Again with literary truth

I’ve gotten distracted recently from a couple of topics I desperately want to return to. A look at Jason Rosenhouse’s sensitive and personal essay on “Ways of Knowing” will have to wait a bit longer, because I finally got ahold of Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis, a copy I’ve had since high school and which I haven’t read since then. I’ll be spending some time, then, on notions of truth in literary contexts.

I do this not to claim that religious truth claims are identical to literary truth claims, but because I think we can sort out some ideas in the less fraught realm of literary criticism that may be able to carry over to a useful understanding of religion. Literature is less controversial a topic, most educated people have read and enjoyed novels, and have at least some of the basic vocabulary and analytical framework. Literature is also accessible to all, in a way religion isn’t (or doesn’t seem to be).

Auspiciously, on the day the book arrived, we also get a new and highly relevant post from slacktivist. He is addressing the Book of Jonah, and treating it, I must say, very much as a literary text, and not as some sort of literal history. Asked “How do you explain the seemingly barbaric actions of God in the Old Testament? God outright ordered genocides, wars and brutal punishments upon his own followers,” slacktivist writes:

The author of Jonah thought this question was so important that he (or she) sat down and wrote the book of Jonah. That book is a relentless attack on the idea that God really is the sort of God who would order genocides, wars and brutal punishments. The book is a brutal satire of such an opinion of the character of God.

References to the author’s intent (a human author, it’s made clear), to literary genre (satire), references here and more explicitly later to the book as a polemic, all clearly mark this as a literary analysis of the Bible. An analysis, it should be noted, that slacktivist takes as telling us something important about God, but set that aside for the moment.

Looking at God’s concluding speech, slacktivist finds:

This isn’t a subtle or sideways point the author is making here. It’s a direct, explicit challenge — a rebuttal — to those other parts of scripture that portray exactly this sort of God, the very parts of scripture [the original questioner] is objecting to as well. You know the sort of thing, where someone like Jonah says that God has declared some great city or another irredeemable and has commanded it to be destroyed utterly, every man, woman and child and every beast within its walls.

Nonsense, the author of Jonah says. God is not the sort of God who would ever command any such thing and anyone who says otherwise is a bitter, disobedient fool. And the author of Jonah then sketches for us a portrait of just such a bitter, disobedient fool.

It’s a vicious, ugly picture. The author of Jonah isn’t interested in fighting fair or in conveying any sympathy for the straw-man embodiment of the nonsense he’s railing against. Jonah is, without fail, disobedient, stupid and wrong — wrong at every turn. He is portrayed this way because the author of Jonah isn’t just trying to raise some doubts about the view he’s criticizing, he wants to demolish it, to render it unthinkable.

Again and again, Jonah’s story is read as just that, as a story. Not as history, not as something where we have to ask what sort of fish it was that swallowed Jonah. By reading it, we learn things. We learn, as slacktivist makes clear, that Jonah is bad, wrong, stupid, venal, and unpleasant. His view of God is wrong, we are told.

But of course, Jonah isn’t the only book here. For instance, the Book of Job begins with God intentionally punishing a faultless man, “blameless and upright, one who feared God, and turned away from evil.” He performs the sacrifices and ceremonies not just for himself, but for his family, lest they forget. God and Satan decide to see just how far he can be pushed before he’ll curse God. This is a capricious act, which God later defends to Job with copious high-and-mighty posturing, but no particular answers. “I wanted to prove a point,” is hardly the answer Job wanted to this central question: “If I sin, what do I do to thee, thou watcher of men? Why has thou made me thy mark? Why have I become a burden to thee?”

Slacktivist continues in this vein:

The difficulty, though, is that so are all those passages of scripture that the author of Jonah is mocking and ridiculing. The book of Jonah’s anti-Jonah-ism is canonical, but so is the Jonah-ism the story condemns. Both are scripture.

This is what freaks out many of my fellow evangelical Christians. It seems to violate what they call the unity of the scriptures — the idea that the Bible cannot and does not ever contradict itself.

Literary criticism has no inherent problem here. Keats coined a phrase that captures such internal conflict, describing “what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” This is rather different than the scientific enterprise, but that has not limited its usefulness. John Dewey wrote that the line “contains more of the psychology of productive thought than many treatises,” and cited it as having guided his philosophy of pragmatism, itself a highly science-friendly philosophy.

This willingness to accept uncertainty is a critical difference between fundamentalists and moderate theists. It’s what distinguishes good scientists and bad ones, I’d argue. But a matching account of uncertainty in science had to wait for Gödel on one hand and a full appreciation of statistical dynamics in physics, population biology, and related fields. There are things which cannot be known, and sometimes it suffices to know clearly what is unknown, and what is unknowable.

This, too, I note, is the essence of Popper’s approach to science demarcation, an essence that carries through in highly modified form in current approaches to that problem.

In the context of literature, this sort of uncertainty is inevitable. And, slacktivist seems to be arguing, this sort of uncertainty is inevitable in religion, as well:

The book is a polemic, and we can’t have a polemic without also having two poles — two contrasting and opposing points of view. … Whatever else that means, … It means that there is more than one side, more than one identical view.

It shouldn’t be surprising that the Bible contains more than one identical view. This is an anthology of 66 books by a host of different authors, written over a span of many centuries. That all of those authors and all of those books do not present lockstep unanimity doesn’t mean we’re being presented with contradictions so much as that we’re given an ongoing conversation — one that includes and encompasses many points of view, some of which disagree, sometimes vehemently.

Walt Whitman captured this feeling, too, in his opus Leaves of Grass, asking the reader: “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” Literary meaning comes not from a simple drawing out of what the author meant, or wanted, but from asking whether the narrator is reliable, whether the author is reliable, and taking contradictions not as stopping points, but as chances to delve deeper and find the more profound truth which unifies these disparities.

From here, slacktivist goes on to show that such disparities can occur within our interpretation of a single word, a New Testament quote of an Old Testament prophet, in which the lack of vowels in Hebrew produces translations which are not only different, but directly contradictory, between the standard translation of the prophet’s meaning, and the meaning he’s given in Acts.

What matters here, with regard to Andrew’s question, is that we have both meanings, both views, both perspectives, in the Bible we Christians read. Both are a part of our canon. And given these two opposing perspectives we must, like the author of the book of Jonah, choose one. We have to take sides.

We can choose the exclusive vision of Jonah-ism, the view that says we alone are blessed and the rest of the world can go to Hell. Or we can choose the expansive, inclusive vision of the book of Jonah, the view that sees God as madly in love with the great city of Ninevah and indignant at the suggestion that there could be any such city, any person or beast, beyond the scope of that love.

The power to make such choices runs deeply in literature. Is Hamlet crazy, or his he merely playing. Is Shylock an anti-Semitic stereotype, or a plea for tolerance and love of the Jewish people?

Auerbach takes up these questions in his oft-reprinted opening chapter – “Odysseus’ Scar.” In this chapter he lays out his interpretive style, to take a small scene from one or two works, to dig deeply into the passage and to wring from it insights into the text itself, into the authors, and by drawing comparisons, to better understand how people think in general, and how stories shape the world in which they are told. In this sense, I rather think Neil Gaiman must be a fan of Auerbach’s.

So Auerbach looks at two moments in literary history: the moment where Odysseus returns, disguised, to his home, and fears that his childhood nursemaid will recognize him by a scar on his leg, and Abraham’s tortured decision to offer his beloved and miraculous son as a sacrifice. In this comparison, he finds Homer’s characters rather flat:

the complexity of the psychological life is shown only in the succession and alternation of emotions; whereas the Jewish writers are able to express the simultaneous existence of various layers of consciousness and the conflict between them.

Of Homer’s characters, Auerbach writes:

so long as we are reading or hearing the poems, it does not matter whether we know that this is only a legend, “make-believe.” The oft-repeated reproach that Homer is a liar takes nothing from his effectiveness, he does not need to base his story on historical reality, his reality is powerful enough in itself; it ensnares us, weaving its web around us, and that suffices him. And this “real” world into which we are lured, exists for itself, contains nothing but itself; the Homeric poems conceal nothing, they contain no teaching and no secret second meaning. Homer can be analyzed, as we have essayed to do here, but he cannot be interpreted.

There are small lessons to be learned from a close reading (e.g., “that in misfortune men age quickly”), but Homer, Auerbach finds, is characterized by “a calm acceptance of the basic facts of human existence … [but with no] passionate impulse either to rebel against them or to embrace them in an ecstasy of submission.”

“It’s all very different in the Biblical stories,” he adds:

Their aim is not to bewitch the senses, and if nevertheless they produce lively sensory effects, it is only because the moral, religious, and psychological phenomena which are their sole concern are made concrete in the sensible matter of life.

Later in the essay, this mixing of the metaphysical with the physical is put in terms of Auerbach’s major focus throughout the book, the separation of styles: the elevated from the mundane. “With the more profound historicity and the more profound social activity of the Old Testament…,” he writes, “a different conception of the elevated style and of the sublime is to be found.”

For the great and sublime events in the Homeric poems take place far more exclusively and unmistakably among members of a ruling class; and these are far more untouched in their heroic elevation than are the Old Testament figures, who can fall much lower in dignity… and finally, domestic realism, the representation of daily life, remains in Homer in the peaceful realm of the idyllic, whereas, from the very first, in the Old Testament stories, the sublime, tragic, and problematic take shape precisely in the domestic and commonplace… The sublime influence of God here reaches so deeply into the everyday that the two realms of the sublime and the everyday are not only actually unseparated but basically inseparable.

Auerbach finds the Bible compelling as literature because of this willingness to break boundaries, and also for its ability to capture multiplicity. The Bible contains three rough domains – “legend, historical reporting, and interpretive historical theology” – but:

the men who composed the historical parts are often the same who edited the older legends too; their peculiar religious concept of man in history, which we have attempted to describe above, in no way led them to a legendary simplification of events; and so it is only natural that, in the legendary passages of the Old Testament, historical structure is frequently discernible – of course not in the sense that the traditions are examined as to their credibility according to the methods of scientific criticism [any more than Shakespeare examines the legends around Caesar before writing his play on the topic -Josh]; but simply to the extent that the tendency to a smoothing down and harmonizing of events, to a simplification of motives, to a static definition of characters which avoids conflict, vacillation, and development, such as are natural to legendary structure, does not predominate in the Old Testament world of legend. [The patriarchs] produce[] a more concrete, direct, and historical impression than the figures of the Homeric world – not because they are better described (the contrary is true) but because the confused, contradictory multiplicity of events, the psychological and factual cross-purposes which true history reveals, have not disappeared in the representation but still remain clearly perceptible.

To summarize grossly, then, the Bible captures a certain sort of truth about the world and of humanity, about its multiplicity and self-contradictory nature in particular. It captures this not by saying “people are complicated,” but by showing people being complicated. It puts Abraham in an impossible situation, and confronts us with his agony as he decides between the God who gave him what he most desired (a son), and the son he loves and sees as proof of his covenant with God.

Auerbach distinguishes clearly between a commitment to realism and a commitment to truth:

The Biblical narrator was obliged to write exactly what his belief in the truth of the tradition (or, from the rationalistic standpoint [which Auerbach just called “psychologically absurd”] his interest in the truth of it) demanded of him – in either case, his freedom in creative or representative imagination was severely limited; his activity was perforce reduced to composing an effective version of the pious tradition. What he produced, then, was not primarily oriented toward “realism” (if he succeeded in being realistic, it was merely a means, not an end); it was oriented toward truth. … The Bible’s claim to truth is not only far more urgent than Homer’s, it is tyrannical – it excludes all other claims. The world of Scripture stories is not satisfied with claiming to be a historically true reality – it insists that it is the only real world, is destined for autocracy. All other scenes, issues, and ordinances have no right to appear independently of it, and it is promised that all of them, the history of all mankind, will be given their due place within its frame, will be subordinated to it. The Scripture stories do not, like Homer’s, court our favor, the do not flatter us that they may please us and enchant us – they seek to subject us, and if we refuse to be subjected, we are rebels.

All this comes not from the level of religion, but from the literary analysis. Things get tricky when folks try to jump across and take that literary level of meaning and say that it speaks to an absolute truth, just as it is problematic when readers of Atlas Shrugged try to take that book’s claims to universal truth beyond the book’s pages

On a sidenote: I’d take people a lot more seriously if the ones who think NCSE shouldn’t have anything to do with supposedly reality-denying religious people would invest at least occasional effort in dinging Objectivists. Note that NCSE has been happy to work alongside groups like the Ayn Rand Center to defend evolution education, and no one seems to be complaining about that.

So where does this leave us? Jerry Coyne recently summarized critic James Wood as arguing that “the merit of fiction is not so much in conveying truth about the world as in conveying what it feels like to be on the inside of a situation.” I wonder whether Wood agrees that this distinction really matters, or whether, in fact, this is what truth means in a literary context. A book can make a claim to truth, even if that claim is not about the reality of particular events or individuals. The Bible is, Auerbach seems to be saying, true but not realistic. Its truth lies both in an assertion about its own scope (an assertion which cannot be proven merely based on the book’s own statements!), and in its ability to capture certain features of reality, the complexities of people’s motives, the ability of mundane events, settings, or people to have profound significance, and so forth.

And for all the absoluteness of its truth claims, it also sets (some of?) those claims in opposition, as slacktivist said. In any text, we have to take such self-contradiction as evidence of something deeper at work. And as slacktivist lays out, one message one can draw from the Bible’s self-contradictions is that faith is about choices, not absolutes. One can be Jonah or anti-Jonah. Had Abraham refused God’s order, we don’t know what might have happened, any more than we know what would have happened if Admiral Zheng He had reached and colonized the Americas, or if Xander and Willow hadn’t revived Buffy after The Master killed her. In the historical examples, the question is barely meaningful, because it didn’t happen. In literary examples, it didn’t happen because someone thought it would be a bad idea, and it’s useful to think about why that was, and what that reveals about their worldview.

This is the essence of Auerbach’s approach. Literature is, for him, a window into the past of a sort that we can’t get otherwise. Not just a record of events, but of attitudes and ideas. Pondering the Book of Kells doesn’t just give us lovely art, but also because of the marginal notes and poems that illuminators and scribes left behind. Such marginalia are lurking beneath the words of Genesis, of Shakespeare, and of Joss Whedon. Those hidden signs tell us what people truly thought who are no longer alive to speak to us. That’s a truth, and a truth worth talking about.


  1. #1 Sigmund
    September 30, 2009

    “Those hidden signs tell us what people truly thought who are no longer alive to speak to us. That’s a truth, and a truth worth talking about.”
    Certainly. But is anyone disputing this?
    Bart Ehrman uses exactly this approach regarding biblical analysis to great effect.
    Analysis of many religious stories from different religions provide important information of things people formerly believed in, whether it was God promising a group of people that a land belonged to them alone, or that human sacrifice was necessary to maintain the harvests.
    Many of these stories reveal that people formerly believed incorrect things about the natural world. There is no disgrace in this. They didn’t have the knowledge accumulated by modern civilizations and tried to make sense of the world as best they could. They got some things right and a lot of things wrong. Lets not gloss over this by suggesting that the incorrect ideas are simply metaphors or literary devices to make us think deeply.
    The example you began with, however, that of slacktivist’s interpretation of the book of Jonah illustrates a particular criticism of religious apologists – the cherry-picking approach to the bible. He avoids answering the original question by veering off into a different story that has God end up being the good guy rather than the genocidal maniac he appears to be in several other parts of the bible and then declares that this is the true God, rather than the other evil one. The criteria he uses to decide one way or the other are not revealed.
    The bible is the result of many authors who wrote different books for different purposes over hundreds of years. Isn’t it easier to suggest the resultant literary contradictions inherent in such a project are the inevitable result of the process rather than some sort of predesigned feature, put there with the intention of making us think on several levels?

  2. #2 abb3w
    September 30, 2009

    Josh Rosenau: This willingness to accept uncertainty is a critical difference between fundamentalists and moderate theists.

    “Nell,” the Constable continued, indicating through his tone of voice that the lesson was concluding, “the difference between ignorant and educated people is that the latter know more facts. But that has nothing to do with whether they are stupid or intelligent. The difference between stupid and intelligent people— and this is true whether or not they are well-educated —is that intelligent people can handle subtlety. They are not baffled by ambiguous or even contradictory situations— in fact, they expect them and are apt to become suspicious when things seem overly straightforward.”

    Josh Rosenau: Those hidden signs tell us what people truly thought who are no longer alive to speak to us.

    A quibble: those hidden signs are evidence of what people truly thought. This observation reduces this form of gnosis to a sub-case of the previous more general problem of gnosis-via-evidence. If one takes as assumption that “reality” produces evidence with a pattern of formal complexity within AH, a form of Minimum Description Length Induction falls out as optimal, which in turn gives an algorithm for Science.

    Josh Rosenau: I’d take people a lot more seriously if the ones who think NCSE shouldn’t have anything to do with supposedly reality-denying religious people would invest at least occasional effort in dinging Objectivists.

    (Wave.) I have.

    On the other hand, I don’t have an absolute problem with your working with religious people; however, I think y’all ought be much more careful to avoid appearance of entanglement. As a ha-ha-only-serious first pass, less “we should work together” and more “let’s you and him fight”.

    On the gripping hand, I’m probably a kook.

  3. #3 gillt
    September 30, 2009

    In courageously designating the Bible excellent fodder for lit crit majors you’re what…acknowledging PZ Myer’s wish that all religions finally become relegated to a pastime like knitting?

    Are you under the impression that a majority of moderate Christians read the Bible as a great work of fiction, whose truths are couched in symbolism and metaphor. Is their Holy Book no longer considered sacred?

  4. #4 Russell Blackford
    September 30, 2009

    Josh, I have absolutely no problem with someone approaching various biblical texts much as they’d approach The Iliad or some other work of mythology (acknowledged as such on all sides). If any insight into the human condition arises so be it, though do note that the kind of insight we’re talking about is much the same as that which Shakespeare scholars might achieve – and I wouldn’t be too quick to accord much moral authority to Shakespeare scholars, having known a few and found them as morally fallible as anyone else.

    Still, I’ve never asked for the humanities faculties of the world to be abolished. After all, my first Ph.D was in English literature and my second in philosophy. I doubt that Jerry Coyne wants the humanities faculties abolished, either. In fact I doubt that anyone involved in the recent science and reason blogosphere debates is rejecting the importance of textual-historical analyses of various texts (though some of us may sometimes think that various texts sometimes get read against the grain somewhat wishfully, in an effort to recuperate them for modern readers … but that’s a different issue). Nor do I imagine that anyone is denying that literature and mythology – as long as they are understood as such – have important kinds of cultural and aesthetic value.

    But are we still talking about Eugenie’s Dragon*Con talk? She certainly didn’t give the impresssion – to me at least – that the “other ways of knowing” were confined to intellectually respectable inquiries from literary critics carried out by historians, literary critics, etc. That was never what this was about.

    If we’ve left that topic behind, though, a discussion of what we do when we engage in literary criticism is a perfectly legitimate one to have in its own right. I’ve been thinking about this for many years, on and off, just as I’ve been thinking for many years about what it is that we do when we interpret a legal statute. I have some ideas about these things, but definitive answers are not easy to come by. Obviously there’s a vast literature on these topics.

  5. #5 Russell Blackford
    September 30, 2009

    Ugh, second last para got a bit garbled … but I hope the drift of it is clear.

  6. #6 dichogamy
    September 30, 2009

    …I hope the drift of it is clear.

    …you’ve been thinking for many years?

  7. #7 Russell Blackford
    September 30, 2009

    The second last para. To be suitably humorless in response, the para would be better worded:

    “But are we still talking about Eugenie’s Dragon*Con talk? She certainly didn’t give the impresssion – to me at least – that the “other ways of knowing” were confined to intellectually respectable inquiries carried out by historians, literary critics, etc. That was never what this was about.”

  8. #8 Kevin Dodge
    October 1, 2009

    Note: the following was originally written because someone I know found your blog interesting and cited it on their facebook page. After writing most of it, I figured that you might appreciate reading my thoughts as well. Hopefully they will have been as thought provoking and enjoyable as yours have been to me.

    That was interesting reading. I read it through once including the comments, then I re-read it omitting the quotes that Mr. Rosenau inserted. That helped clarify what was intended by the quotes, as well as clarify what Mr. Rosenau might be saying. (I think!)

    “This willingness to accept uncertainty is a critical difference between fundamentalists and moderate theists.”

    Fundamentalism has done a lot of wonderful things in trying to preserve truth. The ways that it has done that may not have been always helpful in the long run. That is not the issue of Mr. Rosenau’s post however. Nor of mine. What strikes me is that Mr. Rosenau gets a huge point that many Christians struggle with, however he misses the “why” in my estimation.

    Many people, Christians, and non-Christians struggle with being willing to accept certainty. We want fact. We want safety. We want surety. We do not want uncertainty. Uncertainty is not safe.

    The fact is however, that uncertainty is something we must come to grips concerning. There are a lot of things that are uncertain about life, and even about the Bible.

    Mr. Rosenau notes this uncertainty is inevitable in literature. He quotes others who see the Bible compelling as literature. (and it is; as he notes particularly in the Abraham/Isaac incident) It is compelling because it truly portrays that people are complicated. Life is complicated. However the next step of separating the literature from truth and jumping the literary analysis over into whether it is truth gets complicated. Mr. Rosenau notes this and seems to say that literature, and thus the Bible is literarily true without being or needing to be realistically true. Thus the benefit of the Bible is in seeing what people thought, why they included and excluded certain things. That then is a truth that is worth discussing.

    However, what Mr. Rosenau misses is very important. Just as what he notes is also important (Christians, and others, would do well to ponder being willing to accept uncertainty in more realms than perhaps what they currently do). {Do you get the idea I am trying to emphasize the good to meditate on before mentioning what I think is missing?}

    So what is missing? What is missing, that almost shone through with the citing of the Job story in contra-distinction to the Jonah one, and that almost shone through with the citing of the “genocides”—is that the Bible is a finite expression of the infinite God. That is a very important key to understand as one reads.

    The authors of the Bible strive to give glimpses of the character and attributes of God, yet they cannot give all. (So they give what is most important in their/God’s eyes.) They then express those glimpses in finite language which also falls far short. These then seem to be in contradiction to each other, making it so easy and appropriate to wonder “why?”

    The easy answer is to say merely that it is literature. It does not have to be realistically true. Yet, the Bible is the one book that is realistically true about man. It shows man in all his foibles and in the grossness of his sin. It condemns all under it, it tells man the ugliness that the rest have no stomach to record in their busy-ness of self-aggrandizement. It is also realistically true in what it says about God. Except that there is no way that it can ever finish describing and fitting all of His attributes together. God is the perfection of all attributes that are good, holy, and just. How those fit together I could spend a lifetime trying to figure out and explain: and hardly tip the iceberg as I try to wrap a finite mind around an infinite God. It is true it must be admitted, that at times the exercise of God’s attributes and power seem evil or twisted. Yet it is also true that this conclusion is ruled out in Scripture (Since it claims to be more than just literarily true, they must have known we would struggle with this!).

    Sometimes explanations are given to aid the understanding, other times it is left to individuals to struggle with as Job did (yet the reader knows that more is going on). This is life. Sometimes we know, or can explain. Other times we must simply live in uncertainty. Job had to (it never tells us he was given the other side of the story). This God cannot be confined to a box. Thus there are more uncertainties than many would like to admit. This does not necessarily mean anything is contradictory, it just necessitates that we are going to have a hard time fitting it all together and answering questions that it does not fully answer.

    In general, the Bible attributes God’s wrath to His justice, and juxtaposes that with the ultimate expression of love in the redemption of mortal enemies by the self-sacrifice of Jesus paying the debt that could not be paid by fallen humanity.

    Yet so many instances of the expression of the Bible leave one with questions of “why?” To many, that can become the basis for claims of contradictions, or for outright despising of the claims made therein. Others have come to recognize that in the expression of an infinite God not all is given. Nor could it. And if it could no doubt “God” would be despised as someone beneath us. Understandable. Simplistic.

    In general, the Bible gives what are orthodox results of trying to fit together the pieces. Yet the process is not described, nor always the way that things fit. We are told that God is not evil. He is just, and we are left to wrestle with how that fits with actions described. We are told that Jesus is both God and man, and left to wrestle with how that fits. We are told that God draws men to His grace, and man is responsible for His sin. Likewise, we are left to wrestle.

    We cannot see the fullness of God’s perspective. Because of this, some rebel against it’s claims. But really the rebellion is against the facts of reality: we are finite and we want to stand as infinite judges over all. But since that is not possible, we are left in our finiteness with the question of how we will respond to it. We have uncertainty. The outline is sketched in the Bible. The boundaries of truth are delineated. We are even given minds to try to understand, and many good understandings have been proposed. Yet they are not deemed the full picture because it will be impossible in finite terms to express what involves the infinite workings of an infinite God. It does not mean that those claims are unreasonable, it simply means that one must at some points (and there may be disagreement where those points are, and that is a reasonable discussion) acknowledge uncertainty. Yet that does not detract from the truthfulness of the reality of what is expressed in the Bible even if apparently there is conflict. (Some may give in too early and say uncertainty is here, others may give in too late and try to make certain what is not.)

    Some might say this makes me a moderate theist. I do not care what titles might be given to me, (because titles are only as good as what they actually portray

    In the end, regardless of titles (such as fundamentalist or moderate theist, which are only as good as they actually portray in both the sender and receiver an accurate depiction) I know that I am a follower of Jesus because I have placed my faith in Him for rescue from my sinful state. I believe that what the Bible says is realistically and truthfully true. I accept that there are uncertainties that I may never full unravel the depths of which. This is part of faith. It is also part of acknowledging realities: God is infinite, I am finite.

    Anyway, I have written more than I intended, and spent more time than my studies perhaps allow. Hopefully this will have been a thought provoking addition to your thought provoking and helpful entry.

    Yours truly,
    Kevin Dodge

  9. #9 Josh Rosenau
    October 1, 2009

    Sigmund: I’ve certainly had folks in previous threads dispute that literature constitutes a “way of knowing,” or that knowledge gained from literature (if they concede it exists at all) is not “truth” or even “truth-claim.” This is not as trivial a point as you and I think it is.

    I also think you’ve misconstrued slacktivist. He does explain how he chooses between the loving God of Jonah and the angry God of other books. He engages directly with the self-contradictory nature of the Bible, and uses it to draw a lesson about the importance of choice on the part of a religious adherent. That one can’t simply take every line in the Bible as true in all its parts, down to the very words of the original. I think I quoted the relevant passages showing that, and anything I omitted is just a click away. I did leave out his explicitly theological musings, as those don’t interest me here.

    Abb3w: A useful and entirely correct quibble. I try to be careful about distinguishing truth claims from truths, and that instance slipped past me.

    Gillt: I stated at the outset that my interest in this post is not the theology, but simply literary criticism. At this point, I’m hoping to get a consensus going about nonscientific truths/truth claims that we might be able to apply to religion down the road, but am not applying here. Hence the opening of paragraph 2: “I do this not to claim that religious truth claims are identical to literary truth claims, but because I think we can sort out some ideas in the less fraught realm of literary criticism that may be able to carry over to a useful understanding of religion.”

    Russell Blackwood: “I doubt that Jerry Coyne wants the humanities faculties abolished, either. In fact I doubt that anyone involved in the recent science and reason blogosphere debates is rejecting the importance of textual-historical analyses of various texts. … Nor do I imagine that anyone is denying that literature and mythology – as long as they are understood as such – have important kinds of cultural and aesthetic value.”

    I doubt this too. That’s why I’m developing this line of reasoning, because I think it’s worth working through an area where all involved seem to agree in outline about a non-scientific epistemology. I’m hoping to use that as a framework for a subsequent discussion of how religion fits or doesn’t fit the mold of literature. But if we jump ahead we’ll just muddy the waters again, with some people denying that literary analysis yields truth (claims) and others accepting that point but disputing that there’s any similarity between literature-as-epistemology and religion-as-epistemology.

    BTW, Genie was back in the office from a busy travel schedule, and confirmed that she used the phrase “ways of knowing” as a simplified term for “epistemologies.” If that helps anything.

    We’ll circle back to those topics in time, I hope, but I’d like to start by focusing on literary analysis first. One quibble, though, is that literary analysis need not be restricted to “intellectually respectable inquiries from literary critics carried out by historians, literary critics, etc.” It’s also about the guy next to you on the plane reading the latest from Oprah’s Book Club.

  10. #10 Sigmund
    October 1, 2009

    “I also think you’ve misconstrued slacktivist. He does explain how he chooses between the loving God of Jonah and the angry God of other books.”
    No, I did read his piece and also his follow-up article on the same subject. Perhaps I could have worded my point better. What I mean is that he doesn’t present criteria for choosing the good God from the bible rather than the evil God other than using cherry-picking of a view that happens to confirm his current notions of a loving and forgiving creator.
    He makes it more clear in the follow up article that we is picking a view of God that is in line with Christs teachings (although he doesn’t see it fit to mention that the teachings of Christ on this matter are also fairly contradictory and that you can get justifications for a vengeful or a forgiving God in the New Testament also).
    “BTW, Genie was back in the office from a busy travel schedule, and confirmed that she used the phrase “ways of knowing” as a simplified term for “epistemologies.” If that helps anything.”
    Can we take it then that Genie believes that theistic religion is epistemically compatible with the scientific method?
    Or is theistic religion epistemically incompatible with the scientific method?
    (we don’t want to misconstrue her meaning here).

  11. #11 abb3w
    October 2, 2009

    Sigmund: Or is theistic religion epistemically incompatible with the scientific method?

    Depends on whether you’re referring to anthropological or philosophical compatibility (“epistemically” implies the latter), what form of theistic religion, what version of the scientific method you’re referring to, and what premises you have taken as ultimate primaries to get to your religion and your science.

    To draw a very fine line, even while the scientific method may be incompatible with having belief in God, it is completely compatible with having hope in God.

  12. #12 barkdog
    October 4, 2009

    This is a nice thoughtful post, but it leaves me dissatisfied. The problem with this kind of literary reasoning is that it lacks any sort of objective foundation. It is presumptuous of me to contradict so great a figure as Auerbach, but in fact I see Homeric and biblical narrative in a way that is exactly opposite to his. Biblical characters are flat (and boring!) in that they exist almost purely on an axis from obediant to disobediant. Homeric characters struggle manfully to fulfil their (mostly brutish) ambitions in a world dominated by the the caprices of petty, and very human, gods. Hector and Odysseus seem to me to be more interesting, more humn, more genuinely conflicted that Abraham or any of his ilk. Given an afternoon to fill with reading and thinking, I would choose Homer or other Greek classics over the Bible any day. All I really want to assert with this is that literature is food for thought, but does not give us knowledge.

  13. #13 Tim
    October 10, 2009

    Interesting posts in a very ambiguous field.

    I like the notion that negative capability might define the difference between good and bad scientists – a powerful imagination may well be an important attribute in theoretical science and probably also in the designing of experiments at the more strictly empirical level – but ultimately it is the ability to return, from the flights of fancy of negative capability to a more concrete possible solution, that will provide the only evidence with which we can judge the achievements of those scientists, good or bad!

    Religious truth, purporting to come from holy scriptures, does appear to have some connection with literary truth, but has created an importantly different category for itself. One may well believe that God does not exist, but it is not so easy to make God disappear from a description of religious truth!

    That said, I do think that Shakespeare, for example, is a literary figure whose body of work, constitutes something close to religious truth (and perhaps as contradictory as the Old and New Testaments – at times strikingly Christian, at times strikingly Homerian: ‘Like flies to wanton boys, are we to the Gods’) and commands a kind of religious following, complete with transcendental ‘holy rites’ (seeing/acting/re-reading the plays) and a holy order of ivory tower scribes who have already put together hundreds of thousands of pages of secondary material.

    So I welcome any attempt at approaching religious truth via literary truth (whatever that might be), even as I have my suspicions that this is just another way (albeit more gentle, more humanist, and more likely to succeed than the battle lines that come with talk of ‘scientific truth’) to erode religious belief.

  14. #14 Tim
    October 11, 2009

    I made my previous comment having stumbled across this blog. Now I’ve had time to look more closely I realise it is affiliated to the NCSE, and that the erosion of religious belief might come as a welcome side-effect of their thoughtful approach to this problem (the resistance to science education).

    Once again then, it’s great to see such a sensible, fully rounded, way of dealing with things. But I am dismayed to find (having looked at one other more polemical blog connected to this) that there is such division in the scientific community on this issue.
    I have always believed that it is the moderates who pose the greatest threat to extremism (a belief that is borne out by the venomous reaction of extremists to these ‘middle-wayers’ who actually manage to influence people’s way of thinking)

  15. #15 Josh Rosenau
    October 12, 2009

    Tim: Further reply anon, but this blog is not affiliated with NCSE, as it says clearly in the sidebar.

  16. #16 Tim
    October 13, 2009

    So it does! Feel free to delete my last message.

    You mention ‘what it feels like to be on the inside of a situation’. The multifaceted and often contradictory awareness which is the nexus of memory, sense perception and cogitation – that being alive thing. This is something that the arts can sometimes conjure up, and the result can be surprisingly rewarding/consoling (even the most resolutely po-faced of us will sometimes fall prey to the ability of certain pieces of music to achieve this). In literature, style is a key element in this artistic process, but by no means the only one.

    Science employs very different methods, and does not pretend to pursue the same goals anyway.

    The fact that religious truth is so bound up with scripture – and often quite literary scripture at that, is an important similarity between literary and religious truth (for some Christians, it is the literary quality of certain translations of the Bible, or The Book of Common Prayer, for example, that, though they might not want to say so themselves, enshrines their sense of religiosity)

    Literature might also help us to understand what religious truth is not. To return to your original question then, it seems to me that while (to quote Coleridge) literature demands the suspension of our disbelief, the full apprehension of religious truth specifically requires that we NOT merely suspend our disbelief – but believe.

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