Monday, 13 February 2012

An Invitation to Convert Me (via the comments thread)

This isn't the kind of post I'd normally make. What I'm trying to do, normally, is to share ideas I find interesting or puzzling, and perhaps provoke some discussion of them in the comments thread so as to get new and better insights. I may illustrate some of these ideas with personal anecdotes, or give a bit of personal background as to how I came to be thinking of them, but the posts themselves are not intended to be about me. They're about the ideas.

Yet I have noticed, particularly when I post about religious ideas, that some commenters feel the need to try to convert me to their religion. In the past I've had long religious discussions in email as a result of articles on my old web page, also aimed at convincing me to adopt this or that set of beliefs. I've also enjoyed my discussions with the Jehovah's Witnesses and other proselytizers who come to me door on occasion.

I do enjoy such discussions, but they're not always directly appropriate to the topic at hand. While it might well be true that if I believed this or that claim about the Gospels, I'd no longer care about the question posed in a blog post, the fact is that I am at the moment interested in the question, and so might any reader who took the time to read the original post.

So the purpose of this blog posting is to provide an appropriate comment thread in which to persuade me that I should accept the Bible as the literal Word of God, and of whatever it is that you might think follows from that claim. I don't mean to imply that people posting in this thread are unwelcome to contribute in other comment threads as well, but I do request that comments be related directly to the subject of the posting that starts the thread.

I suppose I should begin by giving my reasons for not currently accepting the Bible as the literal word of God. For one, there's a basic epistemic hurdle: the only basis I've seen for taking it as God's Word is that, well, other people have earnestly said it is, and I while I tend to trust people as being generally honest, I don't trust them never to be mistaken. True, there are some passages in the Scriptures that make some claims to divine authority, but those also suffer from a similar problem: just because someone claims to be speaking the Word of God doesn't mean he is. He could be lying, or sincere but deluded.

But another reason is that, in my reading of the Bible so far, most of the books do not claim to be divinely authoritative, and in many cases identify themselves as the works of identifiable mortal humans. Indeed, pretty much all of the New Testament consists of epistles from this or that disciple (Paul being the most voluminous) to various recipients, preaching about God but for the most part not claiming to be God. The Gospels, too, are presented as the testimonies of authors known as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and thus presumably represent the differing perspectives of individual humans on the events described within. And in the Old Testament, though tradition states that Moses himself wrote the Pentateuch, that seems unlikely, given that he dies before the end of Exodus, and no explanation is given as to how he'd be a reliable authority on the events of Genesis. (One might assume God told him, but that can only work to sustain the premise that the Bible is God's word; it cannot count as evidence for the premise.) Plus, having just finished Psalms and now slogging my way through Proverbs, I can't help but see a lot of this stuff as historical text written by people with political agendas (Solomon proposing to cut the baby in half as a veiled threat to tear apart the kingdom in a civil war, for example) and self-indulgent ego-fests like Mao's Little Red Book. (Seriously, Psalms seems like a collection of King David's Greatest Hits (and some not-so-great which no one would dare to call less than great), while Proverbs reads like Solomon sat down and scribbled out a couple of hundred, perhaps planning on selecting just the best for a small collection of pithy sayings, and some toadying yes-man of an editor told him, "Sire, they're ALL so good! I couldn't bear to cut a single one!" Even though an awful lot look like edits and re-edits of the same trite observation.)

So in other words, it really doesn't read like God wrote it. Not that I have any idea how God writes (though I'd kind of expect high standards), but I don't see anything about the style, structure or organization that sets the book apart from any other human creation. In short, it looks to me like exactly what you'd expect from a collection of ancient myths, historical/political texts (and a few straight attempts at narrative fiction, poetry and philosophy, like Job, Psalms, Proverbs and the Song of Solomon), combined with the newer quasi-historical accounts and evangelical letters of the New Testament, all arbitrarily selected by the Council of Nicea in accordance with the dominant religious agenda of the time. I see no compelling reason to see it as anything other than a human text, about God, perhaps, but not by God except in the same empty sense that everything else is as well.

That's how I see it, anyway. I hereby cordially invite any and all of you use the comments thread to persuade me why I should (or shouldn't) adopt a different view of the Bible.


  1. My favourite parts concern dietary restrictions. They were appropriate guidlines for healthy eating at the time. No pork because of trickanosis (sp?!)etc. Now, not so relevent. I have no problem with people doing whatever diets they like, but nice to have a reason, even if it's illogical or ideology based.
    (Sorry, this was not an attempt to convert you and, hence, not really following the thread.)

  2. I remember someone once telling me that the various rules in Leviticus, which include the kosher dietary restrictions, were actually a collection of the various customs of several different tribes of Israel, and that prior to their being recorded in writing, no one from any of the tribes thought it necessary to follow ALL of them. Not sure where I heard that or whether it was true, but it's an interesting idea, and consistent with the cobbled-together style of parts of the Torah.

  3. THe Bible as we know it is a translation of a translation of a translation of many books which were re-edited by a large number of different men who represented a large number of different political/social camps over a very large amount of time. Oh yes and there were also a number of tribes represented in each original text. Taking such a work "literally" is beyond absurd. Using it as a text upon which to base a religious belief is fine, but of course the only way to do so is to pick and choose what you're going to incorporate into your belief structure.

  4. It's worth noting that a great many adherents to religions do not believe their various scriptures to be the 'literal' word of their God(s); that assuption is oft used to set up a critique. Conversely, it irks me when someone says X is what (name a religion) followers believe, when there are such a diversity of interpretations - just as there are on secular subjects. Like 'scientists say...' when many scientists may have alternate explanations for the same phenomena. Until experimental evidence is there, it's a question of (gasp) belief. Great topic!

  5. Well, I'm not about to attempt to convert anyone to a literalistic Biblical beleif -- I don't believe it myself, though I do believe that the Bible is the Word of God.
    Couple of technical points -- the canon of the New Testament was not actually set at the Council of Nicaea in 325. The formal accepted canon was finally put together in the seventh century. However, you can find reference in the middle of the second century (e.g., Irenaeus around 180 AD) to an accepted canon that greatly resembles the current version (24 of the 27 books). There were a couple of books that were problematic (such as Hebrews) for a long time, but the major part of the text -- the synoptics and the writings of Paul -- were more or less universally accepted as scripture pretty much from the beginning. So it's quite inaccurate to suggest that the formation of the canon was some sort of arbitrary selection out of a pool of writings. Rather, it was a formalization of what had been a general consensus for centuries.

  6. Frances, yes, that's another point, and one I'd mentioned in another content thread: the "chain of custody", so to speak, of the original message. That there has been so much translation and other human intervention in the transmission of the text that even if we do accept it as originally divinely authoritative, we need to postulate a large number of intervening miracles to keep it so to the present day version. In this context we can't rule out miracles, but we could in principle conduct an experiment: try to deliberately, perversely mistranslate the Bible, and see if it's possible.

    Alan, I don't think I'm setting up a straw man here; I have been urged to accept the Bible literally often enough to know that this really is what some Christians believe, and I'm hoping some will present their best arguments here, and maybe even convince me. I agree with you that there is usually a wider diversity of belief than just "X is what these people believe", and in fact that very diversity is another thing that leads me to doubt; if two people are each utterly convinced that their interpretation of scripture is divinely right and the other's is wrong, they can't BOTH be right, and in the absence of a compelling reason to choose one over the other, I am forced to view both as potentially the wrong one, even if it turns out that one is in fact right.

    MIchael, thank you for correcting me on the date of the formalization of canon. And thank you also for being the only person on the this thread so far to state that you believe the Bible is the Word of God, even if not to be interpreted literally. Can you explain to what that means to you? I presume that in some way you hold the Bible to be distinct from other works, so that the Yellow Pages aren't the Word of God in the way that the Bible is, but I'd like to know in in what sense, and why it matters?

  7. I believe that the Bible contains God's message as to who He is and how I am supposed to live. I believe that in some way the various authors of the Bible were inspired by God to present that truth. Yes, they were fallible human beings limited by their histrorical and cultural context, but nonetheless divinely inspired.

    This, by the way, is why I can't accept literalism -- understanding the Bible depends on understanding the historical, cultural and literary contexts in which the various books were written. Plus the fact that much of it is poetry, parable or apocalytic literature.

    I remember a discussion I had as an undergraduate with my Religious Studies professor about the nature of the Bible. This was during my fundamentalist phase, and I was committed to the concept of Biblical inerrancy. My professor instead talked about the idea of the Bible as authoritative, as opposed to inerrant. This wound up making far more sense to me.

    So for me, the Bible provides the framework for my faith, the source of moral authority and the guidepost for how I should live my life. This goes to the question of why it matters that the Bible is the Word of God. As the Word of God, the Bible provides a framework for acting on my faith.

  8. That's an eminently reasonable way to take it, but I still don't see how that sets the Bible apart from any other work that might serve as a useful guidepost. Why would Paul's epistles be privileged, but not those of C.S. Lewis? Not that I think Lewis' insights were especially helpful, but there are those who follow his apologetic writings very closely and give them great credence; would it not be reasonable for such followers to assert that Lewis was inspired in the same way Paul was?

    Or more broadly, isn't it as consistent to say that God, as the ultimate creator of everything, therefore speaks through everything, whether it be books or fossils or aquarium filters or galaxies? And that therefore one can, if one listens carefully, discern God's voice or inspiration in any part of creation one chooses? And if this is so, why single out the Bible as especially inspired? I can see singling it out as especially useful to a particular reader, perhaps more accessible or more to the point on certain topics, but no more inherently divine than a dandelion seed.

  9. Skating dangerously close to Thomas Aquinas, Tom. I would actually agree that it is possible to discern God's voice or draw at least some inspiration from all around me. Actually, Paul makes that very point in his epistle to the Romans.

    Ultimately, what makes the Bible unique is Jesus. For me as a Christian, the context and content of faith is found in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and how He bridges the gulf between me and God that I have created through my sin. For me, as a Christian, that is the central core of faith, and Jesus is ultimately the lens through which I interpret the Bible.

    So, in one sense, it boils down to a question of faith. I make a commitment to a faith, a way of life, that is ultimately centred around the Bible as the ultimate source of the message of Jesus. It's also a question of degree. While I could, can and do draw inspiration out of other other sources -- to an extent -- what I draw from other sources will always be coloured by the context of my faith and belief structure as a Christian.

    [A quick aside on C.S. Lewis. Personally, I like some of his work and dislike some of it. However, it would be highly unlikely for anyone who appreciates the work of Lewis would equate it to scripture, by virtue of the fact that such individuals would come out of a tradition of "sola scriptura," and therefore could in no way equate any set of writings to scripture.]

    For me, then, it ultimately revolves around faith. Of course, at that point, it is no longer reasoned, intellectual proof. I will freely admit that I can not provide any proof -- and probably not a particularly convincing intellectual argument -- in favour of the unique inspirational value of the Bible as the Word of God.

  10. I don't have any problem with faith, as the first posting on this blog should show. I DO have some issues with where people choose to place it, and of course placing in a literal text (sola scriptura) strikes me as a particularly risky and also impious approach.

    Would you say it's sort of like I might respect and admire the character of Socrates, as he appears in the dialogs of Plato, and thus take Plato's works as "canonical" while treating Xenophon's version of the Apology as apocryphal, and disregarding the portrayal in Aristophanes' Clouds as obvious fiction? Not that I ascribe Plato any divine authority, but clearly it's Plato's Socrates and not that of Aristophanes that I regard as more meaningful when I consider the kind of Socrates I admire?

  11. That's a reasonably apt analogy. Plato's portrayal of Socrates resonates with you, Aristophanes' does not. Also, I would expect, the difference in literary form and intent of the author would make a difference, not to mention the relationship between the writer and Socrates.

    One point about the concept of sola scriptura. This concept revolves around the idea that for a Christian, the Bible is the primary source of inspiration and teaching about the nature of Christianity. This was one of the central themes of the Protestant Reformation, rejecting the Catholic traditions which included papal authority (although of course the doctrine of papal infallibility was a later concept). In and of itself the idea of sola scriptura does not equate to or imply a literal approach to the Bible. My own views tend to follow the idea of sola scriptura, in that no other source is equal in inspiration to the Bible; however, I in no way ascribe to a literalist approach.

    I would agree that a literalist approach (especially when coupled with the concept of Biblical inerrancy) can be very dangerous. The classic example is the creationist movement. Members of this group are so committed to the idea of showing the Bible to be literally correct, that they have been willing to falsify data and in effect lie, violating Biblical moral instructions in order to preserve the inerrancy of the Bible.

  12. I had always thought that sola scriptura was usually taken to mean that you didn't need any interpretive framework or tradition (and perhaps especially not that of the Pope), and that the text alone was all you needed. Which IS the way literalists take it, of course: that the Bible means exactly what it says, literally. Which is kind of silly, because taking it literally is itself an interpretive framework, and not necessarily any purer than any other. And the literalists do end up being forced to engage in all sorts of interpretive framing and re-framing, such as when confronted with the apparent fact that the very first words God says to man in Genesis are literally untrue. They end up having to say things like, "Well, it means a spiritual death, not physical." Which is fine by me, but it strays from the literal. Such problems do not arise if you allow yourself to read and interpret in a literary, rather than literal, mode.

  13. At least originally, it was more about placing the Bible by itself as the source of inspiration about God, Jesus and salvation, rather than the Bible standing equally with church tradition and the episcopacy as the source.

    The original concept did not necessarily imply a literalistic approach to scripture, as in this section of the Westminster Confession:

    All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.

    The more literalistic approach is more a concept of the fundamentalist movement, which stems from the 19th Century, and was itself a reaction to the birth of the more modern methods of biblical criticism -- the Dreaded Liberals.

  14. That point, about the learned and the unlearned being able to attain salvation solely by means of scripture, reminds me of another point that has amused me at times in the past. Someone who was proselytizing to me insisted that God made it all simple, so even he could understand and be saved. Yet I don't think he understood that making it easy for him to understand also made it difficult for me to accept; the story as he told it, though simple, didn't make sense upon deeper reflection. The one-size-fits-all approach to salvation, that is, to what must be done in one's own mind to attain it, just couldn't wash for me if it demanded me to do something that seemed intellectually dishonest.