A Humanist Bible?

By Armin Rosen
Monday, December 12, 2011

According to Jewish tradition, the Torah was delivered to Moses by God on Mount Sinai thousands of years ago.  A.C. Grayling's The Good Book: A Humanist Bible claims humbler origins. That text was given to us by a British philosophy professor this past summer. It's not a work of revelation, but of provocation, or maybe it's a work of revelation and provocation both: as Grayling writes in his opening Epistle to the Reader, his is "a text made from all times for all times, its aspiration and aim the good for humanity and the good of the world." The Good Book isn't a crude, anti-religious rant of the sort we've come to expect from Grayling's fellow Brits Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. Grayling's project has organized religion in its crosshairs, but it also makes certain powerful claims about the meaning and purpose of human existence.

Most interestingly, The Good Book communicates these claims using the Bible's structure and methodology.  It is comprised of fourteen "books" (Genesis, Wisdom, Parables, Concord, Lamentations, Consolations, Sages, Songs, Histories, Proverbs, The Lawgiver, Acts, Epistles, and The Good). As in the Bible, each book is divided into chapters and verses, and The Good Book incorporates a broad range of literary forms and styles, including poetry, history, aphorism, prophetic narrative, and wisdom literature. Of course, Grayling's historian isn't Ezra, the traditional author of the pseudo-historical Books of Chronicles, but writers like Thucydides, Herodotus, and Plutarch, whose accounts of Roman and Greek history are included in Grayling's books of Histories and Acts. His prophets are Greek and Roman philosophers, thinkers like Lucretius and Demosthenes who contributed to the classical dialogue on how to live and what it means to live, without reference to supernatural authority. For Grayling, whose redactions try to reproduce the elegant simplicity of many mainstream Bible translations, the Bible is a good book hampered by a slew of bad messages.  Fortunately, Grayling is intellectually honest enough to understand that the sledgehammer approach of a Hitchens or a Dawkins is insufficient here. If a book calling itself a "Humanist Bible" is to offer a true alternative, it must be something more than mere gimmick or polemic.

The real drama in The Good Book lies in watching Grayling articulate a comprehensive system that aspires to the same intellectual depth and moral seriousness as religion itself.  Grayling's system is so fully-formed and painstakingly articulated that it deserves a side-by-side comparison with its chief inspiration and foe.

To begin with, Graylingism is based on the premise that all the guidance an individual needs in order to live a full, meaningful life can be found either in works of classical Greek and Roman literature or works that are somehow conversant with that literature (there's some Chinese poetry and political philosophy, but the Western tradition is Grayling's bedrock). For 3,000 years, science, literature, and secular philosophy have tried to answer the Big Questions, and The Good Book, like the Bible, tells a story that begins in the very earliest period of human civilization. But while the Tanakh, crudely speaking, is about the formation of the Jewish people, The Good Book uses literary works of a comparable vintage to tell the story of man's discovery of his own capabilities—the story of humanity becoming itself.

In Grayling's telling, this process can be traced through the formation of systems of fair and equitable social organization, and the Book of the Lawgiver is a synthesis of liberal-minded classical and enlightenment-era political philosophy. Humanity also became itself by coming to grips with the temporary and frail nature of individual existence; Lamentations and Consolations are largely about coping with aging and death. Perhaps most importantly, humanity became itself by coming face to face with its own capacity for violence and cruelty. At 188 pages, the Book of Histories accounts for almost a third of The Good Book. A retelling of the events surrounding the wars between the Greeks and Persians, it is deliberately stomach-churning. In chapter 38, we read that while preparing to repel a Persian invasion, the Babylonians devised a novel method for enabling their grain stores to weather a long siege: they "first set apart their mothers, and then each man chose besides out of his whole household one woman, whichever he pleased; These alone were allowed to live, while all the rest were brought to one place and strangled." In chapter 85, in an incident that's superfluous to the book's narrative arc, a eunuch exacts revenge on his former master by forcing him to castrate his own sons.

The Book of Histories culminates in the Greek defeat of the Persians and the flourishing of philosophy and Hellenic civilization: "Let us day by day fix our eyes on the good, until we become filled with the love of it," read the book's final lines. "And then we will have helped fulfill the promise that lay in the victory of the Greeks over the Persians; to be free in honor, and wise in freedom" (revealingly, Grayling isn't one for political correctness). Humanity's process of self-creation is, in Grayling's mind, foregrounded by the knowledge of what mankind is capable of at its worst. 

The Jewish process of political and religious self-determination was catalyzed by similar realities. The trajectory of the Israelites in the Tanakh begins with chaos and disorganization (check out the entire book of Judges) and progresses towards order, cooperation, and community. The Good Book evokes a similar narrative for the human race at large: beginning as savages, humans become the supreme masters of their destiny, mostly by embracing logic, reason, and Greek philosophy. If The Good Book left me convinced of anything, it's that this is actually a much emptier achievement than Grayling believes it to be.

Despite their many virtues, Greek philosophy and the Western humanist tradition don't hold up as a basis for a pseudo-religious system of belief. In Grayling's Book of Consolations, the speaker offers the following advice to a man named Apollonius, whose son has recently died:

So also in life many diverse circumstances occur which bring their changes and reversals to human fortunes; this everyone knows who lives. Yet to try to find constancy in what is inconstant is a trait of people who do not rightly reason about the circumstances of life.

That may be, but doesn't life often present us with circumstances that can't, and shouldn't, be rightly reasoned through? Later, in the Book of Sages, we learn that "what the superior man seeks is in himself. What the inferior man seeks is in others."  So it's a weakness to acknowledge one's shortcomings and look to one's friends, family, or community for spiritual or intellectual support? As a religion, humanism reveals itself to be surprisingly inhumane.

But Grayling's system has an even more fundamental problem: when everyone's a part of the great human community of humanists, no one is. For a Jewish reader, one of the most incredible things about the Tanakh is that it's about you—that its voices are Jewish voices that wrestle with Jewish problems. For instance, in chapter two of Eicha (Lamentations), the speaker talks himself through the horrors he is witnessing:

The Lord has rejected His altar,
Disdained His Sanctuary.
He has handed over to the foe
The walls of his citadels;
They raised a shout in the House of the Lord
As on a festival day.

For the speaker, God has inverted the entire cosmic order, with a kind of reverse-God presiding over a reverse-Sabbath celebrated in His profaned and ruined sanctuary. The speaker struggles to comprehend how a community can survive such a catastrophe while preserving some version of its values and beliefs—and does so in a vocabulary that Jews can readily understand.

Grayling's Book of Lamentations is also about you, but in a very different sense. You, as a human being, must occasionally suffer and eventually die; that is the tragedy of your condition. "My prime of youth is a frost of cares, my feast of joy but a dish of pain," the speaker laments in chapter four. "Alas," chapter 12 reads, "the truth is that we suffer, and carry the burden of existence, and there is no remedy better than illusion." In The Good Book, your tragedies and problems are of a lonely, atomizing nature. The "you" of The Good Book finds meaning through comprehending "the burden of existence," but the "you" of the Tanakh is all but commanded to care about something other than individuated suffering and frailty.

Despite their differences, Judaism and Graylingism share many of the same goals. "Truly," Grayling's Book of the Good states, "our great and glorious masterpiece is to live appropriately." Judaism's 613 commandments propound a similar concept.  But for Jews, living appropriately is an affirmation of religious and national belonging; Kabbalah holds the performance of a mitzvah to be nothing less than a mystical and theological act. In Graylingism, "living appropriately" means nothing more than sucking it up and suffering alone.

In the end, The Good Book can be forgiven for formulating an unsatisfying moral and spiritual system, as the act of formulation is arguably more important than its result. In audaciously plotting a belief system meant to vanquish religion, The Good Book displays surprising sensitivity toward its ostensible target. After all, Grayling articulates a common destiny for the human race (even if it's mostly an empty one), and even offers a collection of books and literary works that can form the basis for a shared set of values and ideals. This is more than just anti-religion mimicking religion—this is metaphysics, full stop.

There is a long tradition of spiritually-grounded critiques of religion, and Grayling's effort deserves to be placed among them.  Arguably, it is the tradition to which the kabbalists, Martin Buber, Derrida, and every other radical re-interpreter of religion belongs. For these thinkers, religion doesn't offer security or certainty or even the ultimate truth—but instead of rendering religion useless, this lack of empirical, explanatory power actually enhances religion's value and its urgency.

I'm not sure Grayling would cite these thinkers as his intellectual forebears. But a Hitchens or Dawkins-like enemy of religion wouldn't co-opt the language, form, and narrative of religion with such adoration or care. They wouldn't know how to. Grayling, in writing his Bible to end all Bibles, doesn't flee from religion so much as into it.

Armin Rosen is a New York-based freelance writer. His work has appeared on the Atlantic and the New Republic's websites, and in Tablet magazine. 

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