What makes a book holy? No matter what faith we profess, or whether we don’t believe, it’s a valid question. Is it authorship, or acceptance? Is it accuracy, and if it’s that, is it literal accuracy? How comprehensive does it have to be? What does it have to teach us to be holy?
Bob Seidensticker writes a blog on Patheos.com entitled Cross Examined: Clear Thinking about Christianity. In a recent post entitled Atheists: What Would It Take to Change Your Mind?, he calls for any real religion to have a holy book with these qualities:
“-The holy book would be perfect—no errors, no ambiguities, no inconsistencies. Not much to ask from a perfect deity, right?
-As a corollary, there would be nothing in the holy book to which believers say, “I must admit that I can’t explain that. I guess I’ll just have to ask God when I get to heaven.” I’m thinking of puzzles like why God commanded genocide or allows famines. But how can a holy book contain this kind of problem? The holy book has no purpose except to explain to people here on earth what reality is and what the rules are.”
Given these guidelines, it should be possible to deduce how this book should have come about (or will come about someday). Of course, this book could never be produced by a human being, or come from any kind of human perspective. Humans are imperfect and untrustworthy, and it’s not because we’re not trying: we just can’t do it. Every human has a bias, and it’s impossible to remove bias from a text. So this book would have to appear from thin air, probably in several different locations at once to eliminate the possible of a singular event. Any publisher who put it out would have to be suspected of fraud without a clear divine warrant. It should probably come with enough copies for everyone, since only originals could be trusted. Even photocopy machines can make mistakes, computer files can be altered and let’s not even get into the possibility of someone altering it on the sly for some manipulative purpose while it’s being duplicated.
No human could comment on this divine text, either, since the commentary could create ambiguities or inconsistencies, so the text would have to be clear enough that explanations are unnecessary. It would be an expression of an infinitely wise entity beyond our comprehension trying to communicate perfectly to limited human beings with imperfect abilities to comprehend. What reading level would this text need to be on to assure perfect comprehension? College, High School, Elementary, Dr. Seuss? Actually, Dr. Seuss’ perspective would be too subjective, so I apologize for his inclusion.
Every holy book I know of, particularly the Bible, is best described as an anthology or library collected over centuries. The problem is no such collection is perfectly consistent in its terminology or language throughout, so I can understand the confusion the Bible and other holy books cause. So I guess an authoritative book would have to unfold everything at once, whether we’re ready or not. And trying to tailor a message to specific times or places is probably not a good idea.
The appearance of such a text would presume a deity that wishes perfect, comprehensive self-disclosure, has a compulsory agenda for the human race to follow, and wants a sacred text understood perfectly without any comment or interpretation. Given that I only want to talk about a holy book that couldn’t exist right now, I’ll address the nature of a possible God next week. I’m not going to question why God would want to do this at a particular point in history and not before, because a God could change his or her mind and for the purpose of this topic, I wouldn’t want to rule that out.
There is a difference between the miraculous and the impossible. This proposed holy book would impossible from the start because of human nature. There are texts, including scientific texts, that have an extremely high level of acceptance in existence, but none are perfectly accepted by everyone, everywhere, at all times: it doesn’t seem possible. There are people who refuse to believe well documented facts: even if we received a holy book directly from God in an infallible manner, there would be a significant number of people that wouldn’t believe it, and their disbelief wouldn’t be a reflection of their intellect or good intentions. I think an infinitely intelligent and wise entity would understand this from the beginning, and do what they could with what they had to work with.
What would make a book holy? There are many books that claim divine authorship: in particular the Qu’ran is claimed to have come directly from God, and the Catholic Church asserts the God is the author of Sacred Scripture, although through human perceptions and mindsets. Finding the holy seems to be an ongoing task where a text interacts with human experience and produces a divine spark. Scientific analysis can inform this quest, but not provide the answer. The answer has to be subjective, and to my knowledge reason isn’t equipped to speak conclusively about the subjective. Anything subjective that lasts has to be revealed and reflected upon over time to determine its value. Hundreds of generations of using a book and living reasonably happy and productive lives might be a good indication, although tracking this could never be a purely scientific study, since there is no atheist tribe that has lasted that long to use as a control group.
Br. Guy J. Consolmagno, SJ, the Coordinator for Public Relations at the Vatican Observatory, said in a television special about the inside working of the Vatican in words like this: “Scientific books are revised every five to ten years. The Bible is never revised, therefore it isn’t a scientific book and you do it no favor by trying to make it one.” If the Bible were intended to be a scientific book, then it would be proper to reject it as being fatally flawed, but I think since it isn’t a scientific book, judging it as one is more than inappropriate. Looking for a holy book isn’t looking for a scientific book, and the attempt to make a holy book a scientific one is doomed to failure from the beginning. A holy book would probably better be a guidebook and not a textbook, an encyclopedia or a database.
Trying to follow a perfect text, even imperfectly, has value. There is a story about a piano student and his teacher that went to a recital by the great pianist, Artur Rubinstein. As they were leaving the program, the student complained to the teacher: “I can’t believe Rubinstein played all those wrong notes!”
The teacher shook his head and said: “I’d rather hear his wrong notes than your right ones.” In music, no performance is perfect, but we make music and benefit from it anyway. I don’t think anyone wants to live in a world of noise and silence, and we know that while we aspire to find the perfect song, we know we must break the silence even if our efforts are imperfect. Such is the journey to live up to any moral standard from any tradition or text.
I believe there is at least one holy book out there, and I think it’s reasonable to do so on a subjective basis. If books are only valuable because they contain accurate scientific fact, then there is no purpose in studying Shakespeare, Dickens, Hugo, or any number of fiction authors who’ve affected human culture over the course of time. (This isn’t an admission I think the Bible is a work of fiction!) Almost any book can provide instruction in the use of reason or the expansion of human knowledge, positive and/or negative, and similarly, I think almost any book can provide opportunity to encounter divine wisdom or the essence of the transcendent. If a possible God were to speak to us, I would think multiple attempts through multiple sources would be likely, given how a single source is unreliable. Not every book is equally holy, but every book can contain something holy. It depends on the quality of the perceiver to find the lessons of any text over time, and sometimes what is lacking is enough time.
Attempting to disprove the existence of the supernatural through reason isn’t a vain pursuit in and of itself. There is much about the reality of human existence that is beyond objective proof or reason, and finding at least one holy book in the world should be possible, at least. At least, the search for one should be a reasonable endeavor, whether it succeeds or fails.
Of course, seeking a holy book means we have to consider whether God exists or not, and what the nature of God could be. I’ll blunder into that topic next Wednesday.