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On the Myth of Scriptural Literalism

August 27, 2015

This article is important… very well put. Good clarification for people who are not themselves literalists (i.e., ideologically driven). True “literalists” (ideologues) will either not understand or not agree with the points… UNLESS they are on the way out themselves, as many are.

And Harris (with some others), as bright as he is, indeed does commit the kind of analytical errors Daniel points out here. A much more helpful and accurate appraisal of the “varieties of religious experience” (ala William James) and religious culture can be found in Ken Wilber and Integral Theory.

Daniel O. McClellan

I recently read Sam Harris’ The End of Faith. It was an interesting, albeit laughably uninformed, manifesto against religion, but one aspect of the author’s fundamental argument struck me as particularly poorly conceived and communicated: the notion of “scriptural literalism.” In an effort to marginalize and dismiss the experiences and perspectives of more liberal and progressive religionists, Harris must build a case for the purity of the lived religion of fundamentalists, and the centrality of “scriptural literalism.” That is, Harris insists that those who adhere to the “literal” meaning, or the “letter” of the scriptures, are more pious and genuine practitioners of their faith. Those who reject that “scriptural literalism” are feeding off of secular insights and so are not true practitioners of their religion. “The doors leading out of scriptural literalism,” he insists, “do not open from the inside” (18–19, emphasis in original). Liberal religion is just religion mixed…

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. September 21, 2015 3:13 am

    Very good. Thanks for sharing it. The distinction between scriptural literalism and ideological literalism is important, I think. It seems to me that what those who claim to adhere to scripture literally mean by that (even if unwittingly), is that they are attempting to be consistent and unyielding in their interpretation of scripture, in an effort to assure that their interpretation never contradicts their ideology.

    • September 22, 2015 12:30 pm

      Thanks for the feedback! And I like your angle on it. Out of this dynamic comes the unending string of “systematic” theologies… like throwing pieces from 5 or 6 jigsaw puzzles onto the table and forcing them into a single completed puzzle. (I just thought of that analogy… thanks for the stimulus!)

  2. September 24, 2015 5:45 am

    Hi Howard, great post and I’m honoured that it was inspired by leaving a comment on my blog! 🙂

    I really like much of what you’re saying, and I think I’m largely in sympathy with the basic ideas of Process theology even if I wouldn’t identify myself by that label.

    For me too, the ideas that God is Love and God is Reality are foundational:

    And I also very much agree that love cannot coerce. However, for me that does not *necessarily* preclude the possibility of any kind of miraculous or supernatural intervention within nature. What it does (for me) is set the parameters of any such act or encounter – that it would have to be loving, and/or revealing of Reality, and never a mere ‘vulgar display of power’.

    As a sort-of panentheist, I believe that God is somehow mystically present to us in and through pretty much all natural phenomena, or at least potentially and partially so. Almost anywhere can become a sacred space, almost anything a sacrament through which we can encounter God’s presence and his activity. So for me, almost everything is (in some sense, and potentially) miraculous.

    I’m interested in the idea of God creating out of chaos rather than ‘ex nihilo’, and it does make considerable sense. However, for me it also raises troublesome questions – what are the origins and nature of this primal chaos? Did God create it, did some contingent being create it, or is it co-eternal with God?

    Regarding the cross, I’ve never been happy with the evangelical emphasis on penal substitutionary sacrifice as the primary lens through which we should understand Jesus’ sacrifice. But I’m also not sure I can completely discard it either; for me it’s still there in the background of the picture, albeit re-imagined and re-interpreted. From my own reading of Jesus’ words (if we can accept the gospel accounts), it does seem to me that he understood his death at least partly in this way, but certainly not limited to that model.

    My own view of the cross is that it is the ultimate example of self-giving love taken to the absolute limit and beyond. And that love becomes redemptive; offers us the chance to be transformed.

    • September 24, 2015 12:14 pm

      Harvey, thanks for the meaty response! (Technical point first: It reads as though you are responding to my latest, “If God is Love…” post, tho it’s showing up under an earlier re-blogged article… no worries, tho.)

      Anyway, glad we’re engaging a little discussion on sacrifice/atonement/redemption, especially as they relate to Jesus and the Bible. They ARE vital, and sometimes emotional concepts. I believe we need careful thought and careful wording to avoid confusion (or worse). Since not everyone is prone to or particularly capable of this, I hold teachers and leaders more “to account” to think through and communicate about these things carefully, and use the Bible with great care (which you surely are a good example of).

      So, as to “the cross”: I like your statement (other than going beyond the “absolute limit”… how does THAT work ? 🙂 ). I think acts of love as “redemptive”, particularly in Jesus’ case, is right and important; and leading to transformation, yes. (On this liberals and conservatives probably agree… important common ground… tho I’d say something “revelatory” was going on as well.) You probably agree with me that difficulties arise, however, in orthodox thinking, that are unnecessary. I refer to “original sin” (as real and absolute separation from God, apart from someone’s sacrificial death). The OT sacrificial system, carried fwd. conceptually in the NT, was conjoined with Jesus’ innocent death, invalidly in the view of many theologians, some even within broader orthodoxy.

      But once this is broached, it gets complicated quickly. Perhaps the central question, without dealing with all the inter-connected aspects, is whether God indeed ever required sacrificial deaths to atone for sins, because of a supposed offense to “him”, or if it was always OUR sense of guilt and our thinking that we need to atone (vs. just accepting offered forgiveness for our unsuccessfully attempted separation from God)? Then emerges the related problem of just what content and consistency of faith is required to receive that supposed in-our-place sacrifice… not a small problem whatsoever!

      • September 25, 2015 3:43 am

        Hi Howard, oops yes, no idea how I managed to reply on completely the wrong post!! I might re-post my response above in the right place.

        It’s interesting – I wouldn’t see myself as a teacher or leader, or an authority in any way, but I guess if you blog about spiritual or theological things, people may well see you in those ways, or at least be influenced by what you say. I do try to reiterate from time to time that I’m an unqualified amateur and don’t claim any authority for my outpourings!

        Re my line on ‘love taken to the absolute limit and beyond’, that was really just meant as poetic hyperbole, and not necessarily a logically watertight statement! But I would still broadly stand by it – the innocent identifying ‘unto death’ with the least and the worst seems to go to the absolute limit of what love can do, and then in the resurrection goes beyond what could ever have been expected.

        But of course in these things we’re stretching the bounds of understanding and language, and have to turn to metaphor and hyperbole. Who could really ever explain these mysteries in words?

        Re the sacrificial system and Jesus’ understanding, I’m just not sure. I’m certainly uncomfortable with orthodox ideas of original sin, and of the blood of animals covering sin even symbolically. Yet at the same time I’m still not quite able to discard so much of what seems to me to be the Hebrew or biblical understanding of these things. The approach I’m happiest with at the moment is to treat most of these things as symbols of realities too deep or mysterious to contain in mere words, or formulate into doctrines.

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