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Remembering the Bible

If we write off the Bible as irrelevant, we lose its proposals on meaning, purpose and self-worth. Other widely embraced answers, however, are despairing. 

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.

There you have it, right there in the first verse. All you need to know, really. The rest—the remaining 1590 pages in the Bible I happen to be looking at—is gloss.

Alright, I exaggerate. Actually, you need a bit more. You need the whole first chapter, and in particular the declaration that “God created man in his own image.” You also need the second and third chapters, telling in narrative form how death and corruption came into the world—what many Christians call “the Fall.” And to complete the picture, you need one more really essential thing, for which I might pick the first chapter of John’s Gospel. Other Christians would no doubt make a different selection (maybe the deservedly ubiquitous John 3:16), and Jews would choose some other passage conveying a parallel message—a message about how God has provided a way out of the predicament of death and corruption.

These are not merely theoretical or philosophical disagreements: they are intensely, overwhelmingly practical.

And with that, you have a framework—a philosophy, if you like, or a guide, or a story, or a credo—for understanding the world and your place in it. Our place in it. The framework or story has three main themes, or chapters: Creation, Fall (or Corruption), and Redemption. It is a framework or story that is as valid, and also as helpful—and as stunningly hopeful—as anything on offer.

It is also a story that, paradoxically, is both numbingly familiar and yet also, today, strangely alien. Forgotten, even, at least in much of our culture, and especially in our public culture. That is because the biblical story—the story or framework of Creation, Corruption, and Redemption— has been largely displaced in modern thought, and especially in public discourse, and often even in the thinking of devout Christians and Jews. It has been displaced by two main competing stories, which we might call the naturalistic story and the self-creation story.

The stories compete not on the plane of scientific theory—and please let me make it perfectly clear that I do not intend any quarrel with theories such as evolution taken as science—but on the more existential or human level. They compete in their divergent understandings of who we are, of what and why we are, and of how we should live.

These are not merely theoretical or philosophical disagreements: they are intensely, overwhelmingly practical. They have profound consequences, that is, for the issues we passionately debate today—issues of wealth and welfare and marriage and sexual morality and personal identity and environment. When we debate these matters, we are thinking and speaking (often unconsciously) within one of these frameworks or stories; and the framework we assume will powerfully affect the conclusions we reach.

Consequently, it is worth remembering the biblical story. Not the details; not here anyway. The details are important, of course, but in our own time the devil is not so much in the details as in the overall story or framework. So it is worth reminding ourselves of what that overall story tells us, and of how what it tells us is so different from the teachings that emanate from the competing and currently dominant stories.

The Biblical Framework

“In the beginning, God created . . .”

Pause right here for a moment. Think about the crucial significance of what we have already been told. God created the world. So the world, and we, are not the product of some cosmic accident. It and we were created—created by a Being who by definition and common conception is transcendently knowledgeable, and powerful, . . . and, we might add, loving.

Once again, we are not dealing here in scientific propositions. Whether God created the world in one big “Let it be!” burst or instead incrementally, perhaps over millions or billions of years: that is not the question. Not here, anyway. It is not what matters, existentially. What matters is that God created the world. From which we can infer three crucially important things.

These three features of the biblical story—purpose, meaning, and human dignity—make all the difference in our attitude toward life.

First, the world exists for a purpose. It is conceivable, I suppose, that an all-powerful God might have created the world on a whim, for no reason, like a child doodling on a piece of paper. But that seems unlikely, and the biblical story forecloses the thought by explaining that God created according to a plan and, upon completing the creation, pronounced it “very good.” So, the world was created for a purpose, from which it follows that we have a purpose as well. And also, as we might infer and as the Bible goes on to teach, that there is some kind of design or plan by which God’s purpose will be carried out.

Second, the world—and life in the world—has meaning. If we encounter a jumble of letters thrown down apparently at random (on a gigantic Boggle board, say), we will not assume that there is any meaning in the letters; and we will not waste our time trying to discern a meaning that is not there. Conversely, if we come upon an initially confusing concatenation of symbols and words but we learn that these have been put in place by a mindful author, then we will assume that the symbols and words probably do mean something—something that may be worth our while to figure out. Same with the immense complexity of facts and experiences that make up the world, and us.

Third, if we now take account of the verses declaring that we—men and women—were created in God’s image, we will understand that we humans have some special significance or value in the order of Creation. We have some distinctive endowment of what has somehow come to be called “dignity.” (If it had been up to me, I would have chosen a different term, but it’s too late in the day to fret over the vocabulary.)

These three features of the biblical story—purpose, meaning, and human dignity—make all the difference in our attitude toward life, and in how we go about living life. The biblical story implies that in deciding how to live, we should try to ascertain and live in accordance with our purpose and with the divine plan—a purpose and plan that are somehow part of (and thus discernible in) the order of Creation. And also that we should treat ourselves and our fellow humans with respect for the dignity we in fact possess.

We now have to try to discern and distinguish what in nature is reflective of the providential plan or purpose, as opposed to being in need of correction or improvement.

Even so, it would be premature and indeed dangerous to rest our understanding on the truth of Creation, without more. Because we might then suppose that we can read the providential plan directly off observable natural facts; and we might also infer that any deviation from those natural facts is ipso facto a violation of the providential plan. We might oppose the development of medicines, for example, or surgical procedures. We might reprove someone who is working on inventing an airplane: “If God had wanted us to fly, he would have given us wings.”

Even more serious: we might conclude that all of our natural desires and inclinations ought to be satisfied. That anyone who tells us to contain or resist or change any of our natural inclinations is insulting our dignity.

That would be a potentially disastrous mistake. (As everyone will admit with respect to some of our desires—our desires to possess without limit, for example, or to dominate). And so we need to bring in our second theme—of Fall, or Corruption. Nature is divinely created and thus good; but nature has somehow become corrupted, and thus stands in need of correction.

To be sure, this acknowledgment makes the task of ethical deliberation immensely more challenging. Because we now have to try to discern and distinguish what in nature is reflective of the providential plan or purpose, as opposed to being in need of correction or improvement. Which is why even adherents of the biblical framework will often disagree in their specific conclusions and prescriptions. Even so, the fact of corruption, or sin, or of the Fall, is simply a stark reality: it is one theme in the biblical story that, as G. K. Chesterton observed, is an empirically verifiable fact.

That fact might also become a source of discouragement, or despair, because we may well find after considerable effort that we simply cannot through our own exertions bring the world, and ourselves, into conformity with the providential plan as we discern it. And so we come to the third theme: Redemption. The same transcendent Principal who created the world in the first place—namely, God—has a plan to bring it, and us, back into line with the “very good” state of affairs that existed before (or that would exist without) the corruption of the Fall.

Christians differ among themselves and from Jews about just how this Redemption occurs. And nearly all of them acknowledge that there is something mysterious in this glorious chapter of the story—something beyond mortal comprehension. So if the Fall and its effects can be observed directly, daily, both inside and outside of us, Redemption inevitably involves an element of faith. And yet it is this faith that completes the story, and that makes it into a basis for living in a hopeful and loving way.

Subtracting Creationthe Naturalistic Story

So then, what happens if we remove the elements of the Biblical story? For now, let us limit our reflection to the first of those elements, the one stated in verse one. What happens if we subtract the element of Creation—that “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”?

The leading competing story (at least until recently)—the naturalistic story, that is—does just this: it teaches that the world and we were not created. Rather it and we are the unplanned result of the aimless interactions of particles, combining over millions and billions of years and evolving through random natural selection into the world as we know it, including . . . us.

Once again, I do not want to quarrel in any way with this account (except, perhaps, for the adjectives— “unplanned” and “aimless” and “random”) as a scientific description of how things came to be as they are. I know of no reason why God could not have created the world and us through some such incremental process. But if we take the naturalistic story as an account not only of how things came to be, but as a more aggressively comprehensive story—one that speaks, deconstructively, to questions of “why,” for example—we might then more clearly notice that all of the key elements of the biblical story have been jettisoned. That is, in the naturalistic story, there is no purpose to it all, no providential plan, no larger meaning, and no basis for asserting any unique human “dignity.”

Lacking a Creator, we become the creators—of purpose, of meaning, and ultimately of ourselves.

Promoters of the naturalistic account sometimes deny or downplay these subtractions—to make the story less disturbing perhaps. But the implications are really quite irresistible, and leading proponents are candid about the fact. Nobel laureate physicist Steven Weinberg confidently declares that “[t]he more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.” And as the revered Stephen Hawking observed, “[t]he human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet.”

So then, on the naturalistic understanding, how are we supposed to live? Not, as before, by trying to discern and conform to the providential plan: there is no such thing. Learning this, our first reaction to this brave new purposeless world might be despair. As the Princeton philosopher Walter Stace declared (in an essay tellingly called Man Against Darkness): “If the scheme of things is purposeless and meaningless, then the life of man is purposeless and meaningless too. Everything is futile, all effort is in the end worthless.” 

After we have had time to get over the initial shock, though, we might decide that things are not so bleak after all. On the contrary: freed from any intrinsic purpose or meaning (from any overall plan or script) we may feel liberated to do, well, whatever we want.

And how should we decide what we want to do? Probably the most straightforward answer is that we should act using our evolved capacities of “reason” in an instrumental way to get as much and as many of things we want as we can. (Like the biblical story deprived of the Fall, this approach would regard all of our natural desires and wants as prima facie good, or at least as desires to be satisfied.)  No longer creatures made in God’s image with a divine purpose, we have graduated into being . . . rational profit-maximizers.

Well, we can live like that. Some of us can, anyway, for a while. For the most part, we do live like that. In the government and in the universities, policy-making is guided by economics and rational choice theory, in the service of maximizing good consequences or preference satisfaction. No reference ever comes up to any providential plan implicit in nature (or the universe). Rather, the natural world is something to use, and exploit—to transform as needed in order to satisfy our desires as fully as possible.

And as long as we are transforming the natural world to satisfy our desires, why not go a bit further and transform that slice of the natural world that is ourselves? And thus begins to emerge another story—the self-creation story.

But we are not quite there yet. We should first notice that for some people, the instrumentalist or consequentialist approach to life will seem unsatisfying—crassly, grubbily utilitarian. They will perceive intuitively that some of our urges and desires are not worthy of satisfaction—and not just because satisfying them would interfere with the satisfaction of other or other people’s desires, but because some of our urges and desires are unworthy and corrupt. And some people may find themselves still craving purpose, and meaning.

How to obtain these? If we cannot derive purpose and meaning from God and God’s plan, then it seems the only remaining possible source of these things will be . . . us. Life has whatever purpose and meaning you and I choose to give it.

Again, this thought brings us to the self-creation story. Lacking a Creator, we become the creators—of purpose, of meaning, and ultimately of ourselves. Though we no longer have the dignity of creatures made in the image of God, we are not mere profit-maximizers. We have an even loftier dignity: we are now little creators, and self-creators. Little gods, if you like.

Strains in the StoryCelebrating Self-Creation

For some, this will be an exhilarating vision. Gods! Or at least gods. It seems that we are really coming up in the world. And yet questions arise—questions and difficulties. Let us point out three such difficulties.

First, the self-creation story tends toward a kind of solipsistic implosion. If I am the creator of my world, then everything tends to collapse back into myself.

Take the matter of meaning. If I am the author of meaning for myself, do I really have meaning at all? Or only . . . me? (Which, in my case at least, is a depressing prospect.)

To see how this happens, take the example of finding meaning in a poem. You read a poem by T. S. Eliot, say Four Quartets, and on first reading the poem seems profound but also obscure. And so you try earnestly to interpret it—to figure out what the poem means. Then your instructor, a devotee of so-called reader-response theory, or of ourselves as the makers of meaning, tells you: “Don’t ask what the poem means as if this were some sort of objective fact to be discovered. Take responsibility for your interpretations. You are responsible for the meaning. The poem means what you interpret it to mean.”

Is this instruction helpful? Is it good news?

Since justice and righteousness, good and bad, can only be the creation of these warring gods, this suggestion, if it means anything at all, can only mean that whoever prevails is right. Might makes right.

On the one hand, if the poem means only and whatever you interpret it to mean, then it seems you can hardly be wrong in your interpretation. If you think the poem means such-and-such, it does! (And that same instructor had better not give you a C+ for your interpretive essay!)  On the other hand, if the poem means only what you interpret it to mean, then your hope of learning something profound from it, or from Eliot, seems misguided. You won’t find any meaning you didn’t put there—and ultimately won’t learn anything you didn’t already know.

In fact, come to think of it . . . why should you bother to read and struggle with the poem at all? Why not just figure out what you yourself think? And isn’t it deceptive to say that “the poem means X”? More accurate just to say “I mean X. In the end, it’s all about me.”

That conclusion might seem disappointing, but at least you still have yourself. Or do you? Because now you are supposed to be the author or creator not only of purpose and meaning, but also of yourself. Of your self. But there is something powerfully paradoxical about the very notion of self-creation. How can you create yourself unless you are somehow already there, with the capacity of creating? Don’t you have to be, well, you before you can create . . . you? Or are you something different from your self, so that you can create your self? In which case, what exactly are . . . you?

Or turn the paradox around. Before something is created it does not exist. So if you are responsible for creating yourself, then it seems that before this creation is accomplished, you must not exist. But then who or what is it that engages in this miracle of self-creation? How do you (or your self) ever come into existence at all?

Traditional Christian theology tried to address this problem with respect to God, the transcendent Creator, by saying that God is the one thing that possesses the quality of “necessary” as opposed to “contingent” being. (In plain-speak, the idea was that other things had to be created; but God just is. Being itself). Whether this account is satisfying is no doubt debatable. But what is clear is that—no offense—you don’t possess necessary being; and neither do I. After all, there was a time when you and I weren’t around; and there will be a time when we are no longer around. And so, the paradox of self-creation persists.

That paradox represents the second difficulty. Let us notice the third. If instead of a Creator we have a world filled with millions and billions of little creators—not God but a host of little gods—then it seems that we quickly run into the same problem that the polytheistic world presented, and that is colorfully on display in, say, the Iliad and the Aeneid. It is overwhelmingly likely, that is, that these diverse gods will disagree with each other, and hence will find themselves in constant warfare among themselves—god(s) fighting against god(s). And there will be no overall God to adjudicate among them, or to promote peace among them.

Indeed, since each of these gods is itself the creator of meaning and purpose, there will be no outside standard by which to determine which of the gods should prevail in their struggles. We might want to say that the “just” side should win, or the “righteous” side. The good gods should prevail over the bad gods. But since justice and righteousness, good and bad, can only be the creation of these warring gods, this suggestion, if it means anything at all, can only mean that whoever prevails is right. Might makes right.

The self-creation story is everywhere today—in college classes, in self-help books, in television commercials, in political propaganda. If the self-creation story has not replaced the naturalistic story in the culture or in the universities, the two at least have a sort of cozy cooperation agreement. And looking around the world and the nation, do you notice any indications of this “warring gods/ might makes right” implication playing out on the public stage?

Which Story?

So, we have three different stories or frameworks, with radically different implications for who we are and how we should live. How should we choose among these stories?

One possible answer is that we should choose the story that is true. The Bible story has certain attractions, it may be said—it is in some ways a nice story—but the problem is that this story is no longer believable to many in society today.

Actually, I agree with this objection if the Bible is taken (as it should not be) as offering a literal or factual description of just how creation occurred. As noted, I have no wish to quarrel with the scientists—at least when they are performing as scientists. But the scientific objection disappears, I think, if we take the early chapters in Genesis in a more existential sense—as telling us in narrative form that the world and we are the result of a Creation, that we and the world have nonetheless fallen into Corruption, but that our Creator has nonetheless provided the means of Redemption.

We do occasionally experience or at least observe the reality of Redemption: what was fallen is mysteriously made whole and glorious again.

If the biblical story is taken in this way, there is still much to debate on the question of truth. For now, I will say only this much: the biblical story has much to recommend it if we approach the matter not as a scientific question, and not even as an abstract philosophical question using the standard tools of analytic philosophy, but rather in the way Pascal did in his Pensees. If we reflect on our condition, that is—on what Pascal described as our peculiar human combination of greatness and baseness, of sublimity and degradation—the biblical story fits the facts of our experience. We do glimpse, at times, the glory of Creation. We sense the divinity of things, and have intimations of immortality, as Wordsworth put it. We also know and experience, directly and constantly and intimately (and excruciatingly), the Fall. And although this may be rarer, we do occasionally experience or at least observe the reality of Redemption: what was fallen is mysteriously made whole and glorious again.

Beyond this validity, moreover, the biblical story is vastly preferable to the others in the purpose and hopefulness that it sustains. There is a providential purpose, and despite the current pain and sordidness of our world, much or all will be gloriously redeemed. By contrast, neither the naturalistic story nor the self-creation story ultimately offers much (if any) grounds for genuine hope. There is no basis, finally, for supposing that our lives have any meaning or purpose beyond what we solipsistically pretend to give them; and even that shadowy meaning will vanish as soon as we are no longer here to do the pretending.

Consequently, for humans, the naturalistic and self-creation stories tend to lead to hopelessness and despair. (Even if, as Pascal also observed, we tend to adopt a thousand distractions—work and sports and entertainment—to avoid confronting this fact.)

Indeed, on these accounts there is no real basis for hope in a more practical and observable sense. I recall a conversation some years ago with an academic friend who had abandoned any kind of religious faith. “It’s really inevitable,” she said, “that we will destroy ourselves.” She was referring, as I recall, to our weapons, nuclear and biological; others today would point to other devices or developments or threats. “We can put it off—who knows for how long?—but it is only a matter of time.” On the naturalistic and self-creation stories, and without any transcendent means of redemption, this seems like an entirely plausible assessment.

Bertrand Russell offered a similar prediction, albeit in a more cosmic sense:

That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.

Unyielding despair —how is that for life’s foundation? 

So in the end, of the three stories, only the biblical story offers any real hope. You might accordingly think that humans would be drawn above all to this story. And indeed, through much of Western history the biblical story did supply the dominant framework. It did as well through much of American history, as historians and sociologists like Robert Bellah have explained.

And yet today that story is largely missing, at least from our public deliberations. How has this happened?

Where did the Bible go?

It is not that the Bible—the actual book—has disappeared. Bibles remain plentiful: the Gideons, I assume, are still doing their benevolent work. In addition, you occasionally see reports of surveys in which high percentages of Americans say that they believe in the Bible—even that they believe it to be “the inerrant word of God,” or something along those lines.

So then in what sense is the biblical story missing? Part of the answer lies in our abysmal level of biblical literacy. Along with the reports showing that many Americans profess belief in the Bible come other reports finding that, for example, even among self-identifying Christians shockingly large numbers cannot name the four Gospels.

Is there any possibility of recovering the biblical story or framework, as a public matter, as a way of understanding our world and our role within that world. I honestly don’t know. The possibility might depend on some Redemptive intervention.

And yet such illiteracy is not, I think, the essence of the problem. An even more serious problem, I suspect, is that even those Christians and devout Jews who read the Bible often don’t read it for and within its overall framework of Creation, Corruption, and Redemption. Instead, they (or should I say we?) have perhaps unconsciously absorbed the dominant frameworks of our time— the naturalistic and self-creation frameworks—and then we read the Bible as some sort of list of specific (dubious) historical claims and (ungrounded) prescriptions for how to live. But then the Bible loses much of its real significance even to those who read it—even to those who read it regularly and revere it.

It is as if you programmed your car’s GPS to take you to some desirable destination in a city across the country, and then mid-way through the trip you forgot where you were going or why. Your GPS would continue to spew out directions (“Keep to the right at the fork”), but these directions would come to seem quite pointless. And you (or at least your kids, who perhaps never understood where you were going in the first place but are impatient to “just get there”) might soon decide that these directions are merely an irritant to be ignored.

In addition (or maybe consequently), the biblical framework is systematically excluded from our public culture—from our public policy debates, for example. Today, when we debate law and policy on matters like transgenderism or contraceptive coverage or surrogacy—or environmental policy, or welfare policy, or anything else—the biblical perspective of Creation, Corruption, and Redemption is simply missing.

How did this come to be so?

The answer is no doubt complex. Part of the responsibility may lie with the courts. In a series of controversial decisions, the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution forbids reading the Bible in school, or at least reading it for what it is. The Court has likewise rebuffed efforts to teach any form of creationism in the schools. And the Court has ruled that laws and public policies must be based on “secular” purposes. To be sure, the Court’s decisions allow for reading the Bible as part of a literature class, or a history class. And observers suggest that it might be permissible to teach creationism in a class on mythology, or maybe comparative religion. The one thing that cannot be done is to teach the Bible in a way that suggests that it is a viable candidate for acceptance as true, or as an authoritative guide to how we should live and live together.

Still, I think it would be a mistake to place too much blame on the Justices. They are for the most part simply capable but unexceptional representatives of the educations that formed them, and of the knowledge class from which they happened to be selected. The deeper question is how our elite classes came to cast off the biblical understanding that prevailed for so many centuries. The answer to that would surely be complicated. And religious believers might well deserve their measure of responsibility for the way things have developed.

It is likewise a difficult question whether there is any possibility of recovering the biblical story or framework, as a public matter, as a way of understanding our world and our role within that world. I honestly don’t know. The possibility might depend on some Redemptive intervention.

I am confident of one thing, though: there has not been a time in our history in which the biblical story—the framework of Creation, Corruption, and Redemption—has been more urgently needed. And thus, it would be prudent of us to pause, reflect, and remember the Bible.

About the author

Steven Smith

Steven Smith is the Warren Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of San Diego. He is the Co-Executive Director of the Institute for Law & Religion and Institute for Law & Philosophy. He has a JD from Yale University.
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