Finally, A Bible for Humanists

Christians in the English-speaking world may be surprised to learn that a new “Bible” has appeared and has quickly rushed to be the number one seller on Amazon’s spirituality category. It is not, however, a Bible with which Christians are familiar, at least in this form. Rather, it is a “Bible” assembled for humanists, secularists, atheists, and erstwhile religionists.

The noted British scholar and philosopher at the University of London, A. C. Grayling, acknowledges that the Bible familiar to Christians has exercised an extraordinary influence on Western history and culture, but he wonders, at the same time, what the history and culture might have looked like if together with, or in place of, the Bible, a different set of seminal influential texts had been assembled and consulted for moral guidance and social development.

With this question in mind, Grayling set out to assemble such a collection of writings, and it has just been published with the eye-catching title, The Good Book: A Humanist Bible.

The book is a collection of over a thousand texts written by hundreds of authors reflecting the wisdom, values and ethical sensibilities of persons in social communities, some more distant in history and geography than our own. The texts are taken from the prose, poetry and philosophy of the Western and Eastern traditions, and are, as Grayling says in the opening epistle, “distillations of the wisdom and experience of humankind.”

Now I can think of at least four reasons why some Christians will not be happy with this new “Bible.” First, the worldviews and moral values embedded in these texts do not originate in either the Jewish or Christian religious traditions. They are rooted neither in a divine revelation nor the sacred traditions that emanate from it. They are, rather, expressive of perceptions, values, and principles that are disconnected from Judeo-Christian understandings and commitments.

According to the publishers, the writings collected here are “meditations on the origin and progress of the world and human life in it,” with “attention to the question of how life should be lived, how we relate to one another, and how vicissitudes are to be faced and joys appreciated.”

To be sure, these writings have contributed to forming the virtues needed to attain well-being in human community, virtues like integrity, compassion, justice, equality, responsibility, and magnanimity. But the writers assembled in this collection do have views of human nature different than those associated with Judaism and Christianity.

The second reason is that the structure of the book is inspired by the layout and style of the more familiar Bible. Grayling has organized his texts thematically; the sections are titled thus: Genesis, Wisdom, Parables, Concord, Lamentations, Consolations, Sages, Songs, Histories, Proverbs, The Lawgiver, Acts, Epistles, and The Good. The publishers regard it as “offering to the nonreligious seeker all the wisdom, insight, solace, inspiration, and perspective of various secular humanist traditions.”

Some will take this as a parody of the Jewish and Christian scriptures, a mockery of the collection of sacred writings that has been handed down to believers from century to century.

But rather than look at this structure and style as a parody, one can see it as an expression of the literary influence exercised by the more familiar Bible on collections of writings. The Jewish and Christian Bibles were also assembled by human hands and redacted by human minds as a collection of the literature that formed the identity of faith communities. But unlike the writers and editors of this humanist Bible who do not acknowledge a place for the divine in human life, the authors and redactors of the Judeo-Christian scriptures contend for the initiative and co-operation of God in their work. If some choose to reject the more familiar Bible as a narrative of Gods ways with humanity, perhaps they may yet consult another corpus of influential human writings that have inspired others to greater good for humanity, one like this work edited by Grayling.

The third reason for Christian objection may be the title and subtitle itself: The Good Book is a piece of vernacular that in the Western societies, especially in the U.S., is taken as a euphemism for the Bible. Some will undoubtedly object to the adjective “humanist” in qualifying the noun “Bible.”

Now no one has the copyright on the word “Bible”; in its Greek, Latin, French, and Middle English forms it refers generically to a collection of writings. Time and populist discourse have affixed the meaning of this derived word to the collection of literature also known as the Hebrew Scriptures (or Tanakh) and the Christian Scriptures (or New Testament). While it might appear pretentious to call Grayling’s edition a “Bible,” it will undoubtedly function that way for many.

This title is intended to suggest that its contents are exemplary if not authoritative, influential if not normative, for readers who seek knowledge and understanding of the course of human history and community without the encumbrance of religion. Arguably, such knowledge and understanding without religion—or without its influence—is not possible to achieve. That is a case made eloquently by Stephen Prothero in his book, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—And Doesn’t (HarperSan Francisco, 2007). It is also effectively made by Jonathan Hill in his book, What Has Christianity Ever Done For Us: How It Shaped the Modern World (InterVarsity Press, 2005).

The Christian community acknowledges that the bedrock of the normative status and function of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures is twofold: their inspiration by the divine Spirit of God, and their narratives and ethical instruction regarding the ways of God with God’s creatures. Apart from these, like Grayling’s “Bible,” they may be exemplary and influential, but hardly authoritative and normative. It is this that distinguishes Grayling’s secular Bible from its religious counterpart; the writings contained in it are culturally and intellectually significant for the perspectives and values they express, but they lack the status of acknowledged authority that allows them to function in human communities as criteria, principles or standards of judgment.

On the other hand, it appears customary for one who is writing the definitive book on a particular subject, one that contains information needed by any practitioner, to attribute a degree of authority to the work by calling it a Bible of sorts. A quick search on Amazon reveals a number of such works: The Bible of Bodyweight Exercises, The Vegetable Gardner’s Bible, The Flavor Bible, The VueScan Bible, The Indoor/Outdoor Medical Grower’s Bible, The PowerScore LSAT Logic Games Bible, The Cannabis Grow Bible, The Wine Bible, The Bag Making Bible, The Triathlete’s Training Bible, The Barbecue Bible, The Chrystal Bible, The Screenwriter’s Bible, and one that certainly reflects our technological age, The Social Media Bible.

The publishers of The Good Book see it as “a powerful, secular alternative to the Bible.” But Grayling, an atheist himself, notes that this collection is “another contribution to the conversation that mankind [sic] must have with itself.” Grayling and his publishers know that this is not religiously sacred literature, but it is literature nonetheless that has shaped and influenced human societies, in many cases for better and for worse.

A fourth reason is that this collection has been assembled by one person; the literature selected reflects Grayling’s judgment of what is good and true and right. Conversely, collections of the sacred literature of many of the world’s religions have been assembled over time, and in some cases, over considerable lengths of time. Decisions regarding what to include and what to exclude did not happen while individuals sat around a conference table. Rather, over time, as various writings circulated and came to be used in religious communities for a variety of purposes (especially teaching, ethical instruction, and worship), a conventional wisdom emerged among religious communities and leaders regarding what literature was important and functioned normatively and what literature did not, or should not, so function. The authoritative collection or canon of the Hebrew Scriptures was essentially recognized in the late first century C.E., while the Christian Scriptures were recognized as fixed in the late fourth century C.E.

In short, the more familiar Bible is the product of the work of interpretive communities engaging and being engaged by these collections of writings over centuries, including the occasional work of compilers and editors whose hands are evident in the texts we now have.

The Good Book cannot be faulted simply for the fact that it is not the Bible; neither should it be rejected simply because it disavows deity and privileges humanity and humanism as normative. Rather it reflects an orientation and outlook increasingly evident in the postmodern West, one with which faith communities must engage as co-inhabitants of pluralist societies. In light of Grayling’s intent that the collection contribute to the conversation the human community is having with itself, then it behooves us, religionist and non-religionist, to prepare to participate.

The quest for meaning and purpose in personal and social life applies to all whether they are religious or not. Human rationality, which functions authoritatively for those who value and encourage the best in human beings, and the literature birthed by both social and religious traditions, can together teach us a thing or two about cultivating the common good. Christians who live in and out of the gospel narrative would do well to familiarize themselves with the non-religious narratives that continue to shape our shared worlds.

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