Thursday, October 13, 2022

The Tao of Scripture

It is a well-established practice in Christianity to discern different layers of meaning in Scripture. The number of these layers have varied over the centuries, but most often four layers are identified. Likewise the labels for these layers have varied. I identify them as: literal, theological, moral, and spiritual.

Many Christians focus on the literal meaning of scripture. They insist that everything that the Bible says must be taken literally, including matters of history and science. This is the approach of fundamentalist and evangelical forms of Christianity. Their stand for “biblical inerrancy” has them down the dead end of rejecting the findings of natural and historical sciences. These Christians fight lost causes, such as a literal six-day creation and a worldwide flood.

Others see the Bible as a textbook of theological truth, which can be condensed into creeds and confessions of faith.  For these folks religion is chiefly about doctrine – believing the right things. Using a list of essential doctrines (“the fundamentals”) as their standard, they draw sharp lines between true believers and unbelievers, orthodoxy and heresy, the saved and the lost. It is a dualistic approach.

A third layer of interpretation focuses on the ethical application of scripture. Scripture is understood to be a sourcebook for morality. Christianity is about doing the right things. The religious life is understood to be primarily an ethical life. These believers see the spiritual life in terms of divine commands, laws, and moral principles. This moralistic approach leads them to see a world divided between good and evil, right and wrong, saints and sinners.

These first three layers of meaning are not mutually exclusive paths. Often the literal, theological and ethical approaches are combined into unique religious systems that define themselves in terms of carefully prescribed orthodoxy and orthopraxy. This has given birth to a myriad of religions, sects and denominations, each believing they alone have a “biblical worldview” and do God’s will.

There is a fourth way. Throughout history there have been mystics in all faith traditions who have seen a Way that transcends worldviews, beliefs, and ethics. They see a deeper meaning in Scripture. For them Scripture points beyond itself to its Source. Words are windows to the Word. The Bible is more about the Author than the autographs. Scripture bears the scent of Heaven and opens a door beyond human understanding.

This Way sees worldviews as cultural constructs. It sees doctrines as creations of the human mind. Morality is seen as more than obeying laws and applying principles. It goes beyond a relationship with God to know the intimacy of union with the Divine. It embraces dualities as parts of a greater unity. It is not about drawing lines, but abiding in the center of an ever-expanding circle with no circumference.

This mystical Way is direct awareness of the One for which all religions and spiritualties strive. It is intuitive rather than emotional or intellectual. It is experiential, yet it is not itself an experience. It is apprehension of God beyond theism, philosophy or religion.

The Tao Te Ching calls it the Tao, normally translated “the Way.” That phrase is also what that early followers of Christ called the Christian movement, according to the Acts of the Apostles.  Confucius called it the Way of Heaven. The author of the Gospel of John called it the Logos. Jesus called it the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Heaven, or simply “the Father.”

This Spiritual Reality was Jesus’ sole message. According to the Gospels most of Christ’s followers did not understand what he was saying. Consequently after Jesus’ death the Church quickly exchanged the message of Jesus for a message about Jesus. Thus began Christianity’s rapid downward spiral into secondhand religion.

This Eternal Way is at the heart of all Scriptures. Not just the holy texts of my own faith tradition but all religious traditions. Huxley called it the Perennial Philosophy, but it is not a philosophy. It is not a religion, but all spiritual practices seek it. It is not a theological system, but all doctrines point to it – some better than others. This Way is at the heart of the Scriptures. It is why I love the Bible.

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