What do we make of the Bible?

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As you can tell by the title of this post, the focus of this blog might be shifting a little, away from Buddhism directly and, consistent with the last post, more into a general searching.  Actually, as I mentioned in the last post, that is what led me to  Buddhism in the first place.  

So, onto what is on my mind… the veracity of the Bible.  The Catholic Church teaches that there are two senses in which the Bible must be read and interpreted:  Literal and spiritual.  The spiritual sense can be further broken down into three categories:  The allegorical, tropological and anagogical meanings.  The allegorical meaning is the prophetic meaning of a particular text, the tropological is the moral meaning and the anagogical is the meaning that points towards a heavenly glory.  However, what I am most concerned with here is the literal sense.  

Here is what Scott Hahn has to say about the literal sense of scripture: 

Because the Bible has both divine and human authors, we are required to master a different sort of reading than we are used to. First, we must read Scripture according to its literal sense, as we read any other human literature. At this initial stage, we strive to discover the meaning of the words and expressions used by the biblical writers as they were understood in their original setting and by their original recipients. This means, among other things, that we do not interpret everything we read “literalistically”, as though Scripture never speaks in a figurative symbolic way (it often does!). Rather, we read according to the rules that govern its different literary forms of writing, depending on whether we are reading a narrative, a poem, a letter, a parable, or an apocalyptic vision. The Church calls us to read the divine books in this way to ensure that we understand what the human authors were laboring to explain to God’s people.

 

Ok, so what I take from this is that one should take great care to understand the the style in which a particular book was written, the historical context in which the book was written, and so on.  However, from my understanding, the Catholic Church also teaches that there are certain factual things that existed, as pointed out in the texts.  For example, Catholics are to believe that there was literally a man named Adam.  But this is where it gets a bit confusing.  What facts are we to take as facts and what facts are we to take as non-facts?  Let’s take the story of Noah as an example.  In response to the question, “Do Catholics believe that Noah’s Ark is a factual event,”  Joe Paprocki responds, 

No doubt, the story of Noah is based on a factual event since archaeologists have found evidence of great floods that took place during biblical times. This does not mean, however that every detail of the story of Noah’s Ark is factual. We have no reason NOT to believe that a just man named Noah saved his family and many living creatures from a flood that devastated the known world at that time. However, it is hardly conceivable that a simple man like Noah could build an ark of such huge proportions and then gather two of every known living creature – one male and one female – and house them safely within it and feed them and dispose of their waste over a period of 40 days. That’s quite a zoological feet! The less-than-factual character of this story, however, in no way diminishes the truth and sacredness of its message. At times, biblical authors, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, used figurative language to communicate God’s truth. It is indeed possible for something to be truthful but not necessarily factual.

 

Whoa, not so fast there, Mr. Paprocki.  Actually, there isn’t any archeological evidence for a universal flood.  (I’ll address evidence for a regional flood a little later).  If there were geological evidence for a universal flood, geologists would have found the same sort of geological patterns all over the world:  First, from the fast-water stage of the flood, they would have found a coarse-grained, poorly sorted deposit of sand, gravel and boulders.  Then, when the flood would have receded, they would have found only one kind of deposit:  Mud.  Lots and lots of mud.  But instead, what geologists have found is enormous variety.  Everywhere.  All around the world, there are mostly sedimentary layers that were put down one upon the other over long periods of time. Also, there would be enormous damage to the global fossil record.  Fossil records would be all mixed up as the flood ravaged the earth.  But again, this is not what has been found. 

There are other problems too, but I will only touch on these briefly here:  

  • How did all of the animals gather from the corners of the globe?  How did koalas and pandas and penguins get there?  
  • How did Noah gather food that these picky animals eat, like eucalyptus leaves, bamboo and the like?  
  • Scripture is very specific that the ark landed on Mt. Ararat, yet the fossil record for the re-population of animals throughout the world does not stem from that location and branch outward. 
  • If there was a universal flood, there should have been an interruption of records of the flourishing civilizations throughout the world. However, there is an uninterrupted geological record of civilizations (such as those in China, Egypt, Mesopotamia) before, during and after the flood period (2000-2500 BC).  In fact, there doesn’t seem to be any interruption of records of any civilization at the time the flood should have transpired. 

There are many, many other “factual” problems with the flood narrative that could be listed here.  However the point is this:  What should we take as fact (e.g. Noah was a real man who really existed) and what should we take as fiction (e.g. there was an ark that held two of every single species of animal, including food and drinking water, at the time of the flood, except those that lived in the sea, and those that were fresh water creatures, because those would have died during a universal flood that mixed salt water with fresh water)?   

What some will say is that it is the Catholic Church’s prerogative to determine what should be interpreted correctly.  Also, what is correct is what the story “says” to the faithful about salvation history, God’s covenant with man, and all of that.  However, that presupposes something:  That one believe in the church and it’s authority.  From where I’m sitting, the story can easily be interpreted another way.  God saw that every single person on the face of the earth was wicked except a 600 year old man (really?  600 years old?), his wife, their three sons (who is singing that theme song now?) and the sons’ three wives.  OK, this story is straining the limits of credibility a little, don’t you think?  Who knows what the population of the world would have been during Noah’s day, but I’m guessing it was quite a lot.  Not one other non-evil person?  Children?  Toddlers? Infants?  Virgins?  Alright, alright, so let’s give God the benefit of the doubt on this one.  So, he wants to wipe the slate clean and start over.  And we should believe that it’s actually an act of mercy to do so.  But what happens soon after the The Holy Family disembarks?  They sin and fall into wickedness!  I don’t want to get into a debate about what Noah’s sin was, whether it was just drunkenness or whether incest befell the house of Noah, but it’s clear that they lost favor with the Big Guy.  So, just how effective was the flood, then?  And what does that say about God killing all of those people, and for what?  (And let’s not get into the rainbow… was it a new gift, meaning that God had to have been suspending the most basic laws of physics for millenia, or were rainbows already around and God just decided, “hey see that bow in the sky? Let’s call that a gift, a covenant.  I’m never gonna flood y’all again.”  I don’t know about you, but i’d be looking around thinking, “wow, that’s not much of a gift, man.  it’s been here forever.”  But I’ve been called ungrateful before.  

OK, so to recap:  What are readers of the Bible to take literally and what are they to take not-so-literally?  This, to me, is really important.  It throws all sorts of wrenches into the Judeo-Christian religion and ethic.  Does that mean that Jesus was really God, or was he just, you know, speaking figuratively?  Is the eucharist really his flesh and blood, or is it just, you know, tea and crumpets?  Did God really kill all those people in the Old Testament, or was he just being hyperbolic?  Did Jesus really raise from the dead or is that just a figure of speech?  I think you get the point.  

Now, onto the “local flood” theories.  As far as I’ve read, it’s a mixed bag of evidence.  However, one problem I have with the local flood theory is that God said he was never going to flood the earth and wipe it out again.  If he was referring to just the local vicinity in the middle east, well that’s just all well and dandy for him (and them), but there have certainly been great destruction and loss of life to many other areas of the world by flooding.  I guess if God only meant Noah’s neighborhood, he’s not technically a liar then, is he.  What about Genesis 7:19 that very specifically says “all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered.”  That sounds pretty specific.  Could it be referring to just the local hood?  Doesn’t sound like it to me.  Mt. Everest is over 29,000 feet up.  And more specifically, the Bible says that the highest peak was covered by 15 cubits of water.  How could the author of the story have known that? That much water, to cover Mt. Everest by about 22 feet is a shit ton of water.  I have a hard time reconciling the incredible specificity of certain verses that point in one direction and biblical theories that seem to be designed to fit current scientific fact.    

The questions, concerns, and doubts that are raised in the Flood narrative can easily be added to just about any other Bible story.  It has me re-evaluating so many things.  It may make me sound like I’m really hostile to the God of the Bible, but if, after a lot of study and scrutiny, I’m forced to conclude that it’s a bunch of horse hockey, well, I have to be intellectually honest with myself.  That’s all I can do.  I don’t mean to be insensitive or rude.  I do however, communicate in style that is my own.  

Let me end with this.  If there is something i’ve missed or that i’m incorrect about, please, correct me.  Good night.  

A return from the blogging sabbatical

 

 

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I decided to take some time off from writing, although perhaps it wasn’t really a conscious decision. That’s pretty funny though, considering I had only just begun.  Instead, I have been continuing to wrestle various issues, mostly centered around my full-time struggle with religion, god, and the like.  I don’t remember what has been shared previously here, and I haven’t looked through previous blog posts in a while. The gist of my conundrum has been that I had left the Catholic Church some time ago and, ipso facto, any real, substantial belief in “god” has pretty much been jettisoned as well.  Instead, I have gravitated towards a more Buddhist spirituality due to a lack of “proof” of the former.  (This isn’t to say that I buy into the Buddhist belief of reincarnation and other shit like that.  I find such things as fanciful as other religious beliefs.)

What has been so attractive about Buddhism is what Siddhartha Gautama said (and I’m obviously paraphrasing here):  Don’t take anything I say just on faith alone.  Take what I say and test it.  If it fails you, abandon it.  If you find that it works, then use it.  There seems to be an “empirical-ness” built into the method of Buddhist practices.  I dig that.  Some have argued with me that the same sort of “cause and effect” relationship exists with prayer in Christianity.  I say, “nay nay.”  In Christianity, insofar as I understand it, one offers prayers to the deity and, as a result, grace, peace, joy and other gifts are metered out as that deity sees fit.  It was my experience that such gifts did not come.  Sorry, there was no Santa Claus.  However, with Buddhist meditation, with focusing on breathing, with actively performing things designed to quiet my mind, I absolutely did experience peace, a decrease in anger, and an increase in clarity in thinking.  I also noticed that my relationships with others improved.  I have been much more happy.

 In spite of the obvious benefits of Buddhist practice, I still find myself searching for answers to the “god” question. Some of the questions that  just vex me to no end are:

1.  If God exists, why does he (sic) make his presence so difficult to discern?  A related question is,

2.  If the Christian God is real, why must THE most important decision of a human being’s entire life be based on something that is so difficult to discern AND be made on pure faith?  Namely, we must believe and accept that Jesus is Lord in order to be saved.  Otherwise, guess what awaits us?  That to me is simply untenable.   We could go on for days and days about this point alone, but what if, through honest investigating and searching, I come to the rational belief that Jesus was not God, using all of the “gifts” of my intellect, will, senses, etc.?  Would I still be banished to hell for that decision?  What does that say about this all-merciful God?  “Sorry, Johnny. You work on the problem was sound, but you still got the answer wrong.  You still failed the test.  No partial credit.  Go to hell.”  “Sorry God, my name isn’t Johnny. YOU go to hell.”

3.  If the Christian God is real, how can he be both all merciful and all just?  How can opposite qualities, being possessed to infinite degrees, exist in a rational, intelligent being simultaneously?  That defies all logic.  “Sorry, it’s a mystery!”  Don’t give me that.  That’s a cop out for something you don’t understand.  And, I don’t mean to sound glib or disdainful.  I just can’t take such “god of the gap” answers and fallacious reasoning any longer.  Of course, if my reasoning has any problems in it, I’m completely open to it being pointed out.

4.  If the Christian God is real, how are the numerous scriptural contradictions and obvious fabrications explained?  (I do not care to list them here.  For a brief listing, see Dan Barker’s book, Godless, or just use Google or something.)

5.  If God exists and we have immortal souls, at what point in the evolutionary development of man did “souls” get infused into human beings?  There are all sorts of logical problems with this.  And, for the record, I do believe in evolution.  To deny the truth of evolution is to act as if one has had a transorbital lobotomy.  I will not go into the defending evolution here, but the evidence for the existence of evolution is so overwhelming, that one has to be practically decerebrate to deny it.  (And so, how could a specific man named Adam be made from the dirt?)

This list could go on ad infinitum (a little more latin as a shout out to my Catholic friends), but these are just some of the questions that still make me lose sleep.  I’m simply not satisfied with throwing up my hands and saying, “aw fuck it, I’ll never have answers to these questions.”  Neither am I satisfied with the cop out, “You just gotta have faith, Michael!”  (Please do not start singing George Michael.  Please.)  The reason I think this is a cop out is that, if God really made us, then he also made our intellects, our reasons, our senses.  It seems to me entirely ridiculous and cruel for a god to give us such capabilities and then to demand that they be purposely suspended.  “Sorry kids, I want you to just ‘believe! Use those tools for discovering that spoiled milk is yucky, but when it comes to proving that I exist, sorry, I’m not going to subject my superior nature to being discovered that way!”

One last thought before I wrap up.  This part of my life is extremely difficult, and I don’t share either it or that it is difficult lightly.  I do not desire condolences or sympathy.  However, I do wish to explain something.  When belief in a god, especially as defined by a religion that one loves, no longer seems tenable, it’s as if one’s world is turned upside down.  The warm rug that one used to curl up on and fall asleep on has been pulled out and tossed asunder.  There is not a small amount of fear, anxiety, depression, disorientation, loneliness, self-doubt, and anger.  I’m sure there are other emotions as well, but those are the ones closest to the surface right now.

These emotions may come out in communication with others, in Facebook posts, in overall demeanor, and the like.  To most people, that would seem perfectly natural.  To the most judicious and gracious of souls, I’ve been met with warm hugs, understanding nods, and accepting words.  To her great credit (and perhaps the greatest proof of a loving god so far), my loving wife has treated me in the most admirable of ways and she has my praise.  However, there are some who have reacted to me in various, negative ways.  I’ve been called an apostate.  I’ve had various personal faults of mine voiced publicly by friends who felt that I was acting disdainful towards their religion.  All this goes to show me that this topic hits so very close to home and I guess I can’t really blame others for reacting with such strong emotion when I, myself, am also experiencing similar strong emotions.  These issues touch the core of who we identify ourselves as being. I can tell you that I will try to treat everyone with respect.  I may not respect beliefs that I think are silly (if you think that you need to cut your testicles off, where fancy sneakers and kill yourself so that you will meet up with a spaceship, yeah, that’s pretty stupid in my opinion) but I will try to convey that, as a person, you are worthy of respect and love.  I hope that you all can do the same.

Thanks for reading.  More to come.  -michael