The World's Most Dangerous Book [Part 1] by Alan Watts

For many centuries the Roman Catholic Church was opposed to translating the Holy Scriptures into the "vulgar tongue." To this day, you can still get rid of a Bible salesman by saying, "But we are Catholics and, of course, don't read the Bible."

1885 Still Life with Bible
---”Still Life of the Bible” by Vincent van Gogh"

[Part 1of 3]
The Catholic hierarchy included subtle theologians and scholars who knew very well that such a difficult and diverse collection of ancient writings, taken as the literal Word of God, would be wildly and dangerously interpreted if put into the hands of ignorant and uneducated peasants. Likewise, when a missionary boasted to George Bernard Shaw of the numerous converts he had made, Shaw asked, " Can these people use rifles?" "Oh, indeed, yes," said the missionary. "Some of them are very good shots." Whereupon Shaw scolded him for putting us all in peril in the day when those converts waged holy war against us for not following the Bible in the literal sense they gave to it. For the Bible says, "What a good thing it is when the Lord putteth into the hands of the righteous invincible might." But today, especially in the United States, there is a taboo against admitting that there are enormous numbers of stupid and ignorant people, in the bookish and literal sense of these words. They may be highly intelligent in the arts of farming, manufacture, engineering and finance, and even in physics, chemistry or medicine. But this intelligence does not automatically flow over to the fields of history, archaeology, linguistics, theology, philosophy and mythology which are what one needs to know in order to make any sense out such archaic literature as the books of the Bible.

This may sound snobbish, for there is an assumption that, in the Bible, God gave His message in plain words for plain people. Once, when I had given a radio broadcast in Canada, the announcer took me aside and said, "Don't you think that if there is a truly loving God, He would given us a plain and specific guide as to how to live our lives?"

"On the contrary," I replied, "a truly loving God would not stultify our minds. He would encourage us to think for ourselves." I tried, then, to show him that his belief in the divine authority of the Bible rested on nothing more than his own personal opinion, to which, of course, he was entitled. This is basic. The authority of the Bible, the church, the state, or of any spiritual or political leader, is derived from the individual followers and believers, since it is the believers' judgment that such leaders and institutions speak with a greater wisdom than there own. This is, obviously, a paradox, for only the wise can recognize wisdom. Thus, Catholics criticize Protestants for following their own opinions in understanding the Bible, as distinct from the interpretations of the Church, which originally issued and authorized the Bible. But Catholics seldom realize that the authority of the Church rests, likewise, on the opinion of its individual members that the Papacy and the councils of the Church are authoritative. The same is true of the state, for, as a French statesman said, people get the government they deserve.

Why does one come to the opinion that the Bible, literally understood, is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? Usually because one's "elders and betters," or an impressively large group of ones peers, have this opinion. But this is to go along with the Bandar-log, or monkey tribe, in Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Books , who periodically get together and shout, "We all say so, so it must be true!" Having been a grandfather for a number of years, I am not particularly impressed with patriarchal authority. I am of an age with my own formerly impressive grandfathers (one of whom was a fervent fundamentalist, or literal believer in the Bible) and I realize that my opinions are as fallible as theirs.

But many people never grow up. They stay all their lives with a passionate need for eternal authority and guidance, pretending not to trust their own judgment.  Nevertheless, it is their own judgment, willy-nilly, that there exists some authority greater than their own. The fervent fundamentalist whether Protestant or Catholic, Jew or Moslem is closed to reason and even communication for fear of losing the security of childish dependence. He would suffer extreme emotional heebie jeebies if he didn't have the feeling that there was some external and infallible guide in which he could trust absolutely and without which his very identity would dissolve.

This attitude is not faith. It is pure idolatry. The more deceptive idols are not images of wood and stone but are constructed of words and ideas mental images of God. Faith is an openness and trusting attitude to truth and reality, whatever it may turn out to be. This is a risky and adventurous state of mind. Belief, in the religious sense, is the opposite of faith because it is a fervent wishing or hope, a compulsive clinging to the idea that the universe is arranged and governed in such and such a way. Belief is holding to a rock; faith is learning how to swim and this whole universe swims in boundless space.

Thus, in much of the English-speaking world, the King James Bible is a rigid idol, all the more deceptive for being translated into the most melodious English and for being an anthology of ancient literature that contains sublime wisdom along with barbaric histories and the war songs of tribes on the rampage. All this is taken as the literal Word and counsel of God, as it is by fundamentalist Baptists, Jesus freaks, Jehovah's Witnesses and comparable sects, which by and large know nothing of the history of the Bible, of how it was edited and put together. So we have with us the social menace of a huge population of intellectually and morally irresponsible people. Take a ruler and measure the listings under "Churches" in the Yellow Pages of the phone directory. You will find that the fundamentalists have by far the most space. And under what pressure do most hotels and motels place Gideon Bibles by the bedside Bibles with clearly fundamentalist introductory material, taking their name Gideon from one of the more ferocious military leaders of the ancient Israelites?

As is well known, the enormous political power of fundamentalists is what makes legislators afraid to take laws against victimless "sins" and crimes off the books, and what corrupts the police by forcing them to be armed preachers enforcing ecclesiastical laws in a country where church and state are supposed to be separate ignoring the basic Christian doctrine that no actions, or abstentions from actions, are of moral import unless undertaken voluntarily. Freedom is risky and includes the risk that anyone may go to hell in his own way.

Now, the King James Bible did not, as one might gather from listening to fundamentalists, descend with an Angel from heaven AD 1611, when it was first published. It was an elegant, but often inaccurate, translation of Hebrew and Greek documents composed between 900 BC and AD 120. There is no manuscript of the Old Testament, that is, of the Hebrew Scriptures, written in Hebrew, earlier than the Ninth Century BC But we know that these documents were first put together and recognized as the Holy Scriptures by a convention of rabbis held at Jamnia (Yavne) in Palestine shortly before AD 100. On their say-so. Likewise, the composition of the Christian Bible, which documents to include and which to drop, was decided by a council of the Catholic Church held in Carthage in the latter part of the Fourth Century. Several books that had formerly been read in the churches, such as the Shepherd of Hermas and the marvelous Gospel of Saint Thomas , were then excluded. The point is that the books translated in the King James Bible were declared canonical and divinely inspired by the authority (A) of the Synod of Jamnia and (B) of the Catholic Church, meeting in Carthage more than 300 years after the time of Jesus. It is thus that fundamentalist Protestants get the authority of their Bible from Jews who had rejected Jesus and from Catholics whom they abominate as the Scarlet Woman mentioned in Revelation.

The Bible, to repeat, is an anthology of Hebrew and late Greek literature, edited and put forth by a council of Catholic bishops who believed that they were acting under the direction of the Holy Spirit.  Before this time the Bible as we know it did not exist. There were the Hebrew Scriptures and their translated into Greek the Septuagint, which was made in Alexandria between 250 BC and 100 BC There were also various codices, or Greek manuscripts, of various parts of the New Testament, such as the four Gospels. There were numerous other writings circulating among Christians, including the Epistles of Saint Paul and Saint John, the Apocalypse (Revelation) and such documents (later excluded) as the Acts of John , the Didache , the Apostolic Constitutions and the various Epistles of Clement, Ignatius and Polycarp.

In those days, and until the Protestant Reformation in the 16th Century, the Scriptures were not understood exclusively in a narrow literal sense. From Clement of Alexandria (Second Century) to Saint Thomas Aquinas (13th Century), the great theologians, or Fathers of the Church, recognized four ways of interpreting the Scriptures: the literal or historical, the moral, the allegorical and the spiritual and they were overwhelmingly interested in the last three. Origen (Second Century) regarded much of the Old Testament as "puerile" if taken literally, and Jewish theologians were likewise preoccupied with finding hidden meanings in the Scriptures, for the concern of all these theologians was to interpret the Biblical texts in such a way as to make the Bible intellectually respectable and philosophically interesting. Concern over the historical truth of the Bible is relatively modern, whether in the form of fundamentalism or of scientific research.

But when the Bible was translated and widely distributed as a result of the invention of printing, it fell into the hands of people who, like the Jesus freaks of today, were simply uneducated and who, as the depressed classes of Europe, eventually swarmed over to America. This is, naturally, a heroic generalization. There were, and are fundamentalists learned in languages and sciences (although the standard translation of the Bible into Chinese is said to be in fearful taste), just as there are professors of physics and anthropology who somehow manage to be pious Mormons. Some people have the peculiar ability to divide their minds into watertight compartments, being critical and rational in matters of science but credulous as children when it comes to religion.

Such superstition would have been relatively harmless if the religion had been something tolerant and pacific, such as Taoism or Buddhism. But the religion of the literally understood Bible is chauvinistic and militant. It is on the march to conquer the world and to establish itself as the one and only true belief. Among its most popular hymns are such battle songs as "Mine eyes have seen the glory" and Onward, Christian Soldiers. The God of the Hebrews, the Arabs and the Christians is a mental idol fashioned in the image of the great monarchs of Egypt, Chaldea and Persia. It was possibly Ikhnaton (Amenhotep IV, 14th Century BC), Pharaoh of Egypt, who gave Moses the idea of monotheism (as suggested in Freud's Moses and Monotheism). Certainly the veneration of God as "King of kings and Lord of lords" borrows the official title of the Persian emperors. Thus, the political pattern of tyranny, beneficent or otherwise, of rule by violence, whether physical or moral, stands firmly behind the Biblical idea of Jehovah.

—December 1973


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