Unitarian Universalists value the wisdom of many sources, including the Bible. However, over the years I have met fellow UUs who have shared that biblical readings make them uncomfortable. They offer reasons such as the Bible’s use to justify hate and the “isms,” conflicts with science, or a concept of God that doesn’t fit their understanding.
While it is true that some have used the Bible to reinforce oppression, it is also true that people have quoted the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures persuasively in the pursuit of liberation. The questions we bring to the bible will lead us to very different answers. For example, some read the story of creation with the question, “What is the origin of life?” Others read the same story with the question, “What does it mean to be human?”
The Bible is also filled with contradictions. You can easily single out a passage that promotes non-violence and another that promotes violence. Peter Abelard was a theologian in the 1100s who wrote a famous work called “Sic et Non” (“Yes and No”) reflecting on how you could find a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ answer to every question in the Bible. Abelard argued that it showed the importance of using the light of reason as you read the scriptures. Ultimately, the Hebrew and the Greek Scriptures are a collection of stories, poetry, and sayings that represent a set of authors’ search for truth and meaning.
As a spiritual leader who doesn’t read the Bible literally, I find it to be a useful source for inspiration and reflection. Sometimes, even the passages I find most troubling can be a source for moral discernment, especially when I approach them with the aid of reason and human experience.
Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is a time to take stock, to make amends, and to begin anew. Part of the tradition includes reading the stories of the banishing of Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness (Genesis 21) and the binding of Isaac as a sacrifice to God (Genesis 22). In both cases, a child is being put in harm’s way by the very adults whose role is to protect them. However, when I read these passages together and in light of the movements of the holiday, the following emerges as a possible understanding. Sarah is overcome by jealousy, abuses her privileged status, and casts out her handmaiden Hagar and her child Ishmael (Abraham’s son). She is willing to sacrifice their lives. In the very next passage, it is now Sarah’s son, Isaac, whose life is at stake. She is terrified and may now be able to see her own terrible role in disregarding the life of a human child, someone’s cherished son. We have two adjacent stories that invite us to see ourselves as characters in the story and to ask questions connected to our own lives.
“When have we been Sarah, and allowed our greed to make destructive choices only to later realize our failing?” And, “What are the steps we can proactively take to make amends and to lead to reconciliation?”
“When have we been Hagar, Ishmael, or Isaac, and forced to carry a burden, a grief, a traumatic experience by another?” And, “How can we move to a place of letting go, of forgiveness?”
“What about Abraham? When have we been asked to make a sacrifice? Did it turn out to be worthy of the cost? What did we learn? What would we do differently knowing what we now know?”
“Where is God found in the troubling event in your life? What side would be considered to represent the “best” of humanity? Does it turn out to be justice, judgment, loyalty, or compassion? What turns out to be worthy of ultimate allegiance in your story?”
While these family dramas are painful to read and to hear, they speak a truth that many find unspeakable. This is important. It is only when we are willing to come face to face with our most costly mistakes and missteps that we can make different, life-affirming choices that lead to healing and reconciliation.
The invitation of the Jewish High Holidays (the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) is to hold a mirror up to our lives and to have the courage to look at where we are adding to the beauty of creation and where we are being destructive. Human beings are capable of making both choices. This annual spiritual check-up provides us with practice, so every year we can get better at seeing the reflection of our lives more clearly and make wiser, more loving, more compassionate choices.
May your thoughts, words, and deeds make it a sweet New Year!