Tuesday evening (14 May 2013), I attended a forum on faith and science. The panel and discussion leader were all creationists, and I won’t go into the debates that we had on scientific questions. What interests me for the moment was the question of whether the events described in the Bible (or in any other religious text) have to be historically true to make a claim on our belief. Now I am a philosophical pagan, so the doctrines of Christianity are to me a matter of abstract speculation, but if the fundamentalist version of that religion is true, I ignore it at my peril. (I’ll discuss Pascal’s wager later.)
To summarize, the literalist claim of Christianity is that human beings fell into sin–call it an ontological transformation, one category into another–and require a savior to be restored. The demand of this doctrine is that the two events were real not just in the narrative of the book, but also in history.
This strikes me as an unfortunate choice in its limitation of perspective. Consider the following from Aristotle’s Poetics:
It is, moreover, evident from what has been said, that it is not the function of the poet to relate what has happened, but what may happen- what is possible according to the law of probability or necessity. The poet and the historian differ not by writing in verse or in prose. The work of Herodotus might be put into verse, and it would still be a species of history, with meter no less than without it. The true difference is that one relates what has happened, the other what may happen. Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular. By the universal I mean how a person of a certain type on occasion speak or act, according to the law of probability or necessity; and it is this universality at which poetry aims in the names she attaches to the personages. The particular is- for example- what Alcibiades did or suffered.
Let’s look at the Bible in these terms. Are human beings sinful? That depends on the definition of sin, but certainly, we can say that all of us have moral failings. Are we able to correct our condition on our own? I say yes, but it’s a valid interpretation of human nature to say no. Can belief in a story change our nature? Yes. The evidence of that is abundant.
Now there is a problem here in that our knowledge of the human condition is based on what we have observed, and history is one kind of observation. This takes us back to the debate over the necessity to assert that the events of the Fall and of Jesus’s life and death and resurrection are events that occurred outside of the books describing them.
The “sinful” nature of human beings can be observed continually. But the claim that one being became human and was sacrificed for us is an assertion about an event that if true, if unique. It is precisely a miracle, something that stands outside of the chain of cause and effect. Thus it does not qualify as data. Data is the plural of datum, one observation. Multiple observations are necessary to draw an inference. History is the accounting of events. We derive bigger ideas by looking at how one event makes another occur. The claim about Jesus is that his life is one event that affects everything.
Thus we are left with the question of whether one event is sufficient to change the way we are. My answer is yes, but in the sense that any story is sufficient. People who convert to Christianity and change their lives do so because they hear the story. But the same is true about many stories. Americans tell each other the stories of our Founders or of the Civil War, and these stories shape the way we understand our country today. The Tea Party in particular looks back to an idealized version of those Founders. (Note that I’m not saying anything is wrong about something being idealized.)
We have historical documents that demonstrate the existence of those people. But how many people review those documents and use the methods of history to verify the story? In fact, the typical reaction is to hear the narrative and to be absorbed (or not) into its world.
My point here is that the power of the story is what matters in narrative theology. Questions of the scientific or historical validity of a belief are of a different kind. It is necessary to keep clear which field of enquiry we’re operating in.
I started this with a mention of Pascal’s wager. The idea there is that a person has the choice to be a Christian or not. Pascal claimed that someone choosing to be a Christian loses nothing if he is wrong in that belief, while an atheist loses everything if he is wrong. The problem here is that Islam was known to Europeans at the time Pascal made his wager. That religion makes the same exclusive claim. My answer is that the wager itself is invalid. We have many choices about the nature of our lives. Will we be good or evil? Will we find fulfillment or not? Will we succeed at a purpose or not? To say that there is only one answer to all those questions–especially since so many stories provide meaning, stories that can contradict each other–is limiting to possibility. And possibility and the stories that we tell about it is the essence of life.