Monday, November 10, 2008

After the Rainbow

I spoke yesterday about a little known postscript to the 'Noah and the Ark' story in Genesis 9. Many people know the story of Noah's heroic efforts in the face of the great flood but a less often told story is what happened after they had settled on the land.

Noah, possibly still struggling to deal with the trauma of multiple genocides, gets himself so drunk that he ends up naked and unconscious. Not quite the hero we had come to know. His son, Ham, accidentally finds him in this state and after getting his brothers to help cover up the offense, also finds himself taking the blame.

The story is used aetiologically to explain (or perhaps justify) the existence of the slavery of one nation in the service of another. I guess there's a good reason why we might like to forget it but I think it's an even better reminder for us to read the whole text of the Bible. We need to accept the existence of these passages and the way they have been used over many centuries whenever we talk about the inspiration, authority and use of our Scriptures.


Jack said...

How much of the biblical record of Noah's life do you believe to be factual and how much mythological? If it's a bit of both, how have you been able to separate the two? How do you deal with the fundamentalists who insist that the bible is a 100% accurate historical record?

JDK said...

Obviously I'm not very good at avoiding controversy, but here we go... I can't say for sure, but my gut feeling is that very little of the Noah story is historically accurate. It's interesting that flood stories are common in ancient literature but the most of the details are likely to be imaginative.

However, I do feel very strongly that this is the wrong question. Here I align myself with Marcus Borg who would suggest that we ask not 'did it happen?' but 'is it true?'. Myths aren't stories that we should dismiss because they lack historical verification. Their persistence in human life is due to their ability to resonate with our experience and open our minds to new ways of perceiving the present through the lens of ancient archetypes.

The prior question therefore is 'what is the Noah story trying to tell us?' and the second question is 'do we accept this as true to our experience?'.

Hope this helps. Regards, JDK

Anonymous said...

Two Columbia University geologists, Ryan and Pitman, have proposed that the Black Sea, previoulsy a marshy plain, was suddenly (over two years) flooded as sea levels were gradually rising after the last ice age, and destroyed a fragile natural barrier across what is now the Bosporus Strait.

The consequent dispersal of people from nearby areas to safer places in further flung lands could account for the common themes amonst the various flood myths, and the differentiation of language and culture that must have been a consequence of such massive forced migration, as communities separated out through distance. These themes are also reflected in various Genesis stories (Noah's flood and the tower of Babel).

It could be the case that most myths incorprate echoes of real history, but are obviously nowhere near accurate guides to the past.

If myths were entirely constructed to illustrate spiritual or social truths, they would probably have an entirely different structure.

I think a story based on real and impactful events develops first, then changes over time and accrues "spirtual significance" along the way. The result is a "myth", when the memory of the original events is forgotten.

This is more evidence that religion and faith are entirely man-made and evolutionary artifacts that arise from people dealing with natural forces, and the human desire to tell stories. Not handed down from some spiritual realm.

Jason, you seem to want to cling onto some spiritual mumbo-jumbo. Why not be entirely rational and scientific and have a naturalistic and non-spiritual approach to matters biblical?

JDK said...

I'm not sure that it's possible to take a 'non-spiritual approach to matters biblical'. Wouldn't that defeat the point? Whilst I agree that many myths may have an early origin in historical reality, I don't think the truth of myth is dependent upon this. The Bible is firstly a theological document, before it is a historical document, attempting to capture meaning in the human search for the divine - and is therefore spiritual by nature. I'm not anti-science or rationality by any means, but each has a place and combining the scientific and the spiritual is not always advisable or beneficial for either dimension.

Regards, JDK

ky said...

Hi Jase,

There's no pleasing some people, is there?:-)

I liked anonymous' comment, but I wonder if there might be scientific fundamentalism as well. I suppose, like any religious fundamentalism, it too is not open or broad minded, lacking in tolerance of anyone who holds a different opinion, it too has the only real answers or truth. It again makes me want to ask the question, as I did in your blog on the death penalty, what have we done to make them so hostile.
If my broader understanding of life, (which does include a belief in a loving and compassionate God who isn't condeming or judgemental) has caused anyone out there hurt or abuse, I apologise, I am sorry. If people could just learn to love each other and respect each other and understand each other more, then it probably wouldn't hurt, would it? If you don't believe in God that's your right. If you do believe in God, God respects that right of people who don't, after all it was God who gave them their free will, wasn't it.
And I'v uesd this analogy before, If Jesus, who I believe to be the revelation of God, didn't condemn sinners, like me, then who am I to over-ride that. Sorry if that's all a bit confusing, just an off-the-cuff reflection.

PS: (just another comment)
I like to see belief in God as being a bit like a scientific experiment – just because we don't understand it, doesn't mean we stop looking for answers or explanations to our hypothesis, were very similar actually.

Keep up the great site

Anonymous said...

You've identified the essence of a conflict I see with many Christians. The "non overlapping magisteria" or NOMA idea of Stephen Jay Gould, that you allude to, I see as really just a cease-fire arrangement between science and religion. It is reflected in the habit of people parking their brains at the door before entering church.

I believe that religion can benefit from scientific investigation. And you, Jason, have seen some of this benefit in the historical analysis of the Christian faith - an analysis that requires the use of science.

I'm not exactly sure, however, how science can benefit from religion. If you step outside the NOMA framework, maybe you can suggest how.

ky said...

Hi Again Jase,

Maybe science can benefit from people of faith, maybe it can't. However, just because science says something happens a certain way, ie; sediments developing over billions of years to form certain types of rocks, science doesn't necessarily tell us if its good to destroy a whole indigenous community's land for the profit of big mining companies, science can build huge machinery to excavate huge quantities of minerals but struggles to question the impact on the environment. Like people of faith, science has within its ranks, people, individuals and groups who lie, or are willing to see the outcomes that help to maintain their power over people, you only have to look at the pharmaceutical companies, tabacco companies, a lot of science has been used for good and for abuse - no different to people of faith, some seek to hold onto power and use that power to the detriment of society, some use it to develop hospitals, schools, the very institutions that support the work of scientists.

It is my hope that both people of faith and science can work together to the benefit of all peoples, bringing not only stuff that can be tested and proven, but other things like compassion and grace and, dare I say, love and honest reflection that recognises that none of this is easy or straight forward.

PS: as a person who believes that Jesus shows us the way to live, I have never suggested or encouraged people to "park their brains at the door" as you suggest, and I don't think Jesus ever did this either.

PSS: For Christianity (or any belief in God) like science, the processes of theological and scientific endeavour is done by educated people, for both, I would suggest, only if they are instrumental in improving society for all people, not just the powerful or educated, are they of any use at all.

Just a few more thoughts

Anonymous said...

Let me tease out one assumption you seem to have made in that comment, Ky. That is the assumption that religion has a superior moral compass. Perhaps a quote from an Obama speech can highlight this:

"Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God's will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all."

Quoted from

Morality is not necessarily done any better by people of faith.

There are shades of Euthyphro dilemma here: "Is what is moral commanded by God because it is moral, or is it moral because it is commanded by God?" (see

Suggestion for your blog, Jason, that you post your thoughts on morality/ethics from a Christian viewpoint. This blog entry could lead into it.

ky said...

Dear anonymous,
I couldn't agree with you more, I don't think that people of faith are more moral than people of no faith and if that is the assumption you have drawn then your conclusion is wrong. I am merely stating that both science and faith can work together for the good of society whilst acknowledging that both science and religion have been vessels of abuse – neither is more prone to “perfection”.
I totally agree with Obama, we all have to explain why some things violate certain principles, not just for those people who express a faith, but for all humanity. Just as there would be atheists who believe that human life is to be valued there are people of faith who believe human life is to be valued.
I'm not quite sure why you have chosen the example of abortion, for me there are two lives involved, as I have stated previously, I am not perfect, I have made some decisions in my life, some were good some were not so good, so who am I to judge someone who chooses to have an abortion. My understanding of faith says to me that I am to love all people, whether they believe or behave the same as me or not. I would also never want to make the issue of abortion black and white morally.
I also think that morality is subjective anyway – true morality for me is about treating others with dignity, compassion, and to be as truthful as I can as I seek to live with them in community. That's the best I can do. I have no right to impose my beliefs on you and would never seek to do that, but I am a part of this world that we both exist in and I would only seek to express my understanding of life and listen to others and learn from their understanding of life.

I wish you well.

David said...

I would agree that morality is subjective in the sense that suffering is subjective.

After all, moral rules are about the welfare of people - welfare considered in terms of the choices, rights, suffering and happiness of others. Only sentient beings that have the capability of suffering can be involved in moral transactions. In the words of Sam Harris that means we don't have any moral obligations towards rocks, for example.

Morality isn't necessarily completely subjective. Some objectivity is possible if we agree on basic principles, such as the various forms of the "golden rule" (but not the version that says "he who has the gold makes the rules"!). Another principle would be the best moral laws are those that have the widest applicability. Compassion, dignity, etc, as you have mentioned are also factors.

I would agree that the above may not be sufficient to determine the morality of abortion, and in this sense, rather than saying morality is subjective, I would suggest that people can't agree on a set of principles.

I was quoting Obama's speech, not because of the abortion example, but to put forward the idea that morality is better determined through reasoning and discussion, rather than imposed in an authoritarian manner. It seems that people of faith often take morality as that which is commanded by God - "God said it, I believe it and that settles it". So apart from whether beliefs should be imposed, why hold beliefs at all if they are only based on authoritarianism (like a holy book)? If they are worthy beliefs, e.g. morals, why not support them with reason and logic, and if you can do that, you don't need the holy books at all.

I guess I'm also trying to say that you don't need God for morality, or if you do, it's not a good basis. But then I like saying things like that.

JDK said...

Have enjoyed the conversation here. Perhaps I can make a couple of suggestions:

1. On the subject of science and religion. I don't think it's a cop out to suggest that there are areas that religion addresses that are not open to scientific evaluation. Morality is one of them. You might not like the way that some religious people express their morals (or try to inflict them upon others) but science does not create an alternate morality. (Social Darwinism is a frightening example of what might happen if it did).

A simpler example might be music. Science can tell me about acoustics but can't explain why I like certain types of music or help me to compose something. I'm not advocating a 'God of the Gaps', just acknowledging that science (like religion) has a limited scope. Any decent scientist would say the same (I'm a big fan of Stephen Hawking and Paul Davies by the way).

Perhaps what you're searching for is an acknowledgement that religious and spiritual claims should be open to rigorous examination. This I agree to. In my Masters thesis, I advocated for a Constructivist ontology over a Positivist or Post-Positivist outlook as a way to address the kinds of issues that we're discussing. It's on the web if you want to check it out.

2. Regarding further conversations around ethics, I want to firstly agree with Obama, Kelvin and Anon :-) I'm no expert in this area (I tend towards relativist and existentialist ethics) but am happy to pursue it further. Look out for more to come around these subjects.

Thanks again for your contributions.

Regards, JDK