If I Cannot Always Take Scripture Literal?

The centuries-old controversy over the role of scripture, the letter of the Law and the spirit of the Law, were clarified by Jesus in one bold and powerful response in which he brought forth the context in which scriptures are applied.

“Master, which is the greatest commandment of the Law?”

You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.
“This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second resembles it :
You must love your neighbor as yourself
“On these two commandments hang the whole Law, and the Prophets too.”
Many an argument between one who believes the Bible to be inerrant, absolute and literally true and one who disagrees runs aground when those of the absolutist view “prove” inerrancy by quoting what the book says about itself.

It has been my view that the Bible is the Word of God – but not the literal words of God. In this I’d like to quote another book, Reading the Bible for the First Time, by Dr. Marcus J. Borg, Hundere Distinguished Professor of Religion and Culture at Oregon State University:

“The sacramental function of scripture leads to a final point about the relationship between God and the Bible: the Bible as the ‘Word of God.’ …speaking of the Bible as ‘the Word of God’ has often led Christians to see the Bible as coming from God.
… It is important to emphasize that the Christian tradition throughout its history has spoken of the Bible as the Word of God (capital W and singular), not as the words of God. If it had used the latter phrase, then one might reasonably claim that believing the words of the Bible to be God’s words is intrinsic to being Christian.
But the use of a capital W and the singular suggests a different meaning. Namely, ‘Word’ is being used in a metaphorical and nonliteral sense. As with metaphors generally, this one resonates with more than one nuance of meaning.
A word is a means of communication, involving both speaking and hearing. A word is a means of disclosure; we disclose or reveal ourselves through words. Words bridge the distance between ourselves and others: we commune and become intimate through words.
To call the Bible the Word of God is to see it in all of these ways, and no doubt more. The Bible is a means of divine self-disclosure. The traditional theological phrase for this is ‘the Bible as the revelation of God.’
In the Bible, as the foundation of the Christian cultural-linguistic world, Christians find the disclosure of God – not because the Bible is the words of God but because the Bible contains the primary stories and traditions that disclose the character and will of God.
… calling the Bible the Word of God refers not to its origin but to its status and function.”
Regarding the Bible in the context of a faith statement of my own, I would then say that my own agreement with Dr. Borg’s points – present in my life before I discovered Marcus Borg – is part and parcel of my on-going love affair with scripture.

Jesus said search the scriptures for in them ye think ye have eternal life.

He also said that the Kingdom of God is within you which for me has always meant that eternal life is not something far off to be won, rather it is the actual present; the here and now in which we live and breathe.

Jesus said that there were two fundamental truths upon which all the writings of the Law and the words of the Prophets hang:  Love God with all you have and love your neighbors as you love yourselves.

In that marvelous utterance I find the ultimate key to the scriptures.

If, as Dr. Borg has written, the Bible reveals God Himself to humanity and discloses the character and will of God while remaining the creation of mortal beings who have expressed the traditions and primary stories in their own words, we realize an equally marvelous discovery.

The Bible, as does other scriptural writing, contains within its stories the evolution of human understanding of God – complete with interpretations and portrayals of that understanding.

Add to that the words of Jesus – whether literal or myth – which expand with Jesus’ understanding of God expressed through his sayings – and we have at our disposal the ability to interpret what Jesus said without some religious obligation to force it to harmonize with other traditions, interpretations and accounts elsewhere in the Bible.

The Bible then becomes a tool for mortals who have the key to the disclosure/revelation of God.

The gap suggested by Isaiah 55, for example, where “your thoughts are not my thoughts” and “your ways are not my ways” does not constitute a chasm impossible to bridge. Rather it represents the very thing Jesus, in pointing to God and not himself, emphasized .. the chasm is bridgeable
… the Kingdom where God dwells is within you- and me
… I and the Father are one – and so are you.

We are not then left to argue the conflict between differing interpretations of the words of God as some sort of ultimate test of fidelity and obedience.

We are instead left to hold fast to the Bible as the Word of God in which we can compare our lives to ancient others about whom there are numerous stories and traditions within biblical pages.

All those “others” were mortals just like us who formed their own opinions based on their experience of God and from who we take example to do the same.

By taking the Bible literal and inerrant with the implied literality of the ancient stories, we are left to assume that at some point in human history, interaction between humanity and the supernatural came to an end and a barrier fell into place.

We are left to believe that God once spoke directly to folks like Adam and Eve, Noah, Jacob, Joseph and the later prophets, but after the barrier, God stopped.

We are left to believe in the ancient divine interventions and manifestations as recorded in the Bible but remain bereft of anything so dramatically convincing in the last 2000 years and – excluding the stories of Jesus – the last 2000 to 6000 years.

We are left to conclude that God deliberately brought His intimate and direct relationship to man to an end at some point and that afterwards future humans were not to be so blessed.

But hindsight reveals to us that left with only the Law and/or the Bible, human propensity for trusting the tangible over exercising faith and mystic thinking reduced the Bible effectively from being the Word of God to a confusing collection of words of God. And these words included the horrors of persecution and war.

In that aftermath we have come to see God Himself shackled by words, limited by literal word meanings, conceptually denigrated by the limits of language. This not only in the 19th, 20th and 21st Centuries, but clear back in the meridian of time into which Jesus was born.

We have come to see more clearly the meaning of John 3:16 with its powerful declaration of God’s intervention by sending a son at that moment who would speak out against the short-sighted cruelty and judgmental society that Judaism with its jots and tittles of the letter of law had become.

We are reminded by that passage that it’s all about living eternal life during the moments of mortality itself.

We understand that Jesus’ key to the scriptures is that ultimate context in which He answered a question about God‘s highest priorities.

Search the scriptures and understand them in the context of the two great commandments – love of God and love for everyone else.

Read scriptural writings against the powerful background and framework of loving God and loving everyone else.

Define the meanings against the key.

The highest manner of belief is founded on that key. Beliefs need not be “biblical” but – according to Jesus – they should harmonize with the two great commandments.

If belief and understanding harmonize with Jesus’ key, then interpreting the meaning of biblical passages no longer hangs on strict conformity to the Law and the Prophets. Rather, interpreting meaning trusts that the Law and the Prophets intends understanding within that higher context. The Law and the Prophets ultimately aims at loving God and neighbor

Do not judge.
Do not condemn.
Do not shun.

We understand why Jesus found parables more useful than direct statements. Words generate pictures in the mind and stories about Good Samaritans, Sparrows, Lilies, Houses on sand, Prodigal Sons and Forgiving Fathers had much greater impact than head-to-head confrontations with Law-citers who could only plot to kill him after failing to overpower him with “words of God” – because He understood the “Word” of God.
How is the Bible useful if I cannot and do not  have to take it literally?
Perceptually our existence seems governed by the perceptions of five physical senses. In interaction with those physical senses we’ve learned that our brains function from both a left and right side.

Our left-brain is primarily an interpreter of facts – an encyclopedia of personally acquired knowledge and experience. The right brain, the creative and imaginative side, is the source of our music, poetry and inventions.

How do these differing sides of our brains work together in helping us understand life?

Facts and experience are admitted into our thinking through our senses. They are ordered and collated on the left side of our brain and then conceptualized and understood on the right side.

Balance and harmony of perception are the natural path of our spiritual and physical evolution to wisdom and a higher spiritual plane. Real balance and harmony require perceptual willingness to trust what flourishes from internal seedlings planted by the senses in that inner garden.

Visually, we are equipped to see in three dimensions: height, width and depth. Without three-dimensional vision, we see only a square instead of a box and a circle instead of a sphere.

Logic suggests that a prompting moves more naturally through the mind via the creative and imaginative side — the right brain side. Left-brain thinking turns on the spirit receiver by its ability to read words, remember definitions, remember stories and remember personal life incidents. Right brain thinking activates the more spiritually creative aspect of thinking that senses the will and influence of ideas both higher and deeper in the mind.

To live entirely with an emphasis on left-brain thinking makes us no more human than a computer, which amasses knowledge and acts only according to facts in the database.
To live entirely with an emphasis on right brain thinking causes us to live in a world of fantasy, wishful thinking, and imaginary states where the practical application toward bringing wishes to reality is missing.

Right brain conceives the wish, but left-brain has the resources to realize the wish. It is sensible then that the infinite would not speak to humans solely through right side thinking where ideas would remain only in a conceptual state without the will and knowledge to action. Creativity then springs into action in a mind balanced with knowledge AND imagination.

Spiritually speaking, we are better served by reading formal scripture with a sense of creative imagination rather than with rigid left-brain literal thinking.

Are we among those fundamentalist thinkers most limited by assumptions?
Do we lazily rely on left-brain-dominated blindness by acting only according to someone else’s definition or interpretation of the words as literally written?

Do we think then that we have no need that they be placed in a context of spiritual internal feeling and understanding?

Or do we lazily reside in a fantasy world with a right-brain-dominated weakness of wishful trusting that if we “believe” in Jesus we are fulfilling God’s intent in giving us life and opportunity?

Do we restrict ourselves to merely looking and pointing at Jesus instead of looking where He looked and pointing where He pointed?

“Lazy” is appropriate here.

Are we mostly interested in learning only that which we are commanded to “do”, that which we need to “obey” and that which we “shouldn’t do”?

Are we afraid to be truly prompted by turning loose our right-brained creativity and trusting when comes to our outer consciousness urging expression from something prompted within?

I have at times in my life been a piano teacher. Worrying about literal Bible jots and tittles to excess is like being able to play music only by reading notes. It is like counting the rhythm loudly inside our heads as we try to hit the notes as dictated by our loud inner counting. We have no true feeling for the music itself – the phrasing and the flow – because we are worried more about the form of the music rather than its substance.

It is very unlikely – playing music in that manner – that we will be captured by the fullness of the musical piece. We are not likely to find ourselves carried to a higher plane as the music actually communicates its mood and feeling.

Such sterile and empty playing is primarily pretending to music; it is action dominated by left-brain thinking. Although mechanically a player can become very skilled, not only does the music remain mechanical in sound – as if played by a computer – but it is unlikely such a player will ever successfully understand or interpret what he plays. Such a player will not be able to create his own original music. At best such a player might be able to mimic those composers whose music he or she has learned to play.

In essence, the best this kind of musician could “create” would be the musical equiavalent of cutting and pasting – then calling it his own creation.

Creativity does not proceed out of minds dominated by left-brained thinking. Such thinkg reduces scripture from it’s primary actuality: first and foremost a spiritual document which contains within its pages a wisdom that must be obtained spiritually and never literally.

It takes work to use scripture in that way. It takes a recognition that God – as the strongest spiritual force in existence – is something very much a part of reality in the here and now.

It takes a recognition that every human individual not only has a “right” to on-going spiritual communion, but a need and opportunity to enhance life on the basis of individual effort.

Jesus spoke in the scriptural terms of his own time and made excellent use of the “father’s house” consisting of many mansions. The image is not of a massive fortress or cathedral with separate “mansion” wings and lobbies, but of an abode where all dwell.

How might we read scripture free from rigidity, dogma and literal binding?

Read with me for a moment. Jacob found himself in the presence of the abode of God in Genesis immediately upon awakening from his dream.

“Surely the Lord is in this place: and I knew it not. And he was afraid, and said, How dreadful is this place: This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”

Jacob was awake, alive and breathing earthly air when he was suddenly struck with the realization later taught by Jesus: the abode of God as a kingdom is here, is now, and we are already a part of it.

In Psalms David confirms Jacob’s understanding with the assurance that
“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

David was not comforted because he believed he would suffer in guilt and regret all the days of his life or that he would be consoled in his future spiritual incarceration by an abstraction. David was not looking at a post-mortal dwelling with God forever that included eventual forgiveness – an end result is promised to all of us.

Rather, David expressed his own powerful awareness of the presence of God in the here and now. David was first and foremost a mystic. He demonstrated repeatedly his ability to write and sing about a relationship with God that was not singly his nor restricted only to him by a discriminating Eternal Father.

David was one who had known God on an extremely intimate basis over his mortal lifetime. He knew God as all mortals can actively know still today. David had no need to be comforted by biblical wordage that had yet to be written and interpreted by literalist evangelical Christians in the Middle Ages.

The Psalmist in # 84 makes the affirmation that mortal life as a “doorkeeper in the house of my God” is preferable to a life of dwelling “in the tents of wickedness” which certainly will not be present after death.

Again, the abode of God is here, on earth and in the present moment.

Proverbs advises us on how to build our homes in harmony with the abode of God in this earthly environment.

“Through Wisdom is an house builded; and by understanding it is established. And by knowledge shall the chambers be filled with all precious and pleasant riches.”
“Wisdom” in the above quote is not mere wise knowledge. In Proverbs Wisdom is another name for the spirit of God.

When Isaiah was calling Israel to repentance, he justified Jacob’s understanding of what the house of God is. He justified Jacob’s own life of living within God’s earthly abode. In fact Isaiah preceded his approval of Jacob with a statement about gnat-strainers and camel-swallowers.

Precisely stated, Isaiah describes that sterile left-brain world of scriptural literalists who play at being righteous.

“… the scorner is consumed, and all that watch for iniquity are cut off: That make a man an offender for a word, and lay a snare for him that reproveth in the gate, and turn aside the just for a thing of naught.

Therefore thus saith the Lord, who redeemed Abraham, concerning the house of Jacob, Jacob shall not now be ashamed, neither shall his face now wax pale.”
Trying to protect their status as spiritual overlords of a nation that had been taught it was God’s chosen people, the Jewish priesthood accused Jesus of being the Devil.

Jesus responded to those who labeled him Beelzebub with an understanding that what they were after was entrenchment in a false spiritual reality. He described life for those who forgot that the here and now is God’s abode.

“Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city of house divided against itself shall not stand….”

Jesus was teaching that for all people the here and now is where God’s abode is found. God does not have bouncers and ID-checkers to keep non-worthy folks out.
The words Jesus puts into the “lord’s” mouth are strong and powerful – expressing God’s passion and compassion for humanity.

Which brings us to the marvelous “In my Father’s house are many mansions” (which I have actually heard as a beautiful musical piece with lyrics following the actual verses.)

Literalists limit the image of the abode of God as a future abstract kingdom that includes punishment.

Literalists envision unrelenting suffering that will only be eventually ended by a scorekeeping God who knows when the uttermost farthing has been paid.

Such is all literalist biblical Christianity has to offer spiritual seekers. It’s an insult to who and what God’s reality is. It denies the existence of any substantial spiritual nourishment at the banquet to which we are all invited.

It’s an insult to humanity to insist that amid all that abundance there is only a bowl of bitter gruel upon which has been divinely inscribed:

“The Inerrant and Absolute Word of God. This is all you may consume.”

A lie. We ought not leave so much on that table untouched.

I cordially invite you to experience scripture as inspired prose and poetry that is written with your right brain in mind. When your own creativity reveals itself to you, it will be unrestricted by anyone else’s magic.

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Arthur Ruger

Married and in a wonderful relationship. Retired Social Worker, Veteran, writer, author, blogger, musician,. Lives in Coeur D' Alene, Idaho

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