Q&A: (1) Discerning True Scripture, and (2) Evolution

A reader of my blog recently sent me an email asking me the following questions:

  •   [Q1]  Are you certain that all other scriptures are wrong and bible is the only true scripture?
  •   [Q2]  Do you believe in evolution?

The first question I find puzzling, as I do not believe I have expressed the point of view assumed in the framing of the question.  The second question, that of evolution, I am not certain I have previously addressed.

The first question, regarding the discernment of “truth” in sacred scripture, is a compound question.  I will address each part separately.  These are also very loaded questions which appear to have some built-in assumptions.  I must begin by directing some discussion to these background considerations, which shall in turn allow me to more clearly present my opinion.

  [Q1-A]  Are you certain that all other scriptures [other than the bible] are wrong?  

I do not believe I have ever said this.  My personal belief is quite the opposite.  Sacred texts and scriptures from any number of cultures, religious and spiritual traditions, may offer a great deal of value.  But exactly as found in the bible, some of these texts are of poor quality, and some are even damaging, attempting to provoke readers to violence and hatred of those different than themselves.

There are a number of things we must bear in mind when we read a text, regardless of its authorship.  We must begin not by reading the text, but rather by evaluating the source of the text and several contexts from which we may gain insight to the providence of the text.

We must remember all sacred texts are written by human beings.  And all human beings have their positive and negative attributes;  all of us have skills in which we excel and skills in which we perform poorly.  This is as true of the authors of ancient sacred texts as it is of people today.

This is why it is important we make an effort to understand the context in which a given text was written.  What were the historical-cultural influences?  Who was writing the text?  To whom was it intended?  Toward what goal?  These are all important pieces of information which help inform our understanding of a text.  The better we understand these concerns and how they interact with one another, the better chance we have of understanding the text.  These concerns boil down to questions of context, context, context, and context.

When evaluating a text, I also attempt to estimate the “stage of faith” the author appears to be representing.  There are a variety of models which one may use in making such estimations (see my past blogs of March, June and July of 2013 for more information).

The late Prof. Ron Miller offers a four-floor model in which the lowest level is populated by those “living in the basement.”  Such persons represent tribal thinking.  Their common attributes include preferring to solve problems through violence, and in having a tribal god that hates everyone they hate;  since they are their god’s chosen people, by extension, everyone else is *not* god’s chosen people.  This makes killing other people much easier, because they are not seen as fully human.

On the other extreme of Ron Miller’s four-floors of consciousness, is the rooftop garden.  This represents Unity Consciousness, and one of the attributes of those living here is they have no enemies, because they see everyone as connected -One- at a very radical level of being.

Another point to remember is that a given document is just a collection of words, and as strange as it sounds the first time one hears it, words do *not* carry inherent meaning;  *meaning* is given to a text by the person reading it.  While it is true that a good author will attempt to clearly convey their meaning in their writing, once completed, the future interpretation of their book or letter is entirely in the eyes of the beholder.

  [Q1-B]  Are you certain that the bible is the only true scripture?

I will make a number of points in response to this question.  First, is the assumption is that we are referring to the Christian Holy Bible.  However, this presents an immediate difficulty, because this question is phrased so as to represent the “bible” as a single text.  This is clearly not an accurate representation, for a variety of reasons, including:

  •   The Christian Holy Bible is an anthology of ancient books and letters.  It is therefore a collection of books, and *not* a single monolithic document.
  •   This collection of books is derived from two separate primary cultural sources:  One is the Jewish bible, and the second is the Christian New Testament.  The Jewish bible reaches far back in time; in fact, some of it may reach all the way back into pre-literate history.  Much of the Jewish bible is far older than the Christian scriptures collected in the New Testament.  The scriptures which form the Christian canon generally date from the 50’s to perhaps as late as 120-130 ce.  (Jesus was crucified in approximately 30 ce, so the New Testament was written roughly between 20 and 100 years after the execution of Jesus.)
  •   It is important to understand that in many important ways, the Jewish bible and the Christian bible are quite different anthologies.  Their differences should be respected.
  •   In my opinion, many Christians seem to have very little respect for the Jewish bible.  This begins by the renaming the Hebrew scriptures the “Old” Testament.  This belittles the Jewish bible, and by default places it on a secondary status as compared to the Christian New Testament.  And to my experience, very few Christians attempt to understand the Jewish bible from a Jewish perspective, and instead assume they can read it from a Christian perspective, as if it were a collection of Christian scriptures.  I believe this is a mistake.
  •   Furthermore, the books and letters of the Hebrew bible were primarily written in Hebrew.  The books and letters of the New Testament were primarily written in Greek.  Anyone who does not read ancient Hebrew and ancient Greek, is *not* reading the original scriptures;  and even those few who do read these ancient languages, are still *not* reading the *original* texts;  the original texts have long ago turned to dust.  All we have to study are copies, of copies, of copies of the original texts;  and some copies are better than others.
  •   Another concern I have in representing the “bible” as a single monolithic text, is this question ignores there are a variety of translations available of the original languages, and these translations do very from one another.  Do we wish to have as literal a translation as possible, retaining somewhat awkward phrasing as needed to be as literal as possible;  or do we instead translate with a preference to conveying the most accurate meaning of the original text in our modern language?
  •   Consideration of these points may well lead us to ask of the nature of Infallibility and Inerrancy.  These are words which are typically thrown around carelessly, and in my opinion with a great deal of imprecision (this is a topic I addressed in my blog during October 2013).  If the reader currently believes that scripture is either of these, they may wish to read my blog “Infallibility & Inerrancy.”

Most of the above points are typically overlooked, but I think they are very important for us to consider if we are going to discuss the meaning of ancient scripture.  And it is imperative we consider them if we are going to dare to ask if the bible we are holding in our hands is “true” or not!

Let us now briefly turn to the question of Truth, and to what degree we may or may not be able to discern it.  Because if Truth does not exist as an objective standard, there is no point in asking if the bible -or any other scripture- is “true.”  In my opinion “Truth” is very tricky to nail down in any specific, unchanging way.  Consider the many ways of expressing Truth:  there is the Truth of metaphor and analogy;  there is the Truth of poetry.  And neither of these should be mistaken for the Truth expressed in an engineering manual, or a monograph evaluating the astronomy of stars.  It is a gross mistake to assume these are all the same “kinds” of Truth.

The late Prof. Ron Miller offered what I find to be one of the best, witty means of describing the Truth as contained in the bible (both Hebrew and Christian):

  •   Everything in the bible is true;  and some of it actually happened.  

Miller may have been quoting someone else, but if so, I have forgotten whom.  But in any event, the “truth” of this observation is apparent.

I hope it is now obvious that, no, I do *not* believe the bible is the only true scripture;  and why the question itself carries a host of difficulties in even being able to approach the question meaningfully.

On the other hand, I do not wish to be mistaken, as to be saying the bible is free of Truth.  I *do* believe the bible (both Hebrew and Christian) offers a great deal of Truth;  as do a great many other sacred scriptures from other religious and spiritual traditions.

I however, do tend to restrict my commentary and observations to the Jewish bible and Christian New Testament.  But it is *not* because I believe these are the only paths to Truth or offer the only paths to God and/or spiritual enlightenment.  I speak predominately of the Hebrew and Christian bibles because these are the sacred texts with which I am most familiar, and which form the foundation of my Christian tradition.

To say something is a better fit for me personally, is not to say that something else is therefore objectively deficient.  It is only to say that which forms a best fit to me, forms a best fit for me.

  [Q2]  Do you believe in evolution?

Honestly, I don’t think about the theory of evolution a great deal, as I don’t see how it directly pertains to my spiritual concerns.  But if I were to give a simple answer, I suppose I would come down on the side of evolution.  It makes the most sense given our understanding of science.  And it also fits in well with my apprehension of our spiritual evolution, which I most certainly do believe is taking place.

But I certainly do *not* believe the world was created 6,000 years ago, that cave men were running around with dinosaurs, or that the earth was created in 6 solar days.  Never mind that Genesis describes two different creation stories, or that the sun itself was not the first thing created, so how do we measure “days” anyway?

Such questions mistake the point of our creation stories;  they are not meant to be understood literally.  But I do see the effort of trying to force ancient sacred scripture to fit modern scientific discovery as a practical concern, because this poor practice gets in the way of learning how to read the Hebrew and Christian bibles.

Our ancient sacred scriptures were written by people with a very different understanding of the universe:  it was a three-tier universe, composed of heaven above, and Sheol below (not really “hell” but a only vaguely understood underworld), and between these, the earth on which we reside.  In the ancient world, there *was* no universe as we now understand it!  To pretend otherwise and to then try to shovel our modern precepts into our ancient sacred texts is an error of great magnitude.

So do I believe the theory of physical evolution of species over millennia on planet earth?  Sure.  Why not?  At least until a better theory comes along.  This is one of the strengths of the scientific method, you develop a theory, and run with it until something better comes along.  Over time, we finesse our knowledge and technical skills.

But these are questions of Fact, and not of Truth.

And these ought not be confused, one for the other.  Unfortunately, this is a topic I never address to my own satisfaction.  Fortunately, the late Prof. Ron Miller does so much better than I could ever hope to!  I believe Miller addresses these concerns in his talk entitled, “The New Atheists” which is one of the eight brilliant presentations he gave to the Theosophical Society:

But the long and short of it from a biblical apologetics point of view, is this:  Employ empiric, scientific methods as a means of answering one set of answers, to which a factual answer is meaningful;  Employ theological methods as a means of answering another set of answers, which pertain to metaphysical and spiritual concerns.  And, importantly, do not confuse one for the other.

I hope this answers your questions.  If not, just email me you follow up questions.

With blessings,

Erik+

Advertisements


%d bloggers like this: