Ways of whatting?

Josh Rosenau talks about ‘ways of knowing’ and the non-empirical nature of the claims made by most religions.

It’s certainly true that the Jewish Bible can be read as making a number of empirical claims, for instance about the timing of human origins…But that’s not how Jews have understood the Bible for the last couple thousand years. Maimonides, writing well before any of the modern squabbles over evolution, explained:

“Ignorant and superficial readers take them [certain obscure passages] in a literal, not in a figurative sense. Even well informed persons are bewildered if they understand these passages in their literal signification, but they are entirely relieved of their perplexity when we explain the figure, or merely suggest that the terms are figurative.”

That won’t work – that quotation doesn’t back up the claim that “that’s not how Jews have understood the Bible,” it backs up a different claim, which is that that’s not how Maimonides understood the Bible. Notice that he’s complaining of all those other fools who understand it the other way! Granted he doesn’t give us a demographic breakdown or an opinion poll – but he does say that both ignorant people and well informed people get it wrong, and he doesn’t sound optimistic about it. Rosenau seems to be doing an Armstrong here – pretending that a minority view of religion is in fact all but universal.

To call these “empirical” claims then seems to miss the point. They are certainly truth claims, but not claims about what literally happened. I like to compare this to the non-literal truth claims of good novels, or good stories more broadly. I think we can all agree that literature offers a different “way of knowing” than science does.

Wait, slow down. One, for a great many believers, yes they are claims about what literally happened – that’s exactly what they are. They are for the Archbishop of Canterbury, for instance, as he has said very firmly. They are for Albert Mohler of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. They are for Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church.

Two, yes lots of people like to compare religious truth-claims to the truth-claims of novels, but that doesn’t make the comparison a good one, and it isn’t a good one. Novels aren’t the same kind of thing as religion, and religious truth claims aren’t the same kind of thing as novelistic truth claims, if there even is such a thing.

And three, no actually we can’t all agree that literature offers a different “way of knowing” because I don’t agree that literature offers a way of knowing at all. I think knowledge is the wrong word for what literature offers. I think it offers (sometimes) understanding, including understanding of what it might be like to be a different person, what it might be like to be in a different situation, what other people feel like, and so on – but not really knowledge. Why not knowledge? Because that’s not what it is. It’s speculative. It has to be speculative, and it’s none the worse for that, and it can (sometimes) offer real understanding, but it still amounts to speculation on the part of the author which if good enough is convincing and empathy-inducing in the reader. I don’t think we get to call it knowledge because it’s basically a form of (at best educated) guesswork. It’s imagination. Imagination is a great thing, but what it produces on its own isn’t exactly knowledge(except perhaps knowledge of what the imagination can produce).

This is not to denigrate literature, it’s to attempt to be precise about what is what. I just don’t think literature is a “way of knowing” unless we’re broadening the concept of knowledge to fit, in which case we’re talking about something new.

Vampires don’t exist…But telling stories about vampires is a great way to convey certain truths about the world we all live in. These aren’t truths that science can independently verify, but they are still true in a meaningful way.

Telling stories about anything can be a great way to convey certain truths about the world we all live in, but conveying truths about the world is not the same thing as being a “way of knowing” and religion is not the same thing as either one. Religion includes stories, but a story is not all it is.

I like novels. I like TV. I like art. I like baseball. I think there is truth to be found in such endeavors, and I think any brush that sweeps away the enterprise of religion as a “way of knowing” must also sweep away art and a host of other human activities.

And that’s where I completely fall off the train. I think that’s an absurd claim, and I can’t see how he got himself there. Can you?

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