One of my hobbies is coining aphorisms. Recently I was driven (I’ll let you imagine the cause) to coin a new one: It’s impossible to have an intelligent discussion with an infallible person.
I suppose one could apply that to a lot of situations today (such as our current political gridlock), since we seem to be living through one of those periods when people prefer to think in absolutes, but I’d like to talk about an area where it just scares the crap out of me.
Religion. Or more specifically, religious inerrancy.
The problem with inerrancy, it seems to me, is that if you have the plain Word of God in front of you, the very idea of reform or even change is simply blasphemous. And I think history shows that there’s no natural limit to what those who believe themselves to following God’s Will will inflict on their fellow man.
Up till the seventeenth or maybe the eighteenth century, the question of Biblical inerrancy simply did not exist. The Christian Bible was assumed to an absolutely accurate historical, scientific, and religious guide. God prevented any errors from creeping in. Minor hiccups like Galileo and Copernicus were ignored by the vast majority of the population, religious and otherwise.
Even for those who were aware, faith papered over any contradictions. If the earth revolves around the sun rather than the reverse, how did Joshua make the sun stand still? –– It’s a miracle.
Gradually, science inflicted more and more questions, about the age of the earth, the extent of the Flood, and the extinction of animals, that Biblical literalists found difficult to answer. Then textual criticism came along and started to suggest that there were real errors and contradictions in the Biblical texts.
Since the Bible presumably began with Hebrew (Old Testament) and Aramaic (New Testament) oral traditions with the addition of letters in Greek, the chances for memory errors and mistranslations down through the centuries are pretty obvious. Comparing the various surviving texts, numerous scribal copying errors are apparent as well.
Knowing all that, but wanting to believe the Bible is a faithful guide to God, what do you do?
1) You decide that the Bible is a morally infallible book, never intended to be a historical or scientific tome; i.e., God prevents theological errors only. The rest we are free to screw up.
2) You decide that, since God worked through human agents, errors were present from the beginning. As a religious person, your job is to try to discern the original behind the errors.
3) You decide that the divinely inspired original autographs (texts) were inerrant, but some corruption had occurred down through the years. As a religious person, your job is (again) to try to discern the original behind the errors.
4) You decide that God protected both the original authors and all translators since and therefore the version you hold in your hand is free from error.
5) You decide that only the King James Version was divinely protected and hence is the only inerrant Bible. (Yes, there are people who believe this.)
This wealth of choices (and Martin Luther) has led to the plethora of Christian religious denominations, which is not necessarily a bad thing. If you are a male-chauvinist, patriarchal type, there’s a church for you. A gay liberal? No problem. Like a rigid structure of laws and truths? We’ve got you covered. Want to (mostly) find your own way? Turn in right over here.
For Muslims, on the other hand, the world is more constrained. The Quran was codified in an official form (and all other versions burned) fairly soon after the Prophet’s death. It is still printed in the original Arabic. Although there are apparent contradictions, copying errors, and somewhat incoherent fragments, Muslims still regard the Quran as perfect and inerrant. In fact, Quranic inerrancy itself has become a dogma for believing Muslims.
Over the last few decades, just as a fundamentalist political strain has risen in evangelical Christianity, a narrow, literalist version of Islam has taken over the public discourse. And just as American political discourse has shifted right, public Islam has shifted toward both a more rigid and a more actively political stance.
In Christianity, at least, one can be a true believer and still consider the Biblical inerrant types to be nut cases. Not so in Islam. Quranic inerrancy is at the core of Islam. The rise of an Islamic Martin Luther is just about impossible. The Quran calls for death to apostates, and that sentence is carried out regularly.
The intervention of political Christianity, particularly of the inerrant variety, worries me, both because their militant righteousness overrides all other considerations and because I think it violates the original American compact about separation of church and state.
Islamic inerrancy, on the other hand, simply scares the crap out of me. Separation of church and state is not merely not encouraged in modern Islam. It is undesirable and morally suspect.
The essence of civic relations is compromise and the evolution of public mores and standards. Neither Christian nor Islamic inerrancy allows for any of that.
But perhaps more importantly I think that history teaches us a lesson that many, both east and west, are unwilling to learn. Once in politics, the true believers have a way of justifying lying, cheating, and just about any other violations of you can imagine, because they are convinced of their own righteousness.
If I may offer another aphorism…
When politics mixes with religion, both are corrupted.