Religion on the Level: #2
What is the Use of the Bible?
In my first lecture of this series I tried to adopt a certain tone of voice
towards religion. Religion is an infinitely varied thing and it is always tempting to dismiss what others have made of it. Sometimes it is right to
these critical judgments, particularly if we recognise that there is a systemic
contradiction between the claim and the life of those making the claim.
Of what good is it, for instance, to claim to know that God is all-merciful,
if we ourselves do not try to practice mercy?
However, in most circumstances it is better to leave people to the devices
they have created to get themselves through life. Frank Sinatra said that he
believed in anything that got him through the night.
On a more profound level I am haunted by some words in the greatest of the
Holocaust novels, The Last of the Just by Andre Schwartz-Bart. The book
is the story of Ernie Levy, the last of "the just men", who died at
Auschwitz in 1943.
At the end of the story Ernie is in a box car with some women and children,
many of them already dead, lurching towards the death camp. It is Ernie's burden
to console the inconsolable. The children gather around him for comfort as he
cradles in his arms the emaciated corpse of a child who has just died of
"He was my brother", a little girl said hesitantly, anxiously,
as though she had not decided what
attitude it would be best to take in
front of Ernie.
He sat down next to her and set her on his knees.
"He'll wake up
too, in a little while, with all the
others, when we reach the Kingdom of
There children find their parents, and everybody
"Because the country we're going to, that's our
kingdom, you know.
There, the sun never sets,
and you may eat anything you can think of. There,
an eternal joy will crown your heads; cheerfulness
and gaiety will come and
greet you, and all the
pains and all the moans will run away…"
"How can you tell them it's only a dream?" one
of the women
breathed, with hate in her voice.
Rocking the child mechanically, Ernie gave
to dry sobs.
"Madame", he said at last, "there is no room for
here". Then he stopped rocking the child,
turned, and saw that the old
woman's face had
"Then what is there room for?" she began. And
taking a closer
look at Ernie, registering all the
slightest details of his face, she
"Then you don't believe what you're saying at all?
"Tread softly, for you tread on my dreams" is not a bad motto for
religious investigators. There are times when we should leave alone
believe to be consoling fictions, and let people find what
comfort they can
against the emptiness or horror that confronts them.
That is why in my last lecture I tried to leave to one side some of the ways
of dealing with the religious question, without necessarily repudiating them. I
suggested that there was a sort of gift relationship
between believers and the
thing believed in, whereby they found
themselves believing or not believing; or
not knowing enough to believe or not believe.
Those categories of belief take care of most people. But what about those who
do not fit any of them easily, the people I called God botherers, because the
question of the meaning of Being was like a tooth that nibbled at the soul?
What I am trying to find in these lectures therefore, is a way in which the
great religious symbols and narratives can be used by people who do not have and
cannot find a settled attitude to the question of whether there is or definitely
is not a beyondness to the answers the questions have provoked, an eternal, out
of this world reality to which religious signs point.
This week I want to apply this approach to the great narratives of the Hebrew
scriptures to see what use we can make of them. If you already have a
confident, fulfilling and love-enlarging way of using these narratives, you will
not find the approach I am suggesting anything more than an intellectual
On the other hand, if you are intrigued by the great religious narratives,
but have not found a way of adapting them to a life that seems to be cultures
and aeons away from their world view, maybe something useful will emerge for you
in this approach.
Something AN Wilson wrote in his book on St Paul will provide us with a
useful entry point. It is a little polemical, this quotation, and it reminds us
that part of the trouble with adapting religious discourse to our own situation
is that finding one that fits us may sound like too peremptory a dismissal of an
approach that works for others.
Anyway, here is the quotation I mentioned:
"The modern Christian 'fundamentalist' who bravely
'believe' in a real star of Bethlehem or an actual Garden Tomb in Jerusalem
from which Jesus rose from the dead is making the same unimaginative mistake
as Heinrich Schliemann when he dug in the sands of Hissarlik and thought he
was finding Homer's Troy. Troy is in the Iliad, not in the sand. And because of Homer, not because of the sand, Troy exists in the collective
consciousness of the human race".