A little more than a month ago (which is a virtual eternity in blogotime) I wrote a post in which I tried to calibrate the reading expectations that we bring to the Bible particularly as they relate to cosmology. Since then I’ve been reading Marilynne Robinson’s new book When I Was a Child I Read Books. She makes several points that are directly relevant to this topic so I thought I’d revisit it.
Robinson highlights a profound difference between the way ancients portrayed the world they lived in and the ways that are typical for moderns:
Yet in many instances ancient people seem to have obscured highly available real-world accounts of things. A sculptor would take an oath that the gods had made an idol, after he himself had made it. The gods were credited with walls and ziggurats, when cities themselves built them. Structures of enormous shaped stones went up in broad daylight in ancient cities, the walls built around the Temple by Herod in Roman-occupied Jerusalem being one example. The ancients knew, though we don’t know, how this was done, obviously. But they left no account of it. This very remarkable evasion of the law of gravity was seemingly not of great interest to them. It was the gods themselves who walled in Troy…My point here is simply that pagan myth, which the Bible in various ways acknowledges as analogous to biblical narrative despite grave defects, is not a naive attempt at science. (Kindle location 280-342).
The first example that Robinson references is a ritual that would be performed after an artisan made an idol. The sculptor’s hands would be severed, whether this was done in symbol or in fact we don’t know, and the tools bound in a skin and thrown into a river in order to bolster the claim that the idol was of divine origin. Yet, everyone who performed and witnessed the ritual knew that the artisan made it and, in a way, the act of cutting off the hands underscores this. In this act they held together two truths simultaneously–the idol was “born in heaven but made on earth” to use the title that Michael Dick gave to the best book on this topic.
Her second example illustrates the same idea. Some accounts, such as the “Hymn to Enlil,” picture Enlil as planning and even building the sacred city of Nippur. Yet, everyone saw human builders schlepping bricks.
There are more illustrations of this that specifically regard cosmology that I discuss in another post but what does all this have to do with how we read the Bible and the expectations that we bring to it? I think it suggests that to a large degree ancients thought about things, particularly cosmology, in ways that we typically don’t. On one hand, they looked at things that everyone saw, whether they were constructed like an idol or a city wall or if they were natural features such as the sky or sun, and created accounts that situated them in the moral and religious universe not merely in the natural order of things. Religious rites focused almost exclusively upon an idol’s divine origin yet all the while people knew the artisan who made it. This tension didn’t bother them because they did not view and interpret the world one dimensionally.
But contemporary religious people don’t interpret the world one dimensionally either. McGuire Gibson has an extremely valuable reflection upon Mesopotamian medical practices and their relation to contemporary responses:
Perhaps the Mesopotamians dealt with illness as many people do today. They went to the doctor for a cure. If that didn’t work, they tried alternative medicine-a faith healer or a folk healer. Maybe at the same time, they went to the temple to leave a figurine or obtain a figurine and say a prayer.
In their attitude toward medicine, as in other things, I would suggest that the ancient people of Nippur and of Mesopotamia in general, rather than having “mythopoeic minds” [Frankfort 1946], were only a little less complex than we are and probably just as sensible.
It is within this kind of environment that the Bible was originally read and interpreted and, in fact, it is similar to many of our worlds as well. Yet it seems that many have forgotten this.
Humans are complicated creatures and in many times and places they cared more about about understanding the world on a religious and moral dimension than they did about describing its structural composition. This does not mean that they were never interested in the sorts of things that are the concerns of modern science, they were. Yet, we have to know what kind of text we are dealing with and how it approaches a particular topic. I think most ancient cosmologies are operating in other ways and have different concerns than contemporary cosmological quests. And we will only discover what the biblical authors were trying to communicate with these accounts if we reexamine and reorient our expectations.
If we dismiss biblical cosmologies as fundamentally flawed and inaccurate then we will miss out on the unique messages they contain that center on some of the deepest questions of the human experience. The same will happen if we turn our eyes away from textual clues and facts of nature in order to preserve a literalist reading of them. Instead, we should patiently and repeatedly listen to what they have to say keeping in mind their cultural setting and complex approaches to some of life’s most fundamental questions.
Robinson concludes her essay with a warning that those of us with religious inclination should deeply consider:
To recognize our bias toward error should teach us modesty and reflection, and to forgive it should help us avoid the inhumanity of thinking we ourselves are not as fallible as those who, in any instance, seem most at fault. Science can give us knowledge, but it cannot give us wisdom. Nor can religion, until it puts aside nonsense and distraction and becomes itself again (Kindle location 342).
What do you think?
Bonus: Here is an interview with Robinson that touches on some of these points as well as theological writing in general.