Friday, August 24, 2012

Magic Books

Certain books are magic. That is to say, their words are unchallengeable. If a statement is made in a magic book it can be absolutely relied upon to be truth, by virtue of its inclusion in the book – there is no need for further substantiation. That’s the book’s magic.

Books that claim to be magic are usually channeled. Their author is not the mook whose name is on the cover but an other-worldly source, like an alien or angel, who writes through the author. There are many modern forms of this type of book. “Seth Speaks” and “A Course in Miracles” are the only ones I’ve held in my hand but Wikipedia has a comprehensive list.  An older example of this would be the Qur’an which was technically written by Mohammed but has classically been understood by Muslims as being dictated to him by the Angel Gabriel. Sometimes a magic book is found intact and merely translated under divine guidance as in the Book of Mormon but the principle is the same – the author, however forensics might identify them, is not the real author.

Older magic books also need to base their authority on a miraculous preservation of their text. There must be a force usually unidentifiable to science or historical investigation that ensures that only the right translation, the correct editing and even the only legitimate formation of a canon of texts from a broad selection occurs. If certain portions are lost then this is usually not permitted to create a gap in a magic book – those losses are equally meant to be. At least I can’t think of a magic book which is considered incomplete. When a new book that could be placed in the Jewish Bible/Old Testament was did not make it into either. What we have of the Apostle Paul’s letters is generally considered sufficient although we only have silence from those he wrote to. There are no gaps.

I should be very careful however before I label the Christian Bible, The Qur’an or Jewish Scriptures as magic books. Not everybody who holds these texts in high respect consider them in that fashion. Many Christians, Muslims and Jews recognize the humanity of their scripture’s authorship and accept its errancy. Others view them like incomplete poetry meant to inspire rather than clearly instruct – sort of magical but not in the exact sense I mean here.

But many do believe they possess the qualities of a magic book. They believe that any statement of their holy book is true, by virtue of its inclusion in their book. These people would accept that the real author of their scripture is God (or an Angel of God at least) and merely published via channeling through human hands.  These people would also believe that some type of magical preservation ensures that the copy of their scripture in their hand (possibly even a translation) is absolutely how it is meant to be.

For these people scripture is the unchallengeable last word in any discussion. There is no getting behind it or around it because its credibility is unassailable. These people are not necessarily literalists or fundamentalists. Literalists believe there is only one obvious interpretation of scripture – all scripture is considered to be like the history channel ought to be, factual and concrete. Literalists believe their magic book only includes the genre of straight reportage.

Christians, Jews and Muslims who believe they possess a magic book also include non-literalists who would tolerate a lot of discussion about the correct interpretation of their scriptures. They would accept that creation accounts may not be scientific accounts and even that later events may not be all historical (the book of Jonah for example). However they would maintain that this doesn’t change the moral authority of scripture. In what sometimes seems to be an act of double-think they hold that while some scriptural accounts are metaphorical stories they can still be used as the absolute final word in any argument. They are believed to tell a “deep truth” that is more important than their surface untruth.

Having a magic book whether of the literal kind or the kind that takes a bit of interpretation is obviously quite handy. With it many arguments can be quickly or at least ultimately resolved. However how do we know if a book is really magic? Having the wrong magic book could be quite dangerous. Who can say what might come out of following the Seth Material if it isn’t sound advice “The fact remains that there are probable past events that can "still happen" within your personal previous experience. A new event can literally be born in the past -- "now.".” Time paradoxes abound.

Some people are inclined to dismiss all magic books out of hand. Postmodernists don’t believe that there is a fundamental moral truth that any author or editor (even a magical one) could write down. Postmodernists would hold that the Seth Material even if it is channeled from Seth could only ever contain Seth’s opinions about absolute truth– not absolute truth itself. Similarly an Existentialist might argue that no magic book allows us to abdicate our moral responsibility to make our own decisions. Even if the Universes’ Creator has pruned the Christian Bible to perfection, blindly following its text commits the moral horror of rendering ourselves automatons.

For those of us who don’t consider a magic book an impossibility or an irrelevance it’s worth giving the question “How can we tell if a book is magic or not?” serious consideration. We want to be sure we have the right one. I think there are three tests we can apply. The first two are fairly logical, however the third is not and yet it’s the one I most use.

Firstly we generally consider that truth is consistent with itself. That’s an interesting assumption that I’ve yet to properly investigate. What it would mean, if we accept this assumption, is that if a book contradicts itself it is not able to be a magic book; all of its statements can’t be true. This can be a first test. However when applying this test we need to be careful. Some statements seem contradictory when they’re not i.e. My pants are red and my pants are black are not contradictory if my pants are red and black striped.

Uncovering contradictions in the Christian Bible for example is definitely not a straightforward task. Literalists face a contradiction in the two accounts in Genesis of creation, however non-literalists are not at all confounded by that because the “deep truth” that we are created by God is consistent with both. The Bible is also full of contradictory moral messages such as the commandment that thou shall not kill and then commandments to kill whole peoples or one’s disrespectful children or two adulterers or some sodomites. However such moral instruction can be allowed to be situational. It’s not really contradictory to say Go and then Stop to a child crossing the road is it? It depends on if a car is coming. While I find it a terrible stretch it isn’t impossible to excuse the diverse moral values communicated in the text in something like this way. Obeying God is at least consistent.

The Gospels contain numerous small inconsistencies however for me there is a glaring theological contradiction in the Christian bible that overwhelms them. In the Old Testament it is important that the Jews have no other God other than Yahweh but in the New Testament we are introduced to a Son of God whom Jews should worship. Although this Son of God is supposed to have been present from creation they never rated a mention whenever the Old Testament God specifically demanded exclusive worship. This contradiction was apparent to early Christians, who through the theology of the trinity knitted it into a workable synthesis – God is one and three. Taking the Christian bible as an example, self-contradiction isn’t a great test of a magic book because it can clearly be defeated by new interpretations that resolve what seem like irreconcilable differences.

Secondly we can investigate what a magic book claims about the world. Even non-literalists will usually accept that certain statements made by their magic books are factual and historic. If clear evidence from the world contradicts those statements then this can be a failed test of a books magic status.

The objection to a books magic status on the basis of inconsistency with what we know of the world however can be defeated in one of three ways:
  1. The historical record is so long ago that we can’t be totally sure of what we think we know about the world in that case. Archaeologists mostly don’t believe that the first born child of every Egyptian family was killed and all the Hebrew slaves escaped by drowning the Pharaoh in a river as depicted in Exodus. They believe that an Isreali identity evolved in Cannan (the Promised Land) over a longer period of settlement than this would allow. However we can only say the events of Exodus are unlikely not impossible. Defenders of Biblical inerrancy stress how the incompleteness of archaeology means we can’t be sure of a contradiction even when the biblical details seem very wrong..
  2. Exactly what is considered to be historical and what is metaphorical in a magic book is able to shift quite radically to defeat any critique based on its inaccuracy. Something like the story of Noah’s ark is considered preposterous by any zoologist. The diversity of species in just the primate family means that the only way all primates could come from two apes on the ark would be if a process of super evolution occurred after disembarking. The alternative that many different primate species were represented on the ark requires an insane amount of food, space and so on. This can be disregarded by allowing Noah’s ark to be understood as a purely allegorical story.
  3. Claims made about the world by magic books include prophecies; however unfulfilled prophecies can be shifted to a later time perpetually even when they appear to be given an expiry date. Jesus reportedly told his disciples he would return before the current generation would pass away. If we think he meant the life span of the apostles then he hasn’t but then generation could mean an epoch or even all of time. The Revelation of St. John contains specific references to churches which no longer exist. However The Revelation of St. John contains a lot of evocative imagery that was never supposed to be taken literally. Anytime can therefore be made to fit it, if you squint a little. Nobody ever has to consider these prophecies unfulfilled.

These three methods of escape mean that there really isn’t any workable test of a holy book’s claims to be found in the events of the world.

Thirdly we can come to a magic book with certain moral convictions and if we find them to be contradicted by the magic book we can reject it. This is the easiest test to use - there’s no need to keep abreast of archaeological research or scriptural interpretation – but it’s also based on a large assumption. We are assuming that our own moral convictions are sound.

The hadiths (a collection of sayings) of Mohammed (though not the Qur’an itself) demand death for an apostate. An apostate is someone who changes their religion – in this case from Islam. For me that is not only wrong but boringly wrong. I can barely muster up the energy to argue against it. If I had to I would point out that killing people for leaving your religion effectively means that some people stay in your religion purely for fear of death. That’s a sorry outcome for the individual but also for the integrity of your religion. On that basis I conclude Mohammed's hadiths are not magically true.

In the Jewish sacred Book of Deuteronomy there are instructions to stone your child to death if they are rebellious (and don’t respond to other punishments). Once again that’s so wrong to me I have no heart to argue about it. That’s a case closed example of why this is not a magic book for me. Even as I write this I am just shrugging my shoulders and thinking, “I’m done,” in terms of evaluating the absolute moral authority of this text at such a point.

In 1 Corinthians 14: 35, the Christian Apostle Paul writes that “it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church”. Again for me a statement like that is the end of any discussion that the Christian Bible including Paul’s letters is a magic book with the power to be right all the time. That doesn’t mean that I have to consider the Christian Bible useless or even Paul a bad guy on balance. There is a context for his words that we are missing. However the idea that every word in the Bible is magically preserved and arranged to be able to correctly end any argument has ceased to be possible for me.

Of course this third test has no power at all to convince someone that their magic book isn’t actually magic. What is my certain basis for condemning murdering people who leave your faith, stoning your rebellious offspring or shutting women up as a rule? I may have arguments but no certain basis. To have an absolutely certain basis I probably would need a magic book of my own – which I lack.

That’s a logical conclusion however. Emotively I feel certain of these moral convictions. They are how I have decided to live my life. I don’t anticipate them changing. Genocide is never going to be justified to me although it is justified in the Jewish Bible. Similarly the sexual expression of love between two men or two women is a beautiful thing to me even as it is condemned in a few magic books. For all intents and purposes I use these opinions as facts. I have to concede though they are not facts. Not really.

In conclusion then I don’t think there is any really effective way to test the validity of any magic book claim. Or rather any test we have can be evaded and defeated by someone convinced they have a magic book. Consequently I don’t know how to properly respond to people who use their magic books in arguments. This is sad for me and perhaps for them too.

If you do have a magic book I ask you, “What test have you used to establish your books magic status? Is there any test it could fail that would cause you to change your opinion?”

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