Jimmy Carter has a new book out about the Bible. He discusses it in this short interview over at HuffPo.
He takes a straightforward approach to dealing with morally or scientifically troubling passages:
Thank you so much for talking with me President Carter. As I warned, I am going to be asking the tough questions. So … Did God write the Bible?
God inspired the Bible but didn’t write every word in the Bible. We know, for instance that stars can’t fall on the earth, stars are much larger than the earth. That was a limitation of knowledge of the universe or physics, or astronomy at that time, but that doesn’t bother me at all.
How do you approach the passages in the Bible that talk about God’s creation (Genesis 1:1) while maintaining a positive attitude towards science?
I happen to have an advantage there because I am a nuclear physicist by training and a deeply committed Christian. I don’t have any doubt in my own mind about God who created the entire universe. But I don’t adhere to passages that so and so was created 4000 years before Christ, and things of that kind. Today we have shown that the earth and the stars were created millions, even billions, of years before. We are exploring space and sub-atomic particles and learning new facts every day, facts that the Creator has known since the beginning of time.
Does that mean that Carter rejects Biblical inerrancy? Well, yes:
Should we approach the Bible literally, or metaphorically?
When we go to the Bible we should keep in mind that the basic principles of the Bible are taught by God, but written down by human beings deprived of modern day knowledge. So there is some fallibility in the writings of the Bible. But the basic principles are applicable to my life and I don’t find any conflict among them.
The example that I set in my private life is to emulate what Christ did as he faced people who were despised like the lepers or the Samaritans. He reached out to them, he reached out to poor people, he reached out to people that were not Jews and treated them equally. The more despised and the more in need they were, the more he emphasized that we should go to and share with them our talent our ability, our wealth, our influence. Those are the things that guide my life and when I find a verse in the Bible that contradicts those things that I just described to you, I put into practice the things that I derive from my faith in Christ.
In Among the Creationists I include a chapter about different approaches to Genesis. I argue that for all the genuine challenges science poses to traditional religious faith, conflicts with the Bible should not be considered among them. But I come to that conclusion only because I believe a Christian does not have to be committed to the principal of Biblical inerrancy. A sincere Christian can take the line Carter promotes here, in which the words on the page are a purely human construction.
The Christian committed to inerrancy really does have a problem. The various kludges people devise to protect the notion from science’s onslaught simply do not work at all. The day/age interpretation, gap theory and framework hypothesis are nonstarters. They make a mockery of the text and impose upon it an interpretation too absurd to be taken seriously. Likewise for arguments that God was simply accommodating himself to the limited understanding of the people at the time, or that inerrancy only applies to the theological, and not the scientific, portions of the text. These are just desperation moves.
By contrast, the approach Carter is defending has a long history in Christianity. It certainly solves the problem of how to deal with the morally or scientifically troubling parts; you just ignore them, or find some excuse for giving them a comfortable, liberal interpretation. For example:
A lot of people point to the Bible for reasons why gay people should not be in the church, or accepted in any way.
Homosexuality was well known in the ancient world, well before Christ was born and Jesus never said a word about homosexuality. In all of his teachings about multiple things — he never said that gay people should be condemned. I personally think it is very fine for gay people to be married in civil ceremonies.
Oh please. The Bible doesn’t say much about homosexuality, but what is there is hopelessly, relentlessly negative. Perhaps the reason Jesus doesn’t mention it specifically is that he felt the point had been made sufficiently elsewhere.
The problem I have with Carter’s approach, however, is that from his starting point I fail to see why you need the Bible at all. That is, if you must constantly use your own moral intuitions and scientific knowledge to understand which parts of the Bible are meant literally and which require a more nuanced approach, then why bother with the Bible at all? Why not just trust your own moral judgements directly and cut out the middleman?
Carter cites Jesus’ willingness to reach out to despised minorities and to the poor as something that has guided his own life. That is well and good, but did he really need the Bible to tell him that it is good to be mindful of the least among us? Perhaps he means simply that he finds the example of Jesus to be especially inspiring. Again, well and good, but the annals of history and literature provide countless other examples to provide inspiration. I fail to see why, under Carter’s approach, the Bible is worthy of special veneration and study.
The allure of the fundamentalist approach to the Bible is that it provides you with factual information that can not be obtained in any other way. You need the Bible as an anchor, precisely because your own intuitions and judgments are hopelessly corrupted by sin. Sadly, the fundamentalist approach is untenable for all sorts of reasons, which I’m sure I don’t need to rehearse here.
You can avoid this problem by taking Carter’s approach and dispensing with inerrancy. But then you have reduced the Bible to just one more inspiring work of literature among many others.
More sensible than either of these approaches, I would think, is the one where you simply regard the Bible as an anthology of purely human documents, relevant for their historical and literary value but not for much else. Alas, I don’t think either Carter or the fundamentalists will be too receptive to that idea.