Death and Doctrine, Part 5: The Comforts of Biblical Literalism

A couple of posts ago in this series I made the observation that in the face of death and existential terror one has a choice to make. You can either move forward into the anxiety with courage and authenticity or you can retreat from the anxiety and clutch at comforting illusions. You can either take the risk of authentic faith along with its accompanying doubts and fears, or you can choose safety and use "faith" as an existential sleeping pill.

This analysis struck me this week as I reflected on the role of biblical literalism in the minds of many Christian believers.

For example, my friend Bill sent me this blog post. It's a review of the Creation Museum that has recently opened in Cincinnati, Ohio. The reviewer is a secular author, sympathetic to Christianity but not Creationists. Regardless of the author's stance and tone (and language), if you read the review you might be struck, as I was, by just how far biblical literalists are willing to go to hold on to their reading of scripture. The point being, when I spoke above about retreating into illusions I meant that literally (no joke intended).

This observation was reinforced last week when I saw audience members struggle with Wayne Meeks' point about misusing the metaphor "The Bible says..." Recall, Meeks' point was that the Bible doesn't speak. It's a book. It doesn't have a mouth. Which means that the Bible, when spoken about, has been filtered through the mind of a human being. A human being with a gender, an age, life experiences, and an ecclesial history (to name a few things). Thus, when a person claims that "the Bible says..." what he is really asserting is what he (or his tradition) asserts to be the truth. The phrase "The Bible says..." is just an obfuscation. We are all interpreters of the Bible. It's inescapable.

But if you let that point settle in, as it did last week at the lectures, you can start to grow uneasy. Particularly if you are new to this post-modern game. If all is interpretation then how can we ever KNOW the truth? If this position is true doesn't it all just boil down to a multiplex of opinions? And if this is so, how could you ever adjudicate between good versus bad readings of Scripture?

Now I don't want to get into post-modern or post-foundationalist readings of Scripture in this post. Rather, I want to do my psychological thing. I want to analyze the reactions and feelings we have when we first encounter the post-modern critique of "the Bible says..." formulation.

What I observed that day in the audience, as Meeks' point settled in, was existential anxiety (albeit only among a few of the participants; for the majority in attendance this is old stuff). The sense was that if Meeks was right then all bets were off. All was lost. It's a free for all. The end of all things. Doomsday.

Similarly, you will have noticed if you read the Creation Museum review that this movement--the loss of literalism to nihilism--is overtly spelled out in the Museum. Specifically, if literalism goes then the next step is the complete moral disintegration of society.

Now think this through. Notice the movement:

Loss of literalism to nihilism.

That's quite a leap. Surely there can be other ways to read Scripture. Surely the entire moral destiny of humankind isn't in the balance in how we read Genesis.

But some people think so. Why?

Well, here is my diagnosis. If we give even just a wee bit on biblical literalism then we open a can of existential worms. Specifically, it opens you to the possibility of being wrong. To the possibility that maybe the Good Book is just a human creation. Now, you don't have to draw that conclusion. Most Christians don't. But if you learn to read the bible in an non-naive manner then that possibility is clearly on the horizon as a potential outcome. Who hasn't upon learning how the bible was actually written and collected wondered about its authenticity as being the Word of God? In short, to approach the bible honestly opens you up to existential dread. So, as I said above, we have a choice. We can either confront the facts on the ground with courage, or retreat into the comforting illusions of the Creation Museum.

Interestingly, the biblical literalists, deep down, know what's up. They sense the risk. They know that if you open the door a crack, just a crack, then the specter of atheism becomes a real possibility. But rather than risk atheism they seek to play it safe. To eliminate the risk entirely. But at what cost? Well, intellectual credibility and honesty. The price of existential comfort, of the risk-free faith, is credulity.

In short, biblical literalism is a security blanket. It's comforting. It lets you feel certain, eliminating all risk.

It demands conviction, and lot's off it, but very little courage.

[Post-post-script: Having spent a day with my original post title I've liked it even less. So I've changed it.]

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10 thoughts on “Death and Doctrine, Part 5: The Comforts of Biblical Literalism”

  1. I remember the first time I realized the bible had been written in not one, but multiple languages and then translated into English before I got it. It was scary, that was before I even realized all the nuances that go with translation and interpretation. My faith came out stronger on the other end, but it was troublesome for a bit.

  2. Richard,
    Great post!
    I've said the same that it takes great courage to question your beliefs. It's not for the faint of heart. I opened the door a crack and I'm not a believer anymore but it's not the doomsday scenario that was predicted. I now value what is really important in life.

    But this cowardice can be seen in dogmatic belief in general. Global warming denialists say it is just a plot to ruin our capitalistic way of life, for instance. If we admit it then we will become socialists or even worse if that's possible. (Read sarcastically)

    Learning to say "I don't know" instead of holding on to dogma might be helpful to those who don't want to go as far as I did by leaving their faith. My wife believes in God and has some interesting ways of looking at the hereafter but she says she could be wrong. No use arguing with her because she doesn't hold her beliefs to be dogma since she could very well be wrong.

    "I don't know" doesn't have to mean agnostic (even though it does literally) it could simply mean that you can allow that others have a set of experiences that lead them to draw different conclusions. Or, maybe you are wrong. Wouldn't be the first or last time and not the end of the world either.

    Rick T.

  3. Richard,

    Thank you so much for your blog. I stumbled upon earlier in the week (looking for Bonhoeffer’s “religion-less Christianity”), and found so much more. Your posts send me thinking in so many directions.

    A Unitarian Universalist mentor suggested I read the Bible with “an open heart and a critical mind.” Knowing it was OK to believe the Bible was written by real people moved me toward reading the Bible more devotionally. It is easier for me to open my heart, thinking of the people or communities who wrestled to find God in their history and experiences – people like us; communities like ours. They are like us because they were finite, culturally conditioned, and, I hope, in earnest.

    As for the slide toward decadence and decay, it may well happen, although I suspect the world is certainly no worse than it was 2000 years ago, and probably much safer for many people. The record shows that biblical literalism poses a greater danger, having been used (and is still used) to justify theological antisemitism, sexism and homophobia, which are not without practical consequences. Literalism mistakes our anxieties surrounding death and control for God’s, making the Bible into an idol.

    I have to work hard to keep my restraint; it really does make me so angry this appropriation of the Bible by the cultural right. And when I read your title “Cowardice of biblical Literalism”, I had to say to myself, “right on!” but after your reflection at the end, I had a change of heart. As you say, literalists cannot move toward more metaphorical interpretations out of fear, but cowardice carries a moral connotation, and may be unfair. I don’t think you intend this, but moral indignitation is possibly why it resonates so strongly for me.

    Anyway, thanks again. I look forward to exploring more of your blog pages, and your new posts.


  4. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    Re-reading chunks of Scripture with an eye toward myth, metaphor, and the real humans in their situations that precipitated the narratives handed down to us has been more liberating and freeing than anything I've yet to experience in the field of religion.

    I'm not saying I'm not still a coward, but there is a tremendous weight, too, that accompanies literalism and fundamentalism, and perhaps being unburdened by that will allow more courageous steps to be taken in the future...

  5. Is there any place on the journey for "resting in the Mystery", especially at the age of 74?

  6. Dear Richard, I am a newcomer to your blog, and I would like to thank you for your candor and for sharing your insight.

    I am a Biblical literalist. Like many Biblical literalists, I understand that at times the Bible speaks metaphorically (e.g. God's promise to Abram to make his decendents as numerous as the stars or the sands on the sea shore), and at times it speaks literally. As a literalist, I assume that the passages are literal and resort to metaphor only where some empirical evidence (such as the emprical fact that Abram's descendents could not possibly be as numerous as the sands of the sea) demands it. Using this methodology, I have found that I can be a Biblical literalist without sacrificing my intellectual integrity.

    Now, with regard to Creation, as a literalist, I also believe that the Universe and everything in it was created by God through his spoken word. I also believe that a literal reading of the Genesis account does not necessarily demand that He did so in seven literal days. (In fact, there are a number of places in the Genesis account where we can insert "billions of years" if the empirical facts demand it.) I also find that Naturalism (defined here to include all philosophies holding that the Universe and everything in it derived solely through natural processes) has not adequately explained the origins of the Universe to justify the conclusion that the Genesis account is a metaphor.

    It may be that, by holding to that view, I sacrifice some "intellectual credibility" in the eyes of some, but I would suggest that it takes more "courage" to stand up and insist that the Naturalists answer the obvious questions (e.g. Where did original matter and energy come from? How did the first life form evolve? How did the incredible order of the universe evolve from chaos?) than it does to blindly accept the word of the men in lab coats.

  7. Ricard,

    I liked the original post. Why the need to tone it down?
    BTW, It does take courage to look at cherished beliefs with a critical eye but having done that it doesn't take courage to believe the conclusions that science reaches on a subject. The reason is that science is a method of observation and study that has checks and balances. It is not a reigion and requires no commitment of faith. If by experimentation or observation or testing one draws a conclusion be assured that others will try to duplicate your work and correct you if you are mistaken. No faith is required.
    As a non-scientist, the only thing resembling faith that I hold is the knowlegde that, in time, errors or mistaken conclusions in science will be corrected so I can feel comfortable that there is no cabal of evil scientists leading us to hell.
    The Good Book, however, is full of errors and contradictions that never get addressed by most Christians. Did you know that the Old Testament was written in the 6th century B,C.? Don't you think it likely that the creation storys (and there are 2 of them) would reflect the myths of the day rather than ultimate truth? Only one who has courage can look at it objectively. Richard, you are doing a great service to those who need to consider the ramifications of unchallenged beliefs due to cowardice.
    I think cowardice is important to mention because literalists don't care about any fallout from their beliefs as long as they feel comforted by them. They got their good feelings, so screw the rest of us. We can all go to hell, literally, if we see the foolishness of their beliefs. Don't believe "what the
    bible says", go to hell.
    Pi=3, go to hell. Earth is flat, go to hell. Blacks are cursed by God and therefore fit to be slaves, go to hell. Women need to shut up and obey there husbands, go to hell.
    This comment is getting too long but you get my point. We are allowed to use our head for something other than a hat rack (or to cover our shame as the Bible says). Use it to think critically with, don't be an intellectual coward and instead display the courage needed to recognize merde de cheval when you see it. End rant.
    Rick T.

  8. Hi Rick,
    I changed for two reasons (and, I might add, I'm waffling still on this). First, I know a lot of people, good people, who are biblical literalists. And I felt bad about applying the word "cowardice" to them. I have no problem, no problem at all, applying the word to the worst abuses of biblical literalism (think of the ragings of the far Christian Right). But I was feeling badly about painting with too broad a brush using a very harsh term. (And only the title is changed. The post is exactly as it was.)

    Second, I'd like to not just rage against literalism. I'd like to persuade people to take some risks, to become more circumspect. And to do that I thought a change in title be less off-putting.

    Hi Ross,
    It does take courage to face down modern science. No doubt.

    To clarify, the "courage" I am speaking about in this post is existential courage. The courage to put your faith at risk. It's not a social courage, its the courage of the dark night of the soul. That is, when a literalist squares off against science they are risking social prestige. But faith isn't at risk. The literalist knows they are right and science is wrong. It is a social courage supported by internal certainty. My post is trying to investigate why the person won't allow their faith to be critiqued. Why not LISTEN to conversation partners? My analysis: Because it's too fearful a prospect. One might "lose" their faith. Thus, rather then enter into conversation the person walls off faith to "protect" it. But I guess my question is: Why does it need protecting?

  9. Richard,

    I'm grateful that you took Alan's advice and altered your title. (Though the picture of Bert Lahr as the cowardly lion might remind us that even cowards are loveable but struggling to be brave.)

    For what it's worth, here's my> take on Biblical "literalism." Repeat my take. As I see it, those who claim it are working from an agenda that is largely self-protective. You may recall that I mentioned to you a while back that I no longer use the old Freudian term "defense mechanism" because of its negative and moralizing connotation. Instead, I use the phrase "habits of self-protection" because it is more descriptive. And we all have such habits--not simply and only biblical "literalists." The question is: do these habits cause harm to others and erect barriers where none need be erected.

    Such habits affect how each of us reads. My six year-old grandaughter and I were having lunch together on Thursday. She told me that she had read about Eve and the serpent in the garden. "Opa, that talking snake is weird and sneaky. Who taught it to talk? The snakes in the snake garden at the zoo don't talk. Does somebody try to teach them? Has a snake ever talked to you? What did it say?"

    Well, I had to catch my breath. I then replied: "Yes, that snake is weird and sneaky. [I should have gone no farther but I opened my mouth and said. . .] And yes, a snake has talked to me and it was weird and sneaky." I hoped that was enough and so I waited. Then she repeated, "Opa, what did it say?"

    Ooops. Now what to say to my dear granddaughter, Aubrey? Talk about deconstruction. Just answering that one question--never mind the others she asked--put me in a dilemma. If I told her that, well, that no "real" snake had ever talked to me, I would become her lying, disappointing Opa. I certainly didn't want that. So I told her the "literal/non-literal" truth: "The snake told me to do something stupid or wrong or that would hurt somebody. I did my best not to listen. Sometimes I listened anyway." She must have seen something in my facial expression because she gave me a big hug and said: "Listening to the snake made you sad. I don't want you to be sad." And with a smile, went back to her lunch and on to other things.

    All us cowardly lion's are invited to God's table, even those currently buzzing and boring atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens, where mystery and love commune.


    George C.

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