, in part:
"I'm not approaching the Bible as a history or a prescription
for goodness, but as the poetry of goodness. (Well,
a
poetry of goodness.)
I have no faith in the book itself. God is too big to fit inside any one religion,
let alone any one book."
and
"So I needn't concern myself with "right" or "wrong" in the book itself."

I have recently begun attending my local Quaker meeting. Recent events, including finding this blog, could make me wish, pointlessly, that I had followed up my vague desire to "hang out" with Quakers earlier.

Now, to hear something like one's own views expressed with more elloquence and depth of perspective is both humbling and instructive. Besides, everyone likes to be agreed with by smart people (smile).
Thank you


Reg

Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

Marshall, thank you both for stopping by--and for always surprising me. I had rather expected you to object to how I am currently approaching the Bible, which shows--yet again--the danger of assuming I understand the feelings of others. I think I make assumptions much more often than I am aware regarding what "Christians think" and "Christians feel", assuming a monolith that doesn't exist. I think a lot of non-Christians and former Christians fall into the trap of doing this, so I won't apologize, but rather, thank you yet again for being willing to represent a Christian perspective with clarity and power.

There are too many of us, in the world of religion, making assumptions and not listening to each other's realities. I'll be very happy if this blog sometimes helps to limit that a bit. I know your comments here have that effect for me, at least--so thanks again.

Greg, without addressing Osho's ideas on Christ, I am interested to think about the ways that his view of reading the Sutras, "If you lovingly take it into yourself, to your heart...you will become luminous through it" reminds me of what I have read of the meditative practice of lectio divina as practiced within Christianity. I'm not sure what to make of it, but I find it interesting to note the common ground.

I don't, offhand, know of any similar practice within modern Paganism, unless it is the way that the iconography of Pagan mythology and the Tarot tend to make their way into things like trance journeys and such. But this strikes me as not so very similar to the kind of meditative reading of a text you are talking about... maybe just because I'm so very word oriented myself.

And, Marshall, though the form of prayer taught by Jesus in the Gospels is certainly different from meditation, are modern forms of prayer like centering prayer, or the Quaker practice of "holding in the Light" entirely different critters? Gathered waiting worship among Quakers is certainly different from individual meditation (though there are commonalities, of course) but I have a harder time differentiating between that and prayer. Again, this may be because I'm so verbal in how I navigate the world--paradoxically so: I distrust all my words when I attempt to commune with God, and try for something distinct from that, myself.

Your comments would be welcome.

Reg, welcome! Thank you so much for your kind words--and I definitely know the feeling of how "everyone likes to be agreed with by smart people" so I'll happily thank you for sharing your obviouslyintelligent voice to the conversation here. *smiling back*

I'm glad you have found us, and also your local Quaker meeting. You might be interested in exploring the Quaker blogosphere further, through some of the links at Quaker Quaker (some of which can be found on the Blidget on the front page of this blog). As you might guess, a Quaker Pagan like me is at one end of a pretty wide spectrum of Quaker practice; it turns out, there's a lot of thought-provoking stuff out there for those times when growth can come from the pleasure of interacting with intelligent people who disagree with us, too. *grin*

Bright blessings, everybody.

Marshall Massey said...

Hi, Cat!

I'm glad you appreciated what I had to share. It's always fun listening in on you and Peter, and conversing and arguing with you when we see things different ways —

Okay. Prayer and meditation.

I wouldn't want to judge "the form of prayer taught by Jesus in the Gospels" by the words of the so-called Lord's Prayer. Jesus's pattern, as described in the Gospels, doesn't seem to have been one of laying out literal rituals for his disciples to follow. When he passed around the bread and wine at the Last Supper, he didn't say, "Duplicate this ritual every Sunday," he said, "Do this, here and now, with your minds full of me," and there was an unspoken suggestion of, "Learn how to do other things this way, too." When he washed his disciples' feet, he didn't say, "Wash each other's feet as a religious ritual," but "Behave like this toward one another."

It was like a mountain climbing instructor saying to his students: "On this traverse, you will need to put your pitons in the rock there and there." This doesn't mean you will put pitons in the nearest thing to the exact same places on every later traverse you make; and if you make the mistake of thinking that this is what it means, you will probably get yourself killed! It means, you need to grasp the logic that dictates the right placement of pitons, and the places your instructor is pointing to now will, if you try them out and think about your experience, help you understand that logic.

This is the way a lot of teachers taught in that part of the world: not just Jesus, but (for example) Saul learning from the prophets, Elijah teaching Elisha, Socrates teaching his students, and Antisthenes and Diogenes teaching anyone they could get to pay attention. The teacher didn't present abstractions. He (or she) modeled a way of doing, presented examples, and if necessary literally put people through the motions until they got a feel for it.

So that is how I understand Jesus teaching prayer. Everything I've seen in the Bible seems to suggest that prayer, in the Hebrew and Jewish and first-century-Christian world, meant speaking to your God as someone who you were quite confident was there, listening, caring, and fully able to respond to you if He chose. Jesus's own prayer was exactly on that level: his style of praying is portrayed concretely in the account of his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, shortly before his crucifixion, and again in the account of his prayer on the cross. These models weren't meant as something for us to copy ritually, but as examples to show us how it flows.

In this context, Paul's famous advice to "pray without ceasing" implies, be ceaselessly aware of God's presence, and interact constantly with Him. "God, I'm going to make a cup of coffee now. Oops, God, I just spilled the sugar. God, my body is telling me it didn't actually want this third cup this morning; would You help me not make cups of coffee in the future that I'm not actually going to drink?" And so on, nonstop, all day long. "God, I'm going to talk to the coworker I'm having problems getting along with now. Can I have Your help? Oops, God, I just said the wrong thing!"

And in that context, what is the "Lord's Prayer"? It is a presentation of some of the sorts of things you should be saying to God (there is definitely a "should" involved), in order to go above and beyond the Facebook-status-line level of "God, I'm making coffee now." You can say things like, "God, may Your name be honored, this moment, this day, in my being and my doing! And may Your kingdom come! Watching Obama last night, I realized yet again how much I would prefer Your kingdom to what I'm seeing!" And you can say similar things that aren't in the sample script Jesus gave, but that are on your mind in a comparable way. "God, please have mercy on all the people that I have no power to be merciful to. And please understand that as I struggle to repay my debts to my creditors, so I also wish I could repay my debts to You —"

No, this isn't meditation. It has in common with meditation its every-moment quality, but it's not concentration (dhâranâ) or stilling the mind and becoming absorbed in that which is beyond that (dhyâna). It's spilling your guts out in a moment by moment interaction with God. It's interpersonal, stripped-naked, and inclusive of the world God put you in.

If I recall rightly, one of the founders of "centering prayer" — I can't recall whether it was Keating or Penington — publicly acknowledged a debt to TM®. Now, Keating, Penington and everyone else involved are all emphatic that centering prayer is actually Christian, not Hindu. But I honestly think it has more in common with Indian assumptions about meditation than its champions care to admit, and less in common with what the Hebrews and Jews and first century Christians meant by prayer. Would you not agree, based on what I've said so far? And I'd say the same about the "Jesus Prayer", and about any other prayer that repeats words over and over. These things aren't really interpersonal and interactive with God in the free-flowing way Jesus modeled.

As for the "holding in the Light" stuff, I suspect I may make you chuckle by saying that I regard it as magical thinking. It is certainly not what any Friends did prior to the late twentieth century. It also has little in common with what Hindus and Buddhists mean by "meditation" — dhâranâ or dhyâna. It may be the first feeble gropings toward siddhi yoga, but if so, that alarms me more than it reassures me.

"Waiting worship", as practiced by early Friends, was Biblically based (see, for example, Psalms 52:9b, 123:2; Isaiah 25:9; Hosea 12:6c), but not an exact duplicate of anything described in the Bible. And it was heavily influenced by Lutheran/Calvinist views about original sin and the total depravity of humankind. It was because of human depravity that the worshiper had to not merely wait, but totally quiet her own flesh and mind, so that the Spirit could be discerned and obeyed. There was still room for free conversation with God; spontaneous free-flowing prayer appears to have been fairly common. But it was nonetheless more formalized than Jesus's praying at Gethsemane. And the emphasis on the quieting of oneself, and on the idea of a God who could not be heard unless the self was totally stilled, was something with an evident resemblance to Hindu/Buddhist thought.

Where did this come from? Well, there's been a slow cultural back-and-forth between the Judæo-Christian world and the Indic world for 25 centuries or so, ever since the Persians opened safe trade routes. You and I saw, in an earlier conversation, how the idea of satans seems to have come from Persia. You may possibly know that in the Middle Ages the Buddhist "Questions of Milinda" found their way to Europe in a garbled form under the title of "Barlaam and Ioasaph", and became a popular Christian devotional text, and the Buddha was accordingly canonized by Rome under the name of Saint Jehosaphat (a mispronounced "Bodhisat").

The Jesus Prayer could very likely have been inspired by exposure to mantra meditation. There's no proof it was, but it seems reasonable. And a great deal of the medieval mysticism that Rufus Jones was so in love with — the mysticism of Eckhart, Suso, Ruusbroec, Hilton, etc. — shows an apparent kinship with the Indic tradition, which can be traced back to its roots in the teachings of "Dionysius the Areopagite", and thence through "Dionysius" to Neoplatonism, which in turn was clearly influenced by Indic ideas that had crossed over to the Greek world.

All these facts may, I fear, seem like little more than babble. But if something I've said here is helpful to you, then I'm glad I took the time to write it out.

Liz Opp said...

Like you to some extent, Cat, I have found my tentative way into [some of] Scripture because of the people I care about, how they use Scripture in their life, and how Scripture speaks to them over the years.

Blessings,
Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

Hystery said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hystery said...

Sorry. Obvious error in grammar. Had to repost.

I believe that since each of us, regardless of our spiritual orientation, is so profoundly affected by the cultural dominance of christianities (intentionally plural) especially in the western world, it is silly for us not to take biblical studies and theology seriously. Those who are the most opposed to me are Christians. Those who are my closest allies are Christian. I'd be a fool to fail to make a serous attempt to understand their language, heritage, and hopes. Without cultivating that knowledge, there seems to be little hope of reconciliation and partnership.

Now if only I could get more Christians to be as seriously interested in my spirituality...Oh well. One thing at a time.

Anonymous said...

Cat,
Thank you for your lovely post. I have long looked to poetry of various kinds for spiritual "truths." I have felt the same type of "draw" to scriptural reading that you describe. . . because of wise people I respect who have absorbed the language deep into themselves. But then I have felt intimidated by what I thought was the proper way of reading the Bible--the notion that the words must be taken as literal truths and not metaphors or poetry--and stopped reading. Your message offers a kind of permission for an alternative way of reading the good book, and I thank you for that.

all best,
Anne

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