THE SHORTCOMINGS OF SCIENTIFIC LITERALISM
1st September, 2020
Lucas Cranach - Public Domain,
Recently I came across a book written by a clever, 'skeptical' American Physics graduate called The Star of Bethlehem, the aim of which was to prove that the star signifying the birth of Christ mentioned in some of the gospels could not possibly have existed as there is no evidence of the required comet or super nova having crossed the Palestinian firmament at that specific moment in time. This betrays a certain literalism. Surely the question is - was the moral and spiritual fabric reconfigured by the incarnation in the most profound and world-changing manner in the way suggested around this time or not? The physicist's approach makes one ask, along with Pontius Pilate ‘What is truth?’
Moving from the New to the Old Testament there are two stories that point up this issue. Firstly there is the story of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. When the sinning couple are ejected for eating of the Tree of Knowledge one of the punishments to which they are subjected is that they will henceforth live by the ‘sweat of their brow’, having, until now, lived a life of delectable leisure. As a result Adam delved and Eve span and agriculture and couture were born.
Then there is the story of the Tower of Babel which is a similar mythic tale. The inhabitants of the world, ordered by Nimrod, literally getting above themselves, build a tower up to their heavenly creator in Babel. Up until this moment they had all spoken the same language and understood each other perfectly. Jehovah, enraged at their presumptuousness, dashes the Tower to the ground just as the humans reach the top, and, this time, punishes the miscreants by condemning them to speak a variety of languages – Babble - so that they will no longer understand each other. As a result we seem to have need of organisations like the UN with their legions of translators seeking to avoid the geo-political cataclysms we are prone to.
One response to these colourful and apparently vindictive stories would be to hire a band of equally sceptical archaeologists who will calculate the generally agreed GPS locations of Eden and Babel. They will then, triumphantly prove that the legends mentioned above cannot be ‘true’ because there are not enough antediluvian pottery fragments and human faecal matter in the requisite middens in ‘evidence’ to confirm that these stories have any historical truth. Having done this the sceptical archaeologists will clap the hot desert dust from their hands, job done. Move along. Nothing to see.....
For the truth has been demolished. Or has it? Lets forget all this biblical stuff and address the truth of our present condition. What do we find? We find an often disconsolate race in a far from perfect world, frequently in internecine war and strife, obliged to earn a crust by hard work and divided by languages and cultures. The anthroposphere is riven by division and difference and one of the important enterprises of human existence is to learn how to communicate with each other and live in a peace that is by no means a given. This much-lamented condition has obtained for thousands of years. Allied with this is a vague sense, of the type embodied in Platonic ideas for example, that things might have taken a more optimal form.
Perhaps 2,500 years ago, in order to rather brilliantly encapsulate the nature of this condition some extremely bright people conjured out of nothing retrospective poetic metaphors or myths that explain the quality of the present.
Where does truth reside in these myths? Is it in the pottery fragments or is it not rather in the very fact that the myth exists? – the literal historical truth does not matter. A painting of the Tower of Babel painted by one of the Breughels in the 16th Century, perhaps two thousand years after the invention of the story by an unknown Jewish writer, contains the ‘truth’ of the story in the only form that is necessary to its potency and its preservation. It alone stands for and demonstrates a universal truth about the human condition which is as true now as it was when it was written. That truth exists in the human mind.
Had my young son asked me in his teenage years why the UN exists or grumbled about having to get a job and I had answered using the story of the Tower of Babel or of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden into the world of travail as a handy explanation of the nature of the human condition - for example work being an inescapable element of it - I would have been careful to disabuse him from any sense that the myths were anything more than stories used to typify the nature of reality.
Adam and Eve are generic names for Everyman and Everywoman. The word Adam means a creature made from the red earth and Eve means a source of life. I suspect that, had you asked the writers of Genesis if Adam and Eve or the Tower of Babel existed or their geographical location they might have laughed at you.There is no GPS location for the events described, but the meaning of the myth is potent and enduring. This will not cease to be the case, even if a team of archaeologists one day proves that there was a real Garden of Eden. Such a discovery would change nothing with regard to the power of the myth. This is what poets and artists know.
Strangely, when, from our modern perspective, we look backwards down the historical telescope to the epoch when the Hebrew poets – not historians - responsible for these stories lived, the temptation is to feel superior to these primitives. This is especially true in an epoch intoxicated with a presentism that sees itself as the pinnacle of human goodness and achievement. However, when we examine what they achieved – the creation of powerful, enduring and resonant metaphors loaded with meaning about our condition – would it not be more fitting to be struck with admiration? They have extracted the defining truths about our condition and crystallised them in a few strokes of the pen. Clever ‘Skeptics’ who insist and celebrate that the stories are not literally true are making the same mistake of literalism that the creationists in Alabama or Kentucky they so readily mock make. It, literally, doesn’t matter that they never happened. What matters is that the mythical image has been lodged in the human psyche for time immemorial. This is real truth.