God’s Holy Word

I am sure that at some time or other everyone that reads this article has had the experience of engaging in a conversation with an evangelical Christian where the Evangelical, noticing your interest in Religion, tries to save your soul. If you are foolish enough to pursue the discussion when you get to the point of disagreement; your Evangelical friend will probably resort to saying either “it says so in the Bible” or “ but the Bible is God’s Holy word”.
          This is when Unitarians fall back on arguments such as the problems with translation of text, that we should be aware of the context in which words were spoken, that the Bible should be read as poetry not a legal document. We know that there were more texts excluded from the final version of the Bible than recorded in the Bible. Then of course we remember that the Bible is just one version of “Scripture”. The Hindu religion has the Upanishads, and the Bhagavad Gita, Buddhists have their sacred writings, Jews have the Torah and Muslims have the Qur’an. Followers of every religion use their scripture as a touchstone in times of trouble and as guide for living. All religions use their scripture to dismiss or sometimes to even harm those who profess different beliefs.
          It is to be expected that there are different scriptures; all sacred writing reflect the culture and values of the individuals who created them. For most people in western culture the Bible still retains status as a touchstone for morality. Its familiarity makes its meaning easily accessible for us. It is important that all scriptures are read with the understanding that scientific knowledge must take precedence when it comes to interpreting sacred texts. The Bible accepts slavery and condemns homosexuality; knowledge, justice and honesty demands that we must disagree with these concepts despite the fact that it is written in the Bible.
          The sceptical side of a Unitarians might point out the irony that God must speak with many tongues and with many different messages. If God wishes to communicate with humanity surely God’s message would be clear, precise and consistent? All scriptures are of human origin; they were born from humanity’s search for deep living and for connection with the nameless entity we refer to as God. They were also written as a record of the life of the founder of that particular faith.
          Thinking about the origins of these sacred writings made me realise something obvious but something that is often forgotten. The founders or the great exemplars of the majority of the world’s religions, Siddharta Gautama, Jesus and the Prophet Muhammad, none of these teachers committed a word of their teaching into writing. Not one word was written down by any of them.
          Libraries have been written and filled to the rafters, with books about the teachings of these three individuals. The writings tell the life story of the teacher, they expound their teachings, they interpret their meaning of the teaching, then give their reasons for the teaching. All this information comes to us not just at second hand; but it comes filtered through many layers and interpretations before it reaches us.
          Each of these teachers lived at a time when writing existed. We know that Jesus could read and write. He taught in the synagogue i.e. He read the Jewish scriptures aloud and explained them to his listeners. Jesus could write; he wrote the sins of the persecutors in the dust. Yet we base our beliefs about Jesus and the meaning of his life, death and teaching, mainly on the experience and interpretations of St.Paul and the early church fathers like Augustine – neither of these two individuals ever met or knew Jesus.
          The Gospels are accounts of the life and death of Jesus. The earliest account was written down by an anonymous author almost forty years or two generations after his death. John’s Gospel was written seventy years after the death of Jesus.
          The origins of the Hindu scriptures are lost in the mist of time. Muslims say that the Qur'an was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) by the angel Gabriel. When a verse was revealed to him Muhammad went into a trance like state. His followers ‘memorised’ the verses, they wrote what they remembered on pieces of wood or stone or velum (usually goat skin). After the death of Muhammad the writings were collected and collated into their present form. Muslims believe that sufficient steps were taken that ensured the integrity of the book. However some verses known as the “Satanic Verses” were excluded from the Qur'an. Just writing about these verses has put the author Salman Rushdie’s life in danger. Just like the collection of the Bible from only four sources, what happened to Judas, Barnabus, etc. etc. etc. . . .
          All these sacred scripts are open to the possibility of errors and prejudice. Far more importantly I believe that the fact that none of these religious leaders themselves left any personal writings was intentional. I believe that they understood that spirituality cannot be experienced at second hand, it cannot be handed on to another person. There is no recipe for spirituality. Also when something is committed to writing it loses its ability to adapt and change in response to changing circumstances.
          The Buddha taught for forty five years after his experience of Enlightenment. He was passionate to pass on his teaching. But he never wrote it down. He said of religious instruction that it: “is a finger that points towards the moon, it is not the moon”. Humanity throughout history has made the mistake of believing that their sacred scripture is the moon. When in fact all scripture is but a finger that points towards something important.
          Sacred scripture is an account of the religious experiences of other people. As such they have limited value. When the Reformation allowed Christian’s to read scripture themselves; this access did not transform the Christian Faith. It led to bloodshed and dissention about the interpretation of the text. The centrality of the Bible in the Reformed Churches means that as science has highlighted “errors” in the bible text the Bible is losing its credibility.
          The value of accounts of spiritual experiences that transformed a life is that I know that my life too may be transformed. Usually the key to transformation is found in the small details of the stories.
          We are all familiar with the story of Moses and the burning bush. The experience transformed Moses. Moses was a middle aged man, he had a speech impediment, he was living quietly and keeping a low profile because of a murder he had committed in the past. Moses changed to the extent that he confronted Pharaoh himself and Moses went on to become the leader of his people. When Moses had his life changing experience he asked “who shall I say sent me” The reply was not “tell them God sent you”. It was “ I am ” say “I am sent me”.
          We who talk so much about God tend to conceive of God in terms of God as a noun. We believe or deny the God of anger, the God of Laws, the God of Love. The God we believe in or do not believe in, is an entity, is concealed among the clouds. Would thinking of God as “I am” change our conception of divinity? Can I believe in “I am”?
          The small seemingly insignificant details are the important parts of the story. A bush may have burned without being consumed by the fire - who can say and this does not really matter? Contemplation of the enigmatic reply “I am sent me” provides much food for thought.
          Moses saw the plight of his people. Was Moses like the majority of us who see a problem and say “something should be done”. They, the Government or someone should do something. Or maybe he thought “I must do something” to change the circumstances of my people.
          Moses took responsibility for solving a problem. Who is sent to fix the problem “I am”.
          We can expand the story to a deeper level. Genesis says that we are made in the image of God; Genesis does not provide us with the image of God. In the Hindu tradition God is the Creator, Destroyer and Sustainer of the Universe. God as creator, destroyer and sustainer rings true for me. These are attributes we humans have in common with the Hindu version of Gods. Humans, each one of us is at different times capable of creating, destroying and sustaining our world. Our actions for good or for ill make us gods.
          Christians interpret the “I am” of the story of Moses to mean God i.e. something external and invisible that in ancient times, uniquely intervened in the affairs of humanity. This requires us to make a leap of faith. However when we remove this external version of God from the story, the story becomes relevant for us now. It is relevant for us without the need for blind leaps of faith.
          There are many versions of “God’s Holy Word” in existence. All of them are of human origin and as such they reflect their time and the circumstances of their authors. Their value is not to tell us about what we should believe about God. They are useful for us to ponder over, to reflect on and interpret how we can find meaning from them for our life.
          Scripture must always be read with caution. We are free to interpret scripture. How can we know if our interpretation is correct? We can be certain that our interpretation is correct if our interpretation makes us stand on the side of love and act with love.

Rev.Bridget Spain
Minister Dublin Unitarian Church