Egalitarian Histories and the Claims of Scripture

The next couple days I’m going to revist a couple recent posts where people have left insightful comments that I would like to fully respond to. I’m going to begin with this post regarding PZ Meyer’s post about giving “proper reverence” to everyone who has gone before us, rather than singling a certain tribal people (Jewish) out for special honor. Meyer’s post was a smash hit, as the comments indicate. It was featured in Carnival of the Vanities and made it to the new Smarter-than-I carnival (a creation of my brother) by “popular demand.”

Kevin Keith, who I am guessing is from leanleft, made the following quite lengthy and helpful comment. I would encourage you to read the whole thing and then peruse my comments at the bottom.

You didn’t understand the post.

[Myers] first evokes the immense temporal history of “human” or hominid species – extending back over 1 million years for Homo spp. and at least 4 million or more years for Australopithecus spp.. He then notes that the Bible, whatever else it might be, is essentially a record of the current Homo species over the most recent span of about 2,000 years (some quibbled with his dates, arguing it covers historical events as long as 3 or 4,000 years ago, but his basic point remains). Thus, the Bible – whatever it has to tell us and whatever it records – accumulates (some of) the human experiences and wisdom of only 1/75th to 1/50th of our species’s history, 1/500th or so of our immediate ancestors’ history, and 1/2,000th to 1/1,000th of what might reasonably be called “human” history. And, he notes, it is a profound and moving document – but one limited to only a tiny fraction of all that may have been known or seen in our history.

His observation is that if we are to hold the experiences – and what was learned from them – of people who lived 2,000 years ago in reverence, as he believes we should do, then it is almost heartbreakingly sad to note that the equally fraught, equally noble experiences of their ancestors, and those ancestors’ ancestors, and so on all the way back have been lost without any but the slightest record or remembrance. The experiences, hopes, fears, and beliefs of those earlier humans are as awesome and as worthy as those of humans in the time of King David, or today – and it would take thousands of Bibles to tell even the bare outlines of their stories, yet we have not a page or a line from them. The Bible – a record of the most ambitious and inspirational aspects of human history – covers only a hair’s-breadth of the span of the full story of human experience and belief. Pre-H. sapiens species had social rituals, including formal burials with flowers and artifacts, that speak of deeply-felt emotions and conceivably of religious beliefs, as well as of organized social structures. Their stories are part of our story, and they must be fascinating, but they are lost. The stories we do have of “early” humans are actually quite recent in terms of the whole span of human history, and given how moving those stories are, what is lost to us must be of incalculable value.

This leads to two conclusions: (1) we should recognize our history and beliefs – including the Bible – not as unique or as some sort of culmination of an historical trend, but as a continuation of a long history whose prior inhabitants had their own stories, beliefs, triumps, tragedies, and hopes – equally valuable and equally inspirational as compared to ours; and (2) we should avoid over-exalting the Bible as the last word on anything, when in fact it is just the most recent word, dwarfed by the 98.67% to 99.95% of human history that it doesn’t mention. This is hardly a radical observation – it is simply the importation into social history of the obvious and well-known facts of biological history (i.e., that we are merely a continuation of a long evolutionary line, and not yet a very long-lived branch of that line as well). The import of this observation is to encourage us to remember and feel for the (almost always overlooked) truly human experiences and imaginings of our pre-historical and immediate evolutionary forebears, and to remember as well to keep our understanding of the Bible and its significance within its very limited historical context.

Your remark that “it’s ALSO the revelation of God of the Universe who happens to be nothing less than the source and center of all meaning” is irrelevant. Human history is (at the outside) over 4 million years long; the Bible covers a period of a couple of thousand years that ended almost 2,000 years ago. Even if there is a god who created this world and dictated the Bible (a god who, bizarrely, seemed to need to crib much of it from the Epic of Gilgamesh, and then set his followers to take a vote on which of its many versions was supposedly the one actually dictated), the fact can’t be changed that most of what has happened in the world isn’t part of the Bible, and virtually all of human history was lived before the Bible was composed. Those humans’ history and experiences are as valuable as ours; their joys and sorrows were surely as inspirational as ours, their events and doings surely as inspirational, their beliefs and aspirations surely as heartfelt. The Bible records none of it – which is to say that the Bible is not the pinnacle of human wisdom but merely the surviving fragment of a vast store of wisdom and experience that was (likely) never written down. And so we should value it for what it is, but not more than that, and take up the burden of trying to discern what else there is that might be known for ourselves. To believe the Bible is the first and last word on everything is to deny the obvious fact that there were hundreds of thousands, and indeed millions, of years of experience with, no doubt, every topic mentioned in the Bible that came before the first Bible story was conceived. The Bible thus can’t be the first, nor likely the last, word on anything. And so we honor it as a partial record of a tiny fraction of a noble history, but no more than that because it cannot, in actual fact, be and is not anything more than that – even if (some, a, the) god did dictate it. Somehow that god forgot to dictate the other 1,999 volumes, leaving us on our own to discover what else we might have – and may someday – know besides.

I appreciate Kevin’s tone and his engagement with us here at Mere-O. We’re always looking to welcome new readers.

I appreciate his attempt to help me understand the post, though I did have a good understanding of it when I wrote my original post. What I didn’t understand was why people were so impressed with it. I think I do now.

Myers’ post and Keith’s recapitulation rest on an egalitarian view of human history, a position that suggests all time-slices of history are created equal. They provide no grounds for this position, though they do assert it repeatedly and vigorously. They are particularly intent on defending the time-slice of “pre-history,” or the human experiences had before the time of the Bible that are (quite frankly) unknown to us. Claims about this “pre-historical” period are obviously tendentious and speculative.

However, it is interesting that they claim these unknown histories are “just as valuable as our own.” Let me grant this for a moment–what makes history valuable at all? My own philosophy is that history is valuable because it gives a sense of self-identity–it informs my perception of my self and my place in the cosmos.

Yet this account of history destroys any egalitarian notion of history. Certain time-slices of the cosmos have obviously been radically more influential on our self-understanding and sense of identity as human persons (which most philosophical naturalists are bent on unmaking) than others. I take it that the events of Scripture (even limited to ad.0-33) have shaped human identity immeasurably. The whole concept of a person, after all, began as category of Christian theology. There was no sense of auto-biography before Augustine began working out the Trinity, because there was no such thing as the self. What Myers and Keith call “pre-history” had no such effect on our human identity, at least not in any way that we might recognize. Why are we being asked to put on an equal plane experiences that we have no record of and that seem fundamentally the same as our own?

I’ll be more to the point. Keith writes, This leads to two conclusions: (1) we should recognize our history and beliefs – including the Bible – not as unique or as some sort of culmination of an historical trend, but as a continuation of a long history whose prior inhabitants had their own stories, beliefs, triumps, tragedies, and hopes – equally valuable and equally inspirational as compared to ours; and (2) we should avoid over-exalting the Bible as the last word on anything, when in fact it is just the most recent word, dwarfed by the 98.67% to 99.95% of human history that it doesn’t mention.

Keith presumes that there is something intrinsic about more data or more experience that contributes to wisdom. I’m at a loss as to even understand how that might be. I am curious to know what he means by “wisdom,” since I have doubts that it is the sort of “wisdom” that Plato, Aristotle, or Aquinas might have appealed to.

Furthermore, Keith misunderstands the approach to Scripture that I and most other Christians have. The question is not one of time, but one of truth. Keith (and Myers) are so caught up in a garden-variety chronological snobbery–whereas chronological snobbery for Lewis meant veneration of things new, for Keith and Myers it means veneration of time above truth. Fundamentally, if Scripture is as it claims to be (namely, the historical record of the revelation of the God of the Universe), the length of the time-slice that it happens in seems utterly irrelevant. We as Christians (or as natural philosophers) are not interested in the first word, nor the last word–only the true word. Scripture claims to be the revelation of God to man–if true, then it is The Word and demands reverence and obedience. It does not merit this by virtue of anything other than it’s veracity. If it is true, then it is more valuable than any other history, for it claims to inform where Man comes from, who Man is, where He is going, and most importantly, who the Lord and Maker of the Universe is–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

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  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14253174 Eddie820

    Mr. Anderson – you’ve hit the nail on the head with your remarks. The study of Christianity is not the same as History 101, and the difference between Keith’s, and others’ views, is their inability to accept the Bible as truth.

    I’m a new blogger, and this was my first visit to this site. I’m looking forward to many great discussions and stimulating exchanges.

    God bless,
    >Eddie