Friday, June 25, 2010
The (Dubious) Authority of Scripture
Two questions that get to the heart of why one should be skeptical about scripture (in both the big-s and little-s senses).
Question 1: What method distinguishes words that have been divinely inspired from words that have not?
Question 2: What method reliably determines when a sacred text is speaking figuratively?
With the first question, I'm thinking that many religious traditions claim divine inspiration for their texts. For instance, some traditions hold that the deity even authored texts. But can we tell that a certain text--or parts of it--is the result of divine inspiration or authorship? And if so, how? Is it a matter of the words? The expression? Sophistication of ideas? Verbal and numerical patterns? Something else, as in a special experience while reading?
Regarding the second question, we know that some interpreters view elements of scripture as figurative. For example, they might say that the snake in Genesis didn't actually talk. Or they may say that the sun in Joshua did not really stand still. Yet, for thousands of years, people seem to have thought the Bible was speaking literally.
Our approach to scripture often rests on authority. Maybe you trust the authority of the rabbis--they have the right interpretation. Or maybe you trust the Church. Perhaps you have a study Bible and buy into the framing of the annotator. Heck, one can even get a completely different kind of commentary from Project Reason or Conservapedia.
What's more, the authority of these authorities seems to be based on granting ultimate authority to the holy texts themselves. However, this move appears to be more rhetorical than actual, since the preacher claims to speak the book and to speak for the book. He claims to be a conduit through which the book's intent becomes revealed to others. It's the mediation of the preacher or commentator that formulates the authority of the text and the justification that supposedly precedes the preacher/commentator.
It's a scam, in other words. You can't understand this book fully but I can. And this book reigns over both of us, so you better follow my reading and my book-based counsel. If you question or go against me, you betray the book, and you will be subject to divine wrath for your obstinacy.
I don't buy it, either the authority of the preachers and teachers or the authority of the texts themselves. Now, I do realize that we trust in authorities for all sorts of things and not just in the sphere of religion. Indeed, I am not certain we can get by without trusting some authorities at some time.
But to return to the two questions at the beginning: why should we trust religious authorities if there doesn't seem to be a clear method for unambiguously identifying the divine word and the literal or figurative registers of the sacred text? Really...why?
So, if a preacher enjoins you to follow your "calling" and turn to God, or to fight against what other consenting adults do in the privacy of their bedroom, or to feel guilty about your curiosity about the world--just remember that the preacher's authority is self-appointed and self-serving. You're better to do your own learning and your own decision-making.