Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Starting point?

"A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step..."

Lao Tzu
Famous, wise words. But not entirely true, because before the first step you've done something else, which influenced (at least in part) the first step. And before that you did something else, which in some way influenced your choices, and so on, back and back. The first step is never really the first step. You may think you're taking the first step onto a new venture or a new journey, but all the stuff that has gone before has influenced your reasoning, your choices and your actions.

I've been thinking recently about starting points. For me, in my life and worldview, the starting point was a basic belief that the Bible was, in some way, the Word of God. From before I can remember I was taught bible stories, and more than that, I was taught that these stories were true, Beyond that, I was taught that these stories were important. That appeared to be the starting point for me. The bible is the foundation upon which every other bit of belief (at least, every other bit of belief relating to eternal metaphysical realities) was built. The bible was unquestionably true. Sure, you could choose to disobey or disregard the bible, but that would be a choice to wilfully disregard reality, the reality which I knew to be true.

I never questioned this starting point for the first thirtysomething years of my life. It was the starting point for my parents, my grand parents, and so on back through my family history as far as anyone knows. (Note, in my family, mine is the first generation for at least six not to contain any church ministers...) Somewhere, back in long forgotten family history, one of my ancestors first believed the bible to be true. This was probably so long ago that almost everyone in the country would have been believing the bible to be the Truth (with a capital T). So they probably had good reasons, or at least a good excuse for taking the bible to be their starting point. But we live in a very different world than they did. Here and now I think there is a very good reason to ask:

Why should the Bible be our starting point?

What is it about this book that might make it appropriate to have as a foundation?

Well, if there is a God, and this book is the 'Word of God' then that would probably do it. But you'll note that there are two conditionals in that last statement, as well as a poorly defined term. This book is not a good starting point if there is no God. And even if there is a God, this book is not a good starting point if it did not originate with that God. And what do we mean by 'Word of God' anyway?

So really, it seems to me that there needs to be some sort of process of scrutiny of the bible before we can decide if its a suitable 'foundation' to use as a starting point. But how can we decide if the bible is the Word of God? What would the Word of God look like?

Well, for a start, you should expect it to be historically reliable. That is, assuming God is not the author of confusion, you would expect that any and all historical details recorded in it would be consistent with what actually happened in history, and probably consistent with other historical accounts outside of the bible. (Although, if they are not inspired, then they may be subject to a greater degree of human error, so the non-biblical histories might contain errors, omissions and factually inaccurate stories.)

Here the New Testament, at least, appears to do quite well. Characters like Pilate, Herod, Festus, Felix and even John the Baptist are attested in secular histories and the timescale presented in the NT is reasonably consistent with secular historians like Josephus. Of course, it could be that the historical NT writings (Gospels and Acts) were written late enough to be dependent on Josephus, but that's irrelevant to this post. Here, all that really matters is consistency.

Of course, when we get to the OT, we start to run into problems. For a start, for large parts of the OT there are no secular histories to compare it with, so we need to test the narrative against hard evidence, like archeology. Sometimes there appears to be an agreement, sometimes not. And the further back we go, the less reliable the biblical history seems to be. While historians are still arguing over whether or not there was a King David, one thing is certain - that his kingdom wasn't as extensive or rich as the bible claims it to be. And if we go further back we find that the Exodus did not happen as described. There was no mass movement of a nation from Egypt to Israel by any route consistent with the biblical narrative. If there was an exodus, it was only a handful of people, not a nation. Its not just that there is no evidence for such an event, its that there is evidence that no such event occurred. Archaeologists can identify caravan routes through the desert from thousands of years ago, but none of them was forged by a mass exodus.

So it appears that the bible may not be a totally accurate history. But even supposing it is, giving it the benefit of the doubt, surely the Word of God should be more than just a good history?

If God is really speaking through this book, we'd expect it to have greater insight into the human condition than secular writings of the same age or holy books of other religions, which presumably are not inspired. In other words, it would have to transcend human wisdom. It doesn't appear to do this. The wisdom sayings of the OT, while undeniably containing some very wise sayings, are not significantly more wise than Hindu or Buddhist or other 'sacred' writings from about 3,000 years ago. And some of the 'wisdom' in the bible is not very wise at all, like Jesus telling his disciples not to wash their hands before eating, because nothing that goes into a man can make him unclean. Maybe it doesn't make a man ritually unclean, but it can give him food poisoning. (See this blog post for some related thoughts.)

You might also expect the Word of God to be full of great moral guidance. And in places this book is, but only in some places. In other places we get instructions to force rapists to marry their victims, commands from God endorsing slavery, including sex-slavery, and commands from God demanding genocide. And its not just the OT, even in the NT there's some dubious morality espoused.

At this point it is possible to conclude that some of the material in the bible (the wise and historically accurate bits) is the Word of God, and some of the material (the morally dubious and inaccurate bits) is stuff that comes from human sources and is not the Word of God. For several years I tried to reconcile this view of the bible with reality, but in the end I realised that this view simply doesn't work. We have no way of determining which bits of this book (if any) come from God, and which bits come from people. OK, so it is clear that some bits have human origins, but there are few (if any) bits that must have come from a divine source. In the end, and after much internal debate, I grudgingly came to this understanding: either all of the Bible should be considered the Word of God, or none of it should be. There is no middle ground.

The problem with the former option is all the issues I have raised above. Suppose this book is the inspired Word of God, what does the book reveal about the God who inspired it? Inspired all of it, that is. You can't just create a picture of God out of the bits you like, you have to include the genocidal bits and the outright lies (see 2 Chronicles 18 and 1 Kings 22) that God inspired the prophets to speak. God is sometimes loving, sometimes hating, sometimes truthful, sometimes deceitful, sometimes he plays games with his people, and so on. This is an inconsistent God. How can we follow such a God? Well, the way most Christians manage to do this is by ignoring or explaining away some of the more problematic passages. Look for guidance in the Psalms, the nice bits of (some of the) prophets, or -best really- stick to the New Testament, maybe omitting Revelation. If you do this, you can find guidance.

So what is there about this book that makes people base their lives upon it? Well, on a practical level, it seems to work as a source of guidance. Christians all over the world pray about questions in their lives, read the bible, see something in the passage that they've just read that can be interpreted as being relevant to their situation, and act accordingly. The fact that others in other religions do the same with their holy books and are able to do the same with their holy books is generally overlooked. The bible works, and if you only read the bible (and books that support this view of the bible) then you can go for years, maybe an entire lifetime, trusting this book and finding that it does offer support when you need it and guidance when you need that. Of course, this doesn't necessarily entail that this book has a divine origin. It could simply be a collection of wise sayings that were collected and passed on from generation to generation precisely because they work for comfort and guidance.

The (undeniable) fact that the bible works for some people is not evidence that it has a divine origin. If it was, then this would also imply that the Koran has a divine origin, and the Hindu Vedas do, and so on. So I think we have to conclude that no holy book is the divine Word of (any) God, and that none of them are particularly justifiable as a starting point for belief, or in life.

But if you take away scripture, what have you got to build your worldview on? To be honest, I can't see a firm foundation anywhere, which is why I envy those who can still use the bible as their firm foundation. It appears to work, if you don't question it too much. The alternative is having to admit there is no good starting point and no solid foundations (note, science is built on untestable axioms too, and while it appears to be internally consistent, it doesn't have a fully firm and absolute objective foundation either).

Being cast adrift on uncertainty isn't all bad though. Its probably better than having certainty in something that is wrong...

1 comment:

Ron Price said...

It may be worth pointing out that the film "Carry on Cleo" portrays Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, Brutus and Mark Antony, but this does not constitute evidence that the film is a reliable record of history.

With regard to the historicity of NT characters, it is true that some of them are attested independently of the NT (though Pilate is hardly a good example, for the timidity of the NT Pilate is in sharp contrast to the callousness of the historical Pilate).

However even in the earliest gospel (on which all the others depend) there are several characters whose existence is not independently verifiable. James and John the sons of Zebedee, Judas Iscariot, Joseph of Arimathea and Mary Magdalene all play important roles in the Markan story, and they match suspiciously well Mark's theological aims. James, John and Judas look like deliberately distorted versions of James the brother of Jesus, John (the James and John of Gal 2) and Judas (brother of Jesus) respectively. Judas (called 'Iscariot' in the story) became a traitor in order to make the story more dramatic. Joseph was needed to supply a tomb, which in turn was needed to lend support to belief in a resurrection. Mary Magdalene was a woman introduced to shame the apostles by doing what the apostles in the story didn't do, namely take care of the body of Jesus.