The sin of bibliolatry

I really like the Bible.  Now able to approach it as an adult, I find that it offers profound wisdom about the human experience and has practical direction for day-to-day life.  But, I don’t feel you have to view it the same way and if you don’t…even should you burn it…I WILL NOT BE TRYING TO KILL YOU!

This recent “trouble” in Afghanistan re the accidental burning of the Koran reflects one of the problems that comes with being a “people of the book”, particularly those who are extreme literalists. I would never harm or deface the Bible; even if it was quite tattered and worn and I did not want to keep it, I would take it somewhere and leave it for someone else to make use of.  Yes, I am so traditional that I will always treat the Bible with reverence.  BUT IF YOU DO OTHERWISE, I WILL NOT BE ATTEMPTING TO KILL YOU!

The problem with this fanaticism is that the “holy writ” is taken to be sacred in itself, not being merely “words” that point one in the direction of the truth.  The literal words themselves are taken to be sacred.  The admonishment of the Buddha is not taken into account, “the finger pointing to the moon is not the moon.”  Or, to use the words of Gabriel Marcel, “Words have meaning only when they ‘burgeon forth’ into a region beyond themselves.”  Therefore the word, for example, “G-o-d”, is not “God” but merely a sign/symbol that makes reference to that Ultimate Experience that we all hunger for and many of us find in some faint tenuous fashion from time to time in our life.  The “word is not the thing.”

Now this is relevant to personal identity and this issue itself is relevant to personal and collective identity.  For example, my name is Lewis but “L-e-w-i-s” is not “Lewis” as a name is only a sound that we have learned to respond to.  But if I am guilty of the sin of misplaced concreteness, I might venture to the extreme in which I would take my personal identity to be only memories of those subjective experiences that are evoked when I hear the sound “L-e-w-i-s”; or when I ruminate about myself.  And, if I have ventured to that point even  the sound “G-o-d” could come to mean the experience of “God” and I might have to kill you if you believed differently than myself!

Now actually, I’ve said all of that not to address the problem with other religions.  In our culture, and in the Christian tradition, there is the same tendency to be guilty of the sin of “bibliolatry.”  We definitely have extremes in our culture but thankfully we channel our anger and violence in such a way…that is, we “sublimate” it… that rarely is anyone in danger of being killed because of believing differently than ourselves.  But, beneath the surface the same arrogance, contempt and scorn are usually present.

Jacques Ellul addressed this issue in The Ethics of Freedom:

For we have to realize that Satan can use God’s truth itself to tempt man.  He even uses holy scripture…Thus obedience to the letter of scripture can be obedience to Satan if the text serves to bring about isolation and independence in relation to the one who has inspired it.  It can be a means of self-affirmation over against God in in repression of his truth and his will.  The biblical text, and obedience to it, do not guarantee anything.  They may be the best means of not hearing God speak.  (Ellul here points out that the Pharisees were) authentic believers, faithful adherents of scripture, and rich in good works and piety.  In reality everything depends on our attitude to the text of the scripture.  If I seize it, use it, and exploit it to my own ends...then I am obeying Satan under the cover of what the Bible says.  (Or, as Shakespeare noted, “With devotions visage and pious action we do sugar o’er the devil himself.”)

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