Sunday, 21 October 2012

Scripture as Lab Notebooks?

I am wondering about your position on the relationship between the scriptures and the various analyses of them offered by the (often secular) likes of the historical-critical method and anthropological evidence. Let me contextualize and frame my question a bit here.

I am, at this point in my life, increasingly committed, or should I say invested, in the Abrahamic faiths, though I wrestle with a lot of doubt and also have considerable confusion and tension about my positions within the Abrahamic framework. In all the Abrahamic faiths, however, the notion that God reveals God's self is vital to the structure of the faith. Thus, the notion of a real reliable source of revelation is also vital. All the Abrahamic faiths lean very significantly on the notion of God communicating about the divine nature and making reliable promises through the scriptures. If the scriptures are false, the religion falls apart.

I will not ask John for his defense of the Quran, for the obvious reason that he is a Christian. I have also read John's defense of the veracity of what Christians call the New Testament, on which I'm still reflecting. For the moment my question is primarily about his position on what we Jews call the Tanakh and what Christians (IMO unfortunately) call the Old Testament, which is the basis for both the Jewish and Christian interpretations of divine nature and history. I would also like to leave aside the very important question of interpreting the *meaning* of the sacred texts, which is not strictly a matter of the relationship of science and religion.

From reading the anthropologists', archaeologists', historians and the like accounts of the Bible as a layperson, it is very easy to get the impression that it is largely a collection of stories, adapted and morphed from other ancient near Eastern religious lore, and used not only for strictly spiritual purposes but to reinforce social structures, explain history, establish national identity, etc. These analyses also seem to offer a credible explanation for why the texts are sometimes contradictory, contain erroneous dates and place names, are messy from a modern editorial point of view, and include some apparently morally problematic content.

I certainly don't think that this historical and scientific evidence can be ignored. For example, it doesn't seem terribly credible to me now to trust, as Orthodox Jews still do, that Moses received the five books of the Torah verbatim on Mount Sinai.

I'm intrigued by John's notion of sacred texts as "scientific logs"documenting the authors'  genuine encounters with the divine, but does that model of the scriptures stand up to the scientific evidence I mentioned above, and if so how does John reconcile the two? A further nuance of the question would be to question John's position that the divine revelation is always mediated through a cultural context, which would, apparently, save the scriptures from being completely debunked. 

If this is so, however, how do we tell apart the "real word of God" from the cultural prejudices, blind spots, vain hopes, etc. of the writers?  Which promises and revelations can we rely on? Does not the rich history of theological interpretation based on the notion of a reliable scripture still lose its foundation?

Response:  Well laboratory notebooks are also cultural documents: the language, modes of thought, style of writing etc will be a product of the culture in which the scientist writes.  They will tend to be "sometimes contradictory, contain erroneous dates and place names, [and] messy from a modern editorial point of view"

I don't therefore think there is a contradiction between seeing the scriptures as divinely inspired and seeing them as having been put together by fallible human beings.

As you say this does raise the problem of interpretation. I think of this in terms of saying that each verse of scripture is part of at least one significant section which has at least one meaning that God wants us to take from it. Of course we have to use prayerful judgement to know what the sections and meanings are, and we need to recognise in all humility that we may be wrong. My favourite example is Psalm 137:8-9. It is obvious (at least to me from a Christian PoV) that this is not God encouraging the murder of babies - St Benedict explains that what it is about is encouraging us to deal with our sins when they are "young" and have not got such a hold on us.

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