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An A Priori and It’s Tells

June 29, 2010

Broccoli is green.

Now I’m guessing you understand that sentence to be attributing a particular color, a mixture of yellow and blue, to the vegetable broccoli. Right? Call that meaning (a).

But those words could have other meanings, such as:

(b) Broccoli is environmentally conscious.

(c) Broccoli is inexperienced.

(d) Broccoli is envious. Or even:

(e) My point has nothing to do with vegetables or color. It was a metaphor along the lines of “Is the pope Catholic?”

But you didn’t automatically go to any of those things, because green has a default value. God forbid, we should use the dreaded L-word, but there is, the literal sense.

Now language is perfectly capable of using green in these other senses, but when we encounter these we have to do a mental calculus that gets us past (a). Without context, we (should) tend to default to (a).

Now let’s say we have context. In that context we see words like red, spectrum, and pigment, we can be pretty sure we are still in the (a) zone.

If the context is full of terms such as carbon footprint, sustainable, and eco-friendly, we may be justified in finding ourselves in the company of meaning (b).

You see how this game is played. If I find in the context newbie, knows the ropes, and mentor, I may be looking at meaning (c). See?

Now yesterday, I posted a brief article on Genesis chapter 1. This was originally a comment I posted on the blog New Leaven. As it happens, I also ended up commenting on a related post at Internet Monk. Oddly, Chaplain Mike has published two additional post that would seem to relate to our interaction there.

My post on Genesis 1 was in support of what I think we’d have to call the meaning (a) of the text. Call it the literal view if you want. But I think it is the interpretation you have to move past first to get to (b) and beyond.

Now (b) and beyond all seems to have something that (a) does not seem to have. They all have a certain usefulness. They all do something for you. Even though they are all different, they all get you into the “I ain’t no fundy” club. That is to say, they come with cred.

My question though, is what gets you past (a)?

It looks to me as if (a) is not even an option. Rather than doing an exegetical calculus to consider, and then reject (a), I see a lot of people doing their best Evel Knievel and o’erleap the thing. Why is this? What is the problem with (a)?

I ask this, because we get readings (b), (c), (d), and (e), but all of these appear to me (and I may be wrong, certainly) to be significantly less probable than reading (a). So I wonder, what motivates people to choose less probable constructions of the words over more probable ones.

I think it is something like this:

(1) Take Sherlock Holmes’ dictum: Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, has to be the truth.

(2) Then you declare (a) impossible.

But why? This is a time for honesty. The thing that gets us past (a) is either: something in the text, or something outside the text. Let me point out, that if you don’t consider it a reasonable option to begin with, then that something has to be outside the text. Has to be.

And that thing outside the text is what? The desire to sit at the grown-ups’ table in the intellectual realm? And you think (a) won’t let you?

The way it looks to me for whatever reason, for many people, the “(a) is impossible” is simply an a priori. I can’t get into anyone’s head, of course, but I think there are indications. You know what a “tell” is? It is a give-away bit of behavior that reveals, unconsciously, what is going on inside someone’s mind. Poker player rely on them.

I’ll wager I can spot a few. And I’m going to refer you to the Internet Monk blog post I was interacting with yesterday. I’ll quote a few things that I think are tells that this a priori is there.

“It saddens me that Genesis 1 has been so often co-opted for use in contemporary battles with science…”

“This has made it extremely difficult to simply teach Genesis.”

“…such concerns were certainly not those of the Torah’s original audience.”

“Waltke helped me grasp the genre of this material. Genesis 1 is a literary composition, not journalistic reporting…”

“And I am equally bothered by creationists and evolutionists trying to coopt Gen. 1-11 for their own purposes.”

“I hear you on the culture wars, fundamentalism, and what have you; of course I would like to avoid a new Fundyism, which I think BioLogos actually probably contributes to.”

“I grew in a household that loved science. My sister in particular encouraged me to learn as much as possible by reading the literature and watching the various science shows on TV, even including Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series on PBS.”

“As to the Genesis question again, this is almost completely an American evangelical/fundamentalist issue. Outside of that subculture this is pretty much a non issue.”

“Unfortunately that subculture has proved pretty influential – it’s a growing problem in the UK church culture as well.”

“The target audience was not the modern scientific community, nor was it those trying to reconcile science and their religious beliefs”

“In my experience, most Christian who believe in a “literal” or YEC’s understanding of the 1st 11 chapters of Genesis almost never read those chapters. They have no reason to, they already know the “facts” & since they know the “facts” reading the 1st 11 chapters is needless.”

Now, perhaps I quoted you in there. Maybe you don’t think your statement is a “tell.” But what I am spotting are things like: emotional reactions, problems that need solutions, evident relief at solutions offered, labels such as “Fundamentalist,” references to cultural conflict, inflammatory language such as “coopt,” false dichotomies, invocation of “science,” chronological snobbery, overt prejudice. Okay, I may have some false positives in there, entirely possible, but what I don’t see much of is any indication in the text to suppose that the writer of the text intended his reader to understand something besides (a)–only that we should.

The references to “original audience” and “target audience” need special comment here. Yes, they are taking the original readers into consideration, but these particular statements are making false arguments. It isn’t a matter of concern with reconciling religion with science or seeking answers to scientific questions, or thinking a text is a newspaper that leads one to make an (a)-type reading. It is normal use of language. Paint a picture of these pre-moderns sitting around fires telling tales, and you can imagine whatever you like about their dispositions. But they too had to do the mental calculus that would get them past (a), and I don’t see that either the genre of the text (NOT poetry!!!), the people’s theological outlook, the nature of their language, or the state of their general understanding of the world would do to cause them to reject (a).

So what am I suggesting? Well, self awareness, first of all. If you do have such an a priori and you think it is just fine, then by all means keep it. I just think you should be aware of it. I prefer clarity to agreement (to quote Dennis Prager.)

I would recommend a mental exercise though. If you could pretend for a moment, that there were no stakes involved with Genesis 1, that you didn’t have to consider it a text to be believed, whatever that may mean to you; if you could see it just as a text that you could read, without implication for your standing as an evangelical, or an emerginger, or whatever you want to label yourself; if you take all heat off, does reading (a) seem like a low probability interpretation? If you pit (b) or (c) or (d) against it, do they even rise to say 50% of the probability of (a)?

I don’t know what you will answer. But the answer I come up with is that (a) is far and away the most likely candidate, taking into consideration context, genre, syntax, culture, and all that.

Perhaps you disagree. Perhaps I am wrong. That’s fine; it happened once or twice before, at least I think.

But if I am right, we have a lot of people who are misconstruing the text so that they can believe it. Call me radical, call me insensitive, call me uncaring, but I’d rather have you construe a text correctly and disbelieve it than read it incorrectly and believe that.

One Comment leave one →
  1. EricW permalink
    July 19, 2010 7:22 am

    Marvin: I, with my extremely limited/elementary knowledge of Hebrew, tend to agree with you. While there may be deeper meanings to the text of Genesis 1, as well as permissible allegorical ways of reading it, it comes across to me as intending to simply say and mean what it seems to say. Which therefore confronts me with having to think about what I believe about the Bible, or at least what I believe about Genesis 1. If I don’t like or agree with what Genesis 1 says, I think the question or issue is more one of how I am going to or not going to accommodate myself to Genesis 1, rather than a question or issue of how I can make Genesis 1 accommodate itself to what I believe or want to believe.

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