If the first talking snake had kept shtum, we wouldn't be here. Eve wouldn't have eaten the forbidden fruit. But she listened and was curious. So she fell into humanity, thank God. Good old snake, say I. I celebrate its independence of mind. Satan? Neh, that's a later interpretation. The snake was part of the divine purpose. God allowed it into the garden, aware of its linguistic abilities. He knew what would happen. Jesus commended dove-like innocence. AND the wisdom ... of the snake.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

I'm over the moon. Literally? Of course not

Some people don’t seem able to recognise a figure of speech even when it is staring them in the face. That’s a figure of speech, by the way. Combinations of words, such as figures of speech, do not possess eyes.

I contend (see "My starting point", which I encourage all visitors to this blog to read, since it explains its raison d’etre) that Genesis 1 - 11 cannot be read literally, even if one mistakenly supposes it necessary to try. You might think you have read it literally but trust me, you haven’t. All right, don’t trust me: why should you? But do bear with me and I’ll demonstrate.
God said, "Let there be light."

Leave aside the question, which I will address at another time, of how anyone knows what God might or might not have said given that no-one was there taking notes. Leave aside the question of how his utterance actually prompted the eruption of light energy and what form its emission took. If you really can’t see that Genesis, if it were a scientific document, is vague and unhelpful at precisely the point where you would expect it to provide some data, you’re reading the wrong blog. Thanks for dropping by, but I’m talking to earthlings here. Let’s ask ourselves what it might mean for God to speak.

Has he ever spoken to me?

I believe so; and I think the kind of experiences that I’d describe in that way are broadly similar to those of other religious people. For a person to hear God speak means that they are confronted by some imperative, or perhaps some message of reassurance, that transforms their perceptions and alters their behaviour. God, as any preacher will have said many times, uses different media through which to address us: TV, newspapers, other people, books of all kinds, and indeed the Bible. The "voice of conscience" is not to be equated with divine utterance but God may none theless communicate through our social conditioning. Among the "God spoke to me" experiences I would have to list would be a TV screening of "Dr Strangelove", round about 1980. Prior to that, nuclear weapons were to worry about. Thereafter, they were to campaign against, a fact which did much to shape my priorities and commitments for the next decade. Something touched me through that movie, making me aware of human madness and evil as I had never been before, but also firing me to sign up for the protest movement which was growing rapidly in Britain at that time.

But I make no claim for God’s utterance as in any way literal. That’s true for a number of reasons. Nothing happened that I could have saved as a tape recording. I could not tell you whether God has Yorkshire accent or sounded a bit hoarse that day. Now, try to score one over me if you will, tell me that when God speaks to you he sounds like he’s from Halifax, would probably get on all right singing second tenor and tends to drop his voice at the end of a sentence; but this sounds more like psychosis than spirituality to me. You may have been "hearing things" but not in a good way. After all, if God speaks to Belgians, which cannot be ruled out even if they do seem a pretty secular bunch on the whole, a Halifax accent is not going to do much for his intelligiblity. One would assume he speaks to them in either French or Flemish, with no hint of an accent that might make him sound foreign. In other words, we always imagine God as speaking in our own language and in just the way we use it ourselves. Well, he’s ominpotent, so that’s not a problem. What is a problem is the notion that we can describe his speech in the sort of detail we would apply to anyone else’s. I would need to check this, but it seems to me the Bible rarely uses anything other than the simple, unqualified verb to indicate divine utterance. Thus says the Lord is everywhere, but not: thus gabbles the Lord, thus mumbles the Lord, thus yells the Lord, thus insinuates the Lord. Not thus says the Lord, tongue in cheek; thus says the Lord, wistfully, cryptically, defiantly.

Why should this be so? Here is an indicator that the language is indeed figurative. Take the cliché I used at the start of this message. If I said I had a problem to which the answer was staring me in the face, you’d know what I meant. You would not ask: what colour were the answer’s eyes? How long did it stare at you without blinking? Was it wearing glasses? If you did ask such questions, you would betray complete ignorance of what figurative language is. Similarly, if you told me that God spoke to you and I asked if he rolls his r’s, you’d think I was taking the mickey. Figurative usages cannot be qualified or indeed quantified; and so it is with the first recorded words of the Creator.

Let there be light, said God - but how loudly, and at what pitch? Through what medium did the sound waves travel, and what distance before the desired effect was achieved? These are questions which not only cannot be answered but shouldn’t be asked. "God said" is not a literal statement. QED. 3 verses into the Bible and creationism is in dead trouble. Actually, it’s in trouble a verse earlier, but that’s for another time.

Let Ed Babinski finish the argument. Ed is a former creationist who has now moved out of the Christian fold altogether - which is sad, but given the extreme views of the culture in which he was raised it is not surprising that his reaction to it in enlightened adulthood has also been extreme.

"My greatest fear is being stuck in heaven for eternity with a bunch of televangelists." You gotta love the guy.

Ed comes at the issue of divine speech from a comparative religion angle. His conclusion and the rhetorical question which follow it have devastating consequences for creationism’s credibility ...

In which tongue did God dictate Creation? Literalist Hebrew scholars assume that the book of Genesis contains the first recorded syllables of God's speech, "Let there be light!" (in Hebrew). Literalist Moslems insist that Arabic is the language of Allah (God), and therefore it is an insult or worse to translate their holy book, the Koran, into foreign tongues that are not the language of God. While Hindus claim that the Sanskrit syllable, "AUM," encompasses all the vibrations of Creation.

Personally, I do not pretend to know what language God used to call forth Creation. It appears that only angels were listening to God's speech at the time, and I hesitate to declare if these were Hebrew, Islamic, or Hindu angels. Therefore, I find it easiest to assume that creation by the "word" of God is merely a poetic description of how God "called" the cosmos into being. But if the description of God "speaking," and the record of His alleged "words," is poetry, what does that say about how the rest of the story in Genesis should be viewed?

I do not know that the urge to campaign against nuclear weapons that came over me as I watched Strangelove was the voice of God. As will be clear from other postings, when I reckon I know something I damn well say so. This is different. One tests revelatory convictions, as they seem, against the counsel of Christian friends, against the Church’s teaching, against Scripture, against experience and common sense. On those criteria - what with the Church issuing anti-nuclear statements all across the spectrum, friends doing civil disobedience and the small matter of the Beatitudes, it seemed plausible that the divine Spirit had got through to me. But my existential certainty was not empirical or analytical knowledge and I hope I did not confuse the two (that would have been arrogant!). I had to allow for the possibility that God had spoken to other Christians who believed in deterrence, the balance of terror, mutual assured destruction and so forth, mistaken though I believed them to be. Religious experience is like this though. Consuming, transfiguring, passionate, yes: but it does not guarantee accurate information or flawless logic. Too often in religion the claim "God told me this" or "I know because it has been revealed" is an attempt to protect a weak position from the onslaughts of rational critique. If your source of information is divine, that saves any need for consultation, but unfortunately other Christians can "know" the exact opposite of what you also "know". So it’s not knowledge at all, but conviction. Faith, of a kind.

In such a context it’s important to be clear, dogmatic if you will, about what we cannot know, however strongly we may believe it. No-one can know that light came into existence because of some words uttered by God. Besides, the logic of literal and figurative language forms, as I’ve illustrated, forces us to identify ALL "God said" statements as non-literal.


Blogger Edward T. Babinski said...

Hi Snakey,
I was doing a google search under my name and "apparent age" to see what I'd written in the past about that topic on the web. But now that I'm here, not a bad blog, I'll have to bookmark you.

Also glad to know you found something I wrote either interesting, enlightening or humorous.

Best in all you write!


4:34 am  

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