Saturday, August 27, 2005

1 Samuel 17, the apologia

The previous post explained that it is impossible for David to have simultaneously slain Goliath as a boy and have been called to Saul's house many years later as a man, without Saul and his advisors having some recollection of the previous matter. Such things force genuine fundamentalists to abandon their commitment to truth because they are even more frightened by the tendency of some scriptural liberals to assert that the Bible says whatever they want it to say.

The Bible says what it says. It is not the Disney movie that some scriptural liberals want to turn it into. It is not inerrant truth.

And so most people are left in a quandary. "If it's not absolute truth," the fundamentalists say, "why should we believe anything it says?" "If God is as described as in parts of the Bible, then I can't believe in God," certain scriptural liberals say. All this gives much amusement to atheists, who-- making the same error in reverse as fundamentalists-- treat any error in the Bible or any mention of God's harshness as proof of God's non-existence.

They're all wrong. It is possible for the Bible to contain errors or even falsehoods and yet also to describe reasonably accurately God and His relationship with humankind. It is possible to read the Bible literally and yet not believe it is inerrant. These propositions are obvious to anyone who loves literature, but also to scientists and engineers. What engineer has picked up a computer manual believing that it is absolutely, literally true? What scientist thinks that since quantum mechanics proved that classical mechanics is "wrong" tries to apply quantum mechanics to playing horseshoes? What lover of literature reads Melville looking for factual errors-- or finishes Moby Dick without seeing larger truths in a book that is purely fiction? People who think they possess the truth are often the farthest from it. It is those who love truth and pursue it wholeheartedly who are permitted glimpses.

So, here is how to read 1 Samuel 17: Temporarily forget about the rest of the Bible. Let this chapter be absolutely, literally true while you are reading it. If you can't accept parts of it later, that's fine. One of the few things we really know about God is that he loves truth, making it rise again and again when human beings try to suppress. deny, or destroy it. He would never ask us to suppress our beliefs for the sake of scriptural literalism. But while you are reading a piece of scripture, fulfill your side of the deal by listening with your whole heart and mind and soul.

In fact, I see scriptural inconsistencies as a pop quiz whose main object is to ask the reader: "Do you love the truth, or do you love a book?"

I strongly suspect the Bible's editors saw them that way. The first books of both the Old and New Testament begin with the best examples of internal contradictions in scripture, far better than the minor inconsistencies of 1 Samuel. The editors could have wiped away the inconsistencies. Modern fundamentalists probably would, reasoning that they are just helping God make a better case for Himself. But thought of as a pop quiz to divide the Truth-loving sheep from the Book-loving goats, it makes an awful lot of sense.

Fundamentalists remind me of students who try to pin a professor down to exactly what is going to be on the test. If the test involves a topic that the professor talked about at length but was not in the book, they moan that this is unfair. Scriptural liberals remind me of kids who take a class on physics but expect the test to be about their pet topic, say, why concealed carry ought to be legal everywhere. And genuine atheists (as opposed to people who love truth, mercy, and justice, but can't say the J-words) are the kids who cut class and wonder why they aren't learning anything.

The real mystery is why or Divine Professor has so much patience. As St. Paul says, we have no excuse. God is manifest everywhere. Just open your eyes and your heart.

And so to proceed to the actual study.


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