In the aftermath of the American Civil War, the Confederate Grace Brown Elmore wrote, “I find no consolation in religion. I cannot be resigned. Hard thoughts against my God will arise, questions of His justice and mercy refuse to be silenced…. Sometimes I feel so wicked, so rebellious against God, so doubtful of his mercy.”[i]
Elmore believed religion to be a source of consolation and justice; but seeing very little of this reflected in her own experience, and not understanding why God would have willed the South to lose, she began to doubt God, and feel rebellious towards him.
Yet, she is doubting not God, only her idea of God; and she is not rebelling against God, only her idea of God. And so, it seems to me more fruitful not to question God, or to argue with God, but rather to question and argue with our idea of God, indeed our version of God, and question and rebel against our own certain self.
I remember when I first sat down with the book of Genesis and started studying it in a way I never had before: reading and re-reading chapters dozens of times, in a handful of translations, and comparing interpretations. The impression I came away with, especially from the two creation stories Genesis opens with, was amazement that anyone upholding this or that interpretation could possibly believe theirs was the only correct one. A few months later, I read the Bhagavad Gita just as closely, and came away with the same impression.
After this came the questions of why scripture was this way, why something so important should be open to so many interpretations and why, if God wanted us to act in a certain way or believe a certain thing, was the method of communication used not just human language, which is doubtful enough, but a form of language which leaves more questions than answers and, by the evidence of history, leaves a lot of suffering behind thanks to those arguing about it.
It seems to me now that scriptures have attained that designation because they are so open to interpretation, because they can be applied over and over to so many different situations, and inspire competing conclusions. If scripture were written like a newspaper, it would barely echo beyond its own day. Scripture is strange. Its language, its organization, its narrative techniques, are all strange to varying degrees and in different ways, and are rarely straightforward. And far from being a negative assessment, this is the basis for all that I love not just about scripture, but about the religions they help to create.
Scripture is odd, and inhuman, by which I mean that, at every turn, it refuses to grant anything to our human need for clarity and certainty, for something uncomplicated, for a simple list of what to do and not to do, or a simple story of how something happened. Some might point to the Ten Commandments as just such a list of what to do and not to do, but if it were that easy, there would have been no need for Deuteronomy or Leviticus, or indeed for God’s other commands and directions which fill the latter half of Exodus, or for the brilliant and unending Jewish interpretative tradition which has followed in their trail.
By its very nature, scripture seems less about clear ethics or clear storytelling, and more about the experience of a mystery we will never exhaust. To put it simply: if the basis of all religions are ideas and experiences that are finally incommunicable using God-given language, and in the end are incomprehensible using God-given senses, and seeing that God has apparently chosen modes of revelation which emphasize the limitations of our senses and our intellect, it doesn’t seem such a stretch to assume that religion’s purpose (or purposes) has more to do with humility than with certainty, and nothing at all to do with religiously-inspired or -justified violence or intolerance, or with childish and fearful claims to exclusive truth.
One of the reasons, then, that there is no One True Religion, is because wrestling with such an idea is not what religion is actually about.
My initial uncomprehending reaction, as to how the difficulties of religious scripture could possibly yield arrogance, now makes me wonder how it can’t possibly yield more compassion, more humility, more empathy.
[i] George C. Rable, God’s Almost Chosen People: A Religious History of the American Civil War, 393.