I believe my faith, and wear my pastor hat comfortably. But I also wear my university professor hat quite easily too, and, far from letting people stay naive, spend enormous amounts of time and energy trying to teach people how to look at religion with methodological sophistication, i.e. to look at it from behind the curtain. Just because it’s a story doesn’t mean it isn’t true, and by true I don’t mean scientifically true, but true within the framework of the community’s understanding of truth, which is a kind of truth that is thousands of years older than scientific truth.I'm against derisively laughing at someone who comes to your blog and contributes calmly and carefully, but that doesn't mean I'm for this paragraph. I'm against it, just without the derisive laughter!
"Just because it's a story doesn't mean it isn't true." This reminds me of David Ariel's book "What Do Jews Believe?" In explaining what Jews believe, he continually talks about "the sacred myths of the Jewish people," like the myth of God creating the world, Moses receiving the law from God, the Exodus, and so on.
No matter how literally or metaphorically we choose to interpret them, these sacred myths form the framework for the Jew's ongoing search of personal meaning in his or her own life, the life of the Jewish community, and society as a whole.I get that. In fact, I practice that. Last week I went to Temple for Rosh Hashanah. I enjoyed hearing the myth of the binding of Isaac. It's an interesting thing to talk about once a year, not because it's a lesson for us all (yikes), but because it's so deeply perplexing and thought provoking. I like the feeling of being connected back in time to previous generations who have thought about that myth as well. I like being part of the group--both in the present sense and across time. The music and liturgy and rituals (all repeated across time) all create a satisfying sense of continuity. It is nice to have days that are extremely different from other days--more contemplative, more focused on "what matters."
So: sacred myths, check. In the next paragraph, Ariel seems to be serious about the word "myth". A myth is just a myth.
Sacred myths are articulations of our most deeply held beliefs that are not subject to verification for truth or falsehood. While the truth of these myths is valid and sacred for those who hold them, it does not necessarily follow that other people's myths are false or wrong.But notice how "truth" is starting to creep in, in the second sentence. He's not satisfied to say that these myths play some central and serious role in the life of Jews (sure, yes), he wants to say Jews believe they're true. (Would I derisively laugh at this point, if I were discussing this behind closed doors? Only my significant others know for sure.) Not just plain true, but true "for those who hold them." This, I think, is a very misleading way of using the word "true." In fact, Ariel thinks these myths are so far from being really true that the myths of different religions can all be true at once. For example, it's both true that Jesus is not the son of God (since Jews believe that) and true that Jesus is the son of God (since Christians believe that). We are definitely not really talking about truth here, in the normal robust sense.
Now you could say: no problem. He's up front about that. There's no real confusion. But in fact there is confusion.
What, then, do Jews believe about God? We must start with the premise that God is the transcendent reality which exists beyond the limits of our knowledge....The God we worship is the invisible creator of all life....God created the world but He Himself stands above and beyond all living things.He's talking about what Jews believe, but to believe X is to believe that X is true--really true. Ariel has already said that these myths are not true in the robust sense that would exclude other contradictory things from being true. So how can he now tell me that, as a Jew, I must believe them? Going back to Rev. Simpson's paragraph: just because it's a story does mean it isn't true. And it makes no sense to confess belief in propositions you don't regard as true.
Is there any harm done by this sloppiness about "truth"? All these stories do play a very central role in the lives of Jews--not necessarily as "lessons" in any straightforward sense, but as puzzles, traditions, focal points for discussion, etc. And who cares about a little sloppiness?
One reason to care: When children are being inculcated with religion, even the most liberal-minded teachers throw out all the talk about "sacred myths" and "stories." These things are presented to children as truths they are supposed to believe, in just the same way they're supposed to believe that Abraham Lincoln was the 16th president. (I am an eye-witness to this fact.) So the confusion has repercussions.
Another reason: There are so many occasions when it's important what's really true (is climate change real?) and so many times when we should struggle seriously about what to believe (is genetically engineering a good idea?). We shouldn't lose our grip on the meaning of words like "true" and "believes."