In this instance, it isn’t my own verse involved. My humble online digs were just nominated for a “Food for Thought Award” by Citizen Tom. I recognize that this is a small thing, this award, but I am nonetheless flattered and accept in the spirit that it was given. And I am more than a little surprised, as I am apparently the only non-religious recipient of the award.
As Citizen Tom puts it, “I suppose many people will find this nomination inexplicable, but here is the basis for it...” He’s just added an additional comment expanding on his rationale a bit.
In any event, thanks! Here’s a long and rambling beginning…
Part of my task, in accepting this award, is to write about seven Biblical verses that I have found useful or inspirational. I am up for this — while I am not personally religious, I have been interested in religion for a very long time as part of my general interest in people and history. To this end, I’ve read the Bible (originally in the King James version, and after sampling a number of others I am most fond of Young’s Literal Translation from the 1880s), most of the Book of Mormon and Bhagavad-Gita and a large portion of the Qur’an and some (relatively few are in English) Sunnah and al-Hadith (Islam has three different holy texts, which play different but important roles in Islamic society). I’ve read bits and pieces of foundational works of other religions as well, from Scientology (founded on a bet by an SF author) to some Raellian materials (whew!).
My interest in feudal Japan led me into some treatises (some most of a millennium old) on Bushido and its underpinnings in Shinto and Zen Buddhism and Confucianism. The Stoics were interesting (though out-Stoic’d by the samurai, I think).
The history of these faiths, from early China to Judaism’s development in the early Middle East to Constantine’s doings in the 300s to Muhammad’s three centuries later to Luther’s reforms and England’s religious struggle, has all been fascinating to me. I’ve also read with interest Thomas Jefferson’s re-write of portions of the New Testament, a work that is now called “the Jefferson Bible” but was originally “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.”
As I’ve noted before, Christianity has “grown up” in a sense, triggered in large measure by Martin Luther. His protest against certain practices is famous; less well known is his amazing stunt of rewriting (by hand, of course) the entire Old Testament from Latin to German in a matter of a few weeks (he later added the New Testament). (A trivia bit: the Gutenberg Bible, named after the inventor of the printing press with movable type, was not actually printed by him. The invention (and his business) was taken by an attorney who hired a spy to work in Gutenberg’s shop — and was able to take his invention in court. I remember almost twenty years ago telling this to a lawyer friend … named Gutenberg.)
Another key element in the maturing of Christianity was the dispute between King Henry VIII and Pope Clement VII, basically over Henry’s rather secular desire to swap one wife for another. This didn’t go well, as the current Pope was being held captive by Henry’s current wife’s nephew.
King Henry, in essence, made a new branch of the Church and made himself the equivalent of a new Pope. And England went back and forth for more than a century, killing hundreds of religious people each time the monarchy changed religions, and outlawing first the Catholic and then the Anglican versions and back again.
This sounds grim and terrible, and it was. But during this time, the Christian faith matured. And in America, getting started about this same time (and in fact getting new people fleeing or evicted because of these disputes), yet another notion bore fruit, to allow and to guarantee freedom of worship. This became part of our Constitution.
And the basic principles, the words of Jesus and others as written and passed on through the Vulgate and Greek texts to the Luther versions to Tyndale (who was burned at the stake for his efforts) to the commission formed by King James in 1605 (who used much of Tyndale’s work) to many other versions and tinkerings, there was a key essence. This essence, this distilled wisdom, still speaks to more than a billion people and is part of societies that affect billions more.
Jefferson was trying to capture what he considered the timeless wisdom of Jesus the teacher when he wrote his version. Jefferson’s difference was to focus on the teaching, and to write out of the picture what he considered intrusive stories of miracles. Many would disagree with his decision, but he certainly was not operating from disrespect.
In fact, there is a fair amount of confusion over Jefferson’s role in the “freedom of religion” portion of the Bill of Rights, which became law in 1791 about two years after the US’s official beginning in 1789. This amendment is now officially the First Amendment to the Constitution’s ten amendments comprising the Bill of Rights. (It was originally the third of twelve, but the first two were not ratified by the states.) It reads:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Jefferson was not part of this process; he was in France while this was being negotiated and drafted. The letter from which the phrase “wall of separation” was lifted came from private, unpublished correspondence years later between Jefferson and a church that had expressed concern about their potential treatment, the Danbury Baptists. That correspondence had no effect on US laws for nearly a century and a half, but now the phrase is so common that it is considered by many to be actually in the Constitution’s text.
Remember the jeering when Christine O’Donnell asked a question during a debate that instantly became a CBS headline: “Christine O’Donnell: “Where in the Constitution is the Separation of Church and State?” She was correct in her implication, though clumsy about it as I noted at the time. (I disagree with her on other matters, but I would have happily accepted her over her opponent, described this way: “Chris Coons: The Making of a Bearded Marxist.” That description was the title of a paper by Coons himself.)
When Jefferson dashed off that bit of correspondence, he completed his week by attending Sunday services at what became (and would remain for decades) the largest church in the United States. It was the US Capitol building, which was used for these services as the legislators were not in session on Sunday. They, most of them, came back to the same federal building to attend Sunday services, hearing sermons rather than political rhetoric. President Jefferson was a regular here, arriving on horseback. (Later presidents would arrive at the Capitol church services in coaches. The Supreme Court also held Sunday services.)
Jefferson obviously cannot have meant that there can be no government involvement in religious doings. (In fact, several states at this time had official state religions, though the federal Congress could not declare one by dint of that First Amendment clause.) And the Treaty of Tripoli, signed just a few years before, does not mean what anti-religion antagonists think it means. Ah, another day — this is getting long.
So — for the first verse (technically, one could count this differently but I plan to keep this up for seven Sundays at least): The first one that pops to mind, and that I have used in a number of conversations, is 2 Corinthians 3. It appeals to me in two ways. Here’s the text in the Young’s version (though the more familiar King James is here):
3 Do we begin again to recommend ourselves, except we need, as some, letters of recommendation unto you, or from you? 2 our letter ye are, having been written in our hearts, known and read by all men, 3 manifested that ye are a letter of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God, not in the tablets of stone, but in fleshy tablets of the heart, 4 and such trust we have through the Christ toward God, 5 not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think anything, as of ourselves, but our sufficiency [is] of God,
6 who also made us sufficient [to be] ministrants of a new covenant, not of letter, but of spirit; for the letter doth kill, and the spirit doth make alive.
7 and if the ministration of the death, in letters, engraved in stones, came in glory, so that the sons of Israel were not able to look stedfastly to the face of Moses, because of the glory of his face — which was being made useless, 8 how shall the ministration of the Spirit not be more in glory?
9 for if the ministration of the condemnation [is] glory, much more doth the ministration of the righteousness abound in glory; 10 for also even that which hath been glorious, hath not been glorious — in this respect, because of the superior glory; 11 for if that which is being made useless [is] through glory, much more that which is remaining [is] in glory.
12 Having, then, such hope, we use much freedom of speech, 13 and [are] not as Moses, who was putting a veil upon his own face, for the sons of Israel not stedfastly to look to the end of that which is being made useless, 14 but their minds were hardened, for unto this day the same veil at the reading of the Old Covenant doth remain unwithdrawn — which in Christ is being made useless — 15 but till to-day, when Moses is read, a veil upon their heart doth lie, 16 and whenever they may turn unto the Lord, the vail is taken away.
17 And the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord [is], there [is] liberty; 18 and we all, with unveiled face, the glory of the Lord beholding in a mirror, to the same image are being transformed, from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.
I am certainly no theologian, and will not attempt to delve into the past glory of Moses and the Law of Moses spoken of here in conjunction with the new glory described. But two lines here struck me early on. The first speaks of ministering the new covenant, “not of the letter [of the law] but of the spirit [of the law], for the letter doth kill, and the spirit doth make alive.”
The passage struck me as a metaphor for the Bible in general — if you get too hung up on exactly what was said, you can miss the point of the words, the “spirit.” The language we read was appropriate for hundreds of years ago, and at the time it was translated and reinterpreted from language more than a millennium before. It’s tough to suggest that what we are reading in any English text carries the exact meaning as the original Greek and Hebrew did. But it still can speak to us, and it can convey universal truths that are very valuable.
The story (two stories, actually) of Genesis in the Bible provide an example of this sort of thing. St. Augustine of Hippo warned sixteen hundred years ago not to spend foolish time trying to force Genesis into appearing to have scientific accuracy, or to force science to agree with the literal words. His goals were larger than that. This site discusses his approach, though I think a fuller quote of St. Augustine would add more insight. Another time.
In any event, the second part of 2 Corinthians 3 that struck me was the appearance of the phrase “freedom of speech.” And with it, hope, and a spiritual rebirth. That freedom of speech phrase, despite its use in the Bible that originated in the area, is now a stranger to much of the Middle East. Every day, in various countries in the region, people are killed for speaking their minds — especially about religious matters.
Israel now is the one Middle Eastern country where a Muslim can publicly decide to change his faith or give it up entirely. His only danger will come from his still-Islamic religious fellows, not from the government. Freedom of speech and religion, closely coupled as they are in life, is a pale notion in the rest of the region, struggling to survive. Right now, we have Egypt crafting a new constitution that conspicuously provides rights to people only to the extent that they do not conflict with Shariah law. The new constitution also enshrines a jihadist religious facility as the official final arbiter of that law.
Freedom of speech, that propelled such hope in this verse, did make it to America. It was one of the Judeo-Christian principles which, along with those of later enlightened thinkers, formed the core ideas that gave birth to the United States and its unique and wonderful experiment in government.
I have no trouble with the US’s Christian heritage, and note with considerable contentment that the magnificent and inspired system put together by the Founders — most of them felt divinely inspired — has proven to be extraordinary. Now it falls to us to live up to this noble covenant that has been entrusted to us — and I think that we can see a rebirth of glory once again.
===|==============/ Keith DeHavelle