You will have noticed a long conversation happening over at On the awkwardness (and fatuity?) of discussing religion. Very lively it has been too, reminding me as it has of events in Sydney in the 1960s which I only just remember. Cedric is thirteen years older than me. His active participation in the red paint incident during the struggle against the Vietnam War is interesting. At the time I thought they were targeting the wrong people, and still think that. What do you think? On the other hand, what Cedric tells us about what happened to some of those involved is quite chilling — being locked up in a psychiatric ward for political reasons in one instance. Not good.
Cedric also brought to mind one of the least fanatical of saints — that much abused word fits here — the probably heretical Ted Noffs. Those most like Christ in real terms are often heretical, but then so was Christ in his day. So am I, consciously too — not that this makes me at all Christ-like, I assure you. My starting point on religious matters now is really the Tao Te Ching:
The tao that can be described
is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be spoken
is not the eternal Name.
The nameless is the boundary of Heaven and Earth.
The named is the mother of creation.
Freed from desire, you can see the hidden mystery.
By having desire, you can only see what is visibly real.
Yet mystery and reality
emerge from the same source.
This source is called darkness.
Darkness born from darkness.
The beginning of all understanding.
Or, I might equally have cited Yehuda Amichai, as I did here.
I have cut the connection between belief in God (whatever that means) and belief that God writes books. I know for a fact that the Bible, which still inspires me and in which I do find intimations of the divine, is neither inspired nor infallible in the traditional sense and never has been, and neither, for all the good that is also there, is any Church, nor is the Qu’ran. I am not alone in such views, I assure you. I will be taking some of these ideas up again at a later time, but over the past year I did say quite a lot on my Big Archive on the subject of revelation and the Bible. So read, mark, and inwardly digest what you find there, so long as you keep in mind I am not infallible either. 😉 See, for example:
Deuteronomy 21:18 If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, which will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and that, when they have chastened him, will not hearken unto them:
21:19 Then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out unto the elders of his city, and unto the gate of his place;
21:20 And they shall say unto the elders of his city, This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard.
21:21 And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die: so shalt thou put evil away from among you; and all Israel shall hear, and fear.
A bit extreme, most would say these days, and as hot as anything you might find in the Qu’ran.
It is not only from such obviously unfortunate passages that John Shelby Spong concludes that any simplistic view of the Bible as the literal Word of God is actually wrong, let alone unhelpful, but from much broader considerations. The negative case made in The Sins of Scripture by Spong, an avowed Christian, is I think irrefutable, though one might argue about this or that aspect of his case. Certainly any fundamentalist position simply becomes untenable in the light of what he says, which is hardly all that original anyway. Indeed, Spong is in many respects quite old-fashioned, a rather 1950s-1960s modernist.
Where Spong runs into problems is in his positive case. It still strikes me as being just a bit arid and intellectual, though I am sure he does not see it that way. I think I find Richard Holloway, former Anglican Primus of Scotland, more satisfying in that respect. But you can explore such matters at the head link to this entry.
Spong is still well worth reading though; his chapter on environmental issues is great and has an interesting Australian connection, as his archetypical anti-environmentalist loonie is none other than our very own Hugh Morgan! There is a direct line from him to our government and to the whole pack of right-wing commentators from Miranda through Timmy and all the usual suspects.
My own considered view is that God does not write books, and never has; nor does he dictate them; but he does inspire and has inspired, much more broadly and universally than the exclusivist religions of various stamps would have had us believe. That said, I find the Bible inspiring, if not always inspired, and continue to read it daily. My membership of the Uniting Church is in no way compromised by these views.
Nor is fellowship impossible with those whose views are more traditional than mine, whether they are Jews, Christians or Muslims, if their stance is deeply loving, gracious and humane. I think, for example, of Jim Wallis and Sojourners — see “Faith and Philosophy” in my links on the Gateway Blog linked from the Home Page here.
A bit of personal history
I intend to develop this one day in another context, but some may be interested. My South Sydney Uniting friends know it already.
My family was not especially religious, but in my teens I became associated with Sutherland Presbyterian Church, experiencing a conversion in 1959. By the time I was 21 I was a full-on Calvinist and became an Elder in that church. Many influences led me to become dissatisfied with this position. I resigned my eldership around 1967 and from then to 2005 was virtually churchless, though always interested. The Tao Te Ching became a favourite in the 1980s and remains a favourite, as you may see. I did teach Ancient History as well as English, and in 1988-9 was teaching the subject at Masada, a Jewish school, for the HSC. One topic was the history of Ancient Israel, and I read intensively on that and on the sources. My present position has been developing, then, for some considerable time. I have had many discussions with people of many faiths and no faith, and continue to do so. I have been lucky to find a church where lapsed Presbyterian Taoist/Buddhist is not considered an odd statement of faith. Far from representing new concerns, the themes reflected in this post have been expressed, reshaped, and developed over decades, and online since 2000.
A case in point. On My year with a Japanese Backpacker you will find:
19 August, 1998
I first met ‘Hiro’ a month ago at the Flinders Hotel. He had just finished an eight week English course and had to move out of his home-stay accommodation the following Saturday, or so I gathered after a very tortuous conversation. A few days later he rang to let me know he had found a place in an Eastern suburb near the Harbour. I did not hear from him again until the night before last when he rang to arrange a meeting. After sorting out that Neil was my name and not the name of the hotel, we managed to make an appointment for Tuesday at 6 at the Flinders Hotel. Our communication obviously succeeded as he turned up at the appointed time…
Conversation required intense concentration on both sides with (at stages) frequent recourse to body language, paraphrase, repetition and a Japanese-English dictionary. The month spent living with an English speaker, looking for work, and generally going about town has led to some advance in his spoken English…
His family grows flowers, he told me, and he himself wanted work in photography, art or floristry. In the context of Australian culture one might by now have been drawing probably false conclusions about his being in a gay bar. (It proved to be a false deduction: he was unaware he was in a gay bar. The delicate matter of sexuality was successfully negotiated at our second meeting.)…
He said he wanted to experience all things. He wanted to meet Australian men. He wanted to learn English. Most interestingly, he wanted ‘a big heart’; eventually I worked out he meant an open mind–he found Japan too narrow.
Our conversation turned to religion. Having heard a sermon at a funeral he began practising Zen meditation. Asked what he got from it, he said ‘Nothing. Nothing is good.’ In the context this made perfect sense. We looked up dharma and Tao in his dictionary and discussed them wordlessly, as is appropriate.
At the end of the evening he proposed we meet again in a month or so, hesitant to be too demanding as I had been telling him how busy I was. In parting, we thanked each other for a very pleasant evening, and the best English lesson he could have had…
I think we are all merest pilgrims and seekers when it comes to things like this, and having seen the power of dogmatism close up, I run a mile from simplistic creeds and too confident declarations of the mind of God, or indeed of the existence/non-existence of God. That what I intuit is probably beyond any formula or words does not worry me in the slightest. How could it be any other way? All we have, to be Buddhist for a moment, are fingers pointing at the moon, or the “dull thunder of approximate words”, to quote gay Anglo-American poet Thom Gunn.