The Christian response to the Bible is so diverse it’s really quite hard to say how Christians, in general, receive the writings that compose their holy book, whether they think of it as inspired, and in what way, or whether they acknowledge it as a human work, providing a glimpse of how people in a particular tradition gradually developed their own perception of god and god’s doings. Of course, it makes an enormous difference to the way others should regard believers. If, like some fundamentalists, you take it that the Bible is not only inspired, but is inspired in a plenary way, so that every last word in it is suffused with divine significance, no matter how peripheral it seems to what might be thought of as its central message, then the Bible imposes immense challenges to rational thought about Christian belief. However, if, on the other hand, you take the Bible to be the work of inspired authors, who, while conveying something of their god’s message for believers, who did not in any way subvert their humanity in the course of inspiring them to write as they did, you will have a completely different understanding of how the Bible conveys god’s word. Indeed, you might fairly think the problem insoluble, since, in order to dig down to the sedimented thoughts of god expressed in human words, you will have to play fast and loose with some parts of the Bible while you take other parts of the Bible with intense and even reverent seriousness.
This question arose in a fairly general way in the discussion between Richard Dawkins and Rowan Williams in the Sheldonian Theatre the other day, so looking at what the archbishop had to say on the subject is as good a way into the subject as any. The question arose as to why the writers of sacred scripture, being inspired by god to write as they did, should have got the whole business of the origins of the universe and human life so completely wrong, if, indeed, it was god who inspired them. After all, if god did inspire them, and if, in fact, it would have been possible for god to reveal the secrets of the origin of the universe and life to the sacred writers, why did the writings inspired by god not achieve something that more nearly approximated to what we know from science about the origins of the universe and human beings? Here is the archbishop’s response:
Now, this sounds to me particularly unsatisfactory as an answer. The sacred writers, we are to suppose, didn’t get it wrong; they told us what god wanted us to know — and at this point the archbishop gets all theological and speaks about the free creation, human beings and their dominion (although he doesn’t say this), and how human beings got it wrong. The point about dominion is this: If in fact the origin stories constitute a summary of what god wanted us to know, then one of the vital things that we needed to know was how it came about that human beings became responsible for sinfulness. The archbishop cleverly avoids the issue of sin and the fall, but this is basically what is at the heart of the story as he expresses it — the way human beings have made such a mess of things.
In other words, the important things to know are that god created the world for our benefit, and that we messed it up, obviously unable to care for things on our own, or to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. That is, the Christian story of creation, fall, and redemption is what god wanted us to know, and this is what the Bible tells us. But there’s a huge problem lurking right here, and the archbishop seems unable to see it. (I should say right up front, that I have a certain amount of animus towards the archbishop. He said something which offended me quite deeply, and argued — well, “argued” — that it was necessary for the state to maintain control over people’s dying, necessary, in fact, to force people to die in misery, and this, I think, though this is not the argument that he used, follows from the fact that he thinks that god not only created us in the beginning, but will, so far as this life goes, undo us in the end, and that we should have no control over this. I think he holds this position for religious reasons, not for the reasons he gave in the House of Lords, and I deprecate him both for his cowardice, in not stating his reasons clearly, and his inhumanity, in not caring for the suffering of the dying or those who are suffering the pangs of hell long before they die.)
Anyway, back to the subject in hand. There is a problem lurking here, and the problem is this. It is simply absurd to suppose that the fact that we came to be as we are through the processes of evolution is not something that we needed to know. It simply won’t do to say that the important things that we should know are recorded in the first chapters of Genesis, and the reason is simple. Had we known, from the start, that human beings came to be in a process of evolution lasting billions of years, we would know something that is so important that it would have had to have been taken into consideration from the start — the fact, namely, that we are kin to every other form of living thing on the earth, and that we have a responsibility towards the life-world. We could not, then, have thought that the whole of this wondrous plenitude of living being on the earth had come about just for us, but that everything had its own niche, and that that is a vital thing for us to know.
Nor would we have thought, as is still very often the case, that the disasters that happen to us are in any way an expression of god’s attitudes towards us, or a punishment or warning for our misdoings. It’s very natural for us to wonder, when we have suffered some harm, whether an accident or sickness, what we did to deserve it. The book of Job, for instance, is a wonderful example of the attempt to discern, in the way the world works, whether there is any justice, and the conclusion seems to be that there is no justice at all so far as we can tell, and that all we can do is to submit ourselves to what happens without questioning its justice or injustice, for whatever reasons there might be are too exalted for us to understand. But this is something we needed to know, and if the inspired authors of the Bible had been told about the process of evolution from the start, we could have said, with a great deal of certainty, that the design of the world itself — we must suppose the design at this point, since this is something any self-respecting and responsible god would hold to be necessary information for self-conscious creaturres to know, creatures capable of learning about the world, and, in the archbishop’s words, responding to god’s call to relationship with him – that is to say, that the design included, as a necessary feature, how chance events bring about the most terrible suffering; and that that suffering has no transcendent meaning or purpose, but is built into the very structure of the system of origins. This is something we needed to know, and the supposition that the only things necessary for us to know have to do with sin and redemption is special pleading.
According to the archbishop, however, we needed to know none of this, and that is, quite frankly, a nonsense. We needed to know it because it is true. Just think of how much misunderstanding would have been avoided had our early ancestors been let in on this particular secret. Instead of wondering, desperately, why things have a tendency to go so badly, we would know, right from the start, that things were designed this way, that god had used the incredibly wasteful process of evolution to bring about life on the planet, and that we are latecomers on the scene, a scene which had already been a few billion years in the making, and one in which things were such as to go wrong, no matter what we might do. That doesn’t mean that we didn’t need to know that there are other harms, moral harms, that we are responsible for, but at least knowing about evolution, and the long process which preceded our arrival on the scene, would not have led to the wholly absurd notion that the limits of human compassion, and our tendency sometimes to tell lies, or to kill for personal advantage, and other moral faults, had cosmic significance, a supposed significance which, in fact, has led, not only to a disproportionate idea of the significance of human beings, but also to the many harms that we do simply because we differ in our understanding of what in fact this significance consists in.
The idea that we do have an insight into some transcendent mind, and what this mind wants us to know, has been the source of so much violence and evil, that it is surely time that we simply set it aside as a badly formed idea from the start. The problem is that there are all sorts of cognitive mechanisms that lead us to belief in supernormal beings that have created us, have an interest in us, and have prescribed certain ways of life as the best way for us to live, and that these mechanisms work in parallel in completely different societies. Indeed, the mechanisms in question have a tendency to distinguish in-groups, who share a society’s particular conceptions of what constitutes holiness and goodness, from out-groups who do not share those conceptions, but have developed conceptions of their own which are inevitably in conflict with the views of those others, and so on. It’s a recursive process in which the in-group–out-group dynamic is intensified in such a way that conflicts are inevitable along the interfaces between groups defined in these ways, especially when these groups are in fact related by sharing at least part of the sacred scriptures of the other within their own holy writings. So the archbishop’s “what god wants us to know,” becomes a recursively intensified process in which each seeks to find the final account of what it is that god wants us to know, and makes it inevitable that we should come to blows over the quite different answers that we deliver to this question.
These considerations lead us inevitably to another level of problem that arises when you begin to speak about holy writings and inspiration. Each of the scriptures of the three great monotheisms – Judaism, Christianity and Islam, in order of their historical appearance — are, after all is said and done, obviously the work of human beings. They are too full of the bile of human self-centredness and violence (rather than the milk of human kindness) to be anything else. But as literary works they are also inevitably subject to interpretation. Even what I am writing here is in need of interpretation, and some people who read my words will inevitably take from them something that I did not intend. I remember how often people greeted me at the door of the church with a remark of praise for my homily, and then a summary of what they took from it, sometimes a message which was entirely opposite to the meaning I had intended. Interpretation, or hermeneutics, as biblical scholars like to call it, is, like any other process of interpretation, replete with all sorts of disagreements and contradictions. It is also, very often, ignored by the very people who take these writings to be holy. In the case of Qu’ran there is an enormous weight of opinion which simply refuses to treat the writings of the Qu’ran (whose origins are in fact debated) as texts in need of interpretation, as well, of course, as texts in need of text-critical study and examination, despite the fact that the divisions within Islam actually demonstrate that interpretation of the supposedly holy words is widely diverse.
So, besides the question of why these particular words or thoughts or facts, if that is what they are, are the things that god wanted us to know, as the archbishop said in his conversation with Richard Dawkins, we still have the completely insoluble question of how we can discern, from amongst the multiple possible interpretations of the words of the sacred writings, the one that constitutes with certainty what god wants us to know. The archbishop called the writers inspired, but how can something that is open to interpretation be inspired, especially in view of the wildly different interpretations that are derived from the texts of inspired works? As I have pointed out before, in relation to the Roman Catholic Church, the prescribed meaning of the texts is determined by a very intangible something called the magisterium (or teaching authority), which, I assume, is whatever the official church takes the meaning to be at any particular time (which it of course tries to make consistent with what that ill-defined magisterium has said at other times). And, as the Vatican’s Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian puts it, the magisterium has a validity which is superior to its argumentation. In other words, even when it is shown by rational argument to be mistaken, it is still true. But this, surely, is just a way of papering over the cracks in the structure, cracks that are inevitably there simply because it is a structure of meaning, and open to interpretation. No text can constitute a revelation from a god, since no text — and especially not any of the supposedly sacred texts of the great religions — can provide the basis for giving it a unique interpretation which can be convincingly demonstrated to be the only possible interpretation of the text in question, and therefore as something issuing from a god.