Sunday, November 2, 2008

Emails to a Skeptic #3: Taking the Bible Literally

My friend wrote:

More things that trouble me . . . if you take the Bible literally then you are stuck with the Young Earth idea and the Flood actually happening sometime around 2500 BC, which I think most intelligent people would find extremely unlikely.  And so if you decide not to take the Bible literally well then it's basically just a book, not divinely inspired.  But if it's not divinely inspired, then what's the point?

With respect to the dichotomy you describe between "taking the Bible literally" (and buying into a young-earth style creationism) or "then it's basically just a book, not divinely inspired," well, that's one that bothered me for a long time too. Now, though, I have a hard time remembering why, or at least, feeling why it bothered me so much. In brief, I think that the dichotomy you describe is something that fundamentalists invented in the late 19th century. It isn't a part of historic Christianity at all, and I don't think it's true. And I'll go a bit further: to the extent that you continue to buy into it, you'll always remain a fundamentalist: either a religious fundamentalist or an atheist fundamentalist. (On a side note, there are plenty of atheist fundamentalists around, not least on Fundamentalism is a temptation for anyone with strong opinions on religious questions, and one doesn't stop being the sort of person who thinks, feels and responds like a fundamentalist by merely ceasing to believe in God.)

Here's an example of what I mean. For the sake of argument, let's assume that the Bible is, in some sense, the Word of God. If so, it's abundantly clear that God can use different genres of literature as the vehicle for inspiration: letters (e.g., Romans, Philemon), history (Acts, Kings), poetry (Psalms, Isaiah), weird-ass apocalyptic stuff (Daniel, Revelation), and so on: and, again, working off our assumption that God somehow inspired all this, presumably it communicates a certain sort of truth: not necessarily propositional truth, but something about the nature of God, of the world, and the sort of people He created.

Now, have you ever found a certain sort of truth, maybe even a profound and moving truth, in a story that clearly wasn't "true"? From your career as a fellow geek, I'll assume that you've probably read The Lord of the Rings, and that would be an example of the sort of story I mean. If you're so unlucky as to remain unmoved by LOTR, though, just think of any novel or short story or movie that struck you as revealing an astonishing truth about the world. Well, I don't think it's at all a priori unlikely that God could, on occasion, use stories like that to reveal truth, as the vehicles of divine inspiration. And indeed, when I sit down and look at the Bible, it seems pretty clear that certain books like Jonah, Esther, Job and even Genesis are writings of that sort. I think they express truth, and beyond that, I think they somehow communicate inspired truth, but I don't think there's any reason to believe that they express truth about history.

Now, I don't think that every book of the Bible is that way. Parts are clearly intended as history and, so far as I can tell, are reasonably accurate. The Gospels are probably this way: they tell you what the historical Jesus actually said and did. To be sure, I don't think they record what you would have seen if you'd had a video camera there. They're more like the movie Gandhi, which communicated fairly accurately who Gandhi was, even though it ignored certain aspects of his life, conflated some events, and even made up other incidents out of whole cloth. Or if you're a Shakespeare fan (or a Kenneth Branagh fan, which may amount to the same thing), watch Henry V, and then read up on the actual battle of Agincourt (and the events preceding and following it). If you want the "historical Jesus", you're probably going to have to do a bit of digging, but ultimately, the Jesus that meets us in the Gospels is the real thing, just like Shakespeare's Henry V is in some sense really Henry V.

But all of that to say – I think it's silly to read Genesis, and start adding numbers up. It's just not that sort of book. The truth that it tells touches on the truths of astrophysics, geology and paleontology in a quite tangential fashion.

I'll admit, it's not easy to start reading the Bible the way that I'm describing. If you're used to reading it in a particular fashion, or if you've heard it preached in a particular way your whole life, you can't pull your mind out of those channels easily. But it's possible, and once you've successfully done it for a while, you'll wonder what all the bother was. It's a little like discovering that you've been riding a bicycle backwards your whole life. It's complicated and difficult to figure out how to ride it facing forward, and you'll take a few falls. But once you figure it out, you'll wonder how you could have managed so long trying to turn your neck around to see where you were going.

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