I was thinking about my father this week, while reading the obituaries in our local newspaper and noticed one of the dearly departed was born in Vincennes in 1931, the same town my father was from. I reached for the phone to call Dad and tell him this man had died, then remembered my father was numbered among the dearly departed and no longer taking phone calls. So it got me thinking about my dad. Dad had a lot of good qualities and a few traits that drove me crazy, one of which was his tendency to stifle my curiosity. He would ask me to do something and I’d ask him, “Why do you want me to do that?” I wasn’t refusing to do it, I was just curious.
He’d always answer the same way, “Because I said so, that’s why.”
There aren’t too many places to take a conversation after that.
Though Dad wasn’t a religious man, he could be equally dogmatic about religious matters. When I was a kid I’d ask him why we had to believe certain things and he’d say, “Because we just do, that’s why.”
Later, when I was a teenager, and Dad told me I had to believe something, I said to myself, “When I grow up, I’m going to become a pastor and preach a sermon series called, “Things We’re Supposed to Believe, But Maybe Shouldn’t.”
Today, that day has arrived.
I received a letter this week from a woman who had taken exception to something I had written about Biblical inerrancy. It was a kind letter, expressing concern about my religious beliefs and their eventual consequences. It was the nicest letter I’ve ever gotten from someone telling me I was going to hell without coming right out and saying so. The letter-writer urged me to accept the Bible as the Word of God. “The Word of God” is a phrase familiar to all of us. By it, the letter-writer meant the Bible came directly from God and is true in every regard–scientifically, spiritually, and morally–and is therefore the final word and ultimate authority, that everything God has said or ever will say, is in the Bible.
This view of the Bible can be quite comforting for some people and quite distressing for others. I was speaking at a church a few years ago and the minister read the Bible selection for the day, a passage from the book of 1 Samuel about God ordering the Israelites to smite their enemies, every man, woman and child. The pastor read the verses, closed the Bible, and said, “This is the word of the Lord.” An elderly woman seated near the front snorted and said, “Baloney.”
I was thinking the exact same thing, but since I was a visitor I felt constrained from sharing my opinion.
“The word of God” is a powerful and potent phrase. If two people are discussing a great moral issue and one of them quotes the Bible and says, “Those aren’t my words, those are God’s words!,” they believe the matter is settled, that their opinion cannot be questioned. They have given themselves permission to be as ugly and ungracious as they wish, defending it is God’s will. For example, the author of the 137th Psalm believed God endorsed genocide when he wrote, “O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” (Psalm 137:8–9 NRSV) A man once explained to me that those too were God’s words and God’s will, that in order to create a superior race of people God first had to eliminate the “inferior” people. Didn’t Hitler try that?
Do you believe Psalm 137 was the Word of God to Israel? I don’t. This isn’t to say there aren’t lovely passages in the Bible. Of course, there are. But we have to admit the quality is uneven and the measure of morality irregular.
When any book is elevated as God’s Word for all humankind, those who center their faith in that book simultaneously diminish the value of other religious texts and traditions. “Our book is the Word of God, not yours,” they tell us. “Our book is God-breathed, not yours.” “Our book is true, yours is a lie.”
Isaac Newton famously said that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. This means the action of elevating one book over another causes us to react by devaluing every other book. As one book rises in esteem, the others decline. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.
How do we know what is God’s Word and what isn’t? Here is the test for me. This might work for you, too. I know something is God’s word if it helps me love the other. This is from the 19th chapter of the book of Leviticus. “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt.” Is that the Word of God? It is to me.
Here’s another, from the Great Agnostic Robert Ingersoll: “There is something wrong in a government where they who do the most have the least. There is something wrong when the honest wear a rag, and the rascals a robe; when the loving, the tender, eat a crust, while the infamous sit at banquets.” Is that the Word of God? It is to me.
And one more from the world’s youngest Nobel Prize laureate, Malala Yousafzai: “When the whole world is silent, even one voice becomes powerful.” Is that the Word of God? It is to me.
That which inspires us to love, empowers us to grow, enables us to care as much for the other as we do for ourselves is the true Word of God. Thus, the Word of God is not today, nor has it ever been, limited to one book, one religion, or one person.
There was a man who climbed to the top of a mountain and, standing on tiptoe, seized hold of the Truth. Satan, suspecting mischief from this man, had ordered one of his underlings to tail him; but when the demon reported with alarm the man’s success—that he had seized hold of the Truth—Satan was unperturbed. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll tempt him to institutionalize it.”
There will always be those who institutionalize the Word of God. Claiming it only for themselves and their kind, they will inevitably, invariably squeeze the very life from it. Friends, let you and I find the Word of God wherever and in whomever it blossoms. Let us receive it with glad and gracious hearts, that we might share it freely with others, so all may partake and be filled.