Galileo and the Bible (conclusion)

July 22, 2016

Children singing (Psalm 150)

Luca della Robbia (1400-1482) Illustration of Psalm 150

In the great contemporary struggle to find alternatives to wooden, sclerotic literalism some Christians have landed on the view that the Bible’s authority lies in its message of salvation.  The implication, sometimes expressed, is that the Bible is not an authority on other matters, especially on scientific matters.

As John Wesley wrote, “I want to know one thing,—the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore. God himself has condescended to teach me the way. For this very end He came from heaven. He hath written it down in a book. O give me that book!”

The view that the Bible is about salvation is a vast improvement over the absurd claim that the Bible is an authoritative source of knowledge on every topic.

At the same time, does this view help us as we wrestle with the biblical texts involving the natural world?  Much, of course, depends on how we define salvation, but the quotation from Wesley is telling: the concern is to get to heaven.  But if the Bible’s purpose is to guide us to heaven, what are we to make of Psalm 65, which is a prayer of thanksgiving to God for a good harvest?  Or Psalm 104, which praises God’s wisdom displayed in the world?  Or Psalm 148, which calls upon everything–stars, fire and hail, mountains, trees, and animals–to offer praise to God?  If the Bible’s main purpose is to guide us to heaven, then it seems that it contains an abundance of extraneous material.

But this extra material makes more sense if we think of salvation, not as getting to heaven, but instead as worship, as doxology.

To be human (as the Bible wants to portray it) is to be flesh that is summoned to dwell in the presence of God.  We are obviously beings of flesh–that which is inherently weak.  We are beings of nature, taking our place alongside other animals.  Much of our behavior is motivated by exactly the impulses that drive animals: food, drink, sex, territory, status, fear, anger, jealousy.

At the same time, we are flesh that has been called to be people of God.  God has addressed us and summoned us to a distinctive task in the world.  That task is worship.  Of course, each kind of being in its own way offers worship to God–hence Psalm 148, and also Psalm 19, with its assertion that the sky proclaims God’s glory.  But humans have a distinctive task, commensurate with the power of speech.  The rest of the world praises God by simply being what it is.  Its existence alone constitutes praise.  Humans, however, are called upon to articulate praise verbally and in an act of decision.  We are beings with speech; we praise with words.  We are beings of decision; we may choose to respond to God’s call to offer praise, but we may choose not to do so.  That is why Psalm 104 ends by denouncing wicked sinners.  Unlike the rest of creation, sinners refuse to praise God.  They thus stand out.

I am suggesting that one function of the Bible’s passages about the natural world is to draw us into praise–to remind us that we are members of a world whose other members praise God.  We are parts of a choir, parts that need to be reminded to sing our part.

These passages about nature are accordingly not informative.  It is fruitless and insulting to try to squeeze scientific information from them, like juice from an orange, in the manner of Fundamentalists.

But it is also misleading to try to force them into an interpretation that sees the Bible as showing us the path of salvation, at least if salvation is about landing in heaven.  Still, this view has merit, if we rethink salvation.

What if our salvation lies in our worship?  What if worship is our highest good, that to which we are called?  What if human salvation lies in being what we are called to be–beings who with the rest of creation worship God?  In that case, the Bible’s texts on nature do indeed provide us with a message that is strictly about salvation.

Modern Art and the Bible (3)

July 22, 2016

IMG_20160714_145058050Here is a panel from Liliana Porter’s painting, The Traveler (currently housed in the Phoenix Art Museum).

It depicts a small ship on the edge of a mostly gray surface.

It moves from the center to the periphery–a movement of ec-centricity.  Are we to think of this movement as one of danger, of moving toward something unknown?

Or are we to attend to the ship’s smallness in relation to the surrounding gray?

Let the ship represent the interpreter of biblical texts.  Interpretation is always a movement toward something new, occasionally dangerous.  As the Gospel states, “Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matthew 13:52, NRSV).  Interpretation inevitably involves the bringing forth of some new treasure.  Sometimes the new is experienced as dangerous.

At the same time, the interpreter of a text floats on a vast sea of meaning.  No text can be exhaustively interpreted.  The interpreter is thus tiny in relation to the potential meaning lying in the biblical text.

The Traveler (2)Here is a second panel from The Traveler.  I include it only because of a detail.

IMG_20160714_145118874Pictured in the white field is a page from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, posed, appropriately, with a mirror (reminding the reader of the sequel, Through the Looking-Glass).

In the book that I am writing on the Bible, I use Alice as an example of someone landing in a foreign place and having to find her way about.  For me, this illustrates the situation of the reader of the Bible, finding himself or herself in a very different time and culture, with strange customs and beliefs.

Just as Alice’s adventures are a journey (especially in Through the Looking-Glass), so reading the Bible is a journey.  The reader is a traveler.

Modern Art and the Bible (II)

Shaking out the bed (cropped)

Dana Schultz, Shaking Out the Bed

July 19, 2016

Another report on modern art and its lessons for biblical interpretation.

This painting is named, “Shaking Out the Bed.”  It shows household items being flung up toward the viewer as a bed-sheet is shaken; there are also items lying on tables and the floor around the edges.  The painting is thus a combination of dynamic and static elements.  It’s a bit difficult to see the static elements at first, because the dynamic elements–the things flying upward–occupy the center of the painting and are visually more arresting.

This combination of movement and rest reminded me of John’s gospel.  There is, of course plenty of dynamism and movement in this gospel.  More than in the other gospels, in John’s gospel Jesus moves back and forth between Jerusalem and Galilee.  There is also more change of scene: In chapter 7, for instance, secondary characters repeatedly appear with questions and comments that both drive the narrative and guide the reader’s understanding of the narrative.

At the same time, John’s gospel is extraordinarily static in some respects.  It’s filled with discourse but little action.  Whole chapters go by with little but words.  Jesus is reported to be in a new location without indication of how he got there or why he moved.  This gospel is far more stage-like than cinematic.  There are static, minimalistic stagings–we often don’t know where Jesus is and it often doesn’t matter.  There are people talking, but in often in elaborately symbolic conversation.

To read John’s gospel well, we thus need to attend to both its dynamic and also its static elements.

Galileo and the Two Books: The Bible and Scientific Knowledge

July 19, 2016

The Bible has a lot to say about the natural world, but what does it say? I’m not asking, “Which words does it use and which sentences does it contain?” but instead “When the Bible talks about the natural world, what is the nature of its discourse?”

As I discussed in a previous journal entry, the Bible talks about the natural world in its relation to human beings.  I offered the example of Proverbs 30:24-28, where moral lessons are drawn from animal behavior.  In contrast to scientific knowledge, in which things are studied in ways that abstract from the human experience of them, in the Bible things are often presented according to the ways in which we experience them.  Scientifically, it would be absurd to claim that ants are wise (as Proverbs 30 does); but it is also true that we (or at least ancient people did) experience them as wise.

Consider Genesis 1:24-25, where God creates land animals.  They are organized into three groups: cattle, wild animals, and creeping things.  This is hardly a scientific taxonomy.  Instead, it divides animals into groups according to their relationships to human beings: animals suitable for eating and sacrificing, dangerous animals, and miscellaneous other animals that are neither edible nor dangerous.  It’s obvious that human concerns–Which animals are for eating? Which animals may eat us?–have driven this description.  It’s senseless to try to read a scientific motivation into it.

The Bible thus sometimes describes natural things from the perspective of the way in which we experience them..  Scientific knowledge, on the contrary, results from trying to minimize, or even eliminate, human subjectivity from knowledge.

So, I now want to look at a couple of other passages:

You have made the moon to mark the seasons; the sun knows its time for setting (Psalm 104:19, NRSV)

And God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years (Genesis 1:14, NRSV)


In these passages, sun, moon, and stars are described, once again, according to their importance for human beings.  They exist to determine the calendar.  Absent is any scientific interest in what they are made of or why or how they move.  The celestial bodies are important because they serve a purpose that is vital to human beings.

To conclude: I started this series with a discussion of Galileo’s view that science and the Bible cannot conflict because they are about different things: science is about things in nature, the Bible describes the way of salvation.  This view is, I think, wrong.

It’s not that the Bible is not interested in the natural world, but instead that the Bible talks about the world from a certain perspective.  That perspective is human interest.  The Bible portrays the natural world in so far as it bears on matters of human concern or provides an illustration of something that humans are interested in.

There are several lessons to draw from these observations:

  • First, contrary to the view of Fundamentalists, the Bible does not provide us with scientific knowledge.  Attempts to extract information that can inform scientific views is fruitless.  Fundamentalists’ fantasies about using Genesis to construct an alternative science is hopelessly misguided.
  • Second, Galileo’s view that the Bible is about salvation is overly narrow.  The Bible is too big to be contained by any single category.
  • Third, the Bible can perform a useful service for us by reminding us that there is more than one way to know something.  In our culture, it is not uncommon to hear representatives of the scientific community claiming, expressly or implicitly, that scientific knowledge is the gold standard of knowledge, and perhaps the only sort of knowledge that deserves the name.  The Bible’s attitude toward nature reminds us that there are varieties of knowledge, differing ways in which we may relate to things in the world.  The scientific project provides us with one way, but it is preposterous to imagine that it is the only or the best sort of knowledge.

This is where (some) scientists and Fundamentalists both go wrong–assuming that there is one sort of knowledge.  Some scientists, armed with this belief, criticize and reject the Bible for failing to exhibit this knowledge.  Fundamentalists, with the same belief, try heroically but futilely to squeeze the Bible into a scientific mold.

In our current cultural situation, in which rationality is increasingly channeled into one course–science–it is good to be reminded that we relate to worldly objects in many ways.  Scientific knowledge is only one of those ways.

Modern Art and the Bible (I)

July 15, 2016

I’m in Phoenix and visited the Phoenix Art Museum.  I was struck by the points of contact between modern/contemporary art and biblical interpretation.  So, here is the first in a series of very short comments on some pieces of art and some thoughts about interpretation.

Flowing forms

George Condo, Tumbling Forms

Here’s a piece, Tumbling Forms.  What struck me was the way in which the artist piled gobs of paint in layers.

Here’s an example:IMG_20160714_144026357




Another example:IMG_20160714_143953980

Whatever else this painting is doing, it is calling attention to itself as a painting.  Its caption tells the observer that it depicts something–tumbling forms–but its technique reminds the reader that it is a painting.  It enforces, in other words, a careful distinction between its being a depiction and its being a thing that self-consciously depicts.  By having the gobs of paint turn the painting into a three dimensional object that rises from the surface of the canvas, the artist ensures that the observer is not too deeply immersed in the object depicted, but instead attends to the painting as a painting, as something graphic.

This reminded me of the way in which the Bible sometimes calls attention to itself as writing, even as it directs the reader’s attention to the subject matter that is narrated or discussed.

For instance:

  • Not with our ancestors did the Lord make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today. The Lord spoke with you face to face at the mountain” (Deuteronomy 5:3-4, NRSV).  Deuteronomy knows that the people who met with the Lord at Mount Horeb were all dead and that none of those being addressed in these verses were alive when the covenant was first made.  But it deliberately ignores that historical reality to make the point that the covenant is renewed in each generation.  It thus calls attention to itself as something other than narrative, even as it engages in narration.
  • Consider the preface to the gospel according to Luke.  Here the (implied) author steps out of the text to address the implied reader.
  • Finally, there is this passage in John’s gospel: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah” (John 20:30-31, NRSV).  Here the author drops the pretense of simple narration and tells the reader why the narration exists.

In each of these instances, the Bible directs the reader’s attention away from what seems like a straightforward historical narrative and toward the text as something written–as the creation of a writer.

Like the painting above, the Bible wants the reader to be mindful of the way in which the Bible is a written work, even as it seeks to engross the reader in its subject matter.  In other words, it wants the reader to carefully attend to the scribal, graphic features of the Bible.

More on Galileo

July 12, 2016

More on Galileo’s theory of the two books (nature and the Bible).

To recap from last week’s journal: Galileo proposed that the Bible’s purpose is strictly to instruct us about salvation. Put differently, the Bible has nothing to say about the natural world–or at least nothing that might conflict with scientific theories. So, there are two sources of information, two books, each providing knowledge of a different domain–salvation and nature.

Last week I noted how popular this view is in the world of Christian universities. It guarantees that scientists can teach potentially controversial subjects like Big Bang cosmology and evolution, since they are expounding the book of nature and since the Bible has nothing to say about nature. Buried in the fine print of this deal is a clause that reserves matters bearing on salvation to the theological community.

Far be it from me to ruin a workable arrangement; no one except card-carrying Fundamentalists want to inhibit the steady progress of scientific knowledge and of course no one wants a repeat of the Galileo fiasco, one of Christianity’s greatest PR blunders.

At the same time, even a casual reading of the Bible reveals that it has a fair amount to say about the natural world.

Take, for example, Proverbs 30:24-28:

Four things on earth are small, yet they are exceedingly wise:Four animals Proverbs 30

the ants are a people without strength, yet they provide their food in the summer;

the badgers are a people without power, yet they make their homes in the rocks;

the locusts have no king, yet all of them march in rank;

the lizard can be grasped in the hand, yet it is found in kings’ palaces. (NRSV)

Such a passage is not trying to offer a scientific account of natural phenomena, but it is also not inconsequential. Proverbs is here drawing moral lessons from animal behavior. It is saying that wisdom is not simply a human phenomenon, but is in fact found throughout the world. Even animals act wisely.

love-monkey-bonobo-8I’m not convinced of the advisability of drawing moral lessons from the animal world–we know too much about animal behavior to simply extract a morality from it. Some primates (especially the highly social ones–bonobos and chimps) do seem to exhibit the beginnings of a moral sense and do sometimes deliberately engage in behavior that benefits other members of their communities. (My knowledge of this comes mostly from the writings of Frans de Waal.)

Still, the vast majority of animal behavior is either strictly amoral or such that any moral lessons would be highly problematic.

Here’s my suggestion: It is true that the Bible is not offering scientific knowledge of animals; on this issue, Galileo is right and Fundamentalists are wrong. At the same time, the Bible is offering a different sort of knowledge about animals–knowledge from a different perspective.

CellsThe project of modern science lies in abstracting things from their connection to humans and studying them in relation to each other. Take the stars: in ancient times, our interest in the stars related to their usefulness in setting the calendar of religious festivals and events. It related as well to the stars’ presumed influence on our lives–hence the popularity of astrology.

In other words, until the rise of modern science, humanity’s interest in the natural world concerned the way in which stars, animals and other things relate to us and to our interests.

Modern science constitutes a different way of knowing–a way that removes natural phenomena from their relation to us and instead studies their relations to each other: the relation of a population to its environment, or of one to cell to surrounding cells, or of one molecule to other molecules.

The Bible, an ancient document, understandably talks about animals and other bits of nature in the ancient way–in connection with their relation to us. In the case of Proverbs 30, this means finding salience in the ways in which animals exhibit human-like qualities such as wisdom.

So, Galileo was correct in one sense: the knowledge conveyed by the Bible does not compete with scientific knowledge; however, I think he misunderstood why this is so. It’s not that the Bible is strictly and only about salvation. Instead, it’s because it meditates upon nature in a way that differs from the scientific way. It is truly knowledge, just not what we today call scientific knowledge. It is knowledge of how nature relates to us.

More in a few days on Psalm 104.

Theology, Politics, and Rhetoric

July 7, 2016

So, I’m writing a book on how to read and understand the Bible.  The book is for undergraduates, not for theological professionals, so rhetoric becomes an important consideration–how to find the right way of saying things so that communication actually occurs.

Communication in theological  subjects is a challenge for several reasons.  The nature of the subject matter is one, but another is that often the teacher or writer inhabits a different culture from the learner or reader.  This difference of culture assumes a sinister character in today’s political climate.

There is an excellent editorial by David Brooks (“Revolt of the Masses,” June 28, 2016, in which he describes the two cultures that are driving this year’s presidential campaign and why neither understands the other.

The articles focuses on what he calls the “working-class honor code” and makes several incisive observations (relying, in part, on the research of other people).  My attention was caught by one comment in particular: The working-class honor code “has been decimated lately. Conservatives argue that it has been decimated by cosmopolitan cultural elites who look down on rural rubes.”

Red state blue state

Map of the Christian Church in the United States

The red state-blue state cultural bifurcation that afflicts American politics today is mirrored in the Christian church.  I doubt that my church has many “cosmopolitan cultural elites,” but there is a cultural divide; it is to some extent generational and to some extent educational.

Under these circumstances, theology is no longer simply an intellectual  task.  Instead it becomes a political matter of negotiating the differences among various cultures.  It’s not unlike the task facing a presidential candidate, who has to find a message, or a way of presenting a message, that the various factions within his or her party can be happy with.

For instance, several years ago I was writing a textbook of theology.  The section on sanctification required two thorough rewrites, demanded by the various layers of ecclesiastical editors.  The rewrites were required because I had to find a way of stating the idea of sanctification that would not offend or irritate the most conservative readers.  Rewrites were necessary to find the right rhetorical tone for a potentially wide audience of varying theological cultures, including the culture whose members are acutely sensitive to departures from the hallowed tradition.

This means that ecclesiastical leaders have a nearly impossible task.  My church, like most others, contains at least two distinct cultures, one socially conservative and the other not.  The leaders of my church have the unenviable job of keeping this mixed multitude together on one ecclesiastical ark (I resist the temptation to use here the image of clean and unclean animals on the ark) and of articulating our theological heritage in a way that allows the multitude to inhabit the ark with some degree of harmony and shared vision.  (Not that our leaders do this very well.  From my location at the far edge of the denomination, they seem to excel mostly at traveling and administration.  They and their bureaucratic acolytes appear to have nothing in their theological toolbox except hackneyed platitudes satisfying an increasingly small number of zealots.)

Unfortunately, the need to preserve unity and avoid conflict results in a culture of pervasive fear and in risk-averse conduct.  A similar situation obtained in ante-bellum America, when the debate over slavery was so acrimonious that it threatened to split churches.  As a result, many churches for several decades tolerated slave-owning members, believing schism to be a worse fate than tolerating slavery.

In a context of political anger such as we experience today, when fury has become a Christian virtue, church leaders will understandably be reluctant to expose themselves to the vitriol of the aggrieved culture and to run the risk of schism.

So what is a theologian to do when the church is populated by differing tribes, differing cultures?  What is the theological task in a situation in which segments of the church react with near hysteria to changes in the social and intellectual landscape?  It’s not necessary to adduce gay marriage as an example–portions of the Christian community are still fighting over the theory of evolution and the ordination of women, and I’m confident that somewhere in the church there are lingering doubts about the civil rights movement.

I’m tempted to regard this situation as generational and to hope that time will reduce the conflict between the cultures.  My undergraduate students mostly come from conservative, non-denominational churches.  Nonetheless, on social issues such as homosexuality they hold views that are far different from and less militant than the way in which Evangelical thought is commonly portrayed–a portrait of  representatives of conservative churches who are usually typically pretty old.  Even students who oppose homosexual marriage exhibit a rhetoric that is considerably milder than the alarmist speech characteristic of Evangelicalism’s spokespersons.

A stubborn sense of realism, however, intrudes into my hopes and forces me to acknowledge that the difference between cultures is not simply generational.  It is in fact deeply ideological.  The Christian community in America today simply possesses contrary views about the church’s relation to culture and nation.

In this situation, where theology inevitably acquires a political dimension, rhetoric becomes important.  It becomes, in other words, important to attend to means of persuasion.  Theological scholars and intellectuals have only words, but words can persuade.  The task is to find the right words and to place them in the right order.  Behind this task lies the whistling-in-the-dark confidence that there are Christians in every political culture who can be persuaded.  Whether this confidence is warranted is a matter of debate, but Christianity is, after all, a religion of hope.