The Resurrection

 Bible  Comments Off on The Resurrection
Sep 292015


David Jenkins, the former bishop of Durham, created an uproar in the church back in the 1980s, when he appeared to be questioning the historical validity of the resurrection of Jesus. In fact he was not at all, but he was deeply misunderstood. His expression that got leapt on was “conjuring trick with bones” as if he were asserting that the resurrection was a mere magic trick. He said quite the opposite, namely that the resurrection was “NOT a conjuring trick with bones.” But what lesser minds took from his teaching was, I believe, the logical conclusion, in some people’s minds, of much that had gone before in liberal theology. The style of Biblical investigation known as “historical criticism” had been moving in that direction for decades, some might even say centuries.

The bottom line of historical criticism is that its practitioners claim that the Bible is to be treated like any other historical text. Thus, the historical statements that are made in it are to be subjected to the same scrutiny as statements made about Julius Caesar or Alexander the Great or any other figure from the ancient world. As I noted in previous posts, I am sympathetic to this agenda up to a point. One of my rules of interpretation says just that. Just as much as any other good historian, I want evidence that king David existed and that he did the things the Bible claims of him. I want evidence that the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and rebuilt. I want to mesh such fairly ordinary (that is, non miraculous) contentions with hard evidence. So I turn to archeology and parallel texts and all the other paraphernalia at my disposal to test the credibility of these Biblical statements. For example, according to the current state of play in archeology it seems highly doubtful that the stories concerning king David and king Solomon are based in historical fact. This does not especially bother me. Nothing central to my faith hinges on these tales.

But for me, the truth of some of the historical statements in the Bible is more important than that of others. I am reasonably certain, for example, that the emperor Augustus did not order a census around the time of the birth of Jesus that required the entire population of Palestine to get up and move to the region of their tribal affiliation so they could be counted. All kinds of historical evidence argues strongly against this notion. For a start it would have required a massive upheaval of people that would have destroyed the economic base of the region. Empires (and emperors) exist because they take money from healthy economies. Nothing is to be gained by weakening that base for the sake of an exercise in counting. I am also, therefore, given to doubt that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. This does not really bother me too much, and I will explain why in more detail in later posts. Where he was born matters only if you get hung up on a certain kind of prophecy (or a certain species of Biblical interpretation). Where and how he died, however, and what happened afterwards, is an entirely different matter. For me, the whole of my faith and the nature of my Christian belief hinges on this. If Jesus was not raised from the dead, the core tenet of my faith vanishes. I have a crucial vested interest in this historical statement therefore. In consequence I want to know what evidence there is for the resurrection.

The best evidence possible would be multiple first person eye witness accounts. Well, dream on. They do not exist. Most lay Christians probably believe that the gospels are close to eye witness narratives, but historical and textual criticism suggest otherwise. To begin with, two of the gospels, Luke and Mark, do not even make the claim to have been written by eye witnesses. In fact we do not know who the authors were with any certainty. The smart money is on Mark having been written by a companion of Paul known as John Mark. But this is little more than an educated speculation that has become widely accepted by the academic community. All scholars acknowledge that Mark was a common name in the first century, and also that the oldest texts of the gospel available for us to see are anonymous. So Mark’s gospel could have been written by just about anybody, as could Luke’s gospel.

The smart money is also on the belief that none of the gospels was written by an eyewitness, although the historical material in them contains large segments from oral tradition that does likely go back to the first disciples. I am not going to go into the arguments for and against these points of view. They have been hashed over countless times. Rather, for the moment, I am going to take the dimmest view of the gospels as history when it comes to the resurrection, and work from there. I am going to accept the majority opinion among scholars that Mark is the oldest of the gospels and that it was written thirty years or so after the death of Jesus. I am also going to accept without reservation that the author was not an eyewitness to the events he records, but that he knew people who were. From this perspective the exact dating of the book is not awfully important. It is sufficient to know that it was written within a generation of the key events, using documents as source materials that may have come from eyewitnesses. It also seems likely that the bare bones of the passion narrative (supper – trial – execution) was in existence in one form or another before the gospels were written.

What I think we can take from Mark’s gospel without too much of a problem is that Jesus made a trip to Jerusalem at Passover time and in the process fell afoul of the authorities. In consequence he was arrested, tried, sentenced to death, and executed by crucifixion. That much is probably fine with most historians since it does not stretch their credulity. It’s what follows that gets tricky.

The ending of Mark’s gospel has been the subject of much controversy. The oldest and most reliable manuscripts end as follows (Mark 16:1-8)

1 When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body.

2 Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb

3 and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?”

4 But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away.

5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.

6 “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him.

7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’ ”

8 Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

The stories of appearances of Jesus to the disciples that follow this passage in some MS versions of this gospel appear to be later additions and are excluded from the best modern texts. What we seem to have preserved here in this passage (that could have been the original ending of the gospel) is an old tradition of an empty tomb that stops a little shy of being a complete and unequivocal assertion of resurrection. As an historian I would not want to accept this passage as clear evidence that Jesus was raised from the dead.

With very little effort we can conjure up all kinds of scenarios that would explain what is described in this segment without going so far as accepting that it necessitates the resurrection of Jesus. The young man dressed in white could have been an accomplice of the followers of Jesus, in cahoots with them to bribe the guards, steal the body, and spread a story about Jesus being risen. I grant that there are weaknesses in such an interpretation, but it can cover the stated facts without a great stretch of the imagination. One counter argument runs that Roman soldiers guarding the tomb of a convicted criminal would have been answerable with their own lives if they had allowed the disciples or their collaborators to steal the body. But we cannot be so naïve as to imagine that the threat of death is, or was, some absolute penalty that assures the law will not be broken, especially given that Jesus had some well-heeled friends who could easily have afforded to give over sufficient amounts of cash to sway army grunts. I’m quite willing to argue that given enough money – then and now – anything is possible.

So the best we have from the oldest gospel is a story of an empty tomb. Later narratives embellish this tale with stories of sightings of the risen Jesus, but I do not trust them as history even though many of them are personally very compelling to me. I find the story of “Doubting” Thomas, for example, deeply engaging. But the words of the text do not come from Thomas himself, nor from any other eyewitness. So I cannot accept them at face value no matter how much I might want to. I must find other sources that are more reliable.

Some interpreters have tried to come up with an indirect argument in favor of the physical reality of the resurrection. One of my favorites is to consider the behavior of key people before and after the crucifixion. The apostle Peter is a good example. According to the gospel accounts Peter was quite the ‘fraidy cat before Jesus’ death. The following, from Mark’s account, is one of the most poignant moments in the gospel for me. It is so agonizing because I can imagine myself in his shoes. Jesus is on trial for his life and Peter is both attracted to the scene and deeply afraid of it. He wants to know what is going on, but he has no intention of sharing in Jesus’ fate. So he sits outside the trial venue and waits for news.

66 While Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant girls of the high priest came by.

67 When she saw Peter warming himself, she looked closely at him. “You also were with that Nazarene, Jesus,” she said.

68 But he denied it. “I don’t know or understand what you’re talking about,” he said, and went out into the entryway.

69 When the servant girl saw him there, she said again to those standing around, “This fellow is one of them.”

70 Again he denied it. After a little while, those standing near said to Peter, “Surely you are one of them, for you are a Galilean.”

71 He began to call down curses on himself, and he swore to them, “I don’t know this man you’re talking about.”

72 Immediately the rooster crowed the second time. Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken to him: “Before the rooster crows twice you will disown me three times.” And he broke down and wept.

This same man after the death of Jesus apparently became a pillar of the new faith, ultimately going to his own death by crucifixion in Rome, it is supposed. Surely something extraordinary must have happened to convert him from titmouse to titan. Would not the sight of the risen Jesus be the kind of miraculous intervention necessary to explain the metamorphosis? Well, yes and no. The story of Peter might supply a few shreds of corroboration, but the tale itself is insufficient evidence of the truth of the resurrection for the skeptical historian.

First and foremost we have exactly the same problem with the Biblical accounts of Peter’s activities that we do with those of Jesus. They are not the records of eyewitnesses, and many of them were not written down for a generation or more after Peter’s death. Some of the stories do not appear until nearly a century later. We do not know for sure, for example, that Peter did indeed die by crucifixion, nor where and when he died. Everything we know about Peter is pretty much hearsay, although some bits are better than others. Take the whole denial thing, for example. This is quite likely to be the germ of a true story for the simple reason that it does not cast Peter in a good light at all. But that is not saying much.

One of the curiosities of Biblical historical narratives is that they quite frequently cast the main characters in a very bad light. King David is a classic example. He is touted by priests and prophets as a model king in many respects: revered enough to be established as the dynastic ancestor from whose line the Messiah would come. Yet his sexual and personal mores were atrocious. For example, he seduced a married women, had sex with her during her menstrual period (it was expressly forbidden by Judaic law for him to touch her let alone have sex), and had her husband killed in battle when it was determined she was pregnant. The fact that such a narrative persists suggests that it contains a core of truth (about someone); otherwise a pious scribe would likely have edited it out along the way so as to create a cleaner image for David. The same may be said of the image of Peter in Mark.

Mark portrays Peter as something of a dolt and a coward before Jesus’ death. Yet this is the same man who became revered by the early church as one of its founders. Both Paul’s letters and the Acts of the Apostles confirm that Peter had a major role in leading the new church after the death of Jesus. Exactly what that role was can be disputed, but Peter’s transformation seems legitimate enough on the surface of things. There are a couple of important caveats though. First, it might be the case that Mark is casting the pre-resurrection Peter in a particularly bad light for some reason. Mark could, for example, be dissociating himself from Peter’s friends and followers because he disagrees with him (and them) politically and theologically. Second, just because Peter went through a life-changing experience does not mean that this experience had to have been the resurrection. Maybe he was delusional, or maybe he had some other powerful experience that set him on a new path. Or maybe seeing an empty tomb was all his frail, suggestible mind needed for him to conjure up the idea of a physical resurrection which then spurred him on to a new life. Maybe he was psychotic. One can create no end of scenarios that do not involve the actual resurrection of Jesus. But at the very least I think it is reasonable to assert that Peter went through a life-altering experience after the death of Jesus.

We also have to deal with the claim that Paul makes that he saw the resurrected Jesus. This, too, is testimony that we cannot accept at face value if we are truly skeptical historians. The main account of the event comes from the Acts of the Apostles, and not directly from Paul’s own mouth (acts 9:1-7):

1 But Saul [i.e. Paul], still breathing threats and death against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest

2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.

3 Now as he journeyed he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed about him.

4 And he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

5 And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting;

6 but rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”

7 The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one.

8 Saul arose from the ground; and when his eyes were opened, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus.

9 And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

The Acts of the Apostles was written by the author of Luke’s gospel and is the only direct history of the early church in the New Testament. It is divided into two unequal parts: the first dealing with the church in Jerusalem under the leadership of the apostles, and the second recounting the travels and tribulations of Paul. There is reason to suppose that some of the sections on Paul contain material from eye witnesses. There are, for example, passages that shift into first person plural – the so-called “we passages” (16:10-17; 20:5-15; 21:1-18; 27:1-28:16) – suggesting that they were taken directly from someone’s journal or the like. But this can be disputed, and need not hold us long. More to the point, whether we accept or reject this version of Paul’s conversion, there is not much in it to suggest that it is any kind of evidence for the resurrection. We see Saul/Paul doing something weird while his companions look on in amazement. Anthropologists could easily compare this behavior with scores of acts they have witnessed of people in trance during rituals.

But Paul does say of his own accord that he has witnessed the risen Jesus. In a list of people who have seen the resurrected Christ he concludes with the following (1 Corinthians 15:8):

Last of all, as to one born abnormally, he appeared to me

All well and good, but there is nothing to prevent us interpreting this whole episode either as Paul’s personal delusion or, worse, something he made up for personal gain. The latter may be a bit unlikely, but it is possible. All of the apostles could have been out to make a name for themselves by concocting a fabulous story about death and resurrection. But this would have been a mighty dangerous game given the nature of the times. For myself, I have no doubt that Paul saw something. But whether it was the resurrected Jesus or something less miraculous cannot be ascertained from the historical evidence we have. Still, to be fair, we must say that Paul claims to be an eyewitness to the resurrected Jesus and we have this directly from his mouth/pen, and these passages in the epistles are undisputedly genuinely from Paul.

What gets my attention, though, is not so much what Paul saw as what he heard from Peter and others who had been with Jesus in Jerusalem. While we do not have Peter’s direct testimony we do have the next best thing, namely, Paul’s account of Peter’s experiences. Now, in a court of law listening to Paul’s version of what Peter said he saw would be dismissed as hearsay. But this is not a court of law and we cannot cross examine Paul any more than we can Peter. So the rules of evidence cannot be quite so stringent. What we know is that Paul heard directly from Peter that Peter had seen the risen Jesus. In 1 Corinthians 15: 3-7 we have the following:

3 For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures,

4 and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures,

5 and that he appeared to Cephas (Peter), then to the twelve.

6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died.

7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.

This is pretty serious stuff. Admittedly there are some problems to iron out. One is that critics have argued that Paul’s language here seems rather formulaic. I don’t necessarily disagree. But I am not sure to what extent this fact alters the truth of the assertion he is making (except maybe in some of the smaller details).

We know for a certainty that Paul met Peter at least once, and probably on several occasions. It seems to me, therefore, absolutely impossible that Paul’s claims here about what Peter told him he saw are false. Being hearsay I cannot be sure what it was exactly that Peter saw, but he claims to have seen the risen Jesus. Yet again we could argue that Peter was as delusional as Paul and that both, in moments of deep anxiety and personal crisis, had experienced some species of hallucination. Later Peter described this experience to Paul as if it were real, and Paul accepted it wholesale because it meshed with his own fantasy. But Paul also heard the same story from many others who had been with Jesus: James, for example.

Now before going into more detail I have to say that I agree with the critics who see in Paul’s language the signs of formulaic writing. 1 Corinthians verses 5 and 7 are a bit puzzling otherwise. They look like mirrors of one another with the initial figure changed. They almost smack of mantras of two separate factions – those who followed Peter and those who followed James. The “Peter-ites” professed that Jesus appeared to Peter first (because for them he was the most important of the disciples), then to the other apostles, and the “James-ites” put their guy first. Otherwise if we read Paul as straight journalistic reportage what he is reporting is slightly odd. Taken at face value Paul is saying that Jesus appeared to Peter first, then to the apostles, then to over five hundred disciples, then to James, then to the apostles again. Anything’s possible, I suppose. But even if we are just dealing with verbal formulae here, there is a point that should not be missed. Paul is essentially saying: “If you don’t believe me, ask these people; they were there as eye witnesses.” What he does not add, but I will, is that he had spoken directly with these people and received their testimony.

Did Paul speak to all five hundred (plus) witnesses? I doubt it very much. Some were dead, of course. But even if they had all been alive when he visited Jerusalem it would have been an awfully big chore to talk to them all. Rather, he is establishing for his readers the general idea that there are many, many people in Jerusalem who can confirm his story. If the resurrection is a delusion it is one that encompasses a large number of people, and not just a few close friends of Jesus who might have been especially susceptible to visions based on wishful thinking at a time of profound disappointment.

Paul’s attestation is not good enough for a truly hard-boiled scientific historian, but it is good enough for me. It’s good enough for me because my faith inclines me that way in the first place. It acts as a push in the right direction for the faith I already have. It is not good enough for critical historians because a truly astounding claim of this sort requires truly astounding proof for them to be satisfied. But the fact of the matter is that probably nothing could satisfy some historians. If a reported phenomenon defies the laws of natural science as we know them, there are going to be some people who simply will not accept the validity of the claim no matter how many direct eye witnesses can be brought forth to testify. This was surely the case in the first century too.

The firmly skeptical position is that the resurrection is an absurdity. Nothing can be brought back to life. So the unbeliever simply says that the resurrection is a physical impossibility and therefore did not happen no matter what the evidence in favor. Well this is a very weak argument in itself. I used to have a sign on my study wall made for me by a former student quoting Louis Brandeis: “Most of the things worth doing in the world had been declared impossible before they were done.” How about flying in a heavier than air machine? How about cloning animals? One of the great enduring problems of the human mind is its ability to close off to possibilities. I wonder how much we cannot or do not do because we are already convinced that such things are impossible? We must certainly avoid the prideful confusion of “I cannot do it, therefore, it is impossible,” or the more general “modern science says it is impossible, therefore, it is impossible.” Modern science says it is impossible to travel faster than light. While I understand and generally accept the principles of relativity that lead to this conclusion, I remain open to the possibility that a new theory will come along one day to oust the old and give us hope of faster than light travel. Skepticism comes in all flavors, and one has a duty to be just as skeptical of the claims of contemporary science as of the claims of those who would deny its validity.

In the end, however, we are all forced back on our faith, Christians and atheists alike. I know that no amount of solid historical arguing will convince some people that Jesus died and was resurrected. They will undoubtedly have counter arguments to everything I have said here. In fact if they are too lazy to do it themselves I can provide the arguments for them. So let us just get down to faith. It seems to me that the modern theologians who deny everything miraculous have no faith. They believe in nothing out of the ordinary. Frankly I cannot understand why they bother to be clergy at all. You can be an atheist and hold all the same opinions. The point about being a Christian is that you have faith in something extraordinary – something that is so miraculous that it takes pure faith to accept it. The resurrection ends up being an axiom of faith, like Euclid’s parallel postulate, on which you build your edifice.


To be continued . . .

What Is Faith?

 Religion  Comments Off on What Is Faith?
Sep 272015


Is faith what distinguishes religion from other areas of inquiry? Certainly you hear such thoughts often enough, as in, “religion is based on BELIEF, but science is based on FACTS.” This is a common statement that has no value [I’m being polite]. It is certainly true that religion and science are different in many ways, most notably their goals and methods. But it is a complete mistake to think that religion is based on faith and science isn’t. Every arena of human thought requires an element of faith at its foundation.

St Augustine of Hippo, one of the great theologians of all time, argued that there is no knowledge without faith. He put it in Latin: “crede ut intelligas” (believe that you may understand). Faith comes first, and out of it comes knowledge and understanding. There’s a certain medieval odor of piety and sanctity about such an assertion, but never mind. I like the sentiment. In plain old common sense terms Augustine is saying that everything we know ultimately rests on assumptions that we take for granted. For one thing we do not have the time to test everything that we know. But, more to the point, even if we did have the time and ability to test all of our knowledge it would do us no good.

Back in the days of Isaac Newton and the Enlightenment, scientists spoke of the “laws” of natural science as if these concepts were eternal truths that had been discovered. Nowadays we tend to be more modest and speak of theories instead of laws. Theories can be pretty strong, but they are not ironclad truth. They are the best we have to date. They are statements that have been tested over and over and over, and have not been shown to be wrong – yet. They have stood the test of time, but they can fall. I rather like the way agent K summed it up to soon-to-be agent J in the film Men in Black:

1500 years ago everyone knew the Earth was the center of the Universe. 500 years ago everyone knew the Earth was flat. 15 minutes ago you knew people were alone on this planet. Imagine what you will know tomorrow.

ALL systems of thought and knowledge rest on assumptions. At one time it was hoped to demonstrate that this was not so: that it was possible to have a formal system of thought that was “complete,” meaning that all statements made within the system could be proven true or false by virtue of the rules of the system itself. More simply, it was hoped that it could be shown that there were methods of reasoning that did not have to rely on faith at all. Unfortunately for the hopeful, Austrian logician Kurt Gödel showed in 1931, via his incompleteness theorems, that such a hope is bankrupt. He demonstrated conclusively that no matter how rigorous your logic, there are always going to be some statements that have to be taken on faith.

Let’s look at arithmetic. Arithmetic is seemingly the most basic and most solid logical system there is, yet Gödel showed that it rests on a foundation of faith. There are statements we can make in arithmetic that are true, but cannot be proven to be true. We have to just accept them without any chance of a proof that they are true. The same is equally the case for geometry, trigonometry, calculus, physics, chemistry . . . you name it. No matter how solid the subject appears on the surface, faith underpins the whole enterprise.

Arithmetic currently rests on a set of statements of faith that are called the Peano postulates. One of them, expressed informally, states that if A is not equal to B, then A plus 1 is not equal to B plus 1. Seems pretty obvious. 5 + 1 cannot equal 6 + 1 or 3 + 1 or 9 million + 1. It can only equal 5 + 1. But mathematicians all agree that this statement cannot be proven. It just has to be accepted on faith. I would say that the vast majority of people who use arithmetic every day have not the slightest clue that the system they are using rests on faith. This may be just as well. We don’t want people challenging the Peano postulates every time they have trouble balancing their check books.

The analogous situation in geometry is really quite intriguing because in that subject one of the postulates has often been challenged, and the results are quite remarkable. Classic geometry, going all the way back to Euclid, rests on five postulates. The most famous is the fifth postulate, also called the parallel postulate. It can be stated in very formal ways but for simplicity’s sake I am going to give it in an informal way. The parallel postulate states that a pair of parallel lines never meet even if drawn an infinite distance. This postulate has always been troubling to mathematicians, even though it has the ring of the obvious about it. I suppose I could add to Louis Brandeis, and others, here and say that “things that seem obvious are the ones that need to be tested most thoroughly.”

The parallel postulate is troubling in part because it requires drawing infinitely long lines. Who knows what might happen when you get to infinity? Crazy things happen as you approach infinity. For a long time mathematicians tried to show that the fifth postulate was really a theorem and not an axiom at all, that is, that it could be derived, or proven, from the other four postulates. This agenda failed. But something rather stranger happened along the way. One way to test the parallel postulate is to assume its opposite (i.e. parallel lines do meet at infinity) and see if the results are absurd. We’re back to the reductio ad absurdum argument. What was truly astounding was that when the parallel postulate was denied, absurdity and contradiction did not result. All that resulted were different geometries.

Take as a postulate that parallel lines eventually intersect and you get elliptic geometry; take as a postulate that parallel lines move farther and farther apart and you get hyperbolic geometry. Both are perfectly rational, perfectly consistent, perfectly formal systems of geometry. All rational systems of thought are like this. They rest on statements of faith which if changed create different systems. None of the systems is right or wrong. They are just different. That’s the whole point of stating my basic principles of interpretation in the last post. What follows from them is nothing more than the logical extension of those principles. If you don’t like those principles you won’t like my upcoming posts. On the other hand, I am not going to argue the toss about those principles because they are statements of faith, not of reason.

For the sticklers in the audience let me also be clear that I am blurring some definitional boundaries in this section. What I am loosely calling “principles” here is a grab bag term that includes axioms, postulates, primitives, and common notions. I understand the differences, but I do not think that they are terribly important here. My main point is simple, namely, underlying any area of inquiry are statements of faith. To paraphrase Augustine, you have to have faith before you can have knowledge.

Given the foregoing it stands to reason that modern natural science also rests on untestable principles that require faith. One of the most important of these is that the same causes produce the same effects. The only way to test such a principle is to do the same thing again and again an infinite number of times and be sure that the results are the same an infinite number of times (and then test another “thing” an infinite number of times). There’s a common saying attributed to a number of people including Sigmund Freud, Mark Twain, Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein that goes something like:

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

Much as I admire these guys, or whoever really said this, I beg to differ. True, my experience in my little corner of the space-time continuum has yet to invalidate the postulate (although I try pretty hard on a daily basis). True, also that I am by no means alone in my attempts to examine the foundations of modern science. In many temporal matters I am a skeptic, and proud to be one. Some alchemists repeated the same experiments hundreds if not thousands of times hoping that eventually something different would happen. You may argue that that’s why alchemy lies on the scrapheap of scientific history, but I’m not so quick to rush to such a judgment. In fact I admire them their fortitude and faith. In any case, alchemy is not what most people think it is.

Could it not be the case, remembering the issue with the parallel postulate, that alchemy is not bad science but a different science? Is there not the remotest possibility that if you try hard enough and long enough, the same cause will produce a different effect? I will go further and say that it’s quite conceivable to me that people produce different effects from identical causes all the time and either don’t notice, or else rationalize away what they see. Faith not only guides us in certain directions, it also guides us away from certain paths. You are a master baker, famous for your cakes which always rise perfectly. One day you put a cake in the oven and it does not rise. You don’t immediately jump to the conclusion that the laws of physics or chemistry have been violated. You assume that you did something wrong or that one of the rising agents was “bad.” These are sensible conclusions. So you whip up another batch of batter with fresh ingredients and all is fine. But what if once in a while the “laws” of physics and chemistry fail and we just brush the experience off? What if this happens all the time and we fail to take notice?

It’s a quite common practice in the natural sciences to explain experimental anomalies in terms of current theory rather than embarking on the monumental task of propounding new theories. And this is probably all well and good – most of the time. We can’t have students in Chemistry 101 coming up with new theories because they were using dirty test tubes and therefore got weird results. But in hindsight we can also see how laughable some of the efforts to preserve cherished scientific theory are. The curious might care to look up the history of the theory of “luminiferous aether” – the substance that was once proposed by physicists to be the medium through which light propagated – and see how long it took the majority to abandon the theory after experimental data had demonstrated clearly that the aether did not exist, and after many other workable theories had come along to replace it. But this is complicated stuff that involves the kind of mathematics that makes some people’s eyes glaze over. Instead I’d like to talk about the theory of phlogiston.

In the seventeenth century when modern science was beginning to develop in earnest, Johann Joachim Becher proposed a theory of combustion that was later expanded and popularized by Georg Stahl. The theory was that all combustible materials contained a colorless, odorless, tasteless substance called “phlogiston” (Becher actually called it terra pinguis, but let’s not quibble). Burning was, by this theory, the liberation of phlogiston from substances like coal and oil that were rich in it. When they burned completely they became “dephlogisticated” and the air around them became “phlogisticated.” Liberated of its phlogiston in this way the resultant substance was thought to be a purer essence known as a calx. In one form or another this theory survived for about a century, and was a significant step in the direction of the theory of oxidation – although in many key respects it was utterly wrong.

Phlogiston theory started to come unglued when a number of chemists demonstrated that when some substances were burned in highly controlled environments, they gained weight. This was a problem because you would suppose that if a substance lost phlogiston it would also lose weight. This is the “obvious” experience we have when we burn wood or paper or a candle. The material substance of the wood shrinks significantly leaving a residue of ash that is smaller and much lighter than the original wood. What the modern chemist now knows, and was learning in the eighteenth century, is that the totality of products of combustion – the ash, particulate matter and smoke, and the like – are heavier than the original unburned wood. Phlogiston theory cannot explain this phenomenon. Or can it?

Well, it turns out that phlogiston is trickier than first thought. Many chemists were not willing to give up on the theory just because of a few experimental anomalies. So they came up with the idea that phlogiston had negative weight. I hope everyone realizes that a double negative is a positive, so when a substance loses negative weight, the result is a gain in weight. Bingo! Problem solved. Thus, dephlogisticated substances are heavier than phlogisticated ones. Well, the silliness of things with negative weight eventually led most scientists to abandon phlogiston in favor of other theories, including the current one that combustion is the oxidation of materials. But even as late as 1796, Joseph Priestly, considered by many to be one of the founders of modern chemistry and co-discoverer (along with Antoine Lavoisier) of oxygen, was publishing tracts such as “Considerations on the Doctrine of Phlogiston” in defense of that stuff with negative weight. Despite the evidence of his own experiments, he could not give up the theory.

The fact is that, if we wanted to, we could still craft a pretty serviceable phlogiston theory today. Without going into too great detail, let’s just rename phlogiston anti-oxygen and assign it an atomic weight of negative 16 (the opposite of oxygen). We can then go from there, in a convoluted sort of way, and explain combustion in terms of phlogiston. The catch is that to keep phlogiston on the books we would have to create some unlovely, Byzantine theories. They could explain experimental observations, but they would be clunky and ugly. Scientists have a prejudice against clunky and ugly. They prefer simple and elegant. They even have a name for the principle of elegance: Occam’s Razor. There are several versions of this principle, and to continue my practice of being informal and plain speaking (at the slight expense of absolute accuracy), I am going to paraphrase the principle as follows:

If two theories explain observations equally well, we should prefer the simpler.

I am a sucker for elegance and simplicity myself, so I am not really disturbed too much by this principle. But I do want to point out that it is yet another statement of faith, not something that can be proven. In fact it could be argued that Occam’s razor is as much a matter of aesthetics as of logic. But let’s be quite clear. For Occam’s razor to apply at all, competing hypotheses have to have equal explanatory power.

I hope that I have demonstrated that in certain (not all) fundamental ways scientific knowledge and religious knowledge are equivalent. Now I need to be careful here. I am not saying that science and religion are equivalent, nor am I saying that scientific reasoning and religious reasoning are equivalent. I guess I could be mischievous and say that at the very least both are equivalent in that religious and scientific practitioners are both capable of monstrously inept thought processes. Both also have a habit of burying or disguising their true principles of faith when convenient.

I am arguing for this equivalency on purpose because I want to counter a common intellectual ploy, namely, to argue that religion and science are about completely different things and therefore are not really ever in conflict. To me this is like the parent who tries to settle a squabble between two children by declaring, “you’re both right.” When I was a child I thought this approach was a cop out, and I still do when it comes to the squabbles between religion and science.

It is pretty easy to argue that the story of creation in Genesis 1 has multiple levels of interpretation and that the point of the story is much less about how and when God created the world as about social and personal values. I’ve made just such points myself on many occasions. Thus, if you are so inclined you can say that there need be no conflict between religion and science here because Genesis is not aiming to be scientific. But whatever layers of meaning Genesis had and has, the people who wrote it almost certainly believed literally in the cosmology they were describing. For example, for them the sky was a big transparent dome that appeared blue because there was water trapped above it; and this water came down as rain when windows were opened in the dome. This is not good science and needs to be rejected. But just because the science is bad does not mean we have to reject the moral and social lessons as well. We do not need to save the science to save the other lessons, nor do we need to argue that the narrative never had any scientific content in the first place. In this sense I believe that both conservative and liberal patterns of interpretation are wrong headed.

I am going to deal with some of the battles between religion and science, most notably that concerning evolution, in later posts. For the moment, though, I want to emphasize that I don’t think that telling the two sides to go to their rooms and stay there is the solution. Religion and science are different enterprises in many ways. But they frequently argue about the same issues, and they are both edifices built on faith. Indeed, what I am doing in this blog is very little different from any normative scientific enterprise. I have started off with a set of postulates and now I am thinking them through using standard methods of reasoning. I expect to be pilloried by careful thinkers if I stray from the rational path, and I will not fall back on illogic if I get stuck. I may throw up my hands once in a while because of lack of data, but that’s a very different matter.

Before I move on I want to say a couple of things about the nature of faith itself. First, where does faith come from? In our daily lives it can seem like a great mystery. Why does this person believe in God and that one not? Why did this person have faith in God yesterday and not today? The simple Christian answer is that faith is a gift from God (and there’s not much – some would say nothing – we can do to gain it or lose it). You cannot manufacture faith through reason or observation or evidence. If you could, it would not be faith. Faith rests on nothing.

A great many things that we believe come from our socialization as children, and we take them for granted. All children are wonderful experimentalists, and learn so much from grabbing and falling and swallowing and sniffing. But we also trust parents and other adults, taking much of what they say on faith: “this is the color red and this is the color blue, because I tell you so.” There is no proof. But we trust our parents, and so we learn our colors on faith alone. We can fall back on Augustine here. If we have no trust we cannot learn anything. A corollary of all of this is that people who are socialized differently end up with different systems of faith. That’s what makes one culture so different from another.

The second point I want to make is that faith may be a bit slippery when it comes to rooting ourselves in something solid, but it is extraordinarily powerful. When FDR said “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” he was essentially saying that if we have faith we can make the stock market rise. Sounds like a cute resurrection trick for the economy. But bear in mind that it was loss of faith that started the crash of Wall Street in the first place. The fuller context of the quote is as follows:

let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.

Faith can, indeed, inspire people to actions that rationality indicates are pointless or stupid. What I would like to argue is that it is not faith that gets us into trouble, but the lack of it. Seemingly impossible feats have been accomplished because people had faith. Henry V of England, for example, stood and fought the French at Agincourt in 1415 even though he was vastly outnumbered and his troops were worn down with fatigue from marching, starvation, and dysentery. He had faith. Many may say he was an idiot — but he won.

In this sense faith may be the opposite of reason, but it is not thereby unreasonable. If having faith can make things happen, there is good reason to have faith. If our tenets of faith help us in significant ways, we would be foolish to jettison them (unless, of course, other tenets of faith work even better for us). In that sense I am quite pragmatic and functional. My faith helps me. That is one of the reasons I embrace it. If it failed me repeatedly in critical ways I would have a crisis of faith. When physics gets in a muddle because its experimental data do not agree with its assumptions, it has a crisis of faith too.

As a social scientist I am inclined to think that people have principles of faith because these principles have some positive value. That is, their experience tends to support their beliefs. Our duty as thinking Christians is not to denigrate other people’s beliefs out of hand. That would be most un-Christian. Our obvious duty is to figure out why people hold beliefs different from our own. Where do they lead? What function do they serve? Are they the best beliefs for the job at hand? I am especially interested in people who seemingly hold bizarre beliefs that run counter to all that is reasonable. The typical response of many people today is to write them off as cranks, crackpots, or unthinking morons. As thinking Christians we have to do better.

To be continued . . .

Rules To Live By

 Bible  Comments Off on Rules To Live By
Sep 262015


As I have intimated in previous posts, we have two main choices: accept logic and its puzzles or reject logic altogether. I’m all right with either choice, and Christianity has historically followed both paths. Anti-intellectualism has a long history within the church, but let me be clear on this. “Anti-intellectualism” means ideologically refusing to follow the path of logic. It does not mean being irrational, or stupid, or the like. It means refusing to accept logic in any spiritual endeavors, because the spiritual is not logical. That is certainly one approach, and it can produce interesting results. My whole beef with people who think science is the only path to THE TRUTH is that it isn’t. That way of thinking just annoys me. Sure, science is good at sticking people on the moon, or helping me when I want to call someone halfway round the world. It’s useless when it comes to helping me with affairs of the heart. Some things cannot be reduced to rationality. That’s the big problem with science; it reduces what appear to be diverse phenomena to simple principles. That’s its great strength when it comes to spaceships and telephones. They follow laws, and that is good. So, when things are driven by laws, it’s good to discover what those laws are.

Social scientists get poked fun at a lot because the things we are delving are not reducible to laws. If anything we make things more complicated. That’s OK too. Certainly we now and again come across some useful rules of thumb, but they never rise to the status of laws because social behavior is inherently complex. This fact is one of the reasons that a lot of people are beguiled by preachers and teachers who offer them black-and-white answers to problems that are grey at best. That way they don’t have to think about anything. But let’s take Hamlet as a good example of a story about human behavior. Can you reduce its meaning to a simple rule about human action? Of course not. The more you delve, the more complex the story becomes. The issue is not whether your interpretation is correct because of a rule of human nature, but whether you can support it from the text. And there is nothing wrong with multiple interpretations. They just add to the richness of the investigation. That is also the nature of Biblical analysis.

At this point you can choose your poison. If you want, you can be like the Eastern Orthodox church of old and refuse to apply any kind of logic, but, instead, rely on intuition and revelation. Or, likewise, you can be like so many Christians, fundamental and otherwise, and pick and choose your rules of interpretation to suit your biases. In previous posts I have already rejected this approach. I want the Bible to lead me, not have me lead the Bible. In some ways, this is the toughest path of all. The Bible tells me to house the homeless, feed the poor, visit prisoners. Should I take this literally, or figuratively, or ignore it altogether? In these cases I take the Bible literally, and I do so by following my rules of interpretation. So, then, what are my rules?

In previous posts I have already given my first rule:

  1. The Bible is not inerrant.

If we believe in inerrancy (if the Bible is free of factual error) then our road to interpretation is fairly straight, although logically tortured in many, many places. If we reject inerrancy we have to decide what bits of the Bible are factually true and what bits are not. To do this we have to settle on a sound method that will work to separate the truth from the rest.

We could be simple minded and use modern science as our arbiter and be done with it. This is, on the surface at least, the “easy” way out that many people take. In the process vast tracts of the Bible get relabeled as “myth” because they cannot be supported by modern science. I am going to be very wary of such a simplistic rule for many reasons, even though I respect modern science greatly. Not least is the plain fact that modern science is not always right, and, furthermore, science is always moving forward.  I am also deeply disturbed by the idea that any sacred narrative not supported by modern science is a myth. It is a grave error to think that religion was invented simply to do what science does now, and that as science advances, religion will become less and less relevant. Religion does things that science simply cannot do because of the very nature of science.

Instead of getting too philosophical, though, let’s look at the heart of the difficulty through an example. The Gospel of John says Jesus turned water into wine at a wedding feast in Cana (John 2:1-11). Modern science says that this is impossible. Water cannot suddenly become wine without breaking all kinds of principles of chemistry and physics. Therefore if one of our rules of interpretation is to accept modern science as the arbiter of accuracy in Biblical narratives, then this story appears to be fodder for the junk pile, and I know of many, so-called liberal, theologians who take this route. But there’s a very tricky catch here. John also makes the claim that Jesus was the physical incarnation of the creative word of God, and in the process invokes the creation story of Genesis 1 (John 1:1-14). He further makes the assertion that the creative word of God is God. So it would certainly not be unreasonable to make the claim that normally water cannot be changed into wine because of certain scientific principles, but these principles do not hold when dealing with Jesus or God. Now we have a real problem.

If we cling to science we lose God: if we cling to God we lose science. If God made the world, then he also made the rules that govern the world. As such he is in a unique position to bend the rules at his pleasure, as is Jesus, his physical incarnation in the world. That’s the whole point of miracles. They wouldn’t be miracles if they didn’t break the rules that govern the universe. It is precisely because it is scientifically impossible to turn water into wine that we know that Jesus is God (assuming it happened, of course, and we have to use rules of interpretation to determine whether it happened or not). If it did happen – if miracles are possible – modern science cannot be our main measuring stick of truth in the Bible.

Many modern theologians and Biblical scholars are quite content to let science rule and give up on miracles. But in so doing they inherently weaken God (and Jesus). They make God beholden to scientific laws. We also have to jettison the resurrection which is an absolute pillar of Christian faith (which I will get to in later posts), because it defies the laws of science.

Let’s take another tack on the same issue. Many Greek Bible scholars base their dating of the writing of the individual gospels on what they consider to be sound internal historical evidence. Thus, for example, they date Mark’s gospel before 70 CE because in that year the Romans destroyed the temple and much of Jerusalem, slaughtered thousands of Jews, smashed the Jewish state, and ushered in a Jewish diaspora that was to last for close to two millenia; yet there is no direct foretelling of this monumentally important event in the words of Jesus in this gospel. They date Matthew’s gospel after 70 CE because Jesus does indeed “foretell” this event there (Matthew 22:7). Now, these are deep, complex arguments that I do not want to get into in detail just yet. We can quibble endlessly about what foretelling is, what verses are really foretelling the destruction of Jerusalem, and the like. I’m going to leave those arguments alone for the moment. But what I do want to stress emphatically is that the underlying principle that forms the ground rules of these arguments is deeply troubling to me.

Dating a book on the basis of what its human author does and does not mention is not without its problems, but can be a sound method. The author of the Acts of the Apostles, for example, does not mention the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE, so it is not unreasonable to make the historical claim that the book was written before 70 CE. This is not a conclusive argument because the lack of a mention of an event does not mean the lack of knowledge of an event. What we have to decide is whether the events of 70 CE were so critically important that anyone writing about the early church would be forced to write about them if he knew them. But all the while here we are talking about human authors. Dating the books on the basis of what Jesus is reported to have prophesied is a completely different matter.

If I say that a particular gospel cannot have been written after 70 CE because Jesus does not foretell the destruction of Jerusalem in it, or if I say that the gospel had to have been written after 70 CE because in it Jesus does indeed accurately foresee the event, I am making claims not so much about the human author of the book as about Jesus’ ability to prophesy about events. In effect I am saying that Jesus, like any other human, was incapable of precise predictions concerning future events. I am also saying that if a very accurate prophesy appears in a gospel then its author inserted it after the fact to bolster his claims about Jesus.

In my faith system such a rule of interpretation is worthless. It rests on the principle that while Jesus is God, God is not knowledgeable enough to be able to foresee future events (or that God the creator did not imbue his incarnation with sufficient wisdom to do it). What kind of God is that? Not one that I have much faith in. Yes, I am rejecting a rule because its conclusions are unappealing to me. And I think this is reasonable. If you weaken God and Jesus to the point where they are no more than human in stature, then there’s nothing left to believe in. I might just as well make any smart, sensitive guy my center of faith and worship (which some people do). To my way of thinking there has to be something more than that. Hence I am prepared to build a theological system that expressly excepts God (and Jesus) from conventional norms of human ability. Otherwise I have to cease to be a Christian as I understand the word.

This brings me to more of my rules of interpretation.

  1. Generally, if a Biblical passage is capable of a truth value then it can be tested using appropriate methods.

The obvious examples here are the extensive historical sections of the Hebrew Bible (such as the books of Kings). We can, for instance, verify the deeds of various kings of Israel and Judah by seeking contemporary non-Biblical documents, using archeology, and the like. We are required to adopt this rule because of #1, namely, the Bible is not inerrant, and, lo and behold, vast chunks of the history in the Hebrew Bible are not supported by archeology. This can be problematic, but not fatally so.

  1. Conventional forms of literary and textual criticism are acceptable methods for determining the authenticity of passages.

Let’s take a farfetched example for purposes of illustration. Let’s suppose a passage in an early manuscript of one of Paul’s epistles mentions the death of the Roman emperor Trajan. We would know the passage was a fake, and had been inserted after the epistle had been finished by someone other than Paul, because Paul was long dead himself before Trajan died. Such a passage is technically known as an anachronism. Thus, finding anachronisms is one of many acceptable methods for eliminating passages from the Bible that are not genuine. Likewise if we are reading a passage from one of Paul’s epistles, and the language changes dramatically in style, vocabulary, and grammar we can reasonably assert that this new segment was not written by Paul. Good, solid textual criticism of this sort has the potential to turn up passages in the Bible that have been inserted by later scribes and scholars for their own reasons.

We can also compare the oldest manuscripts for evidence that passages were added by copyists some time after the original books were written. The ending of Mark (16:9-19) and the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:3-11) are well known examples of passages that are not in the oldest manuscripts.

  1. All Biblical passages arise from a specific cultural context, and this fact needs to be taken into account as an essential ingredient in interpretation.

Some scholars, including many who are not especially concerned with the Bible per se, believe that there is such a thing as a context-neutral reading of a text. I find such a position, as a cultural anthropologist, patently preposterous. If cultural anthropology has done anything at all in the last 100 years to move forward the understanding of the human condition it has been to argue forcibly that all human action takes place within a cultural context and draws its meaning from that context. Failure to take cultural context into account leads to ethnocentric, anachronistic, or egocentric analysis.

A great many Biblical scholars have taken this principle as self evident when they advocate reading the texts in their original languages, and when they spend what seems like inordinate amounts of time arguing over the meanings of single words. What, for example, did Paul mean when he used the Greek word for “flesh” (sarx) in his epistles? His concept of human flesh cannot have been even close to ours. It certainly does not correspond very well to our notion of the human body. When he talks of the “desires of the flesh” (which are sinful), he is thinking of the flesh as being a much more active motivating agent than modern people are inclined towards. So it behooves us to spend considerable energy getting Paul’s original cultural context right so that we can better understand what he is telling us. This principle, incidentally, forcibly reminds us that translation is analysis, and can distort the original contextual meaning. By translating sarx as “flesh” we are missing a great deal of Paul’s meaning.

Let me be clear, though. I am not saying that we must take cultural context into account in order to decide what we are going to believe and what we are not. Some people argue, for example, that Paul came out of a first century orthodox Pharisaic background with very strict views on women, marriage, sexuality, gender and the like, and that his theology is, therefore, deeply colored by that context. We who live in the modern world, they argue, do not have to abide by his teachings in this regard because we no longer live in that milieu. That is not what I am saying at all. What I am saying is that we cannot know what Paul meant without knowing the cultural context within which he wrote. Once we know precisely what he meant it’s quite a different matter to determine whether the message thus clarified is the undiluted word of God. In this instance it is critical to read the texts in their original languages and to have a firm grasp of the meanings of words in their original context. We must not rely on translations. Again, translation is interpretation.

There are also two further problems that complicate this principle. First is that we do not know with any certainty the precise date and place of authorship of much of the Bible, which in consequence means that it is difficult or impossible to pin down a cultural context. With the Greek Bible we are on reasonably firm ground because there are quite narrow possibilities for where and when the individual books were written. Internal and external evidence give us fairly tight parameters for the penning of Paul’s letters, for example. Even so, scholars do tend to have fierce arguments about these matters. When it comes to the Hebrew Bible, things are much more difficult. Some books are conflations of multiple sources that were created perhaps centuries apart in completely different cultures. Genesis is a prime example. How do you go about finding an original cultural context for such a document? How do you even go about making a reasonable stab at dating such a document in its finished form or its many components?

A second related problem is that even if we can nail down a time and place of authorship for a particular segment of the Bible, we are a long way from understanding the details of the culture that produced it. Cultural anthropologists have a hard enough job understanding contemporary cultures that are still around to prod and poke. How much more difficult is it to pull apart a culture that’s been dead for 2,000 years or longer? Archeology can be a great help, as can historical and linguistic analysis. But we have to recognize that there are severe limits to what they can teach us because there are severe limits on what they can tell us.

Trying to read a Biblical passage without overtly considering its cultural context is inherently ethnocentric. Instead of bringing the original cultural context to the analysis, readers who think they are being context free are, in fact, bringing their own culture to their interpretations. They cannot strip themselves of their own culture: no one can. So under the guise of being context neutral they end up being driven in their analysis by the values and beliefs of their own culture.

Then we have a rule of interpretation that has been around for centuries:

  1. All Biblical statements have spiritual (and other) interpretations that are legitimate regardless of whether the underlying statements are literally true or not.

In other words, spiritual truth does not hinge on historical accuracy. There are many people who believe that if segments of the Bible can be shown to be untrustworthy historically then the authority of the Bible collapses. I do not accept such a position. Shakespeare’s Hamlet has a great deal to tell me about the human condition even though the text is absolutely shot through with historical inaccuracies. The one does not hinge on the other.

Of course it can be argued that certain historical facts in the Bible must be accurate otherwise Christianity falls apart, and I agree. But there are facts and then there are facts. This is something I will deal with in later posts, and so will just touch on lightly here. I would argue, for example, that it is much less important how many trips Paul made to Jerusalem than whether or not Jesus rose from the dead. If the historical record in the Bible is a bit off in the former case, I’m not going to be too troubled. But if the latter were called into question (as it often has been), then I would get very worried about the foundations of my faith.

While the Bible is not inerrant, there are certain historical statements that must be true for Christian faith to be coherent. The million dollar question, naturally, is “which statements?” Heresy tests (and, thus, heresy trials) in the past have hinged on a defendant’s ability to swear faith in a particular historical statement. The Virgin Birth has been used as one such test. Was Jesus born of a Virgin? Is faith in this historical event critical to Christian belief? I’m not going to answer that question yet, but I am going to assert that we cannot maintain Christian belief if we reduce the Bible to a giant fable or allegory. Some bits must be true. The vital truth of these bits impacts the interpretation of all of the rest.

What I am saying, essentially, is that the Bible is rather different from Shakespeare or Dickens. The parts that I consider essential, such as the historical validity of the resurrection, have a very different impact on the life of a Christian than the knowledge of the human condition that is gained from good fiction. Belief in such concepts as salvation and atonement, which hinge on the resurrection, have a life altering impact on my entire life – and the life to come. That’s a different order of things completely.

It is my personal belief that the acceptance of the Bible as an imperfect document requires a much stronger faith (and a much more active, and thinking, engagement with the text) than a rigid literalism. A “broken Bible,” if you like, is still the word of God, but it takes faith and effort to hear that word clearly.

My analysis of the Bible follows these rules. I didn’t invent any of them although putting them all together and making them explicit is my work. As I said in my first post, if you don’t have a rule book that is clear and unambiguous you cannot get anywhere, yet finding out someone’s point of view on this issue can be very hard. You will see that I am firmly on the side of logic and rationality. But sometimes this tack fails. Why? Because logic can only get you so far. This is true for both science and religion. ALL human action contains an element of faith – ALL. My next post will explore the nature of faith.

To be continued . . .

Disenchantment and Science

 Bible, Religion  Comments Off on Disenchantment and Science
Sep 252015


As a reasonably good social scientist and, I hope, a fairly decent person (not to mention a fairly good Christian), I take it as a grossly unwarranted assumption that fundamental Christians are the nasty, evil, closed-minded, moronic bigots that they are so often portrayed as by their opponents. Some of them are, to be sure, but not all – maybe not even the majority. Yet, it is not my intention here to replace one (nasty) stereotype with another (nicer) one, nor even to dress up some form of more liberal classification under the guise of sophisticated reflection on the subject. Rather, the following account of the motives of fundamental Christians represents suggestions and possibilities, any one of which could be sufficient cause in itself. Furthermore, I readily acknowledge that this inventory is incomplete and the analysis is, of necessity, telegraphic and brief. The idea is to provide some signposts for rethinking attitudes towards fundamental Christians, rather than to present a thoroughgoing ethnographic or theoretical discourse on the foundations of fundamental Christianity.

One of the major causes of the modern disempowerment of Westerners, as many fundamental Christians see it — and also as much classic social theory sees it — is the loss of spirituality in the modern technologized and scientized world. Natural science since the days of the Enlightenment (a bigoted expression if ever there was one) has had no room in it for the spiritual. Because science dominates modern culture, spiritual knowledge has been weakened and cheapened, if not downright discarded. The great sociologist Max Weber called this phenomenon the “disenchantment of the world.” Many members of the Western bourgeoisie seek to overcome the emptiness and meaninglessness felt by this loss of spirituality in diverse exotic ways, such as exploring New Age philosophies, seeking out Eastern religious practices, or espousing Wicca, and the like. But fundamental Christianity represents an attempt to re-inspirit the West via Christianity, and the first step in this enterprise is to re-inspirit Christianity which they feel has become insipid and impotent. As such, it is remaining loyal to Western culture and seeking the traditional power within that culture. I admire that agenda greatly. We desperately need spiritual values in this over-materialist, scientistic world of ours, and the Christian tradition has much to commend it. But Christianity has become powerless and pointless in so many ways. It does need revitalizing. I see that task as part of my job although I am no Martin Luther or John Calvin.

Much social theory, following Weber, argues that the disenchantment of the Western world has a number of disastrous social consequences. There is one key issue from this critique of science to underscore here, namely, that Western objective science alienates us from, and discredits, our subjective grasp of the world. [I’ll come back to the notions of “objective” and “subjective” at a later point. They are troubling, but a bit of a distraction now.] For example, rational science insists that the sun is fixed and that the earth rotates on its axis and revolves around it. But this is not our common, everyday experience. The sun moves through the sky, and our vocabulary and ways of speaking support this subjective point of view. We say, “the sun has risen,” and not, “the earth has rotated so as to reveal the sun to us.” More importantly, the first expression is not a metaphor nor shorthand for the second. The first is an accurate representation of our subjective experience, and while science seeks to discredit this experience, it cannot extinguish it, nor diminish its everyday applicability. What results is a radical chasm between our formal, cognitive, scientific education about the world and our informal, subjective, sensory experience of it. The inevitable result is a sense of alienation from our common experience and the world it represents to us (or a sense of alienation from our formal learning, or both).

This state of affairs is much more problematic than might appear at first blush. Having significant parts of our lives and knowledge radically disconnected from other parts is not just a nuisance or an irritant. It is a major impediment to our happiness and can, in the worst of cases, lead to serious mental illness or even suicide. It can contribute to addiction, depression, and other scourges of the modern world. Clearly it would be highly beneficial to find some solution, some way to reconcile the differences between direct physical experience and empirical science.

Logically we have many possibilities. Perhaps the least helpful is to deny the validity of our senses, and accept wholesale the conclusions of science. That stance avoids any contradictions but does nothing to help our sense of alienation. If anything it makes it worse. On the other side of the coin we could accept our direct experience and all that follows from it, and, therefore, deny the validity of objective science and its conclusions. This is precisely what some fundamental Christians do – in part, at least. They deny, for example, the findings of physics and biology that suggest that the earth is billions of years old, and also deny that humans and other living things have evolved from simpler life forms over millions of years, because they dislike the social and moral implications of such theories which conflict radically with their more direct experience of the world. I am not sympathetic to this agenda at all, but I understand its motives. In fact one of my major quarrels with it is not that it is wrong headed, but that its proponents do not go nearly far enough in rejecting modern science.

Many Christians who reject some of the findings of natural science have a nasty habit of doing the one thing that is intellectually quite unacceptable. They hunt and peck around in the world of science, accepting what they like and rejecting what they do not. This is not good. You either accept the whole edifice and all its premises, or you reject it all and build your own from the ground up. They will, for example, accept current scientific estimates of the dimensions of the universe and the relative velocities of the galaxies, and yet reject the timing and the manner of the birth of the cosmos in the Big Bang. This is unacceptable to the thinking Christian.

The “principle” that many fundamental Christians espouse is that natural science is not troublesome when it is proposing theories that do not directly contradict the most important declarative statements in the Bible (i.e. most important from their point of view). So, for example, the existence of photons does not on the surface of things seem to contradict statements about the creation of light in Genesis 1, so it is all right as a theory. That is, God created light, photons and all. The basic theories and methods of the sciences are also not a problem for these people when they are surfing the Internet or using their cell phones or taking drugs that have been tested on animals that have been chosen specifically because they are evolutionarily related to us. Nor do I know any fundamental Christians who think that the sky is a gigantic transparent dome holding back the “waters above,” supporting the sun, moon and stars, and having doors and windows to let through the rain and sun as it is quite literally described in Genesis 1 and elsewhere. They accept modern scientific descriptions of the sky which, among other things, say that the sky, as a “thing,” does not exist. It is a subjective illusion.

Here’s the insurmountable problem. These same people also make the claim that Genesis 1 was intended to be taken literally. As such they believe it is composed of simple declarative statements that are literally true. They believe this because they want to believe that humans were created by God (rather than having evolved from other life forms). Well, we have a logical catastrophe here. They are saying that, on the one hand, the creation of humans is to be taken literally and, on the other hand, the creation of the sky as a gigantic dome is to be taken figuratively. Really? How do you figure that? Who gets to decide what’s literal and what’s symbolic?

The fact is that they have been caught in a flat contradiction here. They are saying at one and the same time:

  1. Genesis 1 is meant to be taken literally.
  1. Genesis 1 is not meant to be taken literally.

Once you become this illogical you leave the realm of the thinking Christian. The illogic here is “I am going to use literalism as a safety net, falling on it when I need to defend important positions – especially when those positions are not defensible scientifically.” Likewise “I am going to interpret the Bible figuratively when it suits my doctrinal or scientific beliefs to do so.” Not good.   As I have already stated in my last post, everyone treats parts of the Bible as literally true and parts of the Bible as figurative. I do. That’s not the problem. The problem is that you cannot just switch from figurative to literal interpretations when you feel like it. You have to have rules of interpretation in place that give a logical rationale for why you are being a literalist at some times and not at others. The “system” many fundamental Christians adopt is, “I object to evolutionary theory on moral grounds therefore any part of Genesis that denies evolution is to be taken literally.”

Evolutionary theorists, and Christians who accept their findings, have been dodging some thorny issues for a long time, and I believe they should be forced to face them. In that one respect I am glad that there are anti-evolutionists around to challenge evolutionary biologists, and I shall explore the issues in more detail in later posts. But the fact still remains that the basic stance of the anti-evolutionist, fundamental Christian as articulated here is not really an argument at all. It cannot even count as an axiom or postulate because it is self contradictory and arbitrarily applied.

I would much rather that these fundamental apologists went the whole nine yards and rejected all of modern science out of hand. I would rather that they emulated the cardinals who refused to look through Galileo’s telescope. They should junk their cell phones, trash their televisions, unplug the Internet. They should see these techno-toys as nothing more than material manifestations of a gigantic falsehood. They lead us astray because they are built on false premises. I could buy into that. I am reminded of an old John Prine lyric (chorus of “Spanish Pipedream”):

Blow up your TV
Throw away your paper
Go to the country
Build you a home
Plant a little garden
Eat a lot of peaches
Try and find Jesus
On your own.

Amen, brother. That’s what I’m talking about. Abandon modern science and technology altogether. Join the Old Order Amish and start riding around in a buggy. That is a self-consistent stance I can truly admire. I am not being remotely cynical or sardonic. I greatly admire the Old Order Amish and like faiths in this regard (but not in others). They understand very deeply the tragic legacy of the Enlightenment.

What the militant anti-evolutionist is failing to understand is that the natural sciences don’t come to us in hermetically isolated little units that you can accept or reject as discrete bits. It’s all cut from a single piece of cloth. Modern fundamental Christians tend to hold beliefs that are a little like saying that your car engine is generally pretty good but you object to the existence of spark plugs, so you are going to get rid of them but keep the rest of the engine. Good luck getting anywhere with that engine. Well, people usually don’t have a real objection to spark plugs. But many have real hostility towards Darwin and his conclusions. So our next order of business is to ask the question why. Niels Bohr, Albert Einstein, Erwin Schrödinger, and their kin have all produced some pretty wild theories that call into question our commonsense views of the world and our everyday experiences. Their views of the physical world gibe very poorly with the Bible’s. But generally speaking they are left alone. No one worries too much about the implications for our worldview of general relativity or quantum mechanics, but they should. Darwin, on the other hand, gets attacked at every turn. What is so different about his branch of science?

I’ll hold off answering this question just for the moment because I want to talk about a few other things first – most especially I want to think about the issue of how to develop reasonable rules of interpretation for the Bible. Ignoring this issue, or making up the rules as you go along won’t cut it.


To be continued . . .

Are There Any Biblical Literalists?

 Bible  Comments Off on Are There Any Biblical Literalists?
Sep 232015

A major element in the popular stereotype of certain groups of contemporary Christians (sometimes lumped under the term “fundamentalists”) is that they are Biblical literalists. Many members of the clerical and lay community accept this stereotype without question, but even a cursory examination of the term “literalism” is enough to indicate that there are a great many theological and philosophical complexities to such a designation, and that its general application to a body of people masks and obscures deeper social realities.

Before beginning the inquiry of literalism, however, I want to clarify some general issues of vocabulary. The terms “fundamentalist” and “fundamentalism” are generally not used these days by the people that they are purported to classify, for several reasons. First, these terms are now conceived of as outsider expressions containing pejorative undertones. Many people so categorized prefer to identify themselves using terms such as “born again Christian,” or by doctrinal and sectarian affiliations, such as Pentecostal, Charismatic, and the like. Second, “fundamentalist” and “fundamentalism” create the impression of a monolithic cultural category whose very existence its supposed members deny. So-called fundamentalists prefer doctrinal or sectarian self designations precisely because the more general title, “fundamentalist,” lumps together factions and beliefs that these people wish to keep separate; and fails to make theological distinctions which they consider to be crucially important. Thus, from the outset, the vocabulary employed by many outsiders, because of its insensitivity to the desires and perceived social realities of the people under discussion, sets up an initially negative intellectual environment within which to conduct critical inquiry. I would like to avoid such negativity where possible.

Treading very warily, I will say that among many Christians who hold to a strict interpretation of the Bible as the inerrant word of God, the terms “fundamental Christian” and “evangelical Christian” have a certain currency. Without going into elaborate justification I am going to use these terms as the least misguided and offensive. At heart is their general belief (often stated quite baldly, but not always followed as strictly) that the plain, common sense meaning of a Biblical passage is the correct interpretation of it. This rule of interpretation is what I want to examine, or, more precisely, what I want to see is if they actually do what they claim to be doing.

Fundamental Christians are frequently characterized by outsiders as people who believe that the Bible is literally true, word for word. Having been thus defined, they are then attacked for the stupidity of such beliefs. This common characterization of fundamental Christians misses the point of their belief in the inerrancy of scripture. “Inerrant” is not a synonym for “literally true.” “Inerrant” means what it appears to mean – “lacking error.” A statement (or sentence) can be free of error without being literally true.

It should be apparent that even the most ardent Biblical literalist could not and would not claim that every utterance in the Bible is literally true. There are a number of obvious examples of Biblical modes of writing that fundamental Christians generally accept as not literally true.

First, some passages cannot be true (or false) because they are the kinds of expression, such as questions, exhortations, praise statements, or commands, that do not have a truth value. For example:

Praise the LORD.

Praise the name of the LORD,

give praise, O servants of the LORD . . .

(Psalm 135:1)

This is a command, not a statement. Commands are to be obeyed, being ultimately inspired by God. But they cannot be characterized as “true.” The commands can, however, in a general sense be characterized as free from error. God commands, I obey because the command so issued is the inerrant word of God. But I should also point out that according to fundamental Christians many Old Testament commandments — such as the dietary laws of Leviticus – while inerrant, have finite temporal validity because they have been expressly superseded by the new covenant. That is, they both lack a truth value and are no longer to be obeyed either.

Questions, especially rhetorical questions, may be treated similarly:

What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?

(Ecclesiastes 1:3)

Such questions may have answers that are implicit and true by virtue of divine inspiration, but the questions themselves have no truth value. In this case the implicit answer is “nothing.” So we could rewrite it as a (true) statement: “humans ultimately gain nothing from their toil.” But the original question is neither true nor false. It cannot be true, literally or otherwise.

Second, certain Biblical language is expressly poetic, and overtly uses metaphorical imagery:

Behold, how good and pleasant it is

when brothers dwell in unity!

It is like the precious oil upon the head,

running down upon the beard,

upon the beard of Aaron,

running down on the collar of his robes!

(Psalms 133:1-2)

Here the word “like” indicates that what follows is a poetic figure, to be understood as divinely inspired, but not as the literal truth.

Third, it is well understood that certain expressions in the Biblical text are idiomatic or conventional turns of phrase. Here’s one of my favorites:

Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times? Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.”

(Matthew 18:21-22)

Such expressions have a clear enough meaning that is kin to the literal meaning but not identical to it. The example above, therefore, does not mean that Peter should stop forgiving his brother when he has done it 490 times, but that he should do it numerous times, or indefinitely.

Fourth, many passages of the Bible (especially in the Greek Bible) are prefaced or followed by an express statement that they are not to be interpreted literally. In much apocalyptic discourse, for example, there is clear indication that the images are to be treated as allegory and in some cases the interpretation of the allegorical symbols is made plain:

But the angel said to me, “Why marvel? I will tell you the mystery of the woman, and of the beast with seven heads and ten horns that carries her. . . . This calls for a mind with wisdom: the seven heads are seven hills on which the woman is seated . . . And the woman that you saw is the great city which has dominion over the kings of the earth.”

(Revelation 17:7,9,& 18)

That is, the “beast” does not literally have seven heads, and the woman is not literally a woman. Furthermore, much of the exposition in the Gospels derives from the premise that Jesus taught in a highly metaphoric form of parable language in order not to present the literal truth to his hearers — and that he spoke plainly/literally only to his closest disciples (see e.g. Matthew 13:10-13).

In the above examples the fundamental Christian claims that the text is inerrant – meaning that its contents are legitimate inspiration or revelation from God – not that they are literally true (which would be nonsense). The principle of inerrant inspiration becomes synonymous with literal truth for the fundamental Christian, only in those scriptural passages which are statements capable of bearing a truth value, and which do not have some qualifying context that indicates they are meant to be interpreted allegorically. Put another way, fundamental Christians believe that some statements in the Bible are literally true, and some are symbolic. In this general respect they are no different from any other reader of the text, Christian or otherwise.

The real question comes down to what statements one thinks are symbolic and which not – that is, what counts as a “qualifying context.” Even among the many churches that assert the inerrancy of scripture there are major disagreements in this sphere; disagreements that are of prime doctrinal significance. Many segments of Revelation, for example, are clearly marked as allegorical, but does that mean that other parts not so marked (or the whole) are to be interpreted as crypto-symbolic imagery as well? Few sects agree on where to draw the symbolic/literal line.

Thus, instead of creating a bogus dichotomy – “liberal” versus “fundamental,” or the like – we could, rather simplistically, place Biblical analysis on a continuum whose interpretive poles are something on the order of:

Radical literalism – all Biblical statements are to be considered literally true unless otherwise overtly indicated in the text itself.

Radical figurativism – all Biblical statements are to be considered to be metaphorical unless susceptible to naturalistic testing for truth value.

I would contend that nobody resides at either extreme, and that most Christians, of all political and interpretive bents, sit somewhere in the middle. I do not believe there is a clear divide between so-called “literalists” and others.

Having, thus, dispensed with dubious dichotomies and classifications, we can get to the heart of the matter which is that certain segments of the Bible are more commonly subject to radical literalism than others, and some of these areas pit fundamental Christians directly against the academic mainstream. Prime of these, of course, is the Genesis version of creation. This arena is, not surprisingly, the major battleground between fundamental Christianity and various branches of the human and life sciences because accepting a literal version of creation means rejecting evolutionary theory, the cornerstone of these scientific fields.

Such a conflict might seem irreconcilable, and maybe it is. But, maybe both sides would treat the other differently if they understood that each is heir to a worldview with particular implications. Both sides claim to hold THE TRUTH because both are defending comfortable worldviews, and not primarily because one or other of these worldviews has better empirical validation. If two sides start from incompatible beliefs, empirical concerns are largely irrelevant. Theologians especially ought to appreciate that it is possible to draw radically different conclusions from the same observations, or to use the same data to justify opposite points of view.  Scientists should too. The existence of phlogiston and/or oxygen was postulated by scientists using the same observations. Different theories yield different conclusions.

Where fundamental Christians normally disagree with the bulk of academics is on first principles, i.e. fundamentals (or points of faith). That is, they begin from the belief that the Biblical text is the inspired, inerrant Word of God (a rule of interpretation), and work from that tenet to draw out particular implications. Consider the following argument:

 All declarative statements in the Bible are true.

“God created the world in six days,” is a statement in the Bible

Therefore, it is true that God created the world in six days.

There is nothing logically wrong with this argument. There are ways to challenge it; but it is not fair to accuse the proponent of such an argument of irrationality, just because one finds the conclusion objectionable. The logic is sound. It’s one of the premises that is the key issue.

Distaste for the conclusion of such an argument may cause some people to question one or more of the premises; which is also a legitimate exercise. One might, for example, propose a counter-syllogism:

If all the statements in the Bible are true, then God created the world in six days.

God did not create the world in six days.

Therefore, not all the statements in the Bible are true.

This is also a perfectly logical argument. But where does the second premise come from here? It must either be a statement of faith of its own, or derived logically from other statements of faith that run counter to those in the first argument. That is, both sides can use perfectly respectable logical arguments to come to opposite conclusions because they disagree on certain principles of faith. This should come as no surprise, given my discussion of rules of interpretation in my last post , but we need to be honest about the foundations of disagreement, and not freely bandy about accusations of irrationality.

These two camps (which I have stereotyped a bit too much, I admit) would get along with the other a whole lot better, I suspect, if they laid out their points of faith first. The trouble with many fundamental Christians, though, is that they will not always acknowledge that principles such as inerrancy are matters of faith. They talk about them as if they were absolute truths. Many scientists are equally as stubborn about their principles. I know many natural scientists who believe they have cornered the market on THE TRUTH. In this case both sides are blinded. I find the arrogant assumption on the part of some scientists that they are right and others are wrong every bit as annoying as the same statement from fundamental Christians. They are both trying to argue from principles of faith that they hold to be self-evidently true and therefore intrinsically unassailable. When they are working quite rationally both sides can build very elaborate systems of thought on those axioms as foundations. But because the axioms are different for each, the edifices they construct are radically different as well. That means that even when both parties are behaving perfectly logically they will still fail to agree on most, if not all, important issues.

In the field of human relations, certain first principles create conclusions that are comfortable, or effective, or practical for different temperaments: Biblical premises create a Biblical worldview, evolutionary premises produce an evolutionary worldview, and so on. When the dust has cleared, therefore, the argument comes down to, “I like my worldview, and I don’t like yours.” It is most assuredly not the case that one particular worldview is more effective than another. However, I should make it clear that I am not proposing some kind of radical relativism, either. In the realm of social inquiry we are not totally free to pick any first principles (or rules of interpretation) we like (any more than mathematicians are). Some premises produce nonsensical systems, or hopelessly limited systems, or systems that map poorly on to empirical observation; while others map pretty well on to the world of the senses.

I also wish to note that fundamental Christians do not think that those parts of the Bible that they consider literally true are thereby uninterpretable: quite the opposite. The most seemingly transparently literal statements need interpretation to expose their deeper meanings and applications. Accepting the literal truth of, say, the Fall of Adam and Eve in Genesis does not mean that the meaning of the event is simple and obvious. Neither does denying the literal truth of the event have much effect on its underlying meaning. In fact I could quite easily deny the literal truth of the actual events of the expulsion from Eden itself, and still find myself in perfect agreement with fundamental Christians. Whether Adam and Eve were real people or not has little or no effect on the moral of the story. Aesop’s fables have no basis in truth whatsoever, but their lessons are very important. I am not saying the whole Bible is a fable – far from it. But I am saying that denying the truth value of certain segments does not diminish their importance spiritually. In my (admittedly limited) experience, Bible study by fundamental Christians is quite capable of producing dense multilayered interpretations of literal statements that I find quite engaging.

Furthermore, fundamental Christians have often provided me with unusual insights. Once I was in a Bible study that was using the text of the Greek Bible to help figure out what Jesus looked like. I can’t say that this was a huge concern of mine, but it was rather stimulating for me in terms of suggesting lines of reasoning I had not thought of. The discussion leader, following other sources I am sure, started his argument by reminding us that Paul in I Corinthians 11:14 condemns long hair on a man in no uncertain terms. Paul may well not have actually seen Jesus himself, but he certainly knew many of his friends. Is it likely, therefore, that he would revile long hair so vigorously if Jesus had been an ancient prototype of a hippie? This is not a water tight argument by any means, but it is certainly a quite reasonable case to make. By extension I started thinking that I might use the same line of thinking to probe the question of whether Jesus was married or not. But that actual discussion will have to wait. I’ll get to it.

My next topic will be to ask what motivates someone to take an inerrantist’s position. More specifically, why would sensible, thoughtful, educated people take up a position that forces them to reject vast tracts of modern science, even though it is abundantly clear from the wonders of space travel and computers and cell phones and all the rest of it that modern science is very effective? What do they stand to gain?

To be continued .


 Bible  Comments Off on Welcome
Sep 222015


Four years ago I found myself posting anniversaries on facebook almost daily until my sister Anna suggested that I turn my posts into a blog. Thus, BOOK OF DAYS TALES — & – was born, and now is in its 3rd glorious year. Then I began posting on facebook on issues associated with religion and spirituality, and so eventually PASSION INTELLECT PERSISTENCE came about. I don’t have time to post daily on two blogs, so this one will be a little less frequent. I’ll try to update 2 or 3 times per week, as time permits. We’ll see. Before posting substance, a little background.

The title comes from a facebook page I maintained sporadically for years. It began as my effort to write some snappy aphorisms on backgrounds of my photography. Now it will be the facebook link to this blog. I’ve been a fan of acronyms ever since I was studying for O-levels in England as a boy, and used them to remember reams and reams of facts. Passion, intellect, and persistence (i.e. PIP) are my three keys to happiness in life. Do everything with all your heart, use your brain, and never give up – never.

I was born in Buenos Aires in 1951 of British parents, so I am a citizen of both Argentina and the U.K. In English-speaking countries I am called John Alexander, but my birth certificate says Juan Alejandro, and these days that’s what I prefer. But I will answer to either. After Evita died, my family moved to England and then to South Australia. So by age 6 I had lived on three continents. I did all of my primary and most of my secondary schooling in Gawler, SA, and then the family moved back to England where I attended grammar school for O-levels and A-levels (Latin, Greek, and Ancient History) before reading theology at Oxford University.

After taking my degree I had thought to attend seminary, but the theology curriculum at Oxford had jaded me on pursuing a vocation in ministry at that time. Instead I began teaching mathematics and technical drawing in secondary schools in Oxford and later in Royal Leamington Spa. I’ve always been pretty good at mathematics (still teach it), and technical drawing, before the advent of personal computers, has always been a passion. It’s one of my artistic outlets. After two years of that I married and moved to the U.S. to enroll at the University of North Carolina, first for an M.A. in folklore, then a Ph.D. in anthropology.

My first professional employment after the Ph.D. was as assistant professor of anthropology at Purchase College, S.U.N.Y. I stayed there for a little over 30 years, climbing the ranks, publishing the usual stuff, and heading the department for 18 years. I took early retirement 5 years ago and moved to Buenos Aires where I continued to write and travel. Then a year ago I moved to China for a change of scene. Currently I am a professor at Yunnan University of Finance and Economics teaching English and GMAT preparatory courses.

During a sabbatical 22 years ago I lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, writing a book on European folk dances and doing fieldwork on their descendants in the pueblos of the U.S. Southwest. My long forgotten vocation in the ministry was rekindled by a number of pieces of my life coming together in startling ways. So when I returned to New York I became a candidate for the ministry in the Presbyterian church (my home as a boy), and became a student pastoral intern in a rural church prior to ordination. Over the course of 15 years I served as pastor for four churches before hanging up my preaching bands and moving to Argentina.

I’ve taught a lot about the anthropology of religion, and preached a lot, but I have not published a great deal on religious topics. I’ve written a fair amount, but publishing has eluded me, especially in recent years. When I was writing about dance and aesthetics 30 years ago, the publishing business was healthy. Now it’s rather sickly as a print medium, but digital media are alive and well. So this blog represents my latest efforts to get my thoughts on religion and spirituality in print. Wish me luck.

Following is a teaser that represents my first substantive post. I can’t guarantee to be terribly systematic, but I do want to cover some important questions: What is religion? What is Christianity? What is science? What is faith? What does the Bible really say? You get the idea. I can’t promise that my posts will be brief. Complex subjects need complex exposition. I’ll try to add a photo now and again to break up the verbiage.


Although we are usually unaware of it, when we read something we are applying rules of interpretation to what we are reading. We make certain assumptions about the piece and about the author’s intentions. For example, when we read a newspaper article we assume that the statements made in it are true, or, at the very least, that the writer believes them to be true. When we read a work of fiction we follow different rules. Most of the time we are not even aware that we are applying rules of interpretation at all. It is only when the author makes things a little murky that we have to think consciously about how to make sense of what we are reading. Sometimes on April Fool’s Day, for example, you have to be a little careful when you read newspaper stories, otherwise you might end up believing that spaghetti grows on trees or that Alabama has officially changed the value of pi. More generally, we might care to consider the political persuasion of the author when reading a report about political activity in a newspaper in order to take into account possible bias, and so on. Conversely, the author of a work of fiction may introduce real historical events into the narrative to add a feeling of reality, thus confusing our sense of what is true and what is not in the book.

Most of the time there is little disagreement about the rules to apply when reading a book. But the Bible is a special case. Different kinds of people have different kinds of rules. The problem is that the rules that people are using are not always made explicit, and so it is not clear when two people are using different rules. But if you have ever argued with someone who is using different rules to interpret the Bible from yours, you will have begun to understand the nature of the problem. It’s like pitting a rugby team against a basketball team and expecting something useful to come out of it. Frequently, though, we find ourselves in dialog with others without laying out our rules first because we are not aware that this ought to be our first order of business. Well, here it is the first order of business, and it may also be by far the most significant.

If you like we can extend the sports metaphor by saying that rules of interpretation (called “hermeneutics”) are like the rules of baseball, and actual interpretation (called “exegesis”) is like the playing of a game. The game depends on the rules, but when you play the game you are only minimally conscious of the rules. They are latent in the game, and they direct it. But you don’t usually have to think about them actively. Nonetheless, the rule book is there and it is very explicit. Umpires are there to keep the game within the boundaries set by the rule book, so that players are not allowed to stray far: willfully or unconsciously. In Biblical analysis the rule book is often missing entirely or latent but unexplained, and there are no umpires to question concerning the rules.

Many people who read the Bible don’t even know that they are using rules of interpretation, and, as we will see in later posts, most people probably don’t have a consistent set. For the moment, though, let’s take as an example a fairly widespread rule of interpretation — the Bible is the inerrant word of God — and see what happens if we try to use it as one of our game rules.  Inerrancy on the surface looks like a pretty straightforward rule for Biblical interpretation, namely, the Bible is free of errors. However, the results may be problematic for some people. For example, this method leads to the belief, through analysis of Genesis and the historical sections of the Hebrew Bible, that the earth was created by God in six days a few thousand years ago. This finding is totally at odds with modern scientific theory and data. What are you going to do?

There are two obvious alternatives. You can change your rules of interpretation if you feel that going against the findings of modern science is not possible for you; or you can accept the rule you have selected as it stands and opt to reject the findings of modern science. What you can’t do, without tying yourself into all kinds of impossible logical knots, is to have it both ways. Not that a number of people haven’t tried, of course. I am going to set aside the specifics of this particular dilemma for the moment and take them up again at some point. For now all I want to suggest is that one’s rules of interpretation have deep implications, so you need to choose them carefully. But how do you make the choice?

I suppose the answer to my own question is a bit of a chicken and egg affair. I could, if I wished, select my rules because the ones I pick lead to conclusions I like. Many people do this without conscious thought, I believe. Let’s choose a fairly neutral example to show how this operation works (you can replace “tattoos” with a host of other words or phrases). The line of the argument is something like this:

 I don’t like people with tattoos.

 The Bible condemns tattoos (Leviticus 19:28).

 Therefore I adopt a rule of inerrancy, and thus gain sacred support for my bias.

Of course there’s a lot more to choosing rules of interpretation than this, and, indeed, I find this approach reprehensible. It is nothing more than using the sacred text and a common rule to buttress a prejudice. And let me add that I find this method reprehensible even when it’s used to support prejudices that I like! This cannot be our method.

Whenever we choose our rules of interpretation solely on the basis of where they lead us we are falling into error. Does this mean, therefore, that we must start with a set of principles that appear spiritually sound and then follow them wherever they take us? Tentatively I will say yes, but there are a few complications. We cannot accept principles that seem spiritually sound on the surface but which lead us to nonsensical conclusions. Classic logic requires us to reject a principle (or rule) if the conclusions it leads to are impossible. Technically this argument is known as the reductio ad absurdum, or, in English the “reduction to the absurd.” If I start with a basic premise that leads me to the conclusion that 2 = 3 then my premise must be wrong because 2 cannot equal 3. So, logic dictates that I cannot start with a rule if it leads to absurd or contradictory conclusions. We might think that this process rules out inerrancy because the conclusions of inerrancy flatly contradict modern science and lead to apparently absurd conclusions (for example, that the world is only a few thousand years old). But we have to be careful about the terms “contradict” and “absurd.”

In strict logical terms “contradict” and “absurd” have very precise definitions. A logical contradiction (that which is “absurd”), is a statement that asserts the truth of a proposition and its exact opposite when it is logically impossible for both to be true simultaneously. So, for example, if I say x is an odd number and x is an even number I have stated a contradiction because an odd number cannot be an even number. The fact that inerrancy requires us to accept that the earth is only a few thousand years old and science tells us that it is billions of years old is not the same kind of contradiction. What you have are two competing methods (that is, rules of interpretation) that lead to two competing conclusions that contradict one another. There’s nothing surprising about that, and classic logic cannot help. Use different methods of inquiry and you are likely to get different results. If we are to test the value of inerrancy properly according to the rules of logic, what we need to determine is whether there is a set of conclusions that derive from it alone that are logically contradictory.   The conclusions and beliefs of modern science, or of any other set of rules of inquiry, should be completely absent from the test. If inerrancy forces us to believe outright contradictions, then it is not a rule we can use and still be logical.

Fortunately it is quite simple to find logical contradictions that derive out of inerrancy. “When did Jesus die?” is a classic question that will help us test the rule of inerrancy. According to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus ate a Passover meal with his disciples and was crucified the following day (Mark 14:12-26). According to the Gospel of John, Jesus was crucified as the Passover lambs were being slaughtered (John 19:31). So inerrancy requires us to accept that Jesus was killed on Passover and that Jesus was not killed on Passover. That is a classic logical contradiction. Therefore inerrancy is unsound and needs to be discarded.

I should say that there are numerous people who believe in inerrancy who have devoted their lives to resolving contradictions such as the one I used here. But what they are doing is deeply troubling to the thinking Christian. For them inerrancy is the main buttress of the authority of the Bible and this authority is vital for the moral stances they take. If it can be shown that the Bible contains factual errors then its authority for them falls apart. So they go to seemingly “absurd” lengths of their own to reconcile contradictions. The thinking Christian cannot do that. We must either throw out logic and give up on thinking altogether, or we must accept logic and, in the process, accept the puzzles it presents us with.

To be continued . . .