“Here what we see is the perpetual conflict of different gods with each other. This is how it was in the ancient world, before it was disenchanted with its gods and demons, only in a different sense… Depending on one’s ultimate standpoint, for each individual one is the devil and the other the god; the individual must decide which one is the god for him and which is the devil… The many gods of antiquity, disenchanted and hence assuming the form of impersonal powers, rise up out of their graves, reach out for power over our lives and begin their eternal struggle among themselves again…
“[A]s science does not, who is to answer the question: ‘What shall we do, and, how shall we arrange our lives?’ or, in the words used here tonight: ‘Which of the warring gods should we serve? Or should we serve perhaps an entirely different god, and who is he?’ then one can say that only a prophet or a savior can give the answers. If there is no such man, or if his message is no longer believed in, then you will certainly not compel him to appear on this earth by having thousands of professors, as privileged hirelings of the state, attempt as petty prophets in their lecture-rooms to take over his role.”
-Max Weber, Science as a Vocation
Following Clark, I’ll link to Danial McClellan’s post On the Myth of Scriptural Literalism. In that post, the author reviews Sam Harris’ attacks against religion by undermining Harris’ use of scriptural literalism to characterize the religious believer. Now, I am no fan of Harris, but I think the well-worn tactics by which defenders of religion resist scriptural literalism are more than somewhat displaced within a Mormon context. After all, when Harris accuses those believers who take various scriptures “figuratively” of waffling on their faith, any person who believers in the Great Apostasy has to admit that he’s not totally off base. I’m not saying he’s totally right, but he’s not totally wrong either.
On the one hand, literalism is strongly but not completely rooted in Christian fundamentalism. On the other, to lay this completely on them seems motivated more by rhetorical convenience than anything else. Religious believers and Christians in particular have always struggled with how they could (or should) believe the entire written word of God. Indeed, the only reason why reading the scriptures “figuratively” seems so natural to us is largely due to St. Augustine’s influence (“metaphorically” was how he taught us to read many parts). If, however, we follow the Protestants in rejecting the early church fathers (which the Catholic church strongly accepts), then we are left with a bit of a conundrum: Who has the right to tell us how to read the scriptures?
The fundamentalists would say that the only person who can authoritatively tell us how to read our scriptures is God Himself through the scriptures. In other words, the only way to legitimately read the scriptures figuratively is by taking them literally! Any other guide simply amounts to a corruption of the pure word – mingling in the philosophies of men. It was with this in mind that the “book of nature” was invented as an alternative source of “scripture” that could guide us in reading the written word. Outside of Catholicism, then, believers are left with a less than awe-inspiring choice with regards to who tells us how to read scripture: natural scientists (the Galilean option), pagan philosophers (the Augustinian option), or however one feels they should do so (the anarchist option – which is actually the scariest of them all!).
One can find no clearer attempt at placing unauthorized obstacles and mediums between binding scripture and the reader than in McClellan’s post:
First, we don’t really know precisely what the “letter of the texts” really mean. Texts don’t carry inherent meaning… This means the meaning of a text resides in and originates from our minds, not the text. The text just provides fuzzy outlines of semantic fields within which we think the intended meaning is to be found, and there are even a variety of ways that an author can actually undermine the expected meaning, violating those semantic fields. It’s a guessing game, really, and the further removed from the cultural and literary context of a text’s composition, the more it is a guessing game. So when we talk about the “letter of the texts,” we’re pretending that the letter and the meaning have a 1:1 correspondence, which they simply and objectively do not.
If one gets the impression that theorists and scholars have managed to invent a problem for which their previous figurative reading of scripture was already the solution, you are not alone. Thank goodness we have living literary theorists to tell us what the word of God is and is not! (/sarcasm) Slightly more seriously, I can completely understand why Protestants would concern themselves this much with how the timeless and complete word of God should be read and why they would be concerned about allowing those in power to read it for them…. but how can Biblical scholars concern themselves in this theoretical and systematic manner without making themselves into the very authorities they wish to subvert? Put differently, their telling us about what meaning can and cannot be found within the scriptures just is to tell us how we should and should not be reading our scriptures.
Catholics and Mormons, however, do not need to stress about this since they both believe in living authorities that can tell them how and whether to read dead authorities. (The Catholic traditions surrounding timelessness and infallibility, however, give them a bit less flexibility than the Mormons have.) Members of these traditions simply have to follow their living leaders in reading various passages literally, metaphorically, or not at all. As soon as we start trying to interpret the living authorities “figuratively”, however, is exactly when Mormons and Catholics both abandon their own traditions for the less than reliable Protestant paths paved by philosophers, scholars and other unauthorized free-thinkers. (I’m not sure how anybody could ever argue that communication with living prophets doesn’t have a meaning without thereby undermining their own attempts at communicating such an argument.)
I agree with Sam Harris in that the case for Biblical literalism is much stronger than well-educated believers tend (or want) to think. That said, I strongly disagree with him when he generalizes a “religion of the book” mentality to those who follow the teachings of dead prophets in maintaining faith in the living prophets. Harris and McClellan are both right that we shouldn’t anchor our faith in an uncompromising reading of dead prophets….. But I don’t know why any Mormon would have done this in the first place. When it comes to the writings of dead prophets, Mormons are proud cafeterialists, it’s just that we also believe in the living prophets that work as the lunch ladies within that cafeteria.
Then again, this allegiance to a literal reading of living authorities is exactly what Sam Harris is worried about, the living/dead distinction being relatively incidental. Harris’ argument can basically be put as follows:
- There is some amount of irreconciliable contradiction between the premodern epistemologies of the Abrahamic religions and modern rationality.
- To extent that the two cannot be reconciled, the Abrahamic mentality, rather than modern rationality or both, ought to go.
I am convinced that (1) is exactly right, while I strongly disagree with (2). McClellan (I assume) and many people within the bloggernacle reject (1) and the only reason I can think of for this is that they do not want to abandon either tradition. (Note that it is because of faith rather than doubt that they theorize as they do.)
This is basically a repost of a comment I left over at SteveP’s site, but thought that it would be more than a little inappropriate to discuss there any further:
I think the concept of genealogy helpfully illustrates some of the problems that many might have with Darwinian thinking. Originally, genealogy was a means by which people established and legitimized their social roles within society (especially nobility) in that people inherited their stations from their ancestors. This is very intertwined with the idea of birthrights.
This same thing in found throughout the Bible in that the Hebrews think it extraordinarily important that they are the descendants of Abraham and thus the inheritors of his covenants (and land, I might add). Mormonism (especially 19th century Mormonism) is by no means a strong departure from this tradition: genealogies within our expanded canon establish lines of priesthood authority, by performing vicarious ordinances we bring our ancestors within our individual priesthood lines, our patriarchal priesthood and blessings establishes which tribe we belong to, etc.
Placing non-human organisms within this same genealogical framework is very subversive to this entire tradition of legitimizing social standing, covenants, stewards, land, etc. through inheritance…. for better or worse. It suggest that these lines of inheritance do not go back to some divine act or promise of God which might legitimize what I do now. Indeed, it suggests the exact opposite.
There are two potential ways of framing this:
- The more modern way is to say that any kind of genealogical reasoning is, in fact, a genetic fallacy such that describing the origins of something carries with it not intrinsic moral valence. This says that the very fact that Abraham is one’s ancestor (through biological or priesthood lines) is totally irrelevant to the authority which you claim to have. The scriptures clearly reject this. Who my authority can be traced back to is VERY important.
- The other, closely related approach is to say that our values could have evolved in that they merely emerged out of a nihilistic past. But this poses another problem in that it implies that, over time, Abraham’s descendants gradually cease to inherit his covenants, authority and birthright… or that over time other people with no biological relation to Abraham can come to acquire his covenants, authority and birthright. While we do accept some form of this, the process of spiritual adoption is itself mediated through a different, non-biological line of authority, covenant and birthright. At this point, the argument simply repeats itself.
In summary, the legitimizing value of genealogy seems to be 1) non-negotiable within the Abrahamic tradition and 2) unacceptable with the Darwinian tradition. Adam and Eve is the most obvious point of contradiction here since they are the point at which our genealogies are morally grounded (we inherit both the fall and the promises of redemption from them). It is difficult to see how the two perspectives could ever be fully harmonized.
If you have not done so already, I strongly recommend that anybody interested in social or political thinking go and read Isaiah Berlin’s classic: Two Concepts of Liberty. Within this paper he lists 4 premises by which modern thinking can and at times has transformed into the very opposite of freedom. I will then state my views regarding the (in)compatibility of these premises with the religious tradition found in the scriptures. (more…)
I haven’t been posting much, and I plan on keeping this one short too.
In previous posts I have developed a four-fold taxonomy of moral discourse and I would like to basically apply this same taxonomy to the sources of our stewardships. From what source do we derive our shared ideas regarding the boundaries of our responsibilities and freedoms? Here are four non-exhaustive and non-exclusive options: (more…)