Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Do ye think that the scripture saith in vain?

This post is going to be a bit of a departure from what I'm usually writing in here, but since I haven't written anything for quite some time, posting at all seems to go against the current trend, I suppose.

Earlier today, I received a comment on an old post, and I responded to it as I just about always try to do. While I was responding, though, as I also often do, I looked through previous comments on the same post. I came across a comment from good ol' Anonymous (back in those days, Anonymous had time to read religious blogs, because he wasn't so busy trying to defend Julian Assange and take down the capitalist system), a comment I had responded to with a question that never got answered. Anonymous said:
The problem with the bible is that different people have different beliefs about what it says.
To this I made the following reply:
Is that a problem with the Bible, or a problem with us? I don't ask that question rhetorically, either; I'm curious what you think about it. Isn't it a fact of life in the way language, intelligence, and communication work that the transfer of information between two beings is always limited? Sure, some people have insisted that a book written by God should transcend this tendancy (and maybe you yourself are trying to assert that position), but how do we know this is so?
No reply was forthcoming, but as I said, I was really quite curious as to people's opinions on the matter. As a Christian, I of course believe that God is perfect, and as a perfect being, He would have made the Bible exactly as it needed to be. That being said, can we say that the Bible is exactly as it needed to be?

Now it may depend on what you believe the Bible needs to be, of course. If you think the Bible should be completely without factual error in content or technical error in reproduction, you're probably going to have a hard time showing that the Bible fits the bill. If you believe that the Bible was a document that spoke in an important moral and metaphorical fashion to the ancient Israelites, you'll find it easy to show the Bible fits that niche. I'm pretty sure that most people who believe that the Bible has value at all fall somewhere in between these two extremes. But if the Bible doesn't fit your expectation for a divinely-inspired book, do you change your mind about the Bible's worth, or do you reexamine your expectations? (And it's important to note that neither of these is necessarily wrong; in science, when scientists find data that doesn't fit the prevailing theory, they are probably more likely to revise the theory than assume the theory is garbage.)

The second point that I'm going to try to emphasize--and then stop writing before I go too far in answering the question rather than just asking it openly--is that I believe there is something in the nature of communication itself that makes it impossible to communicate abstract concepts perfectly. If this is true, then since most of what the Bible has to teach us is largely abstract in nature, perhaps it can't be perfect.

Here's a story that may not be necessary in order to convey the concept I'm trying to explain; I read this as a logic puzzle many many years ago. So there's this army that wants to go and invade a town that lies on the other side of a valley. They send a scout ahead to observe the town and message back to the army when the town appears to be entirely asleep. Since this whole story is taking place a few hundred years ago, the army is not using radios to send signals, but rather they have a code system by which they send messages through waving a torch in particular ways. Now, both the main mass of the army and the scout have been ordered by their king that since they are using this form of communication, they are not to proceed with the raid until they are sure all messages between the scout and the army are verified received by the other party. Here's the trouble: When the scout realizes the timing is right, he goes out into the open on his side of the valley and sends the signal for, "Attack now." Needing to verify this message, a communications officer on the other side sends the signal "Message received." Can the attack proceed? No, because the scout has just been sent a message, that message being, of course, "Message received." Since this is a message, the scout must signal back, "Message received." Ready to attack? Nope, the army needs to send a confirmation of receipt of the scout's second message. If the army and the scout obey the order of the king to the letter, the attack will never happen and the two parties will spend the whole night standing on either side of the valley waving their torches until they burn out.

My take from this story? Communication of complete and fully-understood ideas is, in some ways, absolutely impossible. My question restated? What does the nature of communication between imperfect people and a (supposedly) perfect God through the Bible say about God, the Bible, and the way we perceive Him and/or it (whether He exists or not)?