Recently, I led students through a book of the Bible. Many of them were shocked to find that they couldn’t understand a lot of what they were reading or that it didn’t seem to fit with the picture of a loving God they had learned to value.
What is this book the New Church calls the Word of God, and how do we deal with the challenges it presents?
When Jesus Christ taught in the temple at Jerusalem, He told the people that there are two commandments which always take precedence in a spiritual life—to love God with all of our hearts, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. And then He added a remarkable statement: “On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets”—that is, the whole of the Scriptures (Matthew 22:37-40).
Jesus was teaching that the Scriptures are all about love. Putting your whole heart into the hands of an all-wise Creator, and seeking to bring that love to those around you—is that really what the whole Bible is about? It sure doesn’t seem that way sometimes. What about vengeful statements? What about tedious lists of lineage?
Was Christ making a false claim? Or was He teaching us how to read the Bible? If so, what do we do with Scriptures that seem anything but loving?
For example: Psalm 137, a lament for the people of Judah taken captive by the massive Babylonian empire, ends with a kind of a curse against the captors: “O daughter of Babylon…Happy is he who takes and dashes your little ones against the rock” (Psalm 137:8-9). Is this sentiment—that solace will be found in ripping little children from their mother’s arms and beating them to death against a stone-face—is this the voice, the vision of a loving God?
The teachings for the New Church, recorded by Emanuel Swedenborg, offer us help in understanding how this sort of expression can be part of a Divine book.
Adapted to the earthly understanding of human minds
First, these teachings for a New Christianity suggest that the literal, face-value statements of the Bible are adapted to the earthly understanding of human minds. That is, they were written to reflect an understanding of God’s truth from a human perspective. The pronouncement at the end of Psalm 137 about dashing Babylon’s children against the rock may represent the Psalmist’s best understanding of the force with which God would redeem the Jews from the cruel slavery of the Babylonian empire.
Directed by the hand of the Divine to hold within them a higher sight of spiritual truth
But the teachings for the New Church also tell us that the Bible’s literal, face-value statements—while adapted to an earth-bound understanding—were nevertheless directed by the hand of the Divine to hold within them a higher sight of spiritual truth. What makes the Bible Divine is that every verse carries a correspondence between the literal images of our earthly understanding and the higher loving sight of our Creator. For instance, in the Bible’s inner message for our spiritual lives, Babylon (that irresistible threat which swept through Palestine and took vicious hold of Jerusalem) embodies those selfish, controlling impulses that take us over and hurt those around us. That overwhelming urge to make my spouse see things my way, that little lie designed to put me ahead at the workplace…that’s Babylon. On a spiritual level, the Psalmist gives us sound advice: our God knows that we will be happier, more loving people if we firmly eradicate those little selfish urges—those children of Babylon—as soon as they come up in us.
So why do we have a Divine book full of these earthly expressions of anger, vengeance and cultural chauvinism? Why not a sacred text that just tells us straight up how to love God and the people around us? The answer seems to be that because we are earth-bound people striving to live a spiritual life, we need both the messy literal, human understanding of God’s truth and the higher vision of His truth within. In presenting both, this Divine book reflects our own human limitations in our growing relationship to our eternal Divine Guide.
Consider this. When we aren’t getting what we want in life, it’s easy to feel as if God is angry or against us; when other people hurt us, it’s easy to feel like we want revenge. Imagine if our sacred text had nothing in it that reflected these earthly states of mind. We would be left with no recourse but to think of a spiritual life as something completely beyond us, totally unattainable. Ever a patient Counselor, our Lord gives us both.
If you are struggling with the Bible don’t go it alone. Find a Bible study group, or start one. See how others are searching for God’s voice in these ancient lines. Contact us for help or questions.
By Rev. Dr. Thane Glenn, assistant professor of English and religion at Bryn Athyn College. Email email@example.com