Champ, when I saw the Nichols story, I cringed just a bit because your side certainly won that battle. Of course many other battles throughout history have been much nastier.
You’re also exactly correct about some people ignoring God when they’re flush with cash and in good health. Then the wife leaves, or a loved one dies, or a job is lost and the prayerful attitude is resumed once again.
So I probably should have used a little more detail describing what I meant about making life easier. It all comes down to the various levels of literality one adheres to. Allow me now to ask a few questions, along with my answers in the following excerpt from some fiction I’m working on. I’ll welcome your comments. I realize my scribblings will not change your central point of view, but the subject of literality, I feel, needs to be discussed seriously.
Do you take everything in life as literally as you take the Bible?
What kind of question is that? Our world is a literal place, so of course I “take” it literally.
Do you think that young children—say, toddler age—see the world with more or less literality than adults?
I’ll leave it to you to answer such a whacked-out question.
Young children, since they only have limited experience interacting with people, things and concepts, understand words much more abstractly than do adults. When a parent talks to her infant, what meaning is conveyed? What chance does a very young baby have of taking anything literally? Meaning that is conveyed often emphasizes motherly affection or very general instruction. Of course the baby has no chance of taking anything in the world of spoken language literally, until he begins to learn word meanings aside from their use as an accompaniment to mother’s affection.
Babies are able to understand many things in a concrete way.
But not words, until a certain amount of development has had time to take place. At such a point, words gradually take on literality.
Are you going to tell me that nothing in the world can be taken literally?
Actually, I’m attempting to explicate some of the many levels of literality that different people have. It’s a continuum of understanding that ranges from almost total abstraction, as with perceptions of a newborn infant, to the level of an adult. The continuum changes gradually through childhood, each step accompanied by utter confidence of literality. As new facts arrive about what words mean, confidence in the meaning rises. Having experienced this ever-so-gradual childhood development, adults understand subtle shades of meaning behind words and their accompanying facial and body gestures.
What’s your point?
We’re getting there. Adults know better than to take most words too literally. But it’s our nature to pretend that all—or at least most—of our words have highly literal meaning. It is a given that every creature that exists must see the world as a highly literal place. But adults also realize that words are not to be taken too literally. Many of us don’t really know why.
And you do know why?
I can only offer you my views. The world is a chaotic place. Things we say can never be taken too literally, because our world is unpredictable. Have you ever taken a sales pitch to be literally true in every way?
Of course not.
Such interpretation sensibly applies to just about everything we say. We almost never tell others whether we really feel well or ill, even though we are asked about our health dozens of times each day. When we describe a past event, it is understood that guesswork, estimation, and often exaggeration takes place.
Are you saying that all adults understand words with the same degree of literality?
No I’m not. Inquisitive adults understand language subtlety better than those of us who don’t bother to wonder much about the world. Those who strive to understand why things work the way they do have, in general, a less literal understanding of language, though of course not to the extent of an infant. But, yes, all adult people more or less understand the world through similar levels of literality.
I suspect that, once again, you are prepared to generalize your arguments into areas that don’t apply.
What areas are you referring to?
Morality, for one.
Was I leading up to morality again?
You always seem to. Jason, the language of morality is so tightly woven into society’s fabric that no one in their right mind will allow it to be overthrown. The result would obviously be disastrous.
No disaster will result from my analysis of literality.
That’s because nobody in their right mind will hear you out, and actually read what you have to say. And if a naive few do happen to look over your nonsense, they will do whatever they need to in order to put it out of their minds.
Maybe they’ll come after me. Do you think I should use a pseudonym?
I think you should be institutionalized.
People do not forsake proper and ethical behavior by forsaking moralistic words. Parents can continue to teach crucial “right-wrong” lessons—just not literally. Empathy therapy, which has been shown to be a much more effective tool to teach ethics than religion is, could be employed in prisons and reform schools. On the other hand attempts to teach a literal right and a literal wrong are doomed to failure because some children eventually see through non-Deistic morality, to a level of literality that exposes the concepts to be lies. The result can backfire as loudly as your ancient Chevy.
When my car backfires, the world seems like a very literal place.
Literally, the world is not what it would seem to be. Every speck of matter is made from atoms, right?
I suppose atoms could be construed to be the basis for the literality of the world.
So the world exists, in a literal sense, based on atomic structures.
Where is this going, in your prematurely-softened head?
My initial question was, Do you take life as literally as you take the Bible?
I still do. How could I possibly do otherwise?
Did you know that “atoms” are now known to be made up of nothing that is—literally speaking—physical?
Science has a hundred theories for every flake on the planet.
Let me assure you that the theory I’m referring to is strongly supported by data. Mountains of data having been collected by the least flaky people on the planet.
Then why would my hand not slip through your nose as though it were air, if I were to punch it?
Forces such as gravity and magnetism containing no matter act together on a sub-microscopic scale. The result is what appears to be matter. When a scientist “views” an atom, what he actually sees is, in effect, an illusion. And what you see sticking bulbously off my face is just as much of an illusion, since my nose is made up of atoms.
A person still needs literality in the way he sees the world, just to survive.
Just to exist, actually. We do need to see things in various degrees of literality—nature demands it.
A kind of functional literality?
Yes. Knowledge about atomic structure is obscure and useless to the vast majority of people.
I don’t suppose all of this leads to any informative point?
I’ll leave that up to you. What seems obvious to me is that, once our understanding of the world we inhabit starts to be unraveled, it is anything but what it appears to be.
So we’re back to Popper-style tentativism vs. spiritual confidence as exhibited by Jerry Falwell.
That is where we are. You obviously choose the latter and I align myself with the former. Most people take positions that fall somewhere between these two poles. Christianity is indeed a diverse collection of clubs, with some members viewing the Bible as a literal recounting of history and the fount of all human lessons worth learning. Others hold the Bible to be a collection of writings from ancient times, outdated in a sense, but still valid as a basis for a lifelong guide to sensible living when read selectively.
And literality amounts to illusion?
It amounts to unthinking judgment, as per ancient tribe members blindly obeying their leaders and customs. Desperate conditions called for desperate actions.
Conditions remain fairly desperate, according to many religious leaders.
But the rise of reliable governments . . .
You’ve got to be kidding me.
Okay—slightly corrupt governments provide us with laws, and follow up those laws with punishment and reward—“reward” amounting to personal freedoms. Governments now do a major part of the job that certain gods were originally invented to perform. Modern secular governments abide by ethical guidelines, engaging humanity’s most fully conscious thought processes. Moral systems are guided by our instincts. They are emotion-based, and every one of us inherits their underpinnings. Sometimes our internal moralities harm us and sometimes they help us, but they are always unthinking. Ethical exploration, on the other hand, invites intellectual analysis. Take your pick—either follow Jerry Falwell and travel back 3,000 years, or live a life fit for a creature supposedly created in the image of God.
A Godly life is a life of discernment, not unthinking judgment.
Discernment may be a step forward, but Biblical adherence still reflects unthinking commands and rituals.
Do I detect a note of anti-Semitism?
If you do, you are mistaken. Modern Jews understand the hazards
and dangers of unnecessary literality.