Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Just Words

Interviewed by Salon.com in support of his book-length expatiation of the Courtier's Reply, Saving Darwin: How to Be a Christian and Believe in Evolution, Karl Giberson lets this fly:

In the Bible, you read the same events chronicled by different writers, and they put things in different orders or leave things out. If someone is really chronicling events, then events would be lined up in the right order. We know the Civil War comes after the American Revolution. But a biblical author, who thought for some reason that the American Revolution seemed more relevant, might reverse the order. It wouldn't be because he was incompetent historically, it would be because he was presenting these events from an agenda that's not that of a historian.
Karl Giberson is quite sure, somehow, that biblical authors are not really chronicling events but doing something else altogether. He isn't very clear just yet about what they are doing, but what's even more interesting is that if Giberson is right, it follows that they themselves were unclear about what they were doing. Reading biblical authors, one gets the distinct impression that they were chronicling events; if they were doing something other than that, they've done a piss-poor job of specifying it. But Karl Giberson knows better. He just knows! He put it in print, after all, and we should believe everything we read, provided, of course, that we're careful to pick out what the author is really doing as distinct from what he seems to be doing. Sigh.

The interview continues:
[Interviewer]: Many Christians insist the Bible is the literal word of God.

[Giberson]: Yes, that's widespread and again it's because of a certain lack of sophistication from a literary point of view. Many people translate "the word of God" into the "words of God." They don't recognize that when you talk theologically about the Bible being the word of God, you mean that it contains an important message, that God is revealing himself through the history of Israel and Jesus Christ. New Testament theology gives us the "Word made flesh in Jesus." But that phrase makes no sense if you're talking about words and sentences. But it does make sense if you're talking about some kind of revelation about the nature of God.

The Bible is correctly understood in Christianity as the Word of God. But it's a distortion to say the Bible contains the words of God as if God had dictated these things. We need to grant that there are differences in the way that biblical authors talked about the world. We can't just pull all of this into the 20th century as if it was just recently written down by God for our benefit.
Whew. It's a good thing we have Karl Giberson around to dispel the distortions afoot about what the Bible really means and really expresses. For example, he gives us this priceless business about "the word made flesh through Jesus" pointing us to a revelation about "the nature of god" above and beyond mere "words and sentences." Even if we squint hard enough to try to make sense of that, it founders on realization that when it comes to the life and times and deeper meanings of Jesus, all we have is words and sentences; that's the form of the very thing that calls for interpretation, explanation and reconciliation with the rest of our observations and knowledge. Youtube wasn't around; the camera crew for Punk'd wasn't around; there weren't any paparazzi whirling around photographing it all; no one thought to swab any good DNA samples out of any one's cheeks; no one living today was a witness to any of the events or personages, er, chronicled. We have a smattering of written records -- words and sentences -- and almost nothing more. Pointing at those words and saying "the word of God, not words of God," however emphatically, doesn't feed the chihuahua.

As for the larger question of evolution and religion, plenty of people say they accept evolutionary science comfortably alongside belief in god, and I take them at their word. I don't accept both, but that's because I accept the first and reject the second, not because they're necessarily opposed. At most, evolutionary science explains a number of things about the natural world and thus closes a steadily increasing number of gaps into which one might need to insert a god of the gaps. Moreover, evolution's track record of explaining the natural world is such that I have a high confidence level that it, and not god belief, will close the gaps that remain; and as far as track records go, assertions about god fail utterly as explanations since they invariably beg larger questions even in the rare case they succeed in saying something definite. That said, evolution is limited in scope, as is any scientific theory deserving of the name, so it doesn't pretend to be the kind of comprehensive, ultimate explanatory scheme that god belief claims to be. Thus evolution and god belief do not stand in a strictly zero-sum relationship.

Here are a couple of other discussions of Karl Giberson's new book:

PZ Myers - If you read only six pro-science, anti-fog, anti-bullshit atheistic tracts on the internets this year, make this one of the six.

Jason Rosenhouse - Thorough and knowledgeable.

Tristero - S/he tragically calls him "Gilberson," but the rest of the review is well stated.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Basically, a belief in evolution as I see it removes God from the picture for all practical purposes. And really, isn't that the goal? To get rid of God? After all, if we get rid of God then we have no one we have to be accountable to. Let's face it. We don't want accountability, so if we can wipe Him out of the equation, we've got it made! We can all go live like the Devil feel like we will never have to answer to anyone. What a deal!

Dale said...

Anonymous, no. The "goal of evolution" -- that is, the goal of accepting the scientific evidence for evolution -- is not to remove god from the picture. It is the same goal -- if goal is even a word that applies here -- as embodied in accepting the evidence for the ideal gas laws in chemistry or the germ theory of disease.

By calling it a goal, you speak as though evolution is some kind of anti-god conspiracy: "hey, let's cook up a story that makes god irrelevant!" You have a right to that silly, baseless opinion about how and why evolution emerged and became what it is today, for whatever it's worth to you. I don't recommend speaking it out loud unless you want people within earshot to dismiss you as a lunatic, moron, or lunatic/moron, but of course you didn't ask for my advice and you're free to dismiss it.