Some of my favorite stories in history are the ironic ones, and history is replete with irony. One of the most memorable is the ironic lesson of Voltaire, the famed French philosopher. Known for his sharp wit and writing abilities, he was in constant fear of being jailed for choosing to write against such topics as the justice system and religion with blistering prose. One such example is his famous statement “The Bible is that what fools have written and imbeciles command… Another century, and there will not be another Bible on Earth.” The irony is that fifty years after his life, half the time he predicted, Voltaire’s home in France was purchased by Colonel Henri Tronchin, who converted the home into a repository to distribute Bibles and religious literature. In this way one of the greatest skeptics of the 18th century left behind this enduring legacy: The Bible will always outlive its pall bearers.
Voltaire admired other great minds, such as Sir Isaac Newton. It has been said that upon receiving a copy of Newton’s Principia Mathematica, Voltaire knelt down in reverence, paying respect to the great scientist. Contrast Voltaire’s statement with that of his hero who boldly stated, “We account the Scriptures of God to be the most sublime philosophy, I find more marks of authenticity in the Bible than any profane (read, skeptical) history whatsoever.” Newton was no imbecile. His work in mathematics and physics revolutionized science, propelling him to near-legendary status. Yet Newton himself would deny such fame accredited to him, as he himself said, “If I see further than others, it is because I stand on the shoulders of giants.” Such an admirable attitude is worth emulating, as even his detractors praised him for his humility.
The Bible is like that, it stands as an immovable monument in the history of mankind. As a fact, it has received more criticism than any other work, and yet the number of devoted followers only grows. It polarizes people who may, on any ordinary day, would be considered colleagues by any other measure. A modern example would be the world-famous atheist and scientist Richard Dawkins and another renowned scientist, Francis Collins. Dawkins, made famous for his vitriolic attacks on religion, has also written extensively in many academic journals in the field of biology. Collins, famous for leading the Human Genome project which revolutionized the way we do medicine, has frequently written on the intersection between faith and science, showing how modern science and faith are not competitors for truth.
In an interview, Dawkins, upon hearing that Collins was a Christian who took the Bible seriously, remarked, “Really? You must be joking. Well I had thought better of Francis. Are you sure?” The obvious assumption of men like Voltaire and Dawkins is that no educated man can take the Bible seriously.
Why this polarizing? At a time where tolerance and multiculturalism are touted as two unquestionable virtues, is this polarizing consistent with our collective ethos? The responses to such questions are varied, and unfortunately much confusion surrounds the topic. This is especially true at the popular level and the internet, where conversations are carried out in sound-byte quotes, cartoons, and a flurry of memes. Dawkins himself would disagree that these memes are the best way of dialogue, while also affirming that religious people who take the idea of God seriously should be mocked. Such a response is often untrue of skeptical thinkers, as even Voltaire would have agreed over 200 years ago, “I disagree with what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.” Many respected atheists took Dawkins to task over such a claim. In a world of civility, mocking a counter-perspective only closes the conversation, and halts any hope for progress in our dialogue. Instead, dialogue happens when you ask questions of a counter perspective without provoking the baser instincts in those who you find yourself disagreeing with.
With this in mind, I want to write a small series on this topic. It is important to have this conversation about the Bible. Even Dawkins admits that it is one of the most important contributions to western literature. One can forgive him for forgetting, like Christians often do, that the Bible is a book that was written in the east, not the west. It was merely adopted by Westerners. Still, this is a crucial conversation that needs to happen. In my experience, having reviewed books by men such as Dawkins and others like him, there are three conversations that are helpful to have, and two popular objections that deserve to be answered. Those three conversations are:
- What is the Bible, and how did it come to be?
- What is the purpose of the Bible and its importance to Christians?
- Is it trustworthy?
Two popular objections are propounded by today’s skeptics in popular books such as The God Delusion or The Incredible Shrinking Jesus. These popular criticisms boil down to the view that in the Old Testament, God was a vicious, hateful bully not unlike many of the other pagan deities surrounding the Jews as they wrote the Old Testament. In this view Jesus is much nicer in the New Testament, but because there are so many parallels between himself and the surrounding pagan myths, he is either unremarkable, or a myth entirely. One side says Christians who take the Bible seriously are dangerous, the other says they are, whether intentionally or unintentionally, misguided. Both of these claims will be reviewed in light of original sources and scholarly opinions.
By seeking to understand and form valid answers to these questions, it is my hope that intelligent conversations will flourish. On the one hand, Christians ought to engage these important questions. On the other hand, my more skeptical friends already are asking these questions. It is my hope that my Christian friends will gain a better appreciation for the text they claim to be sacred, while my skeptical friends will be equipped to ask better questions. Both should be asking critical questions, and it is fair to say I am intentionally fostering an inquisitive attitude.
If we read the Bible, we will naturally form opinions about it. We have to. It’s a big book with a lot of claims about itself, about mankind, and about God. When we consider the kind of things the Bible claims about itself, we realize the Bible did not intend for us to be neutral. It is not the kind of thing we can afford to be neutral about.
So, whether you find yourself sympathizing with Voltaire, Newton, or somewhere in between, let’s have a conversation. Bring your questions here, and I’ll bring mine. Maybe there are more important questions you would like to have addressed, or perhaps you just want to research on your own before I write the next part of this series. That is fine, and welcomed. Curiosity is a good thing, it’s a virtue that, like all virtues, must be exercised or else you risk it being lost.
Find out some cool stuff about Voltaire here: http://www.history.com/news/10-things-you-should-know-about-voltaire
Why is the Bible important at all, does it mean anything for me? Here is a list of articles and videos from Explore God that are helpful and thought provoking: https://www.exploregod.com/is-the-bible-still-relevant
For those with a more scholarly bent, and are interested in understanding the Bible, but don’t have a lot of cash, here is one scholar’s free class on podcast for you to listen to: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/defenders-3-podcast/s2
What did I mean that the Bible is an eastern book? I mean that it has many allusions and customs in it that are best understood in their context. The Bible is able to get its point across, but there are many benefits of understanding the culture it was written in, a simple google search will bring up some websites, or you can watch a video series cause who doesn’t like watching TV? https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=3EHkoowC1jk