My Religious Paradigm (2) The sacred books

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Continuing this series, I’m asking myself, having been a preacher, what my current religious ‘paradigm’ is, by which I mean, what do I think, and feel, I can reasonably and credibly believe?

Religious literature is exactly that and, in my view, must be subject to the same historical and critical scrutiny as all other kinds of literature. If, (as argued in my previous post), the existence of ‘God’ cannot be a provable fact but simply a statement of belief, the same must be true for any claim that religious literature was written, dictated, or otherwise ‘inspired’ by such a God. How, then, should we read and understand religious writings? I see a possible similarity with modern science’s attempts to ‘describe’ certain aspects of physical reality. 

The language of science is mathematics, so must be ‘translated’ into accessible ‘pictures’ of what the mathematics means in relation to what actually happens in the physical world. Such pictures can be called ‘models’, and a good example is the structure of atoms. We’re all familiar with the ‘solar system’ model, in which there is a central spherical nucleus, with ‘planetary’ electrons in orbit around it. This is an accessible and useful guide, which also gives us an indication of how chemistry works – how atoms can join up with each other to produce a multitude of chemical compounds. 

The fact of the matter, however, is that no one has the faintest clue what an atom ‘looks like’ (if that’s even a meaningful use of language). Its nucleus is not a solid little ‘sphere’, but is made up of a number of sub-atomic ‘particles’, which have no dimensions, being more like ‘packets of electrical charge’, whatever that might mean. The electrons are not ‘planetary’ spheres either, but have spread-out ‘wave like’ qualities, related to the probability of where they might be located. 

Atomic ‘reality’, in other words, utterly transcends any possible ‘model’, however useful. Quite simply, we don’t have any words that can begin to describe what an atom might ‘look like’, never mind what it actually ‘is’. We must make do with our ‘solar system’ model, while acknowledging its limitations, and also the limitations of our own knowledge and understanding.

There’s a similarity here, I think, with the contents of our ‘sacred books’. They employ myth, legend and folktale, and use the language of metaphor, allegory and symbol. They provide us, thereby, with pictures and models which are useful in enabling us to talk about God and religion, but which can never hope to convey the transcendent nature and profound wonder of that which is ultimately real as the Source of all Being. They can, however, take their place alongside all the rest of the world’s great literature, poetry, drama, fine art, sculpture, music, philosophy and sciences as a potentially richly collaborative source of illuminations and insights which can throw some light, however limited, on the great and glorious, though sometimes terrifying, mystery of existence. 

My religious paradigm, then, would clearly acknowledge that our ‘sacred books’ are human documents, written long ago, in pre-scientific and pre-agrarian, tribal societies. They do contain ‘words about God’, but to refer to them as ‘the Word of God’ is, as argued above, insupportable and misleading. Biblical quotes can certainly be of historical and cultural interest, and can contain positive insights that make a useful contribution to current thinking and living. They cannot, however, be given any place as an authoritative ‘final word’ on what beliefs and values you and I should hold to in our 21st century world especially, for example, in such areas as gender and sexuality. “What does the Bible say?” can only be of secondary, but never primary, importance. No one should ever either kill, or be killed, on the supposed ‘divine authority’ of a verse from a ‘sacred book’. Regrettably, however, killing will continue.

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