Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Literal vs. Interpretation

Two separate conversations, one with an Atheist, one with a born-again Christian, led me back to an old place in my journey of understanding that I thought I had come to grips with.

When I was just a lad in Catholic school, I was shocked to find out from my teacher that Catholics were "interpretational" readers of the Bible. (Some are more shocked by the "reader" part of that statement.) I was taken aback by the fact that everything in the Bible wasn't viewed as historically accurate. You'll have to forgive my naivete, but I was in third grade. Being that I still believe in Santa Claus, you can understand my proclivity for buying into Genesis hook, line and sinker. Maybe this early revelation helped to weather later challenges to my belief where others, that spend as much time as I do thinking about this stuff, fell off. But my initial reaction was something akin to, "Whaaaaa?!! We don't believe in the Bible word for word? Isn't this stuff supposed to be written by God?" (I was obviously losing more sleep than your typical third grader.) As I got older, and delved more deeply into the Bible's actual contents, I realized that there were no dinosaurs in the creation story and that unicorns are only in the Noah story according to the Irish Rovers. In places, the Bible even contradicts itself! 

The conversations that keeps bringing me back to this are the Biblical proscriptions on homosexuality. I always like to challenge literalists with the ol' "so you don't eat animals with split hooves?" or "you've never worked on a Saturday?" I know it's not a fair way to argue, but there are few things that I derive as much pleasure from than getting someone fired up. I was having one such discussion a couple of weeks back and the answer to my question was that the Old Testament was based on the law. The law was God's covenant with the Jews and both parties followed the rules in order to fulfill the covenant, just like any other agreement back in the day. This is one of the reasons there is so much emphasis placed on the ritual of these agreements with God. These were how contractual agreements were entered into, i.e. cutting up livestock, blood oaths. When Jesus enters the picture, all the old covenants were null and void; because Jesus opened the gates of heaven with his sacrifice. He covered our debt to God, if I can use that base of an analogy. So, in essence, the law of Moses no longer applies, but the moral lessons still hold firm. I thought that's not a bad argument, and can demonstrate how one can still believe in the moral aspects of the OT without following the letter of the law in, say, the Book of Numbers. It also sets up Paul to be logically consistent in telling people they didn't have to be Jewish to follow Christ.

The other conversation was much less theological, as one would assume. I was challenged on how I can believe in a document written thousands of years ago that has obvious inconsistencies, if I believed in scientific truths. We parried back and forth about the validity of ontological arguments, etc. The important thing here is that I was left with a feeling of doubt that I hadn't felt in a while. I was hard pressed to find a reason to believe what I believe in the Bible versus what I don't believe.

This is what I arrived at. The Bible isn't a story about God, or about history, or even the people in it. It is a love story. It is a story about God's patience with the human race. In the old testament, things had to be explained to people in contexts that they knew. Think about how difficult it would be for you to explain space travel or even a 747 to a Medieval mind in a way that they would truly understand. The best you could hope for was to speak in analogies and hope they got the gist. This is my concept of how an infinite being has to reveal itself to a finite mind: in little pieces, and on their terms. This led me to look at our understanding in a way that actually mirrors a fact in biology. Ontogeny recapitulates philogeny. Simply put, the growth of a fetus in the womb, resembles the processes that animals went through in evolution. They start as a single-celled organism to a multi-celled organism with organelles, to something that resembles a fish, bird, mammal, etc. until in the later stages they finally look like a human baby. In this way, our own individual spiritual development mimics the development of our spirituality as a society. In the Old Testament, humanity is in its infancy. The New Testament are those magic years when children start discovering the world and everything is new and exciting and the parent has a real effect on the kind of person they are (enter God as Jesus). The medieval period is obviously our teenage years, full of rebellion and dark thoughts and self-abuse and self doubt. Everything from the enlightenment to the beginning of the industrial age I compare to college life. People are striving to find who they are and are questioning the world around them in a very deliberate way. We are currently in our mid-twenties by my count. The time where we feel a certain ennui towards life, where nothing is cool and it's all been done. We're waiting for our real life to start. My prediction is that we, as a society, are about to go through a drastic change. There is a collective consciousness that is growing and people are going to begin to see the world in a way that wasn't possible at our old level of understanding. We are finally coming into the maturity, or adulthood, of our society, and more importantly our understanding of our relationship to that which is greater than us. I don't know exactly what that will entail. Like I said, we can't know a thing at the next step until we get to that level, but I'm really excited to see what that will look like.