Chapter Summary: This chapter examines how religion decides what is true. It begins by describing religion’s way of knowing and then examines four claims religion usually makes for scripture: consistency and truthfulness, completeness and finality, necessity for salvation, and divine or inspired authorship. The chapters point out some flaws of religion’s way of knowing.
Who are we? Where did we come from? How should we live our life? What happens when we die? How can such questions be answered? People have traditionally turned to religion for answers. And religion has usually answered in theological terms: Who are we? We are children of God. How should we live our life? As God wills. What happens when we die? We go to heaven or hell.
How good are religion’s answers? How accurate? How true? Deciding can be difficult or impossible if the answers are stated theologically. It’s hard to imagine how such answers can be investigated and tested, scientifically or any other way. But how does religion know? How does it find the answers? Usually by using the revelational way of knowing.
Though we can’t directly test its answers, we can examine and evaluate religion’s way of knowing. That is, we can investigate how good the revelational way of knowing is at knowing, at finding answers. We can ask how good of a way of knowing is it. We can ask how well, how accurately, it decides what’s true. We can ask if the knowledge that the revelational way of knowing has produced is truthful, consistent and comprehensive.
This chapter examines the revelational way of knowing, the way of knowing used by religion. It identifies some of its shortcomings and shows why it’s an inferior way of deciding what’s true. The next chapter explores the scientific way of knowing, it identifies some its shortcomings, and shows why it’s nonetheless a superior way of deciding what’s true. In this and the next chapter, we’ll find that the revelational way of knowing is faulty and that science’s way of knowing is superior. Subsequent chapters will attempt to apply science’s better way of knowing to ultimate questions.
What is the revelational way of knowing, the way of knowing used by religion? Briefly, it’s a way of knowing based on revelation, on scripture. It decides some writings are inspired, are ultimately written by God, and then follows them without question or criticism. Religions don’t often describe their way of knowing so directly, however. Rather, they proclaim beliefs about scripture, beliefs from which their way of knowing naturally follows. Let’s examine some of these beliefs.
The Roman Catholic Church teaches that
. . . the books of the Bible are the inspired word of God, that is, written by men with such direct assistance of the Holy Ghost as to make God their true Author. ([N08],177).
Similarly, the Seventh-day Adventists believe that
[t]he Bible’s authority for faith and practice rises from its origin . . . The Bible writers claimed they did not originate their messages but received them from divine sources. ([S10],7).
From such beliefs it naturally follows that revelation should be accepted without question. Since God wrote it, revelation is not to be criticized, judged, or changed. Therefore, Seventh-day Adventists teach that
[j]udging the Word of God by finite human standards is like trying to measure the stars with a yardstick. The Bible must not be subjected to human norms. ([S10],13).
Another consequence of divine authorship is that revelation is error-free. For example, the Catholic Church teaches that the books of the Bible
. . . teach firmly, faithfully and without error all and only those truths which God wanted written down for man’s salvation. ([D09],12),
and a Seventh-day Adventists publication has:
How far did God safeguard the transmission of the text beyond assuring that its message is valid and true? . . . while the ancient manuscripts vary, the essential truths have been preserved. ([S10],11).
Two more beliefs are usually part of the revelational way of knowing. One is necessity for salvation, deliverance, or enlightenment. For example, the Catholic Church teaches:
Revelation is that saving act by which God furnishes us with the truths which are necessary for our salvation. ([M07],213).
The other belief is finality.
Christians . . . now await no new public revelation from God. ([D09],4).
God’s general public revelation is finished and done, even if private revelations to an individual are still possible.
These two beliefs—necessity for salvation and finality—are usually part of the revelational way of knowing even though they don’t necessarily follow from divine authorship. After all, God could write many books, each helpful for salvation but not necessary. And God could write another public revelation in the future. Yet most religions claim that their revelation is final, not to be revised, extended or superseded, and that it’s necessary—required—for salvation, deliverance, or enlightenment.
Of course, religions disagree over which writings are inspired. For example, the fourteen books of the Apocrypha were in the Bible for over 1,000 years. They’re still in the Roman Catholic Bible but other Christian groups reject them. They aren’t included in many modern Bibles. Do they belong in the Bible or not?
Not only does the Catholic Church include books in its Bible that Protestants do not, that church also labels some of the writings of Athanasius, Augustine, John Chrysostom and others ([N09],20) as “Divine Tradition” and believes that
. . . Divine Tradition has the same force as the Bible . . . ([N09],20).
Other Christian groups disagree. In fact,
[p]recisely at this point the greatest division in Christendom occurs: the Bible as the final source (standard or authority), or the Bible as a source. ([P07],18).
Of course, different religions accept entirely different revelations. Islam holds the Quran to be revealed. Hindus believe God spoke the Bhagavad-Gita and other writings. Buddhist accept the Tripitaka.
Though all of the religions we’ve mentioned may reject the inspired writings of other religions, they believe their own scripture is divinely revealed. In particular, religion often makes the following four claims for their own scriptures: that scriptures:
(1) are consistent and truthful (“without error”),
(2) are complete and final (“all and only those truths . . . no new public revelation”),
(3) are necessary for salvation, enlightenment, or liberation (“necessary for our salvation”).
(4) have an inspired or divine author (“God who is their true Author”),
Are these claims true? Again, theological claims are difficult to test. Is God the author of any particular book? That’s beyond the reach of logic to decide. Nonetheless, the four claims can be rationally investigated. And, as we examine and test the four claims we’ll come to a better understanding of the revelational way of knowing. Let’s begin with the first claim, consistency and truthfulness.
An “external” contradiction is when a scripture contradicts something outside itself, either some common belief or practice, or another scripture. Let’s examine some external scriptural contradictions, beginning with three where the Bible contradicts common Christian belief or practice.
First, Jesus says “Just as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” ([H08], Mt 12:40). According to a footnote in another Bible ([N02], for Mt 12,38ff), this quote contains an “allusion to Jesus’ resurrection”. However, common Christian belief allows less than 48 hours between the Crucifixion and Resurrection (Good Friday to Easter Sunday), two nights, not three.
Second, in Mark 6:3 the people of Jesus’ country say: “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, and Joses, and of Juda, and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” If Jesus actually had a brother, then either the Roman Catholic belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary is incorrect, or the standard Christian belief that Jesus is the only begotten Son of God is wrong.
Lastly, Jesus forbids swearing (Mt 5:34-37), saying at one point “But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil” ([H08],Mt 5:37). Nonetheless, it is common practice in some Christian countries for a court witness to swear on the Bible that their testimony shall be true.
Now let’s turn to another type of external contraction, where one scripture contradicts another. The world has many “revealed” writings. If they are all, in fact, revealed then they should all agree with each other because they all have the same ultimate author—God. How well do revealed writings agree with each other? Not very well. Let’s examine some examples.
Of the three major revelations of Western religion, the earliest is the Jewish Torah, which is also part of the Christian Old Testament. Later, the Christian New Testament was written. Later still, the Quran (Koran) of Islam. Are these three revelations consistent with each other? No. For example, the Quran says Jews and Christians disagree:
The Jews say the Christians are misguided, and the Christians say it is the Jews who are misguided. (Sura 2:13, [K07],344).
And the Quran disagrees with both:
. . . [T]he Jews say: Ezra is the son of Allah, and the Christians say: The Messiah is the son of Allah . . . How perverse are they! (Sura 9:30, [M10],148).
So, advises the Quran,
. . . admonish those who say that Allah has begotten a son. (Sura 18:4, [K07],91).
Islam teaches that Jewish and Christian scriptures are only partially true. For instance, it teaches that Jews were one of the first peoples who
. . . recognized God’s oneness, and also God’s law. ([S16],12).
Quite an accomplishment, because after that recognition the
. . . doctrine of monotheism, established by Abraham, never again quite lapsed. ([S16],12).
Unfortunately, the Jewish people (according to the Quran) failed to accurately preserve God’s words.
. . . [I]n course of time they allowed their copies of the text . . . to become corrupted. Their “scripture” became inaccurate. . . . In due course, to correct this desperate error, God sent another messenger, Jesus. ([S16],12-13).
But the followers of Jesus erred, too, since they worshiped
. . . the messenger, instead of heeding the message. . . . focused their attention on Christ to the partial neglect . . . of God, whose transcendence they thus compromise . . . ([S16],13).
Even worse, in their worship of Jesus they attributed
. . . to him and his mother wild, even blasphemous and obscene, relations to God Himself. ([S16],13).
So, according to the Quran, God had to send another messenger, Muhammad.
This time there was to be no error, no distortion, no neglect. ([S16],14).
Since Muhammad perfectly captured God’s revelation in the Quran, no other messenger will be needed or sent. Therefore, Muhammad is called the “seal” of the prophets.
For Muslims, the Quran is the perfect and complete revelation of God.
For the Muslim, God’s Message is wholly contained in the Koran . . . This Book does not annul but rather confirms the Divine Message as preserved, though in a corrupt and distorted tradition, in the Holy Scriptures of the Jews and the Christians. ([A08],12).
Can Jewish, Christian, and Islamic scriptures all be true? Obviously not. At least one scripture is wrong, either the Quran in its fault-finding or Jewish and Christian scriptures in their teachings. At least one of these scriptures is incorrect, untruthful. We’ll see how Jewish and Christian scriptures disagree later when we discuss scripture’s finality and completeness. Now, however, let’s discuss scripture’s truthfulness.
Revealed writings often describe historical and miraculous events. Did those events actually happen? They describe extraordinary people. Did those people actually live? In general, are revealed writings true?
Once, it was thought all events described in the Bible were historically true. Christian medieval Europe based cosmology on Genesis, the first book of the Bible. It based biological evolution on Genesis, too. History was based on the Bible; stories such as Noah and the Great Flood were accepted as historically true. Astronomy was also based on the Bible. In fact, the source of Galileo’s conflict with the Roman Catholic Church was the church’s belief in biblical teachings about the earth and sun.
Today, some religious people still believe the Bible gives a truthful picture of the natural world. Fundamentalist Christians, for example, still accept biblical teaching about cosmology, biology, history and astrology. For them biblical revelation is
. . . the supernatural (metaphysical) process by which God penetrated man’s senses to give him an external, objective world view. ([P07],13).
How such religious believers have fought the advance of science in biology, geography, astronomy, medicine, hygiene, history, anthropology, and other fields is well described in A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom ([W09]) by Andrew White.
Fundamentalists (of any religion) who think revelation has accurate teachings about the natural world disprove a common idea: that the essential difference between science and religion is that science deals with this world and religion deals with the next. Fundamentalists show this opinion isn’t true—some religions deal very much with this world. And science—as we’ll see—could investigate the “next” world.
How, then, do science and religion differ? They fundamentally differ in how they know, not necessarily in what they know. Both can know the natural world and, as we’ll see, both can know the “supernatural” world. Therefore, the fundamental difference between science and religion is their different ways of knowing. Science finds truth with the scientific way of knowing. Religion finds truth with the revelational way, by following scripture.
But is scripture truthful? Fundamentalist Christians believe the Bible is entirely truthful. More than that, they believe
. . . the complete Bible . . . is the final authority for all truth. ([P07],21)
[a] problem of terminology and interpretation may exist between science and the Bible but the only difficulty is man’s inability to resolve the problem, not any conflict of truth. . . . The superior credence for Scripture over science is clear. ([P07],31).
Other Christians, however, admit the Bible isn’t entirely true. They don’t base their entire world view on revelation. For them cosmology, biology, history, and astronomy are no longer based on scripture. Such Christians view Genesis as mythological and accept a scientific explanation of biological evolution and the origin of the universe. Biblical stories once thought historically accurate are now considered by many greatly exaggerated, if not mythological. Astronomers no longer look to the Bible for information about the sun, stars, and planets. And the Catholic Church now teaches that
. . . the Bible is free from error in what pertains to religious truth revealed for our salvation. It is not necessarily free from error in other matters (e.g. natural science). ([D09],12).
Biologists and astronomers have found science’s way of knowing superior to religion’s. But if science’s way of knowing yields superior knowledge about the natural world, could it yield superior knowledge about the “supernatural” world, as well? If revelation is wrong about the natural world, could it be wrong about the “supernatural” world, too? We’ll return to these questions later.
Whenever revelation contradicts some accepted fact, fundamentalists can always say revelation is right and the accepted “fact” is wrong. If scientists say the universe is about fourteen billion years old, and the Bible says it’s a few thousand years old then, say fundamentalists, science is wrong and the Bible right. But what happens when the fact is in another part of the revelation? For example, what happens when the Bible contradicts itself? This brings us to the question of internal consistence: does the Bible agree with itself?
Throughout the ages, many leading religious figures have said it does. For example, in Inerrancy And The Church ([I03]) we read that
Clement of Rome claimed that the Scriptures were errorless. ([I03],23),
Tertullian was swift to argue . . . that the Scriptures contained no contradictory material nor error. ([I03],24),
. . . perceived the Scriptures as perfect and noncontradictory . . . ([I03],25),
and, finally, that
[f]or Augustine, it was an article of faith that there is no real discrepancy or contradiction in all of Scripture. ([I03],49).
Augustine’s definition of error was strict.
When Augustine declared the Bible to be free from error, he explicitly rejected the presence of inadvertent mistakes as well as conscious deception. ([I03],53).
Yet he knew Matthew 27:9 attributes a quote to Jeremiah which is actually Zechariah 11:13. If not a conscious deception, wasn’t this at least a mistake? Could Augustine avoid seeing it as one or the other?
He could. Augustine’s explanation ([I03],44) was as follows. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the name “Jeremiah” first came to Matthew’s mind. Then Matthew realized the quote was actually Zechariah’s but decided the Holy Spirit had allowed “Jeremiah” to come to mind to indicate “the essential unity of the words of the prophets.” So Matthew bowed “to the authority of the Holy Spirit” and wrote “Jeremiah” instead of the correct reference, Zechariah.
Augustine illustrates how religious believers defend scripture’s “inerrancy” and “harmonize” its inconsistencies. Augustine knows Matthew 27:9 is wrong. Yet he can’t make a simple correction or acknowledge a simple mistake. Why? Why can’t he improve scripture and make it more truthful and consistent by correcting a simple error? Because his way of knowing doesn’t allow it. The principle that scripture is written by God and already error-free prevents him from acknowledging and correcting a simple mistake. Instead, he’s forced to find an “explanation” that upholds the inerrancy of scripture.
Augustine takes the safe, though not entirely truthful, path. Rather than admit a simple mistake he “explains” it. What would have happened if he had admitted and corrected the mistake? I don’t know. But here’s what happened to some unfortunate monks who dared to correct, not even scripture itself, but merely a manual of blessings.
By the seventeenth century, errors had crept into ([M02],66) medieval Russia’s translations of scriptures and other holy writings. Three monks decided to correct a minor holy writing. But
[t]o correct any text that had been good enough for the great saints of early Russian Christianity was bordering on heresy. ([M02],66).
[i]n gratitude for their corrections made, the three had been tried in . . . 1618; their corrections were declared heretical. ([M02],67).
One monk was
. . . excommunicated from the Church, imprisoned in Novospasskij monastery, beaten and tortured with physical cruelties and mental humiliations. ([M02],67).
Anyone who denies the smallest part of “revealed” scripture risks humiliation, ostracism, and perhaps torture and death. This was true at many times in the past. And in some countries it’s still true.
It would be wrong, however, to think that only dishonesty or fear prevents Augustine from acknowledging mistakes in scripture. There’s a deeper reason: he is blinded by his way of knowing. Believing that scripture is penned by God and error-free prevents him from correcting simple errors. His way of knowing, which is supposed to help him find truth, hinders him. This illustrates a failing of the revelational way of knowing itself, as opposed to a failing of any individual.
To elaborate, people who follow a certain ideology or belong to a certain group and who happen to be untruthful, sadistic or murderous don’t necessarily discredit the ideology or group. (If members of a knitting club decide to poison their spouses, that doesn’t necessarily show there is something wrong with knitting.) On the other hand, when the ideology or group itself turns truthful, sane people into untruthful, sadistic or murderous persons, then something is wrong with the ideology or group. (Racism, for example, can have this evil effect on those whom it influences.)
Although Augustine’s way of knowing didn’t make him sadistic or murderous (I don’t know if the same can be said for the architects of the Inquisition.), it did blind him to an untruth and force him to accept the false as true. The principle that God is scripture’s author blinded Augustine to a simple fact—that scripture sometimes contradicts itself.
Therefore, the revelational way of knowing can enshrine error and hinder the search for truth. The reference in Matthew could be easily changed from Jeremiah to Zechariah, but belief in divine authorship doesn’t allow it. Yet the Bible has been amended—not with the effect of reducing an error but of increasing it. Here’s the story of an intentional mistranslation that persists even today.
Christianity teaches that Jesus was born of a virgin. About the Virgin Birth of Jesus, Matthew writes:
Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us. ([H08],Matt 1:22-23).
One Bible has a curious footnote to this verse.
[T]his is a prophetic reinterpretation of Is 7, 14 in the light of the facts Matthew has outlined . . . ([N02],NT,6),
the facts being Jesus’s virgin birth, messianic mission, and special relation to God. The footnote continues:
All these things about Jesus that were faintly traced in Is 7, 14 are now seen by Matthew to be fully brought to light as God’s plan. ([N02],NT,6).
It’s not quite clear what “prophetic reinterpretation” and “faintly traced” means. Perhaps a reference to Isaiah will help. Turning to Isaiah 7:14, we read
Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. ([H08],Is 7:14).
(This verse is an intentional mistranslation of the original, as we shall soon see.) This verse, too, has a curious footnote.
The church has always followed St. Matthew in seeing the transcendent fulfillment of this verse in Christ and his Virgin Mother. The prophet need not have known the full force latent in his own words; and some Catholic writers have sought a preliminary and partial fulfillment in the conception and birth of the future King Hezekiah, whose mother, at the time Isaiah spoke, would have been a young, unmarried woman (Hebrew, almah). The Holy Spirit was preparing, however, for another Nativity which . . . was to fulfill . . . the words of this prophecy in the integral sense intended by the divine Wisdom. ([N02],OT,832).
Again, a few things aren’t clear. What does “transcendent fulfillment” mean? Why would the church have to choose to follow either Matthew (who never identifies the prophet he quotes) or Isaiah? Why would some Catholic writers seek a “preliminary and partial fulfillment” in King Hezekiah? How could a prophet fail to know the “full force latent in his own words”? What does “integral sense intended by the divine Wisdom” mean? The authors of the footnote seem to be half-heartedly trying to tell us something. Like Augustine, does their way of knowing prevent them too from acknowledging a plain and simple fact, plainly and simply? We’ll see that it does.
Arsenal For Skeptics ([A09]) has selections of biblical criticism whose authors don’t accept the absolute truthfulness and sacredness of every biblical verse. Therefore, one writer can present a much clearer explanation of the verses from Matthew and Isaiah.
Isaiah’s original Hebrew . . . falsely translated by the false pen of the pious translators, runs thus in the English: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” (Isa. VII, 14.) The Hebrew words ha-almah mean simply the young woman; and harah is the Hebrew past or perfect tense, “conceived,” which in Hebrew, as in English, represents past and completed action. Honestly translated, the verse reads: “Behold, the young woman has conceived—(is with child)—and beareth a son and calleth his name Immanuel.”
Almah means simply a young woman, of marriageable age, whether married or not, or a virgin or not; in a broad general sense exactly like girl or maid in English, when we say shop-girl, parlor-maid, bar-maid, without reference to or vouching for her technical virginity, which, in Hebrew, is always expressed by the word bethulah. ([A09],68).
Thus, the words of Isaiah are falsely translated even today, and Matthew quotes no known prophet.
The authors of the footnotes tried to tell the truth of the situation, but could not. Why? Because the belief that God is scripture’s Author prevented them. That belief prevented them from communicating the plain and simple truth. Their way of knowing, in this case, prevented them from reaching truth.
For those interested in a contemporary discussion of biblical inerrancy there is 136 Biblical Contradictions ([O01]) and 136 Bible “Contradictions”…Answered ([M08]). I’ve found contradictions in other scriptures but don’t know of any similar references although they may well exist.
Martin Luther once said:
We know, on the authority of Moses, that longer ago than six thousand years the world did not exist ([C05],3).
Today some people still believe the world is only a few thousand years old and like the Seventh-day Adventists, who follow a scriptural view of creation, still reject biological evolution. From a Seventh-day Adventist publication:
Evolution in whatever form or shape contradicts the basic foundations of Christianity . . . Christianity and evolution are diametrically opposed. ([S10],92).
Other religions, however, over the past few centuries have finally realized the Bible is less than perfectly true. The realization hasn’t come cheaply. For centuries, anyone who dared disagree with the Bible risked exile, torture or death. Only the martyrdom of numerous men and women, in the Inquisition and other religiously-inspired pogroms, finally eroded belief in total biblical accuracy. Because of their sacrifice, today some Christian groups can admit that scriptures don’t contain the absolute, complete and final truth. For example, Leonard Swidler writes:
Until the nineteenth century truth in the West was thought of in a very static manner: if something was found to be true in one place and time, then it was thought to be true in all times and places . . . [I]f it was true for St. Paul to say that it was all right for slaves to be subject to their masters (in fact, he demanded it!), then it was always true.
But no Christian theologian today would admit the truth of the Pauline statement. . . . [O]ur understanding of truth statements in the West has become historical, perspectival, limited, interpretive—in a single word: relational. And that means deabsolutized. . . . Text can be properly understood only within context; given a significantly new context, a proportionately new text would be needed to convey the same meaning. ([F02],xii).
The modern world is certainly a significantly new context. How might a proportionately new text be written? By the continued martyrdom of men and women? By taking some contemporary writing, declaring it divine revelation, and blindly following it? Or by employing science’s way of knowing?
Not only are scriptures said to be truthful and consistent, they’re thought to be complete and final, too. The second claim of the revelational way of knowing is that scripture is complete—that it has everything God wants to write—and that it’s final—that no new general revelation is in store. Of course, while it’s being written scripture isn’t complete and final. Let’s examine that period.
Scripture has been written over varying amounts of time. In the West, it took about a thousand years to complete the Old Testament. The New Testament, however, was accomplished in a few hundred years. And the Quran was written within the lifetime of Muhammad. While it’s being written, scripture is often influenced by contemporary beliefs, both foreign and local.
When Judaism was young, for example, its scriptures were influenced by the older religion of Zoroastrianism, which especially in its
. . . demonology, angelology, and eschatology, influenced Judaism from the time of the exile onward. ([N04],v23,1013).
It seems to have influenced the Jewish conception of Satan, for instance.
Before the exile—for example, in the prologue to Job (1:6-12) and in the mouth of Zechariah (3:1-2)—Satan was no more than the servant of God, acting on his orders as prosecutor; after the exile he is portrayed as God’s adversary. ([N04],v23,1013).
As another example, there is a story that’s told twice, in
. . . II Sam. 24:1 and I Chron. 21:1. In the first, the preexilic version, the Lord incites David to wickedness so that he may wreak vengeance on the Israelites; in the second it is Satan, not God, who is responsible for the calamity. ([N04],v23,1013).
(Yet another instance of scriptural inconsistency.)
How much did Zoroastrianism influence Judaism and Christianity? The Ethical Religion of Zoroaster ([D05],xxi-xxiv) lists similarities in Zoroastrian, Jewish, and Christian scripture, doctrine and practice. The list is four pages long. Writers have pointed out other pagan influences. Powell Davies, for instance, writes:
Mithras was a Redeemer of mankind; so were Tammuz, Adonis and Osiris. . . . Jesus as a Redeemer was not a Judaic concept; nor was it held by the first Christians in Palestine . . . ([D03],90).
It was only, continues Davies, when Christianity spread to pagan culture that
. . . the idea of Jesus as a Savior God emerged. This idea was patterned on those already existing, especially upon Mithras. . . . [T]he birthday of Mithras, the 25th of December (the winter solstice), . . . was taken over by the Pagan Christians to be the birthday of Jesus. Even the Sabbath, the Jewish seventh day appointed by God in the Mosaic Law and hallowed by his own resting on this day after the work of Creation, had to be abandoned in favor of the Mithraic first day, the Day of the Conquering Sun. ([D03],90).
In the Mediterranean area during the time of Christian expansion, nowhere was there absent the image of the Virgin Mother and her Dying Son. . . . ([D03],90).
So it seems scripture when it’s being written is liable to be influenced by contemporary beliefs. Not only that, it may also be influenced after it’s been written. That is, scripture may undergo editing and revision (the technical term is “redaction”) by other than its original author. “Editors” and “compilers” may alter scripture to suit their beliefs. For example, Jewish and Christian scriptures are widely believed to have been redacted. Certainly there was much opportunity to alter Christian scriptures.
The earliest manuscripts we have . . . are no earlier than the fourth Christian century, and by then—indeed, considerably before—there had been time for the church fathers to make many redactions in accordance with the outcome of theological controversy. ([D03],88).
So, scripture is sometimes changed by other than its original author. Or, to be precise, by other than its original human author, since it could be said God wrote it and later God changed or “redacted” it. Yet it certainly seems strange God wouldn’t get it right on the first try and need to edit His own work!
However, inconsistencies aren’t always redacted. Sometimes they’re allowed to remain but explained away. They are said to be apparent, not real.
While many differences at first existed among the rabbis as to the actual meaning of the various contradictory stories of . . . revelation, the overriding belief . . . that all of the five books of Moses were divinely inspired and thus incapable of self-contradiction finally gave rise to the consensus that every verse of those books had been revealed by God to Moses on Sinai . . .
An attempt was made to explain the seeming contradictions among the various versions of the revelation—as also among individual laws—through the utilization of certain hermeneutic principles. ([N04],v22,87).
Hermeneutics is the science of interpreting a writing, usually a revealed writing. We’ve already seen an example of Augustine’s use of hermeneutics.
Eventually, scripture becomes fixed and final, beyond the reach of change; there’s no possibility of adding anything. If the scripture is complete, if it already contains everything God wanted to say, there’s no need of adding anything. Otherwise, it’s incomplete, and some important truths are missing.
We’ll examine finality in the next section. Now, let’s examine completeness. Is scripture complete? Does scripture contain everything believers need to know? In the theological sense, scripture may be complete—that is, it may provide everything a believer needs for salvation, liberation or enlightenment. Or it may not. Again, theological statements are difficult to test.
What about the non-theological sense? As we’ve seen, some believers think scripture has truths about the natural world. We’ve already discussed if those “truths” are always true. Are they complete?
No. They aren’t. Here’s an example.
Spain once pondered building a Panama Canal. Should the canal be built or not? Since Spain then thought scripture to be error-free and complete, it must have seemed logical to see what the Bible had to say about such a project.
After consulting with his religious advisers (who reminded him of the scriptural warning: “What God has joined together let no man put asunder”), King Philip declared that “to seek or make known any better route than the one from Porto Bello to Panama (is) forbidden under penalty of death.” ([C05],220).
It’s easy to find the episode amusing (unless you’re the unfortunate individual about to be put to death for advocating a canal), but remember the best theological minds of the Spanish empire, with God’s eternal revelation to guide them, came to the above conclusion.
Today, a Panama Canal is no longer an issue, but genetic engineering and nuclear power is. They raise questions that scriptures don’t address. So, scriptures may or may not be complete in a theological sense, but they certainly don’t have all the wisdom we need to make decisions in today’s world. Yet many religions insist their scripture is complete and final. Not only does such insistence prevent scripture from directly addressing new issues, it also denies the validity of earlier scripture. It implicitly sets one “perfect and complete” revelation against another.
For example, if the Old Testament was complete there would be no need for the New Testament. Consequently, Christianity—almost of necessity—should teach that the Old Testament is incomplete. It does. For example, a Roman Catholic publication has:
The knowledge of God, as being just and merciful in His dealings with men was . . . taught to them little by little, in keeping with their developing religious understanding. ([D09],15).
Therefore, God revealed
. . . His truth slowly and piecemeal and patiently through the ages. As a result, the doctrine in some parts of the Old Testament is more developed than in other parts dating from an earlier period. At times, temporary and incomplete things are found which give way later to fulfillment and completion. ([D09],15).
Similarly, if the New Testament was complete, there would be no need for the Quran. However, Islamic scripture teaches Jewish and Christian revelation isn’t complete but incomplete and inaccurate, as we’ve seen.
It’s odd that a religion which thinks God has revealed truth “slowly and piecemeal and patiently through the ages” in keeping with “developing religious understanding,” would deny revelation is still occurring today. There certainly seems to be a need for a continuing revelation. For was religious understanding so developed fifteen hundred or two thousand years ago that truth could be revealed once, totally, and for all time? Indeed, is it now at such a level? Rather, it seems likely there would be periodic revelations, more and more divine truth revealed slowly and patiently through the ages, until the entire human race had been raised to intimate union with God.
A few religions do acknowledge the dangers of thinking scripture complete and final. For example, a publication of the Society of Friends, also called Quakers, has:
Among the dangers of formulated statements of belief are these: (1) They tend to crystallise thought on matters that will always be beyond any final embodiment in human language; (2) They fetter the search for truth and for its more adequate expression . . . ([F01],52).
And the Quaker writer Rufus Jones writes:
If God ever spoke He is still speaking. . . . He is the Great I Am, not a Great He Was. ([F01],51).
But does any religion actually have a continuing, evolving revelation, open to correction and improvement, able to address new issues? If it does, it’s not using the revelational way of knowing. Perhaps it’s using something like science’s way of knowing, which has provided an ever-widening “revelation” about the universe we live in.
Scripture is eventually considered not only complete, but final and completed. As such, it’s closed, immutable, frozen. Certainly, no additions to the Torah, Bible, or Quran are possible. These scriptures are closed.
Being closed and final has its advantages and disadvantages, its “yang and yin.” An advantage is that scripture may serve as a constant beacon, an unchanging yardstick for measuring passing fads and temporary lunacies. A disadvantage is scripture can’t adapt. Sooner or later, in a hundred years or ten thousand, some scriptural wisdom is no longer wisdom but merely tradition, or even foolish or dangerous. Yet because it’s fixed forever in scripture, believers are still obligated to observe it.
Obsolete scriptural “wisdom” seems to be of three kinds: the cryptic, the innocuous, and the injurious. Let’s examine examples, beginning with two examples of cryptic teachings.
In Judaism, The Way of Holiness Solomon Nigosian writes:
The biblical injunctions against eating certain birds, or flying insects, are difficult to apply since the species are not always identifiable from the biblical name or description. ([N13],178).
Believers should observe scriptural rules, but how can a rule be followed when it can’t be understood? What could be the meaning of useless rules? Or of useless groups of letters?
Here a word should also be said about the cryptic Arabic letters which head certain chapters of the Koran. Various theories have been put forward by Muslim and Western scholars to explain their meaning, but none of them is satisfactory. The fact is that no one knows what they stand for. ([K07],11).
No believer derives any meaning or benefit from these cryptic, obscure bits of scriptural “wisdom.” Yet, the closed, immutable nature of scripture insures such phrases and prohibitions will remain forever, even if no one understands them.
Most scriptural rules can be observed, of course. And they often are, even if there is no longer any good reason to do so. In short, the rules are sacred cows, that is,
. . . a person or thing so well established in and venerated by a society that it seems unreasonably immune from ordinary criticism even of the honest or justified kind. ([W05],1996).
The idea of a “sacred cow” comes from India, where killing a cow is a great sin, a greater sin than killing other animals. Why? Here’s an explanation I once heard.
In ancient India, cows were used to plow the fields. During a famine, hungry people would naturally want to slaughter and eat their cows. But if they did, there would be no way to plow and plant after the famine. A temporary famine would become a permanent famine.
If this story is true, then there was once a very good reason to protect cows. The rule made sense. Eventually, however, the rule was included in divine and unchangeable scripture. The Vedas, one of India’s ancient scriptures, refer to the cow as a goddess ([N07],v3,206), and identify it with the mother of the gods. This fixed the rule forever. What once served the welfare of society has become a religious prohibition independent of society’s welfare. Today, an observant Hindu can’t eat beef because of a religious rule that is, and always will be, fixed in scripture. Yet, the belief is innocuous. It doesn’t hurt people and very much helps cows.
Another innocuous scriptural rule originated (I once heard) as follows. In the hot climate where Judaic scripture was written, meat and dairy products in the same dish were unhealthy because the combination easily spoiled. So, a taboo against eating meat and dairy together made good sense. Solomon Nigosian admits this possibility when he writes:
The regulations about forbidden, treyfah, and permissible, kosher, foods may well have originated in association with taboos of antiquity. ([N13],178).
Whether or not health or hygiene determined the rules in the first place is little more than speculation, and is irrelevant to pious Jews who refuse to rationalize kosher laws. They accept them as part of a total system ordained by God. ([N13],178).
Today, an observant Jew can’t eat a cheeseburger. Once the rule was written in scripture, it became forever binding. A rule that was originally wise will forever be binding, the invention of refrigeration notwithstanding. Due to the closed nature of scripture, it will forever be unlawful to eat certain healthy foods. A scripture written today might forever forbid fried foods, eggs, and red meat, and forever command a high fiber, low cholesterol diet, oat bran, and aerobic exercise.
The beliefs we’ve seen are innocuous and harmless. Even if Jewish people can’t eat cheeseburgers, their health need not suffer. There are certainly many healthful diets that don’t include meat and dairy combinations, or meat and dairy products of any kind. In fact, avoiding cheeseburgers may be healthy. Some people believe there are very good health, ethical, and moral reasons for avoiding cheeseburgers and even all meat. One obvious reason is reverence for life, the wish to avoid unnecessary killing. Another is avoiding cholesterol. And yet another is that meat production ([L03],9) is inefficient: it takes about 16 pounds of grain—grain that could be feeding starving people—to produce 1 pound of meat. Eating less meat could help alleviate world hunger. These people follow dietary rules for solid health and humanitarian reasons. Though the rules may be like religious rules, there is an important difference. Rules followed for rational reasons are open to change if the situation changes, or if new research suggests a better path. But religious rules are forever fixed. A faithful Jehovah’s Witness believer can’t accept a blood transfusion, even if their life depends on it.
Injurious beliefs are the last type of scriptural beliefs we’ll discuss. We’ll examine three examples.
The Quran’s Sura 4:34 says women are inferior to men.
Men have authority over women because Allah has made the one superior to the other . . . ([K07],370).
Will women ever achieve equality in Islamic countries? If they do, they’ll have to overcome a divine affirmation of their inferiority and subjugation to men—no easy task. Yet, though they’re subject to men, at least women aren’t slaves. Is slavery permitted by God? It was for many centuries in Christian countries. Why? Perhaps because the Christian Bible has:
Slaves, obey your human masters with fear and trembling . . . ([G02],188, Eph 6:5).
During the 19th century in the United States, people in favor of slavery used such biblical verses to show that it wasn’t against the will of God. The King James Version, however, has “servants” rather than “slaves,” a crucial difference. Which word did God mean to write? The revelational way of knowing can’t answer since it has no way of verifying if a writing is actually penned by God, no independent way of testing if a writing is inspired or not. We’ll return to this point later.
L.ike slavery, the caste system of India is rooted in scripture, has existed for millennia, and injures the society that tolerates it. Caste rules were at one time extremely brutal and oppressive: a lower caste man ([N05],v16,858) who struck, or merely threatened to strike, a higher caste man might lose a hand or foot. Recognizing the evils of the caste system, social reformers have worked to abolish the near slavery of the lower castes. They’ve been opposed by people who use scripture to show that God himself supports the caste system. In the Indian Bhagavad-Gita scripture, for example, God in the form of Krishna declares:
I established the four castes . . . ([S18],51).
The third claim of the revelational way of knowing is that scripture is necessary for salvation, enlightenment, or liberation. Are any of the world’s many scriptures necessary for salvation, enlightenment, or liberation? Once again, the theological question can’t be proven one way or the other. We can, however, discuss its implications.
Logically, if scripture is necessary, not merely helpful, then salvation can’t be achieved without it—a sad situation for those who either have never heard of scripture or don’t believe it. But if supernatural revelations are essential and necessary for achieving life’s greatest good, would not God have made them universally available? Millions of people have lived and died with no opportunity to read the Torah, the Bible, the Quran, the Vedas, or the Buddhist scriptures. A person living four thousand years ago in South America, for example, had no chance to read any of them. And even if scriptures had been available, for many centuries the ability to read was rare. Millions of people have had no opportunity to read any scripture. Furthermore, if only one scripture is the full and complete Word of God, then many more millions (the past and present followers of other religions) must be numbered among those who had no access to the perfect, complete Word of God. In either case, most people who’ve lived have had no access to scripture. Yet, some religions teach that people who don’t follow a particular scripture are infidels who won’t reach salvation or enlightenment. But could God, the Father and Mother of all, have neglected to provide the vast majority of His and Her past and present children with a complete, perfect revelation if it was so vital, so important, so essential for them?
The last principle of the revelational way of knowing is that God wrote scripture. Although we’ve reached it last, divine authorship comes first. The other claims derive from it. God wrote it, so it must be truthful, error-free and consistent. God wrote it, so it’s complete and final. God wrote it, therefore it’s necessary for salvation, deliverance or enlightenment. The principle of divine authorship is basic; it supports the other claims rather than vice versa. That is, scripture isn’t so truthful, error-free, consistent, and complete that only God could have written it. Rather, because it’s thought to be written by God, scripture is assumed to be truthful, error-free, consistent, and complete, as well as necessary for salvation. Yet, we’ve seen that scripture isn’t entirely truthful, error-free, consistent, or complete. Therefore, it could be argued that God didn’t write it. The argument would convince few believers, however, since their belief doesn’t rest on logical evidence.
But if evidence doesn’t support divine authorship, what does? Why would someone believe God wrote a book? We’ll examine four possible reasons: authority, tradition, faith and pragmatism.
A person might believe in divine authorship because some authority who they respect says they should. For instance, they might believe God wrote a book because religious authorities require it as a condition of membership.
Tradition is another reason. People believe because their ancestors believed, because most of the people they know believe.
Yet another reason someone might believe is an inexplicable faith.
Pragmatism is one more reason someone might believe in divine authorship and in religion. After all, Where did we come from? Why are we here? How should we conduct our lives? What happens after we die? and similar questions demand answers. What answers are available? Religion’s, mostly. Therefore, a deep need for answers to life’s most important questions may drive a person to religion, to accepting its dogmas, even if the person isn’t fully satisfied by religion’s answers, or fully persuaded by its beliefs.
Authority, tradition, faith and pragmatism are ways of knowing, ways of deciding what’s true and what isn’t. How good are they? They have advantages and may often be better than using reason to decide what’s true.
For example, suppose I had a disease and wanted to know how to treat it. How could I proceed? One way is authority; I follow the advice of some medical authority. Another is tradition; I take a traditional folk remedy. In either case, I need faith in the authority or tradition, faith that the remedy works. And in either case, I’m pragmatic; I look for something that works, that cures my disease. Reason is another way I can use. I can try to logically figure out why I’m sick and how to cure myself. Unless I’m an inspired medical genius, however, the purely logical approach wouldn’t be a good one. That is, I’d probably do better accepting an established remedy than trusting one I’d invented.
The human race has gained a tremendous store of knowledge over the centuries through the individual and co-operative efforts of millions of men and women. Authority, tradition, and faith are ways of connecting with that knowledge. They are how knowledge is transmitted. Only a rash individual would reject all that authority and tradition have to offer and strike off on their own, intent on believing only what they had personally and independently rediscovered, tested and proved.
Authority, tradition, faith and pragmatism can be very good ways of deciding what’s true. And a person who accepts religious beliefs on authority, tradition, faith or pragmatism may find the beliefs very satisfying and useful.
But there’s a difference between “private” and “public” ways of knowing. A private way of knowing can be used by an individual to decide what’s true. A public way is used by a society. Something that works for an individual may not work for society.
For instance, a person who is sick would be wise to have faith in the wisdom of medical authorities and follow their advice. But how can the world’s medical authorities themselves decide what’s true? Not by using authority because there are no other medical authorities to turn to. Could they use tradition? If medical authorities merely accepted traditional beliefs, medicine would stagnate. It would never advance if it just believed what had always been believed. Should they use faith? We saw earlier the disastrous result when medicine turned to scripture, in Justinian’s era. So how can society’s authorities find truth?
Medicine uses science’s way of knowing, a public way of knowing that avoids many of the revelational way’s shortcoming. Therefore, medicine is free to correct its mistakes. It’s free to acquire new knowledge, to adapt and evolve. And rather than thinking itself in possession of the final and complete truth, it sees itself in the endless pursuit of more and better knowledge.
Religion’s authorities could also use science’s way of knowing, as coming chapters describe. Like medicine, religion could correct its errors. It could grow, adapt and evolve, in an endless pursuit of knowledge and truth. But it usually doesn’t. Rather, religious authorities find the truth by following tradition, by believing what their predecessors did.
But how did the original authorities know? God told them. Moreover, God wrote a book that is the consistent, complete, definitive expression of truth. It’s a concrete expression of higher authority that keeps leaders, as well as followers, from going astray, much as the military code is a higher authority that even a ship’s captain must obey.
God wrote the book, so follow it. Don’t try to correct it, criticize it, or improve it. That’s divine authorship in a nutshell.
Because the principle of divine authorship is basic to the revelational way of knowing, many of the shortcomings we’ve already seen ultimately derive from it. First, God wrote scripture, so it must be necessary for salvation, enlightenment, deliverance. Therefore, people who don’t have it are infidels, heathens, and will never be saved, enlightened, or delivered. Second, God wrote scripture, so it must be final and complete. Therefore, it’s unable to grow, evolve and adapt. Third, God wrote scripture, so it must be consistent and truthful. Therefore, mistakes and inconsistencies must be explained away rather than acknowledged and corrected. Each shortcoming derives ultimately from the principle of divine authorship. But the principle of divine authorship has a few shortcomings of its own.
One shortcoming can be put theologically. Divine authorship is liable to lead to an idolatrous faith that worships mere written records, mere words, as if they are God. Jewish and Christian scriptures describe how Moses overthrew from its pedestal the golden calf ([H08],EX32) his people worshiped and gave them in its place the stone tablets containing the ten commandments. Had the people put those tablets upon the same pedestal and worshiped them in place of the golden calf, their faith would have been no less idolatrous and misplaced as that of many people today who worship Torah, Bible, Quran, Gita, or Tripitaka. Another shortcoming of divine authorship is that there’s no way to independently prove that God is the author. Someone must accept the writings on faith.
Blindly accepting writings on faith is dangerous. To illustrate, some Christians regularly risk and sometimes lose their lives, motivated by words Jesus may or may not have spoken.
The gospel of Mark in the New American Bible ([N02]) has a “longer ending,” a “shorter ending,” and a “freer logion.” Which ending belongs? The question is more than academic since in the longer ending, the ending accepted in the King James Version, Jesus says:
And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover. ([H08],MK 16:17,18).
Because of these words, members of some Christian groups demonstrate their faith by handling snakes and drinking poisons. Sometimes that faith costs them their lives.
Yet the longer ending isn’t in some early manuscripts of Mark, manuscripts that a footnote ([N02],NT,65) describes as “less important.” However the importance of an ancient biblical manuscript is measured, the longer ending isn’t in some very old biblical manuscripts. Is God the author of the longer ending? Does it represent the actual words of Jesus. Or is it rather a latter-day addition to Mark’s gospel? Should these verses be in the Bible at all? The revelational way of knowing has no way of determining which ending belongs, just as it has no way of determining which books belong in the Bible. (As we saw earlier, Roman Catholics have books in their Bible that non-Catholics do not.)
Another danger of blind acceptance is illustrated by the curious story of Dionysius the Aeropagite.
Aside from troublesome passages and doubtful books in the Bible, there’s another set of writings whose inspiration has puzzled Christianity. They were written by someone called “Dionysius the Aeropagite” and also “Pseudo-Dionysius.” Although the writings of Dionysius are unknown to many Christians, they deeply influenced Christian mysticism and Christianity in general. We’ll meet his ideas often in the coming chapters, occasionally in his writings, more often in the writings of those he influenced. The writings of Dionysius again demonstrate a basic weakness of the principle of divine authorship. They were accepted not because of their content but because of their supposed authorship. In fact, Christianity had already condemned very similar ideas. Yet, when the ideas re-appeared in writings supposedly penned by a disciple of St. Paul, Christianity felt obliged to accept them. The story follows.
The biblical book of Acts records that St. Paul spoke before the “Areopagus,” the council of Athens. Paul made believers of certain Athenians, including a man whose name was “Dionysius”. As a member of the Areopagus, Dionysius became known to history as “Dionysius, the Areopagite,” just as John Smith of the Senate might be known as “John Smith, the Senator”. The conversion of Dionysius may have given welcome publicity and prestige to the young Christian religion, just as the conversion of a senator or congressman might do today for some other emerging religion.
About four hundred years later, the Christian religion had all the prestige and exposure it could desire; it was the state religion. It used its power to destroy competing religious and philosophic systems. For example, in 527 C.E. the Christian church banned ([J03],78) Neoplatonism, a system derived, as its name suggests, from the ideas of Plato. About the same time, someone, probably a Syrian monk, wrote ([D08]) The Divine Names, The Mystical Theology, and other works under the pseudonym “Dionysius the Areopagite,” that is, under the name of St. Paul’s ancient Athenian convert. The works are filled with Neoplatonic ideas. Yet because they were believed to be the writings of St. Paul’s convert they
. . . had an immense influence on subsequent Christian thought. The medieval mystics are deeply indebted to him, and St. Thomas Aquinas used him as authority. ([D08],back cover).
A curious situation: ideas once banned by the Christian church are accepted. Neoplatonism is wrong, but Neoplatonic ideas with a Christian veneer are not. True, a few churchmen may have had their doubts, but
[s]o long as his traditional identification with the disciple of St. Paul was maintained, and he was credited with being, by apostolic appointment, first Bishop of Athens, these distinctions made suspicion of his orthodoxy seem irreverent and incredible. But when the identification was questioned by the historical critics of the seventeenth century, and the tradition completely dispelled, then the term Pseudo-Dionysius began to be heard and to prevail, and criticism upon its orthodoxy arose . . . ([D08],212-3).
For over a millennium ideas are accepted, not because they pass any objective, verifiable test of truth but because they are believed to be the work of an authority. Yet when their authorship is questioned, the ideas themselves also come under question.
By the way, the Neoplatonic ideas of “Dionysius” are profound and valuable. In fact, it was probably their profundity and value that made them so attractive to the early Christian Church. The problem, however, was that the church’s way of knowing prevented it from accepting ideas not ultimately derived from Jesus. Attributing the ideas to a prime disciple of Paul was a clever but not entirely honest solution. In contrast, science is free to find the truth anywhere and accept it from anyone.
The revelational way judges a statement by judging the person who supposedly said it. If an authority—a saint or god—said something then it feels obliged to accept it. But if someone else makes a claim, it may feel unable to accept it. Because the revelational way has no method better than this, it’s a flawed way of knowing in that it cannot separate truth and wisdom from inconsistency and nonsense. Moreover, this flaw is its fundamental weakness, a weakness that follows directly from the belief that God wrote all of scripture. Because it believes God wrote scripture it cannot acknowledge or correct inconsistencies and contradictions. Rather, it must deny their existence, insisting that all of scripture is true and consistent.
Yet, there are in the world many different “revelations,” many different scriptures, supposedly written by God. They disagree with each other and even with themselves. If all were written by God, then how can we explain the inconsistencies and contradictions? If even one was written by God, then how can we explain its inconsistencies and contradictions?
If scriptures and other religious writings were entirely untrue and foolish, then the proper course would be easy—reject them entirely. But suppose they contain truth and error, wisdom and foolishness. Suppose they have much that is profound and enlightening, and much that is nonsense and wrong. Then, accepting them accepts nonsense with profundity, lies with truth. And rejecting them rejects truth and insight along with the lies and nonsense. The ideal is to take the truth and wisdom, and leave the lies and nonsense. But since it uses the revelational way of knowing, religion can’t do that, because it has no independent way of deciding what belongs and what doesn’t, what is true and what isn’t. Therefore, it demands wholesale acceptance of scripture. Some people react against such demands by entirely rejecting scripture. Other people accept scripture entirely. Neither person follows the optimum course; neither takes only the useful, inspired material and leaves the rest.
Of course, some people (perhaps the majority) take what they wish from scripture and quietly ignore the rest. But how do they decide what is true and significant, and what is false or, at least, insignificant? By faith? By instinct? By whim? Could the process of extracting truth from falsehood be done more methodically and rationally? In particular, can any recognized way of knowing reliably separate truth and wisdom from nonsense and lies?
Yes, science’s way. In fact, science routinely separates truth from falsehood, and has been doing so for centuries. Moreover, science’s way of knowing allows scientists who disagree to co-operate in a common search for truth. Scientists throughout the world routinely work together, testing and extending human knowledge. And scientific knowledge always remain open to test, revision, and improvement. Science welcomes correction, improvement, and evolution.
In contrast, different religions have no way of jointly working towards a common truth, because each is bound to follow scripture it considers complete and final. Religion has no independent way of testing scripture, much less correcting it, much less extending it. Therefore, an eternal revelation that disagrees with another will disagree eternally, dividing forever it followers and the followers of the other eternal revelation.
Of course, not all religious people follow scripture narrowly and literally. Some accept science’s view of the natural world and re-interpret scripture to fit by altering the meaning of scripture to accommodate the evidence. For example, if evolution contradicts the Bible then they re-interpret the Bible. Genesis isn’t to be taken literally and scientifically, they say, but symbolically; evolution and Genesis are both true, each in their own way. These believers, who are often in liberal and progressive groups, accept a “de-absolutized” view of scripture. They don’t use the revelational way of knowing exclusively to find religious truth. Rather, they indirectly use science’s way, too, to decide religious dogma. Sometimes, such people are empirical and experimental, open to new truths and old verities, taking truth in whatever book, person or scripture they find it, rejecting untruth no matter who said it. In this, they approach the scientific way of knowing truth.
Conversely, some scientists hold scientific truth in a dogmatic, closed-minded way. In this, they fail to fully live up to science’s way of knowing. We’ll turn to the scientific way of knowing after we discuss a final point.
Science’s way of knowing ultimately depends on reason, not faith. Is reason capable of answering life’s most important questions? Many religions argue it is not. Let’s examine a typical argument.
We’re just fallible human beings. So how can we expect to attain higher truth, divine truth, salvation, or enlightenment without supernatural help? After all, we all make mistakes. Our senses are fooled by optical illusions. Our reasoning and understanding is limited. There are many things we don’t fully or even partially understand. We err in common, everyday opinions and judgements. We’ll never find religious, spiritual or metaphysical truth on our own.
Therefore, the Divine must actively reach out and reveal Itself to us if we are to be saved, delivered, or enlightened. But our imperfect minds may fail to understand or appreciate revelation. The revelation may seem imperfect, wrong, even foolish. If it does, the fault is ours, not revelation’s. Therefore, even if divine revelation seems wrong or foolish—as it well might—we must nonetheless accept it and cooperate with God in our deliverance.
An early Christian who seems to have accepted such an argument is Justin Martyr. When Justin
. . . recognized the great difference between the human mind and God, he abandoned Plato and became a Christian philosopher. ([P01],146).
. . . that the human mind could not find God within itself and needed instead to be enlightened by divine revelation—by means of the Scriptures and the faith proclaimed in the church. ([P01],146).
Justin believed God had to answer ultimate questions in inspired scripture, because the human mind could never find the answers on its own. Only through an act of God could the human race come to know these essential truths, and be redeemed.
Justin decided—with one fateful, irrevocable decision—not to trust his own mind but scripture instead. But if the human mind is so faulty and liable to err, is it safe to make one irrevocable decision as Justin did? Is it safe to decide once and for all and then follow, regardless of any evidence that later comes to light? Wouldn’t it be better to constantly test what is thought true? to correct errors when they become apparent? to constantly look for more accurate beliefs? In other words, wouldn’t it be better to use science’s way of knowing?
It is to science’s way of knowing that we now turn.