Introduction: A Buddhist Returns to the Bible
Tell me about the God you don’t believe in. Is it the God who separates the saved from the damned, reserving bliss for the blessed, and brimstone for the nonbeliever? Or perhaps the narrow-minded God who resists new ways of thinking, the God who will brook no question and no discourse, the one who prefers the world the way it was before feminism or civil rights, before the discovery of evolution and quantum physics or the creation and collapse of stars? Is it the God who sponsors crusades, jihads,
and pogroms? Or maybe the one who tells a twenty-four-year-old man with a wife and three children to blow himself up in a crowded public square?
The list could go on and on. There’s the God who created the world in six days.And then there’s the one who puts a beautiful fruit tree within reach of his children, forbids them on pain of death to eat from it, then promptly disappears to some other part of the garden, keeping an eye peeled behind the bushes to see what they will do. There’s the one with a rule for everything from menstruation to shellfish, who strikes people dead when they cross him. And then there’s the one who kills Egyptian babies in order to save Jewish ones, then sends his only son to save all of mankind (so long as they are willing to become Christian). The Bible itself is filled with Gods we don’t believe in. Or with ones who shouldn’t
be believed in.
Where did these Gods come from, and what are we to do with them now that they are here? Is there any way to reform or reeducate them? Is there any way to get through to them with the message that the world is bigger and more inclusive now than in the days of desert and tribe? And if not—if, as many modern atheists claim, the world is better off without them—what, if anything, is there to replace them with? Are we destined to live with “a God-shaped hole” at the center of our being? However
many problems these troubled Gods created, those societies who succeeded in ousting them have hardly fared better. The loss of God in modern society has made totalitarianism in all its many forms, from communist to corporate, a virtual inevitability of modern life. True, the old God might have been a problem, but nonbelief doesn’t seem to be an option. “We are born believing,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson. “A man bears beliefs as a tree bears apples.” In the absence of God, human beings will always find something
to believe in: science, progress, money, or just the ever-increasing power of the self.
So where does that leave us now?
Oddly enough, right where we started—with the God of the Bible, as mysterious and difficult to account for as he is.
During the years I was working on this book, any number of people had occasion to ask me: Why the Bible? Why go back through all those plagues and rules? Why endure all the bloodletting and barbarism of an earlier, more primitive era—an era when people thought demons caused diseases, women were unclean during their periods, and homosexuality was an abomination before God? Why not start over with a fresh slate and write about a God who is
worth believing in? But the answer to those
questions, while surprising, was also very simple: because going back into the Bible is the same as going back into ourselves.
For most Westerners, God lives
in the Bible. For better or worse, we can’t change our idea of God without changing our ideas about the Bible first. And this is true for everyone in our society,whether they were raised in a religiously observant household or not. The Bible is the spiritual matrix of Western culture, the point of origin for all of our deepest beliefs and hopes and fears. It is the source of many of our laws and customs, not to mention many of our everyday expressions and the mind-set that comes along with them. It is the origin even of our ideas of time, from the seven days of the week to the “beginning” and the “end” of the world. You may not read it, or even know what it says, and still the Bible is inside of you. It’s in the air we breathe, and it’s in the culture at large. And therefore the idea of God is in us, too. There is no escaping it.
That was what I discovered in the end, and the reason I came back to the Bible in the effort to find a God I could believe in. And when I found that God, I discovered he’d been there all along. Granted, I had to learn to read the Bible in a completely different way than it is read by most religious people. But that was the journey I had to take...
Excerpted from How to Believe in God by Clark Strand. Copyright © 2009 by Clark Strand. Excerpted by permission of Harmony, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.