A Clear Mind: Scriptures

03Jul11

Many religious beliefs — notably, beliefs about various gods — arise from the words of written scriptures. In religion, as in politics and other areas of life, interpretation of texts can be difficult. These difficulties can lead to disagreements about what the texts mean.

Historically, in religion as in politics, disagreements about texts have often led to fighting, hatred, and even war.  Reasonable people on both sides find themselves in unreasonable positions.  They do this because they think texts provide certainty.

But texts do not provide certainty.  First, on a technical level, many factors can complicate textual interpretation. The Christian Bible provides a good example. That Bible is available in many translations that disagree in a variety of ways. Many books of the Bible were written long after the events they describe, on the basis of fading memories and stories handed down.  Throughout the history of Christianity, believers have disagreed on which texts should even be included in the Bible.

Even without such technical problems, there are problems of interpretation.  Consider the U.S. Constitution.  The original document still exists; it was written in English; anyone can find out what its original words were. The kinds of technical issues found in the Bible are not significant in constitutional interpretation.  Yet countless battles have been fought over what its various passages mean.  People have their preferred views.

Many Christians want the Bible to be a direct communication from the Holy Spirit.  Indeed, they want people to treat it as though its contents were like a law passed by Congress: those contents should be determined precisely, interpreted correctly, and applied in exactly the way that was originally intended.

But where did this notion come from? The Bible, itself, does not say this. To the contrary, the Bible quotes Jesus as warning against treating religious scriptures as the religious lawyers did. It quotes Paul as saying that the letter of the text is deadly. One of the Bible’s four books that describe the life of Jesus begins with a clear statement that the word of God is not a written text: Jesus himself is the divine Word.

The effort to make the Bible into a perfect, holy text does not reflect well upon the gods (specifically, the Father and the Holy Spirit) who supposedly influenced or controlled its writing.  The problems noted above suggest that the Christian gods were not competent to produce an authoritative scripture.  They needed help from bickering translators and widely divergent interpreters.  If you believe the Christians, God was not even smart enough to provide a Table of Contents, so that people could be sure which manuscripts should be included, and a simple introductory statement that these precise manuscripts do constitute his precise word.

What seems more likely is that, if there exists a God like the one that Christians worship, he was perfectly able to provide a written guide for his followers, like the one he gave to Moses, if that’s what he wanted to do. He did not do that. He had good reason. Written texts were not the way to go. After all, in the Christian view, the text that God gave to Moses did not work out so well: the Jews were completely off-track by the time Jesus arrived.

If God had any doubts about how texts work, he could have looked around and observed the Roman lawyers, or he could have looked ahead to the American ones. He would have realized that texts lead to disputes. A built-in system of disputes could be appropriate in the case of something like the U.S. Constitution, which incorporates an expectation of strife in the checks and balances among its several branches of government. But built-in conflict does not seem to be the starting point for the unified church that New Testament writers envisioned.

These remarks are focused on Christianity. The Christian religious text is the most familiar religious scripture for me and for most Americans. Similar observations can probably be offered for any religious text. Texts generate conflict.

In this case, texts also do something else. The effort to make the Bible out to be a holy book means that God gets the blame for its imperfections and for the horrors committed in its name.  If a human can anticipate the problems that texts produce, God certainly could.  God could not have doubted that his way of producing a written text (if he inspired the Bible) would lead to the worst that humans could do.  The God that supposedly prioritizes love is thus made guilty of hate.  Those who believe in the Christian God may see the potential for blasphemy here.

Texts can be useful in many ways.  But the decision of which priorities to follow — or, if you prefer, which Bible passages to emphasize — depends on where you are trying to go, and on your starting point.

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