A new testament has been published. No not a new edition of the New Testament, but a new testament — a scripture for secular humanists. Of course, when it comes to the making of new books, the Book of Ecclesiastes (12:12) taught long ago, that “there is no end” to such efforts. This newest effort is simply the latest volume in an ongoing series of making new books, one as old as the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible itself. After all, thethe Old Testament clearly draws on themes, images and practices which we already common when it was written.
And no, for those are wondering, that is not meant to undermine any claims about the Hebrew Bible as the revealed word of God. It simply acknowledges that the need for a “new bible” some 3,200 years ago, a date based on the presumed time of Moses trip up to Mount Sinai as reported in the Book of Exodus, arose in the context of a world which already had other sacred scriptures which the Hebrew Bible replaced. Of course, as the saying goes, turnabout is fair play.
Some 1,200 years after the time of Moses, enough people needed a new bible that thousands of them accepted the New Testament, if not as a total replacement for the Old Testament, then surely as a fundamental reordering of the latter’s authority and importance. And some 600 years after that new bible came on the scene, Islam introduced its new bible, the Koran.
Whether one believes in one, none, or some combination of these texts, the point remains the same; the impulse to create new bibles is not new. The fact that the newest new bible has been created by an avowed atheist, famed British philosopher A. C. Grayling however is actually pretty interesting.
Grayling’s new work, The Good Book: A Humanist Bible, presents wisdom teachings taken from many of the world’s greatest minds including Herodotus and Lucretius, Confucius and Mencius, Seneca and Cicero, Montaigne, Bacon, and many others, and organized them into 12 sections: Genesis, Histories, Wisdom, The Sages, Parables, Consolations, Lamentations, Proverbs, Songs, Epistles, Acts, and the Good.
Although the book is clearly organized around obviously biblical headings and themes e.g. his Genesis opens with a tree in a garden, Grayling seems to have assiduously avoided incorporating any clearly biblical teachings in the text which makes up his new bible. That decision strikes me as the replacement of a new narrow orthodoxy for what Grayling presumes is another — further evidence that atheism can be every bit as ideologically myopic as some versions of theism.
Also worth noting is Grayling’s choice of language and style in creating this new bible. The prose is reminiscent of the King James Bible with which the author was probably raised, and instead of simply collecting and annotating quotes, he presents a running text which reads, in verses, very much like the Hebrew Bible and New Testament.
Apparently, even after people have “outgrown” God, we still need familiar forms of sacred literature to inspire and guide our lives. That presents yet another profound similarity between believers and non-believers – one which both sides would do well to acknowledge. The issue is never who has this need – on some level, we all do. The issue is how we meet that need and how we relate to others who meet it differently from us.
Faith, including the faith of atheism, for those who follow that path, has a place in our lives, but the faiths which we follow cannot limit the range of those from whom we can learn. When that happens, all people suffer, regardless of their faith.
Although Grayling’s bible will not replace the one in which I believe, it will find its place on my bookshelf as one from which I can learn. Ultimately, our ability to learn not only from the bibles in which we do believe, but also from those in which we do not, may be the most important intellectual-spiritual capacity for living peacefully in our increasingly inter-connected world.