Sunday, September 18, 2011

Literally

Theology is a strange field (if, as Richard Dawkins wonders, it’s even a proper subject at all).  It’s an exercise in making stuff up to save faith from the ravages of scientific evidence.  With such an empty premise, it’s hardly surprising that the content is so often equally void of content. 

Theologians tie themselves in especially hairy knots when it comes to the literal truth or otherwise of Genesis. Modern genetics shows us that humans can’t have originated from a single pair of ancestors.  In fact, we know that at some point in our hominid past, our ancestors went through a bottleneck of a few thousand individuals, but certainly not only two.

So theology trips over itself trying to reconcile it with the account in Genesis. Usually, this is pretty easy: you just say it’s a metaphor and leave it at that.  Nevermind that there are no instructions saying which bits of the bible are supposed to be metaphors and which are supposed to be true, that – after all – is what theology is for.  You see, making stuff up to wallpaper over uncomfortable truths.

But it’s harder in the case of Adam and Eve because of the sorry doctrine of original sin.  The whole point of Christianity is that Jesus came down to Earth from his magic star to redeem us of the guilt, carried by semen (so theologians say) from Adam down, into every one of us.  For some reason, Jesus’ weird proxy blood sacrifice is meant to absolve us of these sins (you know, the ones we didn’t even have the pleasure of committing).

Nonsensical as all this is, it poses a problem for theologians. Either the Genesis story is literally true or it’s a metaphor.  If it’s a metaphor then the central premise of Christianity is broken: there’s no original sin so Jesus couldn’t have died to redeem it.  But we know with certainty that the story isn’t and couldn’t be literally true, so where does theology go from there?

It makes stuff up!

Mark Shea claims here that there were lots of other people around at the time of Adam and Eve.  Adam is the ancestor of all living humans, but not the only ancestor, since Adam and Eve’s children were impregnated by all the other people around at the time.  Problem solved…. except that isn’t what the bible says.  There’s nothing in it about all these other people.  It’s all just made up so that the story makes (very slightly) more sense.  It can be literally true if you fudge the details in a way that’s not at all supported by biblical text.  That kind of practice is hardly bubbling with intellectual honesty or even internal integrity.  And besides, if the story of Genesis is a metaphor, what’s it a metaphor for?  As a metaphor for the big gang, the formation of the galaxies and evolution, for example, it’s rather sadly lacking.

But as Jerry Coyne reports here, theologians are nowhere near done making stuff up.  In his words, the Catholic Church says that lies are truer than truth.  He quotes Mike Flynn:

The mythic language is truer language than newspaper language, because it brings us to the heart of what happened, which is far more important than a photographic record of what happened.

Which glosses over the idea that for something to be truer, it has to be true in the first place.  The photographic evidence would at least determine whether the event happened and then by all means ask further questions that the photograph itself doesn’t answer.  But the point is that if all you’ve got is the photograph, you can’t just make stuff up to support what you want it all to mean. 

That’s what is meant here by ‘mythic language’.  It means you can have your magic bread and eat it too.  It means lies are truer than truth.  And it means you can explain away the fact that science proves Genesis – and therefore the entire central premise of Christianity – wrong, and still believe it’s right anyway.

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