Superficial out of profundity—on the need not to make any more Bibles of any kind

Autumn colour on Christ's Pieces opp. the Memorial Church this morning
READINGS: Henry David Thoreau from the essay “Walking”

Above all, we cannot afford not to live in the present. He is blessed over all mortals who loses no moment of the passing life in remembering the past. Unless our philosophy hears the cock crow in every barn-yard within our horizon, it is belated. That sound commonly reminds us that we are growing rusty and antique in our employments and habits of thought. His philosophy comes down to a more recent time than ours. There is something suggested by it not in Plato nor the New Testament. It is a newer testament — the Gospel according to this moment. He has not fallen astern; he has got up early, and kept up early, and to be where he is, is to be in season, in the foremost rank of time. It is an expression of the health and soundness of Nature, a brag for all the world — healthiness as of a spring burst forth — a new fountain of the Muses, to celebrate this last instant of time. Where he lives no fugitive slave laws are passed. Who has not betrayed his master many times since last he heard that note?

“Some Things The World Gave” by Mary Oliver

Times in the morning early
when it rained and the long gray
buildings came forward from darkness
offering their windows for light.

Evenings out there on the plains
when sunset donated farms
that yearned so far to the west that the world
centered there and bowed down.

A teacher at a country school
walking home past a great marsh
where ducks came gliding in —
she saw the boy out hunting and waved.

Silence on a hill where the path ended
and then the forest below
moving in one long whisper
as evening touched the leaves.

Shelter in winter that day —
a storm coming, but in the lee
of an island in a cover with friends —
oh, little bright cup of sun.

“How the Real Bible Is Written” by William Stafford (The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems,  Graywolf Press, 1998)

Once we painted our house and went into it.
Today, after years, I remember that color
under the new paint now old.
I look out of the windows dangerously
and begin to know more. Now when I
walk through this town there
are too many turns before the turn
I need. Listen, birds and cicadas
still trying to tell me surface things:
I have learned how the paint goes on,
and then other things—how the real Bible is
written, downward through the pages,
carved, hacked, and moulded, like the faces
of saints or the planks ripped aside
by steady centuries of weather, deeper than
dust, under the moles, caught by the
inspiration in an old badger’s shoulder
that bores for grizzled secrets in the ground.


Last week after the service I was asked a thoughtful question about my views concerning the authority of the Bible. The question has remained with me throughout this week and I bring you just a few thoughts connected with that theme today. 

When I was a child, in terms of religious authority the Bible was, quite literally, the last word. I’m not sure I ever really felt this authority with full pathos, but certainly I understood it intellectually to be the case and a passage from 2 Timothy 3:15–17 was occasionally cited by those around me to remind me of the book’s authority: 

“. . . and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”

I took a childish delight (childish in the non-pejorative sense of the word as I was a child) in the fact that one could find small editions of the text that would slip easily into my bag or even my pocket and the thought that the answer to everything — or at least everything important — could be carried around with you was immensely attractive and comforting.

Jacopo Amigoni, Jael and Sisera (1739)
Of course, for all kinds of reasons, the Bible’s authority has today completely gone from my life. A better knowledge of things scientific, literary, historical, archeological, sociological, philosophical and theological have all slowly, but highly effectively, left me with a text that is wholly human in origin and import. Which is not to say that I don’t still find it endlessly intriguing and valuable — indeed, I remain a member of the Society of Old Testament Studies (SOTS), the only learned society I have ever been invited to join. All in all, I continue to be one of those people who thinks that without a good knowledge of the Bible it is very hard, if not impossible, to gain the fullest access to many of the riches of our culture and I confess to having a real, if limited, sadness that even as a purely human, literary text, knowledge of it’s contents amongst the general population continues to decline at a phenomenally fast rate. As a public speaker I know I can no longer use many (most?) of it’s stories as a short hand way into this or that idea because they are simply no longer shared by the majority of people whom I address. A passing reference today to, say, the story of what Jael did to Sisera with her tent peg (Judges 4), will not resonate in the slightest with most of you. But, trust me when I tell you that the tent peg of contemporary culture has delivered an equally effective, terminal blow to any shared knowledge of the Biblical text.

Thinking about this it becomes clear that for anything to be truly authoritative it must be backed up by consensual agreement about that same thing and so it goes without saying if the people don’t know the Bible and it’s stories then it simply cannot be authoritative for the people. The Bible’s day is, it seems, definitively, over.

What is true of the Bible today is true, I’m certain, for every other book in our culture and the chances of a single text ever becoming so well-known and consensually agreed upon by us all in  our present day highly plural culture as being authoritative in the matter of governing our total collective life and beliefs in the coming century seems to me to be so vanishingly small as to be impossible. Despite my already mentioned qualified literary and cultural regret that the book’s stories are no longer widely known I have to say that, on balance, I give hearty thanks that its day is done and I know that in my own ministry I will continue to play my part in ensuring that such a book can never again come into being, and that any already existent book that is being promoted as authoritative in the same way as the Bible once was — such as the Qur’an — is never allowed to assume that role. The Qur’an, as with the Bible, assuredly has it’s appropriately honoured place in world culture but it only has place amongst countless other important human texts.

Taken together all these thoughts caused me to ask what in my personal life, if anything, might, or does in fact, have an analogous authority today to that I once was told the Bible had?  

A few short texts help me frame my reflections on this question and I'll take them in turn.

I think Thoreau is right in saying we really cannot afford not to live in the present. I also think that he is right in saying that we are blessed when we lose “no moment of the passing life in remembering the past.” He feels, as do I, that the truest and fullest life can only be lived in the present and whenever we are not doing that, when we are not mindfully listening to the cocks crowing (i.e. all the voices of the human arts and sciences around us) “in every barn-yard within our horizon”, we are “belated” and already “growing rusty and antique in our employments and habits of thought.”

I powerfully resonate with Thoreau in wanting to live according to “a newer testament — the Gospel according to this moment” not least of all because in saying this he is also, in part, gently alluding to the fact that for him, as for me, the New Testament, and Jesus, no longer have complete and final authority over us. In the chapter entitled “Sunday” in his book “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers“ He writes:

“. . . the New Testament treats of man and man’s so-called spiritual affairs too exclusively, and is too constantly moral and personal, to alone content me, who am not interested solely in man’s religious or moral nature, or in man even. I have not the most definite designs on the future. Absolutely speaking, Do unto others as you would that they should do unto you, is by no means a golden rule, but the best of current silver. An honest man would have but little occasion for it. It is golden not to have any rule at all in such a case. The book has never been written which is to be accepted without any allowance. Christ was a sublime actor on the stage of the world. He knew what he was thinking of when he said, ‘Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.’ I draw near to him at such a time. Yet he taught mankind but imperfectly how to live; his thoughts were all directed toward another world. There is another kind of success than his. Even here we have a sort of living to get, and must buffet it somewhat longer. There are various tough problems yet to solve, and we must make shift to live, betwixt spirit and matter, such a human life as we can.”

Agreeing with Thoreau I have to say that whatever might be authoritative for me must be found in the present, not something found in some ancient book, in an absolute golden-rule, nor in another world. I know that am looking “for another kind of success” in the matter of authority even though what this is remains one of the toughest problems to dissolve.

This attempt to dissolve the problem brings me to Mary Oliver's poem, “Some Things The World Gave” because in it I find a partial list of the kind of things I am willing to admit to finding authoritative in my own life in the present: light from buildings in the early morning rain; farms highlit at sunset that seem to gather the world to that point in time and place and lean westward; a kindly wave from a teacher across an expanse of water; an evening whisper of wind from out of a great silence; sheltering with some friends to be picked out, just for a moment, by a shaft of sunlight.

These moments and others like them, such as the flash of a blue kingfisher along a fenland lode, the quiet and gentle touch of Susanna’s hand when I’m unwell, the half-heard sound of Louis Armstrong’s voice singing “A Wonderful World” in a dreary and depressing shopping centre, the taste of a perfect and unexpected pint of Abbott Ale on a summer’s day, playing jazz with friends and doing my Tai Chi, all of these things and many more are authoritative for me in the sense that they are the defining moments of epiphany when I have felt deep within the core of my being that here, and now, the shape and meaning of my life was fully revealed to me. 

But here I begin to see that my remembering — even though they are remembrances of things that feel very present to me, I begin, almost against my will, to cease to be living “a newer testament — the Gospel according to this moment” and I can feel myself becoming “belated” and “growing rusty and antique” in my “employments and habits of thought.”

It reveals to me that I must always be aware of the danger that, layer by layer, these gifts can be built up — as too do those darker gifts of sadness and loss — and I begin to construct what William Stafford wants to call “the Real Bible” — the problematic authoritative, fixed text by which I actually live. It's important to realise that by "real" Stafford may not mean either good or desirable. 

An old badger
I realise as I get older that the layers of my life deepen and I come to know that, despite the surface layer of paint I present to the world there is often another colour (perhaps many colours) of paint beneath. I have come to know how the paint goes on, layer by layer, complicating everything in my life which help add extra turns to my journeys into life that were once able to be made simply and immediately. I can see how my life, rather than being lived as an immediate, endlessly creative and improvised flow — as I seem to see children and animals living — is in danger of being lived “downward through the pages, carved, hacked, and moulded, like the faces of saints or the planks ripped aside by steady centuries of weather, deeper than dust”. I begin to see how I could easily come to live, not as a creature of the surface and the light, like birds and cicadas, but like some old badger boring “for grizzled secrets in the ground.”

It was a bit of a shock to see this picture of myself and it served instantly to throw me back to some words by a person who I find often saves me from my human, all too human folly, Friedrich Nietzsche. In the preface to the second edition of “The Gay Science” (1886) he writes: 

“What is required is to stop courageously at the surface, the fold, the skin, to adore appearance, to believe in forms, tones, words, in the whole Olympus of appearance! Those Greeks were superficial – out of profundity!”.

It made me realise that I find I’m with the philosopher Gordon Bearn in thinking that “the answer to our existential anxiety does not lie beneath the surfaces of our lives, but in our acceptance — Nietzsche’s “Yes” — of the groundless details of those surfaces themselves: the wonder of the ordinary” (Source: SUNY Press)

It seems to me that my memories of the wonder of the ordinary are fine so long as I ensure that I access them (to refer back to an address I gave earlier this year) only as an “archeologist of morning”, assembling reminders for a life lived in the present (“the work of the philosopher consists in assembling reminders for a particular purpose”—Wittgenstein PI §127) in which I seek never to have upon me more than one coat of paint at a time and that, if I need repainting then to make sure I go back to the wood every time, remaining in the present and making of my life a life lived according to the gospel of the present moment. Perhaps, above all else, I realise how important it is for me never again to look for, or try to make, Bibles of any kind.