Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Big, Black Spider in an Irish Sink

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Referring to some animal unknown to her, a person close to me (who will remain nameless) has several times asked, “What is it good for?”

For believers, that question should be easy to answer, especially if you mean, “What use is any animal or plant to humans?” with the implication that an animal’s only worth is in its service to us. That idea contradicts the message about the value of God’s creation. Though many Christians may be unaware of, or ignore, it, the traditional Christian view is that all creation is sacred precisely because it is, through the evolutionary process, God’s work.

I must admit I haven’t always seen it this way. Like many Christians who should know better from Scripture and tradition, I was, at best, indifferent about the natural world. I think what got me to think more about it was an experience I had years ago in Ireland.

Gerald Waris, my lifelong friend, and I were staying in the house of an acquaintance in County Kerry. Dan (known locally as “the Derd”) O’Shea, a sixty-something who kept a watch on the place for his absentee cousin, was showing us around. We entered the bathroom and in the sink was a huge, black spider. I found a magazine and was about to dispatch the spider to spider heaven when Dan grabbed my arm. He gently lifted the insect and took it to the door where he released it to the magnificent Kerry countryside.

I was stunned. Dan, a Mass-attending Catholic bachelor who raised cows and occasionally other livestock, understood better than me – a priest at the time with a graduate degree in religion – that something as lowly and seemingly useless as a spider has intrinsic value. It helped me think more about the sanctity of creation, and now I kill roaches and other household insects only when I can’t turn them loose outside. More importantly, I’ve become aware of environmental issues and am eager to protect the natural world.

I’m thinking about this currently because I’ve begun reading “Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love” by Elizabeth Johnson. For those of you unfamiliar with her, Johnson is a Catholic nun and professor of theology at Fordham University in New York City. She has been head of the Catholic Theological Society of America and the American Theological Society, but has been criticized for being a “feminist theologian.” A committee of the United States Council of Catholic Bishops has criticized her for not conforming sufficiently to Catholic teaching in one of her books.

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We have the image of the earth as “our home,” Johnson points out, but humans are in the minority by an overwhelming margin. According to the FactMaster web site, there are between  two million and 50 million species of plants and animals.

Johnson’s book sets out to answer this principal question: “…What is the theological meaning of the natural world?

“This world evolved in all its splendor without human help,’’ she writes. “It was the context in which the human species itself evolved, and daily provides irreplaceable nourishment for human bodies and spirits. In our day, its future is in jeopardy due to human action and inaction, destructive behavior shot through with a disastrous failure of our vaunted intelligence and virtue.

“…Far from being made only for human use,” she writes, “these living species have an intrinsic value in their own right. Once one understands that the evolving community of life on earth is God’s beloved creation and its ruination an unspeakable sin, then deep affection shown in action on behalf of ecojustice becomes an indivisible part of one’s life.”

Presumably, that applies even to big, black spiders. You’ll be hearing more about Johnson’s book in future blogs.

My fellow believers and I could be partially excused for our blindness in seeing value in the natural world, perhaps, because we have heard precious little about it from our religious leaders. But that’s changing, as evidenced by many recent statements of Pope Francis.

In a message to the Vatican diplomatic corps in May, he said: “Creation is not a property, which we can rule over at will; or, even less, is it the property of only a few. Creation is a gift, it is a wonderful gift that God has given us, so that we care for it and we use it for the benefit of all, always with great respect and gratitude.”

He condemned “…the greedy exploitation of environmental resources. Even if ‘nature is at our disposition,’ all too often we do not respect it or consider it a gracious gift which we must care for and set at the service of our brothers and sisters, including future generations.”

Concern about the natural world is not on the periphery of faith but is at its core, a rational deduction from belief in God as the author of all life.

“We are losing the attitude of wonder, contemplation, listening to creation,” Pope Francis said in an address on World Environment Day last year. “The implications of living in a horizontal manner [is that] we have moved away from God; we no longer read His signs.”

Searchers for God should know that efforts to preserve and protect the natural world are an essential part of faith. When and if they become believers, they should be involved in the public forum on the environment, including those about climate change. You can argue about which group of scientists knows best, but in my view, you can’t argue against preserving and protecting creation.  

The “person close to me” mentioned at the beginning of this blog, by the way, is a prime example of someone who consistently lives her faith. Despite her question, her respect and love for God’s creation is a model for anyone searching for God.  

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Is Reason the Enemy of Faith?

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I’ve recently finished a fascinating book called Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang. A best-selling classic in thirty languages with more than 10 million copies sold around the world, it describes in remarkable detail the lives of three generations of Chang’s family in twentieth-century China.

Starting with her grandmother, who was a war lord’s concubine, Chang takes the reader through the transition from feudalism to communism and the bizarre succession of communist regimes that governed mostly by whim. This includes, of course, the long reign of Mao Zedong and his “cultural revolution,” which interrupted the lives of millions of students and workers to eradicate, among other things, grass, which was considered “bourgeois,” and melt pots, pans, machinery and everything metal to contribute to the nation’s need for steel.

During much of this period, ideology and the personal cult of the Great Leader always trumped human reason. The consequences were predictable. Humans discouraged from reasoning were reduced to little more than domesticated hominoids living in a confused state of uncertainty and insecurity. The book reminds you how important the use of reason is to making us, and keeping us, human.

That’s why it’s unfortunate that many contemporary people see reason as the enemy of faith. Our daily lives are a mixture of random experiences, successes and disappointments, chores and projects, continual decisions, and incessant attempts to make sense of things. Indeed, the human brain is continually searching for meaning. Though we may not express it this way, it is perhaps just another way of describing the search for God.

And the search for meaning, which is at the heart of faith, is as rational as the search for the composition of dark matter.

That’s not how many see it, of course.

Adam Hincks, a Jesuit priest and astrophysicist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, writes in a recent issue of America magazine that many people see faith as “unscientific, subjective and private,” and knowledge as “scientific, objective and part of a common fund.” But is the human brain really this disjoined?

The common view that the brain has two hemispheres that determine our proclivities and aptitudes seems to support the disjoined view. In this scheme, the left hemisphere is responsible for logic, language, details, patterns in things and looking at “parts” as opposed to “wholes.” The right side is responsible for emotions, meanings, music, art and synthesizing into a whole.

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According to recent studies, however, this is mostly myth.

“There is a misconception that everything to do with being analytical is confined to one side of the brain, and everything to do with being creative is confined to the opposite side,” says Dr. Jeff Anderson, director of the fMRI Neurosurgical Mapping Service at the University of Utah as quoted on the Web site, livescience. “In fact, it is the connections among all brain regions that enable humans to engage in both creativity and analytical thinking.”

This seems to support the view of Hincks, the Jesuit astrophysicist, that there’s a fine line between reason and belief, pointing out that belief is at least as much a part of everyday learning and observation as reason and that “we accept, at least implicitly, that belief is rational.”

“I did not personally verify the vast majority of scientific theories that I learned while earning my degrees,” he writes. No, he took them “on faith.” He adds that “no one…sees such instances of scientific belief as fundamentally irrational.”

We believe if we trust the source, and we test the insights gained from beliefs against other data until we’re satisfied that they are trustworthy. A child believes his/her parents, for instance, because of his/her experience of the parents’ trustworthiness.  

Hincks argues that authentic religion involves both knowledge and belief (Some would say that belief is one way of obtaining knowledge.) and “…our belief in God is complemented by the immanent knowledge of God we acquire through prayer and spiritual exercises.”

And that brings us to the view that besides complementing reason, faith as a gift from God goes far beyond belief.

“Faith is thus primarily a grace that draws us beyond the sort of believing and knowing that we can achieve through human reason,” Hincks writes.

The bottom line is that God is both the creator of reason and the giver of faith. They complement each other and human beings have trouble when relying solely on one or the other. Faith is not reason’s enemy, nor is reason the enemy of faith. People who promote the view that the two are incompatible do a disservice to both.

The lack of either, as shown in the lives of the millions of Chinese who lived during Mao’s regime (and North Koreans in our time), cripples our humanity. And it’s only as fully functioning, healthy, rational and faithful humans that we can successfully seek God.  

 

Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Big Tent

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For several years, I’ve grown tomatoes in my back yard. I usually have only four plants, and some years they have yielded lots of fruit (or are they vegetables?) while other years have been stingy. Even in this year, a good one, the size and quality of the tomatoes have varied widely.

Humans are like tomatoes. Our human genomes may be nearly identical to each other, and we may have many cultural similarities, but we’re also very different. And we like to compare ourselves to each other.

As I mentioned in a blog about the tendency to judge others, Christians who are serious about their faith find it hard not to disparage those who may not appear to be as zealous. In the Catholic Church, in fact, some have suggested that we should expect and welcome a smaller church, one that comprises the “true believers.”

It’s sort of a “take-it-or-leave-it” attitude about religion. If you can’t summarily accept everything the church teaches, you should leave, or shouldn’t bother to search for God. For some, this means that everyone should also accept the devotions and peripheral religious practices of some church members.     

Thinking about it, I may have been guilty of this kind of thinking. I used to mentally mock baseball players, mostly Latinos, who incessantly made the sign of the cross when coming to bat or starting to pitch. God has more important things to do than to help this player in a game, I thought.

I’ve changed my mind. What makes what I want from God more important than whatever the athlete wants, whether it’s victory or protection from injury?

I’ve also been reproachful of the religious devotions of the "uneducated," having a vague feeling that they “border on the superstitious.” I now realize you don’t need a theology degree to be close to God. In fact, that may not be advantageous at all.

A recent America magazine article by Frank DeSiano, a priest of the Paulist Fathers, whose special ministry is to estranged Catholics, explored this theme. 

He cited the famous Gospel parable of the sower and the seed, the opening parables in the gospels of Mark and Mathew. Jesus makes a point about seeds that are productive and seeds that are not, but also the gradation among the productive seeds – those that yield thirty, sixty and a hundredfold.

You can presume that Jesus was talking about a continuum from 1 to 100, acknowledging that our degree of commitment and the fervor with which we embrace the faith will vary widely. If you “score” in the 1-100 range, writes DeSiano, you are “productive.”

He uses another example that may definitively answer the question about who is, and who isn’t, in “the kingdom of God.” In Mathew’s gospel, Jesus tells the story of the judgment, when he separates the “sheep from the goats.” The sheep are rewarded; the goats punished. What distinguishes them?

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“I was hungry and you fed me. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink….” The interesting part of this story is that the sheep themselves are unaware that they did anything to warrant their reward.

“Master, what are you talking about?” the sheep ask, according to The Message translation of Mathew’s 25th chapter. “When did we ever see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and gave you a drink?

“Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me – you did it to me.” 

Doesn’t this mean that we can’t fit people into our categories about who is and who isn’t a child of God? And it may mean we shouldn’t try to fit ourselves into these categories, either. Writing to the Romans, Paul urges his readers to see things as they are, “each according to the measure of faith that God has apportioned.”

God, it seems, accepts anyone who seeks him/her, “true believer” or not, holding the “big tent” view long before the term was invented. But if so, why be a Catholic, or a Christian, or a member of any religion? Why not just settle for being a good person?

You can, of course, but the more you achieve goodness, the more you may want a closer relationship to God, the author of goodness. And, the more fulfilling your life may be. As my mother used to say, “Anything worth doing is worth doing well,” so it is a rational goal to improve our “spiritual” lives, becoming more empathetic and helpful to others and closer to God. And “cool” or not, religion can help us do that.

My view is that we’re each drawn to God in different ways. Or, to use the active voice, God draws us to him/her in different ways. Were we born into a religious family that has passed on its faith to us? That may be the right path for us. Or, we may feel the need to explore other paths that lead to the same goal.

So does that mean that the paths are equal, or that it doesn’t matter what path we take? Not necessarily. We have to find the right path for us, and traditional Christian theology maintains that God guides us in our choices. We should be open to his/her gentle invitations.

So, what about the “true believers” versus “ordinary Christians?” Do we all have to burn with zeal about religion, or talk and think about it all the time, or appear to be religious? No way. Trying to appear to be more than ordinary in our faith may be a fatal attitude. Truth is, we need to be sincere, persistent and patient in our search for God and understand that “finding” him/her can take a lifetime.

We should take a cue from the tomatoes. They’re big and small, flavorful and not-so-flavorful. And they take practically a whole season to ripen. 

 







Thursday, September 25, 2014

Belief in an Afterlife a "Crutch?"

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Back in the day when I was a priest, I preferred funerals to weddings.

That may sound strange, but when asked to witness weddings, I often felt like I was being rented along with the wedding hall, tables and chairs. Often, I suspected, the bride and groom had a church wedding because their parents wanted it. The couple often had little interest in the religious aspect of the wedding. They seemed to be involved in a sort of mutual self-absorption, and many people attending seemed to be more interested in observing wedding clothes and other attendees than in any encounter with God.

It was much easier to get the attention of people at funerals. They were having to deal directly with death, a subject they had spent much of their lives trying to avoid. Believers had to deal with their doubts about the hereafter. Non-believers had to confront the expected oblivion. Unlike those at a wedding, most were eager for anything you could say to relieve their discomfort, and many, I believe, actually prayed.

Truth is, most of us experience a plethora of emotions when considering death (about which I wrote in a blog on Nov. 11 of last year). Oddly, we’re fascinated by it – as evidenced by the innumerable movies, TV shows and video games whose main ingredient is violent death – and feel fear and revulsion at the prospect.

Tomas Halik, the Czech psychotherapist, priest and professor of philosophy and sociology whom I’ve quoted often in these blogs, calls belief in an afterlife “a kind of touchstone for the authenticity of our belief in God.

“If we restrict ourselves to the playing field of this life then maybe all we need of Christianity is what remained of it after the post-Enlightenment selling off of transcendence – a smidgen of moral principles and humanitarian kindness, a slightly updated version of existentialism, and a poetic sense of the mysterious.”

Even the faith of staunch believers, however, can be severely tested when confronted by death. That’s because to imagine the afterlife is to imagine the unimaginable. If our “spirit” outlives our bodies, it will be in a form that is unlike any human experience.

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Halik quotes the First Letter to the Corinthians in the Christian Bible, which paraphrases Isaiah in the Hebrew Bible. Here’s The Message translation: “No one’s ever seen or heard anything like this, never so much as imagined anything quite like it – what God has arranged for those who love him.”

Jesus provides a few stories in the gospels about the afterlife, undoubtedly trying to help people overcome this lack of imagination. For example, he tells the famous story of Lazarus, the poor man “covered with sores,” and the unnamed rich man, who, according to The Message translation, was “wasting his days in conspicuous consumption.” They both died. The rich man was in torment in hell but Lazarus was “taken up by the angels to the lap of Abraham.” The rich man begged for Lazarus’ help, but Abraham explained that “in all these matters there is a huge chasm set between us so that no one can go from us to you even if he wanted to.”

The rich man wanted Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his five brothers so they don’t end up in the same place. “They have Moses and the Prophets to tell them the score,” said Abraham. “Let them listen to them. I know, Father Abraham,” the rich man said, “but they’re not listening. If someone came back to them from the dead, they would change their ways.” Abraham answered: “If they won’t listen to Moses and the Prophets, they’re not going to be convinced by someone who rises from the dead.”

This and similar stories may help, but they use images designed for people who lived nearly 2,000 years ago. An excerpt from another part of the gospel may provide better understanding and hope.  “Trust me,” Jesus says in the same translation of the Gospel of John, “There is plenty of room for you in my Father’s home.”

Belief in an afterlife is for many the acid test of belief in God. We want to believe it, but it seems too good to be true. And apart from those who say they have had “near-death experiences,” there is nothing in our daily temporal experience, or even our histories, that support that belief.

Still, many of us maintain hope, mustering all our faith to recite with fellow believers the part of the Nicene Creed that says, “I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.”

Some militant atheists point to a belief in the afterlife as the ultimate “crutch” of religious belief. We just can’t accept the nothingness that awaits us, they say. What they forget, along with many Christians, is that life after death is a two-edged sword.     

“I have always found it odd and even comical,” writes Halik, “when the Christian vision of eternal life is described as “a crutch” or “cheap solace.” After all, according to Christian belief the first thing awaiting us beyond the gates of death is God’s judgment. On the contrary, isn't “cheap solace” precisely the notion that death is the end of everything and we don’t have to answer to anyone for our lives?”

Halik says he looks forward to it because it will reveal the truth. “…We’ll discover at last the entire and real truth about ourselves, about our lives and about everything that appertained to them. …That truth will have the last word has always struck me as very liberating.”

Ours is not to know, but to wait, he says – while we continue attending weddings and funerals.



    

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

God and Randomness

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I have a friend who is retired from a very successful career in a medical specialty. Years ago, I remember asking him, “With what you know now about science and medicine, are you more or less persuaded about the existence of God?”

“Less,” he responded without hesitation.

I was surprised, and judging by his current behavior, I believe he may have changed his mind. But I was surprised because the complexity and precision of human biology seems to cry out for a “designer.” It’s hard to imagine the evolutionary process as entirely random.

Though I’ve lost the reference to this, I recall reading a quote that said something to the effect that believing that creation is entirely random is like believing that a press building explodes and a fully bound, up-to-date Encyclopedia Britannica blows out of the explosion and onto the street. For those of you unfamiliar with this classic work, the Encyclopedia in its various forms had from 12 to 17 volumes, each with at least 1,000 pages, on practically every subject you can think of.

I thought of this because of the recent visit of my son, his spouse and their 3-month-old baby. I didn’t have to change his diaper, but while watching his parents do it, it occurred to me how the baby’s emerging internal organs and systems are developing. He’s currently being fed by mother’s milk and his digestive system works accordingly, but as it grows and develops its digestive system will, incredibly, adapt to solid food.

Here are other facts, not at all among the most significant, about the human body that I find no less than amazing. They’re from the web site, Scienceray.com.
·       The head is equipped with eyebrows whose principal purpose is to keep sweat from running into the eyes. To help protect and keep the eyes healthy, you blink over 6 million times per year.
·       In one day, you shed about 10 billion skin flakes and salivate an average of 1-3 pints of saliva.
·       The heart produces enough pressure to squirt blood over 35 feet. It beats an average of 35 million times per year, or around 100,000 times per day.

Instead of wondering why at my age my biological processes and organs are slowing, I marvel that they still work at all, that wounds still heal and that although I’m losing brain cells, I’m also generating them. I find that incredible. What human-made thing is as efficient and durable? 

Ok, so the universe is amazing. That doesn’t disprove the randomness of evolution or prove God’s existence. That’s true, but just as some people write off God and religion because of their “gut feelings,” my rational self can’t accept the total randomness of evolution. I understand that many scientists say the universe has no need for a designer, but evolution without one, and without a “goal,” makes no sense, and making sense is important to humans.

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It occurs to me that the randomness of evolution may be similar to that of a casino slot machine. According to an on-line article by John Robison in the American Casino Guide, the machines are designed to pay out, say, 95 percent of what is inserted, so the “house” will always derive 5 percent on average. But the chances of an individual player winning at any particular time are still random.

“Random does not mean that everything is completely unpredictable and unknowable,” says Robison.

Returning to evolution, it seems to me that a God who used evolution and its randomness to create, nonetheless had certain results in mind. It’s the most plausible explanation for how, or maybe why, the universe is evolving. We assume, of course that contemporary humans are the end result and the apex of evolution, but that may not be the case. After all, as the Psalms say, who knows the mind of the Designer?

Theologians remind us that faith is not meant to answer scientific questions, and I believe them. However, to make sense of reality, all of us have to reconcile what we know from theology and science, and science has been unable to answer how, let alone why, the universe exists.

Given what I know from my brief time on this earth, the “big bang” seems less like the explosion of the printing press – an event that occurred for no particular reason and with no particular “goal” – and more like a deliberate, purposeful event kicking off billions of years of evolution that resulted in what we experience as contemporary human beings.

Getting from that idea to the idea of a personal God, who knows about me and cares for me, is another matter, of course, but that subject must await other blogs (although I’ve written about it in previous blogs). Unlike my retired doctor friend, the little I know of science and medicine, and of what I observe on a daily basis, confirms my faith in God.       

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Accidents of Birth

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Most of us, at one time or another, think about the “what ifs.”

What if my father hadn't married my mother but somebody else? Would there be a me? What if my parents had moved to Atlanta instead of Kansas City before I was born? How much would my life be different? And what if I had been born in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, instead of St. Joseph, Mo.? Would I be alive today?

San Pedro Sula, which few Americans know exists, is said to be the most dangerous city in the world. With a metro area of 1.2 million, it has a murder rate of 159 per 100,000 people. By comparison, Detroit has a rate of 55/100,000 and New Orleans, 53/100,000. Many of the people, including children and young families, we saw on TV in July when thousands of immigrants were stranded on the border, were said to be from San Pedro Sula.

Instead of living there, I live in a relatively safe place where crimes are generally solved and people can’t normally commit them with impunity. Compared to many residents of San Pedro Sula, my life is a walk in the park.

So what, exactly, did I do to deserve it? Absolutely nothing. It was an “accident of birth.”

That should engender in me a profound sense of gratitude to God (or for some, the “stars,” or to whomever people substitute for God). But my gratitude is half-hearted. And it should prevent me from criticizing, or looking down on residents of San Pedro Sula, the people who migrate from such places and people like them. But I’m tempted to disparage them nonetheless.

I have a sign on the bulletin board in the room of my house where I write these blogs that says, “Nearly 3 billion people live on less than $2 a day.” But the sign has been there a long time, and I don’t look at it often, so I forget how fortunate I am. And I forget to be grateful.

As for the “what if?” questions, does God have any better answers to them than we do? Probably not, because they’re not real questions. They’re like asking whether Julius Caesar would like cheeseburgers.

What is amazing about accidents of birth is how little we acknowledge that they’re accidental. Somehow, we have a sense of entitlement, the notion that we deserve to have been born into relative wealth or that God favors us, which makes it hard to be empathetic to the suffering of others. And I’m more convinced than ever that empathy for others – being concerned about others’ welfare – is essential in the search for God.

That’s because in Jewish, Christian and other traditions and theology, God identifies with his people. So if we ignore or harm people, we may search for some other “god” but not the God of those traditions and theology.

The Message translation of the Hebrew Bible, about which I wrote last week, has an interesting translation of Psalm 14. “Don’t they know they can’t get away with this – treating people like a fast-food meal over which they’re too busy to pray?” the psalmist asks. “Night is coming for them, and nightmares, for God takes the side of victims. Do you think you can mess with the dreams of the poor? You can’t, for God makes their dreams come true.”

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In the Christian Bible, Jesus identifies even more forcefully with his people. “I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me a drink, I was homeless and you gave me a room, I was shivering and you gave me clothes, I was sick and you stopped to visit, I was in prison and you came to me,” it says in the same translation.  

This theme of “empathy,” a sensitivity to our shared humanity, is taken up in Pope Francis’ exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel.” He applies the theme to the real world of politics and economics, which are determinant for our welfare.

“…We also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality,” he writes. “Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?” People in the “culture of prosperity,” he says, are often “incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor.”

Many believe that everybody has a chance to live like we do, and if they don’t, it’s somehow their own fault. It helps explain what the Pope calls the “globalization of indifference.”

Some people are scandalized and outraged by the Pope’s words, seeing them as meddling in politics, but he’s only applying Jesus’ words about “giving me to eat and drink,” reminding us that it’s not a matter of charity, but a more fundamental matter of justice. You can’t have charity without justice.

These ideas aren’t limited to Catholic social teaching, by the way. The “social gospel” was a prominent part of U.S. Protestant teaching in the early 20th century and empathy for others, especially the poor, is seen as essential for most Protestant denominations. Jewish and other congregations are also sensitive to the needs of others.

Many people are cynical of the idea of applying religious principles of love and care for others in all areas of life. But talk about your “what ifs!” Just think how different the world would be if that happened.


Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Book That Reads Us

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This blog tries to help skeptics connect with God and religion, and that’s no easy task.

According to studies, many young people, and not-so-young people, are tepid about God and shun traditional religions. Though I know many people’s objections to religion go much deeper than language, I try not to be “churchy,” avoiding religious terms that may be “off” buttons. It’s hard to write about Christianity, or Judaism for that matter, without mentioning the Bible, however.

Just about all of what we know about God is from the Bible or from people – modern or ancient, scholars or religious leaders – who have tried to gain insight into the Bible and share that insight with us.

At some point in a search for God, however, you should read the Bible for yourself. And that could be a problem. It was written over a period of 1,500 years, the last contribution thought to have been written about 1,900 years ago. So it isn’t exactly like reading the newspaper, or even as “easy” as reading Shakespeare.

Furthermore, it was written in at least three languages, Hebrew, Aramaic (the day-to-day language in Judea at the time of Jesus) and Greek, and unless we have training in these languages, we’re stuck with translations.

A few preliminary facts. First, the Bible is not really a “book” but more like a library. The number of books depends on whom you ask. Traditionally, there are 24 books in the Bible used by Jews; 66 books in the “Protestant” Bible, 73 in the “Catholic” Bible, and 78 in the Greek Orthodox Bible. Other Orthodox groups, and Mormons, have still different numbers. The Bible of the non-Jewish groups includes both the Old and New Testaments, referred to by many today as the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Bible.

I know, it’s confusing, but it’s all about which books each religion believes is “canonical;” that is, which are considered part of the Bible.

Second, Jews and Christians traditionally believe that the Bible is “inspired” by God. That doesn’t mean that God dictated the words to the authors but that he/she put thoughts into their heads that they expressed in their own words. That’s why the Bible is sometimes called “the word of God in the words of men.”

None of this makes the Bible easy to read and understand, so if you don’t have much interest to begin with, chances are you’re not going to read it. But trying to do so is worth it. Start with the “easier” books in the Christian Bible (assuming you lean toward Christianity), which would be the Acts of the Apostles and letters like those to the Corinthians and Ephesians.

Eugene Peterson
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Regarding ease of readership and understanding, it also makes a big difference which translation you read. I’ve recently discovered a relatively new one that is not only easy to read, but actually beautiful in parts. It’s called The Message, The Bible in Contemporary Language.

Right off, I should say that it’s controversial. Some people are upset if a translation isn’t as close to literal as possible. Others are happy with easy-to-read translations. I think it depends on the use. If you want to analyze the text, translations like the Jerusalem Bible and The New American Bible are for you. If you’re reading for inspiration or insight, The Message fills the bill nicely.

Says William Griffin, who recently translated the “Catholic” portions of the Bible for The Message, “The scholars want to be faithful to the original words; we translators want to be faithful to the original meaning.” Both are important.

Griffin describes The Message, mostly translated by Eugene Peterson – a long-time Presbyterian pastor and Scripture scholar – as a “fresh, compelling, insightful, challenging, faith-filled paraphrase of the Bible into contemporary idiomatic American English.”

Author Joyce Rupp (a long-time friend of mine) describes it this way: “Reading The Message is like walking into a familiar room where the furniture has been creatively rearranged and the walls newly painted.”

In his introduction, Peterson writes about reading the Bible. “As we read, and the longer we read, we begin to ‘get it’ – we are in a conversation with God. We find ourselves listening and answering in matters that most concern us: who we are, where we came from, where we are going, what makes us tick, the texture of the world and the communities we live in, and – most of all – the incredible love of God among us, doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves.” It is, he wrote, “…a book that reads us even as we read it.”

Here’s a sample from the famous passage about love in the First Letter to the Corinthians.

“If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rustic gate. If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing. If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.”

Even skeptics can relate to that.