Saturday, May 19, 2007
My Response to Atheist Questions, Part 3
The third of my responses is up at Hemant's blog. This one is in response to the questions about how I read the Bible if not always "literally". Interestingly, I'm already starting to get more comments from the more "liberal" Christians (as in classically Modern liberals) than from the atheists there.

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posted by Mike Clawson at 12:51 PM | Permalink |


4 Comments:


At 5/19/2007 07:09:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous

Hi,
I've just been reading your responses and I wanted to thank you for them. The nuance and the sensitivity that you bring to your explanations are remarkable.

Here's what I still don't get though. Right now, I am as impressed with you as I would be with someone who was a specialist in Elizabethan literature, say, or Indian poetry or something. I would be able to realise the cultural and historical value of the books they study. I would be able to respect their scholarship of the books, their identification of the important periods, themes, ideas, etc.; the glosses on the important characters; their opinions as to why various trends emerged...yes, and again yes.

But why should I believe it when they then tell me that this literature is in some way, "sacred" or "holy?" From what authoritative stance could they make that statement meaningful to me?

(This is before I question the supernatural entity behind the corpus itself, which selected these texts for our canon, and which was acting firstly on behalf of the characters in the literature and now apparently on mine, because it loves me.)

It is that intervention that crosses the bridge between "these are important human documents and narratives" to "the fact that they are together in this collection makes them divine," whereby divinity confers upon them intrinsic significance and demands my belief in a super-editor who put them all together. We might select any anthology thus, might we not?

Please write to us some more.

 

At 5/19/2007 07:52:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous

May I ask you some more questions?

1) If I understand your reading of the Bible as God-inspired rather than God er, dictated, then your reading of it is truly beautiful. However, your further premise of a loving God then presupposes that He meant all of us to know his word. Why distribute it in such a random manner? Why the Israelits--what makes them special? Why didn't he tell the people originally in Brazil, or elsewhere? Indeed, why not tell everyone, everywhere at once?
Or tell all of us, now, at once?

2) Furthermore, given this interpretive reading of the Bible such that it becomes a curriculum rather than, say, a biology text book, and encompassing different genres, authors, disciplines, etc., then of course we can see that the morality we use to decide which bits of it are pertinent to us and which not, and which bits historical rather than metaphorical is already outside these works, and can have no dependence on them. So why not simply revise the curriculum, or at least shift it around so that some of these texts get moved to mythology definitively, some to poetry, some to history etc. That way they could be studied the way we already study all such similar works. This would be a more effective curriculum, I think.

c) I suspect that this would lead us into an investigation of why this particular collection of texts derives authority from more than the sum of its parts, i.e. it is not simply what is in it that is important. I can see that, and even if I couldn't, the existence of theology as a way to know things would at least suggest it. However, the more we do this, the more we trivialise the actual content (meaning that our metanarrative about the narrative is by far more interesting to us, really)and we magnify our interpretive authority (simply by being able to decide, say, that Jesus was real but perhaps Eve wasn't.) Thus the Bible no longer has automatic historical accuracy, or an automatic literal meaning, or an automatice moral dominance, insofar as God sometimes does, or causes to be written about, things of which we are ourselves free to disapprove. Whence, then, its special character?

This is essentially what you yourself do. The question then becomes, since you are already so armed with the outside morality necessary to deconstruct and comment on the Bible, why do you still think the Bible is special, or has some authority over you?

Puzzled atheist

 

At 5/21/2007 06:05:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Hey Nony Mouse (feel free to share your name with us if you'd like),

Good questions. Thanks for dropping by.

Firstly you asked:

"But why should I believe it when they then tell me that this literature is in some way, "sacred" or "holy?" From what authoritative stance could they make that statement meaningful to me?"

I don't think you have a reason to consider them divinely inspired until you first have a personal encounter with the divine. A friend of mine named Sarah Taylor pointed this out to me a long time ago - the fact that I believe in the Bible because it tells me about the Jesus whom I've encountered and been transformed by in my own life; and not vice versa. That's not to say that the Bible can't sometimes be the vehicle by which you have this encounter with the divine - many people experience God through the words of the Bible - but for the words on the page to have any power or divine significance, there has to be some kind of encounter with the Living Word, Jesus Christ.

Until that happens I don't see why you would view the Bible as anything more than an intriguing collection of ancient literature or any more significant than any other collection.

 

At 5/21/2007 07:15:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

As to your other questions:

"However, your further premise of a loving God then presupposes that He meant all of us to know his word. Why distribute it in such a random manner? Why the Israelits--what makes them special? Why didn't he tell the people originally in Brazil, or elsewhere? Indeed, why not tell everyone, everywhere at once?
Or tell all of us, now, at once?"


How do we know that he hasn't been talking to all those people? Acts 17:24-28 actually tells us that he has been. God has revealed himself to all peoples. But part of his plan is more than revelation. His desire is to rescue the whole world from sin and injustice - and to that end he has been about the business of creating a revolutionary people to carry out this mission. It began with Israel and has now extended to all people who will join in following the Way of Jesus. I'm not always sure why he has chosen this plan, except that I think God generally desires to work in the lives of specific people and particular events. It's what I have in the past called "the scandal of particularity".

You go on to say:

"Furthermore, given this interpretive reading of the Bible such that it becomes a curriculum rather than, say, a biology text book, and encompassing different genres, authors, disciplines, etc., then of course we can see that the morality we use to decide which bits of it are pertinent to us and which not, and which bits historical rather than metaphorical is already outside these works, and can have no dependence on them."

I wouldn't entirely agree. I think that yes, it is possible to understand love and justice apart from the Bible, but there is also the sense in which we can read the Bible and come to understand that the whole text points us to those values. In other words, the text becomes self-interpreting in that we are able to identify which parts of it trump or re-interpret other parts. (So for instance, when Jessu proclaims that love for God and others is the foundation for the entire OT Law, it's pretty clear then that love has become the interpretive lens through which we understand the rest (even though this lens itself is still within the Bible and not some outside authority.


"So why not simply revise the curriculum, or at least shift it around so that some of these texts get moved to mythology definitively, some to poetry, some to history etc. That way they could be studied the way we already study all such similar works. This would be a more effective curriculum, I think."

That's not a bad suggestion since the arrangement of the Bible is just based on somewhat arbitrary traditions anyway. However, I think you might find it rather difficult to do since even within the books of the Bible there is not usually just one genre occurring. For instance, Genesis contains history, geneaology, poetry, and myth. The gospels likewise contain historical biography, symbolic images, apocalyptic prophecies, poetry, fictional parables, etc. Trying to extract and rearrange all these parts would likely only make things even more confusing.


"However, the more we do this, the more we trivialise the actual content (meaning that our metanarrative about the narrative is by far more interesting to us, really)and we magnify our interpretive authority (simply by being able to decide, say, that Jesus was real but perhaps Eve wasn't.) Thus the Bible no longer has automatic historical accuracy, or an automatic literal meaning, or an automatice moral dominance, insofar as God sometimes does, or causes to be written about, things of which we are ourselves free to disapprove. Whence, then, its special character?"

Why does it need all those things in order to be "special" or authoritative? What makes you think that literalness or historical accuracy or unchanging moral commands are more the marks of divine inspiration than a diverse and complex document that reveals an unfolding narrative where our understanding of God and how he wants us to live in the world is constantly developing?

But you're right that the Bible isn't my only "authority". I think God reveals truth to us in many ways. Many Christians have talked about the quadrilateral of scripture, reason, tradition, and experience. Ideally all of these will work in conjunction and help interpret each other. (I've blogged more about how this works here.)

I hope that makes sense and answers your question. Thanks again for asking.

Peace,

-Mike

 

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