A few months ago, Jordan Peterson had a series of dialogues/debates with atheist philosopher Sam Harris on religion, facts, and values. The videos are quite long and the content is pretty dense, at times, but it’s fascinating to tune on a conversation between these two highly intelligent men as they discuss the most important aspects of human existence.
Neither of them are religious in the sense of personal commitment to an established, institutional tradition, but they are doing theology. Harris is an atheist who is one of today’s most harshest public critics of religion. Peterson is not religious in the traditional sense, but advocates for religion’s utility in understanding and guiding human life. Christianity, for him, is especially useful for this, though by his own admission he doesn’t attend church. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, when Peterson says “God,” he means the thing at the top of our hierarchy of values. Yet, here they are, talking about God, what that word may or may not mean, and how our beliefs about God affect the sort of world we make. It’s basic theology in its purest sense.
Yet, when I watched the debate, I couldn’t help but wish that they had a professional theologian or practicing Christian philosopher in the discussion with them. Neither of the men are ignorant of “street-level” Christian theology, but there were a number of points that they made and assumptions they operated under, that I took issue with as someone who has had a formal theological education.
The biggest one was Sam’s (mis)understanding of Biblical revelation and inspiration. Throughout the debate he constantly dismisses the Bible’s value because it does not fit his criteria of perfection. His understanding of how Christianity treats the Bible is limited to that of the most rigid and naive fundamentalist. That is, Sam’s dismissal of the Bible is because it does not bear the marks of what one would expect of a text that was “dictated” to the authors by an “omniscient being.”
Listen to Sam and Peterson’s back and forth on the nature of the Bible’s inspiration in the video below. It starts at 1:08:34 and the conversation ends at about 1:15:00.
At 1:12:10, I laugh because Harris says, “When you read the Bible, you can turn every page of that book, and you will not find evidence of omniscience.” The reason this is so funny is because only a very small (and misguided) portion of Christians would ever claim that the Bible displays “evidence of omniscience.” Harris is basically attacking a straw man.
What do I mean by that?
Harris assumes that the ground of Christian faith is the book we call the Bible, which was allegedly dictated by God to reveal a comprehensive theory of everything. For Harris, if the Bible gets one detail wrong, or doesn’t conform to the the scientific era standards of accuracy on every detail, then you might as well throw the whole thing out and abandon faith.
Well, if my faith rested on that standard, then I would have to give it up, too. The reality, however, is that the ground of Christian faith has never been on the Bible’s accuracy on every scientific and historical detail as determined by our modern standards. The ground of Christian faith from day one has been the historical person of Jesus and the fact that his disciples saw him and experienced him after he was crucified. Even if one does not believe that Jesus was resurrected bodily, there is no other explanation for the rise of Christianity out of 1st century Judaism than that his disciples, at the very least, believed he was.
The resurrection was reported as an event in history that revolutionized the disciples understanding of who God was and their own identity as Jews. The New Testament writings, from the gospels to the epistles and Revelation, do not claim to be newly revealed knowledge from God, but are responses to the resurrected Christ. If you don’t have a resurrection, you don’t have Christianity, and you don’t have a New Testament.
The books that make up our New Testament became part of the Bible, that is, were canonized, because they were recognized by the church as faithfully and accurately testifying to what the apostles had taught about Jesus. Their value as inspired by the Spirit, and thus as revelation, is based on the fact that they faithfully point and instruct people in the way of Jesus, God’s ultimate and final revelation (Hebrews 1:1-2). Similarly, the Old Testament functioned to the people of Israel as testimony and reflection on God’s action in history, calling Abraham and later the people of Israel out of Egypt so that he could make a covenant with them.
Scripture, then, is not meant to be judged on how well it conforms to modern standards of science, but in how it points us to Jesus. Even Christians who use the language of “inerrancy” for the Bible, generally will qualify what they mean by that. They don’t mean “dictation,” and they generally will emphasize that God’s inspiration of Scripture was accommodated to some extent to the understandings of the biblical authors. I’ve written a little more about this here and here. When one loses sight of this fact and tries to make Scripture do something it is not intended to do, then of course it will fail.
Harris attacks a version of inspiration that very few educated Christians actually hold. It’s really a straw-man he’s attacking, and that’s an easier target, of course. Peterson, unfortunately, lacks the theological precision to point this out to Sam. I think if they could have added a theologically trained person to the panel, the discussion would have been even better. Someone would have been able to call out some of the basic theological misunderstandings, at least.