What the bible really says about the nature of human knowledge

Nature can help us look beyond our earthly perspectivesNaturalism and Organic fundamentalism

Some high profile politicians like to profile faith issues as stark “either/or” propositions. One of the most divisive arguments is over what it means for humans to have “dominion” over the earth. A literal translation of this term leads to a theology that says the earth and every living thing were put there for human use. Lashed together with conservative fiscal doctrine that resists environmental legislation and government regulation on business, this literal translation can be used to make the argument that environmentalism and science undercut key foundations of moral values.

But is it really that simple? And does the Bible really contend–and does Jesus really teach us–that the earth is a vessel to be poured out at our discretion, and that science stands in opposition to God?

We can examine this issue by looking at some  basic principles of human knowledge, both naturalistic and scriptural.

In modern culture, naturalism and human reason drive the pursuits of science, mathematics, physics, chemistry, medicine and more. The worldview we conceive through naturalism has been developed through increase of human knowledge tied primarily to the sciences. This approach has simultaneously defined how we gather, employ and relate information.

Yet we need to recognize that naturalism is primarily an organized system of observation. As such, naturalism has always been part of human culture. It informs the workings of our lives just as knowledge about nature, planting, sowing and harvesting informed the lives of people during bible times. Granted, advances in technology and our corresponding ability to manipulate nature have been used to create tremendous change in the world. But the basic practice of observing the natural order of creation to form beliefs about our selves and the universe has changed little in the last 10,000 years. We remain a culture of human beings in which storytelling infused with natural images is a primary method of communicating universal truths.

Let us be specific: the knowledge conveyed in the Bible utilizes the same observational methods as naturalism to gather and pass on knowledge. The key difference between biblical and scientific knowledge is the manner in which naturalistic observations are used, and to what ends. For example, one of the ways in which naturalistic observations form the basis of literary truth in the bible is through metonymy, a literary device that describes “the use of a name for one thing for that of another, of which it is an attribute with which it is associated.” 

Metonymy is based on “organic metaphors,” natural symbols used to draw parallels between our worldly life and what we call the “kingdom of God.” For example, the “tree of life9” portrayed in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:8) serves as a symbol for the nature of knowledge, cultures and descendants. At a literal level, we can observe a tree and know that it is an example of the constancy of nature. But we can also view a tree as the symbol for intellectual concepts such as genealogy and wisdom. Other examples of biblical metonymy include the mountain of God in Isaiah 2, symbolizing the higher moral ground of faith. The river of life in Revelation 22:1 similarly symbolizes the flow of life’s generations through time. In each case the literary device of metonymy illustrates a spiritual concept using the natural dimension, size or structure of something we can readily see or observe here on earth. The Bible plainly uses these material examples to teach us about spiritual concepts.

Of course one could argue that the modern tradition of using naturalism to define knowledge denies the supernatural by definition. But the corresponding argument is that the Bible cannot be understood without some foundation of naturalism to help us appreciate the symbols and meaning conveyed through the literary device of metonymy and other metaphorical, literary devices. The methodologies of naturalism help us identify appropriate organic symbols for knowledge, truth, moral and spiritual concepts. We might call this the nature of revelation.

Put another way, the Bible is so reliant on metaphorical devices that we would have little affirmation of the concept of God if it were not for the naturalistic biblical metaphors describing how God appears, acts, feels or creates in this world. Metaphor is an indispensable tool for understanding the literature we call scripture. By contrast, treating metaphorical symbols literally divests them of nearly all meaning. So it is crucial to avoid unmerited literalism when reading the Bible, especially if it leads us away from the original and organic sources of knowledge that drive scripture. We should instead respect the important role played by naturalism, metonymy and symbolic language as tools chosen by God and Christ to make the Bible’s ultimate message relatable to the human race. Thus the organic fundamentalism of the Bible is defined as wisdom anchored in observations about the natural world delivered through literary devices such as metonymy.

Jesus the naturalist

Organic fundamentalism plays an important role in the ministry of Jesus Christ, who used a simple form of naturalism in so many of his parables. Jesus uses parables to describe spiritual and moral principles that would otherwise be difficult for people to understand without some way to make them tangible and relevant to his audience. In Matthew 13:31 we find Jesus playing the role of naturalist with this parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed. Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches.”

The significance of this parable is that it communicates an important concept of faith by drawing on the seemingly supernatural ability of a tiny seed to become a giant tree. People in Jesus’ day understood this parable because the illustration of faith was presented to them in terms with which they were familiar. The concept of faith in God is not so threatening when it starts in the image of a tiny mustard seed. So we see that Jesus was able to communicate revelatory concepts through organic principles. This is organic fundamentalism in action.

This concept of growing a faith through knowledge of nature is given another application in Matthew 13:33, only this time human beings are assigned an active role in the organic process: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough.” Here the act of adding yeast to dough symbolizes the ability of human beings to effect change in the world through faith and good works. This is organic fundamentalism with an added human dimension, demonstrating it is acceptable for human beings to be materially involved to the world. Naturalism is again no enemy of God in this context.

Matthew 13:34 outlines just how important organic fundamentalism really was to the ministry of Jesus Christ:  “Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable. So was fulfilled what was spoken through the prophet: “I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter things hidden since the creation of the world (reference to Psalms 78).” This prophetic reference to “creation of the world” outlines the unifying role of parable, metonymy and organic fundamentalism present from beginning to end in the Bible. Now let us consider the importance of parables in the teaching ministry of Jesus Christ and what it says about how we should read the bible from Genesis to Revelation.

Parables: The link between matter and spirit

A parable is defined by Webster’s Dictionary this way; “a usually short fictitious story that illustrates a moral attitude or principle.” To ascertain the meaning of a parable, the listener (or reader) must make connections between the subject of the story and what it illustrates in terms of good and evil, but also the difference between matter and spirit. This process requires thought and rationality on the part of the listener. Matthew 13:34 is an ideal illustration of the spiritual truths of the bible communicated through rationality (parables) spirituality (things hidden) and organic traditions (creation of the world) that form the foundation of biblical tradition. It makes perfect sense that for Jesus Christ “things hidden since the creation of the world” should be discerned from organic or naturalistic sources.

The bible recognizes that Jesus was a man in the material sense, but with a spiritual essence that challenged all notions of human limitation. In this respect both his existence and his parables are an essential link between life on earth and whatever we think of as heaven. By constructing this vertical link between earthly examples and spiritual purposes, parables anchored in organic fundamentalism make it possible for us to imagine concepts of faith that would otherwise be foreign or inconceivable. Language is a key link between the apparent objectivity of natural theology and the emotional experience we call revelation.

Some people get so wrapped up in the revelatory experience of faith they may choose to ignore its organic foundations altogether. But Jesus perfectly demonstrates the value of a faith in balance with organic fundamentalism and revelatory experience. What can we learn from this example?

We should ask ourselves how well we are following the example of Jesus in the modern age. If through literal interpretation of the Bible we ignore, dismiss or fail to appreciate the organic tradition upon which biblical knowledge is dependent, we deceive ourselves into thinking an anthropic or revelatory interpretation of the Bible is the only way to establish and sustain a relationship with God and creation. Instead we should be skeptical of any teaching that imposes a prideful dichotomy between our material and spiritual lives. That approach is not in keeping with the ministry and message of Jesus Christ, whose use of naturalism to convey truth demonstrated an attitude of sanctity toward creation. Worldly knowledge is a compliment to faith. Organic fundamentalism affirms the idea that gaining wisdom through the metaphorical significance of nature as a creative act of God is the wellspring for biblical truth. All that is required for us to bring the bible into the modern context is a corresponding openness to metaphor and the pursuant will to draw parallels between the organic fundamentalism of scripture and the naturalism driving modern culture. The Bible is more alive, accessible and materially pertinent if we celebrate its organic fundamentalism rather than forcing our interpretation of scripture into a literal doctrine that effectively separates us from the heart of naturalism at its core.

True simplicity of faith comes in having the liberty and latitude to discover what scripture means to say rather than accepting a merely literal interpretation of a religious text. We might call this metaphorical tangibility; that is, approaching life and wisdom with an eye toward its unifying symbolism. This is the common denominator in biblical knowledge. And take note: Organic fundamentalism isn’t just a “here or there” phenomenon in the bible based on selected texts to make a case in favor of naturalism as a foundation for truth.

The useful knowledge we gain from sciences such as geology, biology and physics is therefore not the enemy when it comes to understanding and appreciating God. The natural conclusion of this analysis is that we can sustainably engage a reading of the Bible while maintaining a fluid worldview. That is, a worldview that accepts science, naturalism and the notion that the world is part of an infinite and changing universe. And a fluid worldview is a more consistent way to make God and the Bible relevant in the modern age than a worldview of biblical literalism and its typically rigid, purposefully limited and fearful perspective.

The lesson is that politicians like to make use of the rigid, limited and fearful perspective to draw stark lines among the voting electorate. But do not confuse their worlds with good theology, or perceive them as some kind of gifted message from God. The very human motivation of worldly power often negates the very real connections between our earthly lives and our truly spiritual goals of understanding and respecting God’s creation.


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