DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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Enjoying the Bible
by Paul Walker

That the Bible has a divine stamp of approval is accepted at some level by most Christians. We can gently smile at those whose literal interpretations lead them to deny virtually any findings of modern science. Yet some sort of divine authority is attributed to the Scriptures by Catholics, Orthodox Christians and those who call themselves liberal Christians.

In current debates about sexuality for example, Christians differ on how they interpret the Scriptures. But they all accept that the Bible has some degree of authority in the debate.

In Abrahamic religions, such authority tends to be given to books. Hence the Koran and the Book of Mormon, among others, are also given authority to settle questions of meaning and morality. The question is why? Strangely, only one book in the entire Bible, Christian or Hebrew, makes such a claim that the Bible itself has divine authority (1 Timothy 3.16). If this is the only justification for the authority of the scriptures, it turns out to be a circular argument: the Bible is the divine word of God because the Bible says it is.

If the Bible is accepted as God�s word to humanity it immediately creates problems. I have already touched on the whole science/creation dilemma. But the issues run much deeper than that. How are we to decide which moral teachings to accept? Why for example, do "biblical Christians" take teaching about homosexuality literally, while at the same time accepting only metaphorically the teaching that we should give away all our possessions?

I don�t need to further rehearse the arguments against taking the Bible literally here. What I wish to argue is that we should give the Bible no divine authority at all. Only then might it be taken seriously.

Think of other influential books. A good example is On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. The influence of Darwin�s work rests not on the fact that it was given some kind of imprimatur, nor on the fact that it is perfect in every detail. We know that much of its argument is factually incorrect. The genius of Darwin's book is that it looks at the world in a new way, and that way helps us make sense of the world. The same could be said of the works of Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, Leonardo da Vinci and Sigmund Freud.

So the authority of books, and of ideas and teachings relies nowadays not on an external stamp of approval, but on whether or not they make sense and influence for good the way we act and think.

On this matter certain books of the Bible have been instrumental. The book of Exodus has given us the Ten Commandments. The book of the Psalms has played a key role in understanding human psychology. Isaiah has helped us see through religious hypocrisy. Luke's Gospel shows the costliness of being a neighbour. And in Paul�s first letter to the Corinthians is the best definition I have ever seen of love (1 Corinthians 13.4-7). These books have authority because they make sense, and because they still have a tremendous influence for good on those who read them.

At the same time there are other books which have become rather dated. Leviticus� description of how exactly an ancient tribe chose to slaughter its animals seems rather past it. Kings and Chronicles are interesting history but mainly irrelevant as moral guides. Daniel and Revelation seem positively harmful in the way they are still reinterpreted. And have you ever read the letter of Jude?

The Bible contains some wonderful literature and teaching, much of which was probably distilled over centuries. Yet it is not enhanced by being protected as some kind of divine life-manual. It is certainly not helpful as the final arbiter of any argument.

I suspect that it is little read outside the Church precisely because it has been given such a role. If the Bible is to be rediscovered as one of the great treasures of human history it needs to be freed from the shackles of divine authority which prevent mere mortals from enjoying it.

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