James P. Carse’s book, The Religious Case Against Belief, Part Two

In The Religious Case Against Belief (Penguin Books, 2008), James P. Carse proclaims that we know very little about theological matters. In particular, he focuses on our limited understanding of sacred texts such as the Christian Bible.

Carse does not view the Bible as a practical guide for everyday living. He maintains that those who draw conclusions about reality from religious texts are deluding themselves. Rather than seeing such texts as collections of factual statements, he sees them as being more like poetry.

“… they are texts that demand interpretation, but without any indication of what that interpretation should be. The Bible, for example, provides no guide to reading the Bible” (p. 200).

That is an important and provocative assertion. If the Bible is God’s guide to life, it ought to include clear instructions about how to interpret it. Since it does not, it’s up to us to decipher its messages. Carse is skeptical of our ability to do so, and I find his argument persuasive. The human brain has a hard time dealing with complex theological and ethical issues, and what reasoning power we do possess is often overwhelmed by emotional biases.

Even though Christianity says that Scripture reveals God’s plan for humanity, one of the main reasons this religion has splintered into over 30,000 denominations is that Christians keep disagreeing about how to interpret the Bible. Evidently we aren’t very good at figuring out what this book is trying to tell us.

If God “wrote” the Bible, God surely would have known that humans have a lot of trouble interpreting what they read. To avoid confusion, divinely inspired scriptures should be as clearly written as a good college textbook.

If the Bible seems clearly written to you, think about the fact that others have so many interpretations that contradict your understanding of this book. Your interpretation could be the right one, perhaps because you are smarter than other people or more sincere. But of course we all want to think these things about ourselves. Remember, humility is a virtue!

Although I appreciate Carse’s ideas, I do think he goes out on a limb when he claims that religions “are not at their core intelligible….” (p. 36). “In their purest forms, they are thoroughly poetic. Odd as it may seem …, as richly verbal as religions are, like poetry they say nothing. There is no point to any of them” (p. 104).

They say nothing? That seems extremely peculiar. I admit that the Bible does not present a single coherent message, and it often contradicts itself about important matters. (See Bridging the God Gap,pp. 173-180.) But I do not think that Biblical writers were only penning poetry. In many passages it is obvious that they were making flat statements about theology, history, science, ethics, and practical matters such as child-rearing and sexual relationships.

I take it that Carse would disagree with me about that. He maintains that “essentially none of [religious] discourse is descriptive. It is not making any claims about the nature of the world” (p. 161).

Carse applies this radical idea to the Christian messiah: ” … the vast literature on Jesus is not about anything; … in fact, it says nothing. Indeed, that saying nothing, perhaps more profoundly than any other work of poetry, is its glory” (p. 112).

Many writers have suggested that scriptures are essentially poetry rather than history or science books. But let’s be careful here. Poetry, history, science, mythology, and other genre-designations are modern conceptions. Those who wrote religious texts thousands of years ago did not make these distinctions with rigor and clarity. For example, the first chapter of Genesis certainly contains elements of poetry. But it also contains factual claims about the way the cosmos was created. It would not have seemed odd to ancient Hebrews to mix these literary genres.

Furthermore, some theologians and philosophers seem to reason as follows: “A certain topic is very complex and confusing. Therefore we can reach no conclusions whatsoever about this matter.” That’s not logical. And by the way, many of those who most loudly proclaim that we can say nothing with certainty actually make an amazing number of confident and even absolutistic statements. I especially notice this among so-called post-modernists.

To his credit, James P. Carse invites readers to criticize his work. Even though many of his statements sound quite confident, he realizes that his own viewpoint is inherently, humanly, limited: “… the argument presented in these pages must provide the basis for its own rejection. Indeed, by citing the importance of disagreement to a vital and ongoing conversation is all but to beg for a critique of this critique” (p. 213). Here Carse shows that he has indeed attained what he calls “the higher ignorance,” realizing that even his most cherished opinions are subject to revision through dialogue with others.


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