By David Metcalfe
I often find myself torn between my various “thought surrogacies” on a great many topics. However, few could be more tumultuous than that of religious philosophy. The most brilliant people to ever walk the earth have had some significantly different ideas. The Bible is a book of unique interest due to its significant impacts on culture and philosophy in the development of western society. Every thinker has a plethora of thoughts on it, and they vary significantly.
John Locke, who conceptualized liberal political theory, loved the Bible, saying,
“The Bible is one of the greatest blessings bestowed by God on the children of men. It has God for its author; salvation for its end, and truth without any mixture for its matter. It is pure truth.”
Bertrand Russell, Nobel Prize winning author and one of the best philosophers of all time, hated the Bible, saying,
“There’s a Bible on that shelf there. But I keep it next to Voltaire; poison and antidote.”
For every John Locke, there is a Bertrand Russell. Kant, Newton, Luther, Kierkegaard, Lewis, etc. all loved the Bible. Paine, Voltaire, Hitchens, Hawking, Nietzsche, etc. all hated the Bible. The efficacy of “thought surrogacy” starts to dwindle when situated in such contention. Bertrand Russell provided some wise advice for how to deal with this type of disagreement:
“Nevertheless, the opinions of experts, when it is unanimous, must be accepted by non-experts as more likely to be right than the opposite opinion. The skepticism that I advocate amounts only to this: 1) that when the experts are agreed, the opposite opinion cannot be held to be certain; 2) that when they are not agreed, no opinion can be regarded as certain by a non-expert; and 3) that when they all hold that no sufficient grounds for a positive opinion exist, the ordinary man would do well to suspend his judgement.”
Since the great thinkers cannot agree, the wise thing for us to do is suspend judgement, or at least, if we do make a judgement, to do so humbly. But this is all in a purely intellectual sense, and humans are not merely robotic brains.
If you were deciding whether or not you loved your girlfriend or boyfriend, you wouldn’t head to the library to research “love”. You wouldn’t attend a debate between two experts on dating relationships. You might put thought into it, but it would be a very different kind of thought than what you put into a university paper, or creating an opinion on something exterior and objective like climate change or vaccines. It is something you feel within you. Some have said that real love is when you have no rational reason to be with someone, but feel so deeply in love that rationality is suspended and passion is lived. But we also know that having literally no rational reason to be with someone probably means it’s impractical and not going to work, and you’re likely infatuated, which is different than real love. The ideal romantic love is found in a harmony of the rational practicalities and the irrational, overwhelming passion.
What I wish to suggest is that the Bible is not intended to be an objective, exterior book for us to think purely rationally about, but is intended to be the expression of a loving relationship between God and man. This loving relationship is told in a story that begins with a group of barbaric simpletons who got lost in deserts, committed terrible acts, and knew very little about morality other than that “might makes right”. And despite the obvious inadequacy of these people, God offered them subtle pieces of revelation pointing them towards something. That something arrives in the person of Jesus Christ, who fulfills the law through internalizing and living out perfect virtue. But more than moral redemption, the Bible offers a concept of love greater than any romantic or personal relationship could ever conceive, that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”
Many religious texts talk about love, but only the Bible tells of a God who died for the very people who tortured and killed him.
The feelings you get when you read the gospels is the primary determinant of whether you will embrace the Bible as amazing or terrible. You have to ask yourself: do I connect with this idea of God? Is this the pinnacle of what “love” is? Do I want more of this in my life?
But mere infatuation is not real love, and there needs to be a reasonable compatibility to sustain any relationship. This comes most obviously in the form of apologetics. The Bible has been criticized very harshly in every way possible, but one event stands strong as historically significant: the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Based solely on the historical events of universal assent, the resurrection hypothesis actually seems the most likely, even after accounting for the obvious implausibility of someone rising from the dead. It is something I am honestly shocked by, and I continually look into it to try to find a more reasonable explanation, but so far I can’t find one.
Simone Weil was raised in an atheist home, and after studying religion intellectually, found no compelling reason to believe in God. In her late 20s, she visited a Catholic church in Italy, where she had a profound religious experience in which she felt Jesus take possession of her, and she knelt down and prayed. From then on, she always had a significant relationship with Jesus Christ. Her life unfortunately ended at the young age of 34, but her intellectual works are regarded in very high esteem among philosophers and social theorists to this day. She once said this,
“The mysteries of faith are degraded if they are made into an object of affirmation and negation, when in reality they should be an object of contemplation.”
God is not sitting up in heaven waiting for us to read the right books, find the right historical documents, or work out the correct logic in order to get to Him. He encounters us where we are, and gives us an opportunity to have a relationship with Him. He came as a burning bush to Moses and told him to free the Israelite people. He came as his Son Jesus to testify to the disciples. He appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus and told him to turn his life around. Perhaps, in addition to personal experience, He appears to us in the writings of the Bible, and the power of authentic prayer.
The Bible is not amazing because it is expertly written or advances scientific or philosophical progress. It is amazing because it tells an incredible, indispensable story of a God who cares deeply about terribly imperfect humans who don’t deserve it. While it is valuable to read books on a great many subjects, there is no reading material that has the potential impact of the writings contained in the Bible for those who find profound, personal meaning in it.
The Bible is a mediocre book if we try to reduce it into a political, philosophical, poetic, historical, or scientific book. But if we recognize the Bible in its true form, a revelation of a loving relationship between God and man, then it is the greatest book ever written.