Thursday, January 10, 2013

"Truth" and liberal interpretation...

Was he?
I've just been listening to a recent Unbelievable podcast featuring a discussion between an evangelical Christian and a liberal Christian on the subject of the Christmas story. The question was basically are the nativity stories historically accurate? But I'm not going to look at that question in the current post.

What interested (and frustrated) me more in the discussion was the repeated claim of the liberal Christian that the gospel stories were not intended to be understood as factual, but were created as a teaching tool to convey truth.

In other words, the intent of the gospels is to use fiction to explain truth in a way better than mere facts can.

Now this is all well and good if the fiction is used to explain a philosophical or scientific concept which is otherwise evident, though hard to explain, but an allegorical explanation cannot be used as the basis for an otherwise unattested belief. That just makes no sense. If something is true, give me evidence for it. Saying that something is true and explaining it by fictional analogy gives me no access to real truth.

For example, the claim that Jesus was the "offspring of a virgin's womb". Here the liberal Christian dismissed the suggestion that this was historically true, but spoke of the deeper meaning that Jesus was both human and divine. Now I can see why such a story could have been created to explain how a human-divine being could have originated, assuming that there is other, attestable, evidence (or at least an established pre-existing belief) that there really was a divine-human being, but this story is of no evidential value in itself. If it is fiction and there is no other reason to suppose that Jesus was born of a virgin, then this story conveys nothing. It might be true, but it is highly, highly probable that it is false. Yet the majority of Christians believe in the virgin birth precisely because the gospels claim this. If this claim was not in the bible I am sure that far fewer folk would hold this belief. It is only because this claim is in the bible and is presented as fact that people believe it.

And surely the same goes with all other assertions in the gospels. They only have value if they are claiming to be true. The gospels claim that Jesus walked on water. If - in actual fact - he did not and could not do this, then the story contains no truth, allegorical or otherwise. The story is often expounded to mean that if you have faith (keep your eyes on the Lord) then you can overcome anything the world can throw at you. But would it not be better to demonstrate this by some example that actually happened, rather than by fiction? If this story isn't true then the message is: Faith can overcome anything, even the force of gravity; well, actually no, faith can't overcome the force of gravity; but it can overcome some other things, honest; no, really, it can... surely you believe me...? If this story is understood to be fiction, it loses all power.

But liberal Christians seem to be able to derive meaning from fiction. I just can't see how you can do that with any honesty or integrity. This effectively reduces "truth" to anything claimed in a compelling manner. If you can convey truth by analogy, then anything which is sincerely believed by someone and expressed in a meaningful way becomes "truth". Whether this "truth" corresponds to reality is another matter entirely.

I was going to stop here, then had this other thought:

A further problem this raises for me lies with the parables of Jesus as recorded in the gospels. The majority of Christians I know fundamentally base their God concept on the "truth" of God, expressed by analogy in the parables. Jesus doesn't present any evidence that God is like these claims, he simply explains his God concept in parable form. Now, IF the gospels are an accurate account of the things that Jesus said, AND Jesus really is/was the Son of God in such a way that did not limit his divine understanding of reality, THEN we could accept these claims as being an accurate representation of God. But given that there is reason to doubt the accuracy of the gospel reporting, and there is reason to doubt the extent of divine knowledge that Jesus had (even working under the assumption that he was God incarnate!), then we really shouldn't take any of these claims about God as, erm, gospel truth... We should use the analogies for explanation if (and only if) we have external evidence that supports the claims.

Hmmm. That means that it is reasonable to accept the claim that God is like an absentee landlord, but not to accept the claim that he will return and expect an explanation from his unfaithful servants...  


contrararian said...

"The Life Of Pi" is a nice exposition of the religious view that beauty is more important than truth. Of course, if you want to know abut the real world, you need to focus on truth...

Anonymous said...

I'm probably in the "Liberal Christian" camp now.

Can you not derive any meaning or learn anything about humanity from fiction, parable or metaphor (I mean both 'you' individually and 'you' including myself there). I'd agree with you that there's something lost when e.g. you don't claim Jesus was literally born from a virgin but I don't think everything is lost.

In my opinion ultimately it doesn't really matter whether such things are literally true or not. We have no way of ever establishing whether they actually happened or not (or whether the authors intended to be writing gospels as history or not) and therefore this becomes an argument without resolution and, in my humble opinion, thus a pointless and futile one.

Even most conservative evangelicals seem to agree that Genesis and Revelation were not written as factual, literal accounts (without the text explicitly saying so) so I'm unsure why they find such difficulty with the idea that the gospels could be similar.

Even the phrase "gospel reporting" seems to be pushing a post-enlightenment way of looking at the world onto the writers of the gospels who clearly did not see "truth", "reality" and "facts" to be the most important things in the way we seem to.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I thought Life of Pi was a nice explanation of this too.

Ricky Carvel said...

I haven't seen (or, indeed, read) Life of Pi (yet), but the question isn't whether beauty is is more important than truth, the question is can you access truth through fiction?

Of course, fiction can convey truth, but if your only source of a claimed 'truth' is fiction, there is no reason to accept that.

And also, Mike, I agree that you can learn a lot about humanity from fiction - at least, you can learn about the human who wrote the book and their view of reality, but the question here is whether you can learn about God (if there is a God) through fiction, and I suspect not.

The fundamental claim of religion in most of its forms is that there is a hidden reality which is somehow more real and more important than the reality of experience. You can't demonstrate that with fiction. And yet, I know many Christians who live their lives in the way they do because of what they believe about the hidden reality. I don't think that the liberal interpretation is a justifiable method for accessing truth about the hidden reality. The conservative interpretation is a far more justifiable method, IFF the stories are true.

But if the stories are not true, I think the appropriate response is agnosticism or even indifference to the claims, rather than taking the liberal view.

Anonymous said...

If you can learn about humanity can you not learn of their relationship and experience with the divine?

I think you're making truth/fiction too black and white here. I don't think most of stories of the Bible are written in either a newspaper/history book fashion or written as simply a fictional account. They are written in a fashion of trying to explain experienced reality through metaphor that intertwines with history.

The problem is if you can never determine if something is true or not then you're in just as awkward a position and ultimately just making (I'd argue like liberal Christians do) a judgement based on experience and beliefs.

Ultimately there's no way of taking an empirical or scientific approach to religion. Down that route lies only atheism or agnosticism as so much is reliant on individual experience and that which is not trivially reproducible.