Sunday, January 28, 2018

Hold That Thought

I"ve begun reading Louise Erdrich's new novel Future Home of the Living God (Harper, 2017), which so far appears to be a satirical speculative-fiction novel worthy of (now late) Ursula Le Guin, only with a sharper edge.  I love much of Le Guin's work, though I don't think she ever made me even chuckle, and at times she could be obnoxiously pompous.  Not that there's anything wrong with that, I'm not casting the first stone.

But I digress.  It's a pleasure to see Erdrich, a Turtle Mountain Chippewa, skewering some fantasies about Native Americans, starting with her narrator, a twenty-six-year-old adoptee named Cedar Songmaker who learns that her biomom back on the reservation is named Mary Potts, Senior.  Cedar goes to meet her birth family, and muses on the End Times material she sees along the way.  (Something big is happening to the world, that's the speculative-fiction part, but just what hasn't been explained yet.)  I'm taking this as part of the satire, please Jesus:
Perhaps all of creation from the coddling moth to the elephant was just a grandly detailed thought that God was engrossed in elaborating upon, when suddenly God fell asleep.  We are an idea, then.  Maybe God has decided that we are an idea not worth thinking anymore.
Hold that thought.

A week ago, a Facebook friend from high school who's lost the struggle with Christianity posted a link to an online preacher's video dedicated to the proposition that in Scripture, Every. Word. Matters.

Now, this is of course absurd.  I posted a comment pointing out that if every word matters it would have to be words in Greek or Hebrew, and because of textual variation in the New Testament especially, you can rarely be sure what the exact words are.  Few of these variations make any difference in overall meaning or doctrine, but that's just the point.  In that previous sentence I could have written "seldom" rather than "rarely" and the meaning would have been roughly the same, but the exact word would not.  My friend replied that he knew all that, that he subscribes to the doctrine of plenary verbal inspiration, and every word of the Bible testifies to God's love and care for us.  We left it there, with me giggling in the eternal silence of the Internet, but the exchange sent me back to James Barr's fine 1977 book on fundamentalism.

Barr pointed out that most fundamentalists officially distance themselves from "dictation" theories -- the idea that the Holy Spirit told the biblical writers exactly what to write, word for word -- but plenary verbal inspiration is mainly an attempt to have a dictation theory without calling it one.  Lay believers like my friend who don't know any language but their own have trouble grasping the problems involved in translation, the difficulty of finding equivalents in language for the words of another, or the problems raised by textual variation. The phrase "plenary verbal inspiration" ought to include "of the original manuscripts," a late nineteenth-century attempt by Professor B. B. Warfield of Princeton University to make sense of the phenomena.  This inspired more critical scholars to joke about "the Princeton Bible," compiled from the (non-extant) original manuscripts.

Conservative scholars who hold to plenary verbal inspiration have a rough time of it.  In Fundamentalism Barr quotes numerous examples of their efforts to maintain the Bible's freedom from error, for example:
We move to yet another venerated conservative publication, The New Bible Dictionary (Inter-Varsity Press 1962), and J.  A. Thompson there tells us (pp 271f.): “[Genesis] I has an artificial literary structure and is not concerned to provide a picture of chronological sequence but only to assert the fact that God made everything.’  Only that God made everything!  How are the mighty fallen! and how ridiculous a mouse has the mountain of fundamentalist interpretation brought forth!  What radical ‘liberal’ or wild ‘modernist’ did not believe ‘only’ that God had made everything? [Fundamentalism (Westminster Press, 1977), 41-2] 
But it isn't only fundamentalists who resort to such feeble expedients.  The highly sophisticated, non-fundamentalist, ostensibly non-theist philosopher Mary Midgley, drawing on Origen and St. Augustine, wrote that
the Genesis story simply describes the total dependence of all creatures on a ruling benevolent spirit and does this through a myth: an imaginative vision that is the most appropriate way of bringing such vast and mystifying facts within human comprehension.  The details of the story are merely shaped to make this central point clear [The Solitary Self (Acumen, 2010)].
The total dependence of all creatures on a ruling benevolent spirit!  Of course there is no such being, certainly not the god of the Bible, and even such a vaguely platitudinous "central point" is not necessarily or obviously what the writer had in mind.  No doubt he also believed it, but as Barr went on to note:
In fact the only natural exegesis is a literal one, in the sense that this is what the author meant.  As we know from other parts of Genesis, he was deeply interested in chronology and calendar, and he depicted the story of creation in a carefully and deliberately arranged scheme of one week.  As Kevan, cited above, rightly sees, the ‘evening’ and ‘morning’ phraseology clearly indicates that he thought of a day such as we understand a day to be; but that is only one of the multitudinous details of the story which show that the seven-day scheme is essential to his way of describing the creation [42].
In other words, the author of Genesis, though he or she probably would have agreed with Midgley about the dependence of all creatures on their creator, had other fish to fry.  All those multitudinous chronological details aren't there as mere ornament, they have a function, and it won't do to brush them lightly aside.  The irony here is that though Midgley, the daughter of a parson, despises fundamentalists, she interprets the Bible like one.  Or vice versa -- as Barr shows, fundamentalist scholars often interpret the Bible as if they were liberals.  The same is true of the message my Facebook friend's finds in Scripture.  I don't believe it, either as a governing principle of the universe or as "the" overarching message of the Bible, but it's a doctrine that the most liberal, even wildly modernist Christian could agree on.  You wouldn't even have to be a Christian to believe it; such platitudes are beloved of theists of many stripes.

So back to the passage I quoted above from Louise Erdrich.  I hope it's satire, though I fear it's the kind of vacuity that even the bitterest satirists will come up with to show that they're really big softies at heart.  Once again I'm disappointed by the conceptions of gods that people who reject conventional religion come up with: in this, a deity who nods off at its station, allowing his creation to fall apart.  Cedar's musings would be better reversed, I think: If God has lost interest in us, that doesn't trump our interest in ourselves. God is an idea, an idea we should decide is not worth thinking anymore.