Last week, we began a conversation about the Bible and how we might read it today: a conversation about what in the world this particular book of ancient stories means for us today.
This is a very important question for us, as it is for any community that is going to continue to use this very ancient and very mixed collection of texts. How do we read and understand the writings we find in the Bible, and what role do they play in our lives today? This is important because what we believe about this book—about who wrote it, what’s in it, what got left out of it, and how we are called use it today—what we believe about all these things has an enormous effect on our relationship with God, our relationships with our fellow human beings, and our relationship with the rest of creation.
I want to be very, very clear that this really is an open question. In the United Church of Christ, and in this congregation, there is nothing you have to believe about the Bible, or about anything else. I’m not sure I can say this often enough. In the United Church of Christ, there are no tests of faith. There is nothing you have to believe about this book or about anything else in order to be welcomed here.
And yet, we do continue to privilege this book by reading from it in worship. If we are going to continue to read this book on Sunday mornings, and if we are going to continue to read it to our children in Sunday school, then I believe we have a moral obligation to make sure that the way we use the Bible is life-giving, both for ourselves and for the world. Because, God knows, the ways in which the church has historically used this book have brought far too much suffering, death, and destruction to other peoples, and to creation itself.
I want to talk a bit about that suffering and destruction this morning. Because I believe that unless we grapple honestly with the destructive ideas we’ve inherited about the Bible, we are likely to continue to hold those ideas, even if we hold them unconsciously. And then…I’d also like to offer you another possible way to read the Bible — a lens through which to read this book in a more healing, and life-giving way.
One of the most troubling ideas about the Bible—an idea I hear in churches all the time—is this formula: “The God of the Old Testament is a God of wrath, while the God of the New Testament is a God of love.” Maybe you’ve heard this, too.
As we discussed last week, this is a very slippery slope. It is a slippery slope to dismiss any other people’s sacred scripture as inferior to our own. A slippery slope down which the church has too often slid, believing our scripture, and thereby ourselves, to be superior, and thereby justifying the atrocities we commit in the name of God.
But we know that Jesus himself was spiritually formed by the sacred texts of the Hebrew Bible. We also know that Jesus’ own words, as portrayed in the Christian gospels, often echo the exact words of the Hebrew psalms, the passion of the Hebrew prophets, and the extravagant love of the Hebrew God. I don’t believe it’s possible to understand Jesus, let alone follow him, while dismissing the sacred texts that were so important to Jesus and his people.
And I hope that even a quick sample, such as the one we read this morning from the prophet Hosea, will be enough to convince you that the God of love is alive and well in the Hebrew Bible. This is a God of extravagant forgiveness; a God who lifts God’s people to God’s own cheek, even when that people has gone badly astray. I hope that even our brief comparison this morning will illustrate the difference between this loving God who speaks through the Hebrew prophet Hosea and, on the other hand, the God whom Jesus describes in the gospel of Matthew—a God who, in wrath, casts into the outer darkness all those who refuse God’s invitation. I hope that this small sample will encourage you to take another look at the texts of both scriptures, and to dip into the Hebrew Bible. Especially if you haven’t read these texts in a while, or ever.
I think what you’ll find is that the God of love is all over the Hebrew Bible. And that the God of wrath shows up in the New Testament more often than we like to admit.
Which leads us back to our original question. What are we to make of the difficult and complex collection of writings that make up this book? A book in which God is portrayed, in both the Christian and Jewish holy texts, as a vengeful deity who is coming to judge the world, and also as a tender parent who longs only to guide people away from their hateful and destructive ways?
This morning, I want to offer you a way of reading this book that I believe can be particularly helpful and healing. What I’m about to offer you is not the only way to read the Bible, of course. But it’s a way of understanding the Bible that allows us to use all of it—including the wrathful, vengeful parts—as a tool for healing, and learning, and spiritual growth.
In order to use the Bible in this way, it can be very helpful to think of this book as a mirror. A mirror that works in two ways. First, it reflects the state of consciousness of the people who wrote each part of the Bible. And second, it simultaneously reflects back to us the state of our own individual and collective consciousness—if we are willing to gaze honestly at what we see.
I’m sure you’ve heard me mention that there are different states of human consciousness. And that the human brain has several parts, each of which developed at different stages of human evolution.
And although we like to think of ourselves as highly evolved, the most evolutionarily ancient part of our brain is still around. This is the part of us that neuroscientists call the “reptilian brain;” a part of the brain whose job is to keep watch for anything that seems to threaten our own survival. Ancient and primal, this part of the brain creates in us the spiritual condition known as the egoic mind. This is the mind of fear, the mind our earliest ancestors relied on to survive, and the mind that we, too, slip right back into as our default state of consciousness. Without our intentional effort and attention, we modern humans—just like our ancestors—see our world through the lens of the often paranoid and always suspicious egoic mind. When our egoic mind is in control, we, too, create a world that is divided into “us” and “them”— and we imagine that God is the one who enforces these lines of division. You don’t believe the way we do? You don’t worship the way we do? Better watch out, says the egoic mind. Because the God of wrath is going to cast you into the outer darkness. And so it is that in our minds and in our sacred texts, we humans create God in our own image!
This is a very natural human tendency, and we see it all over the Bible. And every time we see it in the Bible, we have a very important choice to make. We can let that text of fear and wrath reinforce our own fear, and our own egoic mind—in which case the Bible simply sucks us right back into the primal ooze of hatred. Or, we use that text of hatred and fear as a mirror. A mirror that lets us see the mind of fear at work—not only in the ancestors who wrote that text and imagined a God of wrath, but also in ourselves. Oh, right, we can say as we read about the outer darkness in the Gospel of Matthew. I have felt that way about my enemies, too! If we are honest, we can admit to ourselves that we, too, have been afraid of those who are different. And in that moment of recognition—recognizing the fearful egoic mind at work in the Bible and in us—we can wake up. We can make a choice to grow out of that mind of hatred and wrath, and into the mind of God’s extravagant love. This is a choice we can make every time we encounter the mind of fear and wrath at work anywhere in the Bible.
This moment, this opportunity for reflection and growth, is the reason I don’t advocate throwing out the whole Bible out. People ask me all the time if it wouldn’t just be better to get rid of the Bible in order to rid ourselves of the hateful texts that continue to do so much harm. The trouble with this solution is that if we throw it out, if we simply dismiss these disturbing writings as the work of a less-evolved, ancestral mind, then we miss this opportunity to see that same fearful mind at work in ourselves. And, as any psychologist will tell you, when we fail to recognize the evil in ourselves; when we fail to own in ourselves the shadow emotions of hatred and fear, then, friends, we inevitably project these characteristics onto someone else. And once we have projected our own shadow onto others, we feel entitled to attack and harm those others, very often in the name of God.
Friends, the story of the Bible is the story of our people’s struggle to describe their experience of the God whose essence is unconditional, infinite love. A love so expansive and so inclusive that our human minds can barely comprehend it: it fries all the circuits! And so, when our human mind gets a flash of this miraculous, mind-boggling love, we rush to record it—right here, in some of the most beautiful, healing words the world has ever known. And then…we forget! We fall right back into our default state of consciousness: into our human fear, into our human hatred, into our human love of vengeance. And we write those words down, too—right here, in the very same book—creating a vision of God that matches our broken, vengeful state of mind.
You can try this out for yourself and see what happens. I invite you this week to open your Bible and see what you find reflected there. Is it the egoic mind of separation and fear, or is it the unitive, expansive mind of inclusion, forgiveness, and extravagant love? I bet you’ll find both! Because both minds were in the ancestors who wrote this book, just as both minds are in us. I bet you’ll even find both minds in the portraits of Jesus that were recorded in the gospels. And maybe, after all, this is what it means to be both fully human and fully divine. Both the expansive love of God and the fearful mind of humans…in one body. Both were in our ancestors. Both are in us. Both are in this book.
What a beautiful thing this is. What an honest reckoning it offers. What a generous healing we might yet choose if we look in this mirror to see ourselves, and then make a new choice.
May we have the courage to see ourselves clearly, and to choose well. Amen.