Sunday, October 30, 2005

Is an Imprecise View of Words the Foundation of Biblical Literalism?

(In this post, I directly take on a couple of my blog-friends. I mean no disrespect.)

In the comments of a recent post, we got into a discussion about words. Sadie Lou claimed that I was "splitting hairs" when I insisted that the distinction between "choosing" a belief and "being compelled to accept a belief" was important. I think this is possibly the most important debate we'll have on this blog since if we can't agree on what we mean by the words we're using, we'll never be able to understand each other.

Especially when debating in abstractions like God, belief, meaning, morality, the use and understanding of words must be as precise as possible or we'll become quickly lost.

I got to thinking more about this and I realized that this disagreement is a metaphor for our larger disagreement about whether the "Bible is literally true." I've had a very hard time understanding how one could believe such a claim since it seems to me so self-evidently false. In our earlier discussion about the firmament, Sadie Lou made a comment which is to me clearly not literal: that the "waters" mentioned in Genesis which are "above" the firmament might actually refer to the Universe itself, since we often refer to the Universe as "a sea of stars."

I believe that Sadie Lou, and probably most other biblical literalists, can believe that the Bible is "literally" true because they aren't interested in drilling down to the exact meaning of the very words they claim to believe in -- or to the meaning of the word "literal." Otherwise, a biblical literalist must believe -- literally -- that there exists a "firmament" above the Earth, which the sun, moon, and stars are inside, and which has "waters... above" it, something which is so clearly at odds with the respective positions of the Earth, atmosphere, sun, moon, and stars that nobody in modern times could believe it true.

I don't want Sadie Lou to think I'm picking on her, so I'll give another example. JC Masterpiece when posed with the same dilemma made the following argument, among others:

"If you are looking from the ground through the firmament it would appear that the sun and the stars were in the firmament."

This is obviously not a literal interpretation of the text, which says "Let there be lights in the firmament," not "Let there be lights which appear from beneath to be in the firmament."

Also, he argued that I was putting too much emphasis on the word "in" in the phrase "Let there be lights in the firmament," since the Hebrew word might have some nuances that we're missing. My understanding of Hebrew notwithstanding ("in" means "in") this is a patently non-literal argument since it asks you to believe that "in" means something which is completely the opposite of "in" (i.e. "not in.")

I now believe that at least these two biblical literalists continue to consider themselves literalists only because they choose not to take the actual words of the bible seriously. They criticize others who don't believe that the Bible is literally true but ignore the fact that even they don't, ultimately, believe it.

31 comments:

CyberKitten said...

I did find it instructive (and not a little amusing) that when asked about the many understandable mistakes and contradictions in the Bible the strong response was that no such things existed.

When examples where brought forth it was declared (also strongly) that such things are unimportant.

It's very difficult to discuss this issue when people react that way.

Shlomo said...

As I said previously, one MUST take the Bible literally, or risk the possibility that a God, allegedly endowed with Infinite Power, Communicative Skills, and Understanding, would NOT, for some unknown reeason, say what He means or mean what HE says. There is also no objective standard available to discern when God means it literally or when He doesn't.

If that choice is left up to us, then WE are the ones left deciding what the Bible means and NOT the one who is presumed to have authored it. This sort of chutzpah is tantamount to my reading "MacBeth" and then telling Shakespeare what it really means!

I'm not trying to suggest that the Bible should be compared to Shakespeare. The works of dear William are infinitely more entertaining and well conceived. In addition, no one I know reads a sonnet and then decides to alter the political or social landscape, impose their literary will upon others, or deny that other poets exist.

Shlomo said...

The RamBam was NOT a literalist and that view got him in lots of trouble with the European Rabbinate.

asher said...

I think a more entertaining discussion would be, who wrote the Bible. If you want a good one, I'm not reading 101 Myths of the Bible by Greenberg. The introduction is worth the price of the book. He posits that the Bible was clearly written by groups of people at different times in history. The stories are taken from Egyptian, Babylonian, Cannanite and other sources and then "reworked" to fit the changing conception of the Hebrew God. He doesn't however explain where the other cultures' stories came from but assumes they just exist.
Groucho: Young man one man you will realize you can't burn a candle at both ends.
Harpo produces such a candle.
Groucho: I know you can't burn something at both ends. I thought it was a candle.
You can't have it both ways, and all of these modern Bible scholars do just that.

Sadie Lou said...

One has to consider that we know a great deal more about the universe we live in than the authors of the bible did. Bare with me for a moment here:
God, being all knowing, would be aware of the fact that we are going to develop in our technological advances in the distant furture.

Knowing this, why would God force on the people, a definition of the universe which people in the time of the Bible, would not understand?

It would be as though God was putting the cart before the horse. He would be addressing a population in today's times and excluding the peoples of earlier times.

I think a lot of what the Bible talks about is mysterious to all generations. Each generation has done their own searching on the texts to better understand Scripture and have come to various conclusions. The crux of the message, however, remains the same. Nothing is confusing about Christ dying on the cross for our sins.

When I suggested the "sea of stars" analogy, I was reasoning the topic out on my own; trying to understand the firmament. I was in no way speaking for all Christians on the topic. Maybe some other Christian would read my answer and think I was WAY off, maybe they have studied it for themselves and have a better answer than I gave, in fact: after talking to people at my church, I know for certain that there are Christians out there that could give you a more satisfactory answer.
I don't claim to know everything.
I have a whole text book on Biblical imagry and symbolism. When Christians say we take the Bible literally, that's taking into account the imagry and symbolism the Bible uses to make a LITERAL point.

Jewish Atheist said...

When Christians say we take the Bible literally, that's taking into account the imagry and symbolism the Bible uses to make a LITERAL point.

So why can't the whole Creation story be symbolic? Maybe evolution is true.

Mereadlin said...

Re: "I insisted that the distinction between "choosing" a belief and "being compelled to accept a belief" was important."

When read this, I immediately thought, yes, there is a difference. I think it is possible that one can choose to believe something without giving it much thought at all, but that one is only compelled to believe something (or discard a belief) after giving it thought.

I think in some things we may choose to believe and later on down the road can be compelled to it.

Sadie Lou said...

So why can't the whole Creation story be symbolic? Maybe evolution is true.

I see no evidence for evolution in the Biblical story of creation.

CyberKitten said...

Sadie Lou said: I see no evidence for evolution in the Biblical story of creation.

That's hardly surprising as it's the wrong place to look.....

Jewish Atheist said...

I see no evidence for evolution in the Biblical story of creation.

But everywhere outside the Bible, the evidence points to evolution. If the Bible is symbolic at some points, why couldn't the creation story be symbolic? I see no evidence in the Bible that there isn't a firmament that has stars inside it either, but you admit that might not be literal.

Sadie Lou said...

Even if the creation story was symbolic, the whole rest of Scripture doesn't point to evolution either. You've got Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham--all important fathers of our faith.
God also said he made man in his image. That doesn't mean that God looks like us but that we look like him in the way we have a desire to create, communicate, love...
I know that ape-like mankind has nothing to do with the God of the Bible...

CyberKitten said...

sadie lou said: Even if the creation story was symbolic, the whole rest of Scripture doesn't point to evolution either.

That's because you're looking in the wrong place. When the Bible was writen they knew nothing of Evolution.

If your washing machine broke down would you look in the Bible for instructions on how to fix it? No, of course not. You'd consult the manual

The Bible is not the only book ever writen. If you want to know about Evolution may I recommend you read a text book or popular science book on the subject... Just a thought.

Jewish Atheist said...

That doesn't mean that God looks like us but that we look like him in the way we have a desire to create, communicate, love...

Nobody who believes in evolution would dispute the fact that we have a desire to create, commicate, and love.

There is overwhelming evidence that evolution happened and continues to happen. I believe that if you better understood the theory of evolution and the evidence behind it, you couldn't believe that it didn't happen.

It seems to me that almost every opponent of evolution doesn't really know much about it, while many proponents of it know a lot about the Bible and religion. Creationists have a lot of misconceptions about evolution. Have you read much on the subject?

Jewish Atheist said...

"communicate"

Sadie Lou said...

"The Bible is not the only book ever writen. If you want to know about Evolution may I recommend you read a text book or popular science book on the subject... Just a thought."

People rellay ought to stop insulting my intelligence. I went to school, okay? I've read OTHER books besides the Bible, okay? I've only been a Christian for 7, almost 8 years--before that, I was the world's biggest skeptic.
Here's the thing, the key, the big ANSWER for me: The God of the Bible is true. Jesus is who he says he is. Not all roads lead to The Father--there is only one path and it is narrow. People will try everything they can to disprove a living God because they fear what they cannot explain. They fear the unknown. They fear that people will think they are stupid. They fear that their friends will abandon them.
Jesus is a hard pill to swallow but the Bible has answers if you want them and you can't argue that away and even if I had absolutely no answers for why I believe to satisfy your questions but simply that I believe--that would be enough for me.
I don't mind coming here and defending the faith but what I won't do is entertain the idea that God doesn't exist.
So let's approach these debates with an eye for equality. Let's be humanitarians for a bit and treat everyone as equals. I am not above you for being a child of God and you are not above me for being so enlightened as to not believe.
Agreed?

Sadie Lou said...

it seems to me that almost every opponent of evolution doesn't really know much about it, while many proponents of it know a lot about the Bible and religion.

meh.
I'll take that statement with a grain of salt. People THINK they know a lot about the Bible but they are reading it with a critics eye--can't get too in depth with that attitude. It's the same for me, unfortunately. I am so convinced on God that theories of evolution don't interest me much--so no, I haven't read much about it. I will though, just to be up to snuff with these topics and I'll probably have questions for ya.
;)

CyberKitten said...

sadie lou said: People realy ought to stop insulting my intelligence.

I certainly didn't mean that. But you said: I see no evidence for evolution in the Biblical story of creation.

..and: Even if the creation story was symbolic, the whole rest of Scripture doesn't point to evolution either.

..so I recommended you look for evidence of Evolution in other books.. maybe those actually ON Evolution....

After all as you know the Bible was writen thousands of years before Darwin - so how can it have information about Evolution in it?

CyberKitten said...

sadie lou said: I am so convinced on God that theories of evolution don't interest me much--so no, I haven't read much about it. I will though, just to be up to snuff with these topics and I'll probably have questions for ya.


That's a good start. I'm sure we'll be here to try and answer your questions.

Jewish Atheist said...

People THINK they know a lot about the Bible but they are reading it with a critics eye--can't get too in depth with that attitude.

Sadie Lou, you forget that I and many of my readers used to be very religious. I was an Orthodox Jew and I studied the Old Testament for my first couple of decades in the original Hebrew, believing it to be the word of God.

BTW, I just made a new post with a link to a good introduction to evolution.

Jack's Shack said...

People will try everything they can to disprove a living God because they fear what they cannot explain. They fear the unknown. They fear that people will think they are stupid. They fear that their friends will abandon them.

The problem with this argument is that we can turn it upside down. It is a straw man argument.

JC Masterpiece said...

it seems to me that almost every opponent of evolution doesn't really know much about it, while many proponents of it know a lot about the Bible and religion.

I have been amazed by the number of people that claim to know, understand, or be "experts" on the Bible and yet have never even read it all the way through. Everyone is a mavin (that's the right word, right?) yet hardly ever do the mavins agree.

Even within the evolution supporting scientific community the experts rarely ever agree, and in essence never accept ths same thing for an extended period of time.

Anonymous said...

Sadie Lou, you shouldn't be a spokesperson for those with strong religious beliefs. Your "arguments" are so weak that you end up proving the cynics' points. JA could probably shut down and refer to your own blog (if you have one), and accomplish even more of his/her mission.

It is folly for theists to debate with atheists. Neither will convince the other, and yet each quite inaccurately and dangerously assumes that the others' beliefs, or lack thereof, causes harm. We would do better simply to try and understand one another, to respect the differences, and to work on things about which we do (or at least should) agree, like ending poverty, war, etc.

Orthoprax said...

Anon,

"It is folly for theists to debate with atheists. Neither will convince the other, and yet each quite inaccurately and dangerously assumes that the others' beliefs, or lack thereof, causes harm."

Indeed, because in that sense you're just battling in metaphysics and neither can really prove the other side wrong or their side right.

However, in terms of attitude, there is much to discuss. The fundamental general attitude difference between the two groups is that one group builds their beliefs based on reliable evidence, experience, and so on while the other side claims to already know the Truth but build their approach to evidence, experience and so on by how such things impact on their beliefs.

So forget "theist and atheist." Consider more "the judging and the prejudiced." An atheist can be just as prejudicial as a theist. In either case it is really this unthinking dogmatism that is the danger to humanity.

Jack's Shack said...

I have been amazed by the number of people that claim to know, understand, or be "experts" on the Bible and yet have never even read it all the way through.

That is ok, I am amazed by the Mavens who don't know how to read/write understand Hebrew and claim to have read the bible. So much is lost in translation.

JC Masterpiece said...

The fundamental general attitude difference between the two groups is that one group builds their beliefs based on unreliable evidence, biased experience, continually changing theories and beliefs, and so on while the other side claims to already have the Truth but build their approach to evidence, experience and so on by bringing it through the sieve of the truth as well as looking at how such things impact on their beliefs.
The comments in bold are my own and are used solely to bring accuracy to the comments by orthoprax.

Sadie Lou said...

Sadie Lou, you shouldn't be a spokesperson for those with strong religious beliefs. Your "arguments" are so weak that you end up proving the cynics' points.

I don't consider myself to be "religious". I'm simply a believer in Christ and the God of the Bible--so in truth, you are correct: I can't be a spokesperson for those with strong religious beliefs. "Religion" is a loaded word. I certainly don't want to be associated with everything that term encompasses.

Orthoprax said...

JC,

You're absurd. The fact is: YOU CANNOT JUSTIFY YOUR BELIEFS unless you admit to FAITH. Once faith is the answer then evidence and reason and logic are merely secondary tactical approaches.

Evidence, no evidence, contrary evidence - it makes no difference if you think that you already have the Truth.

JC Masterpiece said...

Evidence, no evidence, contrary evidence - it makes no difference if...
...you refuse to accept that the thuth may already exist but you do not see it due to predecisions and interpretations based on the bias of yourself and others.

The fact is that everyone has faith in something. Yours appears to be in science despite it's many failings.

Orthoprax said...

JC,

"...you refuse to accept that the thuth may already exist but you do not see it due to predecisions and interpretations based on the bias of yourself and others."

I've seen the way you argue and the way you think. If there is anyone guilty of bias here, it is you. You have to recall that I was once very religious. It was the strength of the arguments and the weight of the evidence that forcefully, unwillingly, took me from dogmatic slumber.

"The fact is that everyone has faith in something. Yours appears to be in science despite it's many failings."

I don't have "faith" in science, I acknowledge the evidence we have and the logical tools at our disposal are all limited and flawed to some degree, but I also recognize that they are the best we've got.

What is also interesting here is that you point at me and say "Hey, you have faith too!" as if it's a bad thing and that we're both of the same standing. Are you ashamed of your faith? The fact is, not everyone has faith and not all faiths are equal. And what is also true is that human history is littered with the remains of once cherished beliefs for which they had no evidence.

JC Masterpiece said...

What is also interesting here is that you point at me and say "Hey, you have faith too!" as if it's a bad thing and that we're both of the same standing. Are you ashamed of your faith?

Did anyone else come to the same conclusion from my comment? In rereading it i'm still having a hard time seeing where you get that from what i said. What i said was in response to your criticism of faith. ..
You're absurd. The fact is: YOU CANNOT JUSTIFY YOUR BELIEFS unless you admit to FAITH. Once faith is the answer then evidence and reason and logic are merely secondary tactical approaches.
I simply pointed out that while you are calling me absurd for having faith in something, you are also standing on faith. Thus any criticisms that you have for faith and those who have it also reflect directly back to you.

Orthoprax said...

JC,

If I actually stood in faith then that would be true and even then my point would still stand.

My point is though, that I do stand on evidence, logic and reason, while you, by your own admittance do not. And instead of _defending_ your faith, your tactic was to equate the two of us.

Furthermore, for the sake of argument, suppose I do depend on faith alone for my views. How can you then possibly show your own views superior to mine? There would be no way to even begin a debate. The very way in which you attempt to use logic and evidence to "prove" your faith undermines the very standing of faith itself.

Do you have any respect for faiths other than your own? If yes, why? If not, how can you respect your own faith? They are just as convinced of their rightness as you are of yours and there is no way to recognize any rational difference. That is the power of faith.