Knowledge and faith: calling the Bible into question
“The Bible is not a scientific book, so it doesn’t have to follow the laws of science.” That is, quite often, the response given by Christians confronted with the six-day creation story, the global flood, or the parting of the Red Sea.
It’s a response that seeks to salvage religion in the face of empiricism—to regain the confidence of a flock presented with the accumulating testimony of scientific data.
The refrain has nearly become dogma as its recitation continues to shelter Christianity from the prying eyes of the quizzical. If the Bible is not a scientific textbook, the argument asserts, then its scientific errors cannot be used against it.
It’s ultimately a roundabout way of asserting the essential faith that is necessary for any religious belief system. Ironically, they are trying to use straight forward logic to account for something that has nothing to do with logic.
Enough. The Bible is obviously not a scientific textbook and no one is asking it to be and that is not the point. What the Bible is, what it is supposed to be, is a work of non-fiction. Christians believe that Jesus really died on Friday and came back to life three days later on Sunday. They really believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, that he walked on water, that he turned water into wine (without first using the water to grow grapes), and that he raised Lazarus from the dead. These are facts that make up the Christian worldview, although there are plenty of variations of interpretation within other various denominations of Christianity.
And as with all non-fiction books the Bible is filled with other facts, some less consequential than others, that are tangential to the main story. Balaam’s donkey talked to him. The Apostle Paul was a poor public speaker. God told the Israelites not to chop down fruit trees while laying siege to a city because trees are not people. These serve as narrative elements that work in conjunction with the much larger tale at hand, but the idea is that these small real-to-life personal details allow for degrees of relation between the reader/believer and the text he or she is reading. They structure the experience of the narrative through the personal as well as the Absolute and the ephemeral, thereby supporting the authority of the text as a whole through the relations built between it and the reader.
The formula is the same in other non-fiction books. “The Autobiography of Malcolm X”, for example, does not merely recite the facts of Malcolm X’s life. There are other facts littered through the book. There was rampant racism in Omaha, Nebraska. Several of X’s family members joined the Nation of Islam. The prison where X did his time had a debate team. These are verifiable Facts that, if wrong, would cast a shadow over the entire narrative. If Omaha was actually a post-racial Utopia, we would question X’s grasp of reality from that period forward. And while “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” is surely not a scientific text book, the existence of gravity is never called into question. No one is raised from the dead.
In short, we have reason to trust the story Malcolm X tells us because his version of reality tracks well with what we know about the universe we live in. Is it 100 percent accurate? No. But it’s a worthy attempt. And, after all, “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” was not inspired by God. Some inaccuracies are to be expected.
The Bible, on the other hand, tells us that Jesus really did calm a storm by talking to it. That Elijah was taken to heaven on a chariot of fire.
That mankind was formed on the sixth day. That bats are birds. And this is the book Christians believe to be inspired by God.
It uses its symbolism in ways that allow for very real seeming relationships to form between people and between the world at large, and this is the power of its narrative.
Nonetheless, it has to be understood that there aren’t verifiable facts used, for the most part, and it should be seen how basing an entire belief system on information without evidence or any real-life, material reference, is always going to be in the end based on faith. So, that’s that.
On one hand we understand The Bible is not a scientific textbook, but on the other its science is so poor that it begs the question: if the Bible is wrong about the basic laws of the universe, what else is it wrong about?