On the face of it, much of the Bible and Qu’ran is dogmatic and sometimes unintelligible. Scripture contains scientific misconceptions. Also it has outmoded rules of living for example about food consumption and animal sacrifices.
There are references to historical events that seem unrelated to being alive today. One also notices all sorts of horrible things. In parts of the Bible, we can find a punitive deity and barbaric acts of inhumanity .
So, you might wonder what kind of divine authorship is supposed to be behind this scripture?
Myth in scripture
One point of view is that just because a book is old it doesn’t have to be outdated. Philosophers read Aristotle and Plato and find lots of contemporary human interest in them. There’s no reason why the moral insights of religious texts like the general commands about honouring one’s parents, not killing, or not stealing should be any different. The so-called Golden Rule is that you should treat others as you want to be treated yourself. This you find in all sorts of religious texts. You see versions of that in Aristotle.
For many people the creation story in Genesis is a myth. But I would like to suggest that the word myth should not be understood as meaning something that is not true. Doesn’t a myth convey something of a deeper truth about the human condition – something not supposed to be taken literally?
One can likewise wonder whether there is also wisdom beneath the surface of other parts of scripture: – its historical narrative, visionary material, prophecy, and poetry. If present, it has usually remained hidden to many.
Attitude to reading scripture
My own experience is that when I have try to focus my mind on a text and slowly reflect on its possible meaning, only then can I start to sense a deeper message. I feel a personal relevance.
“The truth that what you will find in the text depends on your commitment you show to the text, why you’re reading it and what you want to find in it.” (Anonymous teacher of Judaism – British Library website)
A danger lurks here. I can find myself proudly claiming I now know what scripture says and I want to tell others what to think.
“Our understanding of God’s word will be fallible because we are finite beings. It is arrogant to raise our interpretation to infallible truth and thus start to deny the truth that other people hold in their interpretation.” (anonymous Muslim speaker – British Library website)
If there is a God – an infinite Being beyond full human understanding – then a bit of humility from me is called for. Perhaps I have only partly had a glimmer of the truth and what is true for me works a little differently for you.
Mind you, I’m not saying scripture is the only source of wisdom. We value what we have learned from parents and teachers who have been part of our upbringing and education. They can convey deep guiding principles. For example the ideas that:
- A realm of consciousness of spirit exists that is not limited by space or time.
- There is a divine spark of love present with us which is the source and foundation of all reality.
- The improvement of one’s moral character is the biggest aim of one’s human existence.
I feel these ideas help me to find some sense in scripture.
Nasty side of scripture
The Old Testament prophets are good at threatening punishments of the people. Applied to myself, I feel these to be a warning about the troubles I can bring on myself if I were to stray from the right path in life.
The people of Israel fought gory battles against various tribes living in the land of Canaan. I wonder whether these battles are symbolic of the inner conflicts within myself in my daily life. Generally speaking, there is a clash between a selfish thought and considering the needs of someone near me.
What about animal sacrifices urged upon the people of the Old Testament? To my mind these mirror the things I need to give up, or at least cut down. What seems like a personal sacrifice at the time however can later become something of no matter.
Correspondence and scripture
There is one big idea I find useful in understanding sacred writing. This is the concept of correspondence. The philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg wrote about a deeper level of meaning within the literal sense of scripture. Each object, person, and event depicted in scripture is said to correspond to this spiritual sense. Sometimes this is clear but often it is hidden. One has to employ one’s deeper perception to notice it.
“The spiritual sense … does not appear in the sense of the Letter: it is within it, as the soul is in the body, as the thought is in the eyes, and as affection is in the countenance. ” (Emanuel Swedenborg, philosopher)
Enlightenment and scripture
Some religious believers say one shouldn’t criticise sacred writing but should take it as final authority. However, there is another attitude to scripture which I think is a little bit different. It is one that does involve a questioning and searching attitude. Such an approach involves reflection and a sense of responsibility for applying what is learned.
According to Swedenborg enlightened people are :
“Those who love truths because they are truths, and who apply them to the uses of life.”
Conclusion about scripture
In Hinduism and Buddhism there isn’t the same tradition, as in the Western world, of an infallibility of one particular religious text. Rather, believers draw upon a whole body and collection of spiritual writing. They use these in order to understand their religion better.
I feel no individual writers of scripture of themselves could have infallibly grasped what is eternally true. After all they were only finite human beings. Nevertheless, I do sense a divine inspiration in their writing that has universal application. Could they not have been instrumental in revealing the wisdom of an infinite loving Being? A message that is the Word of God?
I would suggest there is only one way for you to answer this question to your own satisfaction. Why not try to read parts of scripture you have never visited, and look for what you had never previously suspected was present?
Copyright 2016 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems