every religion in the world depends on a holy book.
Some religions have several forms of scripture.
Often these books have been ascribed to supernatural sources.
At least there was some claim of divine inspiration.
If we reject all claims of the supernatural origin of religious
we probably have no given body of doctrine or dogma we must believe.
But this leaves us free to read all books
that might become important for our own spiritual quests.
What can we learn from the holy books of the world
—even if we do not believe they were written by supernatural beings?
I. THE WORLD'S MOST FAMOUS HOLY BOOKS.
II. WHO WROTE THE HOLY BOOKS?
III. BEING RELIGIOUS WITHOUT ANY HOLY SCRIPTURE.
IV. IF NO WRITINGS ARE INSPIRED BY GODS,
CAN THEY STILL
V. PAUL'S LETTER TO THE ROMANS
IS A BOOK OF
James Park holds a Master of Divinity degree from
Union Theological Seminary in New York City.
In seminary he studied the Bible as examined by modern criticism,
which explores everything that can be discovered
about the origins of the books of the Bible
—who wrote them, under what influences, for what purposes, etc.
Even when he was still a Christian,
he was never a fundamentalist.
He never believing that the Bible was the inspired Word of God.
Now that he has moved on from Christianity,
he feels even more free to be skeptical of the Bible
—and all the other Holy Books of the world.
GODS DO NOT EXIST?
No Gods Wrote Holy Books
by James Leonard Park
Most of the world's religions have one or more
And usually they claim some form of divine authorship of these books.
But in most cases the world's religions do not agree
that the holy books of the other religions are equally sacred
The most authoritarian forms of organized religion
have the tallest tales to tell about how their scriptures came into
In some cases these claims amount to saying
that their holy books were written personally by their gods.
More subtle claims explain how human authors were inspired
Educated and intelligent people everywhere
cannot accept claims of gods writing books literally.
Did the gods write with quill pens?
And why did these gods always write in the languages
of the people who claim the holy books?
I. THE WORLD'S MOST FAMOUS
World-wide the most famous holy book is the Bible,
which consists of the Old Testament
—also called the Hebrew Bible
and the New Testament
—which was originally written in Greek.
honors the Hebrew Bible,
which has several different kinds of writings:
'history' of the Jewish people, sayings of the Prophets, poetry, law,
The Hebrew Bible contains writings that go back several thousand years.
honors the Old Testament but adds a New
which was created about 2,000 years ago.
The New Testament also consists of several different kinds of writings:
(1) gospels focused around the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth,
who was called the Christ (Messiah in Hebrew) after his execution,
(2) letters by the early Christian leaders (most notably Paul)
to the scattered Christian congregations of the first century,
& (3) mystical writings about the end of the world.
is the faith of one billion of the people on
And their holy book is called the Koran,
which in Arabic means recitation.
This book is about 1,300 years old.
Unlike the Bible, the Koran was created by one person
He recited it; and his scribes wrote it down.
This holy book is entirely in Arabic.
Orthodox Muslims believe that the angel Gabriel revealed
the Koran to Mohammed part by part over his life-time.
Some 20 years after the death of Mohammed (in the year 632),
the revelations were collected in the book now known as the Koran.
The holy books of the Eastern religions
are not quite so well defined as the texts just described.
Buddhism, for example,
has no one scripture.
Rather, there are many collected stories and legends
about the Buddha and his teachings.
And later Buddhist thinkers have added their own writings.
is a religion strong in India.
The diverse scriptures of the Hindus go back about 3,000 years:
The Four Vedas (1,000 BCE) is a collection
of lyrical prayers and praises addressed to the powers of nature.
The Brahmanas (800 to 600 BCE) represents priestly Hinduism,
which concentrates on proper rituals of sacrifice and prayer.
The Upanishads (600 to 300 BCE) are more metaphysical,
speculating about the underlying unity of the world.
The Laws of Manu (about 250 BCE) contains the moral code of Hinduism:
what human behavior to strive toward
and what behavior to avoid.
The Bhagavad-Gita (about the year 1) represents devotional Hinduism.
The Epics and Puranas (about 200 BCE to 250 CE)
are collected stories that illustrate Hindu life for the masses.
WHO WROTE THE HOLY BOOKS?
When we set all the holy books of the world on one
there are very few believers who would say
that they were all
written by supernatural beings.
As noted earlier, true believers of any one faith
usually believe that their own
scripture is the truth
whereas they regard all the rest of the holy books with suspicion.
The most reasonable explanation is that all these
were written by human beings.
Sometimes a single author is identified.
Other books were written by committees,
who sometimes attributed their book to one famous person.
And the holy books with the longest traditions
evolved and changed over the
For example, each Hindu holy book has several authors and editors.
The authors of the books
that later came to be regarded as holy scripture
often did not think that they were writing scripture at the time.
—in their own languages
—came from their own minds
even when they claimed to be receiving revelations from angels or gods.
But once their writings were given special status
within one of the organized religions of the world,
new doctrines of divine inspiration emerged.
Sometimes the authors did claim to have a
direct word from God.
For example, the Old Testament prophets often said:
"Thus saith the Lord".
And then they would proceed to make their own commentary.
Within Christianity the authors themselves
usually did not claim any supernatural origins for their words.
For example, the authors of Matthew and Luke
changed many of the paragraphs they lifted from Mark
in order to make a better story.
Would they have changed the stories and dialog
if they thought they were writing holy scripture?
For the earliest Christian writers,
holy scripture meant the Hebrew Bible,
not the gospels and letters they
Only centuries later did some parts of organized
begin to venerate these first-century writings as scripture
—and then only after rejecting lots of other writings
they did not think were as valid or useful.
III. BEING RELIGIOUS
WITHOUT ANY HOLY SCRIPTURE.
Unitarian Universalism is an organized religious
that grew out of
Protestantism about 200 years ago.
But unlike any other religion in the world,
Unitarian Universalism is not
tied to any holy books.
Even tho UUism acknowledges its historical roots,
it is a creed-free religious
All books can be consulted in whatever depth any UU pleases.
But no UU can say that someone else is not a true Unitarian Universalist
because he or she does not honor a certain holy book.
People who come to Unitarian Universalism from other
are often surprised to discover that there is no holy book.
They expect religions to be based on a set of 'truths'
that are contained in their holy scriptures.
And especially if they came from a rather orthodox form of 'faith',
they might find it difficult at first to cope
with the freedom and openness of belief
that Unitarian Universalism affords.
People new to Unitarian Universalism often ask:
"What do Unitarian Universalists believe?"
Such questions presuppose that there should be an answer,
since all other religions have a set of statements
that they hold to be central to their faith-systems.
But UUism was established
—and remains today
a movement without any official doctrine or creed.
Individual Unitarian Universalists are encouraged
to search for truth in their own ways
and to share their discoveries with other open-minded seekers.
Some UUs seek truth in the traditional scriptures of the world.
But even those seekers do not feel tied to the words on the
Unitarian Universalists are free to accept
whatever seems right to them.
And they are free to reject all claims about holy books
—and any alleged 'truths' they are supposed to contain.
UUs are more united in what we reject than
in what we accept.
In other words, it is easier to answer this question:
"What do Unitarian Universalists reject?"
This series of secular sermons illustrates
many of the things that most UU do NOT believe:
Created the Universe
Save Us from Death
Watching Our Behavior
IV. IF NO WRITINGS ARE
INSPIRED BY GODS,
CAN THEY STILL
If we do not believe any scriptures
were written by gods,
does this mean that we dismiss and disregard all holy
By no means!
Even if supernatural origins are discounted,
we can still examine each and every holy book
to see if there are insights we find meaningful and useful
for our own lives of spirit.
In other words, even if these books were not inspired by gods,
they can still be inspiring
to an open mind.
We can be inspired by the Bible and other holy books
in the same ways that we can be inspired by the works of Shakespeare.
We do not need to claim that anyone other than
William Shakespeare wrote several plays and poems.
How valid are his insights and sensibilities?
We can approach all the holy books of the world
with open but critical minds.
We do not begin with any notion ahead of time
that truths will be
found in these books.
We do not turn to some books rather than others
merely because someone said they were written by gods.
Ancient religious books certainly express
the religious urge or quest of the human spirit.
We can take them seriously without taking them literally.
V. PAUL'S LETTER TO THE ROMANS
IS A BOOK OF
In my personal opinion, the greatest ancient text
Paul's Letter to the Romans,
which was written about 2,000 years ago
—and is now included in the New Testament.
I do not say this because of any prior notion
that the New Testament is inspired by God.
Paul was a regular human being
—a creature of his time.
And as a first-century Christian
he had many ideas we can easily dismiss today.
But I find in this letter the historical beginning
what I call "existential
In fact, because I find Paul's Letter well worth studying in depth,
I have written a book about it:
Interpretation of Paul's Letter to the Romans
And I appreciate any other books
that explain the meanings of obscure ancient texts,
which were sometimes attributed to gods
or said to be divinely inspired in some way.
Specifically in New Testament scholarship,
I am a follower of Rudolf Bultmann,
well known in the 20th century as the founder of demythologizing
—a careful method of interpretation
that seeks the existential
meaning behind New Testament mythology.
Neither I nor Bultmann began with a belief
that the texts before us were written by God.
We are able to affirm the completely-human origin of these writings.
And then we can treat them as we would any other ancient text.
The other great religions of the world
have not been as critical of their scriptures.
What they all need is a Bultmann for their holy books.
Even if texts once attributed to gods
were actually written by other human persons like ourselves,
they can nevertheless be quite meaningful in our own spiritual quests.
What ancient holy books have you found meaningful
Did you change your approach to them
if and when you decided that they were not written by gods?
revised 2-8-2004; 2-22-2004;
6-11-2005; 11-4-2006; 1-27-2008;
3-24-2011; 3-26-2011; 8-8-2012; 3-25-2014;
James Park is himself an author of several books.
But he does not claim supernatural origins for any of his ideas.
The essay above has become Chapter 2 of
Developing Our Capacities of Spirit:
This secular sermon was
chosen by the members of the RURAL-L list
to be the Sermon-of-the-Month
for February 2004.
It was also published as part of a series by Smalltalk in March 2008.
Go to the description
Go to the complete list
of secular sermons proposed for
the First Unitarian Universalist Church of the Internet.
Go to the beginning of
Go to on-line
essays by James Park,
organized into 10 subject-areas.
Go to the UNITARIAN
the beginning of this website