WORDS FOR THE HEART
DECEMBER 25, 1996
David Gergen, editor-at-large of U.S. News & World Report, engages Peter Gomes, Professor of Christian Morals and Minister of the Memorial Church at Harvard University, author of The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart.
A RealAudio version of this NewsHour segment is available.
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DAVID GERGEN, U.S. News & World Report: Dr. Gomes, in your book you write that many Americans are on "a pilgrimage for spirituality." Now, in that phrase, you capture something of us sense but havenít quite understood very well. What do you mean by it? What do you see happening?
PETER GOMES, Author, "The Good Book": I think it says a tremendous discontent with things as they have been, things as they are, and a sense that there must be--there has to be something better than the status quo, or what passes for reality. And people I think now, having tried everything else and tried all of the options to make our lives useful and meaningful and hopeful, have decided that theyíre going to really, in a sense, search for the Grail. They really are going to look for something that gives value and meaning and a power to their lives. And for many people in some respects thatís a return to a kind of spiritual cohesion that they might have departed from, but for many others, itís a new adventure, a new discovery. But whether theyíre old added or new added, my sense is that you can feel it across the country. Everywhere you go in every dimension, there is this hunger and thirsting after the things--the deep things--of life.
DAVID GERGEN: Well, now youíve written a book about the Bible. What role can the Bible play, should it play, is it available to play to those who are on that search?
PETER GOMES: Well, Iím absolutely convinced that the Bible, the power of the Bible is not so much in its lofty theologizing or in its sort of doctrinal purity or clarity because it isnít doctrinal purity or clarity. But what is powerful about it is that it is a record of people very much like ourselves who have been engaged in such a pilgrimage and many of them have achieved the result of that pilgrimage. Many of them have had deep encounters of the ultimate kind with God. And the Bibleís a record of that experience. So when we read it, we are reading the experiences of companions along this pilgrimage. Itís sort of a gift from experienced pilgrims to inexperienced ones. And the Bible letís us know that we are neither alone in our despair or our anxiety, nor are we alone in our search, and we certainly are not alone in the joys and the hopes that await us and that are ours already in the process.
DAVID GERGEN: Thereís this wonderful phrase from Celtic mythology about thin places, those places where the temporal and the spiritual meet, those two realms meet. Tell us about that.
PETER GOMES: Well, I owe this to my old friend at Harvard, Charles Dunne, a great Celcist, and it was and is this concept that there are places in the world and places in our lives experiences where what would appear to be the borders and the strong walls that divide one real from the other are very thin, almost permeable. One can in a sense spiritually see through them or hear through them or feel through them, and in ancient times, long before Christianity was ever about, these were places that the wise, the ancient wise, built temples or had their holy places, or understood extraordinary things to happen. In Ireland, for example, say Kevinís Glenn to this day is one of those thin places and where the so-called "little people" are. They are diadems between one realm and the other.
Now, we pass a lot of that off as sort of mythology and what not, but the fact of the matter is that the early Christians built their places of worship on places that had been made holy because of these experiences so that the ground on which many churches stand is not holy because churches are there. Churches stood there because that ground was thought to be holy. Now Iíve sort of taken that and sort of run with it, as preachers do, with the notion that this is a realm where the spiritual and the "this worldly" are in very intimate proximity, very close, and one can begin to, in a sense, be relieved of the burdens of the oppression of materialism and the kind of heavy duty rationality that sort of drives us all to a sort of irrational early grave, and here one becomes in touch with the deep forces, the spiritual forces of life that begin to give perspective, as well as meaning.
DAVID GERGEN: Thatís where the pilgrimage should take you, in effect.
PETER GOMES: Exactly. The pilgrimage I think draws you to a place where you can be in a way dispossessed of all of the things that heretofore were thought to be valuable and significant and important. You sort of put those things aside and you are then ready to both respond to and receive a kind of spiritual insight, a kind of wittering, what the Buddhists in ancient times call a formal enlightenment. You have an almost "a-ha" kind of experience, and itís not simply coming to sort of doctrinal clarity. Itís coming to a sense of who you are and even more important than that "whose" you are.
DAVID GERGEN: Right. Well, many people must come to you and say I grew up not knowing much about the Bible, this old joke that you cite, some people think that the Epistles were the wives of the Apostles. (laughing) They say to you, Dr. Gomes, I want to understand the Bible, where do I start, should I start with Genesis and read the Revelations, what should I do?
PETER GOMES: Oh, the best advice is donít start at the beginning because youíll never make it not only to the end, youíll never make it to the first third of the thing. The Bible is not a book to be read like trying to tunnel under the English Channel from Dover to Calle. You wonít get there.
My advice has always been start with an accessible book and I suggest start with the psalms. Now people will say, oh, but the psalms are so pretty and musical, shouldnít I take something stronger? If you read the psalms, read them all, and read them at a pretty intense clip--donít spend all year doing it, do it over the course of a couple of weeks--you will find in those 150 psalms such an acute range of human experience youíll think has been written by your therapist, the point where it has anger, it has joy, it has exaltation, it has that--that psalm that Jesus uses on the cross in his moment of utter despair, "My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?" It has that wonderful pastoral sound, the 23rd psalm. It has in psalm 73 the great frustration that we all feel, why do the wicked prosper, and why do I, a virtuous man, get shoved about hither and yon? Thatís all in there.
DAVID GERGEN: After the psalm, where should we go?
PETER GOMES: From the psalms, Iíd say once you sort of gotten the grounding and this notion that God has something through the psalms to say to all of your conditions and you can, therefore, speak in that language, then I think I advise you to go to the New Testament and go straight away to the first Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, which paint marvelously and varied pictures of Jesus, and in Matthew 5, following the Beatitudes and the sermon on the Mount, there, there you should bathe, you should sort of take that in like a milk bath, just luxuriate in that. Once youíve done that, been strengthened by that, then you can begin some of the Epistles of Paul. Donít start with Paul, but prepare yourself.
DAVID GERGEN: Maybe the Acts.
PETER GOMES: The Acts of the Apostles too, Iíd do the Acts before Paul actually, because that shows how people responded to the message of Jesus, then to Paul in such letters as Corinthians, which has that wonderful passage about love, Ephesians, and Philippians, wonderful, strong Epistles to young Christian churches. J.B. Phillips used to call the Epistles letters to young churches. And we could call them post-its or notes to young Christians or would-be spiritual voyeurs. Thatís important stuff there. Once youíve done that--
DAVID GERGEN: Then come back.
PETER GOMES: Then come back to the Old Testament, realizing that Jesus and Paul and all the apostles were Jews, so you need to know the religion of the Jews. Thatís the point where you begin Genesis and Exodus. You can skip Leviticus if you want to, come back when youíre really ready for a lot of heavy duty stuff, and then read the early history of Israel. Then go to the great profits, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, then for some variety there are those wonderful evocative books, Jobe, whose story is everybodyís story. The roof, whose story resonates in everyoneís life. The Book of Jonah, a wonderful moral tale, things like that. Do that over the course of a year, following roughly that pattern. Do it first as a private exercise, but then recognize it as part of your public worship when you hear these passages read out in church. Youíll begin to become intimate with this book, acquainted with this book.
DAVID GERGEN: We have to close, Iím afraid, but then that also begins, you feel, seeps into your life, and begins to change your--
PETER GOMES: Oh, absolutely. I believe that you begin to recognize that the spiritual life is not an alternative to the life youíre living. The spiritual life is the only life worth living, and it begins to provide the basis for your thinking and your feeling and your being. And it will be with you from this life into the next one.
DAVID GERGEN: Dr. Gomes, thank you very much for joining us.
PETER GOMES: Thank you.