Sunday, January 15, 2012

Can we talk about it? ~ Sunday Salon

"No public man in these islands ever believes that the Bible means what it says:  he is always convinced that it says what he means."
— George Bernard Shaw
I like this quote that I ran across yesterday.  And the  painting.  Yes, I know most people would show the man's face, but I figure if you are interested, you'll google his name and find lots of photos of George Bernard Shaw, young and old and in between.  This one, with his hair blowing in the wind (enlarge by clicking on the image), epitomizes for me the winds of dissension that often arise when people discuss religion.  Nevertheless, let's talk about it, shall we?

This morning, the Seekers Class at St. Luke United Methodist Church, a group of folks I've been teaching off and on for more than five years now, will be looking at a chapter of the latest book by John Shelby Spong.  Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World, published in November, is one of twenty-some books the bishop has written.  I told you about this one after I went to hear him speak a couple of months ago, but Sean was the only one who left a comment on that post.
"I appreciate what Spong is doing.  Speaking from the non-religious, non-god-believing side — [Sean, not Spong, believes] the Bible is a book and Jesus is a figure of history.   I don't place much value on the Bible beyond its place in history and as a piece of literature.  I am far more concerned that whatever group/religion we belong to, that we are doing good and being helpful to one another, the rest is merely dressing."
Sean also left this comment on one of my Library Loot posts:
"I haven't read any Spong but then I have probably moved along from the questioning/investigation of my religion of birth. I do still enjoy the history aspect of things but I am a humanist now and don't really see much value in continually examining the bible as a guide book for life. I try to be hands-on in community service and be broader in my philosophical outlook. But I will check out the link."
I've been meaning to respond to Sean for weeks, so now is (finally) the time I'll "get a round tuit."  I hope Sean isn't the only one to speak up today.  Frankly, my dear(s), I appreciate Sean's willingness to be engaged in dialogue.  But first, let me clear up a few things.

(1)  I wouldn't call the Bible "a guide book for life."
Would a guidebook say this?  "Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?  I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies."  That's the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of Psalm 139: 21-22, if you want to check your translation.  I hear some Christians saying they follow Jesus who said, "Love your enemies."  That's from Matthew 5:44, Luke 6:27, and Luke 6:35 (NRSV).  But how many Christians have acted full of pride, just like the Pharisee in Luke 18:9-14 who considered himself so much better than that tax collector over there?  How many have kept women "in their place" because of the words in First Corinthians 11:7?  "For a man ... is the image and reflection of God; but woman is the reflection of man."  The Bible is not a rule book, and Paul (who wrote First Corinthians) is not God.
(2)  I do NOT agree with Bishop Spong on everything, but he does get people talking!
But not always in good ways.  He said, "People don't need to be born again; they need to grow up."  That's a blunt statement that some may feel as a slap in the face, making it difficult, if not impossible, for them to be open to any sort of discussion.  I want us to be able to talk about what's important, whether it's in the Bible or not.  Sean sees no need to keep investigating the religion of his birth (and I admit I don't know whether he grew up Jewish or Christian or something else).  I still work at understanding the Bible (the Jewish and Christian scriptures), and also the Tao te Ching (Taoism) and other books sacred to various faiths.  I do that partly because I teach religions of the world, but also because I have learned that at the base of all religions is compassion.  What's not to like about that?
(3)  We need to be clear what we mean by the word God (or god).
I studied philosophy in college shortly after this Time magazine cover hit the stands.  The words are from Friedrich Nietzsche and got the religious world all in an uproar.  About that time, I read Your God Is Too Small by J. B. Phillips, who cited a bunch of "unreal gods," such as resident policeman, parental hangover, grand old man, managing director, and assorted others.  (Click on the title to see the text of the book.)   There's no way I can "believe in" a god like those portrayed by cartoonists — you know, the white-bearded old white-man god wearing a robe and sitting on a cloud "up there."  If that's your idea of god, I say it would be good to let "him" die.  What does "God" mean to you?  How would you describe or explain who or what God is?
Sean, I also believe the Bible is a book, which I continue to study.  I also believe Jesus was a man, which is what I think you mean by "a figure of history."  I also think we should look at the Bible's place in history and recognize that different parts of it are different kinds of literature, and not all historical fact:  some parables (stories), some history (though not as we write history books), some apocalyptic literature (big words, huh?), some rules (many of which are no longer appropriate — for example, the Jews quit practicing animal sacrifice, no matter what the Bible says).

If anything here interests you readers of my blog, let's talk.  Ask me questions, and I'll do my best to answer honestly.  For now, let me leave you with a quote from page 15 of Spong's book:
"I am not the enemy of the Bible.  I am the enemy of the way the Bible has been understood and the way the Bible has been used."
Me, too.

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Helen's Book Blog said...

Fantastic last quote! I realize what bothers me isn't religion, but what some people do with it and in its name

June said...

Boy, that last quote says it all!

Jane said...

Bonnie, I read several pages of the book you mentioned-- Your God Is Too Small -- and found it something I would like to read in its entirety.

Bonnie Jacobs said...

Jane, I think you'd enjoy reading the whole book. Let me know if you do.

Helen and June, misuse of the Bible has caused a lot of pain.

Sean said...

Yeah I wouldn't call it a guidebook either but owing to the broad membership of those that subscribe to the label of Christian there are those who would call it a rule book at one end of the continuum to those whose thoughts don't differ much from mine.

Perhaps to articulate my point better - I have other sources that better inform my philosophical outlook.

There are some who will go as far to say that Jesus was a great moral philosopher whether you believe him to be the son of god or not.

Myself, I find his philosophy, (an historicity)in terms of content thin and not all that original - precedents in other cultures that predate the Christian philosophy. But to each their own.

I was born and raised Catholic served as an altar boy, briefly considered the priesthood(two great uncles were priests), considered paganism which worried me as much as evangelicalism, and ended up a bare bones Buddhist before settling on Secular humanism.

To put it in a framework for a Christian audience, there's little difference between myself and a liberal Christian aside from god belief.

Could we argue that compassion is common trait in humans rather than a common facet of religions ie the compassion found in religions is actually a result of innately compassionate humans?

On the subject of God, yes defining what each of us means by that term is good.

Indeed I enter into any lengthy face to face discussion about God I will usually get people to do this, saves a lot of trouble later.

On Jesus I think he probably existed. I think the figure in the bible is an amalgam of myth, a real historical figure and later fictional additions and I believe we will never know for sure either way.

Great discussion Bonnie