Humanism in the Bible

Over at the Meming of Life (one of my favorite blogs), Dale is running a series on the Bible (interspersed with his regular family anecdotes and other excellent writings).

It’s a thoughtful and entertaining look at this book that lies at the centre of a worldwide social phenomenon. As with any book, ancient or modern, it has good and bad bits. Dale seems to be doing a good job of touching on both.

If you haven’t been following it, it starts here.

There are many reasons why it is worth reading, but the main reason I’m mentioning it now is the most recent contribution. It’s an examination of Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs by a guest blogger who goes by the title “Friendly Humanist”.


5 Responses to “Humanism in the Bible”

  1. cath Says:

    Hi Tim,Interesting post! & congratulations to making it to Guest Blogger status already! :-)I appreciate that you wrote in the ‘friendly’ spirit of your blog and avoided the patronising/disparaging tone that you sometimes get from people who comment on the bible (and christianity) from a perspective that doesn’t share the bible’s assumptions :-)I’m not sure if it was deliberate, but I wonder if you haven’t slightly missed the point of these two books in slightly different ways? Both books are of course embedded in the canon of scripture and at least within the Reformed tradition that i belong to they’ve both been seen as very much consistent with the rest of the message of the bible as a whole?I can see that you were picking out the bits that appealed to you as a humanist, but, eg in the case of Ecclesiastes, i’m not convinced that the last couple of verses are really so out of synch with the rest of the book. Seems like God’s name is mentioned on every page, and you note yourself (eg) that God is portrayed as having an active role in setting the seasons and times for things to occur in the world. The emptiness, vanity and meaninglessness of so many aspects of life in this world (which arises from its transient, ephemeral nature – Strong’s concordance gives the ‘ephemeral’ reading as a figurative use of the root which means vanity btw, altho I’m no Hebrew expert!) – the vanity is attributed to life lived in the absence of a meaningful relationship with God the creator and judge. So existential humanists share Solomon’s diagnosis, if you like, but a balanced reading of Ecclesiastes shouldn’t overlook Solomon’s suggested remedy – implicit here but worked out more fully in his Proverbs and the Song of Songs, eg – of a reconciled relationship with his God for a fulfilled and meaning-full life.And I do think i’m happy to go along with the traditional view that Solomon himself wrote both these books. It’s been suggested that he wrote them at different times in his life (Ecclesiastes later than the Song) – but even if not, the fact that they’re dealing with different topics and written in different styles doesn’t mean that they were written by different people! Compare Chomsky’s syntactic treatises with his political writings, for one easy example 🙂 Again i have to say i don’t share your view that the message of the Song of Songs is vastly different from the consistent and coherent message of the rest of scripture. You comment extensively on the vivid imagery of this book, but without alluding to the context in which this was seen as appropriate (and honourable) for Solomon and his readers (that is, in the context of marriage!) – or the fact that the metaphor of this kind of relationship is used fairly frequently in other parts of scripture too, including the New Testament, for other intimate interpersonal relationships as well.I can see why both of these books might be appealing to people who don’t have much time for the bible as a whole – and obviously it’s good to find common ground shared by even such widely divergent perspectives as atheism and christianity! but surely, ultimately, you aren’t doing them justice unless you acknowledge that the bits that you happen to like are part of a broader spiritual and theological framework which was richer for the people that were committed to it and more sophisticated than just those bits which happen to chime with your own? Sorry for the length of this comment and i hope i’ve managed to write in a tone that matches the friendly spirit i’m thinking in!cath

  2. Timothy Mills Says:

    Cath,Thanks for your comment. It did indeed come across as friendly. And thanks for pointing out Strong’s – I know of it, but completely neglected to check it when researching this piece.I agree that, as a Humanist, I will fail to pick up on many of the connections and meanings that seem obvious to Christians reading this book.(In the same vein, I think Christians and other religious people often fail to see the deep spirituality and reverence in works by atheists like Richard Dawkins on evolution and science in general.)Certainly, I agree that whoever wrote these two books, he (or they) believed in the creator God of the Jewish people. I hope my discussion didn’t suggest that I thought these books were written by religious sceptics.My choice as someone who doesn’t accept the religious claims made on behalf of the whole Bible is this: I can either set the whole thing aside as irrelevant because it will never mean the same thing to me as it does to Christians; or I can pick it up and see what meaning I can find in it as a Humanist.I think it’s in The God Delusion that Dawkins points out the deep cultural penetration of the Bible – it’s in our language, in our literature, in our calendar, and of course in the minds and hearts of many of our neighbours. I now (thanks to Dale’s series) understand references such as the phrase “doubting Thomas”. Like Dale (and perhaps unlike many devout believers), I see Thomas as an example of an appropriate reaction to extraordinary claims; but I also see why the phrase is commonly used in a pejorative sense.And of course, despite our deep disagreements about the origin, meaning, and interpretation of these books, I take some pleasure in the knowledge that at least you and I can agree that Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs are beautiful bits of writing.It may feel that this is a superficial agreement – one that satisfies neither your belief in the divine purpose behind the books nor mine that supernatural beliefs are a distraction from the facts about human nature and history revealed by skeptical inquiry into them. But hey, superficial agreement, where people are truly interested in getting along, is much better than complete disagreement.

  3. cath Says:

    Tim, that’s real agreement on a … perhaps not superficial but … secondary consideration :-)Can you tell me more about spirituality and reverence among atheists?cath

  4. Timothy Mills Says:

    Such a great question, I answered it in a whole new post.

  5. Spirituality and reverence « Friendly Humanist Says:

    […] Humanist Trying to live by compassion and reason – thoughts on the journey « Humanism in the Bible Humanism and atheism – an analogy […]

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