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What do you consider the Bible to be?


Question & Answer

Q: By A Reader
What do you consider the Bible to be? Is it uniquely inspired by God? Is it different from other literature? Is it authoritative? If it is not all authoritative, how do you determine the parts that are? If the Bible is not divinely inspired, where do moral truths come from? Are moral values eternal and universal for all cultures?

A: By Rev. Lauren Van Ham
Dear Reader,

John Scotus Eriugena (815 – 877 AD), a great Irish theologian, philosopher, and poet said that God speaks to us through two books, “One is the book of ‘scripture,’ physically little. The other is the big book, the book of ‘creation,’ as vast as the universe.”  It’s from this understanding that I’m responding to your good and important questions. 

Our primary operating instructions are in the living system around us, the 13.7 billion year story of which we are a part.  The story of the universe – how we got here and all of the interdependencies that make our life possible – is an incredible story!  It is intricate, numinous, simple and complex.  Creation, therefore, is our primary authority (and those who live near to the Earth teach us this again and again and again…).  Written texts, while secondary, are also vital.  There is so much to learn after all, and we have within us many learning styles and ways to comprehend information. 

Throughout time, a variety of interpreters have offered multiple ways to better understand the story (or parts of the story) so that we can both appreciate it with the awe and reverence it deserves, while also living honorably and justly within it.  These interpreters are biologists, poets, theologians, ethicists and mystics.  Western civilization credits the Bible with a lot of authority.  This isn’t true everywhere and other parts of the world regard other and additional texts to be profound and instructive interpretations of how to live well within Creation and with one another.

When words are “revealed” to the interpreters (and this happens through mystical experiences as well as dedicated scholarship and inspired acts of creativity), the authors, I want to believe, are doing their absolute best to record truths as they understand them (in that moment) for their readers.  Some truths are highly useful in a triage situation (i.e., how to stay safe in an epidemic or natural disaster), and other truths hold deep revelations that may require the patience of contemplation.  In the later instance, relevance can remain for generations to come – consider for instance, the writings of the Christian mystics, or the Sufi saint Rumi.  Poets like Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, or scientists like Carl Sagan, are a few examples of those we reference when we’re trying to describe concepts difficult to convey with words.  

So, is the Bible inspired by God?  Yes, definitely… and so are other texts that attempt to express the teachings of Creation so that we might understand and practice them well.  You have asked how to discern which parts of the Bible are authoritative.  Like many of the sacred texts written before and around this period, the Bible was a response to the political situation and societal practices of the time.  The writing always invites the reader to consider many ways to receive the teaching – metaphorical, historical, cosmological, and psychological.  If you are interested in learning more about this, you may enjoy reading, The Bible and Human Transformation by Walter Wink. 

Over time, moral truths have been attributed to the Bible, the Torah, the Qu’ran, the Bhagavad Gita, the Pali Canon, the Popol Vuh, and etc.  Each of them, a divinely inspired set of phrases, has done its very best to record origin stories and legacies as well as to provide guidance for how we might best live in peaceful, integrated and honorable relationship with all beings.  While it is most certainly true that certain ecosystems require ways of living that do not apply universally, it is also true that Creation’s teachings are reliable and trustworthy.  It is a lifelong endeavor to learn the Big Book of Creation.  We are most successful when we undertake our studies with the support of others in spiritual community and/or spiritual direction, as well as tending our prayer, dreams and other contemplative practices, and of course, becoming intimate with Creation itself. 

May the Big Book and the little books be sources of nourishment for you on your journey!

~ Rev. Lauren Van Ham

About the Author
Rev. Lauren Van Ham, MA was born and raised beneath the big sky of the Midwest, she holds degrees from Carnegie Mellon University, Naropa University and The Chaplaincy Institute.  Following her ordination in 1999, Lauren served as an interfaith chaplain in both healthcare (adolescent psychiatry and palliative care), and corporate settings (organizational development and employee wellness). Lauren’s passion for spirituality, art and Earth’s teachings have supported her specialization in eco-ministry, grief & loss, and sacred activism.  Her essay, “Way of the Eco-Chaplain,” appears in the collection, Ways of the Spirit: Voices of Women; and her work with Green Sangha is featured in Renewal, a documentary celebrating the efforts of religious environmental activists from diverse faith traditions across America. Her ideas can be heard on Vennly, an app that shares perspectives from spiritual and community leaders across different backgrounds and traditions. Currently, Lauren tends her private spiritual direction and eco-chaplaincy consulting practice; and serves as guest faculty for several schools in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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