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December 3rd, 2019

Knowledge Or Certainty…Pick One.

An antidote to Franklin Graham’s recent scolding of Jimmy Carter on the biblical truth of homosexuality and sin: Fred Clark on reading the Bible as if it were a children’s book:

To me, stories like this are a reminder that our Bible is an ancient book. If the past is a different country, then the ancient world is a different planet. The ancient stories of our Bible can be inscrutable, impenetrable, and bewildering. An important part of our task as modern readers, then, is to admit and accept that we are bewildered.

We don’t like to do that. We like to pretend that the Bible is as simple, tidy, “perspicuous,” and self-evidently clear in its meaning as our own Arch Books adaptations of it. It becomes merely a collection of stories like that children’s-book version of the story of Josiah — an anthology of facile fables with simple “morals” that no one would ever regard as unsettling or disturbing in any way.

Why would an atheist like myself even care what is or is not true about the bible…I hear you asking? Because in these days of white fundamentalist supremacy and triumphalism it is especially worth keeping in mind, and speaking out about whenever the Franklin Graham’s of the world insist that their interpretation is the only true one. To just sweep it all aside with a shrug about well that’s just religion is to concede not only the validity of the fundamentalist’s own reading as at least a legitimate take on it, but more critically, it is to dismiss the importance of something Jacob Bronowski once said about the importance of knowledge over certainty:

One aim of the physical sciences has been to give an exact picture of the material world. One achievement of physics in the twentieth century has been to prove that that aim is unattainable. There is no absolute knowledge and those who claim it, whether they are scientist or dogmatist, open the door to tragedy. All knowledge, all information is imperfect. We have to treat it with humility.

Always and in every important human endeavor we must ask ourselves over and over, what do we know and how to we know it. And we need to treat the answers nature reveals to us with humility. For the absolute perfect god’s eye view of the universe is not ours to have. Science tells us this, but it is also something to bear in mind while reading Any ancient text, even or especially, those that aspire to religious teachings we are being asked to consider as moral guidance. The lessons the ancients may have had in mind may be completely inscrutable to us in the 21st century. We only think we know what they’re saying to us. Their lives and their times are far, far removed from our own. We need to treat their text with the same humility that we do any result nature provides from any science experiment. And this is important: that does not mean we can never know anything, only that what we know exists within an area of uncertainty that is always present. We are not gods, we are human. We must be careful. We have to keep asking questions and acknowledge where we are unsure.

For obvious reasons the fundamentalist does not want us to be careful, let alone ask questions, let alone to know that we do not know or that our knowledge is incomplete. We must simply believe what they tell us, and do what we’re told. But believer or not. Whether or not we accept the religious belief system in question there is still the question of fact as to what the bible says, and the context from which it is saying it. You cannot just sweep that aside with an instruction to just believe from the pulpit, or a dismissive shrug, without discarding your human identity along with it. And this is the struggle…between knowledge that is something we receive and knowledge that is something we discover. Between those who would make us mere empty vessels for their filling, keeping us locked forever in trusting and obedient childhood that is actually servitude, and the childlike hearts and minds within us that are curious, willing to discover and learn and grow.

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