“Buddhists often speak of the teaching of the Buddha as “a finger pointing to the moon.” The metaphor helps guard against the mistake of thinking that being a Buddhist means believing in Buddhist teaching – that is, believing in the finger…. One is to see and pay attention to that to which the finger points.
To apply this to the Bible, the Bible is like a finger pointing to the moon. Christians sometimes make the mistake of thinking that being Christian is about believing in the finger rather than seeing the Christian life as a relationship to that to which the finger points….
The Bible is a lens…. Some people think it’s important to believe in the lens. The point, of course, is the same as the finger metaphor. There is a crucial difference between believing in the lens and using the lens as a way of seeing that which is beyond the lens.” -- Marcus J. Borg, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, p. 34-35
On February 23, 1455, something happened that would change the world. The German printer Johannes Gutenberg printed the first ever copy of the Bible on his printing press, called the Gutenberg Press. This was not the first printing press ever invented. China had developed a printing press 600 years earlier, but the growing dominance of the west made Gutenberg’s accomplishment particularly significant. He printed approximately 180 copies of the Latin Bible. Now today, this may not seem like a big deal. There are estimates that the average American household contains three Bibles. Why would 180 Bibles make a difference? The difference is that in Gutenberg’s time, all Bibles were painstakingly written out by hand. This meant there weren’t many of them. Furthermore, the only people allowed to study were priests and scholars. The Bible was considered far too powerful to be in the hands of anyone else. The majority of the population in Europe at that time was illiterate. The role of scholars and priests was to interpret the Bible in line with pre-existing church doctrine and this interpretation was then handed down to the illiterate masses as divine truth, sanctified through the blessing of the Catholic church.
When the printing press came on the scene, this all changed. The church no longer had control over who read the Bible, especially when German, English, French and other translations came on the scene. The church desperately tried to regain control. In some places owning a Bible was punishable by burning at the stake. But pandora’s box had been opened. Anyone who could read could now come to their own conclusions about what the Bible said. The old form of control was broken.
Catholic priest Martin Luther studied the Bible and then took issue with the church’s insistence that the church mediated the relationship between humanity and God. He said this was not Scriptural. The Bible mediated between God and humanity, and with his pronouncement, the Protestant Reformation was born. John Calvin took Luther’s ideas even further, using a strict literal reading of the Scriptures to build a moral code for society and government. Calvin is credited with being the forerunner of Methodism, Presbyterianism, Congregationalism, and the Reform Church, among many many others. Ulrich Zwingli, Conrad Grebel and Felix Manz decided that there was no scriptural basis for infant baptism, and Anabaptism was born. Anabaptists were the forerunners of Mennonites, Hutterites, Doukobours, Amish and Baptists, among others. Michael Servetus came to the conclusion that there was no scriptural basis for the Trinity, and the seeds of Unitarianism were planted. All of this happened within 75 years of the printing of the Gutenberg Bible.
Now I have simplified what is a very complex history, but suffice it to say, that the printing of the Bible was a momentous event, and you and I are still impacted by the consequences. In fact, I would say that this event planted one of the seeds of democracy, because democracy is based on freedom of information, freedom of speech, and freedom of thought. Making the Bible, the single most important book at that time, available to greater numbers of people planted some of those democratic seeds.
Let’s go back to the invention of the printing press. One very important consequence of the printing press is that the way we understood knowledge started to change. In the 15th century, when Gutenberg printed his Bible, most of European society was illiterate. Only the very upper classes and some of the middle classes could read, and that wasn’t even a given. When you are illiterate, your understanding of truth and knowledge is different. You learn differently. If you are literate, you learn by reading. If you are illiterate, you learn by listening and watching. In 15th century Euruope, you would hear Bible stories, you were never read them. And you would see depictions of Bible stories in your church. This is why the Catholic church had so many paintings and statues. They were a way of telling the stories of the Christian faith to a non-literate populace. So you could look at the pictures and hear the stories, and that is how you learned.
There is a real difference between knowledge that is shared orally and knowledge that is shared through the written word. Let me give you an example.
How many of you as children played the game where you take a sentence, and you whisper it in your neighbor’s ear, who then whispers it to the next person, and so on, and then you see how it changed by the last person? That’s what happens to knowledge and understanding in a non-literate society. It shifts and changes based on who is speaking, and who is listening. Truth and knowledge is very fluid and it is expected to be so.
But when societies become literate, the understanding of truth and knowledge changes. There is something about a solid page underneath your fingers, and the permanence of the ink on that page, that lends to an understanding of truth as fixed and solid. The words on that page do not change no matter who is reading them. So when learning shifts from listening to reading, the way we experience knowledge changes. It appears (and notice I say appear…) less fluid and more fixed. With the development of the printing press in Europe, books became more readily available, and as literacy increased, the experience of truth and knowledge changed from something that was experienced as more fluid, to something that was experienced as more fixed. And this had a profound impact on our society.
When early Protestant Reformers challenged the Catholic Church, they did something very significant. They placed the center of God’s authority not in the church, as the Catholic church had done, but in the Bible. They looked at those fixed words on the page and decided that this was the inerrant infallible Word of God. You see in the Catholic Church, even for all its abuses, there had always been somewhat of an understanding that the Bible was a finger pointing to the moon. You had to understand the history and context of Scripture, and work through Scripture to see what lay beyond it. With Protestantism, the Bible became about believing in the finger. This idea had such power that it changed the whole face of Christianity, Protestant and Catholic, and because Christianity and Western society are so intertwined, it changed the whole of Western society. And because Western society has had such a disproportionate influence on the world, it changed the world. That is the legacy of Protestantism.
We are still living in that legacy. If you went to Sunday School as a child and memorized Bible verses, you were living with that legacy. When you see a TV preacher waving that book in the air shouting, “Do you believe?” we are living with that legacy. Have you ever seen the bumper sticker that reads: “The Bible said it. I believe it. That settles it.” There’s that legacy. When I was four years old, I opened the Family Bible and ran my finger over the page because I had already absorbed the lesson that the Bible was the closest thing to God. Clearly, we are living with that legacy.
This is what I find so fascinating. When the Bible first became available, Reformers used the Bible to question and ultimately break the absolute rule of an oppressive church system. But then, they began to use the Bible to control and oppress. Somewhere along the line, those early Protestant reformers changed from making choices that freed, to choices that imprisoned. And their choices have led to a conflicted legacy.
What has “believing in the Bible” come to mean to us today? It stands for things like family values that reflect only certain kinds of families. It stands for voting for a certain political party. It stands for being against reproductive freedom. It stands for creationism. It stands for believing that homosexuality is sinful, that women are not equal to men, and that stem cell research is the same as killing a baby. For many spiritual progressives, like Unitarian Universalists, “believing in the Bible” has become a code phrase for not thinking. “The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it.”
Many of us have looked at what those who “believe in the Bible” have stood for, and judged the Bible seriously flawed and not worthy of our time. But I’m going to propose this morning that the problem isn’t the Bible. The problem is the belief that the Bible is the infallible eternal Word of God. There are those, Jewish, Christian, and neither, who are saying, “You know, we have to learn to look at what the Bible is pointing at, rather than turning that Book into our God.”
There are warnings against this in the Bible itself. Exodus 20 verse 4, one of the Ten Commandments, is an excellent example: “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” Biblical literalism, or a belief that the Bible is the Word of God, turns the Bible into an idol. It becomes a graven image.
There are also warnings against this in the New Testament. In one of his letters to the Corinthians, Paul writes, “You show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the Living God, not on tablets of stone, but on tablets of human hearts…. Our competence is from God who had made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”(2 Corinthians 3: 3, 6)
Whether you believe in God or not, a deeper truth arises from this text. The sacred and holy, and everything associated with it, comes from the heart, not from something written in ink. The power of love, the essence of being, the core of our existence, the holy of holies, cannot be imprisoned in a book. To do that, kills the holy of holies that you are trying to approach.
It is time to free the Bible from literalism, free it from those who have twisted it to fit their personal agendas and then claim that those agendas as eternally true. We have to do this for ourselves, for our children, our children’s children, and for a world that desperately needs to move away from those absolutes because the closer we get to that edge the more difficult it becomes to breathe. Indeed, the letter does kill.
Look at the impact of Biblical literalism on our lives here in Missouri. It deeply influences the experience our children have at school, it has influenced your work environments, and your relationship with your neighbours. It has influenced what we see on television, hear on the radio. It has threatened our civil rights. It has become a political force to be reckoned with. Because Unitarian Universalism is no longer an exclusively Christian religion, many question why we need this book in our lives. I would say because it’s already there.
Unitarian Universalists are at a distinct advantage to help turn the tides. Questioning accepted truths is part of what it means to be Unitarian Universalist. When William Ellery Channing, one of our forefathers, questioned the divine origin of the Bible 200 years ago, American Unitarianism was born. Channing argued that the Bible was written by human beings and that it should be approached as any other book. You had to know its history, understand the intention of those who wrote it, and understand how its bits and pieces came together over thousands of years to create what we know today as the Bible.
Those three Bibles sitting in your house are not the word of God. They are human products, the result of human beings’ constant striving to be in active authentic relationship with something beyond ourselves which some people call God.
I think there is a hunger amongst us for a new way. There is a hunger to approach the Bible in a way that can free us from the harm that has been done in its name. Can we restore the Bible to something that frees, liberates, heals, and makes whole?
In two weeks, I will be offering a course called “Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously But Not Literally,” Although Marcus Borg wrote it for liberal Christians frustrated with the Christian Right, there is much that we can use in our own religious and spiritual journeys, for each of us has the power to be a voice for freedom.
On February 23, 1455, the world changed, and it is still changing. When that first Bible rolled off the press, there was no inevitable course of action set loose into the unfolding of history. What happened came to be because of the choices of many. May we, in our choices, work with the forces that liberate, free, heal and make whole.
Amen and blessed be.