XFiles Friday: Would a good book help?

(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, chapter 8 )

One by one, Geisler and Turek have been dealing out the cards from their stacked deck in order to give themselves a hand that will allow them to declare that the Bible (and not any other Scripture) is a communication from God. Before we move on to the question of miracles (which G&T have cast in the role of “God’s Seal” on the Bible), I’d like to take a more in-depth look at the conclusion they reached last week:

Written language is a precise medium of communication that can easily be duplicated and passed on to succeeding generations, yet it also can be easily ignored by those who freely decide that they don’t want to be bothered with God.

So a book would work as a valid but not overpowering means of communication from God.

That’s the theory, anyway. In practice, a holy book would work as a subjective and superstitious means of communicating with a sock-puppet deity of one’s own imagining.

The Bible has been called “the most genial book in existence” because it never contradicts the person reading it. The Christian church has always experienced its heresies and divisions, but the early branchings of the tree of Christian doctrine are nothing compared to the explosive splinterings that resulted from the rise of Bible-based, sola Scriptura theology. I happened to be skimming an encyclopedia of American religions, and the table of contents in Vol. 1 (of a 2-volume set) ran to 36 pages, just listing the chief subdivisions of the more significant variations of what some might call “orthodox Christianity.” The cults and non-Christian religions didn’t even start until Vol. 2.

Bible-based Christianity is particularly prone to unconscious customization because of the psychology of human understanding. We understand things in one of two ways: by direct experience (like “hot stove = OW!”), or by relating some new idea to the understanding we already have. When a person reads the Bible, therefore, they will understand it either by recognizing parts of it as corresponding to their direct experience, or by relating it to the understanding they already have.

There’s a widespread principle in Bible study that says “the plain and obvious passages explain the difficult and obscure verses.” This principle, known as “letting Scripture interpret Scripture,” is a recipe for customized theologies, because each person is going to identify the “plain and obvious” passages in the light of his or her own personal experience, culture, education, personality, philosophy, superstitions, and so on. The Old Testament laws might be plain and obvious to someone who had a strict upbringing, while the faith and mercy passages would seem clearer to someone with a more liberal childhood. Do we interpret God’s legal demands in the light of faith, or do we interpret how faith responds in the light of a strict view of what God’s Law demands? Different people will reach different answers, based on the personal understandings they bring to their first Scriptural studies.

More importantly, once we’ve identified which passages are “plain and obvious,” those passages become part of our existing understanding, making a new set of passages now “plain and obvious.” But again, exactly which passages are now “plain and obvious” depends on the existing understanding of the person reading the Scripture. Each individual, studying the Bible in the light of his or her own background and understanding, builds a complex network of interrelated understandings, each relating back to the personal experience and interpretation that led to it

What’s lacking is the kind of self-correcting dialog that takes place when you ask an author what they meant by what they wrote. And even then, verbal dialog does not always clear up the ambiguities, though continued dialog has at least the potential of clearing up misunderstandings. A book alone does not, especially when its authors have been dead for 2,000 years or more, and wrote from a different language, culture, and understanding than readers today.

Christians try to deal with this problem by claiming that the Holy Spirit carries on this dialog, and fulfills the role of correcting misunderstandings. Again, though, that’s only the theory. In practice, where we ought to find supernaturally unanimous agreement between Christians on what the correct interpretation of Scripture is, we find instead the commonplace bickerings, dissensions, and politics we would expect to find among uninspired men squabbling to try and establish themselves as the “correct” authorities on what the Bible means.

Ultimately, Christians group together around common personal traits, like cultural background, educational experience, personality type, and other factors that tend to lead similar people to similar interpretations. And each of these groups assumes that they are the ones blessed by the Spirit with the proper interpretation of the Bible. “Those other guys think they’re right, but they’re really in rebellion against God, who would show them that our interpretation is the correct one, if only they’d submit to His will.”

And why do they think their interpretation is right? Because their interpretation was built one idea at a time, each new idea being added only when they were satisfied that it was right (in their own eyes). The Bible never contradicts the reader (unless the reader thinks it should) because this sort of Bible study can never lead to interpretations that the believer sees as wrong. If they were wrong, they clearly would not be the correct interpretation! So the believer keeps searching and studying until they come up with an interpretation that seems right, inevitably ending up with their own personal views enshrined in a mantle of Scriptural authority.

Thus, an abandoned book is not a good tool for God to use to communicate with His children, because it does not actually communicate. Each believer follows whatever interpretation seems right in their own eyes, and thus communicates only with themselves and their own personal idea of what God ought to be saying. What we need—what genuine communication requires—is that God show up in real life to do the communicating, in tangible, visible, objectively-real two-way interaction, so that we know we’re communicating with the true God and not just communing with some inner idol.

It’s no use pretending that God is “showing up” via some inner, subjective “illumination” of the Bible’s intent, especially if you are arguing (as G&T do) that the book is necessary because God is forbidden to use a more direct means of communication. If God could speak directly to men’s hearts, that would be better than having a holy book, because then each person would hear the same message from God, and would be able to experience the ongoing dialog that detects and corrects misunderstanding. Obviously, we don’t see this happening in real life, which is why G&T have to argue that there’s some reason why God can only communicate via an ancient and ambiguous document.

This card, like all the others in Geisler and Turek’s stacked deck, belongs on the discard pile. Not only is direct communication a viable and Biblical option (as we saw last week), but a written book is a notably poor alternative. And we didn’t even need to raise the rather obvious point that God did not write the Bible. As a substitute for direct communication, the Bible is a sad and self-contradictory failure.

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