Sunday, May 13, 2012

Truth & Facts

The following is a Q&A from my weekly contemplative theology group. The Q is from Aaron Garrett to the entire group, and this is my A.

How factually accurate do you believe the Bible is? How much does factual accuracy matter to you? Are there any parts that, if they weren't factually accurate, would be debilitating for your faith? Is it possible to be a Christian without believing in the inerrancy of the Bible? What about just the inerrancy of the gospels? What about just the inerrancy of the crucifixion/resurrection? How much can be subtracted while still remaining a Christian in your estimation of what that means?

Confusing truth and fact is a common misconception of some who hold the Bible in high regard. Subjecting mystery to rationalism has led to a bizarre understanding of the gospel not unlike that of the Queen in Wonderland who at times could believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast.  The scripture inerrancy yardstick for faith has been one of the most divisive concepts of the past decades. In fact, when the word “inerrancy” pops up in discussion, it generally means that an “us” or “them” designation is on its way.

So, to begin by addressing the last question first, we might ask… Subtracted from what? There are different Christian Bibles for Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, Ethiopic, Syriac, and Samaritan Churches. There is no universally agreed upon canon. But hair-splitting aside, I think nothing should be subtracted. The whole confusing conglomeration of God’s interaction with humanity has value for revealing God’s nature to us. I personally believe that Biblical information in presented through a mix of literary devices used in some unknown proportion and I’m not particularly bothered by which truths are literally factual. Was the prodigal son a real guy? Was Jonah swallowed by a real fish?  The truths remain the same either way.  The Orthodox consider scripture as “divinely inspired and humanly expressed” and do not take literally any reference to God as angry, jealous, or repentant. St. Issac the Syrian wrote,

“Just because the terms wrath, anger, hatred and the rest are used of the Creator in the Bible, we should not imagine that He actually does anything in anger, hatred, or zeal. Many figurative terms are used of God in the Scriptures, terms which are far removed from His true nature.”

Some stories just can’t be told with facts. As Will Bloom describes his father in Big Fish, In telling the story of my father's life, it's impossible to separate fact from fiction, the man from the myth. The best I can do is to tell it the way he told me. It doesn't always make sense and most of it never happened... but that's what kind of story this is.

I believe that there is a spiritual reality that supercedes the reality that we know.  Just like Einstein’s physical theory includes and adds to Newton’s, there is spiritual truth that includes and expands upon what we can see and know.  Unfortunately, we generally only think in the context of what we can see and know.  But by his very nature, God is He-who-can’t-be-known and so the Bible is an attempt to express the Inexpressible.  For the sake of argument, say God did take the initiative to reveal himself to us. What if we experienced the impossible? How could that be communicated? Could we write it down in a book or a poem or sing it or tell it through a symphony or a painting? If not, why have people been trying to do that for as long as we have records of people trying to do anything?  I believe that God reveals spiritual truth to us --- sometimes when we’re seeking it and sometimes when we least expect it --- and it’s not necessarily a simple matter of relaying the information. 

The New Testament accounts of the Resurrection seem to indicate an event, not a parable, but the details are far from consistent. Jesus is alive and Rome’s military representatives are “like dead men.” There were anomalies in the natural world --- darkness from noon to 3 pm and earthquakes.  Graves opened up and dead people walked out and visited people in town. The temple curtain ripped itself in two.  From Roman soldiers to some peasant who got to talk to a dead relative, there was a new, updated version of reality.  God revealed himself to people in a way that they could understand but had trouble explaining. Matthew 28:17 says of the 11 remaining disciples, “When they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted.” Doubted? Even as they were looking at him?  The Biblical record of God’s earthly interventions culminates in the Resurrection, and in my opinion, there is no version of Christianity that makes sense without it. I think the gospels also clearly indicate that it wasn’t just the people who had believed all the correct facts who were impacted by an encounter with God. Indeed, there appears to have been no effort at all put into making the facts line up.

The Orthodox Church perspective is that the spiritual truth of the Bible is to be found in its non-literal meaning. The crucifixion and resurrection are central to the church with 7 weeks of Lent and 40 days of Pascha (Easter), but I’ve never heard the question, “How much of this literally happened in a way that can fit into human reason?”  But that’s not to say that they don’t have a lot to say about the resurrection. There are comparisons with Genesis (tree of life/cross with paradise lost/gained,  the garden setting, rib/pierced side, etc.) and other Old Testament passages to explain redemption and a multitude of other observances surrounding the gospel accounts, but setting down a literal timeline or fact list is not emphasized.  The same reasoning applies to exactly how Christ’s death saved us.  

“The question isn’t whether Christ’s death was a ransom to the devil or a sacrifice to the Father. Christ did not die on the Cross to “pay off” the evil one, or to quiet the Father’s rage. The sacrifice was for our sake and as an offering for our sins. We must not go any further than this. We cannot know how Christ’s death grants us communion with God. We do not need to know. But one thing is certain. God’s love, not legal negotiations, has saved us.” (Anthony Coniaris)

The words we read in the Bible are not lifeless rules and interesting stories, but insights into a world beyond expression. We are to value both the divine aspect and the human element in Scripture. So, in response to the original questions, inerrancy or factual accuracy matters little to me if “factual” is defined as being verifiable by human reasoning. In a larger sense, inerrancy defined this way would represent not a condition for, but a detriment to spiritual truth.  There is no fact that we have to believe to be a Christian, and there is unlimited truth that we can receive through God’s grace. 

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