In a large number of conversations between atheists and Christians (and between Christians themselves for that matter) disputes invariably arise concerning how the Bible is to be read. Most of these conversations can be distilled down to whether it should be interpreted literally or allegorically – and I think this is where the conversation starts to break down. I think the reason it breaks down is because neither party is actually correctly defining the issue – most modern qualms with the Bible aren’t with whether it is literal or not but whether it is scientifically accurate or not, which is a different consideration. So I think it is important to understand what is meant when we talk about whether something written or communicated is literal, scientific, or allegorical. I don’t think understanding these terms will cause various interests to suddenly agree, but I do think it will bring clarity to the discussion.
To start with, I think it’s important to think about what we mean when we call something ‘scientific‘. In the strictest sense of the word, scientific writing follows a pretty basic and well defined structure – there is some hypothesis to be explored, experiments or observations are outlined, data is recorded, then conclusions are drawn based on comparing the data against the hypothesis. The language used is very specific and rigorously defined. This sort of writing fills thousands of peer reviewed journals and covers a huge range of topics in a wide variety of fields. And as time goes on, papers are reviewed and old findings are challenged, new explanations and experiments are proposed and conducted and new papers are published. The latest literature forms the current scientific thinking on certain subjects. This process is all relatively uncontroversial and generally accepted as a means to explore certain natural phenomena.
This is quite different than the language we use for most other purposes. When we think about literal language, we think in terms of descriptive language which conveys ordinary human experience in terms that are commonly understood. Whether we are talking about journalism, or much of academia, or history, or everyday interactions, most communication is of this sort. And something that is literal may not be scientific per se. For example when the meteorologist on the evening news tells us what time sunrise will be the next day, he is speaking literally, but not scientifically. To us the sun does appear to rise in the sky – but that is not what is actually happening, and not acceptable as a rigorous scientific explanation. Yet we find such descriptions useful and even necessary in most circumstances.
And lastly much of our communication is metaphorical; that is much of what we say and write is a descriptive comparison between different things, one familiar and one unfamiliar to enhance understanding. It can be completely symbolic representation like an allegory where what is described all together figurative and meant to communicate about something else in a wholly representational manner. Or it can be merely an enhanced description in which comparative language is used to enhance understanding. Such language fills our music, our poetry and prose. Even scientists will employ allegory to enhance understanding. Often truths can be conveyed via metaphor to enhance learning or evoke emotion in a way literal or scientific language cannot; it is critical in the history of humanity in this regard.
Understanding all of this, I think it is important to understand the concept of the metanarrative. A metanarrative is an attempt to synthesize understanding on some subject into a comprehensible whole, a story if you will. It takes disparate ideas and facts and places them into a sequential order in order to give us a more complete understanding of a subject – the ‘big picture’ as it were. I think it is important to understand this because much of what we call ‘science’ is not in fact the rigorous scientific literature we discussed above, but rather a science oriented metanarrative – a discussion or review of scientific finding expressed as a story. Carl Sagan was a master at this sort of metanarrative; he very rarelyhimself actually did rigorous scientific work. Dawkins does this sort of work with books like The Ancestor’s’ Tale and Stephen Hawking did it with A Brief History of Time. Many take these as scientific writings but in the strictest sense they are not – they are about science, but they themselves don’t follow the format of science that is to propose a hypothesis for testing and data collection. They are reviews for the purpose of giving us an idea about the current state of science.
Much Christian writing of course does the same thing – it is a not rigorous examination of theological precepts, but discussions about what those precepts mean for our everyday lives and for the whole story of humanity. This is important to understand because often when Christians and Atheists or skeptics are conversing, they are not in fact dealing with what is literal or metaphorical, or even what is religious and scientific, but they are comparing and contrasting metanarratives, that is how they see the truths and data they comprehend fitting together into a story, a narrative about reality.Metanarratives always arise out of need to make sense of the data and perceptions that exist; they do not arise directly out of those data or perceptions. I want to emphasize, both Christians and Skeptics frequently misunderstand this – they both fail to understand what it is they are actually talking about, and so more heat than light ends up resulting.
So this brings us to Scripture itself and understanding how it is written and best understood. By way of familiarity and because it is so often at the center of these discussions, I will use the text from the beginning of Genesis:
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light day, and the darkness He called night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day.
Based on the previous discussion a few questions can be asked about the nature of the text. The first is, is it a scientific explanation of the origin of the universe? Based on the definition above, the answer would have to be ‘no’; it offers no hypothesis to test, no data is given to measure, it draws no conclusions about such data or observations. It is extremely brief and sparse. It isn’t a scientific paper, and this would be expected, considering that form of communication wasn’t to exist for a number of millennia after it was written.
It also might be asked if it is metaphorical – that is does what is described symbolizes something else, or is it couched in language that is descriptively comparative? It doesn’t seem to – as I mentioned, the text is actually quite sparse and seems to be directly about the subject matter it is discussing.
So that seems to mean it is a literal description; that is it is an attempt to depict what one sense or observes in ordinary language. In acknowledging that we have to consider what would it be like as a human observer to describe the beginning of the universe and earth if it was revealed to us somehow. Obviously the observation wouldn’t be one that didn’t actually encompassed long periods of time because a human observer would have only their lifetimes to make such observations, or a lifetime to hear such a description – it is by necessity compacted. And it has a vantage point; a difficult consideration when one realizes the origin of the universe would be the origin of all vantage points! As much as possible, this vantage point seems to begin outside looking in, and then move to earth.
Such language fits other revelatory depictions elsewhere in the Bible as well – human attempts to describe otherworld experiences crop up in the major prophetic writing, as well as the book of Revelation. They appear to be the best attempt of an individual to describe in simple straight forward language incredible observations, large sweeps of history covering vast spaces placed in a metanarrative to convey a truth about what those events mean.
To understand how this might work I think it is helpful to look at a modern depiction of the origin of the universe in the form of an animation; I suggest watching it without dialogue so as to allow someone to consider how they might literally describe it:
I think such a description would be more similar to the description in Genesis than many are willing to admit, especially if we were not already aware of the modern descriptive language. And so while Genesis might not be scientific, it might be a reasonable literal description by an observer to whom the origin of earth and life were directly revealed.
The purpose of writing all this isn’t to convince someone of the truth of a particular metanarrative, merely to convey what is really at issue, so needless and repetitive discussions can be avoided.