One of the most interesting aspects of my own religion, for me at least, is the way different sub-groups address biblical and moral interpretation. I don’t simply mean the interpretations themselves, but the way different methods complicate cultural dialogues. As I mentioned in my introductory post, most non-theologians who adhere to Christianity often use phrases like: “I believe the Bible is true”, or “The Bible is the word of God.” But what is actually meant by this assertion varies widely. This leads to the spread of both Pluralistic Ignorance and False Consensus. These two psychological phenomena deserve a series of their own, but right now I’m concerned with the harm they cause.
I’ve often seen my fellow Christians hold back on voicing their actual beliefs when they believe they are in a minority. I’ve also seen them not bother to explain themselves when they assume everyone knows what they mean. As a result, many promising Transfaith dialogues can easily break down in early stages. I realize that a discussion of biblical interpretation can be uncomfortable for people like myself, who are aware of their own lack of expertise. It can also trigger a host of defense-mechanisms, especially for someone new to Transfaith dialogue. But as uncomfortable and difficult as the process may be, open discussions are crucial for building a more equal society; they are also crucial for personal growth. In an attempt to foster both, I’ve made a very brief list of degrees of Biblical Literalism below. The terms I’m using are my own, and the descriptions are based on how I perceive them to work on a cultural level, not as a theological treatise. My hope isn’t to persuade anyone of their respective validity, but to encourage more accurate and useful conversations for people engaged in these discussions.
Hardline Literalism: Everything described in the bible is not only completely factual, but a portrayal of the only proper social order. It is given directly from god, and has an objective meaning. Individual interpretation is merely a result of human fallibility, and is an obstacle to be overcome.
Historical Literalism: The bible is an inerrant historical account, dictated by god for the purpose of moral instruction. It also contains direct commands and revealed truth from god with an objective meaning. However, the words and actions of other biblical figures are open to criticism/interpretation.
Informed Literalism: The bible contains excellent historical insights about ancient culture. Some details may have degraded through time and linguistic interpretation, but the situations and people described were real. Individual interpretation is encouraged when based on careful study, but the words of god, especially those of Christ, must be treated with utmost respect.
Mythical Literalism: The actual events described in the bible may or may not have happened, but they portray real moral dilemmas, as well as intricacies of the human psyche; much like Greek mythology. Studying the bible aids self-knowledge and moral reasoning, but any claim to an objective meaning, or perfect understanding, is arrogant at best. Educated interpretation is the best anyone can do, but the life and words of Christ act the lens through which most of the interpretation happens.
Non-Literalism: This is sort of a free-for-all. Adherents may or may not accept the divinity of Christ, but generally use his life and words as the gold-standard for morality. The words attributed to God are usually seen as reflections of the age’s moral reasoning, rather than divine commands. The Biblical stories are interpreted more like literature than theology. This category encourages individual interpretation, and allows the most dissenting opinions on morality.
The above list is incomplete at best, and it’s not always possible to separate the examples I’ve given. Some denominations or other church communities have a preferred approach to interpretation, and others allow room for multiple methods. Some even employ different methods for different parts of scripture. This is part of the reason assertions of faith in the bible can be stumbling blocks in conversations. Since so much of this problem rests in perception, I don’t think a perfect solution exists, other than patience and hard work; but I would advise my fellow Christians not to take it for granted that other people understand all their terms. I’d also like to promote awareness in the secular community that uniform statements don’t always express uniform beliefs. Hopefully, this can lead to more productive conversations. To that end, here is this segment’s question, directed at my non-religious colleagues and commentors:
Given the problem with “The Bible is true”, do you see an equivalent problem with common expressions in the secular community? If so, what advice do you have for overcoming it?