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An essay donated by James B. Gray

The Bible’s Obsolescence


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The Bible’s Obsolescence

The central thesis of the Bible is that the “haves” of a society should attend to the needs of the “have nots”—a thesis attributed to God as that which God expects of humans. Although the diagram on p. 4 of my essay on Worship can be thought of as summarizing the God-human relationship depicted in the Bible, I point out in that essay that the thrust of the Bible is with humans doing for God rather than God doing for humans. Thus, the well-known Amazing Grace hymn, although extremely popular, and seemingly the quintessence of piety, is anything but—for it misconstrues the basic thrust of the Bible.

It is not my intention here, however, to defend the Bible. Nor will I even defend the assertion that what the Bible is fundamentally “about” is the human’s obligations to God. Admittedly, that obligation is not necessarily easy to detect—especially for one who is not in touch with one’s “human nature”: the Bible is filled with plenty of “guff” that diverts one’s attention from its central message, unless one pays careful attention to its words and is in tune with oneself as a biological being.

In stating that I will not defend the Bible here, let me note that my major problem with the Bible (in addition to the excessive extraneous material in it) is that it has an individualistic orientation. That is, it (with the exception of a very few passages) takes the existing social order as a “given.” This means that rather than voicing objections to the existence of a social class system, it takes such a system for granted, and merely orders those in the upper echelons to pay heed to those in the lower ones. Perhaps such a stance was “realistic” during the time period when the books comprising the Bible were written; it no longer is, however. Indeed, one of the interesting strands in Western history is the “utopian” literature one—which suggested not only that there was such a thing as a better society, but presented verbal pictures of such a society, hinting thereby that those fictional pictures could be actually brought into being.

Still, it must be admitted that the Bible contains some important content:

  • Ideas in the “Old Testament” as to specific behaviors that might be engaged in (including a beautiful passage in Job).

  • A brilliant attempt on the part of some of the Old Testament writers to motivate “haves” to do God’s will (such as inventing the story of God’s deliverance of the Hebrews from Egyptian slavemasters, as a basis for the covenant concept).

  • Matthew’s list of specific behaviors (e.g., feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty) in Chapter 25 of his gospel—being not a mere list, but one presented in a “salvific” context.

  • Paul’s recognition that one is best able to do God’s will if one is Spirit-filled.

This content is still important to us moderns. However, the situation that we moderns find ourselves in is such that we no longer need think of doing God’s will in individualistic terms. Now, we can—and must (especially given the “global warming” threat)—think of God’s will in societal terms. Indeed, we can think of God’s will as having a short-run component (doing for others in the here-and-now) as well as a long-run one (working for not merely societal change, but societal system change).

The long-run component, in turn, can be thought of as comprised of at least three parts:

  • What goals should the Good Society achieve (so far as possible)? That is, what should give the Good Society its “goodness”?

  • What form should the Good Society have? That is, what should it “look like”—what “shape” should it take? Put another way: What characteristics should it have to ensure that its goals are realized?

  • How can it be achieved? What steps need to be taken, in what order, and by whom (i.e., what people/organizations)?

My focus here is just on the first question, and my basic assumption is that biologically-based “needs” will be met in the Good Society: what makes the Good Society “good” is that human needs are met in it. Interestingly, in such a society the loving behavior advised by the Bible, although not absent, would not be needed: because the needs of all were met, loving behavior in a Biblical sense would not need to play an important role—and so would not.

In identifying biologically-based “needs” here I look particularly to an important book written by Dr. George Edgin Pugh over 30 years ago. 1 Specifically, I draw upon Pugh’s list of eleven (11) “motives” (see pp. 279 – 292). The actual categories that I identify, however, represent combinations of Pugh’s “motives,” except that I ignore his “desire for dominance” motive because his concept of this motive makes clear that he is referring to the group tendency for a leadership/influence hierarchy to emerge. In addition, I add an important point derived from microbiologist/pathologist René Dubos. Using Pugh’s presentation as a basis (along with a point derived from Dubos), I identify the following seven categories.

First, humans are “programmed” to engage in certain behaviors because of certain specific feelings engendered by those behaviors:

  • A feeling of being liked by others. Individuals vary, of course, in their innate characteristics (to say nothing of acquired ones), and that fact implies that some are content with not being ill-thought of by others, some have a preference for being actively liked, and still others hunger for admiration.
  • A feeling that one is activating and developing one’s (innate) abilities—i.e., that one is in a process of self-actualizing (a concept associated with, e.g., Abraham Maslow—a writer not mentioned by Pugh).
  • A feeling that one is making a contribution to the group to which one belongs—that one is “pulling one’s own weight” by making a contribution that is important for the group. If this feeling of making a contribution is combined with a feeling that one is also drawing upon one’s unique talents, this will not only contribute to one’s self- actualization (which itself gives one pleasure); the knowledge that one is contributing to the group will give one pleasure—and the admiration of oneself that others make known to one (if only through, e.g., facial expressions) will add even further to one’s sense of well-being. (Reflect for a moment on what happens to Bill Murray in the movie Groundhog Day.)

What might be termed “joy” can be thought of as being associated with all of the three above feelings (in that joy is the more basic feeling). But, second, one can also argue that humans are programmed to engage in certain activities specifically for the feeling of joy that they bring to one:

  • Simply being with others—and specifically with others with whom one has a similar rearing background. The significance of similarity in this regard is that it provides one with a basis for communicating in a relaxed manner with others in the group.
  • Beyond simply being with others (with whom one shares similarities), there is also joy in conversing and working with others. Such activities are, though, only enjoyable if (in the case of conversation) there is give-and-take, rather than domination by one person; and if (in the case of work) there is a sharing of the work, rather than some “slackers” combined with others willing to work intensively.
  • Another source of enjoyment in being with others is humor—hearing humorous things that others have to say (and/or watching their antics), and oneself contributing humor. People vary, of course, in their ability to dispense humor, and this fact may lead to those with the most ability in dispensing humor being highly regarded. Still, those lacking in this ability are not likely to feel inferior to those with the ability, for their laughter at the humor dispensed by others will tend to diminish any feelings of jealousy or inferiority that they might otherwise harbor. Because of that fact, humor tends to help build group solidarity—i.e., not only feeling part of the group, but feeling loyal to it.
  • Also, being active physically much of the time not only contributes to physical health, but a feeling of joy. Sexual activity would be included here as also a source of joy, but one is not “driven” to engage in it as much as other physical activities. (That’s usually the case, at any rate!—although there are variations in the importance of sexual activity with age.)

Finally, Dubos has noted that humans, like all other species, developed in a “natural” environment, and as a consequence their bodies developed partially in response to the stimuli associated with the particular environment within which they developed. He has gone on to note that: “Modern man is anxious, even during peace and in the midst of economic affluence, because the technological [i.e., artificial] world that constitutes his immediate environment, by separating him from the natural world under which he evolved, fails to satisfy certain of his unchangeable needs. In many respects, modern man is like a wild animal spending its life in a zoo 2; like the animal, he is fed abundantly and protected from inclemencies but deprived of the natural stimuli essential for many functions of his body and his mind. " 3

Pugh (as would Leonard) would go on to say that these “needs” (if I may call them that) are not met well in our society today, and that that fact has a variety of negative consequences. He would also add that there are excellent reasons to think that the satisfaction of those needs is “good” and therefore that one should seek to satisfy those needs—and that, e.g., governmental units should use those individual needs (along with collective needs) as the basis for their decision-making. 4 I basically agree with Dr. Pugh on these matters, but rather than viewing them in secular terms, I view them in religious ones. That is, I would argue that if we are to continue the Biblical tradition, we must move beyond its individualistic orientation—at least in the sense of grafting onto in a societal orientation: developing ideas regarding the “shape” of the Good Society on the one hand, and also working to create such a society out of the sorry mess of a society that we currently live in.

The seven “goals” that I have stated here should not be regarded as “written on marble.” Rather, they should be regarded as suggestive—and I invite others to reshape them, if convinced that that’s necessary. I would insist, however, that those seven goals are rather solidly based.


Notes:

  1. The Biological Origin of Human Values. New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1977.
  2. George B. Leonard stated the following about zoos a number of years back: “Perhaps the basic, unacknowledged purpose of every zoo it to distort our children’s perceptions, to show them that living things can be ripped from their biofields and held, still ‘alive,’ behind bars and fences and moats. The children are thus further prepared for what Civilization, through a more complex series of manipulations, going to do to them. It is interesting to note that zoos are primarily featured in those societies that mask their almost paranoid anxieties behind powerful machines of war. ..." The Transformation. New York: Dell Publishing Co. Inc., p. 165.
  3. So Human an Animal. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1968, p. 16. Keep in mind, regarding Dubos’s use, e.g., of “man” that Dubos was writing at a time when being politically correct was not yet in fashion.
  4. He neglects to note that with our society, at least, a Constitution ostensibly provides guidance to members of the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches of our national government.


Last update: 2008-JUL-08

Author:
James B. Gray

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