Tuesday, April 17, 2007

How to Believe Evident Nonsense

Biblical Inerrancy

Some time in the late 1960s I attended a meeting in Edinburgh. Michael Ramsey, the Archbishop of Canterbury, had appointed me to a Committee studying the possibilities of some kind of concordat between the C of E, English Presbyterians, The Scottish Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church of Scotland: a somewhat daunting array from the point of view of possible ecumenical togetherness. We had had several earlier meetings in London, and I particularly recall Eric Mascall’s immovability on (surprise?) the issue of Episcopacy.
For the Edinburgh meeting, I traveled overnight to Edinburgh, joining the King’s Cross to Edinburgh night express at Newark. I shared a sleeping compartment with Dr. Jim Packer, and we had a pleasant dinner together interspersed with our recent teaching experiences and G.O. E. (the General Ordination Examination) horror stories, but ever since that evening, I have pondered over the phenomenon of highly intelligent people who hold to a rigid view of the inerrancy of scripture. James Barr, Dennis Nineham, John Barton and many others have written excellent books directly about or relevant to the issue of Fundamentalism, and Owen Chadwick’s
Victorian Church tells much about the ferment of the mid 19th century, but still the question continues to nag rather like the rough edge of a tooth.
Recently, I have read two things that struck me as relevant to the issue, though they have hardly answered the question or removed my bemusement.

The Miasma Theory of Contagious Disease

The first is a fascinating book about one of the more terrible Cholera epidemics that struck London in the mid-nineteenth century:
The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson (Riverhead Books, 2006). From the beginning of the century, cholera outbreaks had been endemic, but, says Johnson, “most…were located south of the Thames” (p. 22). That was abruptly to change in August 1854 in the area of Soho, bounded roughly by Regency Street, Great Marlborough Street and Wardour Street. By mid century the area of Soho where the epidemic hit “was the most densely populated of all 135 subdistricts (of Great London) with 432 people to the acre… The parish of St. Luke’s in Soho had thirty houses per acre. In Kensington, by contrast, the number per acre was two.” (Johnson, p. 19).
As back ground to the disastrous outbreak in 1854, Johnson points to the highly paradoxical part played by the invention of the W(ater)C(closet): invented and improved by 1830, water closets were, says Johnson, an immense breakthrough in the quality of life, “but they had a disastrous effect on the city’s sewage problem. Without a functioning sewer system to connect to, most WC’s simply flushed their contents into existing cesspools, greatly increasing their tendency to overflow”. (p. 12). Most experts now agree that this outbreak of cholera began with the sickening of a five-month old baby girl, the second child of Thomas and Sarah Lewis. What her name was and where she contracted the disease remain mysteries, but what followed certainly does not.

Dr. Snow and Commissioner Chadwick

The main actor in proposing the cause of cholera was Dr. John Snow, who had done very well as one of the earliest anesthetists. Soon after the arrival of cholera in the UK (1830) he became interested in the reports in medical journals, and, on analysis, came to the conclusion that the predominant “miasma” theory was hopelessly wrong: that theory held that the ‘agent(s)’ – no clear microbe theory yet – lingered in the air around unsanitary places, particularly slums. Johnson writes, “By the late 1840s the miasma theory had established…a prestigious following: the sanitation commissioner, Edwin Chadwick; the city’s main demographer, William Farr; along with many other public officials and members of Parliament”. (p. 69).
It is fascinating to follow Jobson as he moves day by day with John Snow the Doctor, William Farr, the Demographer and Henry Whitehead, the Curate of St. Luke’s Church, through the area, revealing the emerging solution, rather like a fascinating “whodunit”. Central to the story, however, was Commissioner Edwin Chadwick, whom Johnson describes as “the most influential miasmatist of the age”, with “plenty of illustrious company”. (p.121).

The Pump Water

There was ample, indeed, compelling evidence that it was not the smells of London (and they must have been frightful, causing blankets soaked in chloride of lime to be draped over the windows of the House of Commons) that were killing people. “All of John Snow’s detailed, rigorous analysis of the water companies and the transmission routes of the Horsleydown outbreak [of cholera in 1848 triggered by an infected seaman from the steamer Elbe] couldn’t compete with a single whiff of the air in Bermondsey”. (p.131). So even when the trail led inexorably to a main water outlet, the Pump on Broad Street that had been contaminated by fecal matter from the Lewis’s cesspool leaking into the water supply, the authorities resisted its closing down. Chadwick fought for the miasma theory to the end.

John Hick on the Incarnation & Pluralism

The second short paragraph I came upon is at the very end of John Hick’s
The Metaphor of God Incarnate, (2nd Edition, 2005). Hick critically explores the possible ways in which sense can be made of the Chalcedonian Definition. He comes to the conclusion that the most the Definition can be said to achieve is simply to assert that Jesus was fully human and at the same time divine “without attempting to explain how this might be so”. (p. 60). All the attempts to explain the “how”, end up, Hick suggests either as unintelligible, or, by the Chalcedonian standard, heterodox. As the title of the book suggests this is because what is essentially metaphorical language has been read as though it were some sort of scientific formula. Central to Hick’s approach is the challenge to Christian exclusivism, the devaluing or even demonizing of all other religious traditions that is so characteristic of very conservative Christianity. In answering the question whether a new, radical approach to this particular dogma is possible, Hick points to the fact that much main-stream Christianity has come to terms with the scientific knowledge given to us since the beginning of the nineteenth century. He writes: “I anticipate that a process analogous to the slow and painful acceptance of evolution will take place in the acceptance that Christianity is one among a plurality of authentic human responses to the divine reality. There will be powerful resistance…leaving - as in the case of the controversies over science and the scriptures – a continuing and probably powerful fundamentalist wing”. (p.184).

What Price Evidence?

In closing, a fairly long passage from Hick’s book and a final thought:

Many people in this bewilderingly complex world [do] seek simple straightforward beliefs concerning… the long-term meaning of their lives. And fundamentalist forms of belief can provide this. Indeed they can appeal not only to the relatively uneducated but also to people who are highly educated in fields other than the study of religion. In this connection, the sociologist Peter Berger says that ‘there is some warrant for asserting that the propensity to believe evident nonsense increases rather than decreases with higher education’ (Berger,
A Far Glory: The Quest for Faith in an Age of Credulity, New York, 1992, 126)! Conceptions, however implausible, accepted without criticism within a supportive community can have immense power”. (p. 187).

In spite of the immense power of ideology that enables people to ignore mounting evidence (global warming, perhaps), in spite of the now fashionable trend to point to the epistemological and other problems with the accepted canons of scientific enquiry, and in spite of vast vested interests that militate against accepting new truths,
Magna est veritas et praevalebit, the truth is great and shall prevail: perhaps, even, in the face of evident nonsense.

1 comment:

Ian Stubbs said...

very much agree with this dangerous and growng propensity to believe evident nonsense. I have just written the following in our Sept 07 church magazine. It's great to find my former college Principal still writing thoughtful challenging and necessary pieces.

Ian Stubbs

<< “The Sins of Scripture”

is the title of a book by the radical former bishop Jack Spong. In it he approaches those texts that have been used through history to justify the denigration or persecution of others while carrying with them the implied and imposed authority of the claim that they were the "Word of God." He exposes and challenges what he calls the "terrible texts of the Bible," laying bare the evil done by these texts in the name of God. Spong looks specifically at texts used to justify homophobia, anti-Semitism, treating women as second-class humans, corporal punishment, and environmental degradation.

The Bible is not a coherent single document. It is more like an anthology of very different texts, composed, revised, re-written and distorted by hundreds of anonymous authors spanning nine centuries. It is a mixed bag of different kinds of literature and some of its assumptions are appalling to 21st century people. Take a few examples - the genocide of Canaanite peoples in order for the people of God to enter the promised land, the stoning of children who disobey their parents, the stoning of homosexuals, putting to death a person for gathering sticks on the Sabbath, the possible sacrificing of a child to test faith. I was recently looking at a charming picture on a church wall done by young children of the story of Noah’s ark. There were all the lovely images of animals and the family of Noah. But left out of the picture was the question of what kind of God as a punishment would annihilate the whole of humanity and all the (innocent) species of animals, except for the few exceptions?

Many Christians would reply that, of course, we are not to treat the Biblical stories as literally true, they are religious or metaphorical truth. But the fact is that many people do take the Bible accounts as literally true. Emmanual College Gateshead is one of the city academies so favoured by the Government. Rich sponsors put up money (£2 million in Emmanuel’s case) to be matched by generous Government handouts (£20 million in Emmanuel’s case, together with running and staff costs for ever). The sponsor of Emmanuel is an evangelical Christian who describes the ethos of the school as set up on Christian principles. It has had a lot of publicity because of its teaching of creationism as a viable alternative to evolution. Creationists believe, based on their particular readings of the Book of Genesis that the history of the earth is only about 6,000 yrs old. The head of science at Emmanual argues that, ‘We stand firm upon the bare proposition that God has spoken authoritatively and inerrantly in the pages of holy Scripture’.

It’s not just a small group of odd believers who use the Bible in this way. Anglican bishops in many parts of the world condemn lesbian and gay people because of what they claim the Bible says. Even the bishops of the Church of England do not (officially) accept that priests or bishops can be gay because of what the Bible teaches. But even bishops are selective and even they do not accept that practicing homosexuals should be stoned which is also what the Bible clearly teaches!

We must challenge anyone who speaks of making decisions or ethical choices on the basis of ‘sound Biblical principles’ or, indeed, on the basis of what any holy book ‘tells us’. Religious believers all over the world are treating others cruelly, torturing and maiming and waging war on their fellow human beings, all in the name of their God and of what they read in their holy book.

The Bible and the books of our world faiths contain so much that is of spiritual importance and that is relevant for life in the 21st century. We must recognize that God as not spoken authoritatively and inerrantly through the pages of any holy book. Religious people themselves must take full responsibility for how they interpret their scriptures and their traditions and full responsibility for their actions


It ain't necessarily so, it ain't necessarily so.
De t'ings dat yo' li'ble to read in de Bible,
it ain't necessarily so…
Ira Gershwin