Regardless of what teaching heritage you follow or how your faith shapes your beliefs sooner or later you will have to settle in to deal with the matter of ‘self’.
I grew up with an Evangelical Christian background and part and parcel to the teachings was our being saved and going to heaven when we die. From the beginning, for even then I was a bit odd, not assuming what I was told was the whole story, I wondered: What part of me goes to heaven?It was pretty clear that it wasn’t my flesh and bones body. Dust to dust and all that. But within me there was a non- material nature and part of that was continually being preached about as not being an acceptable aspect of the Christian life. The self had to be put down, denied, crucified, and all manner of final things so that the life of Christ, the mind of Christ, the Spirit of Christ could become dominant and a self-less life could be lived.
All well and good but the question still remained: if the self wasn’t signed up for the trip what in me that was ‘me’ …was?
Time passed. As a young man attending Bible College I was less than satisfied with the teachings I was receiving on the nature of Humankind. It was often a matter of theological debate as to the actual make up of our human condition. It was obvious that we were comprised of two basic aspects: material and non-material. That much was pretty much agreed on. When it came to understanding the non-material, or spiritual, part of us the waters became somewhat muddied. I have no doubt that somewhere someone has dealt with this matter in a satisfactory manner but I hadn’t come across it so I had to find my own way for the most part. Part of the confusion came from sloppy semantics. The words “soul” and “spirit” were often used in discussions regarding our spiritual nature but so often used ambiguously or interchangeably as to be rendered useless. So I did what I usually do, I made up stuff.
Okay, not really, but I did assign working definitions to keep the concepts separate and distinct. They are a bit arbitrary (like my definitions of faith and belief, two other frustrating words made more so by their sloppy semantics) but I think the ideas are sound. The “soul” I define as that aspect of our spiritual nature that deals with the material world we live in. The “spirit” is another aspect that deals or interacts with the non-material world. Seeing us in this light actually began to make sense of what I was seeing as our lives are played out in this world.
The soul has access to nearly overwhelming stimuli. It works through the senses seeing, hearing, smelling, touching and tasting. Moreover it has access to the mind to process the sensory input, assign value judgments based on pleasure and desire and to engage the imagination forming thoughts, imagery, dreams and delusions. As our non-material, our spiritual resources are more and more commandeered by the soul the spirit seems to become little more than a nagging presence and reminder of the Eternal. As the soul is allowed free reign in this carnival of material existence it becomes very loud and dominant …and willful …in its role of provider and protector. It becomes so engaged, so involved that it begins to identify with the objects it discerns in the world around it.
I think it is good to interject here that I believe that our spiritual nature is not a real dichotomy with distinct separation, two spiritual forces residing within us, but rather one nature with two needed jobs: maintaining our connection with the source of all existence and maintaining our existence in the material world in our material body. The problem develops when, ignorant of our true nature, and devoid of balance we are deluded into believing that where we connect with the world is who we are.
Enter …the Self.
Here we are with a spiritual nature that is tasked with eternal connection and mortal maintenance that has become so distorted (the Buddhists say insane) that we have lost all perspective. Our soulish aspect goes ‘native’ and becomes so attached and identified with the sensual world around us that we come to believe that connection defines us. We feel so the feelings are us. We think so the thoughts are us. We cling, we grasp, we own, we possess, we desire, we hate, we abhor, we fear, we need and all these things and more are ‘us’. We see any threat to this convention of the worldly components of our identity as a threat to who we are, to our very existence. This constructed illusion of who we are, this self, is as mortal as footprints on the beach and seeing ourselves thus we find our greatest fear looming before us: death.
And, finally, I understand what is meant by ‘redeeming the soul’. The soul is lost, lost midst the sensual overload of mortal existence. Deluded into believing the lie that the false self is real and allowing all the energies of our existence to be spent serving the self, protecting the self, glorifying the self. And it is here that truth must prevail. It is here that eyes must be opened and the heart awakened. It is here that the words come true: “You shall know the Truth and the Truth shall set you free.” Self must die and our true identity be allowed to step into the light.
And how do we do this?
It begins with our finding a ‘new’ paradigm in our understanding of the nature of the world and our association with it. This world view is found in the teachings of Jesus. It is also found in the teachings of Buddha as well as those of Lao Tsu. This is not an endorsement of one system of belief over another ( I have my preferences but I am not evangelizing here) this is, hopefully, a beam of light into the process of ending the false self and centering in our true being. This world view is that this world contains nothing permanent. Nothing. Change is the name of the game and we have to play by the rules that are set. If everything is changing then its hands off, no clinging, no attaching! We can no more attach to the things of this world with impunity than we can take a flaming brand into our hands without being burned. We are in the world but not of it. Our identity is not to be found in any element of this world or any place we interact with it.
To come to this realization is at first (and to some extent continually) unsettling. All of our conscious lives we have found our solid ground in this present world. To detach from that, to accept that nothing is solid and unchanging, is to find a sense of groundlessness and emptiness that is as unnerving as sudden free fall.
That fear is centered in the ‘self’ and is not real. That ‘free fall’ is our natural state, our true state of being. If it were at all threatening to our true existence then we would be in deep trouble. But we aren’t. What seems like free fall is in fact the spacious openness of infinite potential. That everything is changing means anything is possible. The self needs certainty to have identity. To walk in truth is to know there is no certainty in this world. Where the self sees change as death and ending …the truth reveals infinite new beginnings.
There is more of course, the Universe is big and existence is …well, bigger. What continues on after death? Me, but not me as in ‘self’. Me as in spirit forever connected to my Source. Jesus said, “My Father in me, I in you…”. Connection and continuation. Selfless and free falling, forever at home. That takes faith I suppose. But doesn’t everything?
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In modern Western society, many people turn away from the Christianity of their formative years because they find its truths smothered under an unreal kind of religiosity. They see that the people in the churches are not changing and becoming better, but rather are comforting themselves and each other la their unregenerate state. They find that the Spirit of the Western churches is, at its Core, little different from that of the world around them. Having removed from Christianity the Cross of inward purification, these churches have replaced a direct, intuitive apprehension of Reality and a true experience of God with intellectualism on the one hand and emotionalism on the other.
In the first case, Christianity becomes something that is acquired through rote learning, based on the idea that if you just get the words right—if you just memorize the key Scripture verses, intellectually grasp the concepts and repeat them, know how to act and to speak in the religious dialect of your particular sect—you will be saved. Christianity then becomes a dry, word-based religion, a legalistic system, a set of ideas and behaviors, and a political institution that operates on the same principles as the institutions of this world.
In the second case, the Western churches add the element of emotionalism and enthusiasm in order to add life to their systems, but this becomes just as grossly material as religious legalism. People become hypnotized by their self-induced emotional states, seeing a mirage of spiritual ascent while remaining bound to the material world.
This is not direct perception of Reality; it is not the Ultimate. It is no wonder, then, that Western spiritual seekers, even if they have been raised in Christian homes, begin to look elsewhere, into Eastern religions. It is also not surprising that so many are turning to the profound and enigmatic work of pre-Christian China, the Tao Teh Ching. In reading Lao Tzu, they sense a spirit similar to that of Jesus Christ. They see a poetic glimpse of Christ in Lao Tzu—a reflection that is faint, but somehow still pure. And to them, this faint but pure image is better than the more vivid but tarnished image of Him that they encounter in much of what now passes for Christianity.
In the traditions of ancient China, the Western spiritual seeker can learn the basics of spiritual life which the churches failed to teach him: how to be free of compulsive thinking and acquire stillness of thoughts, how to cut off desires and addictions, and how to conquer negative emotions.
Some are satisfied to stay on this path. In others of us, however, a strange thing occurs. In one sense, we are making more spiritual progress than ever before, but at the same time we are inexplicably unfulfilled. In our newfound apprehension that there is something more than the realm of the ego and the passions, we become aware that there must be something even more—more than even the authentic Chinese tradition supplies. And we find that although we have left behind the Western Christian confessions, we cannot leave Christ behind.
Why is this? Some would say that, as Westerners, we have Christianity in our genes, as it were. But we would say more: that, even though we were exposed to an attenuated form of Christianity, still we were exposed to 'the Christ Ideal”—as the great transmitter of Native American religion, Ohiyesa, called it. The very seed of the idea of Jesus Christ—God Who became flesh, Who emptied Himself into the creation, Who spoke the words that He spoke, Who died on the Cross to restore mankind to its original nature and thus to Paradise—is so powerful in itself that the tales and teachings of all the worlds religions pale in comparison. But if Christ is so much greater as to be in a class by Himself, why is the Western religion based on Him in such a sorry condition? Why is it so externalized, materialistic and worldly? Surely, we believe, there must be more to Christ than that.
But it is more than just the idea of Christ that works in our souls. Christ Himself is at work in them. Having heard the revelation of Christ, we are now responsible for it, and now He helps us fulfill that responsibility. He helps us come to Him.
Our path to a true experience of Christ is often long and arduous. We in the modern West have become too sophisticated, too complex. When people talk to us of Christianity, we’ve heard it all before: we’ve already become conditioned to react in certain ways to Christian words and concepts. The reflexes they evoke in us are sometimes connected with an emotional trauma from the past that causes us to either cling to them or rebel against them. Clinging and rebellion are only two sides of the same coin: both are predicated on emotional involvement in words and concepts which claim to be Reality itself, but are not.
Moreover, these Christian words and concepts we have learned must vie with thousands of others from all the worlds religions and philosophies, which have now become available to us sophisticated moderns. This presents us with a paradox. Knowing that differing religions and philosophies cannot all be true at the same time, we tend to relativize truth. That is what our logical minds tell us to do. But, in the final sense, we are always wrong when we trust our logical minds.
How do we get past this? How do we become uncomplicated and unsophisticated? Can we simply unlearn all that we have learned? No, we cannot, but what we can do is to separate ourselves from it in order to look at it with new eyes. For us Westerners to truly enter into the ancient Christian transmission and catch the essence of Christ's teaching, it is necessary for us to crucify our rationalizing minds and rise above the level of thought and emotion. For a society founded on Descartes proposition “I think, therefore I am,” this of course means a kind of suicide; and it is to precisely such an ego-death that Christ calls us. Contemporary Western Christianity trains us how to think and what to think; whereas Christ Himself, as did Lao Tzu before Him, taught us how not to need to think.
The only way to get past a merely external apprehension of religious words and concepts is to seek, without compromise and self-pity, the Reality behind them. If our rapidly diminishing Western Christendom has become too jaded by intellectualized or emotionalized religion to see the essence of Christianity, then we must, as it were, start oven.
In this book we will look at Christ and his message as would Lao Tzu, who, although he lived five hundred years before Christ, intuitively sensed the presence of Christ in creation. We will seek to become like Lao Tzu’s image of 'the infant that has not yet smiled' who has not yet learned to react to words and ideas, who knows without knowing how it knows. And then, from the point of Lao Tzu’s simplicity, innocence and direct intuition, we will receive the message of Christ from a new source: not from the modern West—which has distorted it into thousands of conflicting sects and philosophies—but from the ancient Christian East, which has transmitted to modern times the essence of Christ’s teaching in a way that resonates with the teaching of Lao Tzu, not denying Lao Tzu’s intuitive realizations but bringing them to a new dimension.
In the Chinese tradition, the direct transmission of wisdom from teacher to disciple is of vital importance. The Eastern Christian Church has that transmission all the way back to Christ Himself: an unbroken historical line of development with no fundamental shift in viewpoint such as happened in the West after the Schism of A.D.1054.
In the Christian East, we find clear guidance on acquiring stillness, overcoming the passions, dealing with thoughts, and cultivating the virtues, as well as precise teachings on spiritual deception which guide us more safely and surely on the path to God.
Most important of all, we find the Undistorted Image of Christ which we had not beheld in other churches . In Him, Whom the ancient Akathist hymn calls the "Sunrise of the East,"1 we find the Beginning and End of our souls desire, and the door to eternal life. In the mystical and contemplative tradition of Eastern Christianity—which we will discuss in Part III of this book—we are able to go beyond any realizations we may have had in the Eastern religions. The end of this is deification, total illumination, perfect -communion with our Creator, and the birth of Christ Himself within us.
In Christ is the fulfillment of the expectation of the ancients. Christ does not abolish what came before Him; instead, He brings it to fulfillment by disintegrating the false and upholding the true in the Light of His ultimate revelation. The truths in all ancient religions and philosophies shine forth in this Light, but they are not this Light, nor are they equal to it. If seen with the eyes of faith, they can bear witness to the Light of revelation, just as can the souls of todays seekers when, through the eyes of Lao Tzu, they find and behold the Undistorted Image of Christ, shining with all His brilliance in the ancient Christian East.
Let us now look through those eyes. To the people who lived before Christ, Lao Tzu showed how to rise above thoughts and emotions so that they could know of the Mind Who is beyond thought, hear the Word Who makes no sound, and follow the Tao Who leaves no footprints. To us who have come after Christ, Lao Tzu can do the same so as to help us begin the path to a true, non-conceptual experience of Jesus Christ, of Him Who is the incarnation of the Logos of the Greeks, the Wakan Tanka of the Native Americans, and the Tao of the God-seeking ancient Chinese.
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I am very grateful for the invitation to give this particular lecture, I should perhaps say that my reflections here arise not so much from reading lots of books about the authority of the Bible—though I have read some of the recent ones—but from the multiple experience I find myself having, of studying and teaching the New Testament at an academic level, of regular liturgical worship in which the Bible plays a central part, and of evangelistic and pastoral work in which, again, though not always so obviously, the Bible is at or at least near the heart of what one is doing. What I want to offer to you has therefore something of the mood, for me, of reflection on reality. I am trying to understand what it is that I am doing, not least so that I can do it (I hope) less badly, in a less muddled fashion. But I hope that this will not give you the impression that the issues are private to myself. I believe that they are highly important if we are to be the people that we are supposed to be, as Christians in whatever sphere of life.
The question before us, then, is: how can the Bible be authoritative? This way of putting it carries deliberately, two different though related meanings, and I shall look at them in turn. First, how can there be such a thing as an authoritative book? What sort of a claim are we making about a book when we say that it is ‘authoritative’? Second, by what means can the Bible actually exercise its authority? How is it to be used so that its authority becomes effective? The first question subdivides further, and I want to argue two things as we took at it. (1) I shall argue that usual views of the Bible—including usual evangelical views of the Bible—are actually too low, and do not give it the sufficient weight that it ought to have. (2) I shall then suggest a different way of envisaging authority from that which I think most Christians normally take. Under the second, I shall address various issues that arise when we consider how the Bible can actually do the job that, as Christians, we claim God has given it to do. This will involve looking at biblical authority in relation, particularly, to the church’s task and to the church’s own life.
AN AUTHORITATIVE BOOK?
Our generation has a problem about authority. In church and in state we use the word ‘authority’ in different ways, some positive and some negative. We use it in secular senses. We say of a great footballer that he stamped his authority on the game. Or we say of a great musician that he or she gave an authoritative performance of a particular concerto. Within more structured social gatherings the question ‘Who’s in charge?’ has particular function. For instance, if someone came into a lecture-room and asked ‘Who’s in charge?’, the answer would presumably be either the lecturer or the chairman, if any. If, however, a group of people went out to dinner at a restaurant and somebody suddenly came in and said, ‘Who’s in charge here?’ the question might not actually make any sense. We might be a bit puzzled as to what authority might mean in that structure. Within a more definite structure, however, such as a law court or a college or a business, the question ‘Who’s in charge?’ or ‘What does authority mean here?’ would have a very definite meaning, and could expect a fairly clear answer. The meaning of ‘authority’, then, varies considerably according to the context within which the discourse is taking place. It is important to realize this from the start, not least because one of my central contentions is going to be that we have tended to let the word ‘authority’ be the fixed point and have adjusted ‘scripture’ to meet it, instead of the other way round.
Authority in the Church
Within the church, the question of what we mean by authority has had particular focal points. It has had practical questions attached to it. How are things to be organized within church life? What are the boundaries of allowable behavior and doctrine? In particular, to use the sixteenth-century formulation, what are those things ‘necessary to be believed upon pain of damnation’? But it has also had theoretical sides to it. What are we looking for when we are looking for authority in the church? Where would we find it? How would we know when we had found it? What would we do with authoritative documents, people or whatever, if we had them? It is within that context that the familiar debates have taken place, advocating the relative weight to be given to scripture, tradition and reason, or (if you like, and again in sixteenth-century terms) to Bible, Pope and Scholar. Within the last century or so we have seen a fourth, to rival those three, namely emotion or feeling. Various attempts are still being made to draw up satisfactory formulations of how these things fit together in some sort of a hierarchy: ARCIC is here one of several such attempts.
Most heirs of the Reformation, not least evangelicals, take if for granted that we are to give scripture the primary place and that everything else has to be lined up in relation to scripture. There is, indeed, an evangelical assumption, common in some circles, that evangelicals do not have any tradition. We simply open the scripture, read what it says, and take it as applying to ourselves: there the matter ends, and we do not have any ‘tradition’. This is rather like the frequent Anglican assumption (being an Anglican myself I rather cherish this) that Anglicans have no doctrine peculiar to themselves: it is merely that if something is true the Church of England believes it. This, though not itself a refutation of the claim not to have any ‘tradition’, is for the moment sufficient indication of the inherent unlikeliness of the claim’s truth, and I am confident that most people, facing the question explicitly, will not wish that the claim be pressed. But I still find two things to be the case, both of which give me some cause for concern. First, there is an implied, and quite unwarranted, positivism: we imagine that we are ‘reading the text, straight’, and that if somebody disagrees with us it must be because they, unlike we ourselves, are secretly using ‘presuppositions’ of this or that sort. This is simply naïve, and actually astonishingly arrogant and dangerous. It fuels the second point, which is that evangelicals often use the phrase ‘authority of scripture’ when they mean the authority of evangelical, or Protestant, theology, since the assumption is made that we (evangelicals, or Protestants) are the ones who know and believe what the Bible is saying. And, though there is more than a grain of truth in such claims, they are by no means the whole truth, and to imagine that they are is to move from theology to ideology. If we are not careful, the phrase ‘authority of scripture’ can, by such routes, come to mean simply ‘the authority of evangelical tradition, as opposed to Catholic or rationalist ones.’
Biblical Authority: the Problem
When people in the church talk about authority they are very often talking about controlling people or situations. They want to make sure that everything is regulated properly, that the church does not go off the rails doctrinally or ethically, that correct ideas and practices are upheld and transmitted to the next generation. ‘Authority’ is the place where we go to find out the correct answers to key questions such as these. This notion, however, runs into all kinds of problems when we apply it to the Bible. Is that really what the Bible is for? Is it there to control the church? Is it there simply to look up the correct answers to questions that we, for some reason, already know?
As we read the Bible we discover that the answer to these questions seems in fact to be ‘no’. Most of the Bible does not consist of rules and regulations—lists of commands to be obeyed. Nor does it consist of creeds—lists of things to be believed. And often, when there ARE lists of rules or of creedal statements, they seem to be somewhat incidental to the purpose of the writing in question. One might even say, in one (admittedly limited) sense, that there is no biblical doctrine of the authority of the Bible. For the most part the Bible itself is much more concerned with doing a whole range of other things rather than talking about itself. There are, of course, key passages, especially at transition moments like 2 Timothy or 2 Peter, where the writers are concerned that the church of the next generation should be properly founded and based. At precisely such points we find statements emerging about the place of scripture within the life of the church. But such a doctrine usually has to be inferred. It may well be possible to infer it, but it is not (for instance) what Isaiah or Paul are talking about. Nor is it, for the most part, what Jesus is talking about in the gospels. He isn’t constantly saying, ‘What about scripture? What about scripture?’ It is there sometimes, but it is not the central thing that we have sometimes made it. And the attempt by many evangelicals to argue a general doctrine of scripture out of the use made of the Old Testament in the New is doomed to failure, despite its many strong points, precisely because the relation between the Old and New Testaments is not the same as the relation between the New Testament and ourselves. If we look in scripture to find out where in practice authority is held to lie, the answer on page after page does not address our regular antitheses at all. As we shall see, in the Bible all authority lies with God himself.
The question of biblical authority, of how there can be such a thing as an authoritative Bible, is not, then, as simple as it might look. In order to raise it at all, we have to appreciate that it is a sub-question of some much more general questions. (1) How can any text function as authoritative? Once one gets away from the idea of a rule book such as might function as authoritative in, say, a golf club, this question gets progressively harder. (2) How can any ancient text function as authoritative? If you were a Jew, wanting to obey the Torah (or, perhaps, obey the Talmud) you would find that there were all sorts of difficult questions about how a text, written so many years ago, can function as authoritative today. Actually, it is easier with the Talmud than with the Bible because the Talmud is designed very specifically to be a rule book for human beings engaged in life in a particular sort of community. But much of what we call the Bible—the Old and New Testaments—is not a rule book; it is narrative. That raises a further question: (3) How can an ancient narrative text be authoritative? How, for instance, can the book of Judges, or the book of Acts, be authoritative? It is one thing to go to your commanding officer first thing in the morning and have a string of commands barked at you. But what would you do if, instead, he began ‘Once upon a time . . .’?
These questions press so acutely that the church has, down the centuries, tried out all sorts of ways of getting round them, and of thereby turning the apparently somewhat recalcitrant material in the Bible itself into material that can more readily be used as ‘authoritative’ in the senses demanded by this or that period of church history. I want to look at three such methods and suggest that each in its own way actually belittles the Bible, thereby betraying a low doctrine of inspiration in practice, whatever may be held in theory.
A regular response to these problems is to say that the Bible is a repository of timeless truth. There are some senses in which that is true. But the sense in which it is normally meant is certainly not true. The whole Bible from Genesis to Revelation is culturally conditioned. It is all written in the language of particular times, and evokes the cultures in which it came to birth. It seems, when we get close up to it, as though, if we grant for a moment that in some sense or other God has indeed inspired this book, he has not wanted to give us an abstract set of truths unrelated to space and time. He has wanted to give us something rather different, which is not (in our post-enlightenment world) nearly so easy to handle as such a set of truths might seem to be. The problem of the gospels is one particular instance of this question. And at this point in the argument evangelicals often lurch towards Romans as a sort of safe place where they can find a basic systematic theology in the light of which one can read everything else. I have often been assured by evangelical colleagues in theological disciplines other than my own that my perception is indeed true: namely, that the Protestant and evangelical tradition has not been half so good on the gospels as it has been on the epistles. We don’t quite know what to do with them. Because, I think, we have come to them as we have come to the whole Bible, looking for particular answers to particular questions. And we have thereby made the Bible into something which it basically is not. I remember a well-known Preacher saying that he thought a lot of Christians used the Bible as an unsorted edition of Daily Light. It really ought to be arranged into neat little devotional chunks, but it happens to have got all muddled up. The same phenomenon occurs, at a rather different level, when People treat it as an unsorted edition of Calvin’s Institutes, the Westminster Confession, the UCCF Basis of Faith, or the so-called ‘Four Spiritual Laws’. But to treat the Bible like that is, in fact, simply to take your place in a very long tradition of Christians who have tried to make the Bible into a set of abstract truths and rules—abstract devotional doctrinal, or evangelistic snippets here and there.
This problem goes back ultimately, I think, to a failure on the part of the Reformers to work out fully their proper insistence on the literal sense of scripture as the real locus of God’s revelation, the place where God was really speaking in scripture. The literal sense seems fine when it comes to saying, and working with, what (for instance) Paul actually meant in Romans. (This itself can actually be misleading too, but we let it pass for the moment.) It’s fine when you’re attacking mediaeval allegorizing of one sort or another. But the Reformers, I think, never worked out a satisfactory answer to the question, how can the literal sense of stories—which purport to describe events in (say) first century Palestine—how can that be authoritative? If we are not careful, the appeal to ‘timeless truths’ not only distorts the Bible itself, making it into the sort of book it manifestly is not, but also creeps back, behind the Reformers’ polemic against allegory, into a neo-allegorization which is all the more dangerous for being unrecognised.
Witness to Primary Events?
So, more recently, we have seen attempts on the part of many scholars to make this very difficult text authoritative by suggesting that it is authoritative insofar as it witnesses to primary events. This emphasis, associated not least with the post-war biblical theology movement, at least has the merit of taking seriously the historical setting, the literal sense of the text. The problem about that, however, can be seen quite easily. Supposing we actually dug up Pilate’s court records, and supposing we were able to agree that they gave a fair transcript of Jesus’ trial. Would they be authoritative in any of the normal senses in which Christians have claimed that the Bible is authoritative? I think not. A variation on this theme occurs when people say that the Bible (or the New Testament) is authoritative because it witnesses to early Christian experience. There is a whole range of modern scholarship that has assumed that the aim of New Testament study is to find the early Christians at work or at prayer or at evangelism or at teaching. The Bible then becomes authoritative because it lets us in on what it was like being an early Christian—and it is the early Christian experience that is then treated as the real authority, the real norm. In both of these variations, then, authority has shifted from the Bible itself to the historically reconstructed event or experience. We are not really talking about the authority of the Bible, at all.
Another (related) way in which the Bible has been used, with the frequent implication that it is in such use that its authority consists, is in the timeless functions which it is deemed to perform. For Bultmann, the New Testament functioned (among other things) as issuing the timeless call to decision. For Ignatius and those who have taught Jesuit spirituality, it can be used in a timeless sense within pastoral practice. Now this is not a million miles from certain things which I shall be suggesting later on in this lecture as appropriate uses of scripture. But at the level of theory it is vital that we say, once more, that such uses in and of themselves are not what is primarily meant when we say that the Bible is authoritative: or, if they are, that they thereby belittle the Bible, and fail to do justice to the book as we actually have it. All three methods I have outlined involve a certain procedure which ultimately seems to be illegitimate: that one attempts, as it were, to boil off certain timeless truths, models, or challenges into a sort of ethereal realm which is not anything immediately to do with space-time reality in order then to carry them across from the first century to any other given century and re-liquefy them (I hope I’m getting my physics right at this point), making them relevant to a new situation. Once again, it is not really the Bible that is being regarded as the ‘real’ authority. It is something else.
Evangelicals and Biblical Authority
It seems to be that evangelicalism has flirted with, and frequently held long-running love affairs with all of these different methods of using the Bible, all of these attempts to put into practice what turns out to be quite an inarticulate sense that it is somehow the real locus of authority. And that has produced what one can now see in many so-called scriptural churches around the world—not least in North America. It seems to be the case that the more that you insist that you are based on the Bible, the more fissiparous you become; the church splits up into more and more little groups, each thinking that they have got biblical truth right. And in my experience of teaching theological students I find that very often those from a conservative evangelical background opt for one such view as the safe one, the one with which they will privately stick, from which they will criticize the others. Failing that, they lapse into the regrettable (though sometimes comprehensible) attitude of temporary book-learning followed by regained positivism: we will learn for a while the sort of things that the scholars write about, then we shall get back to using the Bible straight. There may be places and times where that approach is the only possible one, but I am quite sure that the Christian world of 1989 is not among them. There is a time to grow up in reading the Bible as in everything else. There is a time to take the doctrine of inspiration seriously. And my contention here is that evangelicalism has usually done no better than those it sometimes attacks in taking inspiration seriously. Methodologically, evangelical handling of scripture has fallen into the same traps as most other movements, even if we have found ways of appearing to extricate ourselves.
The Belittling of the Bible
The problem with all such solutions as to how to use the Bible is that they belittle the Bible and exalt something else. Basically they imply—and this is what I mean when I say that they offer too low a view of scripture—that God has, after all, given us the wrong sort of book and it is our job to turn it into the right sort of book by engaging in these hermeneutical moves, translation procedures or whatever. They imply that the real place where God has revealed himself—the real locus of authority and revelation—is, in fact, somewhere else; somewhere else in the past in an event that once took place, or somewhere else in a timeless sphere which is not really hooked into our world at all out touches it tangentially, or somewhere in the present in ‘my own experience’, or somewhere in the future in some great act which is yet to come. And such views, I suggest, rely very heavily on either tradition (including evangelical tradition) or reason, often playing off one against the other, and lurching away from scripture into something else. I have a suspicion that most of you are as familiar with this whole process as I am. If you are not, you would be within a very short time of beginning to study theology at any serious level.
My conclusion, then, is this: that the regular views of scripture and its authority which we find not only outside but also inside evangelicalism fail to do justice to what the Bible actually is—a book, an ancient book, an ancient narrative book. They function by tuning that book into something else, and by implying thereby that God has, after all, given us the wrong sort of book. This is a low doctrine of inspiration, whatever heights are claimed for it and whatever words beginning with ‘in-’ are used to label it. I propose that what we need to do is to re-examine the concept of authority itself and see if we cannot do a bit better...
How Can The Bible Be Authoritative? (excerpt)
N.T. Wright’s Web Site: http://ntwrightpage.com/#lectures
WE HAVE COME here to learn about spirituality. I trust the genuine quality of this search, but we must question its nature. The problem is that ego can convert anything to its own use, even spirituality. Ego is constantly attempting to acquire and apply the teachings of spirituality for its own benefit. The teachings are treated as an external thing, external to “me,” a philosophy which we try to imitate. We do not actually want to identify with or become the teachings. So if our teacher speaks of renunciation of ego, we attempt to mimic renunciation of ego. We go through the motions, make the appropriate gestures, but we really do not want to sacrifice any part of our way of life. We become skillful actors, and while playing deaf and dumb to the real meaning of the teachings, we find some comfort in pretending to follow the path.
Whenever we begin to feel any discrepancy or conflict between our actions and the teachings, we immediately interpret the situation in such a way that the conflict is smoothed over. The interpreter is ego in the role of spiritual adviser. The situation is like that of a country where church and state are separate. If the policy of the state is foreign to the teachings of the church, then the automatic reaction of the king is to go to the head of the church, his spiritual adviser, and ask his blessing. The head of the church then works out some justification and gives the policy his blessing under the pretense that the king is the protector of the faith. In an individual’s mind, it works out very neatly that way, ego being both king and head of the church. This rationalization of the spiritual path and one’s actions must be cut through if true spirituality is to be realized. However, such rationalizing is not easy to deal with because everything is seen through the filter of ego’s philosophy and logic, making all appear neat, precise, and very logical. We attempt to find a self-justifying answer for every question. In order to reassure ourselves, we work to fit into our intellectual scheme every aspect of our lives which might be confusing. And our effort is so serious and solemn, so straightforward and sincere, that it is difficult to be suspicious of it. We always trust the “integrity” of our spiritual adviser.
It does not matter what we use to achieve self-justification: the wisdom of sacred books, diagrams or charts, mathematical calculations, esoteric formulae, fundamentalist religion, depth psychology, or any other mechanism. Whenever we begin to evaluate, deciding that we should or should not do this or that, then we have already associated our practice or our knowledge with categories, one pitted against the other, and that is spiritual materialism, the false spirituality of our spiritual adviser. Whenever we have a dualistic notion such as, “I am doing this because I want to achieve a particular state of consciousness, a particular state of being,” then automatically we separate ourselves from the reality of what we are.
If we ask ourselves, “What is wrong with evaluating, with taking sides?”, the answer is that, when we formulate a secondary judgment, “I should be doing this and should avoid doing that,” then we have achieved a level of complication which takes us a long way from the basic simplicity of what we are. The simplicity of meditation means just experiencing the ape instinct of ego. If anything more than this is laid onto our psychology, then it becomes a very heavy, thick mask, a suit of armor.
It is important to see that the main point of any spiritual practice is to step out of the bureaucracy of ego. This means stepping out of ego s constant desire for a higher, more spiritual, more transcendental version of knowledge, religion, virtue, judgment, comfort, or whatever it is that the particular ego is seeking. One must step out of spiritual materialism. If we do not step out of spiritual materialism, if we in fact practice it, then we may eventually find ourselves possessed of a huge collection of spiritual paths. We may feel these spiritual collections to be very precious. We have studied so much. We may have studied Western philosophy or Oriental philosophy, practiced yoga, or perhaps have studied under dozens of great masters. We have achieved and we have learned. We believe that we have accumulated a hoard of knowledge. And yet, having gone through all this, there is still something to give up. It is extremely mysterious! How could this happen? Impossible! But, unfortunately it is so. Our vast collections of knowledge and experience are just part of egos display, part of the grandiose quality of ego. We display them to the world and, in so doing, reassure ourselves that we exist, safe and secure, as “spiritual” people.
But we have simply created a shop, an antique shop. We could be specializing in Oriental antiques or medieval Christian antiques or antiques from some other civilization or time, but we are, nonetheless, running a shop. Before we filled our shop with so many things the room was beautiful: whitewashed walls and a very simple floor with a bright lamp burning in the ceiling. There was one object of art in the middle of the room, and it was beautiful. Everyone who came appreciated its beauty, including ourselves. But we were not satisfied and we thought, “Since this one object makes my room so beautiful, if I get more antiques, my room will be even more beautiful.” So we began to collect, and the end result was chaos.
We searched the world over for beautiful objects— India, Japan, many different countries. And each time we found an antique, because we were dealing with only one object at a time, we saw it as beautiful and thought it would be beautiful in our shop. But when we brought the object home and put it there, it became just another addition to our junky collection. The beauty of the object did not radiate out anymore, because it was surrounded by so many other beautiful things. It did not mean anything anymore. Instead of a room full of beautiful antiques we created a junk shop!
Proper shopping does not entail collecting a lot of information or beauty, but it involves fully appreciating each individual object. This is very important. If you really appreciate an object of beauty, then you completely identify with it and forget yourself. It is like seeing a very interesting, fascinating movie and forgetting that you are the audience. At that moment there is no world; your whole being is that scene of that movie. It is that kind of identification, complete involvement with one thing. Did we actually taste it and chew it and swallow it properly, that one object of beauty, that one spiritual teaching? Or did we merely regard it as a part of our vast and growing collection?
I place so much emphasis on this point because I know that all of us have come to the teachings and practice of meditation not to make a lot of money, but because we genuinely want to learn, want to develop ourselves. But, if we regard knowledge as an antique, as “ancient wisdom” to be collected, then we are on the wrong path.
As far as the lineage of teachers is concerned, knowledge is not handed down like an antique. Rather, one teacher experiences the truth of the teachings, and he hands it down as inspiration to his student. That inspiration awakens the student, as his teacher was awakened before him. Then the student hands down the teachings to another student and so the process goes. The teachings are always up-to-date. They are not “ancient wisdom,” an old legend. The teachings are not passed along as information, handed down as a grandfather tells traditional folktales to his grandchildren. It does not work that way. It is a real experience.
There is a saying in the Tibetan scriptures: “Knowledge must be burned, hammered, and beaten like pure gold. Then one can wear it as an ornament.” So when you receive spiritual instruction from the hands of another, you do not take it uncritically, but you burn it, you hammer it, you beat it, until the bright, dignified color of gold appears. Then you craft it into an ornament, whatever design you like, and you put it on. Therefore, dharma is applicable to every age, to every person; it has a living quality. It is not enough to imitate your master or guru; you are not trying to become a replica of your teacher. The teachings are an individual personal experience, right down to the present holder of the doctrine.
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---Of Butterflies and Egos
My needs are real,
as are my sorrows.
My opinions count,
as do my actions.
I’m the star of this production
so listen to me
and take me seriously!
When I’m gone the loss will be
horrendous for I am the
There is nothing wrong with having an ego. It’s an essential step in human biological and spiritual development. It is, however, at best a temporary necessity; a framework built by the brain in order to allow a subjective experience of life. Once it has supplied this structure it can naturally soften and fade into the background. The unconditioned mind can then move back into its natural role as the primary identity; an identity not nearly as separate, isolated, and fearful as the ego-identity.
Unfortunately the “civilization” of human society over the past five thousand years or so has moved so rapidly that the ego process/structure has lost its ability to soften. It has been pushed into an adaptive strategy for which it is not equipped. The complexity of warring nation-states, media-driven belief and behavior, over-population, and economic domination of the many by the few have all worked together to create a hyper-vigilant ego; one that is not capable of its natural voluntary softening. In order to recapture the satisfaction and pleasure of life as it was designed to be, we need to consciously help the ego release its death grip on our being.
It is not a battle. We are not at war with our ego, though it often is pictured that way by well-meaning spiritual practices. Our ego is natural, essential, and able to play its necessary role in the developmental saga of human life; but only if it is allowed to soften once it has provided structure to our experience.
Believing that the ego structure is the acme of human consciousness is akin to believing that the cocoon is the acme of caterpillar consciousness; that once the caterpillar has carefully spun the cocoon and let it harden into place the developmental work is done. Pity our species which is striving so desperately to keep the shell solid, seeing it as the only safety possible. Pity the society which extols the strongest, most impermeable, and most rigid of egos, cheering their advancement to positions of power and wealth.
Were the caterpillar to believe that the cocoon was the real and final stage of life, it would shrivel within that shell and that would be the end. Despite our bluster and appearance of control and power, that shriveling is exactly what is happening to our personal, social, and institutional life. We must begin to understand that the ego is merely a mental structure designed to let us process a tangible and material existence for a short period, while we gather the wisdom and experience necessary to take the next developmental step.
There have always been butterflies among us. Every generation has seen them. Most of them, however, have gone unnoticed because their priorities are so different from those of caterpillars. We have to look up to see them. Looking up is not something the ego feels comfortable doing, so we keep a fearful eye peeled and spin extra layers into the cocoon whenever we sense a crack developing.
Let’s all take a long, slow, deep breath and let ourselves understand that the shell will never, ever, keep us safe. It doesn’t need to. Let’s find out what’s next after the cocoon.
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---Listening Under Summer Skies by Jacqueline Lovesey
When listening to another person, don't just listen with your mind, listen with your whole body. Feel the energy field of your inner body as you listen. That takes attention away from thinking and creates a still space that enables you to truly listen without the mind interfering. You are giving the other person space — space to be. It is the most precious gift you can give. Most people don't know how to listen because the major part of their attention is taken up by thinking. They pay more attention to that than to what the other person is saying, and none at all to what really matters: the Being of the other person underneath the words and the mind. Of course, you cannot feel someone else's Being except through your own. This is the beginning of the realization of oneness, which is love. At the deepest level of Being, you are one with all that is. Most human relationships consist mainly of minds interacting with each other, not of human beings communicating, being in communion. No relationship can thrive in that way, and that is why there is so much conflict in relationships. When the mind is running your life, conflict, strife and problems are inevitable. Being in touch with your inner body creates a clear space of no-mind within which the relationship can flower.
Personal vanity and the hypnotic state set by the illusory self may be our biggest enemies to genuinely hear and connect with others. It’s as if there’s a constant “low frequency hum,” like dampened power lines on a cold wet Spring morning, buzzing and distracting us even when we are seemingly lucid, in control of our actions and wits . With such a deafening distraction it is near impossible to listen to anyone, let alone the "still small voice within.” In this chaotic state [‘monkey mind’], self-obsessing thoughts paralyze any form of real interaction with others. And to finalize our self induced madness, we calculably pass judgement on others — sometimes even the dearest of friends! Our minds, now crystalized like industrial strength adhesive, simply will not budge from this lifeless quandary! It's as if we're operating in a sensory disabled static — that disconnects us from the universe, our connectivity with others, and our own inner-stillness.
So if we fail to know how to listen, or consciously choose not to, then what in fact are we doing? As Tolle points out, "most people don't know how to listen because the major part of their existence is taken up by thinking." So… a preoccupation with our mental selves? A inner-blindness to others that separates us from their and our Being? The obvious answer to both questions is “yes.” The real tragedy emanating from this disconnection is our utter failure to engage, to care, to show compassion, and to love. Herein lies the crux of not just our individual mania, but also the dysfunction that grips our world. It is time to put aside prideful fear, self-righteous attitudes and all mental controls and simply listen; to humble ourselves and warmly allow others hearts to speak and touch our own. In such a energized place life is lived.
If your mind habitually wanders and you’d like to consider or explore new dimensions of thought or non-thought, here’s a YouTube video that may be helpful:
“Mindfulness" by Jon Kabat-Zinn