Thursday, March 20, 2008

Living With Literalism

Philip Kitcher’s Living with Darwin: Evolution, Design, and the Future of Faith (Oxford, 2007) is a nice little book. Kitcher, a philosopher who’s written a well-known critique of creationism and a well-known critique of sociobiology, now takes on Intelligent Design. He does a good job of explaining why natural selection is the best theory we have for the origin and extinction of species, and he’s even decently modest in the claims he makes for science as a mode of knowing. Despite the help he acknowledges from various philosophers and other scholars, though, he gets into trouble on the religious issues. My main beef is his reliance on the straw man of “biblical literalism.”

He tries to hedge just a little: “For many of those who want an alternative to Darwinism, however, novelty creationism is not enough. They would remain shocked by a science curriculum that implied that any (nonpoetic) part of the Bible cannot be taken as literal truth” (page 20). “Nonpoetic” won’t quite cut it, especially since Kitcher doesn’t explain which parts of the Bible are poetic and which are non. Is the Sermon on the Mount poetic? The Nativity Stories? The killing of Goliath by David? The book of Acts? The letters of Paul? Only 20 pages in, and poor Professor Kitcher is already in over his head and sinking fast.

He backs himself up with an endnote (page 170, note 19):
As I have discovered, some well-educated people find this statement incredible. They suppose that nobody takes all the (nonpoetic) parts of the Bible as literal truth. Their reaction is surely based on the fact that all the religious people they know adopt nonliteralist strategies of reading the scriptures. In fact, as any survey of evangelical Christian literature reveals, literalism is extremely important to many Christians. This is apparent not only in the books written in support of “scientific creationism” … but also in the King James Study Bible (Nashville, TN: Nelson, 1983). The Study Bible begins its section on interpretation by reminding the reader that “the Bible is God’s infallible, inerrantly inspired Word (p. xxiiii), and concludes a note on the opening of Genesis with the declaration that “the biblical account of Creation clearly indicates that God created the world in six literal days” (p. 6).
Kitcher seems to think that “infallible, inerrantly inspired” means “literally true.” He’s wrong. Yes, the King James Study Bible declares its belief that Genesis describes “six literal days” of creation – but that is not anywhere close to taking all “the (nonpoetic) parts of the Bible as literal truth.” I think it’s revealing that this is the best – at any rate, it’s the only -- evidence Kitcher provides to support his claim.
Biblical inerrancy is quite another doctrine. It’s a fairly mainstream belief, which conservative evangelicals share with the Roman Catholic Church. And in order to preserve the Bible from error, it’s necessary to interpret the Bible quite non-literally – in one famous example, by interpreting the six “days” of creation as epochs running to thousands or millions of years.
Some basic points:

1. I’ve never heard of a Christian denomination that claimed to take the entire Bible literally. I did once encounter an individual Christian who claimed she did, but when I asked her what she did with passages like Matthew 19.12 (become a eunuch for the kingdom of heaven), Matthew 5:29 (if your eye leads you to sin, pluck it out), or Mark 10:21 (sell all you have and give to the poor), she backtracked immediately: well, of course you can’t take the whole Bible literally! I didn’t mean you should take those verses literally!

2. At the other end of the spectrum, the most loudly non-literalist Christians known to me believe that Jesus literally lived in Galilee in the first century, roamed around teaching and gathering disciples, and finally died on a cross in Jerusalem. A few maverick scholars have argued that Jesus was really a mythical figure with no literal existence; Kitcher should look at the scholarly reaction to their work to see how important “literalism” is to non-evangelical, even quite liberal Christians.

Where Christians differ is in which parts of the Bible to take literally and which to interpret figuratively. Once again we see someone distorting a difference of degree into a degree of kind, opening up a gulf between people who are not really that different from each other. A philosopher should know better than this.

3. Non-literal interpretations are not necessarily correct. Often they’re used to get around passages that are false or otherwise embarrassing. For example, three of the gospels report that Jesus predicted he would return with power before the generation then living had died. Since this is false, it can’t mean what it says, so Christians have found various ways to interpret it in such a way that it is no longer false. Albert Schweitzer, who was not only a humanitarian doctor (the Mother Teresa of his day) and a Bach specialist but a New Testament scholar, argued in in The Quest for the Historical Jesus (first edition 1906; first English translation 1910), that Jesus expected the Kingdom to come right away, and so was mistaken. In the mid-20th century, an Anglican scholar, C. H. Dodd, developed a theory of “realized eschatology” in The Parables of the Kingdom (1935; revised edition 1961) which reinterpreted Jesus’ teachings to say that the Kingdom of God had already arrived, so no Second Coming was necessary and Jesus was right. Understandably, a number of respectable theologians who didn’t like to think of Jesus as a wild-eyed apocalyptic preacher liked Dodd’s interpretation, but it doesn’t seem to have held up well. Schweitzer’s general argument remains strong, but it’s a stumbling block for many Christians who want Jesus to be inerrant, so scholars continue to try to find ways around it.

Or consider Jesus’ teachings about the family. Though he opposed divorce, he didn’t mind if his followers abandoned their families to follow him, and the gospels show him at odds with his own family. When his mother and brothers came to see him in Mark 3, they couldn’t get through the crowds around him, and Jesus brushed them off. Who are my mother and brothers? he asked rhetorically. These (meaning his disciples and other followers) are my mother and brothers; whoever does the will of God is my mother and brothers. On another occasion (Matthew 8:21f) Jesus forbade a disciple to return home for his father’s funeral, ordering him to leave the dead to bury the dead. He also said (Matthew 10:34ff) that he had come not to bring peace, but to bring division, to set people against their families and their families against them, and that anyone who came to him and did not hate his family was no disciple of his (Luke 14:26).

This was reasonable (if not particularly attractive) behavior for an apocalyptic cult, or for any new cult that needs to lure converts away from established religions to build up its own numbers. So some interpreters borrow Schweitzer’s arguments just long enough to get rid of (or at least explain away) Jesus’ anti-family teaching: well, Jesus thought the world was about to end, so of course he had a sense of eschatological urgency and thought people had to get rid of anything that might interfere with their salvation. Of course Jesus was mistaken in thinking that the world was about to end, but these sayings express Jesus’ sublime sense of eschatological urgency and trust in God – but that was then and this is now, so of course you shouldn’t hate your family! These, again, are non-fundamentalist Christian arguments, the kind of thing I found in the work of distinguished theologians like Rudolf Bultmann.

I suspect that the reason Kitcher wants to brush aside the importance of Biblical inerrancy among fundamentalists is that he wants to draw a sharp line between bad, low-class literalist Bible-thumpers and good (or at least not-so-bad) decent non-literalists. (He even thinks the Gospel of Thomas is the neatest thing since sliced bread. Very trendy!) So far (I’m about halfway through Living with Darwin), Kitcher doesn’t mention that there are two different creation stories in Genesis, which, if read literally, contradict each other thoroughly. (There are also different versions of Noah and the Flood, which differ on many points.) Fundamentalists nowadays try to harmonize them by putting the verbs in Genesis 2 into the past perfect tense, so that it describes God creating Adam and then, in a flashback, describes the other things he had created before. It doesn’t work very well, and the only English translation I’ve ever seen that supports this interpretation is the New International Version, a fundamentalist-friendly translation that often distorts its translations for theological-apologetic reasons.

I’m not sure that Kitcher’s distortion of this basic issue hurts much of his argument. Does it really matter if someone takes all the Bible literally, or just some of it? Maybe not for the purposes of a discussion of evolutionary theory, but still, it grates on me every time Kitcher talks about “literalism,” which he does fairly often. It may matter more when I read the rest of the book, in which he’s going to address the role of religion in a scientific world. He’s trying to be nice, to distance himself from angry cranks like Richard Dawkins, but if he can so fundamentally misunderstand the people he’s trying to talk to, he’s not going to reach them. But I suspect too that this book is, in this respect, like early Christian defenses of the faith which were ostensibly addressed to Roman rulers: it’s highly unlikely that anyone but Christians ever read them at the time, so they mainly made Christians feel good, but didn’t have much effect on non-Christians who were skeptical about the new cult. Similarly, Living with Darwin seems unlikely to reach conservative evangelicals. Judging from the customer reviews on Amazon, it’s being read mainly by non-believers who want to feel good about rejecting Intelligent Design, and can then say, Take that, you superstitious literalists, you!

More on this, I hope, after I finish the book. I'll try to add some links later, too, with more information for those who want it.