Uhhhh stay away!Spending ten hours a week in discussion with high school students presents some universal truths about human nature. One such universal truth is that human beings do not like to change (even for the better), and so require some strong motivation before they budge. By strong motivation, of course, I mean the pain of not changing outweighs the pain of changing, like a frog whose pot of water has got just two degrees too hot.

This confirms an observation (I believe it was TS Eliot) that human life tends to alternate between “fruitless conversation and thoughtless action.” We do, but do not reflect on what we have done, and do not plan what we will do tomorro; we think about things, but generally avoid thinking about matters in which we might have to reform our daily behavior or long-term goals. Thus we remain in our comfortable (but not that comfortable) little bubble-boy zone of intellectual and pragmatic stagnation.
One great way out of this dilemma (another universal truth one discovers in class with high schoolers) is to find yourself in an even more uncomfortable dilemma; this time a formal logical dilemma, of the kind so heuristically effective in Plato’s writings.
I would like to pose just such an uncomfortable dilemma to you, gracious Mere-O Reader, which has convicted me recently, in hopes that you can either break it down for me (thus relieving me from the bothersome task of doing something about it) or else be convicted yourself, so that I will have company.

(Presupposition #1 of this logical dilemma is that God has successfully revealed himself and his teachings to men. This immediately makes untenable, for such fine folks as Mr. Anderson the Elder, the rest of the argument. Fair warning.)

Supposing divine revelation of some kind, let us conservatively call the Christian Scriptures (the Septuagent or Westminster canon) sure divine revelation. The words on the page are of God, from God, for God’s purposes with men.

A dilemma has two (seemingly innocent) premises and one (nasty) conclusion. The first is usually a pair of “if-then” statements (or conditional syllogisms); the second is an “either/or”; the third is a conclusion that follows deductively. Here goes:
1. If the Bible is divine, then the physical book ought to be treated with great respect, more respect even than that given human beings, who are merely mortal; If it is not divine, then it’s teachings ought not to have a specially high place in our lives.

2. Either the Bible is divine or it is not divine.

3. Therefore, either it ought to be treated with more respect than human beings, or else its teachings ought not to have a special place in our lives.

If you do not like the conclusion, you must take one of three approaches. You may argue that one or both of my conditional syllogisms in premise 1. are invalid; You may argue that my premise 2 is not truly disjunctive, (i.e., there is an unstated third option); or you may argue that my inference is invalid.
The inference seems valid, and premise two takes the form (apparently) of a simple “Either A or Not-A,” statement, and so seems to be exhaustive. (Correct me if I’m wrong). So the only option is to attack premise one, either by saying that the argument is invalid or perhaps one or more of the terms are invalid.

The first counter-argument that I and my students surfaced was this: Reverencing the book itself (by not throwing it around, always keeping it in a place of honour, on a mantle or shelf, keeping it clean and away from water, dirt, etc.) is pointless.The Bible is divine in its teachings, but the pages on which those words and letters are printed are not divine.
My simple response is: Why not?

This objection sounds like saying, “Jeffrey’s soul is criminal, sure, but the physical body in which the soul lives and moves is not criminal. So let’s not put his body in jail, that would be pointless.” The remaining option is what, to have “spiritual respect” for the teachings of the Bible? Does this mean, as Fred Sanders might ask, “not real respect”?

Do we punish Jeffrey “spiritually” for his spiritual crimes, or do we punish him physically and expect that this physical, visible cause will have a spiritual, invisible effect?

It seems that human beings have a natural understanding of how mind and body, how spirit and flesh interact. (In this way, I think, Christian apologeticists try too hard to convince naturalists to become dualists… Everyone is a dualist empirically, if not in their conscious worldview, being acquainted as they are by everyday life with the connection of the immaterial conscious self with the material unconscious world of body) We know that if you hurl an insult in sound at someone’s eardrum, it will hit their soul… We know that if you hold your loved one’s hand the affection will find its way (somehow) to the psyche. We also know that our deepest fears and highest joys can find physical expression, through the face, through song, through speech, through body language.

So if God has successfully communicated something deeply spiritual to us by manifesting it in the physical form of a piece of paper, (see presupposition #1) then whether or not the spiritual fact and the physical fact are two different things, we must treat them with as one.

I know Matt is not his body, yet I treat his body as him. I know the computer I am typing on right now is not the soul of Mrs. Dalbey, my landlady, and yet I treat it with the respect I want her to have. Everything I do to this physical chunk of matter transfers somehow to her soul.

Likewise, I would suggest, everything I do to the codex on which is written “Holy Bible, NAS Translation” and on the pages of which are printed the words of Moses, Job, Jesus, and John transfers to the Divine Author. Whether good or bad, the treatment I give to the divine book finds its way to the divine author. If this is the case, then I ought to respect Bibles (as the images of the Word) at least as much as mortal human beings (made in the Image of the Word). If I do not want to respect the physical book itself this much, then I must deny that it is (in any significant sense) divine, and so must not treat the commands I read therein with much respect. I must rather relegate them to the domain of pious fiction, or beautiful human truth.

Is there any way out of this dilemma, or am I rightly convicted?

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Posted by Keith E. Buhler


  1. I think you’re absolutely right in your reasoning, but I guess I don’t see why it is a dilemma. Do you regularly spit on your Bible? I don’t think that respecting the Bible means keeping it on a gold-plated pedestal. To extend your analogy, we’re certainly allowed to interact with other humans without showing disrespect, just as we can interact with the book itself without showing disrespect. I can even pick up another human and wrestle with them without showing disrespect (as long as my intention is not one of bullying or assault) and similarly, I think you can (for example) write notes in a Bible with an attitude of studiousness and eagerness to learn without it being disrespectful to the book. Just as the spiritual aspect of God’s communication to us sanctifies the physical book, so I think, the intentions and attitudes of our physical interaction “sanctify” that interaction itself. To put it simply, use it, don’t abuse it.


  2. A notable property of human language is that it so commonly prevents us from getting to the matters at hand. I’d like to differentiate between words and meaning.

    Quoting Keith: “If the Bible is divine, then the physical book ought to be treaded with great respect.”

    What does “divine” mean? The “divinity” of Christ is meant by most who utter it that he is God. But is the Bible, itself, God? If so, which Bible? Are all Bible’s God? Are there different translations of God? Are incomplete translations incomplete God? Is the Bible omnipresent? On the other hand, if being “divine” means being “of God”, then all of creation is also “divine”. If being “divine” means uncorrupted, then you’re going to have to pick which version of the Bible you’re talking about, as they can’t all be different and uncorrupted.

    Now, even if you had clearly defined “divine”, your conclusion would still be a huge non-sequitur. Does ink on paper, spelling out God’s special revelation make the paper or the ink deserving of more respect than other mortal things, such as children?

    Consider the evil man who uses a child as a human shield while pointing a gun at you. What if he, instead, had the Bible tattooed all over his body? Would you be less likely to shoot back than if he were using a child? Should you be? Better yet, does having God’s literal words scrawled over his body make him divine?

    It’s amazing the distortions of reality we’re capable of when we let language nuances manipulate our thoughts rather than thoughts manipulate language nuances.

    What is the important part of the Bible to you? Is it the meaning, or the ink, paper, leather and gratuitous gold trimming?

    We know that if you hurl an insult in sound at someone’s eardrum, it will hit their soul…

    Seriously? When someone begins showing signs of Alzheimer’s and forgets the insult, and thinks he’s sixteen years old again, he feels better and can’t remember he hates you. Did the plaque in his brain make his soul better? If during a drinking binge, a wasted man has an insult hurled at him which makes him so upset he feels bad despite the effect of the booze, then in the morning when he has no recollection, is that because his soul was missed by that insult?

    If you repeatedly hit a dog with a stick or speak with harsh tones and subject it to all kinds of pain and humiliation, it will run with its tail between its legs. It will remember you and the sight, smell, or sound of you will remind him of that feeling. Did you hit the dog’s soul with your blows or hateful tone? This is even more true of primates. Do dogs have souls? Do primates?

    It seems to me that the metaphysics that we have gleaned from the Bible have not increased our understanding of things around us. In fact, on the contrary, it appears to be a sort of flawed way of understanding our reality.


  3. EvlMdntBmr,

    1. I work with high school students. They don’t spit on their Bibles, but everything but. They throw them, tear them, leave them around, sit on them, bend them. They treat them how I would be ashamed to treat any worthwhile book (Regretfully, in the past, I have so mistreated many books). I think we would benefit from a healthy dose of the Have-Nots. Give out one Bible per family, or one per neighborhood, and watch how quickly the esteem shoots up. Familiarity breeds contempt, and when we are talking about holy things, such contempt is contemptible.

    2. Use it, don’t abuse it, sure. But oughtn’t it receive some special place in the house, or the room? What’s wrong with gold pedestals, again? If God came to visit, would you give him the smallest chair in the house, in a corner, next to your clutter?

    3. I’m not sure we shouldn’t treat people with much more respect as well. They are living images of God, immortal, infinitely valuable, and (as Lewis would remind us) potential creatures so glorious we would be tempted to worship them.

    “Go go go, said the bird. Human beings cannot bear much reality.”


  4. As an amateur metaphysician, I observe and affirm a strong organic tie running through linguistics, epistemology, and ontology. Thus I do not so greatly fear the tragic obstacle human language may seem to present to “getting at the matter at hand.”

    Also most Christians in most places at most times are friendly and familiar with the idea that words can be things. You can’t say I didn’t warn you.

    Sigh. I fear that your questions are not entirely sincere ones, but just in case, here goes: Divine does not (in this context) mean God. You accurately guess that it means “of God.” Creation is also, in this sense, divine. The difference between creation and the Holy Bible (as received by most Christians in most places at most times) is that creation was made by the Word of God — the Bible IS the Word of God… Or else a physical image of it.

    Regarding children, I recant. The Holy Bible, if I am right in this, is no more divine than the a child. Both stand in an “image-of” relation to the Holy God. Both ought (therefore) to be treated with equal respect, care, even reverence.

    Regarding your tatoo-ransom-man, if God can become man (flesh and blood), then I am obliged to say that tatooing Bible verses on his skin increases the sanctity of his skin, at least, though probably not his soul, unless he  also lives them out. And, if he was threatening to kill me or someone else, destroying the writing on his skin would be no more tragic than destroying him. I would advise him, however, not to tatoo the Bible on his arms unless he has had the chance (a luxury, really) to read the parts which seem to command not doing things like holding people hostage.


  5. The most important part of the Bible is the Person about whom it speaks. However, the pages and ink receive a measure of importance by virtue of their connection to that Person. The most important part of Matt Anderson is the self, the consciousness, the ego, the person. But his eyeballs, hands, his flesh and bones receive a measure of importance by virtue of their being his home and corpus.


  6. Again, I will venture a response to your aggressive series of (seemingly rhetorical) questions, in hopes that they mask a core of sincerity.

    I do not get my metaphysics, primarily, from the Bible. The Bible is not, primarily, a philosophical document — or rather say its authors do not bother themselves to fit into the categories philosophers might like to set up for them. They have their own purposes, their own methods, their own presuppositions.

    In my metaphysics I am essentially a classicist. Plato, Aristotle, Boethius, Augustine, Aquinas agree on some big important points, and I agree with them, (though the rest of the juicy details remain to be discussed). I am a realist when it comes to properties. It seems most clear to me that the self or psyche is a real thing, without extension. It interacts with, but does not “supervene on” the brain or relate “epiphenominally” to it.

    Regarding dogs. Following the Aristotelian definition of soul (or anima) as that which gives form to matter, then yes dogs have anima. The are animated, are they not? They have a consistent form even when the material cycles through their bodies. Nor can form be ascribed soley to DNA, cf Substance and Modern Science (Connell 1988). Simply put, everything living has “life,” “soul,” or “anima.” Dogs have an animal soul and humans have a human soul. (This I would believe exactly even were I not a Christian.)

    Memory, as I take it, is a faculty of the soul, not the brain. So the forgetful man was hurt (in the psyche), and now no longer feels a thing (in the psyche). Nothing much puzzling about that.

    A dog’s responses to abuse (Your examples, really!) are not mere physical responses. A dog statue will not respond the way a living thing would, so yes, a dog and a primate respond and connect with us (or fear us) due to their animated nature.

    Since I have played nice and answered your questions, let me propose you a question: If dogs and primates are not animated by something immaterial (soul, life, whatever), then what is the difference between an immaculate wax statue of a monkey and a monkey? Why don’t ceramic dogs run away with their tail between their legs? Specifically, where is the “life” of living things, if it is just another physical item of the universe? How much does “life” weigh? How long and wide is it? Is it in the DNA, the genes, the brain? If so, can you extract some of it and put it in a tube, and see what color life is?

    I have not yet heard a satisfactory materialist answer to such questions, nor can I come up with any myself, so I would be happy if you could provide new material for me to consider.


  7. On the Biblical Dilemma:

    My questions on this are sincere in that I honestly can’t tell what is meant by divine. It, in fact, appeared to me on the surface that half the cause of the dilemma might be the effect of switching definitions midway through the syllogism. (…the other half being the failure to differentiate between the meaning of the words and the ink on the paper.)

    I say that in the past tense, but I’m not yet convinced that’s incorrect. Consider your words: “Divine does not (in this context) mean God. You accurately guess that it means “of God.” Creation is also, in this sense, divine. The difference between creation and the Holy Bible … is that creation was made by the Word of God – the Bible IS the Word of God… Or else a physical image of it.”

    This appears to be an allusion to John 1:3, “All things were made by him [the Word]; without him nothing was made that has been made”. But John 1:1 says “And the Word was God”, and in verse 14, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” which is used to support the doctrine of the deity of Christ.

    In light of this, it seems a bit as though you are saying that divine was meant to be “of God” in the same way that Jesus is the Word. So if the Son is God, is the Bible not also God?

    I do hold the Bible to a high standard in that it purports to be the special revelation of an omnipotent and omniscient creator to his creation. It does not seem an unreasonable expectation that if it is meant to reveal, that it clear up more confusion than it creates.

    On Souls:

    (As is not uncommon for me, I’ve picked a statement from a blog and spawned an all out discussion which is mostly off topic. I apologize if I’ve hijacked the blog post.)

    I do not consider myself a materialist. If I were to label myself, I would just call myself a scientist, but the word is overused and inadequate. I find it better to say that I simply seek understanding and that which increases understanding, and that is my philosophy.

    But first, let me examine the apparent definition of materialism as used by you. You ask what is the material difference between an immaculate wax statue of a monkey and a monkey. (Your examples, really!) I don’t think I say something controversial when I say that the material difference is that the former is made of wax and the latter is made of many complex differentiated cells operating in a very complicated machine-like manner. My guess is that you’re getting at something deeper.

    I easily recognize a transcendence of “matter” which is quite simply that a thing can be more than the material sum of its parts. Things are at least the sum of their parts plus the specific arrangement of those parts. In other words, if you took two identical cars and reduced one to a pile of its constituent components, then the pile and the car are materially identical while only one is still actually a car. (I don’t know if this means I am or am not a materialist.)

    Likewise, if you take a dog and reduce it to its elemental chemicals and mix those in a vat, it is no longer a dog. It won’t act like a dog and it would not be considered “alive” even if you molded it in the shape of a dog.

    But now let’s take the specific arrangement of every molecule in a dog and consider if we were able to arrange every subatomic particle in the exact position it was in at the instant before it was reduced, right down to every neuron in the brain. Would it be the same dog? I think we have reason to believe that it would.

    Let’s step back and look at this from another angle. Very simple organisms respond to stimuli in a very predictable manner. They do not contain the mental capacity for thinking or long term memory, so they just respond the same way to the same stimulus over and over and over.

    In nature, there is an relatively fine gradation in the complexity of organisms in that regard. They range from viruses which are completely passive cell-less structures that only reproduce when a host cell unwittingly helps to copy them, to single cell organisms with no nervous systems, to humans with huge brains. An ant is many times more complex than a single cell organism, but still quite simple. They don’t “think” about what to do. They respond to various stimuli including sight and vibration, but mostly chemical stimuli (sort of smell) and though their responses are much more complex than single cell organisms, they respond in a fairly predictable pattern to the same stimuli over and over, like a computer program.

    The question is if the program becomes complex enough, can it exhibit conscious behavior? That is not yet known, but there is reason to believe it can. What is noteworthy is that those animals who exhibit the most soul-like behavior also have the biggest brains, and damage to the brain affects the soul-like behaviors, and mental illnesses affect things that were thought to be properties of the “soul” but which can be remedied by drugs.

    The concept of soul doesn’t help us with these. It doesn’t help us understand some of the more bizarre mental malfunctions such as multiple personality disorder, and those with damage to specific parts of the brain who suffer from anterograde amnesia which causes them to be unable to remember things longer than a few minutes. (They can remember them as long as they’re focused on them, but as soon as they think of something else, the previous thing is gone.) Alzheimer’s patients and sufferers of mad cow disease also suffer from severe memory loss. (So your statement that memory is a faculty of the soul not the brain seems backwards to me). Chemical imbalances in the brain can cause people to exhibit strange inability to control emotions, such as uncontrollable rage, or depression. Drugs can cause hallucinations.

    An animal or person is more than a pile of cells. But there is no evidence that they are more than a very specific arrangement of those cells, and that arrangement is constantly changing in one’s brain every moment as new pathways are formed, old ones reinforced, and memories stored.

    There is a huge amount left to learn about how the brain works. It may never be able to fully comprehend itself, but do concepts like “soul” or “heart” (in the biblical sense) really help us understand? Is there any evidence that a person’s “ethos” exists outside his brain?

    I don’t think there is.


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