Friday, October 16, 2009

God does not have wings

One of the problems in interpreting the Bible is figuring out where to draw the line between what we take to be precisely literal and what we take to be figurative/illustrative language.

To get around this problem, some people take one of two extremes:

  • Everything in the Bible is literal, there is no figurative language. God literally created the world in 6 days, there were literally 2 people that God created to start the human race, there are demonic and angelic creatures interacting with us daily, Jesus was literally raised from the dead, the Jewish Apocalyptic literature in the Bible is to be taken literally, Hell is a place of darkness and flames, etc etc.
  • Nothing in the Bible is literal, it is all figurative language, metaphor, illustrations, etc. God didn't create the world in 6 days, Adam and Even didn't exist, there are not angels or demons involved in our life, Jesus was metaphorically raised from the dead and his disciples embellished the story, the Jewish Apocalyptic literature in the Bible is only a story, the darkness and flames of Hell are a metaphor for the absence of the presence of God, etc etc.

Either of those two extremes offers some fairly obvious problems. You can take either interpretive method and it won't take you very long before you come across an issue that will confront or possibly destroy your position.

In my experience, far more Christians take the first option as opposed to the second. For that matter the second option is usually expressed by those who would admit to not being believers anyway and are using it to discredit Christianity, God, religion in the first place. Not always, but usually.

But it also seems that most of us who take the first option, take it for granted. By that I mean, we may argue that we must take the Bible literally: God made the earth in 6 days, Adam & Eve existed, the tower of Babel happened, and all that end times stuff -- but there are parts of the Bible that we don't take literally, even if we insist that we take the whole Bible literally.
  • We don't believe that God has wings; Ruth & various Psalms
  • We don't believe that the earth has 4 corners, the earth is a globe; Numbers, Ezekiel, Job, etc
  • We don't believe that Job was with God in the beginning of time; Job
  • We don't believe that the sun revolves around the earth; Joshua
  • We don't believe that the earth is stationary; Isaiah, Chronicles, Psalms, Kings, etc
  • We don't believe God lives in a tent in the sky; Isaiah
Even in our own ideals of how we say we should, or how we want to literally interpret some parts of the Bible, we unknowingly have determined that some aspects of the Bible we take figuratively.

And so the problem remains, what parts of the Bible do we take literally? What parts do we take figuratively?

If we take some literally, that does not mean we must take it all literally.
If we take some figuratively, that does not mean we must take it all figuratively.

I believe the truth is somewhere in the middle. And as we as a species develop, discover and discern, we find new ways interpret certain things.  Mathematics, archaeology and the sciences help us to discover the world around us and to understand how it works. And sometimes it appears this information comes into conflict with what we 'know' about the world, or about life, from the Bible.

When this happens, we need to revisit how we are looking at one of these two conflicting pieces of information. Either our understanding about how the world works is flawed, that there is some kind of error or misunderstanding in the empirical evidence --  or our understanding about that issue in the Bible is flawed and needs to be revisited.

Perhaps we've been interpreting something literally that was never meant to be taken that way. Or perhaps we've taken something figuratively for generations that actually happened (archaeology is a big one for reinforcing this).

There's no 'line in the sand' to draw about what is taken literally and what is taken figuratively. We don't hold to the same literal vs figurative interpretations that Christians had 500, 1000, or 2000 years ago, let alone our 'BC' interpretations.

More than that, I guarantee that we won't hold to the same literal vs figurative interpretations another 500 or 1000 years into the future either.

I personally find all of this encouraging and comforting.

But I could be a bit different.