A reader sent me the following request: “I was wondering if you had an article … that talks about how we should approach the Bible and why we as Christians should view it as inspired?” For me it is as easy to write something new as dig up something old, so here goes.
The question is minimally how a person can rationally believe a particular canon of books is divinely inspired. More robustly, it is how they can know a particular canon of books is divinely inspired. To answer this question (or these questions) let’s begin by asking how a person can rationally believe a particular canon of books is uniquely inspiring. To address this question we’ll pop over to the English department.
Mortimer, a first year English student, is on his way to class when he runs into a fourth year student in philosophy who sneers at the Norton Anthology of Western Literature he has tucked in under his arm. “What makes you think those writings are inspiring?” she sneers. “Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, and the rest are just ‘dead white European males’ and colonial oppressors!”
Mortimer arrives to class chagrined. Is it true? Are these texts really no more inspiring than any other?
Let’s take a step back for a moment. How did Mortimer form his initial belief that a particular set of texts belongs in a uniquely inspiring literary canon? Well we know how he didn’t form it. He didn’t do his own study of western literature and arrive at these texts through a bottom-up empirical study. Rather, he was handed a list and told that this is the canon that is uniquely inspiring.
Is this problematic? Should Mortimer have taken the word of others as to what is inspiring? Or should he have been agnostic until he could conduct his own study?
The latter suggestion is an impossible one. Mortimer never could complete such a comprehensive survey. He would lack the time and skill to do so. And even if he had both, we would be requiring him to withhold any opinion on which books are inspiring for years, possibly for decades. (Think about it: when is a survey of past works comprehensive enough to warrant an inductive conclusion that this set of works is uniquely inspiring and thus the backbone of a literary canon? The task would be never-ending and thus would require Mortimer to postpone any commitment to the existence of such a canon in perpetuity.)
The fact is that we take the testimony of others all the time, and we are better for it. Imagine that Mortimer lives in a thatched hut deep in the Black Forest (it is there that he was raised reading the Brothers Grimm, a history which ignited his interest in literature). Mortimer’s mother taught him which plants to eat in the forest and which are poisonous. You can bet he takes her word for it. And Mortimer is still here today because he did so.
There is in fact an endless list of modes of classification that we adopt due to the trusted testimony of others. As Mortimer looks up at the night sky he can point you to a handful of bright pinpoints of light which are distinct from the other pinpoints of light in that they are planets rather than stars. And he didn’t need to view them through his own telescope before he could point them out. The testimony of others telling Mortimer which lights are stars and which are planets was sufficient.
So now we return to Mortimer holding his Norton Anthology in his sweaty palm, looking like Hansel after he just discovered the witch’s true intentions. “Mortimer,” I say. He looks up, startled. “Mortimer, what’s the problem boy?”
“How do I know this canon of literature is inspiring?” he asks.
I nod sympathetically. “Good question. Maybe I can respond by asking a couple questions back to you. How do you know which plants are poisionous?”
“My parents taught me.” Mortimer says.
“And how do you know which lights in the night sky are planets?”
“Some of the older gentlemen in the village taught me.” he replies.
“And how do you know which books belong in the literary canon?”
Mortimer looks at me intently. “My teachers taught me…?”
I nod approvingly. “That makes sense, doesn’t it?”
For a moment the clouds seem to depart from Mortimer’s countenance. But then almost as quickly it darkens again. “Yes, but a fourth year philosophy student challenged that canon as being an arbitrary list of dead, white European male oppressors. Does that mean I have to reject what my teachers taught me about the literary canon?”
I nod thoughtfully. “Yes, that could be a problem.”
Here ends Part 1