Sunrise Magazine Online

The Free Religious Spirit

By Peter H. Samsom, Minister, The First Unitarian Church of San Diego, California

What men believe about the Bible has been the focus of century upon century of argument and controversy. Armies have marched, men have been slain by thousands, banished from their homes and imprisoned, churches have been born and split, creeds have risen and fallen — all because men have felt so keenly about the Bible, its meaning and its place in their religious faith. In every world crisis, when life crashes down about the heads of men and severe demands are placed upon their spirits, it is to the resources of the Bible that they have repeatedly turned.

What then do we really think of the Bible? What should we think of it, as citizens of the twentieth century, who have learned some things about religion and the Bible that our fathers never knew? Should we cling doggedly to the old faith of those who still believe the Bible to be the divinely and directly inspired word of God, a true record of events and a reliable guide to conduct? Or should we join with those who, in resentment against the religion they had to endure as children, in anger against the superstitions which Bible-worship has encouraged, have reacted away from all forms of religion and rejected the Bible from any significant place in their lives simply by ignoring it? Somehow, neither of the extremes of fanaticism nor indifference seems appealing or defensible.

The great majority of Christians, of course, still hold the Bible to be their guiding light, the source of ultimate religious truth and saving knowledge. But it must be recognized that the Bible is not now regarded as it once was. For a century and more, the growing movement known as the Higher Criticism of the Bible has gained steadily in influence, until today its findings are widely accepted by virtually all literate people, both within and outside the Christian churches.

Where once all Christians believed that religion had been finally and completely revealed to them in highest possible form in the pages of the Bible, now a considerable number have found it necessary to recognize that the Bible must take its place as one great step in the long evolution of man's religious life; or, perhaps, as a record of many steps that man's spirit has taken. Where once men felt without question that God had personally written every word in the Bible, or had inspired it verbally in the minds of the men whose names appear at the beginnings of its books, now it is known that the Bible is not a book but a collection of literature, comprising letters, histories, sermons, poems, scattered recollections, legends, myths and laws, written under every conceivable human circumstance by innumerable different writers, very few of whom are definitely known as individuals.

By those who understand it realistically, the Bible is no longer seen as a miraculous achievement of supernatural stenography, but rather as a magnificent natural creation of the human spirit. The concept of its literal divine inspiration has been replaced by the idea of the creative process of the human spirit, familiar in the fields of literature and art. In this light, the Bible has become for us a record that contains some of the highest pinnacles of ethical and spiritual insight, as well as much that has not the slightest relevance to our lives now because it was closely tied to conditions, needs and ideas that have long since been left in the distant past.

A century of patient and profound scientific study has brought this ancient collection of books down out of the clouds of theologizing. No longer the infallible recording of God's innermost thoughts revealed to those who can grasp its mysteries, the Bible stands before us today as a vast, varied human record of the ancient fears, hopes, frustrations and victories of a great people, the Hebrews. The intensely human aspect of the Bible has emerged from the ages of sectarian wrangling and theological speculation, and as with all things we accept as human, we find ourselves disposed to select from the Bible what is sound and lasting in our sight, and let the rest quietly go. Such is the characteristic attitude of liberal religion toward the Bible.

An interesting fact appears: neither the "cover-to-cover" believers nor the totally indifferent seem ready or able to recognize this liberal viewpoint. The hundred-percent believers insist that it is a case of "all or nothing," that we must believe the Bible from cover to cover if we are to place credence in any aspect of it. And matching them in fanaticism are the folk who have rejected the Bible from their lives along with old-time religion in general, regarding the Bible with a supercilious amusement.

Now, the thoughtful and flexible modern attitude is at the same time both sympathetic and critical, neither accepting the Bible as infallible, nor rejecting it as irrelevant — a view which stands in sharp contrast to the traditional view of orthodox religion. In orthodoxy, the Bible fills a place analogous to that of the sun in the life of the earth. The Bible is an essential part of God's plan that brought the universe into being and keeps it in motion. Even the creation of mankind is scarcely more important to the divine plan than the Bible, for without the Bible as the guiding word of God, the creating of man would be a cruel joke, giving life to a creature with appetites but no wisdom.

With all respect to the sincerity of those who see the human situation in this way, liberal religion cannot share that faith. It has moved completely out of the medieval framework of thought that made that faith possible. The keynote of that system was and is supernaturalism. But the keynote of modern religious thinking is naturalism, which sees all life and thought as developing and evolutionary, a growing process with the seeds and direction of its growth within it, with its beginnings and its future veiled in mystery. Religion then is seen as a developing process, not handed to man complete in any book or revelation, but a slow, gradually building result of human experience, finding its source and guidance in the outreaching of men's minds, the aspirations of their hearts and the efforts of their hands in the shaping of a more livable existence than they have yet known on earth.

Has the Bible any place in such a religion, which depends more upon natural human experience than upon supernatural revelation? It most assuredly has, but that place is entirely different from what it was in the supernatural faith of our forefathers which looked beyond and above rather than within the natural world for truth and living wisdom. As a superb record of human living, as an unfolding drama of a whole people's spiritual development from a primitive desert faith to a mature ethical religion, the Bible occupies a high place in liberal religion. There are three sections in this human testament. The first describes the religious experience of the Hebrews as they outgrew their crude and combative deities of the desert and achieved the broad ethical perceptions of a people who could produce an Isaiah, a Jeremiah and a Micah. The second section of the Bible epic deals with the life and sayings of Jesus, presenting what pathetically little we know of his personality and achievements. And the final section tells of the first beginnings of a church which was to take the name of Jesus, and institutionalize his faith in the world.

The modern appreciation of the Bible as a matchless human testament is well expressed by Dr. Frederick M. Eliot in his "Unitarians Believe":

Within the covers of that library of books there is a record of religious experience, covering hundreds of years, and ranging all the way from the religion of barbarous peoples to exalted heights of ethical and spiritual insight. Here you will find religion expressed in terms of savage cruelty and selfishness, sometimes utterly revolting in its revelation of the dark, blind forces that constitute man's heritage from the jungle; and then, a few pages further along, you will find the outpourings of a soul in agony, suddenly discovering the pure light of a faith that can triumph over disaster and achieve victory in the teeth of overwhelming defeat. So rich and varied are the contents of this treasury of human experience that there is no aspect of life that is not touched by its illumination. It is the supreme witness to the long search of man's mind and heart for God, and the supremely important proof that this search is never wholly in vain.

From this point of view, the most exciting thing about the Bible is not that God wrote it, but that men wrote it — from the heights and depths of human living and thinking, offering an unparalleled picture of what is in the heart of man.

Now then, what of those who feel that the Bible today has no vital place in our lives, that with its supernatural authority removed, modern man might as well turn away from it to more important things. Liberal religion disagrees sharply with this, because of the logical consequence to which it leads. If the Bible were without value to mankind, then it ought to be possible to imagine that mankind had never had the Bible. Suppose, now, that some catastrophe had occurred in the past and all these writings had somehow been lost. Scholars tell us that without a doubt a great many manuscripts and documents have been lost, and that the canonical books we have are but a small fraction of what was once in existence and circulation. Suppose all of it had been lost, and that we had no story of the Creation, no Ten Commandments, no Twenty-third Psalm, no Job or Jeremiah; suppose that even the fragmentary records we have of the life of Jesus had been lost. What then? Would our religion be any different? Would our daily lives be without light and guidance?

The Bible is such an intimate part, not only of religion, but of our whole civilization, that it is not easy to imagine being without it. One fact stands out immediately: without the Bible, our culture would be far less rich and colorful than it is. Would Shakespeare, Milton, Goethe and the other giants of the pen have written with such power and beauty if they had not been able to draw upon the rich storehouse of human experience and the vivid phrasing which the Bible laid before them? Western literature as a whole owes an enormous debt to the Bible in a thousand ways. Harry Emerson Fosdick once said "As for the English classics, take from them the contribution of Scripture, and the remainder would resemble a town in Flanders after the big guns were through with it."

Think of the colonial days in America, when for generations our pioneering people had neither the time nor the facilities for much reading. We are told that the Bible, for long periods, was the only book in countless American homes. It was read and re-read. So strong an influence did it wield, that it became one of the chief reasons for the coming of universal elementary education, for in these towns dominated by the old religious spirit it was an obligation to read the Bible; therefore people had to be taught to read!

Somewhere in his massive writings, H. G. Wells made a remarkable statement about its influence. We all recognize its limitations and defects, he said, but in spite of this, the Bible has performed an indispensable function in the world. It has helped to give the peoples of the Western world a common outlook, and a set of ideas that are universally recognized, and hence is responsible, in part at least, for what unity there is in Western civilization. In a world marked by deep differences of culture, ideology, and traditions, periodically torn apart by wars, there has been through the centuries a continuing element of unity, precisely because different peoples, however disparate in viewpoint, nevertheless sought their religious inspiration in the same book. Without the Bible, even this hardly-achieved unity might not be present.

In a thousand ways, therefore, the high points of the Bible are etched into the living and thinking of the world. There is no aspect of life that has not been touched by its illumination, by the light shed by the remembered and recorded experience of man in joy and sorrow and hope, in desperation, triumph, defeat and resurgence. Such a lavishly written record of an entire people's experience with centuries of spiritual and moral evolution is not casually found even in every sacred literature!

For these reasons we cannot agree, as religious liberals, with those who say today that it is not important whether we pay any attention to the Bible or not. Nevertheless, we find ourselves in hearty accord with those critics who point to the harm done to the world by the Bible-worship or Bible-olatry of orthodox religion, and the way in which, for centuries past, this dogmatism has held back human progress.

How strange and tragic, that it is possible to be thoroughly familiar with the contents of the Bible, deeply devoted to it, and yet still not receive the rich gift it has offered to man! Christians through the ages have seriously misunderstood the very book which they know so much better than any other, the very book upon which their whole religious faith is founded! Instead of taking their Bible for the illuminating human document it is, the work of the human spirit at its best (at times at its worst), they have made the Bible the focus of endless quarrels, divisions, persecutions and prejudices. Instead of gaining an over-all view upon a vital chapter of religious evolution, they have peered, probed for and found hidden, occult meanings; they have looked for prophecies of the future and have strained and twisted texts to lend justification to ideas and actions which could never have stood on their own merits without Biblical support. Instead of learning from our Bible and from the Bibles of other religions how deeply similar are all the religions of the world and all the religious aspirations of men everywhere, they have taken the Bible as a guarantee that only one kind of believer is destined for salvation. They have taken it as a private remittance from God, as the only key to salvation which God has seen fit to grant to the whole human race in all the ages of time!

There are times when every reasonable person must fume with impatience at the way in which the Bible has been misused and perverted by the dogmatic faiths. They have made the gigantic assumption, not only that God had written the Bible as the literal revelation of his Word, but that it was they and their little group alone who knew exactly what God had meant in the countless obscure passages with which this literature is replete. This is exactly the sort of thing that has turned away many sensible men and women from organized religion, and made hosts of others indifferent to it. Christianity's mistaken emphasis upon the strict letter of the text and upon a discredited concept of the Bible's origin and nature have made much of Christianity itself irrelevant to the spirit of man and his needs, hopes and problems. We may even admit that at times we have wished that the Bible and all these misunderstandings of it in the name of religion were miraculously evaporated, that thus a serious incubus upon the free religious spirit might be removed. In some ways, we fancy, a purer, freer atmosphere would result, with a clearer field for the more important concerns with which religion must grapple. We think of the time, energy and zeal that for centuries have been devoted to the dissecting of obscure texts, and to persuading obstinate heretics of the official version of the gospel. If only half of that zeal had gone into the relieving of poverty, the clearing of slums, the educating of children, into finding and making publicly available a cure for cancer, into improving racial relations and preventing war, then the world would be a kindlier, more tolerable place than it is after twenty centuries of Bible religion, in which so tragically little of the highest ethical insights of the Bible has penetrated into the actual ways of human living and of organizing our world.

Reason soon tells us, however, that even if the Bible had not existed there would surely have been something similar to take its place, something else which men would have taken and twisted to suit their dogmatic interests. Just as it was the spirit and mind of man that produced the Bible, so it is the spirit and the mind of man that has produced the narrow dogmatism that has so misunderstood the Bible, the soul-stifling literalism of which we would so gladly be free. It is the weaker, dependent, credulous and uncreative side of human nature that has made the Bible the weapon of orthodoxy against enlightenment. To blame the Bible for what organized religion has done to it is to put the cart before the horse. It is narrowness of spirit, that craving for a certainty that does not exist in real life, that we should seek to uproot and banish from religion. We should not neglect the Bible which has been the victim of that narrow spirit, but we should make known to men a reasonable, enlightened, modern attitude toward our rich religious heritage, an attitude which long years of patient research and scholarship have now made available to all who know how to read.

Free religion has stood for centuries upon the affirmation that religion is not a book, nor a belief about a book. Religions typically find their expression through the Bibles which men are moved to write and which other men are moved to elevate to sacredness; but Religion itself is a greater and deeper reality in human experience than even the noblest literature it produces. The Bibles of mankind come into being; they are devotedly compiled, eagerly read and treasured; they bind together generations of men with common traditions and memories; they gather about them their schools of thought and their warring theologies; they inspire men to freeze and crystallize their religion according to the written word, and inspire yet other men to take the cue they offer and constantly write their own Bibles in every new age, from the new materials of life at hand, from the heights and depths of their own most vital experiences and exciting insights.

But they are not in themselves religion, these Bibles. They are but the footprints of the spirit of man moving across the plains, into the valleys, and over the mountain heights of human life. Man's discovery of a new, changed understanding of the Bible which has dominated his religious thought till now has marked, not the downfall of religion or the destruction of faith, but the opening of a door into a new and wider room of understanding and appreciation. It has been one of the great forward steps taken by the marching liberal spirit. With the aid of this step, which the liberal faith proclaims to the world today, religion is as broad, as deep, as rich as life itself, as irresistible and as quenchless as life, and defies the efforts of small minds to imprison it in creeds, books or institutions which man has built to house it.

It was Ralph Waldo Emerson who once remarked that the spirit builds itself a house, lives in it for a time, and then of a sudden finds itself grown too great for the house it has built, and moves on to wider spaces. If the Bibles of man can aid in that spiritual growth, and not hinder it, or stunt it, then they have served their purpose nobly.


Back Issues Menu