05/01/2013 11:03 am ET Updated Jul 01, 2013

Jason Collins, Bible Verses and the Truth About God's Word

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"I'm a 34-year-old NBA center. I'm black. And I'm gay."

Much has been written and said about Jason Collins' historic announcement, but it seems to me we have not yet reached the deepest implications. As a sympathetic outsider to religion, I'd like to try.

Put simply, it's this: Scripture is whatever you make of it. To Jason Collins, as to a growing majority of Americans, the Bible is a call to show a loving and tolerant attitude toward others.

To an angry minority -- those who cling to what I call Old Time Religion -- the Bible is a set of rules laid down by a wrathful, judging God. In their eyes, the issue of gay rights is simple. Here's how one Christian website puts it: "The Bible's condemnation of homosexuality is as clear and plain as the Bible's condemnation of murder, adultery, premarital sex, kidnapping, lying and idolatry."

So, who is right? At first blush, it might appear that the Bible thumpers trump the warm-and-fuzzy hermeneuticals. After all, they have God's Word on their side. It's right there in the Bible: "If a man practices homosexuality, having sex with another man as with a woman, both men have committed a detestable act. They must both be put to death, for they are guilty of a capital offense."

But hold on. Blushes can be deceiving. In reality, "The Bible" does not exist. Instead, from the very beginning down to the present time there have always existed many significantly differing Scriptures. Chances are the Bible of your great-grandfather is not the Bible of your church today. The King James version, always my favorite, condemns to death "a man [who] also lie[s] with mankind." It leaves open the question of whether this refers to a temple rite or a general practice (the context of this passage is the rival temple of Moloch), and it is utterly silent on the question of lesbian relationships. The Bible many evangelicals use conveniently alters the language to a wholesale condemnation of same sex intimate relationships.

The mere existence of ambiguity in translation and the omission of lesbian relationships from the rule ought to make a thoughtful believer question whether this is truly God's Word. But that is only the first layer of the onion. Though it may bring tears to the eyes of some, we have an obligation to peel on.

At the next layer we find that, according to the same chapter of Leviticus, God has many other commandments that don't get quite as much air time on rightwing broadcasts as homosexuality. Take Levitticus 10: "And the man that committeth adultery ... shall surely be put to death."

Yet, Newt Gingrich lives! Not only lives, but also garnered much of the evangelical vote in the 2012 Republican primaries in the South. The unholy truth is that nearly everyone ignores the Bible bits they find distasteful or abhorrent. Apart from the fanatical fringe, no one calls for the death penalty for adultery. No one calls for the stoning of witches and wizards. No one brings up the Curse of Ham as a justification for the enslavement of African-Americans.

Yet, those Bible verses have been foundation stones of policy in the past. Tens of thousands of women were burned, hanged or stoned to death in the witch hunts of Europe and North America. Millions of Africans were held in bondage for generations on the justification that the Bible said they were doomed to slavery when Noah cursed his son. If the Bible was wrong about those atrocities, then surely it is wrong to deny gays the right to love and wed. If it was right, well, then "back to the Bible" takes on a new and ominous meaning.

Time to peel down to the core: The Bible is not, and could not be, the literal word of God. Here's why: If you take God to be a supremely perfect being, then He could not logically produce a document filled with moral flaws, factual errors and logical contradictions. Yet, that is what the Bible, and indeed all Scriptures, is. That alone should be sufficient proof that they are human, not divine, works.

But there is more: If God had something to communicate, you would know it directly. The ancient desert dwellers who wrote down Scripture had no way of knowing that other civilizations existed in places like sub-Saharan Africa, Cambodia, China and South America. They had no notion that there were cultures scattered across the Pacific Islands, or tribes across Europe and North America. The idea that a just God would communicate vital, fate-determining information in just one time and place and then sit back and wait millennia for the Word to spread is, to put it plainly, absurd.

The only reasonable conclusion to draw is that Scriptures are human attempts to make sense of belief in the divine. As such they are cultural documents, subject to continual interpretation. If we believe in democracy, we must believe in the right of interpretation. But, by the same token, we must seek the right interpretation. Our inborn sense of fairness, combined with advances in knowledge, leads us toward a more just society. It began with the Enlightenment idea that all of us are created equal, it advanced with the recognition that this is true regardless of race, gender and other traits, and the circle of equality is about to widen again.

The only thing that stands in its way is a mistaken or hypocritical belief in Scriptural commandments. But remember: Scripture is what you make of it.