Reading the Bible Again for the First Time

There’s a story I go to in the Hebrew Bible when I’m in the midst of adversity, and I’m fighting for the meaning and way of my life. It’s in the book of Genesis, Chapter 32. It’s night, and Jacob is about to meet his brother, Esau, whom he hasn’t seen in many years. Last time he saw him, Esau said he’d kill him, for Jacob stole Esau’s birthright. “That same night,” says the Bible, “Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and an angel of God wrestled with him until daybreak. When the angel saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ Then the angel said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.'”

That’s the story. Life is full of initiatory experiences, and they are difficult like wrestling matches against adversaries as daunting as angels of God. But if we persist, we will prevail-even though in the process our hip might be put out of joint, and the rest of our days we bear a scar from the struggle that transformed us forever and blessed us and gave us a new name, a name that says who we really are. If we persist, we will prevail, and we will become more fully ourselves.

Today I want to talk about Unitarian Universalism’s wrestling match with the Bible: the struggle of our Unitarian and Universalist ancestors to engage the Bible rationally, for the sake of freedom-and how this has determined to a great extent who we have been, who we are today, and who we may yet become in the future.

Start with Michael Servetus in the 16th century, facing a church doctrine like the Trinity (the idea that God is a unity of three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost). Servetus opposed it. Didn’t matter that it had been declared official doctrine way back in 325 CE during the Council of Nicaea. Didn’t matter that, by openly opposing it, even mocking it, he could be burned at the stake. Servetus stood his ground, because he believed that the soul of Christianity was at stake. People hungered for bread, but they were being given stones by a church that had lost its way. People hungered for spiritual liberty, but the church was binding them to falsehood and error. The way out-the way to freedom-was to cut through all the add-ons and accretions of institutional history and go back to the Bible. Use the Bible as the sole standard for everything, and use reason (not church tradition) to discern exactly what this standard was.

This was Servetus, wrestling with the angel. For him, the Bible, interpreted by the light of reason, was the way to liberty. The doctrine of the Trinity represented corruption; but reason would expose it for what it was. And though, for all this, Servetus was burned as a heretic, his larger vision and hope carried on. For hundreds of years, into the 18th and 19th centuries, religious freethinkers and liberals followed his pattern of being exclusively Bible-centered and relying on reason to discern spiritual truth. So, for example, in one of the great classics of Universalism, A Treatise on Atonement, published in 1805, Hosea Ballou went through the Bible with a fine-tooth comb to argue against a prevailing idea of his day (one that still prevails for many): that Jesus died on the Cross to atone for our sins-that God requires this for people’s salvation, otherwise, we are doomed to eternal hellfire. This, argued Ballou, was patently unscriptural and against reason. For how can finite creatures like ourselves offend the infinite God? Why might our finite sins, to be wiped away, require the infinite sacrifice of the Son of God? The real issue, said Ballou, is just not about God, or God’s accepting us. The real issue is that we don’t make ourselves available to God. We don’t believe that we could ever be loved as deeply and as truly as God loves us. The problem with the atonement doctrine is similar to that of the doctrine of the Trinity: both represented ways by which the church was binding people with falsehood.

But if we wrestle with the Bible and don’t let go, it will set our spirits free. That’s what Hosea Ballou, one of the fathers of Universalism in America, believed. And so did the father of Unitarianism in America, William Ellery Channing. “We regard the Scriptures,” he said in 1819, “as the records of God’s successive revelations to mankind, and particularly of the last and most perfect revelation of his will by Jesus Christ.” Yet one of the things that distinguished Channing’s approach from Ballou’s and definitely from Servetus’ was his acknowledgement of the rootedness of the Bible in history, and the need for reason to take this into consideration. “We find,” says Channing, “that the different portions of this book, instead of being confined to general truths, refer perpetually to the times when they were written, to states of society, to modes of thinking, to controversies in the church, to feelings and usages which have passed away, and without the knowledge of which we are constantly in danger of extending to all times, and places, what was of temporary and local application.” The Holy Spirit might have breathed inspiration into the writers of scripture, but Channing insists that “a knowledge of their feelings, and of the influences under which they were placed, is one of the preparations for understanding their writings.” Without this, you just can’t be faithful to the Bible. The result is disaster. We apply Bible insights to our day recklessly, ignoring the fact that what the Bible writers are talking about may be very different or even absolutely different from the present concern on our minds. Or we overlay present meanings onto the past. We read into the Bible our own agendas and interests and standards and make it kill when its proper function is to give life. Here’s a joke about this that Channing would have enjoyed:

A teacher asked her Sunday School class to draw pictures of their favorite Bible stories. She was puzzled by Kyle’s picture, which showed four people on an airplane, so she asked him which story it was meant to represent.

“The flight to Egypt.”

“I see,” said the teacher. “And that must be Mary, Joseph, and Baby Jesus. But who’s the fourth person?”

“Oh, that’s Pontius–the pilot.”

The joke is not so ridiculous, however, when you consider all the ways in which people (Unitarian Universalists included) ignore Channing’s advice and do something that’s equivalent to hearing about a “flight” to Egypt and then drawing a picture of an airplane. One of these mistakes is seeing the Bible as a single book. Do this, and it’s easy to assume that everything in it belongs to a single category of writings that can be interpreted using the same rules. A classic instance of this is viewing the Bible as a science text-everything in it to be interpreted as saying something factual about the world. Genesis says the world was created in seven days, so that’s literally what happened. Genesis says that Jacob wrestled with an angel, so angels must really exist. Fundamentalists define the Bible in just these terms and swallow it whole; reverse-fundamentalists define the Bible in these same terms, but they spit it out. Tastes gross. Yet neither stop to wonder about their basic assumption. Is the Bible just one book? Or is it more like a compendium of many books that has evolved in Wikipedia-like fashion over time, involving many authors and editors, incorporating as well many different kinds of literary genres to get its various points across? This last insight is especially important to absorb. We just can’t listen correctly to what the Bible is trying to say unless we realize the genre of the piece we are encountering. Take the recent Star Trek movie-we completely misunderstand what it is all about if we classify it as a documentary and expect it to communicate literal truths about what our future holds for us. Similarly, when we see the book of Genesis as science, rather than the mythology that it is, we completely miss the point. We’ve heard the word “flight” and we’ve drawn an airplane.

Channing once said, “We profess not to know a book, which demands a more frequent exercise of reason than the Bible.” It’s true. Consider yet another way in which we can hear “flight” and draw an airplane. Has to do with how people today read into the Bible an ethic of reporting history that is actually quite foreign to the mindset of the ancient Bible writers. Today, when someone makes a speech, every word can be captured on tape and transcribed accurately, so when we read about it in the newspapers-when we read “President Obama said…..”-we are expecting word-for-word accuracy. Nothing less is acceptable. But this is not the standard that ancient Bible writers followed. When reading “Jesus said…” or “Paul said…”, we have to press pause on our assumption that the words ascribed to them are the ones that literally came out of their mouths. Historians back then just had different standards than ours. Listen to what one of the best of them-the Greek writer Thucydides-had to say about this: “I have found it difficult to remember the precise words used in the speeches which I listened to myself, and my various informants have experienced the same difficulty; so my method has been, while keeping closely as possible to the general sense of the words that were actually used, to make the speakers say what, in my opinion, was called for by each situation.” That’s what Thucydides says-and did you hear that? “To make the speakers say what, in my opinion, was called for by each situation” (!!!). But this was the standard in the ancient world. “The past is a foreign country,” says writer Leslie P. Hartley. “They do things differently there.” And we’ve got to honor this.

Back in 1819, when Channing made his key points about Bible interpretation, he was building a way that was new for America (and, almost 200 years later, is still new for too many people). The occasion was an ordination sermon entitled “Unitarian Christianity,” and it’s a defining moment in our history. Before it, if you were a Unitarian in America, you belonged to a movement that was amorphous and in the closet. It had no clear leader. It had no clear definition. The name “Unitarian” was a badge of shame. But along came Channing. He outed the movement, gave it clarity, took up the name “Unitarian” with pride. He did all of this in his 1819 sermon. And a big part of it had to do with his wrestling with the angel of the Bible. The Bible, central to Channing’s sense of what Unitarianism was all about.

But Channing’s achievement would not prove final. Within his lifetime, in the very next generation, a different sort of struggle with the Bible ensued. Not so much about how best to interpret it, but whether it is the sole source of revelation available to spiritual seekers.

For Ralph Waldo Emerson, it is most definitely not. “Live after the infinite Law that is in you,” he says, “and in company with the infinite Beauty which heaven and earth reflect to you in all lovely forms.” Revelation, in other words, can’t possibly be contained just within the Bible. The wellspring is fundamentally within each of our souls; revelation bubbles up out of the spark of the Divine in our depths. Add to this the revelation of nature, as well as the revelation embodied by the Bibles of many times and lands, such as Hinduism’s Bhagavad Gita. Ultimately the spiritual vision here is one of abundance, not scarcity. God is just too big to be contained by any single book. And it’s not only Jews or Christians who have ever wrestled with the sacred and written about it….

Despite this abundance, however, scarcity abounds. In Nature, Emerson says, “A man is a god in ruin. […] Man is the dwarf of himself. […] At present, man applies to nature but half his force.” This is Emerson’s constant complaint and argument. God bursts every seam, and God is within each of us, full to bursting. Yet we feel empty; we feel dry. Why? Emerson blames historical Christianity. It has “fallen into the error that corrupts all attempts to communicate religion.” It has done this by committing the sin of idolatry. Whereas Emerson believes that Jesus continually pointed people toward their own God-like potentials of compassion and wisdom, traditional Christianity says that only Jesus gets to be God. And then it gathers up the revelations of Jesus and of select teachers, seals them up in the one and only one Bible, and says that revelation is over, it is through. No wonder people are Gods in ruin. “That which shows God out of me,” Emerson says, “makes me a wart and a wen. There is no longer a necessary reason for my being.” “You shall not,” Emerson characterizes traditional Christianity as saying, “own the world; you shall not dare, and live after the infinite Law that is in you, and in company with the infinite Beauty which heaven and earth reflect to you in all lovely forms; but you must subordinate your nature to Christ’s nature; you must accept our interpretations….”

Emerson’s message here is bruising. It’s not that he finds nothing liberating in the Bible, for he absolutely does. But he will not stand for the bullying that people can do in its name. And he will no longer abide by the exclusive Bible-centeredness of his forebearers: Servetus, Ballou, Channing. There are so many other Bibles to draw from. And above all, people must rediscover the Bible that lies within them. This is the way to freedom.

And this brings us to today. Transcendentalism expanded our spiritual universe, making the Bible just one source of the vibrant spiritual life and not THE source. Through Transcendentalism, we also learned that the Bible is not so much a record of what God says as a record of what humans have said about their long struggle for purpose and meaning in life. And perhaps because Unitarians and Universalists had engaged with the Bible so intensely and for so long, they were ready for different horizons. They felt that they had gone as far as they could with the Bible, and it was time for something new. Alternative forms of spirituality. Not Christianity, but theism. Humanism. Hinduism. Buddhism. Paganism. Blends of all these and more. Anything and everything but the Bible. In any other church or congregation, you better believe you are always going to have Bible study courses. But not in Unitarian Universalist congregations.

Meaning that the current state of our wrestling match with the Bible is different than it has ever been before. A first, in our long history. The current state is disengagement. It is apathy. We no longer know the Bible. It’s become strange to us over the years. Strange, and therefore threatening, because during our sleep, the Religious Right stole it and transformed it into a set of conservative talking points. And because we didn’t know any better-because we no longer read the thing ourselves with any degree of sophistication-we took their interpretations to represent what the Bible actually says. No wonder we don’t want to read it. It’s a vicious cycle.

Which is so sad, since there is a sweet wisdom in Scripture that can make the wounded whole. There is a sweet song that can lift our hearts and make them glad. Unitarian Universalist spirituality is there within its pages. We are missing out on one of the most fascinating and rich books in existence.

We are missing out personally, and we are missing out politically. Where are our Hosea Ballous today? Where are our William Ellery Channings, who might go toe to toe with the ridiculous James Dobsons and Jerry Falwells? Bible-based arguments continue to be extremely powerful and persuasive in America for shaping the common good, but we are no longer conversant. There is still more freedom to be won, but we have a lot of work to do to step up to the challenge. Angry voices argue, for example, that the Bible condemns homosexuality. They cite proof texts, one after the other: rat-a-tat-tat. But it’s not good enough any more to just shrug them off, shrug the conversation off. They need to be troubled by a better wisdom. They need to know and we all need to know that there is no word in the original languages of the Bible that corresponds precisely to committed and mutually respectful love relationships between same-sex partners. What does the Bible truly say about homosexuality in the 21st century? Nothing. And saying this is not evading the authority or demand of scripture. It’s being faithful to it.

Besides being spiritually vibrant, I know that this congregation is and wants to be even more a social justice congregation. I think it’s great. Of course. But I would add that, as essential preparation for this, we need to know the Bible. Whatever our individual theologies and passions happen to be, we need to know the Bible so as to enable effective social witness in our time, here and now. Our wrestling with the Bible is not over, not by a long shot. It’s showing no signs of easing up. We can’t let go. We’re not done. There’s a new name out there for us, a blessing to win, but we haven’t won it yet.