The Bible: A Good Book, absent God.
[EKIMEEZA RELIGION] –At first, “The Good Book: A Humanist Bible” (Walker & Company, $35) looks like the Bible that Christians believe in, politicians take oaths on and the Gideons put in hotel rooms. It is divided into books like Genesis, Lamentations and Proverbs. Each book is organized into chapters and verses. It is written in the stately cadences that signal the presence of important, godly matters.
Begin to read, however, and you immediately see that God is not present. Instead, there are uncredited quotations from Aristotle, Darwin, Swift, Voltaire and hundreds more pre-Christian, anti-Christian or indifferent-to-Christian thinkers, assembled into an alternative genealogy of nature, human origins and ethics. Here are history and wisdom, without the divine attribution. Without any attribution, actually, which is why the Internet is a required study aid.
Is this book an odd joke? A parody of the Bible?
Hardly, says the English philosopher A. C. Grayling, who spent 30 years compiling “The Good Book.” Rather, it is a kind of tribute to the Hebrew Bible’s editors, who took the legends of their Jewish forebears and wove them into one compelling, if digressive, narrative.
“The Good Book” is just such a collage, but of irreligious, rather than religious, wisdom.
Mr. Grayling, 62, was raised without religion. He formerly taught at Oxford, and now teaches at the University of London. His many books include an ethical study of World War II bombing and a life of Descartes.
When he was young, it occurred to him that in making their Bible of religious sources, its editors had implicitly renounced an entire humanist tradition, of the Greeks, the Romans, the Chinese and others, some of which was available to them.
In other words, if things had gone a bit differently, we might have inherited a very different Bible. A better one, Mr. Grayling thinks.
“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.”
That focus on the deity, Mr. Grayling believes, distracts from seeking the good life in the short time we are allotted.
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.”
But “The Good Book” is not an Oprah-fied treatise on wellness or altruism. It is assembled of great sources, and organized to resemble what we recognize as scripture. “I am grieved to hear that he is dead whom you loved, but I would not have you sorrow more than is fitting” is a slightly altered quotation from Seneca — but Mr. Grayling does not attribute it, just includes it as Consolations Chapter 4, Verse 1.
(How did I know it was Seneca? Google told me.)
To make a non-bible look an awful lot like the Bible could be a bad idea. There is an unfortunate history of humanist movements co-opting the forms of religion. In the 19th century, the Frenchman Auguste Comte, for example, tried futilely to start a religion of humanity, modeled on the organization of the Catholic Church, with priests, weekly services and feast days, but without God. “It ignominiously failed, and I think it’s quite right it failed,” Mr. Grayling says.
But while it may be unwise to imitate organized religion, the Bible has many imitable virtues. “One of the charms of the Bible has been you can take a short passage and reflect on it,” Mr. Grayling said. And by aping the form of the Bible, he added, “ ‘The Good Book’ is presented as another contribution to the same conversation as the Bible, about the nature of the good or the good life.”
Faced with an accusatory 597 pages, being a confessed sinner — I mean skimmer — I ask: What is the message of this book?
“I think,” the master says, “this book provides resources for thinking about what the good life might be. But we have to think for ourselves. We have to take the Socratic challenge to lead the examined life. You must transcend the teachings and the teachers. Don’t be a disciple.”