Following up with Emily
Published by Michael Novak at Patheos.com on February 6, 2015.
We left off last time with Emily:
Grandpa, I find your answer on the Bible somewhat unsatisfactory since the hinge of your explanation is that the Bible asks a person to face moral choices and free will; yet nearly every coming-of-age story could be said to do the same thing, just in a more structured narrative. . . .
Why is the Bible treated so differently from other books of moral fables, especially given that there are many “kid-friendly” versions of the Bible and picture-book-style renditions of the stories within the Bible that can often be indistinguishable from other children’s books?
GRANDPA: Dearest Emily, in my first attempt, I thought I must avoid evoking God, except indirectly. But you point out that I cannot really do that.
Sometimes people made similar observations about the stories of the Greek and Roman gods. One of the first steps in religious inquiry is thinking through which sacred books are true. The first pagan thinkers to hear how Christians spoke and wrote about God began to mark out the differences between their traditional gods and the Christian “god.” Some saw quickly that the Christian conception was much deeper, more like the classical conceptions of Plato and Aristotle. Less anthropomorphic. The main point is, which conception is more true? Inquirers need to think about that and decide for themselves.
You may not share belief in God – or, maybe, like your Aunt Jana, you are an “agno-theist.” That is, you understand that there is a universal intelligence active in the world, relating all things together and infusing all things with the light of intelligibility. This is more or less what Plato, Aristotle, and other philosophers have grasped too. But, as Jana used to say, she was not sure what difference to humans that God made. Perhaps that God is impersonal and distant and has little or no regard for humans’ thoughts or actions. But you haven’t asked about the idea of God yet, so perhaps we’ll pursue that theme another time, if you care to.
Often when I start reading a novel or a play, I have to begin by “a willing suspension of disbelief” (Coleridge). I have to accept the story on its own terms so that I can come to see what it’s driving at.
So let me ask you to set aside your disbelief, and assume for a while a tentative point of view – that in the Bible, as in no other book, what you read is aimed directly at your heart by Almighty God, the source of intelligence in all things. Later on, reject that if you choose.
It seems entirely reasonable to me that the God who made us conscious, intelligent, and free to choose our own destiny can make himself present in our consciousness. Assume for a moment that the Creator of sunsets, and galaxies, and the abilities of Mozart and Shakespeare and Donne, can reach into our hearts and spread light there, drawing us toward full beauty and truth.
Obviously the Bible was put together by many different hands over many centuries. Its chapters present themselves sometimes as history, sometimes as allegory, sometimes in the form of a narrative about the origins of human life, and about the turbulent, still to-be-decided direction, and the final destiny of human history.
Parts like the Canticle of Canticles appear as magnificent love poems, and other parts as silent cries, such as those of King David over the sufferings of his people in exile and slavery, and the feeling of abandonment they suffer – or deep cries of joy, wonder, and gratitude. There is enormous variety in this book – authors, viewpoints, styles, literary forms.
* * *
Just as an experiment, open the Bible. Flip the pages randomly. Put your finger on a page, and read that passage as though it were written directly to you. Does it echo in your heart? Not all passages do. From the first pages on, though, the main message of the Bible is clear: What counts most to God is our choice, to open our ears to Him or to shut Him out. Nearly every story in the Bible receives its drama from the decisive choice each person makes regarding an important crossroad.
My proposal, however, is that over some weeks you read about eighty or ninety pages, all in a sequence, in order to get the drift, the point of it. I think you owe that to your ancestors, who first heard the gospel in about 1200 A.D. (as nearly as we can tell). It was they who entrusted it to us.
So, since you were brought up a Christian, it might make sense to begin by concentrating on the Testament that is more familiar to you. There you might focus on the four Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles – altogether, fewer than a hundred pages. But it would give you a big chunk of one major storyline of your family. You won’t be the first in your family to turn away, if you do. Each chooses for himself or herself.
Then, slowly, you might attempt to climb through other great portions of the Great Book. You might find for yourself why such a momentous thinker as Fyodor Dostoevsky took pains to read from the New Testament at least ten minutes every day, and why Abraham Lincoln steeped himself in both Testaments. It both cases absorption in the Word of God deepened their own thinking immeasurably.
The Bible struck them with an often counterintuitive wisdom not so simply voiced anywhere else (“If you wish to live forever, you must first die to self”; “Sit not in the first place but in the last”). That wisdom deepened their souls – their vision – and toughened their writing, and lent them courage.
In my view, you are on the right track, simply by facing deep and hard questions. Necessarily, this must go on in every generation.
By the way, you may take too much for granted how much Christian imagination still operates in Western secular people today, loving the poor and giving their lives for others, as so many do. Secular people are moved by lessons learned from Christianity much more than they admit. You, too.