Presenting the work of Quaker atheists, agnostics, humanists, and others who practice Quakerism without supernatural beliefs

A Different Understanding of Scripture

My friend Nat Case, from my own Twin Cities Friends Meeting, has a blog I hadn’t paid much attention to until a month or two ago.  I don’t know how much of my inattention  is because I hadn’t noticed how smartly provocative his writing is, and how much is because, as a cartographer, he’s been writing less for a mapmaking audience lately, and more for Quakers and other people who question the meaning of religion. People like me.

This post expands on a brief comment I made on his post Fragments of a Religion That Never Existed, where Nat writes in part:

“What I’m interested in here is the idea of scripture not defined by its innate qualities (e.g. dictated by God), but by its functional qualities. What does scripture do? I find scripture-as-community-glue interesting, but my sympathies lie with scriptures-taken-to-heart. I do have a series of books, passages from books, poems, some formal religious texts, ballads, and films that form what I believe is similar to the sort of scripture-taken-to-heart that orthodox folk might have. Except I do not have a community that draws from the same set of texts.”

I most certainly have my “scripture” in the sense Nat speaks of here. A fair bit of what’s in the Bible qualifies, including Genesis, Exodus, Job, Ecclesiastes, and others.

Unlike most liberal Friends I have spoken with, I find almost nothing in the Gospels as compelling as these books of the Hebrew Bible. The teachings of Jesus are certainly remarkable, but for the most part I don’t turn to the Bible for direction on how to live my life; I turn to it for illumination of how life is. I prefer Job to the Sermon on the Mount not because it gives better advice, but because it strikes me as more accurate–more true to the nature of life on earth. If God existed in the sort of world we live in, I think he would terrify like the voice out of the whirlwind, not comfort like a loving parent.

The birds of the air Jesus speaks of may be arrayed better than Solomon in all his glory, but a great many of them starve before they give birth, or are eaten alive by other birds of the air. This is how life is shaped, sayeth the scripture of Darwin. The plumage of the birds of the air is lovely because it is tinctured with blood.

When I tell those who take the Bible as their one essential scripture, that I read the Bible the same way I read Melville or Dostoevsky or Kafka or Cormac McCarthy, they tend to take this as a dismissal of the Bible. It’s not. Literature like this plays a powerful, crucial role in my life, intellectual, emotional and spiritual. At its best these works unveil to me a rare and breathtaking view of the usually hidden essential nature of human existence. What is revealed is sometimes beautiful, sometimes horrifying, sometimes–most revealing of all–both at once.

I suppose if I had to choose one volume to serve as my scripture, the Bible would be a pretty good choice. There are stories and passages in there as soul-shattering as anything I’ve ever read. But I don’t have to choose one volume, and I think there’s something to be said for not choosing.

(In reply to this last point, Nat suggests that perhaps we don’t choose our scriptures so much as our scriptures choose us. Yes. The only way I know I have found my scripture, is when I read it and it electrifies me. As Emily Dickinson wrote, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”)


13 responses to “A Different Understanding of Scripture”

  1. Hey James,

    I just read your comments about Scripture.

    Your paragraph here:
    “The birds of the air Jesus speaks of may be arrayed better than Solomon in all his glory, but a great many of them starve before they give birth, or are eaten alive by other birds of the air. This is how life is shaped, sayeth the scripture of Darwin. The plumage of the birds of the air is lovely because it is tinctured with blood.”

    That is exactly what I was trying to explain to you in my long-winded response a few moments ago on the other thread.

    Nature as IS isn’t reconciable with the central tenets and testimonies of Friends.

    And human nature! It could get you crucified,
    or executed as happened to Tom Fox,
    yet he chose not the way of nature, but
    of Christ’s “loving your enemies.’

    My cat doesn’t see life this way;-)
    Neither do most non-Friends I know. A number of them–nice people–want to nuke Iran, etc.
    kill ’em all as we did to Dresden in WW2 and the cities of Japan where over 300,000 civilians died from our intentional acts of terror.

    Now, after writing too much, I do think it is time for me to go into silence for a while.

    But I will listen if you wish to reconcile your above paragraph with Friends testmonies and worship.

  2. I disagree. In fact I think the hard, frightening, real world we live in gives us all the more reason to commit ourselves to loving and caring for each other, of binding ourselves to one another as Friends. We have it in us not to make the world other than it is, but to bring out the best part of ourselves. I think we can best do this work in full knowledge of what we’re up against.

    I understand this work has traditionally been framed in theistic terms, and for most Friends it still is. The essential part, I think, is the work itself, not the terms in which we frame it.

  3. Dear James,

    I completely agree with your last post!

    Indeed, that was the very point of my previous posts, but I guess I wasn’t clear.

    You believe in committing “ourselves to loving and caring for each other.” So do I. So should all people.

    However, most humans don’t. They care for their own group, but not humankind, certainly
    not their enemies.

    If there is no universal truth, then how can you “speak to the condition of most humans who don’t “commit themselves to loving and caring” but instead use violence to acheive their ends?

    That is why I gave you the examples I did. I used to live in Palestine/Israel. People there of all persuasions certainly care for their own group, but they attack others. Reflect on Gaza!

    They don’t take Jesus’ message to heart to love others, even enemies.

    I knew nice Palestinians and nice Jews but they were perfectly willing to kill each other because of a piece of land. They are much worse about territory than the cats in my neighborhood.

    Thanks for being concerned about Friendly ethics.

    In the Light,


  4. I know what you mean. I was just in a class where “Ozymandias” illustrated the lesson far better than anything we were reading. Mellville? Oh yes indeed!
    By the way, I REALLY like your sentence in your comment: ” The essential part, I think, is the work itself, not the terms in which we frame it.”
    In His Love,

  5. Daniel, I’m glad that we see more eye-to-eye than we initially thought. I certainly take Jesus’s teachings–along with a great many other great spiritual leaders and teachers–very seriously as teachings. It’s just, the literature that shakes me to my core usually doesn’t do so by being morally instructive.

    Nate, thanks for your kind words. Ozymandias is a great one, puts it all in perspective. As Ecclesiastes put it: All is vanity and a striving after wind.

  6. Marie Hancoski-Stornelli Avatar
    Marie Hancoski-Stornelli

    I consider myself aQuaker because my “values” are in sync with theirs more than any other reli.gion I can think of. I was born a Roman Catholic and am completely recovered. I first came into contact with Quakers during theVietnam war when my son was a conscientious objector and received counseling from the Quaker church. He subsequently became a medic during that war and vowed notto killanyone. I do go tothe Quaker Church nearest to me once in a while, but it is not convenient. I have spent a lot of time studying religions and have only been more confused about all the different concepts of God. Joseph Campbell. said in one of his lectures on the meaning of myths that the word, God, was merely a symbol for the idea of the Creator. I find it very interesting that Quakers are so broad-minded as to speak of a non-theist Quaker, especially as some of my agnostic friends are such wonderful human beings

  7. Friends Meetings often feel comfortable faith communities because of our lack of regimented doctrine and creed. Those who have not yet recognized God in their lives are seekers. What
    would happen if the existence of God daily in all Friends lives. Have the beliefs and experiences
    of George Fox and early Friends become irrelevant? When a Meeting is no longer seeking God it is a wonderful Social Club more often than a Religious Society. God brings power of change to us that is beyond human capability and if we believe or not ,God continues to exist. God is Love, so if you have found the Religious Society of Friends a loving and nurturing faith then we have found God is present there.
    I would challenge non-theist Friends to relinguish to God and see what God can do. It really is wonderful,but perhaps you know this with different words.
    The is that of God in each of us.

  8. Wendy,

    You say that those who have not recognized God in their lives are seekers. True. Is this any less true of those who *have* recognized God? Does transformation have to come in the direction of me becoming more like you? Is it not possible that there are things others see that you do not?

    Fox is relevant but he is no longer alive. He never claimed to be the source of the light, or the one who would determine the direction of Friends forever. He claimed the light is in each of us.

  9. So are you saying the Light is not God.
    Is not Religious Society indicative of “linking back”?
    So, the linking back to the inspirations of Fox is
    part of Friends Religion. If only our present
    thinking is the basis of truth, then why are you
    drawn to the Religious Society, as a Social
    Club or as a Religious Society based on Christian faith with the willingness to seek that of God that exists in each of us. There atheist societies, philosophy societies etc. Why do theists chose to be Friends? It is that of God in each of us that we seek out and which sustains us as a Religious Society. If this is lost then as stated before we are a great charitible family, a social club, a wonderful gathering of humanity but not a Religious Society of Friends. I say perhaps you have found God amongst Friends no matter how it is described. Is there a glimmer of possibility that this could be a Truth for thee.
    And perhaps it is that of God that keeps you with Friends. So why not seek God in all we say and do? For a month or a year…see what happens. Lovingly, Wendy

  10. Yes, I am saying the light is not God, though it is real and precious and to be heeded. I fully accept that is an non-traditional view for Friends, and understandably there are those who are troubled hearing such views expressed by Friends. Yet from what I’ve seen of the Religious Society of Friends, I think we’re strong enough and open enough to hear it fully and see what if anything comes of it. I think those of many views can hear each other and occasionally find themselves changed by what they hear and feel. I know I have been changed by Friends who see things differently from me.

    You call attention to the word “Religious” in “Religious Society of Friends” as if religion is not possible without theism. That is clearly not the case, as there are many world religions where God is not central, or even a consideration.

    I am open to everything that I experience, everything I hear from others. So far, I have not gotten a glimmer that the creator of the universe is at the center of what we do, though that “God” word is the way most of us describe it. My views might change, but I’m not expecting it, or worrying about it. It is real and true and precious whether it comes from God or not. This I know experimentally.

  11. You will know when you experience God, though I suspect you have already done so.
    Do not be afraid to change. I am not the pragmatist you may think. I as you draw on my I do hope you continue seek spiritual
    truths that are beyond human understanding.
    We have but a glimmer of God’s will during our lives. As my father spoke to his children each evening “God is. God wills Trust in God, Amen”. He had to quit teaching Biology after he had a stroke and had to speak simply to us because of aphasia. So you see, I understand science and was raised in the Society of Friends after he and my mother became a convinced Friends. God is Love…if you have known love, then you have experienced God. Blessings to you and your Meeting. May you journey be good.

  12. Thanks for your good wishes, Wendy. The same to you.

    I, on the other hand, am something of a pragmatist. Beyond that, if a truth is beyond human understanding, it is most certainly beyond me, as I am all too human.

    I have certainly known love, and if all you mean by God is love, then in that sense I know God. But to me, the word God means much more than that.


  13. Yes, God is Love and much more too. I will think of thee in meeting tomorrow. Greenwich Friends Meeting Greenwich, NJ

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