11 October 2005

What is truth? A Roman Catholic Perspective

    "You are a king, then!" said Pilate.
    Jesus answered, "You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me."
    "What is truth?" Pilate asked. With this he went out again to the Jews and said, "I find no basis for a charge against him."
      John 18:37-38 (New International Version)

A teaching document published by the Roman Catholic Church instructs the faithful that some parts of the Bible are not completely accurate, as reported in this article. “We should not expect to find in Scripture full scientific accuracy or complete historical precision,” they say in The Gift of Scripture. Wow, they almost sound like Episcopalians or Lutherans.

One part of me wants to start bashing the Roman Catholic Church with questions like:

  • Well, if these parts aren't accurate, who’s to say other parts aren't?
  • What about all those religious texts you chose to not put in the Bible?
  • If this stuff has no historical basis, what about priests getting married or gay marriage?

But another part of me wants to avoid the cheap shots. I have disagreed so often with the Catholic Church, but I have on occasion respected the stand they take on issues like capital punishment. At a time when the radical religious right, with the backing of the president, seeks to challenge science itself, the Catholic Church stood up on the side of knowledge.

I still disagree strongly, vehemently, with their stand on issues like marriage and gay rights. But at least I don't have to argue with them about scientific fact.

They've come a long way since Galileo.


Jeri said...

The answer to your first question lies in techniques of Biblical scholarship, the second question, in historical accounts of early Church Councils, and the third, a combination of tradition, politics, and fear.

I think it's great that the Catholic Church (or at least in the UK--my impression from the article was that this didn't come from the Vatican but rather the UK Bishops) has finally publicized what Catholic and mainstream Protestant scholars have believed for a long time. The answers aren't simple, and the fundamentalist view--that the Bible is either 100% factual or it might as well line a birdcage--is childish, IMO. It takes time and scholarship and faithful intuition to find these answers. But many fundamentalists don't trust anything that requires critical thinking. It's either true or it's not. I also think it's juvenile to say, "well, parts of the Bible didn't really happen, so the rest of it is rubbish and religious people are stupid."

There's a difference between truth and factuality. One can believe that every myth holds a bit of truth, a piece of the puzzle, without believing it happened as told. Did Pandora really open that box and release all the troubles as well as hope into the world? Of course not, just as Adam and Eve didn't really eat the fruit. But the complex lessons from these myths are still true.

Jeri said...

Oh damn, that was really long. Sorry.

Anonymous said...

Not at all. Questions like that don't have short or simple answers, which is one of the fundamentalist's problems. They need the simple and absolute interpretation.

The point in my first two questions is that I am not inclined to take their word on what is and is not factual in the Bible. I think it is, as you say, an act of scholarship on the part of the reader. For example, I doubt the historical accuracy of the burning bush story, which the teaching document says is fact.
I think their basis for choosing what comes from their own views on religious truth. As a good UU, I have to respect that, but I don't think their views on religious truth are definitive.

Jeri said...

Ah, I see what you mean. I hadn't closely looked at their list of true and false passages.

I know this makes me not a Real Christian, but I don't see any reason to believe in the factuality of the Virgin Birth. Just like creation myths, virgin birth myths abounded in ancient times, and Luke was trying to appeal to the pagans in his gospel, so...scholarship leads me to believe Mary need not have been a virgin. That doesn't mean she wasn't pure of heart--again, truth versus factuality. Her "virginity" may have been a symbol of her virtue and worthiness.

As for Mary's perpetual virginity, which is canon in the Roman Catholic Church, that's not even in the Bible, and in fact scriptural evidence indicates she did have other children after Jesus. I just don't get that one, other than stemming from a fear of sexuality and women's sexuality in particular.

Anyway, I do see your point. Their lists seem a bit arbitrary when taken as such, without any explanation.

Anonymous said...


I'm with you on Mary's virginity, but, that's not a huge stretch these days, seeing as I've come to doubt Jesus' divinity itself.

I'm sure there are well reasoned arguments behind the true/untrue list in the article, and it's unfair to judge the list as presented without understanding the context. Actually, I don't even see their choices as arbitrary. Like the earlier choice of texts to include in the Bible, the choice of what is factual seems designed to uphold the church's doctrine and structure. That really why I'm a little skeptical of their choices.

I think there is a lot in the Bible that is historical, and even more that contains valuable insight. However, there's plenty that I doubt or believe is wrong and possibly, like a lot of Leviticus. I think we all need to find our own truth in the Bible, or any religious text for that matter. I think we should do so without a set of cliff notes from religious leaders telling us how we should interpret everything.

That said, I understand that not everyone approaches religion this way. I think it's fine if that's what they need, and if it doesn't infringe on others with different views. That's why, ultimately, I support the position taken by the Catholic church (or at least Catholic clergy in England).

Jeri said...

I think we all need to find our own truth in the Bible, or any religious text for that matter. I think we should do so without a set of cliff notes from religious leaders telling us how we should interpret everything.

This is what Luther believed, that a man (always a man) alone in a room with his Bible was just as good as a bevy of priests and theologians. It's also the basic belief of the fundamentalists. Personally, I like to hear what the religious leaders and theologians have to say about scripture, since they have the most knowledge about the historical context, translation issues, and so forth. So I guess I fall on the Catholic end of things in that regard.

That being said, I take into account the perspective of whoever's telling me what I should believe, what their agenda might be, then add a dose of good ol' reason and logic to help me out in a pinch.