Thursday, February 19, 2009

Two Problems with Biblical Literalism

Fred Clark who writes the slactivist blog, complains about Biblical literalists. Clark is an admitted Christian, but there are two problems he has with people who believe in Young-Earth Creationism:

The first is that it is not just false, but demonstrably false, and is thus often the place where the collapse begins for soon-to-be-former Christians raised to believe in the fundamentalist house of cards. . . If every item isn't true -- or isn't blindly accepted as true -- then they insist that it all must be false. Thus if it is not true that the world was created in six, 24-hour days about 6,800 years ago, then it is not true that Jesus loves you. Or that you should love others as Jesus has loved you. Or that your sins are forgiven. Or that you are anything but alone and godforsaken when you walk through the valley of the shadow of death.

Clark describes a particular kind of fundamentalist who eventually learns that the neatly compartmentalized tight beliefs that he grew up with are not even close to being truth. Then the pendulum swings too far in the opposite direction, Clark complains:

They become as strident and binary in their unbelief as their failed mentors at Bob Jones were in their belief. Yet even their rebellion tends to remain shaped by that world and its narrowly imagined options.

I personally didn't go through this "anti-fundamentalist fundamentalist" stage he describes, or if I did it lasted about ten minutes. Those that I know that no longer are biblical literalists aren't this angry, cynical creature Clark speaks of, either.

But I do recognize this character from popular movies and television. For example, Character is a person of deep faith. Character undergoes personal crisis. Character rejects his faith and seethes at God, himself, and anyone else who believes in God. Inevitably, if the story goes on long enough, Character softens (often thanks to the kindness of another) and begins to believe again, but with a more mature, less strident faith, and all is well with the world.

Clark says his scenario is not hypothetical and is not rare. It's not my experience, however.

His second complaint against Biblical literalists seems to be that they don't seek the poetic metaphors behind, say, the first eleven chapters of Genesis but instead treat it as a neutral history text:

The accounts of creation seemed, for them, to have nothing to say about divine intent or divine affection, but only about divine technique. The story of Noah seemed to be nothing more than a complicated word problem involving the measuring of livestock capacity in cubits. The story of Adam giving names to all the animals seemed, to them, to be a reason not to learn about biodiversity. And I probably don't need to tell you how they seemed to regard that bit about the Tree of Knowledge.

Of course, one could simply argue: That's because that's what they were raised to believe. Biblical literalism is, to me, an invevitablity of dogmatic faith, a method to assert, "My god can beat up your god." If I'm going to, say, explain the substitutionary death of Jesus using the Bible, it helps my case to refer to the Bible passage as an accurate account, just as it would help me demonstrate that Lincoln was the U.S. President during the Civil War by referring to newspaper reports. But if only some passages of my Bible are accepted as literal, then the inevitable question becomes, "Which ones?" We could argue back and forth about which passages are literal and which are metaphorical forever. The only way I can end the argument is by declaring the entire book to be a literal account, thus leaving my opponent no wiggle-room.

Of course, once I've made that claim, then I'm forced to defend that the Earth was covered in a world-wide flood, donkeys can talk, and a man walked on water. If scientific evidence disputes me, then I either reject the science or invoke a miracle to cover myself.

I've no doubt that Clark is frustrated by this behavior--most rational thinking adults are, whether they believe in God or not. What I don't understand is why he doesn't understand where it came from.

For them, the creation accounts* and the story of Noah in the early chapters of Genesis have nothing to say about the inherent goodness of creation or about the obligation of stewardship. For them these chapters exist solely as some kind of divine amicus brief in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District -- as polemic arguments, that is, in a 20th-century American political dispute that has little to do with either science or theology.

Despite my difficulty in understanding how exiling Adam and Eve for seeking knowledge or committing watery genocide are examples of God's "inherent goodness," Clark doesn't seem to see the trap he's laying for himself. If Noah's Ark is a cosmic metaphor--meaning it didn't really happen, everybody knows that!--then perhaps that means the crucifixion of Jesus didn't really happen either. Everybody knows that people don't rise from the dead! Maybe there isn't even a God, either--there certainly isn't much evidence, is there? If the reported miracles of God are reduced to poetic story-telling, then we can no longer claim that God exists because of the existence of miracles, can we?

He demonstrates this point in a footnote when he complains that certain cynics look at the two different accounts of Creation in Genesis 1 and 2 and declare them a discrepancy. He compares this to Robert Burns describing love like both a rose and a melody--is that a discrepancy? Okay then, when the authors of Genesis wrote two accounts of the beginning of the world, they were only speaking poetically. Fine. This puts the Biblical account of our beginnings into the same category as just one more ancient creation myth. No problem. And the accounts of Moses and Joshua are just more ancient hero tales with no more or less relevance than stories about Hercules or Jason and the Argonauts. And Jesus is just one more demi-god resurrection myth who can no more answer my prayers than Dionysus or Superman.

I can live with that.

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