Monday, July 11, 2005

A lovely post from Fred over on Slacktivist:

There we were, in Jericho. As in Joshua fit the battle of. At 260 meters below sea level, it is the lowest city on earth. It is probably also the oldest. Humans have been living in Jericho more or less continuously for more than 10,000 years. In touring the excavations at Jericho, we saw one unearthed stone structure that the archaeology student guiding us around the dig said was probably about 8,000 years old.

This was mind-boggling for all of us. We were all Americans -- people who think of places like Independence Hall or the chapels of Santa Fe as "ancient" because they have stood for centuries. We had a tough enough time with the Roman sites we had visited earlier, yet there we were, staring at this Neolithic wall that had already stood for millennia when Caesar was born.
So, you know, impressive.

But for one fellow student it was horrifying. He had been raised in a fundamentalist church to believe in a six-day creation and a young earth. How young? They embraced the skewed arithmetic of the infamous Bishop Usher, the Irish churchman who, in the 17th century, added up all the genealogies of the Old Testament and concluded that God created the earth in 4004 B.C.E. So there my friend stood, in 1990, in Jericho, believing that the universe was 5,994* years old and staring at a man-made wall that was 8,000 years old.

Something had to give.

The most dangerous thing about fundamentalism is not that it sometimes teaches wacky ideas, like that the world is barely 6,000 years old or that dancing is sinful. The most dangerous thing is that it insists that such ideas are all inviolably necessary components of the faith. Each such idea, every aspect of their faith, is regarded as a keystone without which everything else they believe -- the existence of a loving God, the assurance of pardon, the possibility of a moral or meaningful life -- crumbles into meaninglessness....

There's more, of course -- go finish it. But that paragraph there nails what is wrong with the Fundavangelical mind: the utter refusal to see that the text must be a metaphor: the insistance on seeing the text as literal.

Well, whoa, doggy, son.

(1) The text can't be literal. Why? Because it's written in words. Words, by their nature, are metaphors. That is, words communicate by saying this is like that. (By which I mean: the word dog is not an actual dog. So when I say dog to you I am using a metaphor to carry across an idea into your head.)

With me so far?

(2) The text was written in Hebrew, among other languages. Mostly, Fundavangelicals are reading it in English. Think about reading, oh, say, Shakespeare -- an easy Shakespeare sonnet -- in English. Think about trying to translate that into another language. ("When my love swears that she is made of truth / I do believe her though I know she lies") -- think about trying to get the layers of meaning, the puns, the connotations, into the other language. Could it be done? Do you think the translators have been able to get the multiple layers of Hebrew into English? (I'll help you out: no. They got a meaning into the English. They did not get all the meaning: they lost the connotation and the subtext and much of the metaphor.)

(3) Suppose there is, in fact, a giant sky being. I mean, suppose, for the purposes of this argument, that one exists. Suppose that sky critter decided to communicate, for reasons of its own, with humans, through human langauge. How much meaning do you think this omniscient sky critter, who exists on some other plane of existence entirely, outside of mortal time, apparently, and clearly outside of mortal reality, is going to be able to pack into mortal words? (I'll help you out again: not much.)

(4) Besides that, the text that Christians have is just the lecture notes. Why no one ever explains that I don't know. They need to be reading the Midrash. It's like reading the lecture notes and never going to class. They're missing all the important stuff.

So, yes: it's a metaphor. The text is a metaphor. Do you get it? It's words on a page, meant to say not the world is this, but the world is like this, watch, do you see how this can work?

It's a tool, in other words. One of many. A useful tool, bits of it. The problem arises when you insist on it being the only tool we can use, or the only real tool in the world, or the only tool that isn't eee-eee-eeevil, and you get my point.

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