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Can You Believe It?

Ever so often, someone will tell me he doesn't believe in God any more because there's no way Noah could have lived to be eight hundred years old and besides, how come they never found the ark? Or because the virgin birth couldn't have happened. Never mind somebody rising from the dead. And how about this: If Adam and Eve were the first people, where did their son find women to marry?

The Bible is a very long book with some pretty strange things between its covers. When people find something in it that doesn't make much sense, they sometimes figure the whole God thing must be a crock and move on. But what you do with these and the thousand other oddities you find in scripture depends on what you think sacred writings are for. If the Bible is supposed to be a literal history of the world, we're in trouble on page one. The creation story doesn't square at all with what our science has revealed to us about our origins. Right away we have to choose between ancient cosmology and our own way of looking at the world. There are, certainly, a fair number of people who do just that, who view any dissent on a literal interpretation of these texts as a failure of faith, a perverse decision to put our own puny minds above the mind of God. God said it, I believe it, and that settles it, say the bumper stickers. Wow! A lot of us just aren't that settled. So we feel vaguely guilty about bringing up Cain's wife, about our inability to feel certain that five thousand people really could stuff themselves on two fish and a few loaves of bread, that the universe was created in six hectic days. If I really had faith, we think, I wouldn't have a problem with this stuff. So I guess I must not have faith.

Well -- faith in what? Faith in ancient geophysics? I don't think so. Is textbook truth the only kind of truth there is? The people who wrote these ancient books we have bound together in one volume and called The Bible didn't think they were writing textbooks. They were writing about the experience of the holy in their life and -- especially in the Old Testament -- what that experience was like in the life of a whole people. They drew on as many different kinds of self­-expression to describe their experience of the sacred as we do when we try to express ourselves about things that matter; poems, ancient folktales, angry letters, legal documents and records. Even a couple of old love songs wound up there. The oldest piece of the Bible is a fragment of a song, in fact -- just two lines in the book of Exodus -- "Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously -- The horse and rider he has thrown into the sea." Moses' sister, Miriam, and her friends sang this cheerful little number while they danced on the banks of the Red Sea, just after watching about three thousand Egyptian soldiers die horribly right before their eyes. One might wish for a gentler moment as a religion's first memory, but this is the one we have. You can't choose your relatives.

Notice that this oldest snippet of scripture isn't in the book we find first when we open the Bible as we have it now. The ordering of the books didn't happen until long after they were written, so that Genesis isn't the oldest part of the Bible at all, even though it's about the beginning of things. Get out a Bible and read the first four chapters. Notice that right off the bat in Genesis there are two different accounts of the creation, one right after the other; first the stately, rhythmic account of the successive layers of creation, and then the dramatic story of Adam and Eve.

What this shows us is that there were two stories people told about how the world came to be the way it is, and that those who pulled the papers together didn't feel called upon to choose one over the other. That's how they approached the project, not as a journalistic compilation of historical fact, but as a statement of important truth. Two truths were twice as true as one, to their way of thinking, and so they have left us both. That's the way it is with these ancient texts; they come from different societies and from different eras. The people who compiled them considered them important, and weren't about to throw things out.

With this kind of free input throughout the centuries of their compilation, there's no reason in the world why we should expect agreement in every detail among the scriptures, and every reason why they should contradict one another in many cases. And they do. Religious folk through the ages -- especially during the last two centuries, when people have thought they were supposed to make everything scientific -- have spilled a lot of ink anxiously trying to reconcile "seeming contradictions" in scripture. This has been a colossal waste of time. Those aren't "seeming contradictions" that we find in scripture they're honest­-to­-God real ones. Time and again, the Bible says one thing in one place and exactly the opposite thing somewhere else. People who inhabit different centuries are different from one another; they do and believe different things. If I were to add my own thoughts to a document first written by Benjamin Franklin, you'd be able to tell where Ben left off and I began. The Bible is like that. This is part of the fun of reading it; finding the different strands of tradition in these ancient writings is fascinating detective work.

It does mean, though, that appropriating Biblical texts as guides for modern life is a little more complicated than the bumper sticker suggests. You can't transform yourself into a person of the fifth century B.C. And you can't pretend not to know the things you know. You inhabit the last years of the century that witnessed the Holocaust. The Biblical notion of the Jews as the chosen people cannot mean for you what it meant for the ancient Israelites. They looked at what happened in history and interpreted it. We must do the same. In venerating their texts, we honor their memory. But we do not become them.

Sometimes you will hear a stalwart defender of the faith come out vehemently against what he derisively calls "picking and choosing." He doesn't "pick and choose" from Holy Writ those things that are convenient to believe, he says -- implying that the rest of us craven folk take the easy road of cheapening our faith to suit our whims. All or nothing, he continues stoutly, I won't just take the easy parts.

But is this really true? Does he really not "pick and choose?" If it is a Christian who feels so strongly about the Bible, I'll bet you anything he doesn't follow the dietary laws of ancient Israel. Ten to one he keeps a Sunday sabbath instead of a Saturday one, and ten to one he cooks dinner on that day, neither of which are things he would do if he were following Biblical teaching to the letter. If he is a Jew, I don't imagine he would understand himself to be obligated to marry his sisterin-­law if his brother should die, as the Levite tradition recorded three thousand years ago demands that he do. He does, and does not do, many things counter to explicit Biblical instruction. He picks and chooses. He has to, he is separated by thousands of years from the cultures in which these writings arose.

Ah, he says, when you corner him about the pastrami sandwich he's eating and the injunction against eating pork in the book of Leviticus. But there are essential Biblical truths that cannot be changed. Right? Like all the ones that support his views. There's just no way around it. You and he both have to pick and choose. You have to interpret. We all do it every time we read any book. People always have. Before the American Civil War, pulpits throughout the South rang with defenses of chattel slavery. Bible verses were adduced as evidence that the buying and selling of human beings was God's will.

This should not be too hard for us to comprehend, when we see a Biblical text advocating something we now understand to be wrong. we don't have to explain why it's all right that it does so. It's not all right. What we are seeing is the moral development of the human family. We don't do everything people used to do. There will come a day when people will no longer do some of the things we do now. In the future people will shake their heads in disbelief at our ability to live in relative comfort with half the world's children going to bed hungry every night while the other half throws away food. We need not make the people who experience these ancient texts better than they were. It will be enough for us simply to try to understand why they thought and behaved as they did.

Of course, such talk is easier to handle when it centers around whether or not to eat a pastrami sandwich than it is when it's about whether homosexual behavior is good or bad. But that's only true for us. The pastrami problem was dead serious in the first century. Sex isn't everything, people killed each other over the observance of dietary laws. The principle is the same. Whether you're attempting to discern the spiritual discipline appropriate for you or to discern your moral judgment of a sexual act, you're not going to be able to "follow the Bible" to the letter. Even people who think they do, they don't. It's not going to provide you with answers without your having to use your head. And, since most of us respect our own judgment and want to use it as best we can, this is just as well. To a great degree, we are on our own in making ethical decisions, in evaluating our histories, in comprehending the meaning of them. We will not find easy-to-­follow recipes for our behavior in scripture. Our primary tool is our own intelligence.

But it is not our only tool. We may be on our own, but we are not alone. We do have those centuries of experience to consult; centuries of human souls struggling to understand their own histories. We do have the great overarching themes of human experience recorded in the ancient texts to give us hints of what can be the sanctity of life, the tremendous power of human love and human hatred, the moral duty to the poor and suffering, the mysteriousness of the spirit. And we have one another to puzzle with, to argue with; together we find in our generation what the Biblical writers found together in theirs. Together with our sisters and brothers of today, together with sisters and brothers who died millennia go. We read their words. We ask ourselves not how can I be like them? But what in my world speaks of God's action the way the things about which they wrote spoke in theirs?

What we do not have is certainty. Is there a way I can know beyond doubt that my actions are in accordance with the will of God? Will I find respite from the uncertainties of modern life in the pages of this holy book? Can I fully understand what the truth is and know beyond doubt that I am not in error? No. All I can do is try, knowing before I begin that my effort will be less than perfect. That I won't get it all just right. And being gentle enough on myself, and humble enough before others, to accept my limitations. I can never be absolutely sure, but I still must try to understand, because one of the things that makes me a human being is trying to understand.

That is not a particularly attractive idea, sounding as it does, like a fair amount of work. No wonder the systems of belief that promise quick inerrancy flourish in the present anxious age; the magic crystals, the Peruvian mystical knowledge, the secret key that unlocks everything -- and the magic Bible, the book that spells it all out for you in an easy­-to­-digest little pellets that eliminate the discomfort of doubt. I can understand the lure of a life without uncertainty. I just don't think it's a very real life. No wonder fundamentalists often seem grim. It takes a lot of energy to assure themselves and others that there are no contradictions save "seeming" ones, that everything makes sense, that nothing happens without a reason, that we have a complete compendium, of unambiguous recipes for every difficult decision in life. Most people over the age of twelve just don't experience life that way. But if we're not looking at quick and easy recipes for certainty when we read the Bible, what are we doing? If we're on our own anyway, if the centuries which have intervened between the ancient writers and ourselves have so altered circumstances that we frequently cannot take their words at face value, why bother with them at all? Because we have them. Because people long dead, whose names we will never know, thought they were important enough to copy out by hand, day after day and night after night, by candlelight or firelight in cold, drafty rooms. Because we are unable fully to understand about half of the world's literature if we are unfamiliar with them, since it presupposes familiarity with these texts.

But, most of all, because God speaks in them. Not always very clearly, and hardly ever simply. But the sacred writings to which we heir holy. The conversations about the soul and its journey in which we participate when we read them, a conversation that spans centuries and straddles cultures -- this conversation is a crucible from which wisdom and goodness emerge. It may not be the same wisdom and goodness that emerged from it when it was first written down, or when it was read in the ninth century, or the nineteenth. But the conversation continues.