Emerson, the brilliant essayist, philosopher, and poet, started his long and productive career initially as an ordained minister. When his young wife died of tuberculosis he was devastated. He questioned his faith and the simple beliefs he thought as a minister should be accepted unconditionally and believed by everyone. He left the ministry, went to Europe, met with towering people in literature like William Wordsworth, Thomas Carlyle, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. When he returned to America he was transformed and began a series of lectures on spirituality and ethical living.
In one of his many books, he wrote, “Make your own Bible. Select and collect all the words and sentences that in all your readings have been to you like the blast of a trumpet.”
It is a beautiful and profound statement and one I fully embrace. And it is a part of a personal religious search I started years ago. As a young minister I struggled with biblical texts that I could not make sense of, things about God’s vengeance and wrath, his fickleness with his followers, choosing some over others for seemingly petty reasons, the ordering of the destruction of whole villages wiping out entire groups of people including women and children, telling Abraham to sacrifice his son, to kill him as a sign of his faithfulness, things like that.
I was taught not to question anything, to accept the Bible as the word of God without error or contradiction. This would have worked if I lived only inside my small country church, cloistered in the tiny office behind the sanctuary. But of course, there was real life to live in out there in the big world where things were messy and absolutes dissolved in the face of human suffering and pain.
All of those simple truths I held to be sacrosanct did not hold up under the weight of real people in trouble, in despair, in living complicated lives that involved affairs, addictions, sexual abuse, abortion, dark disturbing secrets, spousal abuse, the death of a child, being gay, the loss of income, feelings of hopelessness, suicide, and so much more.
I didn’t seem to have an answer for most of the human conflicts I faced in my community. Telling people to go pray about it and give it to God, let Jesus heal you, and all of that felt inauthentic to me. What good did it do anyone? People needed to be loved and helped in tangible ways. I wanted the church to be there for them, and for me.
Some of the sweetest, most decent, most loving people I know I met in my years in the church. I served four congregations over 20 plus years and they were all filled with beautiful souls. My greatest critics, those who needed consistently to call me on the carpet, to vehemently disagree with my theology and my style of ministry, were not the lost souls, the doubters, the people caught in horrible personal dilemmas. No, they were my allies, my support. The church can attract mean people, arrogant, indifferent to real heartache, completely resistant to change, absorbed in their own righteousness, and those, though they were few, were the ones who scolded and hounded me. Some of them held places of position in the church. Some of them were prominent in the community. Some of them had money and influence that they thought allowed them power over others and over me.
But I learned in seminary to trust my own religious instincts, to not be afraid of critical study of scripture, to seek out the best minds not just in religion but in philosophy, history, and the sciences, to develop my own path, to be myself. And somewhere along the way I followed Emerson’s advice, though at the time, I had never read what he had said about making your own Bible.
Today, my religious life is still in flux. I try to live by a variety of truths and ideas and experiences I have discovered, often in the most unlikely places. I have found so much comfort in music, poetry, novels, plays and movies. These can be sources of such spiritual lift that leave you alive, strengthened, wiser and more human.
The words of poets Mary Oliver, Pablo Neruda, Rumi, and Stanley Kunitz; the novels of Pat Conroy, Barbara Kingsolver, and Roland Merullo; the lyrics of Leonard Cohen, U2, James Taylor, Lady Antebellum, and Pearl Jam; the books of John Shelby Spong, Anne Lamott, Kate DiCamillo, Carl Rogers, and C.G.Jung; and the lines out of countless films, all make up the Bible I live by.
Leaving the old religious beliefs that no longer work for us, that have lost their meaning, and inventing our own system of values and truths, guidelines we can actually live by, is one of the hardest tasks we face in life. But it can be so rewarding. Find the ones that feed your soul, that elevate your spirit, that help heal your inner wounds, and like a trumpet, wake you to life and love.
Copyright © 2017 Timothy Moody