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St. John of the Cross

Here is a recurring thought, stemming from ongoing studies of the Buddha’s discourses and a background in Protestant Christianity: Is it that insane to believe that life on Earth in this 3rd dimensional reality — this bardo, to borrow from the Tibetans — is actually a Hell realm?

What if, rather than necessarily being a fiery zone of unimaginable and constant pain/anguish, Hell is actually a relegation to the Wheel of Rebirth, doomed to being born over and over and over again in this world of delusion… until, at one point or another, one finally steps off the Wheel?

Hardcore conservative Christians insist that Hell is where we go if we turn our back on the Gospel of Jesus Christ, refusing God’s Grace as offered through the blood of the Cross — and once a person is judged to have missed his or her opportunity to attain eternal life in Heaven, that person must spend eternity in unimaginable pain/anguish, separated from God forever.

Universalists and other rogue Christians, however, are able to discern in the Bible a message of universal redemption. They maintain that, according to the overall Divine Plan represented in the totality of the Bible, every human who was ever born will have ample opportunity to attain redemption (i.e., be allowed into Heaven for all eternity), no matter how awful he or she may have been while in human form. Think of Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin and Idi Amin — they would all have the opportunity to “come to Jesus” and achieve eternal life in Heaven.

Christians, I think, get hung up on the notion that this human life — the one I, for instance, am living at the current moment — is all we get. This is our brief moment, “fallen” as it is, to secure salvation through belief in the archetypal Sacrifice of the Son — and then we die, at which time our soul moves on to its just reward.

But… what if the Buddhists have a more accurate concept of life-after-death? What if the Christian doctrine of Hell is only partially correct, in that Hell is actually what we encounter through multiple rebirths on this plane of existence — sometimes horrific, sometimes relatively blissful, always delusional until the light of Nirvana pops on…?

What if Salvation through Christ’s life, death, resurrection and ascension is actually a Mystery-depiction of the one universal Path back into ultimate union with God?

These questions, I maintain, lead naturally to a view of the Bible that tends to restate (in an albeit roundabout way) the Buddhadhamma, or the Middle Path that Gautama Buddha described through the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path.

While the Buddha refused to expound on the theme of God, he never denied the existence of God. What he gave us, however, was a detailed and (I would maintain) universal set of instructions for getting off the Wheel of Rebirth — out of Hell and into Heaven, in other words — and this message was for all humans who would dedicate their lives to a rigorous and skillful practice of his instructions.

Do you think that Jesus really meant you could get into Heaven by reciting a formula? Or do you think that Jesus, through his teachings and the example of his life, showed us a certain Way to secure union with the Father? Was it really a simple question of faith and belief (i.e., Free Grace)… or did he insist on a much deeper and committed level of surrender?

I sometimes wonder if Jesus, coming 500 years after the Buddha, wasn’t recasting the Buddha’s instructions for a much, much different audience — and, like the Buddha, he insisted that the way to Heaven is attained by dying to this world so that we may be reborn into an infinitely better one.

For both, it came down to transcending the desire-saturated nature of human life on this planet, seeing through the machinations of Mara/Satan, keeping one’s eyes on the prize through constant meditation/prayer/communion.

Hmmmmm…..

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To begin our journey, it seems wise to look into some questions regarding biblical composition — questions like: who wrote the Bible; who decided which books would make it into the Bible; and what constitutes biblical Authority?

Conservative evangelicals seem to rally around the notion of biblical inerrancy, or the idea that the Bible was literally written by the Holy Spirit through chosen human beings, and that the Bible in its original texts (which are now lost to us, but are inferred from extant copies) is perfect in every way.

Channeled, so to speak.

Right off the bat, I’ll list some material I’ve quickly found on biblical inerrancy. My own thoughts and conclusions will follow.

Definition (from a well-known and disseminated statement by conservative evangelicals):

1. God, who is Himself Truth and speaks truth only, has inspired Holy Scripture in order thereby to reveal Himself to lost mankind through Jesus Christ as Creator and Lord, Redeemer and Judge. Holy Scripture is God’s witness to Himself.

2. Holy Scripture, being God’s own Word, written by men prepared and superintended by His Spirit, is of infallible divine authority in all matters upon which it touches: it is to be believed, as God’s instruction, in all that it affirms, obeyed, as God’s command, in all that it requires; embraced, as God’s pledge, in all that it promises.

3. The Holy Spirit, Scripture’s divine Author, both authenticates it to us by His inward witness and opens our minds to understand its meaning.

4. Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching, no less in what it states about God’s acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than in its witness to God’s saving grace in individual lives.

5. The authority of Scripture is inescapably impaired if this total divine inerrancy is in any way limited or disregarded, or made relative to a view of truth contrary to the Bible’s own; and such lapses bring serious loss to both the individual and the Church.

[From the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy]

Here is Wikipedia’s explanation of the above (which is just a snippet from a larger document):

The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy was formulated in October 1978 by more than 200 evangelical leaders at a conference sponsored by the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy, held in Chicago. The statement was designed to defend the position of Biblical inerrancy against a perceived trend toward liberal conceptions of Scripture. The undersigners came from a variety of evangelical Christian denominations, and include James Montgomery Boice, Carl F. H. Henry, Kenneth Kantzer, J. I. Packer, Francis Schaeffer, and R. C. Sproul.

Leading inerrantists regard the Chicago Statement as a very thorough statement of what they mean by “inerrancy”. The statement elaborates on various details in Articles formed as couplets of “WE AFFIRM …” and “WE DENY …”. Under the statement inerrancy applies only to the original manuscripts (which no longer exist, but can be inferred on the basis of extant copies), not to the copies or translations themselves. In the statement, inerrancy does not refer to a blind literal interpretation, but allows for figurative, poetic and phenomenological language, so long as it was the author’s intent to present a passage as literal or symbolic.

The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy has been compared to the Vatican Council Decree Dei Verbum, which expounds similar teachings for Roman Catholics.

Here’s an excellent resource page on the topic of biblical inerrancy. From the overview:

The word “inerrancy” is used to refer to a text that is considered accurate, truthful, and totally free of error. A text that contains mistakes is errant.

The term is often used by conservative theologians:

  • In Judaism to refer to the Torah,
  • In Christianity to refer to the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures (a.k.a. the Old and New Testaments),
  • In Islam to refer to the Qur’an, and
  • In other religions to refer to their own holy books.

The Torah, Hebrew/Christian Scriptures, and Qur’an do not agree on many topics including the nature of God; creation and origin of life, the world and the rest of the universe; various scientific topics; morality and ethics; personal salvation; the afterlife; abortion access; equal rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual, and transgendered persons; same-sex marriage; and many other cultural matters.

Because the holy books of the world differ from each other, only one of them — at most — can be inerrant. Some people suggest that none are inerrant.

Since all of the people who are affiliated with a religion are members of minority religions, most people’s holy book cannot be inerrant. If they believe that their holy book is inerrant, they are probably wrong. Perhaps all are wrong.

And here’s a contrarian and scholarly write-up on the subject, from which I pull this concluding quote:

Is the Bible inerrant, by modern standards, in everything it asserts – even incidentally – about history, science, geography, math, and every other field of human inquiry? Was it meant to be? Our answer to these questions has been a resounding “no.” The Scriptures fulfill their intended purpose of communicating God’s word to His people, but they never claim to be something they’re not – a scientific textbook, for instance. These post-Enlightenment expectations, when superimposed upon the Scriptural testimonies, produce the most curious interpretations

My current view:

I can think of few things I’d rather believe in than a Bible (or Qur’an, or Bhagavad Gita, or any other holy scripture) that is absolutely perfect in every way. I would love to have absolute faith in a written revelation, trusting that God is speaking to humanity with crystalline clarity, devoid of any and all human contamination.

Having grown up in church, however, I’ve had occasion since early childhood to question the things that I was being asked (or forced) to accept regarding God’s Word.

Early on, I suspected that circular reasoning was being employed to brainwash the flock. Remember this little jingle they had us sing?

Jesus loves me! This I know,
for the Bible tells me so.
Little ones to him belong;
they are weak, but he is strong.

I would ask the question, “How do we know that this stuff is true?

The responses was always the same: “Because the Bible says so.”

If I persisted in my questioning, I would be sat down and stared at for a moment, before hearing, “You are NOT to question the Word of God, do you understand?”

What it comes down to is, we are to maintain a base belief that our given holy scripture is divinely inspired, that every word is spiritually authoritative (in some way, despite the seeming contradictions found between varying sections), and that all Truth worth knowing is contained within the pages of this book.

So, right out of the shoot, there was little or no room for questioning.

I remember being allowed (as a 7th grader) to attend an adult church class on the topic of Satan. On the first day I asked the teacher, “If God is all-powerful and we are all children of God, and we have access to God’s protection whenever we need it… what do we have to fear from such a being as Satan?”

The teacher thought I was causing problems and he kicked me out of the class, never to return.

I do, however, think that the Bible is spiritually inspired, and that there are incredible Mysteries within it. I think that it is a document that deserves deep and continual study, as it provides food for the inner being, as well as food for getting through the drama of existence. I believe it has the power to inspire us to bigger and greater things, to the extent that we are able to surrender to the highest principles contained within it (i.e., “Not my will, Lord, but Thine”). I think there are many, many layers of interpretation available within it, and that it’s actually okay to open ourselves to some of the more far-out theories — as in some of the Dispensational ideas spawned by the Plymouth Brethren many years ago — although their hyper-literalism leads me down the path of symbols, wherein I look for deeper meaning behind all the fear and trembling related to a coming Apocalypse.

I do think, in fact, that the Bible in its entirety offers a roadmap to enlightenment/salvatioin. I look forward to fleshing this out in future posts.

My own, personal bottom line is, there is no need for the Bible (or any other ancient document) to be deemed “inerrant.” Human beings were involved in writing, editing, inscribing, copying and choosing these documents for canonization. There is plenty of “saving” or “enlightening” spiritual food in them… and when all is said and done, we must individually live up to the challenges presented in these texts. We are, in short, to achieve a going home, a returning, or a reunion with That from which we first emerged — and this is not achieved by reciting some formula, or by thinking about it, or by any other shallow means of asserting our goodwill. It is achieved by fully surrendering, day by day, moment by moment, to the divine that is present within and without, self-arising, independent of external influence, transformative, beyond human corruption.

So, I won’t be taking each word from our biblical study as inerrant. I’ll be taking them as a Mystery that can only be resolved through the above-mentioned surrender — which, for me, involves a rigorous and skillful contemplative practice that leads to blissful union… and we’ll explain more about this as these posts roll by.

In the meantime… do you have any thoughts regarding the possible inerrancy of the holy book of your tradition?

As someone who has spent the last 20 years questing for “enlightenment” through mostly Eastern approaches, these past five years have seen me drawn back into an investigation of the religious tradition of my upbringing: Protestant Christianity.

The process of daily Bible reading, sermon-listening and otherwise studying myself silly… has led to a degree of confusion, somewhat expressed through the name of this blog. Which model is correct? Enlightenment or salvation? Are they (despite rabid denials on every side) one and the same? If so… how do I rectify them in my own mind and heart?

Longtime studies in various forms of Hinduism (Sanatana Dharma), Buddhism, Sufism, Sikhism, Christian mysticism and other esoteric teachings have led to a personal determination that ecstatic union is the key to enlightenment (i.e., the full and complete merging with God, or the extinction of the illusion of separateness, characterized by an ultimate level of ecstatic absorption and saturation which solves the riddle of human existence once and for all).

If a teacher is not speaking from a place of ecstatic attainment (samadhi/jhana), I reason that what’s being offered is a mental approach that, while possibly interesting, will probably lead to just another diversion from That into which the ecstatic mystic is persistently magnetized.

The vast majority of spiritual literature does not fit the requirement of an ecstatic approach. Instead, we get innumerable “takes” on various sacred writings, each one pretending to be the “correct” interpretation, one that will lead to… enlightenment or salvation, depending on which tradition it belongs to. Ninety-nine-point-nine-nine-nine percent of these “experts” do not have a contemplative practice, but are instead committed to thinking their way out of their human predicament — which just leads to neurosis, since the ego-mind is not about to think itself into submission.

I believe that many in my position would throw up their hands and say something like, “Just meditate and let the dead scripture writers rest in peace.”

For whatever reason, that’s not been an option for me.

I know I’m not the first person to say this, but I have an inexplicable conviction that the Bible can be understood as an ultimate roadmap to ecstatic union with God, which is the Judeo-Christian concept of enlightenment.

I have not worked this out sufficiently in my head, however… thus, this blog.

I will follow my intuition in posting studies on this or that, looking for correlations between my own direct spiritual experience and what I find in the Bible, in ecstatic utterances of certain mystics, and in sacred scriptures that have provided powerful ecstatic insights during my 20 years’ journey.

My prayer is that whatever comes of this will be of some help to someone, somewhere, during this time of collective transformation.

May we support one another through whatever gifts we possess, according to the Divine purpose bestowed upon us in this life.