Tuesday, 10 December 2013

The Bible as map

A while back, someone wrote this in response to my post Is the Pope a Catholic?
For me at least, Christianity *is* being part of a community attempting to find a form of life that honours the insight of a particular Book. The 'superstructure of interpretation' *is* religion, even if religious people themselves sometimes deny it. A literal approach can't offer access to the 'true' or 'core' religion, since the Bible itself is full of tensions. Everyone has to engage in interpretation; there's no 'clean' reading.

I’m not really sure why this is a ‘problem’ though?
I didn't answer the points raised, because I didn't want to go back down the well-trodden path of explaining why I'm not a believer, which is where my intended reply was heading, and I was happy to carry on simply chilling out for a while, agreeing to differ and leave the analytical questioning of religion to others with far more original and compelling insights. But it sort of bothers me when I can't get my head round things that others find self-evident, or vice versa, so here are a few thoughts on literalism and interpretation that have been rattling around my skull with no place to go.

In terms of what other people might want to believe and take away from the Bible, the non-existence of one 'clean' reading isn't a problem. I'm happy for others to make up their own minds and believe what they want to believe, providing they're not causing harm.

If you want to go further and argue that Christianity, inspired by the insights contained in the Bible, is more than just mostly harmless, but is a coherent, convincing system of belief, the inconsistencies do become a problem.

'The 'superstructure of interpretation' *is* religion ... Everyone has to engage in interpretation; there's no 'clean' reading.'

OK, so let's assume, for the sake of argument, that what we have really is a divinely-inspired text, with humans trying to live in accordance with 'the insight of a particular Book.' We'll also assume that the divine message isn't straightforward, that it comes to us from a wiser being and loses something in the translation when it's dumbed down to a human level of understanding - the message is perhaps distorted by the limiting medium of human language, is told in terms explicable to people living in a particular culture at a particular time, or is sometimes expressed in terms of metaphor and parable in order to be accessible to people.

If all of this is true, then you'd expect to see argument, competing interpretations, no 'clean' reading of the text, right? True, but only up to a point. If this really was an imperfect copy of the Almighty's guide to Life, The Universe and Everything, I'd expect a degree of ambiguity and room for debate around the details, but a reasonably clear central message. I wouldn't expect that guide to be so unclear that people could take away opposite and completely contradictory messages about how to live.

As the Mandela retrospectives have reminded us, in Apartheid South Africa, the Dutch Reformed Church interpreted the Bible as supporting racial segregation and discrimination. At the same time, Martin Luther King Jr. turned to the same book and found a blueprint for racial equality. Priests and chaplains can bless armies, or Bible-inspired conscientious objectors can refuse to participate in war.

If 'the superstructure of religion *is* religion,' then religion seems to be all over the place. Which is why I go back to the Bible, in the hope of having some measure to calibrate people's variant interpretations against. This is hard to do, since 'A literal approach can't offer access to the 'true' or 'core' religion, since the Bible is itself full of tensions.' 'Tensions' is one word you could use. 'Contradictions' is another.

If you want to pick through some of the tensions/contradictions, there's a whole bunch of 'em right here. Some of them are mere nit-picking, but there's plenty of 'tension' around the central tenets of the faith. What's with the New Testament giving us a list of Jesus' male ancestors, when he was supposedly conceived by the union of a virgin and the Holy Spirit? Is God merciful or merciless? Can mortal humans see God or not? Does God ever tempt humans? Is Jesus equal to or lesser than his father? What really happened at the resurrection? Depending on which verse you read, you get very different answers to these questions.

On what basis do you trust one verse as opposed to another that gives a different message, or account of the truth? How do you decide which bits are metaphor and which bits are to be taken literally? OK, scientists know enough about the place of our planet in the Cosmos, deep time and evolution that we know Genesis must be, if anything, a metaphor, but what about Biblical claims where there's no evidence one way or another - on what basis does a believer decide that this thing literally happened, but that thing was just a poetic way to express a deeper truth?

I can accept ambiguity, up to a point. The map, as they say, is not the territory. But a map should at least give you some reliable notion of where you are in the territory. Looking at the Bible-as-map, what I see is a whole bunch of people following the map and wandering off in lots of different directions simultaneously, following a map that's so hard to interpret that two people can set out on two wildly different compass bearings, each convinced that she or he is on the shortest possible route to the same destination as the other.

Real maps haven't always been perfect, but there's a real territory out there and, over the years, as people have explored and surveyed and made mistakes and re-checked and corrected and devised better tools and techniques, they've become more accurate and more useful for telling people where they are. The Bible, in contrast, isn't giving people a set of consistent bearings and landmarks, doesn't readily subject itself to empirical scrutiny, calibration and correction and leaves people wandering round in all directions, their moral compasses aligned with whatever various directions they've decided must be North on a map that's so ambiguous that nobody can agree how it lines up with the cardinal points.

That's why I find the lack of a 'clean' reading to be a problem. Across and within denominations and sects, people have built different superstructures from the same blueprint - see the furious debates over gay marriage and women bishops currently dividing the Church of England, or the divide between liberal forms of Anglicanism in the West and the more fundamentalist version thriving in the developing world. Why is does the superstructure look so wobbly? I'd say it's got a lot to do with unsound foundations built according to a badly-drawn plan:

And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it.

Does any of this matter? Up to a point, no. I disagree with religious believers about the nature of things, but, hey, you say tom-ay-to and I say tom-ah-to, let's call the whole thing off. But religious faith is an ideology, as well as a truth-claim. I don't dismiss ideologies, at least as working hypotheses, because nobody is free of bias, or in possession of all the facts and we all have to act in the world on the basis of our educated guesses, without the benefit of perfect knowledge. But I am suspicious of ideologies that close off the possibility of looking up from the map to see if it actually looks anything like the territory, or conclude that, if the map and territory don't seem to match, there must always be some way to prove the map right. 

To borrow a critique of another guide to Life, the Universe and Everything:
The Bible is an indispensable companion to all those who are keen to make sense of life in an infinitely complex and confusing Universe, for though it cannot hope to be useful or informative on all matters, it does at least make the reassuring claim, that where it is inaccurate it is at least definitively inaccurate. In cases of major discrepancy it's always reality that's got it wrong.


Anonymous said...

Hi, it’s me. Sorry for the slow reply.

Thanks for continuing with this. From my point of view, our difference here is that we have different expectations of what a religion is and of what the bible is.

As I understand you, your problems with Christianity are:

A. Christianity is not something you can test scientifically
B. Christianity does not submit easily to a battle of ideologies
C. It’s not possible to make a definitive interpretation of ‘what the bible is really saying’

I guess my answer is simply that all of these points are true. Since it’s not the kind of thing that submits easily to empirical testing or treatment as an ideology, I would say it’s not sensible to require it to do so, because then you miss out on what is of value in it. I guess it’s reasonable to demand it if that is your priority, but then you might find you’re rejecting something valuable simply because you’ve not engaged with it on its own terms.

If you do want to engage with Christianity then read my next comment. If not (and fair enough) then you can stop reading here!

Anonymous said...

1. Who wrote the bible?

You talk about the bible as if it were written by God with the human authors an imperfect writing tool, like a faulty typewriter that types ‘p’ when you press ‘y’, or ‘love’ when you want ‘smite’. But let’s be clear, the bible was not written by God. It’s a book written by people *about* God (and about themselves and their lands). The New Testament gives us the life of Jesus and then the epistles offer us a reimagining of the Old Testament messiah promises in light of that.

This is not a modern liberal thing; it’s never been part of the Christian tradition that the bible was written by God. (Though American Fundamentalist Protestants can sometimes get pretty close.) The expression ‘the word of God’ is a title rather that a description. I’ve always liked 2 Timothy 3, which describes the bible as ‘God-breathed’. I think that nicely captures the idea that the bible is special: that the book as a whole is useful and reveals something important about the nature of God, mankind and the world, but that it most certainly was not written by God via people.

2. What is the bible?

I’m slightly unclear about your bible-as-map metaphor. What is the territory here that the map is describing? Is your point that the bible is a set of instructions to achieving something? Or that it is a description of the physical world? Either way, the bible is neither a rulebook nor a (pseudo-)science; it’s a library, mostly of stories, history, poetry and theology. And these aren’t simply a rulebook or science text book expressed in terms humans (ancient humans?) can understand. They are what they seem to be: writings by different ancient people across time about themselves as a people, their god and their land. A Christian believes this compendium as a whole carries great insight on humanity and the divine, but you have to take the bible as it is: a library of the writings of an ancient tribal people. What it’s not is a get-out clause for having to engage in hermeneutics; it’s hermeneutics ‘all the way down’.

Anonymous said...

3. What therefore is Christianity?

To be a Christian is to be part of a community of people seeking to live up to the insight of this strange book. If you’re a Christian, by definition the primary revelation in that book is the life of Christ. In fact, that would be the nearest thing to a Damascene moment that most people get: a realisation that ‘wow this man Jesus embodies something very good; this is what the divine is; God is love’.

Whether ‘God is love’ can be usefully treated as an ideology I don’t know. Certainly I wouldn’t know how to respond to a demand that I ‘prove the map right’ beyond a simple ‘look at this example; don’t you agree that this is something profound?’ Christianity is not what you are asking it to be, and that’s why all those for-or-against debates go on forever and leave everyone dissatisfied. But if different groups of people want to engage with each other and their beliefs then great; maybe we’ll all learn something and drop some of our old beliefs and pick up some new ones. I have certainly enjoyed our dialogue.

(By the way, it would be possible to overstate all this. If you’re a Christian, by definition the primary revelation is the life of Christ, which gives you a starting point for engaging in hermeneutics. And there are a number of themes that come up again and again. The fact that there is a lot of room for disagreement doesn’t mean that the God-is-love core isn’t there. The God-hates-fags people are very much a lunatic fringe.)

Andrew King said...

Hi there - Well, that’s a pretty comprehensive response. I’ve picked out some bits that seem to address the most interesting misunderstandings on both sides, but even that’s quite a chunk of text, so I’ve broken it up into one answer, one question (or one statement, one disagreement, or one statement, one query) at a time:

‘I’m slightly unclear about your bible-as-map metaphor. What is the territory here that the map is describing? Is your point that the bible is a set of instructions to achieving something? Or that it is a description of the physical world?’

I was thinking about maps as a guides, things that help you to orient yourself and find your way around more efficiently than somebody who’s trying to navigate without a map. I was considering the Bible’s function as a moral map, a divinely-inspired guide which might help individuals and societies to find a path that leads to good, as opposed to evil (hence the use of the phrase ‘moral compass’). I know the Bible isn’t just a guide (see my next answer below), but I’m still working on the assumption that one of its functions is to provide moral guidance. I wasn’t particularly thinking of the Bible as a description of the physical world.

It may be that a degree of interpretation is required to use this moral map, but that concept isn’t beyond me – reading literal maps depends on interpretation, too, and map-reading is a skill just as surely as Biblical exegesis.

I think that’s true that most Christians consider the Bible to be a source of moral authority which – subject to interpretation (call it moral map reading) - contains valuable, divinely-inspired information about justice, injustice, good and evil and helps people to navigate moral questions and a good life as individuals and communities. If that’s not true, feel free to point out what I’m not understanding here.

Andrew King said...

‘Either way, the bible is neither a rulebook nor a (pseudo-)science; it’s a library, mostly of stories, history, poetry and theology. And these aren’t simply a rulebook or science text book expressed in terms humans (ancient humans?) can understand.’

I agree that the Bible is a library and that it does a number of diverse things – by discussing one of its functions (a map to help navigate the moral universe), I wasn’t trying to claim that it wasn’t doing any of the others. Poetry, for example – I love the language of the King James Bible, which is beautiful to read and listen to and stirs the imagination. This isn’t, by the way, a jingoistic claim that the English Bible is the best – it’s just the one I happen to know and I’m sure that previous generations found similar linguistic treasures in a collection of books written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek and that other modern cultures have similar experiences (some of the chants of the Orthodox Russian liturgy make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up – maybe the language would too, if I spoke Russian).

There’s history in there too and theology. And more – it might not be ‘simply a rulebook’, but there are plenty of thou shalts and thou shalt nots, rules and regulations and so on, as well as gentler parables and examples among the other stuff, which is why I split the difference and called it – at least in part – a guide.

Andrew King said...

And as for it not being partly ‘(pseudo) science,’ well frankly, I think there are sections in the Bible library that seem to be just that. I have difficulty with the claim that the bits of the Bible that appear to explain the natural world were never read as anything other than myth and metaphor and that literal-minded creationism is merely a modern aberration.

Take the example of Noah’s flood. The evidence from all the relevant scientific fields is event didn’t happen, at least in the form related in Genesis (although there are suggestions that the various Near Eastern flood myths may have been based on folk memories of a catastrophic rise in the level of the Black Sea circa five and a half thousand BC).

But what did people in the past believe? Up to a point, we know. In the Eighteenth Century, the pioneers of what would become geology and palaeontology discovered things like fossil shells in mountain rocks and assumed that they’d found evidence of the world-wide deluge mentioned in the Bible. We know this, because they wrote it down in books and pamphlets. These were educated, literate, sophisticated people (which gives the lie to the other standard account of what people believed in the past, namely that illiterate peasants in the pews might have sometimes had a crude, literal understanding of the Bible, but educated people had always had a more subtle take and understood clever things like metaphor).

We can even date the realisation that Biblical literalism was in conflict with the evidence. In 1820, William Buckland, a leading early geologist and palaeontologist wrote “VindiciƦ GeologiƦ; or the Connexion of Geology with Religion explained”, reconciling geological evidence with the biblical accounts of creation and Noah's Flood. By 1836, in his famous “Bridgewater Treatise”, Buckland acknowledged that the biblical account of Noah's flood could not be confirmed using geological evidence.

Buckland, not just an educated man, but an acknowledged pioneer in his field, literally believed in Noah’s flood, although he later had to admit that he couldn’t find firm evidence for it.

What about people who lived many hundreds of years before Buckland? The evidence is sparser, but think about the final resting place of Noah’s Ark. According to Judeo-Christian tradition, Mount Ararat was where the ark came to rest. The Samaritans believed that the ark’s final resting place was Mount Gerizim in Samaria, which they considered a holy site (they also thought that Abraham had nearly sacrificed Isaac on Mount Gerizim). I’m inclined to take their belief that these events had literally taken place at face value – it seems rather odd to sanctify a place (and later, to defend it bitterly against encroaching Christians) on the basis of events that you don’t literally believe in.

Or take the fathers of the Church. Some may have written that creation didn’t literally happen in seven days and that a day should be understood to mean an age, but this level of interpretation doesn’t point to somebody denying the literal truth of an event, but rather to somebody assuming that what was written was literally true, but perhaps expressed in an oblique way and trying to make what was written sound more plausible.

Modern creationists aren’t odd because they believe in biblical creation myths – plenty of perfectly intelligent and well-educated people apparently believed in those myths in the past. They’re odd because, unlike their forebears, they continue to believe, despite having access to mountains of reliable, consistent, easy to find evidence which contradicts their beliefs.

Andrew King said...

‘What it’s not is a get-out clause for having to engage in hermeneutics; it’s.’ hermeneutics all the way down.’

I just don’t agree here. The first bit - engaging in hermeneutics - is fine. There’s hardly a text in existence that can’t be questioned, interpreted and analysed to reveal different layers of meaning. Metaphor, context, intention, what’s revealed and what’s concealed, degrees of knowledge, ideology, status, the use of language, ambiguity, logic, bias, they’re all fair game as far as I’m concerned.

But hermeneutics “all the way down” seems not just wrong, but the plain opposite of the truth. Eventually you hit the bedrock of the text itself. However much you interpret and analyse a text, you eventually have to ask questions about what the text is. It’s a document written by a person (thought to be divinely inspired in some sense, in the case of holy texts), but what sort of document?

How you interpret it depend on your judgement of what it is. Different standards apply depending on whether you’re looking at a political manifesto, a novel, a historical account, something in between (like a historical novel, recounting real events with invented thoughts, dialogue and events filling in the gaps that have been lost to posterity), a manual, a polemic, a malicious forgery (like the Zinoviev Letter or the Protocols of the Elders of Zion), an academic study, a memoir, or something that falls into more than one of these categories, or none of the above.

At some point you have to decide what you’re dealing with and get down to impolite questions like, ‘on the balance of evidence, is any of this true (maybe psychologically true or plausible, if you’re analysing a work of fiction, but the question of literal, objective truth can’t be ducked in the case of a document that purports to describe at least some real events)?’

What hermeneutics is not is a get-out clause for having to engage with the reliability of the underlying text.

Andrew King said...

‘it’s never been part of the Christian tradition that the bible was written by God. (Though American Fundamentalist Protestants can sometimes get pretty close.) The expression “the word of God” is a title rather that a description. I’ve always liked 2 Timothy 3, which describes the bible as “God-breathed”.

I’m not sure that I understand this. For an unbeliever, a person writes something, influenced by things we can see or understand – friends, family acquaintance, society, past experiences, knowledge, education, state of mind etc. There are multiple influences on the person, but it’s the person doing the writing and nobody else is literally speaking through them.

In the case of the Bible, OK, it’s not literally written by God. It’s written by people. But it’s also ‘God breathed,’ so God seems in some sense to be involved in what’s produced. It sounds like you don’t believe in somebody taking dictation from a bearded old man on a cloud, but if not, then in what sense was God involved in the production of the Bible? Why is it a holy book? Were the writers subconsciously channeling the divine, which is, I guess, what the evangelists might be supposed to have been doing? Or was it enough that the writer was writing down stories told to them to them by people who’d had some sort of supernatural experience? Or even that they met somebody knew of somebody who’d had such an experience (‘I've danced with a man, who's danced with a girl, who's danced with the Prince of Wales’)? Or, as God is apparently everywhere and all-powerful, were they somehow touched by God in the sense that we are all supposed to be?

I don't think it's my fault that I'm confused, given how readings are presented in church services (I'm thinking of the bits where the minister proclaims, 'This is the word of the Lord').

What do you understand ‘God breathed’ to mean?

Well, that’s enough attempted clarifications, questions and disagreements for now.