Sunday, July 6, 2008

Blogalogue with Mike from Emergent Faith

Mike has graciously accepted my invitation to a blogalogue and has even taken the initiative to make the first post.
I've been invited to a debate about the value of faith by JT Eberhard (an opponent of faith). We will see where this goes, but I think the first step would be to define my understanding of faith. I'll be drawing heavily on Marcus Borg's description of faith found in his book “The Heart of Christianity”. It may be the most helpful description that I've ever read. Confusion about how to translate the Greek word “Pistos” or “Pistis” may be the root of most problems in understanding faith. Much like the word “love”, there are many different uses for the word “faith”. When we are careless with these translations we end up creating a great deal of confusion.

Faith as Assensus

This is faith as belief or intellectual certainty. Faith as belief means attempting to claim certainty that a propositional statement is true in the absence of conclusive evidence. This is the most common modern use of the word faith found in religions (think of “blind faith” or “faith like a child”). Christians frequently use this meaning of faith to describe their certainty that the stories found in the Bible are historically accurate (that the literally happened). The more certain they are about the historicity of a story, the more they feel they can claim that they have faith. It often means believing something that is “hard to believe” and again, the more difficult or impossible the idea is to believe, the more faith the person can claim they have. This type of faith is little more than a delusion. It resembles the behaviors of a cult (it probably is). If this were the only possible meaning of faith, then I'd probably be the first one to throw faith out the window.

This faith as belief has a long history of division and destruction. In many fundamentalist religions it is used as a litmus test for membership. This is the faith found in creeds. It may include a belief that a particular definition of God is correct (orthodox) or it may go further by including such hard to believe items as a virgin birth, miraculous events, resurrections, and a literal physical afterlife. Regardless of the length of the list of requirements, I don't think it is ever helpful. I see no need to believe something is true if it can't be supported by evidence. Opponents of religion often make the same mistake as fundamentalists by misunderstanding the purpose of a religious (mythical) story. The purpose of a myth is never primarily about transmitting historical facts. Proving that the story is a myth, merely states the obvious and ignores the fact that myths are meant to transmit meaning not facts. My definition of faith does not include this type of shallow faith as belief.

Faith as Feducia

The closest English word is “fiduciary”, but that isn't a good translation. The best translation might be “trust”. Faith as trust does not mean to trust a set of propositions without evidence (that would simply take us back to the idea of “assensus”). Soren Kiekegaard said that this type of faith as trust is like floating in a deep ocean. If you struggle, if you tense up and thrash about, you will eventually sink. But if you relax and trust, you will float. We trust because we have reasonable evidence. I trust I will wake up alive tomorrow because I have reasonable evidence that suggests I will. This type of faith is not afraid of scientific scrutiny. In fact, it has a thirst for evidence. The more evidence we have the more we can trust. Not because we hope the water hold us up, but because we trust our understanding of buoyancy. The opposite of this kind of faith is anxiety or worry. Without any faith as trust, we would go crazy with anxiety. As a Christian, I have developed faith (as trust) that the deep truths about life found in the Christian stories will hold me up (make me better). These truths include ideas about love, justice, non-violent protest, and the power of forgiveness as opposed to violence, oppression and revenge. This is not a blind trust in the historical accuracy of our sacred myths, but it is a trust in the ability of their deeper meanings to make positive changes in lives throughout the world. This is not a trust without evidence. It is a recognition of many repeatable tests I've observed myself and that have also been recorded throughout history in many cultures and echoed in many different religious stories.

Faith as Fidelatis

Fidelity or faithfulness is concerned with a commitment to something or someone. Being faithful to my wife means I do more than just say I love her. I act on that love. To be faithful to a set of stories means that I don't simply read the stories and forget about them. Faithfulness means I actually seek to apply their meanings to my own life. Often, fundamentalists focus narrowly on fidelity as the opposite of infidelity. When they do this, they imply that in order to live out the truths of this set of stories, they must avoid, deny, renounce, and disprove all other stories. That is not what I wish to convey with faithfulness. For example, I love my wife, but in order to love her I do not have to prove all other women (or men) in the world are unlovable. Other people may be just as or more lovable, beautiful, or desirable (even though my wife may not want me to publicly state that fact). I can be faithful to my country without claiming everything in Europe is worthless or evil. In the same way, fidelity to the Christian stories does not mean I can't read other stories and find truth within those stories. Fidelity should not become a paranoid nationalism or religious bigotry (though it often does). I'm most faithful to the Christian story when I liberally apply its truths about love, justice, and forgiveness in my life. Christian faithfulness is following through on our declaration by living out our commitment to this way of life.

Faith as Visio

Faith as vision is a way of seeing the big picture. I'm not talking about some kind of hope in a supernatural afterlife. I'm talking about seeing the long term results of our actions. The opposite of faith as vision would be shortsightedness or a kind of blindness to reason and logic. A person who lacks faith as vision would only be concerned with the immediate results of their actions. Impulsive revenge is a result of lacking clear vision. A person with vision could look past their first impulsive reactions and think logically about the action that will yield the best long term results. Christian faith as vision is enhanced by our stories. Stories that fill our vision with the values of love, justice, and forgiveness are helpful in developing a healthy hopeful vision for life. This type of faith as vision is the inspiration behind the many Biblical uses of light as a metaphor for improved or restored vision. Our many stories about causing the blind to see are symbolic references to the power of faith as vision. Faith becomes a vehicle for improved vision (by your faith you are healed).

Why do I have faith?

I trust that by adding the deep meanings of the Christian stories to my own vision, I can faithfully apply these ideas to my life and in some small way it might make the world a better place.

My response:


Thanks for taking the initiative to open! Usually there’s a bit of squabbling there, so kudos to you for seizing the reins and running. Also, good idea to begin by defining our terms – in a discussion about whether or not faith is beneficial, it’s probably a pretty sound notion to make sure we agree on what we mean when we use the word.

I think we can both agree (an agreement in a blogalogue on faith, you say? Strange…) that the first definition you give, faith as Assensus, meaning faith in a proposition with no evidence, is not a desirable quality. A walk down the halls of an asylum could solidify that point. However, while we can easily rule it out as a means of discerning truth, if we are talking about whether or not “faith” is beneficial to hold, we cannot rule it out. Perhaps somebody has this type of faith that they are Mother Theresa and are out to help the impoverished? Any belief can be beneficial, so I feel as though we need to tackle it from another angle.

Since any belief (no matter how preposterous) can be used to adduce beneficial results, let’s focus on what produces malignant results – specifically, what causes good people to do bad things. We can likely agree that most people have good intentions when they act, which works well for humanity. The problem is that our beliefs are the gatekeepers of our actions, which is why I think every human being has a responsibility to hold good reasons for what they believe. This is the concept of our Epistemological Accountability, and it will be the basis for my entire response.

To illustrate this idea, consider the following scenario: you believe that the town in which you live is infested with zombies. If this supposition is true, then the right and good thing to do would be to grab the shotgun Hollywood-style, lock and load, and go to town on the advancing horde. If you were right, and they were zombies, you would rightly be canonized as a hero, with a big bronze statue constructed in your honor.

On the other hand, if you were wrong, and they weren’t zombies, you’ve just joined the ranks of some of the worst human beings to ever live. Because you did not have good reasons for what you believe, you rushed in to do something monstrous. As they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The real life examples of how faith, encouraging people to hold poor reasons for what they believe, caused good people to engage in detrimental behavior, are everywhere. Aside from a dogmatic disinterest in truth, this may be the most relevant reason that faith by Assensus should be strongly criticized: its ability to cause people with good intentions to do horrific things. I’ll await confirmation from you on whether or not you find this reason for rejecting faith by Assensus to be logical, but if not for this reason then for a litany of others, rejection of this type of intellectual bankruptcy is a point we both endorse.

One of the problems with your argument is that it fails to note just how many Christians (and truly, followers of virtually every other faith) do view faith in this way. Heck, 25% of this country thought Jesus would literally return in 2007 (46% found it "somewhat likely"), and 66% believe firmly in the truth of some type of scripture. We can see the evidence that people view faith this way all around us: what are the odds that Muslims would be drilling holes into each others heads at this very moment on the streets of Baghdad, or that such a large opposition to the rights of normal people in this country would be occurring even in the 21st century without the “benefit” of this type of faith running rampant?

For the rest of the definitions you give, they seem to be variations on faith as a positive attitude in the face of uncertainty which, being a bit of an optimist, I can completely get behind. The thing is, I do not believe that religious faith, even in the metaphoric sense you’re defending, resides entirely in this camp. As I said above, I do not think the truth claims Christianity makes can be uncoupled from faith as Assensus. After all, what separates your claim of:

"I trust that by adding the deep meanings of the Christian stories to my own vision, I can faithfully apply these ideas to my life and in some small way it might make the world a better place."

…from the claim of a theistic Buddhist:

"I trust that by adding the deep meanings of the Buddhist stories to my own vision, I can faithfully apply these ideas to my life and in some small way it might make the world a better place."

…or a Muslim:

"I trust that by adding the deep meanings of the Islamic stories to my own vision, I can faithfully apply these ideas to my life and in some small way it might make the world a better place."

If there is no credible difference, then how is your trust in these metaphors not, at least in part, a bit of faith from Assensus? Or would you be just as happy picking and choosing stories out of the Koran? If you concede that they are all simply stories from which you can scrape out a few morsels of wisdom from amongst the piles of inhumanity (Kill people for working on Saturday? Martyrdom is a good idea? I can keep slaves? I should keep slaves? Etc.), what do you need them for?

If all we need are reasonable, good ideas in order to make the judgments on the best means to make the world a better place, why do we need stories dragging such long tails of metaphysical debris, that very frequently influence the minds of the more credulous to perform some of the most dispassionate acts imaginable? As Sam Harris puts it, your type of faith seems to give us bad reasons to be good when good reasons are perfectly available.

If we want to be good, we have an obligation to be interested in what is true, lest our good intentions become perverted. I do not feel you are advocating anything like that. Instead, you are advancing a position that we should be alright with people merely relaxing their dependence on superstition but not discarding it entirely (if I have misrepresented you here, please let me know in your next post). While this is certainly better than a full-blown disdain for reason in lieu of believing outrageous claims to truth with no evidence, it is by no means a solution – in fact, by lending even quiet support to this book, which claims to be true throughout, it seems we are perpetuating the problem of the vast number of people who view faith as a claim to literal truth.

Phew, sorry, I get a little long-winded. Here is a summation of my argument for you to pick apart as you choose:

1. If we want to do good, as most of us do, we have an obligation to have good reasons for what we believe – otherwise, we could wind up doing some very terrible things.

2. Even as a metaphor, you are still subscribing to truth claims, otherwise there is no reason to hold them. In doing so, you seem to be betraying faith and reason equally.

2a. If you are not grafting any sense of truth onto the stories you allow to influence your life, are you merely an atheist/agnostic who finds wealth in the positive metaphors in the bible? If so, how can you call that faith when you know the stories are false and when you know that simple reason can adduce which actions will create more happiness or alleviate more suffering in the world?

3. Ultimately, the argument that faith has the power to produce positive behavior can be applied to any belief (no matter how wacky), but that argument ignores bad beliefs' additional power to cause harmful behavior (from good people). For this reason, the argument about whether faith is beneficial or not must address the malicious side (not in an individual, but in a society).

4. In accordance with #3, the discussion about whether faith is good for the world cannot be separated from the discussion about whether or not a particular faith is actually true.

Sorry it got so long, and I look forward to hearing from you again in the next few days. Thanks again for taking the time to do this – I hope we can both come away having learned something new.



Mike's response:


First, we should probably both note that it is common for new acquaintances to make some prejudgments and tend toward arguing against straw man positions. Let’s do our best to get past that. Maybe it is old hat for you to argue against the traditional Christian position, but that isn’t my position. I don’t have an argument against your criticism of “belief". I agree with you that belief without evidence is a road to bad decisions. You did make some other claims that I can address but to be honest, you’re barking up the wrong tree in your critique of beliefs.

Sam Harris does have a point that progressive Christians might share the blame for fundamentalist behavior. We run the risk of being guilty by association if we don’t stand up and call a spade a spade. However, I have no intention of standing by. I don’t advocate any actions based on speculation without evidence. I don’t ask anyone to trust the truths of a story if those truths don’t produce repeatable trustworthy results. I don’t advocate adopting the truth of a story on “blind faith”. You correctly made the connection that this faith without belief would invalidate any claims of one particular set of metaphorical stories as superior to all others. I agree. Actually, that is the very point I wish to make. I’ll gladly support the FSM (flying spaghetti monster) if someone develops a story around that character that could inspire, motivate, and improve society by pulling them into the discussion about what changes the world needs. I won’t claim the FSM is a real physical thing, but I’ll support the story’s artistic power to improve lives if it does prove to do that with any reasonable amount of success. Neither would I support a fundamentalist assertion that we should follow the teachings of a mythical FSM merely because the story says we should. The story must be true. Not true in its facts, but true in that its truths must work. If the story makes the case that a particular character trait, ethic, or social value is valuable, we must be able to test it and see supporting evidence.

I think you may be doing what fundamentalist Christians often do by assuming the only value of these sacred stories is located in their ability to document historical facts. You also run the risk of guilt by association if you feed the fundamentalists obsession with looking for a story's truth in the story's historical accuracy. You may be falling into the same illogical trap and therefore supporting their cause and fueling their passion to focus on the accuracy of the story. You are reinforcing their mistake of looking for truth in the wrong place. You keep saying “… but if the story isn’t true…” What you are doing is similar to suggesting a painting is not valuable unless it is an exact portrait of a real person, place, or thing. It sounds as if you're suggesting that if the Mona Lisa wasn’t a real person and if that smile was not an exact replica of an actual moment, then the painting should be devalued (or destroyed).

On another level, these stories go beyond lessons about life. They mean to invoke questions. They illicit our best reasoning skills and suggest that we seek a logical response to the tragically flawed characters and their often illogical decisions. Nobody should not be taught blind adherence to the mistakes these characters make. The stories should illicit anger in many cases (even anger at their often illogical God). These stories present ancient opinions about the world and ask for our criticism. The real truths found in the Bible are not what we find in its printed words. Like any piece of art, the truth and beauty of art is what happens inside you when you wrestle with the questions it invokes. Art pokes at truth but rarely states it in plain language. It inspires us to make the discovery for ourselves. Sometimes art does this by showing us something very wrong or even overtly false to shake us into a posture of thinking. Your critique of religion sounds much like the criticism of those who wish to censor certain music and art because they’re scared people may only see the surface level profanity rather than looking for its deeper truth about the ills or beauty of life. Logic and reason provided a firm grounding for promoting civil rights, but a religious man was able to gain support for the cause by invoking artistic religious expressions - "I have a dream...". Poetic prophetic inspiration is what religion is all about. Unfortunately, fundamentalists miss the point of the poetry and try to take the metaphors literally while ignoring the reasonable meanings.

I see all these stories as metaphorical - sometimes helpful and sometimes harmful (depending on whose reading). I have no support for the horrors of Christianity. If Christianity can’t be purged of its silly superstitions that result in horrible actions then it should die a quick death. The truth is that many (but not all) of these issues have been purged from Christianity. We should continue to purge them in the same we we should continue to purge our government of corruption. We don't throw away all hopes for a good government simply because of the current problems with the one we have. I’ll join you in that battle to make changes. However, I don’t think progressive Christianity has had a fair reading yet. I don’t think the idea of Christianity without belief has seen the light of day for more than only a few people. Zen Buddhism, for example, has had a better reading. It is evidence that we can uncouple faith from belief. Christianity should learn from the more modern strains of Buddhism.

To directly answer your points...

JT point #1 - If we want to do good, as most of us do, we have an obligation to have good reasons for what we believe – otherwise, we could wind up doing some very terrible things.

Will everyone listen to logic or reason without a provocative piece of art (or literature) to inspire them to start asking questions? Are you so sure that art cannot contribute in this way? I’m not so sure. I agree that logic and reason should rule the day and they should be the ultimate guardian of our behavior. But what will provoke the questions? Art and music has a history of bringing issues to light in society. I think artistic creative literature such as the Bible can serve this purpose.

JT point #2 - Even as a metaphor, you are still subscribing to truth claims, otherwise there is no reason to hold them. In doing so, you seem to be betraying faith and reason equally. 2a. If you are not grafting any sense of truth onto the stories you allow to influence your life, are you merely an atheist/agnostic who finds wealth in the positive metaphors in the bible? If so, how can you call that faith when you know the stories are false and when you know that simple reason can adduce which actions will create more happiness or alleviate more suffering in the world?

You may be assuming that I think religion takes us where logic could not. I'm not suggesting that. Religious stories need logical deduction or they lead us nowhere. Can you arrive there without the stories? Maybe. I didn't but I wouldn't rule out another persons path to the correct conclusions. I'm suggesting faith motivates many to look for logical solutions. It gives us a puzzle and says "go work out a solution". Good religion doesn't give any specific solutions. Bad religion gives rigid formulas for solutions, and limits our ability to apply the truths to each situation in a logical method. If the Bible (or any sacred text) gives us a truth proposition, then it should be tested and proven before we follow it. If it doesn’t yield testable repeatable results, then it is not really “truth”. You suggest I may be "merely an atheist/agnostic". Was that a knock on your own views? Why did you put the word "merely"? In many ways I am an atheist/agnostic. I’m certainly not a strict theist. I don’t glean any “facts” from these stories. They are all fiction in my opinion. But “fiction” isn’t the same as “false”. A false story is one that intends to be untrue in its facts. These stories are not false if they were crafted by people who never meant them to be taken literally. It isn’t the fault of the stories that they were placed in the wrong section of the library. This is something we can correct.

JT point 3 & 4. - Ultimately, the argument that faith has the power to produce positive behavior can be applied to any belief (no matter how wacky), but that argument ignores bad beliefs' additional power to cause harmful behavior (from good people). For this reason, the argument about whether faith is beneficial or not must address the malicious side (not in an individual, but in a society). (4). In accordance with #3, the discussion about whether faith is good for the world cannot be separated from the discussion about whether or not a particular faith is actually true.

I agree that the bad results of religion (no matter their good intention) should be on trial in public opinion. Those malicious interpretations and resulting behaviors should be brought to light and prosecuted. Again, you really are offer critique of shallow “superstitious belief” not the more robust definitions of faith that I provided. You will need to take that argument up with someone else since we both agree on that point. You continue to assume that “truth” means historically factual. You’ve confused faith with something that can either be true or false. Instead, faith is something you do or don't do.

JT, Please respond in any way you like, but I hope you will answer this one question as part of your response.

In your opinion, is George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” a true story?

Thanks for the dialog! This process has already been helpful.


My response:

This is the first blogalogue I've had on the subject where my opponent and I can't seem to disagree on anything major. For instance, we can converge on the fact that belief in things on bad reasons (or no reasons, or in spite of evidence against it) is dangerous and to be both criticized and avoided. We also agree that a majority of the stories in the bible are likely false. As far as I can tell, we're off to a good start. :D While we're quibbling over definitions, I think we'll tie that down here in a post or two.

Your argument, as I am growing to understand it, seems to be that we can evince a few positive lessons from the bible, itself an ancient book that is teeming with inhumanity throughout most of it. I cannot argue against that proposition. What I can argue for are more productive means of getting to knowledge that are both more honest and less dangerous.

You appear to be equating biblical stories, as well as stories of other religions, with Grimm's fairy tales and stories like Rumpelstiltskin. I'm not sure that we could honestly call gleaning the moral concept that we should not steal from reading Goldilocks and the Three Bears "faith", especially when there are infinitely better reasons not to steal than the lesson learned from a story. Perhaps when you are a child, this is the best we can do (I don't think it is, but it's feasible), but I am certain that adults can do better.

There are plenty of moral lessons to be found in faerie tales such as Goldilocks, which almost always succeed in painting the bad guys, the ones engaging in flagrantly immoral activity, as models of what to avoid in your actual life (nobody wants to be Goldilocks, that's the whole point). However, most of our holy books (including the bible), having originated in a time when appalling inhumanity was often the norm, fail at this in the most excessive way. Consider Abraham's passing of the test of faith in Genesis: the fact that he was willing to murder his progeny is held up to us as an example, a metaphor if you will, for what is good. The same can be said of the doubting Thomas and his admonishment that it is a good thing to believe without seeing. This is the very thing we agree is to be most stridently avoided.

I'm not sure if people will get to a state of morality or not without art (another place we agree is that without logic, the stories have no impact, and logic works independent of them - so it's an interesting question whether or not we need such tales to get to logical moral conclusions), but even if I conceded that we couldn't, there's plenty of art to choose from which fully admits to being art or story. You could literally walk into a library blind-folded and, on your first attempt, find a book that is honest in its assessment of itself and its goals, that has a well-spring more to say about leading a sensible life than almost any religious text, including the bible. And still, reading such a book and acquiring its lessons could not truly be considered "faith", but rather reason (or even common sense). You must admit, that if Da Vinci were trying to convince us that the Mona Lisa was a photograph, it would be a terrible photograph indeed.

To your question: do I think Animal Farm is a true story.

No, I do not. It never happened. It is clearly a fictional story, and if it had claims to being factual littered throughout (including threats for not believing it to be true), I would rightly consider Orwell to be mad. As it lacks either of those things, I consider it to be a far wiser (and honest) lesson on morality than the bible. Are there positive lessons to be taken from it? Absolutely. There are also splendid examples of negative behavior that it urges me to avoid - and it implies them to be so, unlike the bible. I'm unsure how acknowledging this is a matter of faith.

Here's what it boils down to, and this is in agreement with what you said earlier about how such stories are powerless without a logical message: when I read Animal Farm, 1984, or The Ugly Duckling, it is me who makes the moral judgment call. The same is true with the bible (again, this argument comes from Sam Harris). When we read in Matthew to do unto others as we would have done to us (although, this was really the doctrine of Lao Tsze 550 years earlier), it is we who decide that this is a keeper as a moral precept. Conversely, when we read the story of Abraham and Isaiah, or of the doubting Thomas, or that we should execute people for breaking the Sabbath, it is also our own logic (and hopefully empathy) that lead us to conclude that these are wretchedly immoral ideas. If our own moral judgment is paramount, why do we need such stories in our adulthoods?

Also, because Animal Farm purports to be what it is, a work of fiction, we are not plagued by a vast majority of our population acting as though Animal Farm were a legitimate project upon which to base their entire lives, encouraging them to abandon the same sense of reason that both you and I agree we need in order to avoid becoming potentially dangerous from our beliefs.

So, let me conclude as I began, with some areas in which we agree:

1. We have an obligation to have good reasons for what we believe.

Faith as Assensus fails in this, so we both reject it and criticize people who adopt faith in this fashion. It is also inarguably true that virtually all people who have faith, have faith in this fashion (I provided links for why this is true in my last post). While I'm glad you are not persuaded by this type of belief, we are discussing what is best for society, not the individual.

2. Most of the bible stories are not true.

The kicker is that they claim to be, which gets people to Faith as Assensus. Additionally, if taking the few good moral lessons from them is tantamount to doing the same with admittedly false stories, such as Goldilocks, is reading Goldilocks a matter of faith? Also, would it not make more sense to cast aside books making false claims to truth, in order to avoid the very dangerous Faith as Assensus, and instead to advocate other wiser and more honest moral metaphors if, in fact, we do need art to get to morality (don't get me wrong, I'm a Music major, so hooray art!)? It seems this would also remove the need for ambiguous words like "faith."

And, since it seems to be in-keeping with both our idioms, I'll throw you a question for your next post: Is taking a lesson from the fictional stories in the bible any different from taking a lesson from the afterthought of an episode of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? If not, are they both a matter of faith?

I've honestly never been approached with an argument like the one you're making, so this is adding to my knowledge bank as well. Additionally, you are pleasant and informed. As a result, I'm enjoying this as well. Can't wait to hear back.



Mike's response:


I have to say this has helped me think about how I discuss faith. We’ve mostly agreed on the mythical nature of sacred texts and the need to interpret them through the lens of ancient writers without adopting their ancient superstitions. We also agree on the need for sound reason to rule our ethical choices. I actually disagree with your choice to label the stories “false” without further nuance. In other words, it is reasonable to suggest certain interpretations of the stories are “false” when fundamentalists claim the stories are factual. However, to label the story as false implies that you’ve judged the author’s intent to be something other than a symbolic interpretation of history. Maybe this is a bit of self-discovery about my own argument and common reactions to it. I find it interesting that you have the same basic reaction to my position as fundamentalist Christians. You each assume the story is true or false based on its surface level meaning. That does make it a form of fiction, but it doesn’t make it false. To say a story is false implies that it has no truth on any level. Can you really say that? You may consider a more nuanced accusation or else your position is shallow and you’ll loose your audience quick. I could see where the dialog could go sideways if we were actually more ideologically opposed or more emotionally reactive debaters. Wouldn't it be odd to walk into a book store and see books categorized as "true" and "false". There is a reason we don't use those terms when talking about books.

For example, what if we could go back in time and ask George Orwell “What is the book Animal Farm about?" I can think of two possible answers and neither answer would include a farm or talking pigs. One possible answer might be that the story is about Communist Russia, the ideals of Karl Marx, and the consequences of those ideas gone bad in the hands of Trotsky, Lenin and Stalin. Those are real historic people and events. If animal farm is about those events, then isn’t it a true story? Didn’t those things literally happen? The second answer I could imagine from Orwell would be that his story was about how power often (maybe always) corrupts people no matter their original intentions. Again, I think that answer also would mean this a true story. I don’t see many other options for Orwell (unless I completely missed the intention of the story). I imagine that if we told Orwell that we thought his story was poppycock or lies because pigs do not ever talk, he would laugh at us and wonder if we ever got past the 3rd grade. Therefore, I think that Animal Farm is a true story. I don’t think it is even about talking pigs. The intended message of the author is true. Trotsky, Lenin, and Stalin are real people and they existed. Power does often do the things Orwell suggests. Those events which Orwell described did in fact happen, but instead of a flat dull historical reading, Orwell dared to capture the facts in a mythical epic story. If he had taken the logical historical approach, then I doubt we would have ever known the name George Orwell. Do you remember the author of your last history book? This is the basic difference between communicating truth in art and communicating truth in science. Nietzsche talked at great length about the power and beauty in Art. He even borrowed the idea of communicating his own truths trough parabolic stories. He didn’t claim God is dead, but he had one of his characters do it for him. It’s up to the reader to interpret what he might have meant and why he didn’t simply say it himself in plain logical language.

So why did Orwell do this? Why didn’t he just make a logical argument against corruption? Why not simply give us the bare details and let us decide how to react? I think he did this because artists (like yourself?) realize that art moves people to deeply see and hear an idea in a more profound way. It isn’t enough to transmit facts. The big logical decisions in the world often need to be personalized, even personified by art to take hold. They need to become “meaning” if they are going to shake the world. I loved Orwell’s book and I spent more time researching the facts about Karl Marx’s important ideas (both good and bad) and his misguided followers because of that book. I’m not sure I’d have been so interested if it had not been for that story. This is not a “false” story even though it uses fiction to express its truths about history and about life. Even hard line atheists in the soviet union realized this. They needed to create a social narrative (a myth) to do more than merely implement their logical goals to spread communism. They had to get people to buy into the idea. So, they invented the inspirational myth of “Mother Russia”. A symbolic representation ingrained in that society. These symbolic expressions helped create identity and solidarity and they are powerful tools. So when it comes to bringing truths to the attention of the public, I don’t think we, as adults, can do better than art. I think we need creative storytelling to make the social changes that both you and I probably agree on. Each of those symbols should be evaluated, but do you really mean to make the argument that symbolic art and narratives are ineffective carriers of truth?

It seems that our main difference lies in your assumption that artistic symbolic expressions of ideas (and even artistic expressions of history) are either invalid or at a minimum, they are grossly inefficient at transmitting meaning. The case you present sounds like someone who is opposed to symbolic art as a valid way to transmit meaning and even change the world. I find that hard to reconcile now that I know you are yourself an artist. Art does have its problems. It isn’t always logical. Along with the message of the artist, art brings with it the flaws of the artist. Art is truth told through the eyes of an artist. It requires us to look at the world from a different perspective. That isn’t always a perfect delivery system. Most art lovers appreciate those flaws. In fact, it is often the artist’s flaws that make the art so unique and valuable. Is the Bible flawed? Absolutely! But like a true lover of art, we should not be so naive as to only take a quick glance. We should dive in and see what it tells us about the artists. I have faith in the Bible in the same way that I have faith that Orwell’s book can teach people about the evils of power (not about talking pigs). The reason I don’t create any religious notions about Orwell’s book is because his book is very limited and it doesn’t really address my needs. The Bible however, does address me. It is about life, community, friendship, protest, and just about everything else. The Bible is true because it truthfully represents the perspectives of its various artists and their communities (even when those communities had bad ideas).

Now, on to the “true” story of Abraham…

If we see this story as art we don’t ask “did this happen”. Instead, we would say “why did the author write it this way?” and “what is the author (artist) trying to tell us about his life and his community?”

I think this story about Abraham tells us about the birth of a nation. It tells us that the fathers of Israel, represented by the character Abraham (which actually means father), was barely surviving their nomadic life in the desert. Through trials and struggles they survived to produce a nation. Like the birth of our nation, they had to be willing to commit (sacrifice) the lives of their children to the notion of building and securing this new community (in wars, famine, and difficult circumstances). This is not a horrible story about God’s test. It is not really a story about a father willing to kill his son any more than Orwell’s story was really about talking pigs. For Israel, somehow these sons were spared (so they figured they must have been blessed by God). These “fathers” were no more horrible than the fathers of American soldiers are when they sacrifice their sons for the benefit (even the birth) of a nation. (I have to interject here that I do not personally support war and violence, but that is another subject). These people always write victory in war as “God’s will”. In the same way, they write destruction and defeat as God’s will too. Abraham’s story is not a story about morals. It is a mythical telling of real history about the birth and survival of a community. Do we assume that George Orwell supported violence since his main characters committed horrible acts? No, we realize that he is using myth to portray history and that history was ugly. He embellishes and changes the time line for dramatic effect, uses symbolic characters, and yet we all really know what he is writing about. If someone started worshiping these talking pigs and claiming this was a factual story, we shouldn’t respond by destroying or belittling Orwell’s art. I have no problem condemning atrocities committed in the name of the Bible, but we can’t blame the stories or throw them out.

I completely agree with you that Christianity has skewed the story. I agree that this has created centuries of bad decisions. However, the blame lies with the readers who don’t understand symbolic language. They arrived at this conclusion by making the same mistake that you are making. They assumed that the story can only be read at face value. Do you see the connection? I also recognize why this is not clear for many people today. I understand why you (and fundamentalist religions) have read the stories so literally. The biggest reason is because the Bible is not a single book. It is a collection of stories. The bible does not anywhere claim that these stories are non-fiction. It does not claim that we must believe it to be non-fiction. It does say we should have faith in it, but as I’ve suggested, having faith in the truths of a story does not mean we should take its myths literally.

So when you say “We also agree that a majority of the stories in the bible are likely false” that isn’t true. I don’t agree that these stories are false. I won’t use that word for these texts. I also hear in your argument that you assume other myths tell us they are fiction. Really? I guess I missed that line in Goldilocks, Little Red Ridding hood, and King Arthur. Does Da Vinci add a disclaimer on the back of his painting that says the Mona Lisa is not a photograph, or do we rely on our reasoning skills to interpret this piece of art for what it is? It is no more valid to make the unnuanced claim that the stories are false than it is to claim they are factual. Both of those positions lack sophistication and knowledge about the ancient tradition of mythic artistic expression.


- Mike

And mine:

First, I apologize that this has taken so long. Being busy for the lose...

We still seem to be quibbling over definitions. It seems that you are arguing over something that is analytically true while I am treating the concept of truth synthetically, the way almost every believer in our various religions does (See Analytic-Synthetic distinctions).

So, I'll need you to do me a favor. I'm going to provide you with a few scenarios, and I'll ask you to tell me in your next post which ones you would consider faith. If you could also explain on what ground you make the distinction, that'd be most excellent.

1. A person reads the bible and concludes that it is true in its entirety, that Jesus is the son of god, and that god has a will this person is to follow.

2. A man is walking around the streets of downtown New York exclaiming, with the utmost conviction, that he is Napoleon Bonaparte, and that everybody should fall into rank.

2a. A person sees this man and concludes that he is crazy.
2b. A person sees this man and concludes that he is correct.
2c. A person sees this man and concludes that he is happy, and that happiness means following your heart.
2d. A person sees this man and concludes that he is crazy, but that he is happy, and that happiness means following your heart.
2e. A person sees this man, concludes that he is actually Napoleon, and that he is happy, and that happiness means following your heart.

3. A child reads Goldilocks and the Three Bears and concludes that stealing is wrong.

4. A philosopher and biologist, working in tandem, conclude that chemical-based dispositions in human beings encourage us to be social and to cooperate, and that this disposition was likely selected for in one of our great ape ancestors. As a result, life would suck being ostracized from our herd, which is precisely what causing harm to others by various means, such as stealing, will result in. By recognizing that our own personal happiness will be greater by not stealing, we have a rationale for being honest in this way.

5. A person reads through the bible, noting that most of it is magical gibberish one would expect from a book written so long ago. They read the golden rule in Matthew (or in Lao Tsze's screed, the Tao Te Ching written over 600 years earlier) and decide, via their own common sense, that this is a good idea. They also read the parable about the doubting Thomas or what Leviticus says about people who break the Sabbath, and conclude that this is the most wretched nonsense imaginable.

6. A person has never read a word of the bible, but they go to church every week and know in their heart that Jesus is the one true god and that they are going to heaven.

7. A person reads a story in a news-paper about a serial killer who never smoked and lived to be 103 years old in prison. The person concludes that they should not smoke.

8. A person reads a peer-reviewed journal explaining the litany of ways that smoking shortens your life span, and elects not to smoke.

9. A person reads a story in a news-paper about a serial killer who never smoked and lived to be 103 years old in prison. This person does not want to be a serial killer, so they decide to start smoking.

Moving on to the rest of your post...

My use of the world false simply means that a story is not grounded in reality, which is an assessment we both seem to apply to scripture the same way we apply it to The Illiad. I am not denying it any meaning that is relevant to our lives, but I would not call inferring such meaning from these stories "faith." This is why I require the above distinctions in order to move forward with this.

On finding books on the basis of "true" and "false".

We do sort books by being fictional or non-fictional though, and we have a certain derision for people who, in their mind, would put those books in the wrong section. All stories, whether fictional or not, can have lessons or meaning, and I have already conceded that fictional stories can (and often do) have meaning, so there is no reason to continue producing arguments against an argument that that denies these stories have anything relevant to say. I do not think, however, that the word "faith' can be used for this.

I am a music major, so I am not of the mind that art is a poor transition to meaning. I have already said that meaning can be adduced from stories. I believe your perception of this is a result of our inability to define our terms, which I hope to fix soon.

On why we should not have faith, by definition of gaining lessons.

Even bad lessons can be taken from stories - it is our own sense of morality/common sense, which I spoke of earlier, that allows us to keep the "good" lessons. But having faith on the basis of learning from a metaphor is not always good, we need rationality applied to metaphors in order to ensure we get a positive result, and I'm not sure you can call that faith.

For instance, the vast majority of Christians take the "true" story of Abraham to mean that they should do whatever god wishes of them - a reading of the bible makes this a frightening proposition. They still received a lesson evinced by the this also faith?

Eager to get this sorted out, and eager to hear from you again,



Ryan said...

So, to summarize, he believes that Biblical stories convey a positive message, so he's a Christian?

Makes sense to me. You know, as long as he's not looking for what's actually real, and is instead looking for something to make him feel good.

Good ol' faith. Is there anything it can't do?


Mike L. said...


I had hoped for more reasonable criticism here. Maybe JT will provide a more thoughtful response. Ad Hominem attacks are not particularly helpful in dialog. I have a deep affection for skepticism and I'm normally debating from the negative position on this issue (I'm usually the skeptic), so I was looking forward to working the other side to see how it feels. Don't let me down!

What is it I suggest that isn't "real" and how do I suggest I'm looking for something to make me "feel good"?

Agnostics_R_Us said...

The ironic thing about Marcus Borg's name is that if you break it up, the "Marcionites" were very liberal Christians in the first few centuries and the Borg are well...Borg (aka Star Trek); hence representing the compromise position he apparently advocates between Fundamentalism and Liberal Christianity. Though it appears to be almost a unitarian universalist message from what I've seen on Amazon which wouldn't exactly be an "in between."


Anonymous said...

So my question to Mike is...if you see the bible as a collection of stories from which we can gain something positive (or negative), and also see the fiction section of the library as a collection of stories from which we can gain something positive (or negative)...what's the difference? Why does the bible, specifically, make you believe in a Christian god? Why do you not also choose to be Muslim after reading the Qu'ran, Jewish after the Torah, Taoist after the Tao Te Ching, or Hindu after the Vedas and the Upanishads?

Thank you for taking the time to discuss this!