Saturday, November 1, 2008

What Does the Bible Really Say? It doesn't matter if we don't have reasons to think it's true.

Hoards of Christian sects—Lutherans, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baptists, Episcopalians, Catholics, Non-Denominational Christians (who think that they have avoided being a doctrinal sect by fiat)—have prolonged disagreements over the question of what the Bible really says. They argue, cite passages, cherry pick, and pour over the text in an attempt to settle their disagreements over who is really the true Christian, and who’s got the correct doctrinal tenants. The modus operandi for the combatants is usually something like this: approach the text (often with a predisposition towards a particular doctrine--usually those of the church you happened to grow up in or the one you’re most familiar with); find some passages that seem to generally support your take on baptism, Satan, repentance, or whatever; discount those passages that don’t support your reading by arguing that they are taken out of context or they don’t really mean what they appear to mean; reject the position of the other sect and charge that they aren’t really Christians because they aren’t following the true (your reading) word of God; feel assured that you have secured your place in heaven to watch the hellish barbecue of all those who disagree with you.

Before we consider the confusions buried in this practice, consider for a moment how much time and energy human beings have spent engaging in these sorts of textual disputes. It staggers the mind to reflect on the millions of work hours and the intellectual energies that have been poured into this textual exegesis practice.

Is there one, true real Christianity? A single doctrinal interpretation of the Bible that perfectly reflects God’s will better than all of the other Christian sects? These arguments over the text belie a naïve presumption that there is such a thing. But consider this problem from the outside. The non-believers who have made the shift see Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baptists, and Pentecostals bickering over who’s reading and understanding the book the correct way. Even among members of a sect, it is exceedingly common for people to have vicious disagreements about which way to understand a given cryptic passage. What is the real lesson we should learn from Abraham’s test of faith when God commanded him to kill Isaac? When Jesus miraculously withered the fig tree that had no fruit, what lesson was he really trying to teach us? The simple fact is that there is no widespread agreement about any of these issues even among the believers themselves. Given that so many of them have disagreed for so long about so much, it strikes those of us on the outside as ludicrous to keep scouring the texts in hopes of finding the one, real answer, whatever that may be. Texts never give us some unadulterated, interpretation less access to deep truths about reality. And all of these endless arguments over the Bible as if it does is a titanic waste of time. A text is always mediated by the background, the predispositions, the biases, the confusions, the goals, and the expectations of the reader. It just isn’t possible to read a book and not find some of what you put in there yourself.

Ironically, what many of the disputants here are doing is making appeals to evidence from other parts of the texts, from outside historical sources, or from Bible scholars. If only they could expand that respect for the relevance of evidence to a broader circle without the presumption that whatever the evidence indicates, it must corroborate some form of Christianity.

To be fair, engaging the Bible and other believers in a search for the answers does have a virtue. When believers pray, or listen to the deliverances of faith, there’s no outside check on them at all. There’s no effort to corroborate or cross check what they think with anyone else but themselves. Praying for the answers amounts to just checking to see what you want to be true. At least when they go to the Bible and discuss its meaning with other Christians there’s some effort to get some input besides just their own private thoughts. It’s a step in the right direction.

But if we have great numbers of people all bickering over the correct interpretation of a text, we have to ask this question: will prolonged analyses of the text actually produce a definitive answer to that question, or is the attempt to find the only right interpretation itself wrongheaded? Clearly it’s the latter. The interaction between reader and text never works that way.

Maybe “better interpretation” means something like “adheres more closely to the author’s intentions”? Perhaps we could make some headway on this front, assuming that the author had a set of clear, consistent intentions and that the author was able to communicate those well. If not, then we’ll have no hope of finding them in the text. One problem is that lots of literary theorists, constitutional scholars, historical philosophers, and art critics will tell us that the author’s intent may or may not be what’s important, meaningful, or useful about a text. Listen to an artist talk about their work and compare it to your impressions of it before you heard that and you’ll appreciate the difference. Often an artist’s ideas about what they are doing completely diverge from the impact that they have on us.

But there’s a more serious issue here. Suppose we manage to excavate the author’s real intentions behind the words. Then what? What does that tell us about the world? What does that tell us except that the author intended to communicate X and Y? With the Bible, the question of what Paul or Moses or Matthew intended to accomplish when they put pen to papyrus is vastly different from the question of whether what they say is true. When the homeless guy at the stop light mutters to you about alien invasions and mind control, he really sincerely intends to warn you about the impending doom from outer space, but the truth is independent of his heartfelt avowals and has to be ascertained by some metric other than “what does he mean.”

So prolonged debates about who is the true Christian are a bit like English professors arguing over who is the one true Robert Frost-ian. Imagine one of them reading a couple of Frost poems, citing several passages in support of an interpretation, and then announcing that he is the One, True, Real Robert Frost-ian, the one who has the only accurate interpretation of the text, and all of the other fake, misguided students of Frost are going to hell for their ignorance.

We make the same mistake in the perennial disagreements over what the founding fathers really meant when they wrote the Constitution, as if settling that dispute could somehow tell us what’s the right thing to do now, 200 years later. It may be that Founding Father X had view P about subject R. That’s of historical interest, I suppose. But we should be careful not to treat those guys as religious figures issuing special revelations about the truth—it’s pretty clear that that’s not what they intended. But the question of whether or not we should enact laws that affirm that view must be decided on grounds other than that some long dead person thought P about it.

The presumption through all of this for the believers, and the reason why they invest so much energy into understanding the text, is that it contains the real words of God. If you think that, then if we can figure out what it says, then we will have the deep answers, straight from the source, that we need.

But let’s consider what reasons we might have to thinking that the book contains the words of God. A temptation would be to point to the book itself and the claims that it contains about the book coming from God. But we can all see the flagrant circularity of that view: Why do I believe that the Bible is the word of God? Because the Bible says it is. And why do I believe that there is a God? Because the Bible says that there is.

No, if we are going to attach some supernatural significance to the words, then we need to find some source other than the text itself that provides us with justification for thinking that it’s a communiqué straight from the creator of the universe.

Ironically, during the first few centuries of Christianity, there were hundreds of Christian sects who were all arguing over what the real nature of Christianity was. And they wrote thousands of documents about their various doctrines. Some thought that Jesus was a man, some thought that he was not resurrected. Some thought he was just a prophet. And there were countless other variations on theme. Then in the second and third centuries, a handful of the stories were canonized by an influential group of sects and the rest of these other early Christian documents that did not conform were forcibly excluded from official recognition and they were banned as heretical. Even then, with the 27 or so books that were settled on for the New Testament, internal contradictions are rife. Look up the four different accounts of the resurrection for starters.

After this deliberate exclusion of competing stories centuries ago, we now frequently have Christians who will point to the overall coherence of the New Testament as evidence of its authenticity. The irony is that this loose coherence was forcibly created by Christians centuries after the events described, and that even with their efforts to force a single doctrinal account through the inclusion of only those books, the New Testament is still full of glaring inconsistencies. Then, centuries later, a Christian reads the book and declares “I believe that this book represents the unerring perfect word of God because it is perfectly internally consistent.”

Atheists and non-believers are prone to get caught up in this misframed dispute over what the book really says. They will fall for questions about whether or not the Bible really says X, or whether or not Catholics are really Christians, or whether or not real Muslims are intolerant of non-belief. Then discussions between believers and non-believers that had promise of getting to the heart of the matter—whether or not any of the claims are reasonable to believe—morph into disagreements about what the correct interpretation of the book is. Far too much time and energy has already been wasted studying the Bible. Before any non-believer devotes their attention to it, she should have a clear answer to this question in her head first: Do we have evidence that makes it reasonable to believe that any of the supernatural claims in this book are true? If we do not, then that should profoundly affect the attitude we take about its worthiness for study.

So one of the many troubling things about the prevalence of doctrinal disputes is the way it frames the discourse we are having about religion and God. Instead of actually talking about the reasons we might have for believing, we spin our wheels about what a loose Iron Age collection of heavily revised stories says about what some people’s views were about it 2,000 years ago.

Like George H. Bush’s crafty undermining of anti-war protesters during the first Gulf War: “They don’t support our troops! They are unpatriotic!” The protesters quickly shifted to the defensive, offering assurances that they are patriotic and that they DO support the troops. In the scuffle, the original and vitally important question of whether or not the war itself was a just one was completely lost. Those who would have argued that it is not were now investing all of their energies into proving that they are patriotic and troop loving despite their doubts about the war. It was too late for any real objections to the war because opposing the war had now been defined as being unpatriotic and troop hating.

Therefore, page shuffling discussions of whether or not the Bible really says X, and over who are the real Christians are misplaced. The notion that some source can somehow magically provide us with deep metaphysical truths about reality is a medieval myth. The real question of whether you should accept a claim as true involves the evidence, the reasons, and how well it fits with the rest of what we’ve been able to figure out about reality through science. When we consider a claim and whether or not it fits with the rest of what we believe to be true about the world, the criteria should be logical consistency, probabilistic consistency, corroboration by other known claims, predictive value, sensitivity to observations, and integration. On all of those criteria, the Bible fails horribly internally, and its incompatibility with the rest of what we now know about the world is even worse. So agonizing over what the text really says is a bit like fussing over the place settings on the Titanic.


jamie said...

What's your bottom line? What is the goal of your discussions/ blog/ life, etc? Would you be happiest or experience great benefits if faith and organized religion died? Would you prefer that humans had no faith or would you prefer disorganized religion? Just curious.

Matt McCormick said...

Having true, well-justified beliefs matters. Iron Age superstitions are dangerous. Humans are highly prone to get swept up in irrational movements/institutions/ideologies because of complicated psychological and neurological factors. Humanity is capable of acheiving great things through intellect, reason, education, and enlightenment. All the best indicators, as far as I can tell, are that the existence of God does not fit with what we know about the world. So believing is unreasonable. There's the nutshell.


Tom said...

Hi Matt,
What do you think about this response: it matters for the non-believer to engage in the discourse of "what the Bible really says" because doing so shifts the discourse in a beneficial way - namely, it helps the non-believer prove his point that the Bible is full of violence, sexism, inconsistencies, and very weird stories; in other words, he is more likely to convince believers that the non-believer's interpretation of the text is the correct one.

For instance, non-believers could focus their efforts on defending the claim that Abraham's intention to sacrifice his son is best interpreted as an immoral action. Or that 1 Corinthians 11:7 ("a woman is the reflection of man's glory")is simply a sexist precept, and moreover that the correct interpretation of this passage is that it is sexist.

Maybe engaging in this kind of talk has some merit for the non-believer. Attacking the Bible, or other holy scriptures, attacks the basis of religious claims. If you have positive reasons for thinking that the Bible is bullshit, although there still may be a god, it would undermine the use of the holy book as basis for action (going to church, praying, etc). What I'm saying is, maybe it's just easier to convince the Christian that the Bible is not the inerrant word of God, than it is to convince him that the fine-tuning or design argument is unsound.

Matt McCormick said...

I think it's a great point, Tom and it's right on the money. Yes, the non-believer should know enough to be able to point out the gross internal problems with the story that Bible believers are telling. But I have noticed lots of non-believers falling into the trap of treating the book with undue respect and being too eager to acknowledge that it is a great book full of beautiful, deep, and important insights. THat's a product of the general background attitude towards it as a magical object--hence our swearing with our hands on it in court--and people's senstivity to it's being defiled. You can create a shit storm of controversy by tearing one up publicly. I bet that even lots of non-believers would be hesitant to throw one away, burn one, or tear one up in public, like burning a flag. Yes, non-believers should know their way around all the problems of the Bible, but they should keep it very clear in their minds what it is: a loose collection of Iron Age stories that has little merit beyond historical interest.


jamie said...

Thanks for the response. I like your openness and candidness (is that a word). I appreciate that you ask hard questions and make people think.

At the same time I feel that no amount of evidence or proof would be acceptable to you. Even if Jesus walked into your living room and said, "Here I am!" you might chalk it up as a hallucination or something like that. Or you might think it was a prank. I don't know that you are 100% locked into your belief system and unwilling to budge on it, but some of your writings make it seem that way.

I don't believe the Bible is a magical book. You can rip it up, burn it, urinate on it, or whatever. It doesn't affect the material itself. That just reveals a Nazi-like disrespect for the book and the traditions.

Great points. Most Christians don't know enough about the Bible to make heads or tails of the 'tough' passages. Sadly, if your goal is to win an argument or make a Christian look foolish, you don't even have to attack the book, just ask questions. If your goal is real dialogue and not just 'one-up-manship', a different tactic would be better.

Matt McCormick said...

If a reasonable person who considers all the alternatives thought they saw Jesus walk into their living room, they should at least consider the possibility that it's a hallucination. There's a difference between authentic and inauthentic visions--even the faithful insist on that. But if you'll take a look at a lot of my posts I have always been very clear about this: The essential condition of being a reasonable person is a willingness to revise one's beliefs in the light of new information. If the evidence indicates it, then I would be perfectly willing to change my mind. What amazes me is that so many people are so enamored with the idea of being religious and believing that they will accept so little or let such flimsy evidence count as sufficient to justify their believing on such an important matter. The question of God's existence is simply one of the most important things that humans have ever considered, but so many people are give it so little thought and reflect on it so little. They are willing to let the shoddiest reasoning suffice when so much is at stake. And then, ironically, they are preoccupied, like you seem to be, with my motives and my goals, instead of actually addressing the issue. I get a lot of ad hominem attacks and hateful abuse of me because of the hard puzzles and objections I raise instead of serious efforts to address the question of God's existence.


jamie said...

I really was not attacking you. So if I came across that way, I apologize. I'm not preoccupied with your motives and goals, just wondering what makes you continue to write page after page about a subject that you don't believe in. I guess what I was asking, and you partially answered, is what are you in favor of? And as you talk about beliefs, what is 'true'? What is 'well justified'?

I read this quote today that I think is relevant. Its from Robert Anton Wilson, a real free thinker. It deals with the accuracy of perceptions and vantage points:

"Now the argument is that maybe my perceptions are inaccurate, but somewhere there is accuracy... the scientists have it with their instruments. That’s how we can find out what’s really real! But relativity and quantum mechanics have demonstrated clearly that what you find out with instruments is true relative only to the instrument you’re using and where that instrument is located in space time. So there is no vantage point from which real reality can be seen. We’re all looking from the point of view of our own reality tunnels. And when we begin to realize that we are all looking from the point of view of our own reality tunnels, we find it is much easier to understand where other people are coming from."

Anyways, getting back to the basic question, does God exist? Your blog is replete with posts about this, so I'm not asking you to answer that. But if you had proof that He exists, would you really do as you say:
"If the evidence indicates it, then I would be perfectly willing to change my mind."