On Reading the Bible and Other Matters

I felt a bit of trepidation in engaging our guest Atheist Max on this site. My observation of him at RNS was that he was a persistent, if not aggressive poster. Some of you readers offered caution as well.

I do feel a degree of obligation to dialogue. I would wish it for myself, recalling the insults I’ve been dealt as a person who does not think with the mind of many Catholics online.

Max appears to struggle with words and events in the Bible, or at least, seems to assume these are problems for others. I think this statement is illustrative:

But that does not solve these problems because as a Christian you MUST accept SOME of the Bible as literally true. That is what I was trying to point out to you.

Call me post-modern, but while I can accept the Bible as “truth,” it does not mean I am compelled to accept all of it, or even any of it, as “literally true.” I am a traditionalist in the sense that being a disciple means more to orthopraxis than to orthodoxy. In other words, it about how I respond to God. Not so much the words I absorb about God.

So when Matthew writes about people waking from the dead and walking through Jerusalem, it is not important as a literal fact. Not at all. Decisions about accepting this literally or symbolically are indeed in the hands of a reader, a seeker, or a believer. But this is not what Christianity is about. Christianity is about the Beatitudes, about personal transformation, about following Christ, and embracing reform and renewal in ones life as a response to the initiative of God. The Bible may be a tool that helps me. But it is not an idol.

I appreciate that an atheist like Max has passion, and wishes to engage others on some personal level. I don’t intend my laughter–chuckling is likely more accurate–to be insulting or dismissive. I think about the discussions I’ve had with fundamentalists among Catholics and Protestants over the years. It’s actually funny to be accused of the sorts of things I’ve criticized in others. If I’ve really deluded myself, the laughter may well be directed to me.

And yet:

Yet you say I am a fool to not love this guy.

I said no such thing. People like Max are free to read the Bible carefully, and look for all sorts of errors, inconsistencies, contradictions, an such. They will not find in the pages of a book what I have found as the foundation of my Christian faith. They will not gain traction by insisting Christians think as they do, or in misrepresenting what we say.

Ask more questions, by all means.

But keep in mind that this blog is not about a two-person conversation. I have other tasks here and in my life off the computer. This is not about finding Eighty-three Biblical Inconsistencies and throwing them at a Christian like one would bail a sinking ship.

My friend Max declined suggestions to conduct this conversation by email. I can only conclude he didn’t take me seriously, or that he prefers to have an audience. (Those who believe in trolls likely think the latter.) I’m unwilling to turn this web site over to such an enterprise. Personal conversations are the proper sphere for dialogue. Not contests in who is more rational, or who can shovel water faster.

Without your answers, I am left with nothing but an impression that you and your religious crowd have accepted on some strange authority that a violent monster is okay with you – and you don’t mind this.

Speaking for myself, I don’t have any control over what people might read into my good intentions. Speaking of God as a “violent monster” is emotional language, and a gross exaggeration. There are no human behavior manuals that will tell a person not to write their objection to faith in this form. It’s something one learns from socialization.

When one wants to get a reaction out of another, one uses audacity to get noticed. That’s all this is. I advise us all to treat with deep, deep skepticism people who say a lot of things about things they criticize. Often they say very little about their own beliefs. Why would we listen to those who reject the very things they reject? Max strikes me as less an atheist and more an anti-religionist.

Max wrote, “I’m leaving with an even emptier bag than I came in with.” I never got the impression the bag was for anything except to deposit a lot of stuff. But I’m still willing if you want to write me personally and ask your questions. Once a day on this site is enough for me.

Max wrote:

When “Love thy neighbor” means ‘save their soul’ that is a recipe for conflict which religion can only fuel. Am I wrong?


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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21 Responses to On Reading the Bible and Other Matters

  1. Atheist Max says:

    “Speaking of God as a “violent monster” is emotional language, and a gross exaggeration….
    When one wants to get a reaction out of another, one uses audacity to get noticed. That’s all this is.”

    Well I disagree with that.
    Is God not an endorser of slavery? Did he not build the conveyor belt upon which Humanity is poised for a one-way trip to Hell? The emotion is not coming from my words but from the claims themselves.

    It is God who wants to get noticed. And the people who claim him to be real.

    • Todd says:

      To answer your questions, no and no.

      My assessment of your approach to God and believers is like a student journalist or inexperienced debater. You haven’t yet plumbed the depth of your attempted topic, and you’re just scratching the surface. I think you realize the reaction you evoke in people. And I think that, deep down, it’s the person who posts multiple times on a post on a Christian site is the one trying to get noticed.

      I notice you, Max, but I don’t bow, clap, or approve.

      • Atheist Max says:

        Todd, you said:
        “I look at something in the Bible, even supposedly endorsed by God, and I can say: this is wrong. I don’t harm God by saying it.”

        How do you choose what you accept of ‘god’s word’ and what you reject?
        How do you not call yourself AUTHOR?
        How do you avoid anointing yourself as the AUTHORITY over the Bible?

        How is that different from me?
        As an Atheist I accept the ancient preachment of the Golden Rule in the Good Samaritan parable. But I reject ‘divinity’.

        Todd, you also said: “My instinct is to be honest.”
        Then why not act as if you mean it?

        I’m confident that you accept, “he is risen” as if it were literally true.
        How do you not also accept “Many rose from their graves” (Matthew 27:51-53) as if it were literally true?

        If they are both true, Jesus’ resurrection is a banality of the era.
        Furthermore, it would be completely incoherent for Thomas to have missed it (John 20:21)

        If only the resurrection of Jesus is true then Matthew must be entirely wrong about his account of the crucifixion.

        What is the price of looking at all of this and coming to the the wrong guess? Isn’t it just an arbitrary toss up? How does one begin to figure it out?

        You are no better off than the Atheist because you can’t truly believe
        in one answer over the other.

        You are by definition a non-believer in most of the Bible. Just like me.

      • Todd says:

        Hey Max, good to see you back in action. To respond to your questions …

        – I’m not a biblical fundamentalist. I’m a Christian with a conscience and enough theological training to perhaps be dangerous to myself and others. But first of all, I recognize that Jesus himself taught some commandments are greater than others. How would I know? Discernment. Not quite the same as guessing.
        – You asked how I’m different from you. Like you, I do use my intellect, but that’s not the only thing I have to utilize. Christianity is less a religion of a book and more a personal relationship with God. That’s not all affect, to be sure. But it’s not exclusively about the mind, either.
        – I also have a positive creed (small-c) and I don’t define myself by being against atheism. This is dramatically unlike you. You have conceded you have no “manifesto” or such. My sense of reading you is that you are more anti-Christian than pro-anything else. That’s one whopper of a difference.
        – The rest of your comment makes no sense outside of a fundamentalist approach to Scripture. Which I’ve repeatedly said I don’t have. You are grasping and missing here, Max. Instead of trying to trip me up with some other Christian’s arguments, you could be paying more attention to what I am saying and writing here. That’s dialogue.

      • Atheist Max says:

        Todd, you said, “How would I know? Discernment.”
        So your method of dealing with the bible is no different from mine. Like you, I discern what is true and what is not in the Bible. The difference between us is that you have decided (for reasons you won’t share) that The Bible is literally an authority on certain things. Otherwise you would dispense with the Bible, right?

        For instance, the relationship with Jesus which you speak of would require some authoritative claim from the Bible that such a relationship were possible, otherwise you would have no claim to have any more of a relationship with Jesus than I could have with Elvis Presley.

        So where in the Bible have you found any support for your claim that Jesus is capable of ‘having a relationship’ with you? Where is your specific evidence from the Bible that says this is literally possible?

        You also said, “…you are more anti-Christian than pro-anything else. That’s one whopper of a difference.”
        No. I am PRO honesty. I am pro truth. I am pro good manners. And I am pro humanist.
        So I’m anti-religion unless or until someone can demonstrate why religion is honest, true, polite or good for humanity.

        Even preaching the most benign religious beliefs are profoundly dangerous to people:
        Is it good to raise children to believe in Hell? Absolutely not.
        Love thy neighbor as thyself? Umm….Compulsory love is deeply immoral because it cheapens love.
        Forgive always? Deeply immoral to compel this in every instance. One must not forgive ‘always’ if the perpetrator is a psychopath.
        Again, If our discernment is our mechanism why refer to the Bible for anything? Why is a ‘relationship with Jesus’ worth the bother?

        Islamists are killing people at the direction of the their god:
        “Slay them wherever you find them” (Surah)

        Thankfully, most Muslims ignore their Quran
        in the same way Christians like yourself ignore the Bible. They discern.

        As in Jesus’ Parable of the Minas (an insidiously awful parable) Jesus ends with a gruesome, despicable and threatening lesson: “Bring to me those enemies of mine who would not have me as their King and execute them in front of me.” (Luke 19:27)

        Not only does Jesus fully endorse slavery here, but he punishes the disobedient by having the most obedient slaves do the killing!

        You have ‘discerned’ that this cannot be true enough to follow or true enough to recommend. Yet the same Jesus is the one with whom you have a relationship.

        But if Christianity is 100% true and correct why are its preachements so dangerous 100% of the time?

        You claim to not be a fundamentalist reader of the bible. But somewhere you must have some literalist understanding of something in that Bible otherwise your claimed relationship with Jesus would be just as impossible as my relationship would be with the very dead Elvis Presley.

      • Todd says:

        Good morning, Max.

        I’d say what you and I mean by discernment are two entirely different things.

        As for the Bible, it is not a “literal authority,” but the “living Word of God.” It is an encounter, not a cookbook.

        You wrote, “(T)he relationship with Jesus which you speak of would require some authoritative claim from the Bible that such a relationship were possible …”

        And this is not my experience as a Christian. I’ve said I’m not a Biblical literalist, and yet you continue to frame your arguments by ctrl-V sections of the Bible you don’t like. Maybe I don’t like a few of them either.

        I wonder if you continue to press on the point that “somewhere you must have some literalist understanding of something in that Bible” because it saves you the agony of the encounter with a believer who really, doesn’t think like you, and doesn’t think like you did in your Christian days.

        Why not reflect on what I wrote for a day, and come back tomorrow, and we’ll keep going on this?

  2. John McGrath says:

    Even as a child it seemed to me that the Bible was, at least in part, recording various wrong human concepts of God (God wants you to remain a dependent, unfree layabout ignorant of the knowledge of good and evil; God revels in genocide; God wants you to sacrifice your son; God wants you to kill all those sinners, etc. etc.). These wrong concepts get disowned in favor of “Love God wholly” and “Love your neighbor and yourself with equal respect” and build the kingdom of God on earth (communities of mutual respect and love). Never cared much for the “save your soul” regimens and piling of rule upon rule since I was educated early in the ancient Christian tradition that all whom God created eventually repent (even after death) and enjoy the friendship of God. Hosea 6:6, the final word.

    • John McGrath says:

      Hosea 6:6 was the theme selected by the rabbis who met in council to reformulate Jewish worship after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. That’s how they summarized their religious tradition and where it had to go.

    • Devin says:

      I am very sympathetic to the tradition of Apocatastasis, especially as espoused by Isaac of Syria. But the universalist strain is certainly a minority position and requires a bit of mental gymnastics. The Patristic sources who were sympathetic to this point of view would agree that 2 Timothy 3:16 is applicable for the entirety of Scripture. An understanding of the Bible as simply a catalogue of wrong understandings of God is approaching Marcionism. All scripture has a value in gaining a deeper understanding of God.

      • John McGrath says:

        I said “at least in part,” not “simply.” Putting aside the issue of God, the Bible scertainly offers deep understanding of what caertain people at certain times thought of God, that is, the ultimate reality and/or the basis for human morality. There’s no way to justify the savagery of Leviticus, and its uses.

  3. Todd says:

    My instinct is to be honest. I look at something in the Bible, even supposedly endorsed by God, and I can say: this is wrong. I don’t harm God by saying it. The people who wrote it are long dead and wouldn’t care for my opinion even if they took notice of it. Others who are scandalized by it might even take a second look at Christianity for it.

  4. Atheist Max says:

    Good evening, Todd.

    Please do not assume I am in ‘agony’. I am quite content. I have read your comments much more carefully than you are giving me credit for. And think I have been careful to respond accordingly.

    You said the Bible, “It is an encounter, not a cookbook.”
    I’m ready to hear your elaboration on what that means when you get a chance. I had a similar approach to the Bible when I was a Catholic. I was rather devout for much of my 44 years. My godfather (who is a retired Catholic priest) is a very important person in my life and I love him very much. He taught me a similar approach using similar language.

    Part of the difficulty in discovering I had become an Atheist was coming to terms with the meaning of my godfather’s life as a priest, respecting his deep and noble attempt to support and spread what he believed was God’s Love to the world and ultimately a feeling of my own obligation to him to respect this – sorting that out was the only thing close to ‘agony’ I have experienced as an Atheist.

    So, I’m very intrigued by your use of the word ‘encounter’ – as you can see I have my own personal reasons.

    I ‘encountered’ Jesus through reading the Bible countless times. I taught this to my children and in my Sunday School class.

    I still remember what it felt like to ‘encounter Jesus’ and I can reproduce those feelings very easily by reading the Sermon on the Mount or especially more mysterious verses from Revelation. Everyone has their favorite parts of the Bible – those were mine – along with the Christmas story from Luke “You will find him in a manger.”

    The grand language and mystery within some of the most poetic verses in the Bible
    can be very intoxicating and edifying.

    Still – I have arrived at a new understanding of all of this which is not Divine at all.

    So, encountering Jesus….please elaborate.

  5. Atheist Max says:

    “Execute them in front of me” – JESUS (Luke 19:27)

    If the Literature is too dangerous to take “literally”, what does that tell you about the literature?

    • Todd says:

      Um, Max. Jesus is telling a story. He is quoting a fictional character.

      • Atheist Max says:

        “He is quoting a fictional character”

        No. As you should know, the Nobleman in the story is Jesus.
        According to the church, The Parable of the Minas is a lesson on the Parousia (second coming) when Jesus separates the good servants from the bad and arranges for the good servants to kill the bad ones in his name.

        Though this particular Parable contains several despicable preachments and lessons it is a key fixture of those who believe Jesus will return. There is no other interpretation of this Parable except the one which puts Jesus as the Nobleman.

        Jesus is being quite literal in his intentions as the Nobleman. If we are not to take it literally, what does that do to his message?

        As I asked before:
        If this Biblical literature is too dangerous to take literally, what does that tell you about the literature?

  6. Todd says:

    Your argument does not quite hold water. You can, I suppose, freely interchange between allegory and actual fact, but it is illogical. Jesus is not being literal. If he were, he would have placed himself in the parable and merely imparted information. Allegory, by definition, is non-literal.

    The parable presents a symbolic reality about the Second Coming and the Last Judgment. The people judged are already dead. Their eternal fate is based on faith and their response to grace. I don’t have a problem with people reaping the consequences of their own choices. It is my approach to parenting: natural consequences tempered with mercy.

    If we don’t take it literally, we have time and space to reflect on its meaning. Personally, I prefer the passages about call and response. Or healing. But this passage does not bother me. I know you’ve used it on other web sites. And maybe those folks didn’t bother to challenge you. I just don’t think much of your Christian training in the Scripture, that’s all. If I were snarky, I’d say no wonder you’re an atheist.

  7. Atheist Max says:

    Todd, you said, “Jesus is not being literal. If he were, he would have placed himself in the parable…”

    But you are not being fair. Jesus is the Nobleman in the same way Jesus is the Sower.
    Jesus inserts himself in his parables all the time.

    The Parable of the Sower
    “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. He who has ears, let him hear.” (Matthew 13:3-9)

    Jesus explained:

    “Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is the seed sown along the path. The one who received the seed that fell on rocky places is the man who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since he has no root, he lasts only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, he quickly falls away. The one who received the seed that fell among the thorns is the man who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, making it unfruitful. But the one who received the seed that fell on good soil is the man who hears the word and understands it. He produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.” (Matthew 13:18-23)

    Jesus is the “Sower” and the “Farmer”. And the disciples know it. They respond to this story not by taking notes on how to plant seeds – but by paying closer attention to JESUS as the sower of an important message.

    Similarly Jesus says “Execute them in front of me” (Luke 19:27) knowing that he is, like the Sower or the Farmer – the Nobleman.

    The LITERAL part of the parable is not the protagonist or the set up, but the deed.
    The Sower and the message are both Allegorical. BUT – The directive is literal: “the man who hears the word and understands it.”

    There are no checks and balances on these matters.

  8. Todd says:

    I disagree with your first interpretation. The disciples of Jesus sow the seed.

    I don’t think much of your literalist obsession with an allegory about the Last Judgment.

    The literal part, by your definition, is neither protagonist, set-up, or deed, but the result. But I still wouldn’t call it “literal.”

    • Atheist Max says:

      But how does one abandon literalism as much as you seem to and remain a Christian?
      Clearly Jesus is calling for harsh judgement on real ‘literal’ people:

      “shake the dust off…for a testimony against them.” – Jesus (MARK 6:11)
      “deem them unworthy…remove your blessings of peace.” – JESUS (Matthew 10:13)

      And the Epistles continue this very literal understanding:

      “If anyone does not love the Lord, let that person be cursed!” (1 Corinthians 16:22)
      “Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.” (2 Thessalonians 3:6)
      “Let him who has done this be removed from among you.” (1 Corinthians 1:13)

      These are all intended to be read literally – and people have been badly hurt (to put it as mildly as possible) by these injunctions of a literal nature.

      Allegorical expression stops once people start getting hurt – don’t you agree?

      • Todd says:

        “But how does one abandon literalism as much as you seem to and remain a Christian?”

        Because Christianity is about a relationship more than it is about a book.

        Christians are also human beings, and make mistakes just like atheists. If we held ourselves to the standard of “doing no harm,” I’m afraid a good number of atheist credos would have to be retired too.

        Sorry to frustrate your attempts here, Max, but I’m not a Biblical fundamentalist. You’ll get more traction on an Evangelical Protestant site. Not here, I’m afraid.

  9. Atheist Max says:

    “Christianity is about a relationship, not a book”

    Yes, I’ll take your word for it. I thought I practiced it at one time.

    Let’s put aside the Bible. It appears you don’t take any of it literally and as allegory it is completely open-ended. But…for the record, I can read the Quran that way too, as allegory…and it becomes completely harmless and is just as true as the Bible. “Slay them wherever you find them” (Surah) is completely harmless if it is only allegorical or metaphorical and it is completely true if my personal allegorical understanding says so. Mein Kampf can be rendered completely harmless in the same way: “The face of evil is in the shape of the Jew” is no more harmful than “better that he be drowned with a millstone” (Jesus). Just want to share what the ‘allegorical’ categorization accomplishes as a practical matter. All religions and beliefs are equally true (and false) if the texts are just allegorical and not designed to manifest in any literal reality we confront on a daily basis.

    But let’s skip the Bible – I’ll accept for your argument that it is mostly metaphors and allegory.
    Without the bible being precise or literal – keeping it open-ended – how does one have a convincing relationship with Jesus; one that feels certain?
    What are you basing the relationship on? How do you meet Jesus?
    You believe you are talking to him…but is he talking to you?
    How do you know it is Jesus and not the voice of something else?
    How do you discern Jesus’ suggestions and your own personal notion?

    And if an Atheist does the same things you are doing (deciding to make a donation, or help a child in need, for example) is Jesus guiding him, too? Unwittingly?
    Do I have a relationship with Jesus if I do good but no relationship when I do bad?

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