The ‘Humanist Scriptures’: Vapid Hype Yet Again

It wouldn’t officially be Holy Week without the latest installment of the sensational (or the “wannabe” sensational) story about this or that controversy surrounding Christianity. Whether it’s the latest book on the extra-canonical early Christian texts, first-century gnostic literature or the latest hypothesis about Jesus’s relationship to this or that woman disciple, Holy Week always seems to provide the stage for news outlets to feature something that appears aimed at stirring the believers’ pot. This week is no exception.

Over the weekend, the New York Times featured a story about the forthcoming book, The Good Book: A Humanist Bible (Walker & Company, 2011). The compiler of the “humanist bible,” is the British scholar A. C. Graying.

Mr. Grayling finds Judaism and Christianity almost self-evidently absurd: “I could never believe the sin committed by Eve in the Garden of Eden was all that serious,” he said. “It would seem to me that knowledge was a good thing to have.”

And he does not fret that we need divine commandments to ensure that we treat one another well: “All the stories that fill the newspaper — war, chaos — they are there because they are unusual. They are not as great a story as the millions of acts of human kindness throughout human history.”

On the one hand, I certainly agree that there is value in the great texts of human history that do not necessarily bear explicit religious language or seek audiences of believers. But, on the other hand, I have really grown tired of the charade of which Prof. Graying’s book is only the latest installment.

His rejection of the Genesis account of Adam and Eve is precisely that which is rejected by serious biblical scholars and theologians, his effort to jettison the tradition is really reflective of his biblicist or literal reading of the text. No real scholar of Hebrew or Christian Scriptures would take seriously the reading Graying throws out. Which leaves me to say, as I’ve said about others in a similarly critical place, Graying is doing nothing original nor does he offer a novel critique.

Furthermore, Graying’s understanding of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures is seriously inadequate.

“I noticed there is quite a contrast between those philosophies that derive from religious inspiration and those that derive from a humanist perspective, like Plato and Aristotle, Buddhism, Confucius, etc.,” said Mr. Grayling, who this month is touring the United States, speaking about and selling his bible.

“When you contrast those philosophies with the great young religions — Judaism and Christianity date from only two and three thousand years ago — I saw the humanist-derived ethical outlooks tended to take their start from the most generous view of human nature, and the belief that human life is very short, and we must understand how to make good lives for ourselves,” he said in an interview. “Whereas religious systems premise themselves on relationships between man and deity.”

What the British scholar does not realize is the presence of Hebrew and Christian appropriation of Hellenistic philosophy in texts such as the Wisdom Literature (Old Testament) and throughout the New Testament (read the Gospel according to John lately?). Furthermore, beginning with the early second century C.E., the Christian apologists engaged Graying’s so-called philosophies from a humanist perspective with that of the early Christian Kerygma.

This is but the latest version of the religion vs. _______ (fill in the blank: science, philosophy, etc.) narrative that does not do justice to the complexities and history of world religions. The very creedal formulae promulgated and subsequently professed by Christians for centuries is expressed in the language of Greek Metaphysics. Christianity as it is expressed today is, one might argue, as neoplatonic and aristotelian (think: homoousios and Transubstantiation) as it is Kerygmatic. But that truth doesn’t sell books like an atheist spin does.

I think a compendium of wisdom from a variety of non-canonically-religious texts is a good idea and this book will certainly offer resources for those trolling human history for insight. But, let’s be honest here — call the text what it is: an anthology of manifold philosophies. To define the text’s significance and import against the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures is a weak ploy. If you want to compare and contrast your text with a tradition’s Sacred Scriptures, you better do your homework first.

Photos: Walker and Company

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