Monday, March 14, 2011

Truth And The Bible I - Prior Commitments Outside The Bible

What follows is a long response to a discussion here. It is not even marginally on topic, would be far too long for a comment, yet it deals with issues under discussion. I dealt, years ago, with these same topics with Neil, who also seemed not to get the point I was trying to make. My hope is that I've become better at explaining this stuff.

In any discussion on the nature of truth in the Bible that includes literalists, one finds what is, in essence, a defense of a particular view of truth that is usually labeled "correspondence". This is the theory that states truth pertains when there is a direct, discernible relationship between the things we say or write, and our experience. Now, the correspondence theory of truth, or at least a version of it, which I will be calling the "weak version", is a good approximation of how we conduct our affairs in everyday life. Communication needs to have a certain level of mundane reliability. As an evolutionary tool, language only works as a survival tool if those who use it understand a certain amount of correspondence between what is said and what is happening. If we doubt that, the saber-tooth tiger that is lurking around the corner may pounce on us because we don't trust the other hunters trying to warn us about it.

At the same time, just because the "weak version" of correspondence has some commonsense validity does not mean it is the sole, or even the best, theory of truth out there. After all, part of the problem is confusing "the correct conveyance of immediate information" with truth as a philosophical category. Just as Newtonian physics works well enough as an approximation for how things operate here on earth at non-relativistic speeds and at the macroscopic level, but breaks down once we start dealing with relativistic velocities and sub-atomic particles, correspondence starts to fall apart once we start to push it toward conveying more than simple facts to truth.

Conveying facts, contingent events, and truth, a quality that obtains throughout the changes of time and space, is qualitatively different. Correspondence does the former quite well. It cannot do the latter for the simple reality that facts exist, they can be pointed to in space and time, plotted on a graph, that kind of thing. Truth, being a universal (at least in philosophical parlance), does not "exist" in this mundane way.

Now, one could argue that I am confusing the matter, since the issue of correspondence concerns itself with the reliability of the reports of various events and persons in the Bible. For example, when the Bible reports the siege of Jericho, the walls are said to have collapsed after the people marched around them and blew their horns. Now, archaeologists have examined the wealth of remains of old Jericho and find no evidence the walls collapsed or were otherwise breached. I have been accused of putting more faith in the archaeologists than in the Scriptural narrative, but right here lies the essence of the confusion. If our trust in the Biblical narrative rests upon a trust in the correspondence between the events depicted in Scripture, either fantastic or mundane, and actual historical events, then the Bible loses. Particularly if the standard is, as it often is claimed to be, that any Scriptural passage so proven factually inaccurate calls the entire body of writings in to question.

There are a variety of understandings of truth: logical coherence, the evidential theory, the pragmatic theory, and the correspondence theory (Karl Popper via Karl Hubner). They are sometimes overlapping, sometimes contradictory, sometimes complimentary, but each is proposed because of limitations and flaws in the others. Relying on any of them for an understanding of truth when reading the Bible forces us to face their limitations.

A prior commitment to any theory of truth, particularly a strong version of the correspondence theory, misses a not unimportant fact. The Bible itself offers a view of truth that is fundamentally distinct from any of these. In the Gospel of St. John, Jesus proclaims himself to be "the Truth", as well as the way and the life. It seems to me that we need to start here for an understanding of truth in the Bible.

Virtual Tin Cup

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