I find myself getting into (internet) conversations rather frequently with people who believe that they can somehow know the truth about something in religion. Generally, I find these folks who don’t like my interpretation of something in the bible, and they say something like “you have to be true to the word of god! You are contorting god’s word! ” or something like that. They say that they, on the other hand, live under the authority of the bible and that I should too.
I explain to them that I do live under the bible, its just that my interpretation is different than theirs. For instance, I don’t believe that the world was created anytime in the past 10,000 or 20,000 years or that it was in 6 days or in 6 periods of 1,000 days or anything like that. I also don’t believe that there ever was a literal Adam or Eve or a garden of Eden, let alone a talking snake! And guess what! I believe that the bible supports my view and that my view is closer to the truth than theirs.
This seems to be a difficult concept for so many Christians to understand. They think that how they interpret the bible is god’s word, yet anyone else who interprets it differently is twisting the bible and going against god’s word.
In the latest incarnation of this debate we were discussing the role of imagination in our perception of the world. I was contending that pretty much all we do is imagine, that we really do not have direct access to truth in the world. As an example I said that if I see a tree, what I am doing is making an imaginary picture based on electrical signals coming from my eyes. And my eyes produced the electrical signals due to light hitting them. So what I have access to is my interpretation, my imagination of the object that I assume light bounced from.
But of course, if someone were feeding electrical impulses to my brain just like the ones my eyes produce, then I would still see the tree, even though it is not there.
Just as you cannot directly see the tree, you also do not have access to absolute truth. Or, there is no such thing as absolute truth to us.
My conversation partner clearly does not like that view. He says that he can read the bible and see what it says and that the bible has absolute truths in it. The problem is that even if the bible does contain absolute truths, he can never claim to know them. The reason is that each of us can only see the world through our own perspective. None of us are in a privileged position where we can know what is true and what is not.
The best we can do is apply our reason to texts like the bible to come up with what we think is a rational notion of the truth.
Now, this brings up another rhetorical ploy of the biblicist. They will immediately shout that you are putting your own thoughts above god’s! What they fail to understand, and I wish I could figure out how to make them understand, is that they too are doing exactly the same thing. The think that they know what the bible is telling them, but it is only their interpretation of what they are reading. Or in the case of most of these folks, it is their interpretation of an interpretation made to translate multiple non-original documents written in a dead language over 2,000 years ago into our language and our society.
So, to help explain the idea to them that there is no absolute truth, I wrote the following fun reply and thought I would share it.
Are Chickens Real? (or is there a true chicken to be known)
My daughter and I are raising a new batch of chickens this spring and they are nearly full grown now. We keep them in a coop in the back yard while they are young, and will be free range as they get older. Click the picture to see an enlarged version of what I am talking about.
Well, the dog in the picture is Freckles and she has had an interesting reaction to these new chickens. You see, we had chickens before and she never really bothered them. The chickens and her would simply ignore each other.
But when the chicks were young and we started keeping them in the coop, she would immediately throw herself against the wire on the coop and run around trying to get them and eat them. It was obvious that her brain saw these chicks and could only see them as one thing, a tasty meal that she must, absolutely must get.
My daughter and I were a bit shocked by this since she really did not do that to the other chickens. But after some research and thinking we realized that it was the peeping noise that the chicks made. The peep when they are young, and then start to cluck when they get older. That peeping noise was an obvious signal to her to eat them.
As time went on, the chicks start clucking, and now they only cluck. No more peep noises. But Freckles still attacks them in the coop and thinks they are food! Hmmmm.
Well, Nikki and I determined it was time to take the next step in chicken raising, so we put the chickens in the garden. You can see the garden behind the coop in the picture. We were a bit worried about Freckles because she was absolutely viscous toward them and the fence for the garden is not exactly bullet proof.
Much to our surprise, when we let Freckles out to see the chickens in the garden she totally ignored them! Worse yet, she would walk by them, wag her tail, then proceed to go over to the empty coop and freak out trying to find those good things to eat. She did not recognize that the chickens in the garden are the same ones that were in the coop, and the ones in the coop were food, but the ones in the garden are not.
It was an amazing experiment and we have more experiments to do on this, but I would like to relate this to this post (finally….. )
First, it is clear that there is such a thing as a chicken that we all can agree to. But Freckles has two different subjective views of that chicken, and I pretty sure they both are different than my subjective view. Her view that the chickens in the chicken tractor are clearly interpreted by her as “food that I must eat”, but the same chickens in the garden are “chickens that I ignore”.
The two concepts for Freckles are just like it is for any of us. Each of us has our own contextualized version of what a chicken, or tree, or god, or bible, or sin is and they are all different. None of us is smart enough nor omniscient enough to know what the true chicken is like.
So, it is vital that we realize this when we talk to other people. Someone’s pet chicken may be a mouthwatering lunch to someone else. We need to be open to the fact that the objective truth is probably unattainable to either of us, but we can work together to try and get there.
I hope you enjoyed this, it is quite important that we all understand how we fit into the world.