Friday, October 07, 2011

The Bible as literature

Ancient literature is not really my thing. No one can study everything, and I'm happy to pick up bits and pieces of ancient literature from secondary and tertiary sources.

I personally don't find the Bible particularly profound, but to hold that the Bible is a profound work of literature from cover to cover — that it contains nothing but valuable insights into human nature and the human experience — works not at all against the New Atheist or anti-religious project. The metaphorical, literary insights in any work of literature has nothing to do with the literal truth of those metaphors. The Iliad can be (and is) a profound work of literature (more profound than the Bible in my not-at-all-humble opinion), can (and does) offer valuable insights into human nature and human existence, without Zeus, Hera, etc. being literally true. One does not need a shred of faith to find value in literary metaphor; one must only relate the work to one's own experience: an endeavor as scientific in spirit as the most rigorous experiment in particle physics. We require either proof or faith only when we cannot directly and rationally relate the metaphor to our personal experience.

I simply cannot relate, for example, the experience of Nazi Germany to my own experience. If you told me the story of Nazi Germany and the Second Imperialist war as a work of fiction, I would dismiss it as incomprehensible nonsense: it cannot be that actual human beings would do such a thing. The only way I can believe it is that we can prove that it really did happen.

Thus with the Bible: If its metaphors are accessible, then I need no faith to use them. I don't have to "believe in" God or Jesus any more than I have to believe in Zeus and the Fates to appreciate the Iliad. On the other hand, I would have to have either faith or proof to believe in Nazi Germany. Since I renounce faith, without proof I would find its metaphors useless.

If so-called religious people want to put the Bible (and the Koran, etc.) on the same intellectual footing as the Iliad, then the Atheists have won. Our project is not to destroy the literary value of the Bible; our project is to destroy the notion that it has value because, like the story of Nazi Germany, is is true.

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