How to Catch God in a Butterfly Net: Lesson #3, Elevate Scripture Over Spirit


“The Bible is not an argument. It is a record of human experience. The point is not to prove that it’s the word of God or it’s inspired or it’s whatever the current word is that people are using. The point is to enter into its stories with such intention and vitality that you find what it is that inspired people to write these books.”

-Rob Bell, author of 'What is the Bible?' The third thing to do if you want to kill the butterfly that you have caught in your net, and perhaps the most popular of all catching-and-killing tactics and therefore the most idolatrous, is to elevate scripture over Spirit. When did scripture take the place of Spirit in the Trinity? The second that we tried to gain intellectual control over the unfathomable. Spirit is the indwelling of the divine in the temples of human beings. It is inner experience. It is transformation. It is union. It is the deepest, truest parts of oneself, uncorrupted by the ego and the world. It is the animating force moving things forward further into what is authentic and real. In the first chapter of John, the “Word” is not referring to scripture; it is referring to the Cosmic Christ. To elevate scripture over Spirit is to replace journeying inward—both within ourselves and into those same deep, sacred places within others—with knowledge of scripture, which is to sometimes turn a sacred text into a rigid code that can be projected onto others in order to boost the ego or protect oneself from what is most unfamiliar. I have seen this unfold on two main levels, for I was the most idolatrous of all in this regard. The first level is to use that which is highly-complex, like theology, like the Bible—something that was written over a period of 1,100 years, 2,000-3,000 years ago, by all kinds of people with all kinds of backgrounds, with different motives, in different languages, with differing cultural influences—as an opportunity; not for entering into introspection or into mystery, but for intellectual advancement. In thinking that I could explain a sacred text and the theology in that text, something that was both personal and complex, I received an ego boost unlike any other boost I had before received. By explaining the Bible, I was in some way explaining the divine, which opens the floodgates for ego boosts. I was explaining a reality that is in many ways the subject of each person's search: purpose and transcendence. That is not to say that ego boosts are entirely bad or that the complexity of sacred texts should never be dissected or explained; but when it becomes more about projecting one’s own ideas or doctrine onto others who you think do not believe—and by “believe,” let’s be honest, what we mean in this idolatrous state is whether or not their beliefs align with ours; we fail to see that their beliefs, in fact, might be more beautiful and gospel than we ever dared to see, a failure that ultimately stems from fear, as they use different words or terminology that are unfamiliar to our experience. The true beauty found in belief is that which inspires one’s lived experience in selflessness (dying to oneself) and love (giving of oneself), which, in Christian terms, is the way of the Christ. Yet, if Christ is cosmic, then there are infinite expressions to the depths of this love and selflessness. When someone insists some kind of formula from a sacred text is “the only way” through weaponizing words for the sake of being right or enforcing exclusivity, like “inerrant” or “inspired” or “God-breathed,” one cannot help but wonder if such adamance and pushiness reflects one’s own unbelief. I was more convinced than ever that what I believed was true when my faith was on the verge of breaking down. We often double-down in insecurity, for to let go of the edge makes for a terrifying fall. It is humiliating to feel that your ideas or beliefs have betrayed you. So, the easiest thing to do is to cling to them, as I did, as if it were entirely inconceivable that I could have possibly been wrong—or, if not entirely wrong, perhaps too narrow in my thinking. I was fooling myself, yet also somewhat needed to fool myself, for I needed to build my tower of ideas so they would fall all the harder and finally force me into a state of liminality and transition. Sometimes this terrifying unfolding is the only thing that can move us forward. The second level is the opposite of complexity—it is to bring flippant simplicity into infinite complexity. It is to enter into the gray, nuanced, messy, intricate space of human psychology or sexuality or spirituality and summarize something complex with the black-or-white, either/or, dualistic triteness of a Bible verse, which is not trite in nature, only in its usage, often taken out of its cultural context and projected upon a current situation that has a foreignness to it that disrupts us or evokes fear within us. It is when the attorney general quotes a Bible verse to justify the government separating children from their parents at the border. It is when the son of perhaps the greatest American preacher who ever lived uses scattered verses to justify a political cause. It is when a sacred text becomes a weapon to quench and kill, instead of a portal to enter into and be changed by beautiful stories—stories that were, by the way, largely told by an oppressed people group who were suffering under the empires of government and religion. When we think we can carry God around in our palms, the God we carry often becomes a sword. Oddly enough, nothing kills God in this day and age quite like the Bible. Being able to say “the Bible says” or “God says” are the ultimate “trump” cards to reaffirm one’s thinking he or she is right. Empire has a way of using religion to justify its power—you can find that in the Bible. You can find that in America; especially in the history of white, American Christianity. Strangely, the story-arc of the Bible is hardly about being right and instead about inspiring within each person a gospel love that awakens us to our interconnectedness with the divine and all of humanity, especially when it comes to the outcasts, the underdogs, or the marginalized. But, because God has no words, because God is Yahweh, breath—the unspeakable bush that burns—there is a void in which simple-minded humans can enter and take advantage so they can claim their power through projecting knowledge about the Ultimate. Each person has a choice whenever he or she reads a sacred text: to be personally changed through introspection and contemplation by the stories of their tradition, which can pull them further into the freedom of love and selflessness, or to use these stories like the pharisees abused them in the first century, as a way to look down on others from their platforms they built upon the foundation of “right-ness” and religiosity. By Stephen Copeland

This essay was first published on www.copelandwrites.com.

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