Most of us follow a pretty empirical approach to life – if something works, it works, and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. We take our immediate environment at face value and most of us follow a common approach to reasoning. Once stated, the assertion that “all cats are mammals, but not all mammals are cats” is obvious to just about everyone. We share a fairly uniform appreciation of cause and effect in the world and tend to read situations in similar ways – that’s how we can watch an episode of “Friends” and laugh at the same gags as everyone else.
Most of us can read a book and figure out which bits are literal and which are metaphoric – in fact this used to be a basic skill taught in school. We know intuitively that when a love-lorn movie character says her heart has been torn out by a lover, she hasn’t actually had the organ removed from her thorax with blood spurting all over. In fact, we humans are exceptionally well prepared to discern the metaphorical and allegorical from the factual – after all, we created the distinction. If you observe our use of such language in daily life, it’s quite clear that we have an instinct for what is real in literature and speech and what is simply a vehicle for conveying abstract meaning.
Which is why it seems so strange to me that the religious have had to create entire systems of literary appreciation, often referred to as hermeneutics, in order to discern the “correct” meanings from the texts in their holy books. Biblical exegesis is a set of approaches to biblical criticism and elucidation that have been developed over thousands of years to gain greater insight into the bible.
The problem with hermeneutics and exegesis as practised is that they are presupposed upon the assumption that the bible is the word of God, and are simply a form of rational thought built upon that non-existent foundation. And I use the word “rational” advisedly there, since although each individual step of the christian discourse may be rational in itself, it takes the implicit view that discussion, debate and apologetics are designed to uncover deeper “truths” in scripture, not to continue testing whether scripture is actually god-given. In effect, the christian is saying “Given that God exists and scripture is His Word” before asking or answering a question. It’s why he is so insistent that his answer to an atheist challenge is correct, because he “knows” the answer has to align with a separate notion of the nature of God and reality that has been gained from elsewhere in scripture or even from outside it. When faced with multiple possible meanings, he by definition selects the one that fits with the rest of scripture on the basis that scripture must be shown to be true.
The non-believer, by contrast, has in the front of her mind the question “Is there any evidence here for the existence of gods?” Well, we all know the answer to that one! In addition, when faced with multiple meanings of a critical word or phrase that contradict other texts, the non-believer sees this as a failure in scriptural inerrancy and consistency and is compelled to consider the impact of alternative interpretations – many of which may (and do) contradict scripture. The non-believer cannot accept that the bible is God-given simply because there is no basis for this assumption other than faith (which is in turn based on hope and wishful thinking).
As I wrote in http://www.news24.com/MyNews24/Whats-Wrong-With-Christianity-20120505, christianity tends to be a “closed” system of thinking. What I mean by this is that it is a self-referencing belief system. The obvious absurdity, which believers never seem to understand, is that “the bible is God’s word because it’s stated as such in the bible”. “The bible is true – because the bible says so”. And a problem with self-referencing systems is that while their ideas are often relevant within those ways of thinking, they’re not realistic or even sane in the outside world. Think Koresh and Kool-Aid as extreme cases; then there’s Opus Dei, pastor Fred Phelps and the recent spate of unfulfilled prophecies of the end of the world. In many ways, Christianity fits the definition of a cult – it’s just a “socially accepted” one. Don’t ask, don’t question – unless they’re the “right” questions. The responses generated by the atheists on this forum demonstrate how poorly believers adapt to more open lines of enquiry. Asking why God doesn’t ever heal amputees through faith healing invariably doesn’t get a good reception. Asking for explanations of what God and prayer are in real terms get no response at all. The kind of language and rhetoric encouraged in Christian circles is designed / has evolved (take your pick!) to avoid challenges and highlighting of inconsistencies. I believe the same process is followed by advertisers and smooth sales people. You end up not asking the right questions because the rhetoric smooths over the cracks in the narrative.
So while the questioning non-believer is on a genuine path of enquiry, the believer is rationalizing within a framework in the same way a child would enquire about elves in Middle Earth – the question is quite reasonable if we take the universe of J.R.R. Tolkien as a given. As with the bible, though, the world of hobbits has no basis other than in the imaginings of a creative author and his millions of readers.
Of course, believers would counter this by citing how the bible reflects so much of known regional history whereas Tolkien’s works are clearly fictional. I respond by asking what would have happened if the writer of Game of Thrones had set his adventure against a real, known historical backdrop – would we now believe in the existence of dragons and magical princesses? They also try the “truth of prophecy” card – well, that one has been decisively put on the throw-away pile on this forum.
So when you get into a discussion with a believer, always remember that his starting point is that God and scripture are true and accurate (and that starting point is based on hopes and wishes about the afterlife), whereas your position is one of scepticism. This means that he will tend to interpret scripture in ways that are fanciful rather than realistic and probable. What became of Jesus’ body in the tomb is a classic case – where a sceptic quite reasonably suggests that it may have been removed by the Roman government to prevent the tomb becoming a shrine, the believer claims that the dead man came alive again, single-handedly moved a heavy rock that barred his way and walked out, without the appointed guards even noticing him.
This example shows up the difference between two key schools of exegesis, namely “lower criticism” and “higher criticism”. The former is based around purely textual analysis where more emphasis is placed on what is written in the book than on the events and history of the time in which it was written and which it describes, on the basis that scripture is first accepted as true before it is analyzed; it’s often called “textual criticism”, and it allows the apologist to follow flights of fancy unfettered by the restrictions of reality. The latter considers the text against the historical backdrop, and is often called “historical criticism” in which scriptural text is first analysed before being proclaimed as true; one of the characteristics of historical criticism is that it is far more inclined to regard supernatural or unrecorded events as metaphorical or literary instruments. An example would be the claim in the gospels that when Jesus died Jerusalem was rocked by an earthquake and thousands of saints rose from their graves – there are no such records of these events, and both would have been extremely noteworthy, not least because the numbers believed to have been resurrected would have swelled the population of Jerusalem to several times its peak season numbers; where these “new” people would have lodged and eaten is a mystery not addressed by the gospel writers, they could not have moved back into the houses they’d previously owned or taken the jobs they’d held before death – think of the legal disputes over land and property! The economic impact of their unexpected presence would have been noticed in the markets and by the money changers. A literal interpretation of these references is clearly nonsense.
It should be no surprise that evangelical and fundamentalist christians do not “appreciate” higher criticism. The reason is that it leaves no room for magic, superstition or myth. It grounds biblical interpretation in reality in a way that prevents theological ideas getting too far-fetched. It acknowledges that such diverse collections of writings are not fully consistent with one another and prevents readers from imprinting their own wished-for notions of gods and demons into a literary bowl of tea leaves.
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