Monday, August 11, 2008

How can we be sure when the bible is being literal?

Over at Friendly Atheist, Hemant quoted Rochelle Weiss of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, who wrote about whether Jesus was righteous, and finds he comes up short.

Needless to say, apologists came in (and as usual, saying different things). This post is based on a comment I made there.

As always, when the bible say uncomfortable things, the apologists come right in with “this doesn’t mean what it says”.

Which is fine, I could accept that - unless, unless they also say about other parts “this means what it says”. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t declare the parts you don’t like to be “figures of speech” unless you accept that the same will be true of parts you would like to be literal; conversely, you can’t say “I think this is literally true” unless you’re prepared to accept that some of the parts you don’t like are also literally true.

It’s astoundingly convenient the way that it’s apparently almost universally only the most inconvenient parts of the bible that are held to be figures of speech (or in some other way should not be taken to mean what they plainly say).

“Okay, here, hate doesn’t mean hate. Actually, it means love, just not quite so much as someone else. But over there, well, it means hate.”

Even George Orwell didn’t imagine wordplay quite as sinister as that.

The problem with the “figure of speech” argument is that people of the time (as with people now) sometimes said similar things literally. There’s nothing in the bible to clearly say that the claim of “figure of speech” is in fact so. And it gets worse, because if some part isn't literal, you have the further problem of guessing exactly what it's supposed to mean.

It’s guesswork. Sometimes it’s educated guesswork, but much of the time it’s just a hopeful guess. Where does this supreme authority come from to know with certainty what is literal and what is not?

If nothing was at stake but academic pride, I wouldn't care.

What if you guess wrong about what’s literal and what’s not? What could loving Jesus have in store for you? Well, he tells us - get the wrong things wrong, and it's infinite torture. For guessing wrong, or believing someone else who claims their guess is right. So before you start casually declaring one bit not literal, and another bit literal, you better be damn sure you’ve got it right. You better have a lot more evidence than is on display in the comment thread there.

Now if Jesus really did mean that bit about hating parents literally, and you don't, or you tell others not to hate theirs, you could be totally screwed, depending on which other bits are literally true (the problem is, if some is literal and some is figurative, there is no solid foundation for any claim). But then again maybe even Jesus’ tender Hell is also just a figure of speech. So maybe nothing's at stake. For the sake of all the apologists, we better hope so, eh?

I see lots of opinion on display from the religious, and precious little fact. Yet, they’ve got the unmitigated arrogance to be happily playing around with their apologetics, apparently putting others in danger of infinite torture.

Fingers crossed, eh? Good luck with that.


Dana Hunter said...

Excellent points. If they weren't already so good at cognitive dissonance, I think this would make the apologists' heads explode. ;-)

Speaker for the Dead said...

The idea that the Bible (or any text) can only be believed if it is either completely literal or completely figurative is ridiculous. Biblical hermeneutics, the study of biblical interpretation, is certainly a nuanced and complicated process, but that does not delegitimize it at all. To characterize it the way you do is unfair, whether or not the Bible is inspired.

Einstein once said, "God does not play dice." He also gave us "e=mc^2." One of these
"statements" is figurative (he meant there was no chance or randomness in the universe), one is literal. Should we completely ignore Einstein? No. How do we know if something is literal or figurative?

CONTEXT. The Bible is a compilation of poetry, historical narrative, letters, and many other things. The fields of biblical criticism and hermeneutics exist to help us better understand the Bible.

You describe the apologists' approach as "astoundingly convenient." Of course, all that means is that they have set up a plausible and cohesive interpretation of the Bible. Did you expect the Bible to be written in the form of a proof? Or for it to be written in modern English, complete with modern ideas, so that you could understand whether or not it was literal or figurative? Those are serious questions.

I assume that you are referencing Luke 14 with the interpretation of "hate" and "love." Now, there are a few different ways to approach this text. You can assume it exists in a vacuum, completely independent of the rest of the Bible and of 1st century Judea, at which point you analyze it literally and conclude that Jesus commanded us to hate our family members. Or, you can analyze it within the context of Jesus' command to love others above ourselves. It is OBVIOUS here that Jesus is not advocating hatred.

The Bible cannot be read as a series of logical syllogisms. If "God is Love" (1 John 4) and "Love is kind" (1 Corinthians 13) we cannot invoke hypothetical syllogism to say "God is kind." We must read the entire Bible within its context and then come to a determination. (Of course, as you probably figured out by now, I do think God is kind.)

The central message and most important doctrines are quite clear in the Bible; our salvation does not depend on interpretations of esoteric or dubious passages. Your picture of God as legalistic and anal-retentive is not concordant with the biblical picture.

(Of course, whether or not the Bible is internally consistent - and whether or not it HAS TO BE internally consistent in the same way many overzealous apologists imagine it to be - has no bearing on the questions of God's existence and Jesus' divinity.)

By your standards, we would have to throw out all historical knowledge (and knowledge concerning past scientific events). Is carbon dating just educated guesswork? Surely the theory of evolution is educated guesswork - unless you imagine scientists have examined each generation of each species EVER to trace genetic mutations.

You assume that salvation requires the proper interpretation of every scripture. That is preposterous. Jesus commands us to be perfect (Matthew 5), but that does not imply that only the perfect will be saved.

Also, I believe the traditional Protestant doctrine of eternal Hell is an incorrect INTERPRETATION of Scripture. For you to bandy it about as a mockery of God's Love and Justice is, however, unfair.

(Some Christians believe Hell is finite...

And some believe everyone goes to Heaven...eventually.

Of course, it's all a matter of INTERPRETATION. ;)

My head's about to explode. :P