The World's Most Dangerous Book
this article by Alan Watts was originally published in 1973
For many centuries the Roman Catholic Church was opposed to translating the Holy Scriptures into the "vulgar tongue." To this day, you can still get rid of a Bible salesman by saying, "But we are Catholics and, of course, don't read the Bible." The Catholic hierarchy included subtle theologians and scholars who knew very well that such a difficult and diverse collection of ancient writings, taken as the literal Word of God, would be wildly and dangerously interpreted if put into the hands of ignorant and uneducated peasants. Likewise, when a missionary boasted to George Bernard Shaw of the numerous converts he had made, Shaw asked, " Can these people use rifles?" "Oh, indeed, yes," said the missionary. "Some of them are very good shots." Whereupon Shaw scolded him for putting us all in peril in the day when those converts waged holy war against us for not following the Bible in the literal sense they gave to it. For the Bible says, "What a good thing it is when the Lord putteth into the hands of the righteous invincible might." But today, especially in the United States, there is a taboo against admitting that there are enormous numbers of stupid and ignorant people, in the bookish and literal sense of these words. They may be highly intelligent in the arts of farming, manufacture, engineering and finance, and even in physics, chemistry or medicine. But this intelligence does not automatically flow over to the fields of history, archaeology, linguistics, theology, philosophy and mythology which are what one needs to know in order to make any sense out such archaic literature as the books of the Bible.
This may sound snobbish, for there is an assumption that, in the Bible, God gave His message in plain words for plain people. Once, when I had given a radio broadcast in Canada, the announcer took me aside and said, "Don't you think that if there is a truly loving God, He would given us a plain and specific guide as to how to live our lives?"
"On the contrary," I replied, "a truly loving God would not stultify our minds. He would encourage us to think for ourselves." I tried, then, to show him that his belief in the divine authority of the Bible rested on nothing more than his own personal opinion, to which, of course, he was entitled. This is basic. The authority of the Bible, the church, the state, or of any spiritual or political leader, is derived from the individual followers and believers, since it is the believers' judgment that such leaders and institutions speak with a greater wisdom than there own. This is, obviously, a paradox, for only the wise can recognize wisdom. Thus, Catholics criticize Protestants for following their own opinions in understanding the Bible, as distinct from the interpretations of the Church, which originally issued and authorized the Bible. But Catholics seldom realize that the authority of the Church rests, likewise, on the opinion of its individual members that the Papacy and the councils of the Church are authoritative. The same is true of the state, for, as a French statesman said, people get the government they deserve.
Why does one come to the opinion that the Bible, literally understood, is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? Usually because one's "elders and betters," or an impressively large group of ones peers, have this opinion. But this is to go along with the Bandar-log, or monkey tribe, in Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Books , who periodically get together and shout, "We all say so, so it must be true!" Having been a grandfather for a number of years, I am not particularly impressed with patriarchal authority. I am of an age with my own formerly impressive grandfathers (one of whom was a fervent fundamentalist, or literal believer in the Bible) and I realize that my opinions are as fallible as theirs.
But many people never grow up. They stay all their lives with a passionate need for eternal authority and guidance, pretending not to trust their own judgment. Nevertheless, it is their own judgment, willy-nilly, that there exists some authority greater than their own. The fervent fundamentalist whether Protestant or Catholic, Jew or Moslem is closed to reason and even communication for fear of losing the security of childish dependence. He would suffer extreme emotional heebie jeebies if he didn't have the feeling that there was some external and infallible guide in which he could trust absolutely and without which his very identity would dissolve.
This attitude is not faith. It is pure idolatry. The more deceptive idols are not images of wood and stone but are constructed of words and ideas mental images of God. Faith is an openness and trusting attitude to truth and reality, whatever it may turn out to be. This is a risky and adventurous state of mind. Belief, in the religious sense, is the opposite of faith because it is a fervent wishing or hope, a compulsive clinging to the idea that the universe is arranged and governed in such and such a way. Belief is holding to a rock; faith is learning how to swim and this whole universe swims in boundless space.
Thus, in much of the English-speaking world, the King James Bible is a rigid idol, all the more deceptive for being translated into the most melodious English and for being an anthology of ancient literature that contains sublime wisdom along with barbaric histories and the war songs of tribes on the rampage. All this is taken as the literal Word and counsel of God, as it is by fundamentalist Baptists, Jesus freaks, Jehovah's Witnesses and comparable sects, which by and large know nothing of the history of the Bible, of how it was edited and put together. So we have with us the social menace of a huge population of intellectually and morally irresponsible people. Take a ruler and measure the listings under "Churches" in the Yellow Pages of the phone directory. You will find that the fundamentalists have by far the most space. And under what pressure do most hotels and motels place Gideon Bibles by the bedside Bibles with clearly fundamentalist introductory material, taking their name Gideon from one of the more ferocious military leaders of the ancient Israelites?
As is well known, the enormous political power of fundamentalists is what makes legislators afraid to take laws against victimless "sins" and crimes off the books, and what corrupts the police by forcing them to be armed preachers enforcing ecclesiastical laws in a country where church and state are supposed to be separate ignoring the basic Christian doctrine that no actions, or abstentions from actions, are of moral import unless undertaken voluntarily. Freedom is risky and includes the risk that anyone may go to hell in his own way.
Now, the King James Bible did not, as one might gather from listening to fundamentalists, descend with an Angel from heaven A.D. 1611, when it was first published. It was an elegant, but often inaccurate, translation of Hebrew and Greek documents composed between 900 B.C. and A.D. 120. There is no manuscript of the Old Testament, that is, of the Hebrew Scriptures, written in Hebrew, earlier than the Ninth Century B.C. But we know that these documents were first put together and recognized as the Holy Scriptures by a convention of rabbis held at Jamnia (Yavne) in Palestine shortly before A.D. 100. On their say-so. Likewise, the composition of the Christian Bible, which documents to include and which to drop, was decided by a council of the Catholic Church held in Carthage in the latter part of the Fourth Century. Several books that had formerly been read in the churches, such as the Shepherd of Hermas and the marvelous Gospel of Saint Thomas , were then excluded. The point is that the books translated in the King James Bible were declared canonical and divinely inspired by the authority (A) of the Synod of Jamnia and (B) of the Catholic Church, meeting in Carthage more than 300 years after the time of Jesus. It is thus that fundamentalist Protestants get the authority of their Bible from Jews who had rejected Jesus and from Catholics whom they abominate as the Scarlet Woman mentioned in Revelation.
The Bible, to repeat, is an anthology of Hebrew and late Greek literature, edited and put forth by a council of Catholic bishops who believed that they were acting under the direction of the Holy Spirit. Before this time the Bible as we know it did not exist. There were the Hebrew Scriptures and their translated into Greek the Septuagint, which was made in Alexandria between 250 B.C. and 100 B.C. There were also various codices, or Greek manuscripts, of various parts of the New Testament, such as the four Gospels. There were numerous other writings circulating among Christians, including the Epistles of Saint Paul and Saint John, the Apocalypse (Revelation) and such documents (later excluded) as the Acts of John , the Didache , the Apostolic Constitutions and the various Epistles of Clement, Ignatius and Polycarp.
In those days, and until the Protestant Reformation in the 16th Century, the Scriptures were not understood exclusively in a narrow literal sense. From Clement of Alexandria (Second Century) to Saint Thomas Aquinas (13th Century), the great theologians, or Fathers of the Church, recognized four ways of interpreting the Scriptures: the literal or historical, the moral, the allegorical and the spiritual and they were overwhelmingly interested in the last three. Origen (Second Century) regarded much of the Old Testament as "puerile" if taken literally, and Jewish theologians were likewise preoccupied with finding hidden meanings in the Scriptures, for the concern of all these theologians was to interpret the Biblical texts in such a way as to make the Bible intellectually respectable and philosophically interesting. Concern over the historical truth of the Bible is relatively modern, whether in the form of fundamentalism or of scientific research.
But when the Bible was translated and widely distributed as a result of the invention of printing, it fell into the hands of people who, like the Jesus freaks of today, were simply uneducated and who, as the depressed classes of Europe, eventually swarmed over to America. This is, naturally, a heroic generalization. There were, and are, fundamentalists learned in languages and sciences (although the standard translation of the Bible into Chinese is said to be in fearful taste), just as there are professors of physics and anthropology who somehow manage to be pious Mormons. Some people have the peculiar ability to divide their minds into watertight compartments, being critical and rational in matters of science but credulous as children when it comes to religion.
Such superstition would have been relatively harmless if the religion had been something tolerant and pacific, such as Taoism or Buddhism. But the religion of the literally understood Bible is chauvinistic and militant. It is on the march to conquer the world and to establish itself as the one and only true belief. Among its most popular hymns are such battle songs as "Mine eyes have seen the glory" and Onward, Christian Soldiers. The God of the Hebrews, the Arabs and the Christians is a mental idol fashioned in the image of the great monarchs of Egypt, Chaldea and Persia. It was possibly Ikhnaton (Amenhotep IV, 14th Century B.C.), Pharaoh of Egypt, who gave Moses the idea of monotheism (as suggested in Freud's Moses and Monotheism). Certainly the veneration of God as "King of kings and Lord of lords" borrows the official title of the Persian emperors. Thus, the political pattern of tyranny, beneficent or otherwise, of rule by violence, whether physical or moral, stands firmly behind the Biblical idea of Jehovah.
When one considers the architecture and ritual of churches, whether Catholic or Protestant, it is obvious until most recent times that they are based on royal or judicial courts. A monarch who rules by force sits in the central court of his donjon with his back to the wall, flanked by guards, and those who come to petition him for justice or to offer tribute must kneel or prostrate themselves simply because these are difficult positions from which to start a fight. Such monarchs are, of course, frightened of their subjects and constantly on the anxious alert for rebellion. Is this an appropriate image for the inconceivable energy that underlies the universe? True, the altar-throne in Catholic churches is occupied by the image of God in the form of one crucified as a common thief, but he hangs there as our leader in subjection to the Almighty Father, King of the universe, propitiating Him for those who have broken His not always reasonable laws. And what of the curious resemblances between Protestant churches and courts of law? The minister and the judge wear the same black robe and "throw the book" at those assembled in pews and various kinds of boxes, and both ministers and judges have chairs of estate that are still, in effect, thrones.
The crucial question, then, is that if you picture the universe as a monarchy, how can you believe that a republic is the best form of government, and so be a loyal citizen of the United States? It is thus that fundamentalists veer to the extreme right wing in politics, being of the personality type that demands strong external and paternalistic authority. Their "rugged individualism" and their racism are founded on the conviction that they are the elect of God the Father, and their forebears took possession of America as the armies of Joshua took possession of Canaan, treating the Indians as Joshua and Gideon treated the Bedouin of Palestine. In the same spirit the Protestant British, Dutch and Germans took possession of Africa, India and Indonesia, and the rigid Catholics of Spain and Portugal colonized Latin America. Such territorial expansion may or may not be practical politics, but to do it in the name of Jesus of Nazareth is an outrage.
The Bible is a dangerous book, though by no means an evil one. It depends, largely, on how you read it with what prejudices and with what intellectual background. Regarded as sacred and authoritative, such a complex collection of histories, legends, allegories and images becomes a monstrous Rorschach blot in which you can picture almost anything you want to discover just as one can see cities and mountains in the clouds or faces in the fire. Fundamentalists "prove" the truth of the Bible by trying to show how the words of the prophets have foretold events that have come to pass in relatively recent times. But any statistician knows that you can find correlations, if you want to, between almost any two sets of patterns or rhythms between the occurrence of sunspots and fluctuations of the stock market, between the lines and bumps on your hand and the course of your life or between the architecture of the Great Pyramid and the history of Europe. This is because of eidetic vision, or the brain's ability to project visions and forms of its own into any material whatsoever. But scholars of ancient history find the remarks of the prophets entirely relevant to events of their own time, in the ancient Near East. The Biblical prophets were not so much predictors as social commentators.
I am not in the position of those liberal Christians who reject fundamentalism but must still insist that Jesus was the one and only incarnation of God, or at least the most perfect human being. No one is intellectually free who feels that he cannot and must not disagree with Jesus and is therefore forced into the dishonest practice of wangling the words of the Gospels to fit his own opinions. There is not a scrap of evidence that Jesus was familiar with any other religious tradition than that of the Hebrew Scriptures or that he knew anything of the civilizations of India, China or Peru. Under these circumstances, he was faced with the virtually impossible problem of expressing himself in the peculiar religious language and imagery of his local culture. For it is obvious to any student of the psychology of religion that what he needed to express was the relatively common change of consciousness known as mystical experience the vivid and overwhelming sensation that your own being is one with eternal and ultimate reality. But it was as hard for Jesus to say this as it still is for a native of the American Bible Belt. It implies the blasphemous, subversive and lunatic claim to be identical with the all-knowing and all-ruling monarch of the world its Pharaoh or Cyrus. Jesus would have had no trouble in India, for this experience is the foundation of Hinduism, and the Hindus recognize many people in both ancient and modern times as embodiments of the divine, or sons of God but not, of course, of the kind of God represented by Jehovah. Buddhists, likewise, teach that anyone can, and finally will, become a Buddha (an Enlightened One), in the same way as the historic Gautama.
If the Gospel of Saint John , in particular, is to be believed, Jesus emphatically identified himself with the Godhead, considering such phrases as "I and the Father are one," or "He who has seen me has seen the Father," or "Before Abraham was, I am," or "I am the way, the truth and the life." But this was not an exclusive claim for himself as the man Jesus, for at John 10:31, just after he has said "I and the Father are one," the crowd picks up rocks to stone him to death.
"Many good works have I shown you from my Father; for which of those works do you stone me?" The Jews answered him, saying, "We do not stone you for a good work, but for blasphemy, and because you, being a man, make yourself God."
And here it comes:
Jesus answered them, "Is it not written in your law, I said, you are gods [quoting Psalms 82]? If He [i.e., God] called those to whom He gave His word gods and you can't contradict the Scriptures how can you say of Him whom the Father has sanctified and sent into the world, 'You blaspheme!' because I said, 'I am a son of God" [The original Greek says "a son," not "the son."]
In other words, the Gospel, or "good news" that Jesus was trying to convey, despite the limitations of his tradition, was that we are all sons of God. When he uses the terms I am (as in "Before Abraham was, I am") or Me (as in "No one comes to the Father but by Me"), he is intending to use them in the same way as Krishna in the Bhagavad-Gita :
He who sees Me everywhere and sees all in Me; I am not lost to him, nor is he lost to Me. The yogi who, established in oneness, worships Me abiding in all beings, lives in Me, whatever be his outward life.
And by this "Me" Krishna means the atman that is at once the basic self in us and in the universe. To know this is to enjoy eternal life, to discover that the fundamental "I am" feeling, which you confuse with your superficial ego, is the ultimate reality forever and ever, amen.
In this essential respect, the, the Gospel has been obscured and muffled almost from the beginnings. For Jesus was presumably trying to say that our consciousness is the divine spirit, "the light which enlightens every one who comes into the world," and which George Fox, founder of the Quakers, called the Inward Light. But the Church, still bound to the image of God as the King of kings, couldn't accept this Gospel. It adopted a religion about Jesus instead of the religion of Jesus. It kicked him upstairs and put him in the privileged and unique position of being the Boss's son, so that, having this unique advantage, his life and example became useless to everyone else. The individual Christian must not know that his own "I am" is the one that existed before Abraham. In this way, the Church institutionalized and made a virtue of feeling chronic guilt for not being as good as Jesus. It only widened the alienation, the colossal difference, that monotheism put between man and God.
When I try to explain this to Jesus freaks and other Bible bangers, they invariably reveal theological ignorance by saying, "But doesn't the Bible say that Jesus was the only -begotten son of God?" It doesn't. Not, at least, according to Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Anglican interpretations. The phrase "only begotten son refers not to Jesus the man but to the Second Person of the Trinity, God the Son, who is said to have become incarnate in the man Jesus. Nowhere does the Bible, or even the creeds of the Church, say that Jesus was the only incarnation of God the Son in all time and space. Furthermore, it is not generally known that God the Son is symbolized as both male and female, as Logos-Sophia, the Design and the Wisdom of God, based on the passage in Proverbs 7:9, where the Wisdom of God speaks as a woman.
"But then," they go on to argue, "doesn't the Bible say that there is no other name under heaven whereby men may be saved except the name of Jesus? But what is the name of Jesus? J-E-S-U-S? Iesous? Aissa? Jehoshua? Or however else it may be pronounced? It is said that every prayer said in name of Jesus will be granted, and obviously this doesn't mean that "Jesus" is a signature on a blank check. It means that prayers will be granted when made in the spirit of Jesus, and that spirit is, again, the Second Person of the Trinity, the eternal God the Son, who could just as well have been incarnate in Krishna, Buddha, Lao-tzu or Ramana Maharshi as in Jesus of Nazareth.
It is amazing what both the Bible and the Church are presumed to teach but don't teach. Listening to fundamentalists, one would suppose that if there are living beings on other planets in this or other galaxies, they must wait for salvation until missionaries from earth arrive on spaceships, bringing the Bible and baptism. But if "God so loves the world" and means it, He will surely send His son to wherever he is needed, and there is no difference in principle between a planet circling Alpha Centauri and peoples as remote from Palestine A.D. 30 as the Chinese or the Incas. It should be understood that the expression "son of" means "of the nature of," as when we call someone a son of a bitch and as when the Bible uses such phrases as "sons of Belial" (an alien god), or an Arab cusses someone out as e-ben-i-el-homa "son of donkey!" or simply "stupid". Used in this way, "son of" has nothing to do with maleness or being younger than. Likewise, the Second Person of the Trinity, God the Son, the Logos-Sopia, refers to the basic pattern or design of the Universe, ever emerging from the inconceivable mystery or the Father as the galaxies shine out of space. This is how the great philosophers of the Church have thought about the imagery of the Bible and as it appears to a modern student of the history and psychology of world religions. Call it intellectual snobbery if you will, but although the books of the Bible might have been "plain words for plain people" in the days of Isaiah and Jesus, an uneducated and uninformed person who reads them today, and takes them as the literal Word of God, will become a blind and confused bigot.
Let us look at this against the background of the fact that all monotheistic religions have been militant. Wherever God has been idolized as the King or Boss-Principle of the world, believers are agog to impose both their religion and their political rulership upon others. Fanatical believers in the Bible, the Koran and the Torah have fought one another for centuries without realizing that they belong to the same pestiferous club, that they have more in common than they have against one another and that there is simply no way of deciding which of their "unique" revelations of God's will is the true one. A committed believer in the Koran trots out the same arguments for his point of view as a Southern Baptist devotee of the Bible, and neither can listen to reason, because their whole sense of personal security and integrity depends absolutely upon pretending to follow an external authority. The very existence of this authority, as well as the sense of identity of its follower and true believer, requires an excluded class of infidels, heathens and sinners people whom you can punish and bully so as to know that you are strong and alive. No argument, no reasoning, no contrary evidence can possibly reach the true believer, who, if he is somewhat sophisticated, justifies and even glorifies his invincible stupidity as a "leap of faith" or "sacrifice of the intellect." He quotes the Roman lawyer and theologian Tertullian Credo, quia absurdum est , "I believe because it is absurd" as if Tertullian had said something profound. Such people are, quite literally, idiots originally a Greek word meaning an individual so isolated that you can't communicate with him.
Oddly enough, there are unbelievers who envy them, who wish that they could have the serenity and peace of mind that come from "knowing" beyond doubt that you have the true Word of God and are in the right. But this overlooks the fact that those who supposedly have this peace within themselves are outwardly obstreperous and violent, standing in dire need of converts and followers to convince themselves of their continuing validity just as much as they need outsiders to punish.
Mindless belief in the literal truth of the Bible and furious zeal to spread the message lead to such widespread follies, in the American Bible Belt, as playing with poisonous snakes and drinking strychnine to prove the truth of Mark 16:18, where Jesus is reported to have said: "They [the faithful] shall take up serpents: and if they drink any deadly, thing, it shall not hurt them." As recently as April 1973, two men (one a pastor) in Newport, Tennessee, died in convulsions from taking large amounts of strychnine before a congregation shouting, "Praise God! Praise God!" So they didn't have enough faith; but such barbarous congregations will go on trying these experiments again and again to test and prove their faith, not realizing that by Christian standards this is arrant spiritual pride. Meanwhile, the Government persecutes religious groups that use such relatively harmless herbs as peyote and marijuana for sacraments.
What is to be done about the existence of millions of such dangerous people in the world? Obviously, they must not be censored or suppressed by their own methods. Even though it is impossible to persuade or argue with them in a reasonable way, it is just possible that they can be wooed and enchanted by a more attractive style of religion, which will show them that their unbending "faith" in their Bibles is simply an inverse expression of doubt and terror a frantic whistling in the dark.
There have been other images of God than the Father-Monarch: the Cosmic Mother; the inmost Self (disguised as all living beings), as in Hinduism; the indefinable Tao, the flowing energy of the universe, as among the Chinese; or no image at all, as with the Buddhists, who are not strictly atheists but who feel that the ultimate reality cannot be pictured in any way and, what is more, that not picturing it is a positive way of feeling it directly, beyond symbols and images. I have called this "atheism in the name of God" a paradoxical and catchy phrase pointing out something missed by learned Protestant theologians who have been talking about "death of God" theology and "religionless Christianity," and asking what of the Gospel of Christ can be saved if life is nothing more than a trip from the maternity ward to the crematorium. It is weird how such sophisticated Biblical scholars must go on clinging to Jesus even when rejecting the basic principle of his teaching the experience that he was God in the flesh, an experience he unknowingly shared with all the great mystics of the world.
Atheism in the name of God is an abandonment of all religious beliefs, including atheism, which in practice is the stubbornly held idea that the world is a mindless mechanism. Atheism in the name of God is giving up the attempt to make sense of the world in terms of any fixed idea or intellectual system. It is becoming again as a child and laying oneself open to reality as it is actually and directly felt, experiencing it without trying to categorize, identify or name it. This can be most easily begun by listening to the world with closed eyes, in the same way that one can listen to music without asking what it says or means. This is actually a turn-on a state of consciousness in which the past and future vanish (because they cannot be heard) and in which there is no audible difference yourself and what you are hearing. There is simply universe, an always present happening in which there is no perceptible difference between self and other, or, as in breathing, between what you do and what happens to you. Without losing command of civilized behavior, you have temporarily "regressed" to what Freud called the oceanic feeling of the baby the feeling that we all lost in learning to make distinctions, but that we should have retained as their necessary background, just as there must be empty white paper under this print if you are to read it.
When you listen to the world in this way, you have begun to practice what Hindus and Buddhists call meditation a re-entry to the real world, as distinct from the abstract world of words and ideas. If you find that you can't stop naming the various sounds and thinking in words, just listen to yourself doing that as another form of noise, a meaningless murmur like the sound of traffic. I won't argue for this experiment. Just try it and see what happens, because this is the basic act of faith of being unreservedly open and vulnerable to what is true and real.
Certainly this is what Jesus himself must have had in mind in that famous passage in the Sermon on the Mount upon which one will seldom hear anything from a pulpit: "Which of you by thinking can add a measure to his height? And why are you anxious about clothes? Look at the flowers of the field, how they grow. They neither labor nor spin; and yet I tell you that even Solomon in all his splendor was not arrayed like any one of them. So if God so clothes the wild grass which lives for today and tomorrow is burned, shall He not much more clothe you, faithless ones? . . . Don't be anxious for the future, for the future will take care of itself. Sufficient to the day are its troubles." Even the most devout Christians can't take this. They feel that such advice was all very well for Jesus, being the Boss's son, but this is no wisdom for us practical and lesser-born mortals. You can, of course, take these words in their allegorical and spiritual sense, which is that you stop clinging in terror to a rigid system of ideas about what will happen to you after you die, or as to what, exactly, are the procedures of the court of heaven, whereby the world is supposedly governed. Curiously, both science and mysticism (which might be called religion as experienced rather than religion as written) are based on the experimental attitude of looking directly at what is, of attending to life itself instead of trying to glean it from a book. The scholastic theologians would not look through Galileo's telescope, and Billy Graham will not experiment with a psychedelic chemical or practice yoga. Two eminent historians of science, Joseph Needham and Lynn White, have pointed out the surprising fact that in both Europe and Asia, science arises from mysticism, because both the mystic and the scientist are types of people who want to know directly, for themselves, rather than be told what to believe.
And in this sense they follow the advice of Jesus to become again "as little children," to look at the world with open, clear, and unprejudiced eyes, as if they had never seen it before. It is in this spirit that an astronomer must look at the sky and a yogi must attend to the immediately present moment, as when he concentrates on a prolonged sound. Years and years of book study may simply fossilize you into fixed habits of thought so that any perceptive person will know in advance how you will react to any situation or idea. Imagining yourself reliable, you become merely predictable and, alas, boring. Most sermons are tedious. One knows in advance what the preacher is going to say, however dressed up on a fancy language. Going strictly by the book, he will have no original ideas or experiences, for which reason both he and his followers become rigid and easily shocked personalities who cannot swing, wiggle, lilt or dance.
In this connection it should be noted that the blacks of the South swing and wiggle quite admirably, even in church but this is because the preacher, starting from the Bible in deference to his white overlords, very soon reverts to the rhythms and incantations of some old-time African religion, and there is no knowing at all what he is going to say. This is perhaps one of the principle roots of conflict between whites and blacks in the American South that the former go by the Book and the latter by the spirit, which, like the wind, as Jesus put it, blows where it wills, and you can't tell where it comes from or where it's going.
Thus, we reach the seeming paradox that you cannot at once idolize the Bible and embody the spirit of Jesus. He twitted the Pharisees as today he would twit the fundamentalists: "You search the Scriptures daily, for in them you think you have life." The religion of Jesus was to trust life, both as he felt it in himself and as he saw it around him. Most of us would feel that this was a ridiculous gamble to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness but, come to think of it, is there any real alternative? Basically, no human community can exist that is not founded on mutual trust as distinct from law and its enforcement. The alternative to mutual trust, which is indeed a risky gamble, is the security of the police state.
this article by Alan Watts was originally published in 1973
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