Religion & Culture | Philosophy of religion - Pt 1: Are the scriptures the word of God?
The scriptures are said to be the word of God, the very essence of truth. But are they?
The validity of all scripture must be determined by knowledge. The follow-up question is obvious: How do we define knowledge? This is not a simple question.
Let me begin by recalling my past. I grew up on the island of Trinidad where I was fed phantasmagoric tales that stirred more than my imagination. These folk tales were convincingly told by my elders. They were believable - truths. They were used to entertain and even regiment my behaviour. Years later, I learned their spurious, mythological nature.
Fast-forward - decades later, I am conversing with Sat Hon, my spiritual mentor, who posed a very interesting question. "Glenville," he said, "if there are two planes going to Trinidad, of which one is flown by a pilot who said he received his training through divine revelation, while the other showed you his credentials and his experience - with whom would you fly?" It was rhetorical question that had me thinking. He was really referring to the absurdity of viewing revelations as truth.
In light of many biblical claims and counterclaims, philosophy of religion is essential to exploring knowledge and truth. The philosophy of religion is neither an exercise in apologetics nor religious philosophy.
Philosophy of religion identifies and evaluates the key components of religion, viz, faith, revelation, God and gods, salvation, enlightenment, afterlife, etc, against the backdrop of truth.
What is truth? How do we know God exists? What are the sources of revelation? How much credence should we give to faith? What about intuition?
Truth, as we know it, is evaluated by evidence corroborated by our five senses. This we call knowledge. Knowledge is based on sources (oral tradition), intellectual enquiry/research, and even intuition (usually considered to be unreliable).
Truth can be factual (Jamaica is an island in the Caribbean), formal (the shortest distance between two points is a straight line) and normative (stealing or killing is wrong).
But some truths prove misleading. For example, we have learned that in some situations stealing and killing are acceptable and that Archimedes' straight line thesis does not stand up in all situations. Sometimes, what we hold as truths are based on inductive reasoning where a statement is said to be true until evidence proves otherwise, for example: all swans are white.
Inductive reasoning begins with a specific premise (God exists) and moves to more generalised conclusions (He made man, the heaven and the earth and all that exists).
The point of fact is that truth must be subject to rigour, meaning: reliability, consistency, predictability and measurability.
There are many purported truths in the Bible, the Koran, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Agamas, the Avesta, the Tripitaka, and other sacred books - none bigger than the assertion that God exists. We will come to this burning question later.
Of the many attributes of this God, let's examine 'His' love, omnipresence, and immutability. The first and second qualities signify 'His' involvement and presence in every aspect of our daily lives (deism advocates the opposite).
Given the pestilence, internecine wars and genocide throughout history, it begs the question: How loving and merciful is a God who is inextricably bound to our torment suffering?
Of God's immutability or unchanging quality, we can identify a list of contradictions in 'His' word, but I will leave that for another column.
This brings us to revelation or the so-called spoken word of God.
The Bible abounds with divine revelations, and so too is the Quran, a book that was revealed to Muhammad by angel Gabriel at the commandment of Allah (God). In fact, every sacred book was supposedly revealed by God directly or through His emissaries.
Now, are there inconsistencies in the divine revelations of various religions? Absolutely.
More so, how do we prove the source and authenticity of these revelations? If we do not trust John Doe's divine revelation, why do we embrace revelations by individuals who lived thousands of years ago, revelations that were inscribed decades and in some cases centuries after the death of these men?
Why do we believe Moses' tale of the burning bush? " ... God called to him from within the bush, 'Moses! Moses!' And Moses said, "Here I am."
"Do not come any closer," God said. "Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground." Then he said, "I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob." At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God (Exodus 3).
Why do we uphold The Book of Revelation - the prophetic, apocalyptic visions of John, and neatly fit every calamity on earth into its paradigm? Is there validity to connecting every wrong in the world to a man's vision without knowing anything about that man's psychological make-up? What would modern psychiatry make of these biblical figures if they lived today?
Again, truth must be predictable and measurable. Interestingly, it was Jesus who proved to be the consummate scientist. Here is why: In John 14: 12, he said,"Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father."
Here, Jesus constructs a template to measure truth based on the five senses. It must stand to reason that the inability of a single Christian to display these greater feats could suggest that this discourse by the messiah never took place or, despite their claims, every Christian is devoid of faith.
Now, on the subject of a supreme creator. Throughout the ages, monotheists have wrestled with the concept of God. Three distinct, but interrelated arguments for 'His' existence have been advanced.
The ontological theory is based on the established assumption that God exists. It is an a priori approach that is solely based on inductive reasoning as earlier mentioned.
The cosmological approach examines the world, its construct, and claims that behind every event is a source - that source being God.
Last, the teleological argument sees purpose to structure and life, and pays little attention to causes. Both methods are based on deductive reasoning where general principles or phenomena guide individuals toward a conclusion.
Still, no one argument can prove the existence of God. "Properties (the universe) do not prove God's reality, in the same way that evolution does not negate 'His' existence.
Further, biblical archaeology may prove the sites of historical events but surely not the existence of a Supreme Being.
Maybe, the tale of Babel (Genesis 11:4-9) illustrates the futility of our philosophical pursuits regarding this matter.
Alas, what we are left with is faith supported by oral traditions that we wittingly or unwittingly accept, just as I did as a boy, who wholeheartedly embraced folk tales as unshakeable truths.
The philosophy series concludes next week.
- Dr Glenville Ashby is the author of the critically acclaimed audio book Anam Cara: Your Soul Friend and Bridge to Enlightenment and Creativity. His latest book, 'The Mystical Qigong Handbook for Good Health' is also available at Amazon. Feedback: email@example.com or follow him on Twitter@glenvilleashby.