Posted by: joeystarke | May 6, 2009

The Answer to “Biblical Religions”

I would like to take this opportunity to clarify my response to the question that was asked during our panel Monday. I can’t remember the question word for word, so I’ll have to paraphrase.

It was pointed out that around 60% of Americans do not believe in evolution because they subscribe to a “biblical religion.” Therefore, the man asking the question wanted to know how we would take our notions of the compatibility of religion and science and present them to this group of people to convince them of our view point.

First, I want to be a smart aleck and point out that all Christian religions are “biblical religions.” Catholics use the bible just as much as Lutherans or Baptists or Methodists… Of course what he meant were those Christians who translate the Bible literally, without the use of the historical critical method.

Pet peeves aside, I think this is an outstanding question. I mentioned this scenario briefly in my paper, but did not take much time to address it. We have been focused so strongly on the New Atheists that we might have been alienating the rebuttals brought up within Christianity (or at least some sects of Christianity) itself. The theologies we proposed yesterday may have been satisfactory for Catholicism, but not all Christians will automatically agree.

This reminds me of an interesting string of Facebook notes that were posted by a friend over Christmas break. The friend writing the notes- Mr. T, as we’ll call him- was raised Southern Baptist and was taught that the Bible should be interpreted literally. As he progressed through college studying anthropology and religion, he began to shift his views to an historical critical method approach. Therefore, as a part of his inquiry, he posed these questions the students in one of his intro anthropology classes last fall, and subsequently published his own thoughts on Facebook:

1. How did the world come into existence?

2. How did human beings come into existence?

3. What role do sacred texts play in our world?

4. What is the relationship between human beings and other animals?

5. What is the relationship between human beings and the earth?

Any one who has used Facebook, and I’m assuming everyone who is reading this has, knows that such provocative questions cannot be presented in this public forum uncontested. Over the next couple of weeks, a string of responses were posted. Some were thoughtful and contributed to the dialogue; others were hateful condemned (yes, literally condemned to hell) Mr. T. for his newfound insights. Those clinging to a literal interpretation of the Bible most forcefully brought about the resistance. I knew these people were living all around me, but actually “hearing” them claim that the world is 4000 years old, God made the world in 6-24 hour days, Moses himself wrote the Torah word-for-word, and evolution along with most other natural science is the work of Satan was shocking to say the least. I just didn’t understand what made them refuse science so whole-heartedly. The answer, though, lies in something I’ve already pointed out: literal Biblical interpretation.

Growing up under this influence, these “fundamentalists,” as I label them, have ZERO opportunity to accept scientific inquiry or any other hermeneutic into their religious faith. The Bible is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, no exceptions allowed. Anything that contradicts the words in the text results from human error and sin in other fields of study. With such a strong conviction, no amount of good scientific evidence we bring forth will be able to sway their understanding. The problem, then, cannot be resolved with a religion-science dialogue like the kind we have been using all semester. Rather, the dialogue must be between different Christian groups, in this case Catholics and Southern Baptists (a critical historical methods vs. a literalistic viewpoint). This is a challenging task. I don’t have all the answers on how this “conversion” to a critical historical approach could be accomplished, but I think I have one good starting point.

To introduce the commentary of Genesis chapters 1-3 in his work On Genesis, St. Augustine states,

“In all the holy books, however, one ought to note what eternal realities are there suggested, what deeds are recounted, what future events foretold, what actions commanded or advised. So then, in accounts of things done, what one asks is whether they are all to be taken as only having a figurative meaning, or whether they are also to be asserted and defended as a faithful account of what actually happened. No Christian, I mean, will have the nerve to say that they should not be taken in a figurative sense…”

Augustine wrote this around 400AD, 1400 years before Darwin and the science of the Enlightenment. We need to bring forth more examples like this to show that our tradition has always translated the Bible figuratively. By doing so, we can demonstrate that the figurative translations are NOT driven or controlled by science, thus legitimizing such interpretations in our post-Darwinian world. Also (and unfortunately), most denominations lost this tradition when they split away from the Catholic Church during the Reformation. However, if we can take an approach that allows them to reaccept this heritage- to understand the events of the Church prior to 1500 are just as much a part of Protestantism as modern Catholicism- we might be one step closer to resolving this aspect of the religion versus science debate.

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Responses

  1. Joey- I like your post. I grew up around fundamentalists who believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible, so I found myself unsurprised at the backlash that your friend “Mr. T” experienced when he posted his newfound inquiries and beliefs on facebook. In fact, in high school, one of my closest friends, who was raised in the conservative Church of Christ, and I got into a discussion about what role women should play during church services. He told me that his church did not allow women to have any leadership roles during their worship services, whether it be leading the music, reading biblical passages, or even ushering. He then pulled his Bible out of the backseat of his car and flipped straight to a passage to support this claim. Still, I gave him my argument for my own opposing viewpoints and we ended up agreeing to disagree, as all of our discussions end.
    So, I think the idea of trying to unify Catholics and Protestants by reminding us of our unity before the Reformation is beneficial. Still, I don’t know how many literalists, would be willing to listen to St. Augustine as a convincing argument. We have to remember that Protestants separated from Catholicism because they disagreed with many of the church teachings, so it will be hard to convince them that the church’s biblical views were correct before the split.


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