By Vexen Crabtree 2016
Religious scholars who interpret their own scripture have always claimed to value the correct understanding of religious texts1. But modern liberal academics have a host of new techniques available for analysing the meaning, context and authorship of those texts. These include methodical statistical analysis and careful computer-aided comparison of variants of ancient texts. Also, stories are best understood in their original context and address debates that were being had at the time of authorship. Very few can simply be read at face value. Without having entrenched opinions over what texts should mean, these scientific and critical approaches often result in conclusions that are incompatible with traditional interpretations. Academics have thusly faced very strongly-worded attacks upon their techniques and conclusions by traditionalists. Some adopt a defensive combatitive stance of their own; Robert M. Price states starkly that "we will show the superiority of our approach, not in destroying the Bible, but in better understanding the beloved text"1. It is ironic that by sticking to historical assumptions and traditional understandings, fundamentalists and literalists are not taking scripture as seriously as modern liberal academics.
Liberal academics analyse text in its historical and cultural setting as well as reading the meaning of the words themselves. This approach, of in-depth investigation, is a more proper and respectful approach to the texts than the literalists' approach. The best way to understand is to examine a well-known example: The book Animal Farm by George Orwell. It is an intriguing story of a collection of farm animals that take a chance to overthrow their oppressive capitalist masters. They run the farm their own way, but eventually, a management caste arise and take power within the farm, abusing the workers yet again. It is tragic. But to understand it fully, you have to research the author and you have to research the time and culture in which the book was written. It stems from a world where a communism was swallowing up large parts of the world; where capitalism was under threat. The book is a warning that communism can't work; that communist states' workers are merely slaves to a new set of masters. The book is made so much more powerful by understanding who wrote it, why it was written, and the arguments being had in the time that it was written.
Religious texts must be approached in the same way. To just 'read the story' and base your beliefs on the exterior of the text is too simplistic. Religious texts were written in a historical context and their stories refer to historical debates. Often, opposing positions are given within the texts. Without knowing the history surrounding the writing of the text, you are reading it blindly. This is why most religious communities have vibrant (and voluminous) outputs of interpretive text. But as such endeavours began in a pre-scientific and pre-critical age they have all adopted traditional lines of thought which are based on assumptions that we now know are wrong. Modern academics can perform statistical and critical analysis of texts in ways that were not previously possible, and therefore, often have clearer insight into religious texts than adherents do.
The Roman Empire's early Christians equated textual literalism to be the modus operandi of the hylics, the least spiritual class of Christians. Fundamentalism is in opposition to early Christianity on a number of counts, including scriptural admonitions of legalism. St Paul's "the letter kills, while the spirit gives life" (2 Corin. 3:4-6) is the most famous verse against fundamentalism.
“The Gnostics called those who identified with their body 'Hylics', because they were so utterly dead to spiritual things that they were like unconscious matter, or hyle. Those who identified with their personality, or psyche, were known as 'Psychics'. Those who identified with their Spirit were known as 'Pneumatics', which means 'Spirituals'. Those who completely ceased to identify with any level of their separate identity [...] and realized their true identity [...] transformed the initiate into a true 'Gnostic', or 'Knower'”
In Islam, it is also the case that more those with deeper spiritual connections to their faith consider the literalist to have only understood the first 7 layers of interpretation (which were equivalent to understanding the Koran in seven local dialects, each with slightly different possible meanings for some words).
“Uberweb points out that, according to the mystic, every text of the Koran had 7 or 70 or 700 layers of interpretation, the literal meaning being only for the ignorant vulgar. [...] In the Muhammaden world, however, the ignorant seem to have objected to all learning that went beyond a [surface] knowledge of the Holy Book; it was dangerous, even if no specific heresy could be demonstrated. The view of the mystics, that the populace should take the Koran literally but wise people need not do so, was hardly likely to win wide popular acceptance.”
Christianity and Islam have mystical orders. Mainstream Christianity is quite mystical in its liberalism, whereas Sufi Islam is widely held to be the closest equivalent. In both, however, the fundamentalist literalists have a strong presence (overwhelmingly so in Islam). These simple masses, the vulgar and the hylic, surely represent the biggest threat to true religious understanding. To be a literalist is to destroy the majority of depth and emotion of any written religion. The only advantage of the fundamentalist attitude to scripture is that it caters for the simplistic minded.
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The Bible (NIV). The NIV is the best translation for accuracy whilst maintaining readability. Multiple authors, a compendium of multiple previously published books. I prefer to take quotes from the NIV but where I quote the Bible en masse I must quote from the KJV because it is not copyrighted, whilst the NIV is. Book Review.
Price, Robert M.
(2003) Incredible Shrinking Son of Man: How Reliable Is the Gospel Tradition?. Published by Prometheus Books, NY, USA.