Reading the Bible from Wherever You Are

 Reading the Bible from Wherever You Are

Fr. Charles Allen

The Bible is a collection of ancient writings written and read by people who, rightly or mistakenly, experienced life in terms of living together with God. Regardless of what you or I believe, or don't, we can begin to appreciate these ancient writings by asking and exploring the following questions:

1. How did the writer and early readers of this passage experience life in terms of living together with God?

2. What sort of God did they experience?

3. How did this address the "big questions"* we may still ask today?

4. How are this ancient writer's and readers' experiences like and unlike my experience of living together, with or without the word "God"?

5. How does understanding this writer's and readers' experiences help me address my own "big questions"?

There are no wrong answers here. The point is a deeper understanding of your own life, in light of how others have understood theirs.

*Some Big Questions (feel free to add others)

—Do my life and your life and "our people's" lives really matter in this unimaginably vast universe?

—How can they really matter?

—How do we come to terms with our own mortality?

—Why are we outraged when we see injustice?

—How is it that reality (whatever that might be) produces beings that care about what reality might be?

—Is this the final truth about us?—"'We are survival machines—robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes'.  (The Selfish Gene, p. ix). ... That was no metaphor. I believe it is the literal truth ..."—Richard Dawkins, (1981) [In Defense of Selfish Genes,] Philosophy 56:573.

—Or is there more to our lives than blindly preserving selfish molecules?

—What would make life more than this?

An Example:

Genesis 12:1-3: Now YHWH said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves.”

1. How did the writer and early readers of this passage experience life in terms of living together with God?

The writer and early readers of this passage consider themselves to be descendants of Abram (his name was later changed to Abraham).

They now live in "the land that I will show you," and they believe that coming to live in this land justified any violent conquests they may have undertaken. (!)

They have become a nation that still aspires to be a great nation.

They are not totally self-absorbed—they still hope that the greatness they aspire to will be a blessing for all humanity.

They believe this aspiration comes from no less than God, and that it began with Abram's journey away from his homeland.

2. What sort of God did they experience?

In this passage the writer and early readers experience what they call "God" in terms of one who summons them to greatness for everybody's benefit; they trust that this summoner can make that happen, at least eventually.

Their name for God is YHWH, a name that can be written down but not pronounced orally. They associated it with the sentence that can be translated, "I am" or "I'll be" (Hebrew: "Ehyeh," Exodus 3:14).

3. How did this address the "big questions" we may still ask today?

Many of us still can't help believing that somehow our being here matters, that it makes a difference, that the difference we make can be a good thing.

Many of us experience life as a summons to greatness, not just for ourselves but for others.

We wonder:

—Do my life and your life and "our people's" lives really matter in this unimaginably vast universe?

—How can they really matter?

—Is an aspiration to "greatness" worth the harm it can cause?

4. How are this ancient writer's and readers' experiences like and unlike my experience of living together, with or without the word "God"?

Like: Again, many of us experience life as a summons to greatness, a summons to make our lives worthwhile to us and to others.

Unlike: We know way more about how much bigger the world is than we are. This has made many wonder if our lives really matter at all.

Unlike: I am painfully aware of the countless atrocities that have resulted from people following what they took to be a summons to greatness.

Like/Unlike: My understanding of greatness has been re-shaped by the story of Jesus, who appears to win by losing. (Stories about Gautama or Lao Tzu have a similar impact, though they can't be substituted for one another.)

All said, many of us, myself included, still experience life as a summons to greatness, and many of us consider God to be the one who ultimately summons us.

5. How does understanding this writer's and readers' experiences help me address my own "big questions"?

Abram's descendants include Jews, Muslims, Christians, and even the secular movements that grew out of these traditions.

So in a way I am still a character in this storyline.

Like the ancient writer and early readers, I still experience life as a summons to make my life worthwhile to me and to others, and I still trust the summoner to make this happen one way or another, at least eventually.

I know that people have viewed life this way since ancient times, and that this aspiration is responsible for what I consider to be both the highest achievements and greatest atrocities of human history. (Here's a paradox: the most noteworthy protesters against the atrocities this summons can produce are also characters in this storyline. They aspire to greatness which is more consistently humane.)

I know that whatever I accomplish with my life will not make up for the worst that has been done as a result of this aspiration, but still the best I can do is keep working to make my life worthwhile to me and to others.

I am drawn to the way the story of Jesus turns this aspiration to greatness on its head.