Yesterday, in two very different conversations, two different people were sharing with me their experiences of things being taken literally. Earlier in the day Anshu was explaining his understanding of the necessity of New Atheists like Richard Dawkins in current public discourse, and, at the end of the day, Seán was recounting to me his experience at a recent funeral where the celebrant delivered a sermon on the factuality of the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Ostensibly, both of these discussions were about religion in one way or another, but what I hope to convey here is something more general about our ability to understand and make sense of the world.
Dawkins, like the minister at the funeral, elects to read the ancient texts he is critiquing as though they are laying claim to empirically verifiable facts – which they do not, and, likewise, the minister has done exactly the same in order to convince people of an event that did not take place – at least insofar as the New Testament presents it. Early in the first century of the Common Era authors did not think the way that we think now. They had no access to the concepts of rationality which we have had the luxury of since the Enlightenment. They were not writing history as we know it, and they most certainly were not writing about facts. Since the earliest days of the Church Christian readers/hearers have understood the Gospels as an account, and this is quite different from a factual record.
Every Monday evening in Maths I ask my students the same question as we begin another problem: What do you know? Looking at a line crossing a matrix at given points on the x and y axis’s and being asked to either define the equation of the line or find the value of the slope of the line, we must ask of ourselves what we know. What we know will be constituted of what we have learned about Geometry and the information provided in the question, such as a point on the line, and where, for example, it crosses the x axis. These things are known, and from what is known and verifiable we can apply proven methods to accurately determine other knowable and verifiable things about this line, and so solve the problem. This is not so with literature. It is most definitely not so with ancient literature.
Yes, there are things we can know about the context in which a piece of writing was written, and we can know things the text has told us, but – unlike maths – there are things we simply cannot know. Truth cannot be calculated by the application of formulae. People’s accounts of events; the presentation of their truths, be that in books, the newspaper, or their spoken words, stake a claim on truth which cannot be factuality because it speaks to a distinct category of knowledge. When we read things literally; as scientifically verifiable facts, we are robbing them of their intrinsic means of communicability, and so, ultimately, we render them meaningless.