Tuesday, April 09, 2013

The perception IS the event

A discussion recently happened in a private Facebook group that forced me to express something deeply meaningful to me. The group is for religious discussion within my denomination, and one participant said that he struggles with the discrepancies between the four gospels. To him a discrepancy between two witnesses means that one or both of them is wrong or lying.

Others had already replied with the standard response to this--because of course, Christians have a standard response. Eyewitness testimony seldom agrees perfectly. In fact when it does agree perfectly, jurors usually take it to mean that they cooked up their story together, and are lying. Discrepancies are a mark of authenticity. They show that someone didn't go through afterward and "fix" all the accounts to make them match exactly. Scribes must have been tempted to do it--in fact there are a few known cases where they did do it--but for the most part, they copied the text as it was, discrepancies and all.

I do find that argument persuasive. By itself it doesn't prove that the gospel records are true. But it disposes of the notion that discrepancies are a priori proof that one or more of them is false. The next thing to do is to look at the discrepancies and see if they're the sort of discrepancies you'd expect from eyewitnesses or not. But that's not the road I went down. Instead I replied (in part):
The problem here seems to be (1) a conviction that there's only one "true" version of an event, and any other version is therefore false, and (2) that inspiration involves God forcing people to report the one true truth. That view will lead you to throw your Bible away, because it's perfectly obvious that the Bible doesn't fit that description.

I'd suggest that every competent witness's version of events is equally valid, reflecting a different vantage point and different knowledge. Why would God force them all to recount things from His (probably incomprehensible to us) vantage point, rather than their own?
This didn't sit well with the other person, who suggested I was describing a completely novel definition of "inspiration." He asked, rhetorically I think, "Is it: 'the Bible is a record of people's human impressions of events' or 'the Bible is a record of events'?"

I see a false dichotomy here, between "human impressions of events" and "events." The events that we're talking about are human events, as opposed to, say, astronomical events. They relate to the interaction of two or more people. Or rather, an interaction of two or more persons' perceptions.

Think about an event in your own life. Ideally, an event involving conflict. To be concrete, suppose you're a man who has invited over some dinner guests, expecting his wife to do all the preparations, only to find her in pajamas, in a messy house, with no dinner ready.  Your perception is that she disrespects you, or dislikes the guests, or is lazy, or something along those lines. Perhaps her perception is that she has a stomach bug, or perhaps it's that you never asked her before inviting these guests and she already told you that she wouldn't put together this dinner. There's an infinity of perhapses behind both of your behavior. Perhaps you planned the party in the first place to show her who's boss by making her prepare it. Perhaps she's in pajamas because it's your anniversary, which you forgot again, and now she's depressed.

The facts are thin soup: guests; messy house; wife in pajamas. Give 100 people those facts, they can write 100 completely different short stories. All of the meat of this event consists in both of your perceptions and motivations. That's what's interesting to the rest of us, hearing or reading about your I-Love-Lucy-style party disaster. And if you both wrote a synoptic account of this event, they would be different--perhaps unrecognizable as referring to the same event.

So what would be the "God's eye view" of this event? Possibly something on another plane entirely, like our perception of two hamsters fighting. But leaving that aside, I suspect that "God's perspective" on the "actual event" would be precisely to lay both of your accounts before us. It would be amazingly instructive to notice how both of you are "right," and both of you are "wrong," about the details of the event--but the event itself is the recounting of both of your impressions. That's what happened. Two sets of impressions collided.

The Bible sometimes reads like a dry list of facts, like a history textbook at its most boring. A parade of kings plods by, each one waging this war, or committing that sin, or fighting with the other prophet, and finally being "gathered unto his people" with a royal funeral and being "laid with his ancestors" (or sometimes not). But even those dry sections are full of editorial spin. Who says this king was "wicked"? Who says that king was "righteous"? Why is king Ahaz to blame for the three-year drought, rather than the prophet Elijah who actually caused it? Why is Ahaz hardhearted for refusing to conform to the Jewish temple worship, while people died of the drought, but Elijah is not hardhearted for refusing to relent on his curse until Ahaz breaks? See--it's all editorial spin. We're being told that Ahaz was bad and Elijah was good. We're supposed to take sides, and we're told which side to take.

The Bible is full of this, at every level. Practically everything interesting in the Bible is about someone's perception of events. Usually, we're supposed to agree with the author's perceptions, but not always. The book of Judges is one long mind-bending "what's wrong with this picture?" puzzle. We read about a man's concubine being raped all night long, and her husband cutting her corpse in pieces and mailing it all around Israel, like we're reading the score of last night's baseball game. The author deadpans the entire event, without a hint of judgment or even mild disapproval. We're left to ask ourselves, "Wasn't it bad to send his concubine out into a mob of rapists?" or, "Was it really appropriate to dismember her corpse?" or, "So, was the near-genocide of the rapists' tribe a suitable and proportional response?" The book of Judges raises all the interesting questions while refusing to answer any of them, and we're left frustrated--because we realize that the facts are not what's really important. What's really important is the perceptions of the people involved, and how we interact with them.