The belief that the Bible is self-interpreting
Regular Network Norwich and Norfolk columnist James Knight continues his series on psychological patterns and belief.
Continuing the theme of psychological patterns and belief, I was reminded of another pattern that I hardly touched on in my last article - the observable patterns of belief in the person who believes the Bible is self-interpreting, or that it needs no human analysis because it stands up on its own.
They call it "Believing the Bible as it is written", which, of course doesn't really mean anything at all, and it smacks of the all too pervasive view that interpretation doesn’t have a bearing on Christianity. Such people are part of the “What I say the Bible says” brigade - and although it may be, in some cases, a quite innocent fault, I think that those who maintain that scripture doesn't need interpreting are so often wolves in sheep's clothing, because the underlying dogma beneath their claim is a passively aggressive 'My way or the wrong way' clause. This basically amounts to the strongly held view that their way of interpreting scripture is the only way up for consideration - so in saying scripture is self-interpreting they are preaching a form of Christianity that is mandated by their own spiritually uncompromising predilections.
Any reasonable person knows that all facts should be taken 'as perceived' by humans, and that they are inescapably dependent on the interpretive component humans bring in. The pattern I've observed is twofold; in the first place, those who believe that the Bible virtually interprets itself are also anti-evolution creationists who in most cases believe in a literal eternal hell for unbelievers, and that homosexuality is a sin and unnatural, and that life should be seen through a polarising lens of black and white and right and wrong (with a rigid rejection of any subjectivism or relativism), and that science and philosophy are supra-Christian, and that women shouldn't be in leadership, and that liberal approaches dilute the gospel, and so forth. In the second place, those who deny the need for interpretation completely miss the irony that their mistaken beliefs are based on a MISinterpretation of the facts.
Coupling this together makes the pattern more palpable, because it is clear what is happening here; all those views I mentioned are tied together in a tightly knotted ball of extremism which doesn't fare well when coming in to contact with the cutting power of outside rational scrutiny. The knotted ball analogy is apt because each string of extremism is entangled with every other string of extremism, and when those strings come apart they are pretty torn and frayed when placed alongside the neater and stronger strings of rational Christianity.
So to cover up this fact, what the fundamentalists do is maintain that the Bible is self-interpreting, or that any human assessments can only spoil the process of learning from the 'pure' teachings of scripture. But this is really just a dishonest ruse - for I don't believe that many in their heart of hearts do actually believe that the paper and ink they are observing needs no input from the human subjective viewpoint. No, the reason they make such claims is because they want to place the knotted ball in a hermetically sealed container, where the extreme views are protected from outside componential scrutiny. This deflects any outside challenges to their position, and it has an accompany accusatory tone which suggests that anyone who tries to interpret scripture is defacing it with human error, and that such people are almost beyond the pale, and should be mixed with cautiously, lest they dilute the gospel.
This brings the 'chicken and egg' question - which came first? Is it the belief that the Bible is self-interpreting that causes the reader to view the texts in a philosophical vacuum with little awareness of the extra-biblical resources one is using, thus engendering all these extreme dogmas? Or is it the extreme dogmas that act as body parts to a host organism on which the virus of self-interpretation can propagate its DNA? I should imagine it is largely the latter, but of course the two feed off each other within the same coterminous states of extremism.
But I think this needs to be taken even further; although they are causally related, I think they are both by-products that are proximally relevant to a much bigger problem, which I'll try to explain. To the rational mind that has had a life in which it has been free to acquire its own knowledge and think freely in doing so, it is naturally taken on board that God’s chosen method of interface is through a metaphysical method that remains undecipherable without the mobilisation of a host of mental resources such as an aptitude with language, shared experiences, sensory inputs, and common humanity in which we can make sense of His seamless revelation through the natural world, and other minds, as well as – and this is most important of all - through His chosen method of revelation; Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.
I hardly need point out that the extremism, dogmatism, and creationist defenses against knowledge and progress and discovery are anathema to the teachings and the attitude of Christ, but I must point out something else. Christians who are sullied by this problem exhibit another pattern of personal psychology. They seem so emotionally and intellectually disconnected from almost all seats of learning and external extra-church engagement. It is rather like watching someone conduct their business from within a spiritual playpen that forces them into disengaging with the real world as most people see it. When people come into their purview they either accept or reject them based on how closely their views resemble the playpen dogma. It is because of this closure to outside wisdom that most anti-science creationists are introverted and lemming-like in their vision of following a few isolated spokesmen over the edge.
Most creationist spokesmen are happy to lead the flock of acolytes, and due to their aforementioned personality flaws, most acolytes are only too happy to be led. This means that the average creationist has nothing really to argue with except the clichéd and scientifically mistaken sound-bytes that are provided by the leaders. Most of the time he needn't even understand the text he is copy/pasting - his radar simply picks up a few key search words from theistic evolutionists, and he then sifts through a plethora of ready-prepared off the peg retorts that he has at his disposal, pre-packaged by the disingenuous leaders.
The symbiosis appears to them to be self-justifying within this hermetically sealed discourse because firstly, the leaders will happily carry on producing their distortions of science, by quoting real science out of context, twisting its meaning, and more generally, by creating models of creationism that only really amounts to a contention of negation, in that it doesn’t deal with positive evidence in its favour – rather it takes the parasitic form of feeding off criticism of the positive evidence of evolutionary biology. And secondly the unknowledgeable acolytes will be happy to be fed this junk food because their abilities are reinforced by an assertion of false humility in trusting those that know more than them, and trusting that man's interpretation of scripture can only lead to worldliness not godliness.
Where this all begins is of central importance, because in most cases creationists are not born, they are made by other creationists. This is a vital fact that is overlooked - one cannot easily slip into a creationist position because the vast majority of Christianity sits harmoniously with a rationale-based empirical approach to evidence. In other words, a mind that is unsullied and allowed to freely make sense of the world will find no reason to be a creationist unless the sullying influence of external creationist sources somehow finds its way in. But thankfully this is rare; what usually happens, and what is primarily behind the propagation of creationism, is that children are born into a world in which their parents, family, and church leaders are extremists, and those aforementioned extremisms are soon ingrained into the children's minds with an intransigent and unwavering indoctrination. Sadly, there is little chance of their escaping this brainwashing because children are primed to follow the teachings of their parents - so propagation is inevitable - with the child creationists of today being the future parents of the (future) child creationists of the next generation.
With this alone, one is reminded precisely why exposing fundamentalism is so necessary in the first place - to dispense with the (un)Christian hegemony and the fideism (or at least raise awareness and warn people against the dangers of both). As a rule, most of the anti-evolution crusaders have been ‘got at’ and coerced early on in their spiritual journey – it seems that unless one is autonomously wise, what one is taught or told they must believe early on significantly conditions their outlook – the first cut really is the deepest, and that is why they bear many of the hallmarks of the cults (avoidance, displacement, ostracism, hermetically sealed discourses, in-groups, authoritarianism, deference, self-doubt, crusading, etc)
We must never underestimate the damage and negative influence of YECs and anti-evolutionary crusading, and if you encounter as many scientifically minded atheists as I do you’d see how much time we have to spend clearing up the mess. I know a lot of them use the fideists as an excuse to justify their own strident atheism, but as Christians we should be helping them lessen their excuses, not giving them more ammunition.
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James is a Christian writer and local government officer based in Norwich. You can access his current collections of columns here
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