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Sunday, July 27, 2014

Why wouldn't God correct errors in Scripture?

I received a very thoughtful response to my last post that has prompted yet another one from me. I enjoy comments that challenge me to dig a little deeper and think more about the implications of something that I have proposed. It is the sharing of ideas that help us all to grow in grace and knowledge - even when the end result is not agreement.

If my view regarding Scripture as the product of a cooperative effort between human and Divine is correct, this raises some profound philosophical questions about the character and purposes of that Divinity. As my guest succinctly stated, "the proposal of a 'joint project' would seem to have a binding effect by returning us to a view of a God tinkering with humans, inspiring greatness but failing to prevent some of the banality that would end up getting published in the project." In other words, why would God allow error and inconsistency to exist in any project that "He" was a party to? Does this blogger's thesis return us to the image of a God that is toying with humanity?

In attempting to answer these questions, I would like to propose some questions of my own: If God corrected all of the human mistakes, wouldn't that make the Fundamentalist's conception of Divine dictation a reality? If God controlled the process, would it be fair to characterize Scripture as a joint project? Considering how sacred writings have been handled by our forefathers, what makes us think that something that was penned by God alone would have been handled any differently by them (or us)? Is there anything in the history of humankind on this planet that would suggest a collective learning process - one that mirrors the individual learning process over the course of a single human lifespan? In other words, does human history suggest progress (learning) over time? Is there anything in that history to suggest the sequential revelation of greater information/awareness for our species?

I would ask my readers to consider for a moment the example of the United States Constitution. Although the overwhelming majority of American citizens accept one version of this document and regard it as the basis for our governance, think about the multitude of interpretations that it has generated over the last two hundred plus years. Consider for just a moment, the debates that our society has generated over the role of the Federal government and the extent/meaning of our freedoms. And just for perspective, we are comparing a document of about 8,000 words to a Bible that contains over 750,000 words.

Consider another example from "secular" literature: Robert Frost's Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. When I think about all of the discussion that this poem generated in my high school literature class, it reminds me of the fact that each individual perspective can bring its own unique interpretation to almost any piece of literature. This one poem has generated much commentary over the years since it was published. Indeed, in its biography of Frost, the Poetry Foundation reported that the poet once said that he could have generated forty pages of footnotes for this one page poem.

What does all of this imply for my thesis about Scripture? If God had corrected all of the inconsistencies and mistakes in the Bible, it would still have been the subject of numerous interpretations. As my guest noted in his/her comments, communication involves both sending and receiving - and some subjective evaluation of the information on the receiving end is virtually unavoidable. If God had handed us everything on a silver platter, what would we have learned from that? If God had supplied us with a knowledge and understanding of everything from the very beginning, what kind of existence would that have entailed for us? Would our existence have been less banal than it is currently?

What about human history? It is astounding to me to think about just how far our species has come in the last five hundred years. Think about the age of geographic exploration and discovery, the Protestant Reformation, the music that has been composed, the great works of literature that have been written, the Scientific Revolution, the Industrial Revolution and the exploration of space. I certainly understand why some of us would hesitate to characterize some of these developments as progress, but can any of us seriously deny a progressive trend in human history? Moreover, we cannot say that this trend is confined to the "material" or "physical" realm. During this period, humanity has witnessed a dramatic shift in public opinion regarding slavery, misogyny, religious intolerance and war. I'm certainly not suggesting that these things have disappeared from the planet - I'm merely pointing out that they are not as widely acceptable today as they were five hundred years ago. Have we made progress on these "spiritual" or "moral" issues? I think so.

What does this history imply for my thesis about Scripture? It suggests that either human or Divine effort (or some combination of the two) has produced a greater awareness and understanding of the world we live in and the nature of our role in the cosmos. That's not to say that we have reached the summit - that there's nothing left to learn. On the contrary, I would argue that the process of learning and growth could be eternal (I hope it is).

Finally, if God really is "being-itself" (as my guest suggested), wouldn't that view also fit with this thesis? If we are all part of the Divine, couldn't we just as easily characterize that as a joint venture between human and Divine? What if we someday discover that we are talking about the same thing - just employing different words based on our current, limited understanding? I like to think of this as a cooperative effort, but I also don't have any problem with viewing it as a "oneness." Is God tinkering with us? I prefer to think of it as working with us to improve our lot over time. What do you think?

1 comment:

  1. Thinking out loud now. The tentative critique from yesterday had its own underlying assumptions, from which the challenge of "error in the project" is even posed. It would be fair to challenge those assumptions. Who says that a biblical project must be coherent or consistent? In itself, such a demand assumes a standard of perfection -- of an idea about God that yields to the fundamentalist idea that a God must be benevolent, all-powerful and never contradict itself. But to expect this at all is to have already taken (some) biblical claims as totally definitive of God, which is precisely what creates the dilemma since there are other biblical claims which would seem to put the lie to it.

    What I'm getting at here is that perhaps some of our disservice to the understanding of what God is, vis a vis the Bible -- is in ever receiving the texts as "normative authority" in the first place. The only reason one would consider the Bible as definitive of God or judge God by the Bible is because one has accepted an "authority" function of the Bible. But why would we do this? Because the Bible says so? The fundamentalists stand on circular argument in order to give the text such a status (the Bible is the Word of God because it says so and because it says God is THE authority over all, etc.). Aside from the debate whether the Bible ever makes such a claim for itself, the granting of such authority to the text in this way is part of how we came to "contain" God -- as though a God must conform to the interpretations of him/her/it based on a selection of ancient records found between the front and back of a calfskin.

    Biblical scholar Michael Satlow has just published a book titled "How the Bible Became Holy," and it's a great historical address to the evolution of the texts, in terms of how they were taken (or not) as "authority". This evolution process would give alliance, in a way, to your proposal of "error" (banish the term) as a kind of organic mess factor that we humans continue(d) to sort out over the centuries. This is a much more egalitarian expression of the relationship between human and Divine and requires no assertions of "authority" in the normative form that made its way into our current exercise. It "releases" God from the kinds of expectations that would prompt us to ever ask "why did God permit error in *His* Word?"

    This may be clear as mud. But I am heartened at your final paragraph, where it seems you are open to what I personally think approaches the more likely nature of what is Divine. The only way by which I can imagine the Bible as a project of human and Divine is to do so by acknowledging that these are not separate at all (and here we have not time to discuss the spectrum or explore the implications for what is meant by "divine"). But I do not imagine it as a project with the concept known as the Judeo-Christian God. Nobel-winning quantum physicist Erwin Schrodinger put it this way: "There is obviously only one alternative, namely the unification of minds or consciousnesses. Their multiplicity is only apparent, in truth there is only one mind." This is where science and spirit are demonstrably unified, in my opinion. There is much progress yet to be made.

    So, thanks for entertaining ideas here. This is how it happens.