Naive vs. Conscious Literalism

In a recent post I mentioned the distinction Marcus Borg makes between naive and conscious literalism. At heart, the difference is as follows. Naive literalism involves someone (e.g. a Biblical author) treating something as factually true because he or she has no reason to believe otherwise. So, for instance, in the case of the ascension, why wouldn’t Luke depict Jesus as heading straight up into the sky? Presumably, had Luke lived today, he would have either described the scene differently, or mentioned dilithium crystals.

Conscious literalism means taking something written by a naive literalist, while having information (whether scientific or historical) that was not available to that ancient author, and deliberately choosing to ignore the more recent developments in our knowledge and understanding, and instead treat the naive literalist’s description as entirely factual.

Does this help make clear not just the difference between the two, but why the latter is so very problematic?

  • http://chrisluff.wordpress.com/ chris

    Wow!Just been discussing interpretation, context and literalism. How timely and how brilliantly succinct.Thank you.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13140007604009678479 David Ker

    It’s a helpful distinction. My concern is that we can give ourselves too much credit for understanding history and science especially when we are so far from the event that took place. I might prefer to call myself a pragmatic literalist. i.e. the original author understood it this way, it’s been accepted that way for two thousands years by the Church so within our tradition it makes just as much sense to accept the ascension as they did than to try to explain it away from a distance.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Hi David! I certainly don’t want to pretend that our scientific understanding is the “final” one, that we won’t learn still more in years to come. We do have to work with our best current understanding, however.Surely you do not believe that Jesus had a physical body which flew at less than the speed of light and is still en route to heaven (located somewhere “up there”). Perhaps you’d like to say a bit about how you understand the text…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12617299120618867829 Angie Van De Merwe

    Conscious literalism is belief such as you describe, is based on a combination of history and myth. Myth is “meaning making” while history is factual. But, when it comes to people that are historical beings and their understanding of “meaning”, then there is a complexity that does not dissolve the questions of truth claims. Truth is a personal understanding and assent and commitment.Religion is man’s way of making meaning or making sense out of the “whole of existence”. I think that making meaning of the whole is futile, because, there will always be power and the structures of power that determine what plays out in life. That is, the political realm and that is the place of importance in making a difference in this world…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07600312868663460988 J. K. Gayle

    Presumably, had Luke lived today, he would have either described the scene differently, or mentioned dilithium crystals.David makes good pts: 1) the distinction’s helpful (so thanks for giving it); 2) the residue of the Enlightenment is on us all too often (which is to say we think we know better now than they did then).But Borg makes a false dichotomy if simply looking at the diachronic distinctions. Does he ever acknowledge synchronic differences? Let’s take your Luke example in the 1st century–Maybe a Chinese man living and writing at that time would have seen / described Jesus’s ascension differently from how Luke does. Regardless the age, there is very much a place both for cultural relativism and also for Whorfian linguistics when allowing for Luke’s perspective(s). David’s pragmatic literalism starts to get at that. Luke doesn’t ever pretend to be an eye witness, does he? He’s borrowing / collecting (presumably) various (Jewish, Greekish, Romanish, Aramaic-ish, male, and female) accounts.Take your “heaven,” James. What do you mean by that? I think Luke’s phrase εἰς τὸν οὐρανόν does probably mean something like Homer’s and Hesiod’s “heaven” but is also literally where the “clouds” and “birds” are (as we know them some 20 centuries later, alas!).There are numerous issues with telling a (presumably factual) story, not the least of which is the choice of messy imprecise language.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13140007604009678479 David Ker

    You know this is the point where the little boy in Sunday School and the postmodern adult for some reason don’t have any trouble coexisting in the same head. I lend a credence to the Bible that I don’t to other historical texts and so when it explains something supernatural I think, “Well, I don’t know how that worked but it must have happened through some miracle.” Now, I’m less tolerant of medieval hagiographies for example but they somehow seem less convincing.I’m not saying that is a very good reason for interpreting the way I do but I think that’s something along the lines of how my mind/faith works.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07600312868663460988 J. K. Gayle

    Just got back from seeing the film, The Express. It’s the history of Ernie Davis, the first African American to win the Heisman. I paid very close attention to the language. And, after splitting my world into naive vs. conscious literalism, don’t I have to protest?: hey, didn’t those people back then know there aren’t really “black” or “colored” or “Negro” or “N*****” people? (Like I said, they were African Americans and Euro Americans who naively thought back then in silly “black” and “white.”) What about that other stuff? You know, the miracles of Ernie, and his team, and his coach? I’m giving nothing away, but would it matter? Miracles then can be explained away now, right? Thank God we can look back and down on them who didn’t know how really normal Ernie’s breakthroughs were, even though people so naively thought of them as sort of supernatural. Glad I’m not consciously literal either. Oops! I’ve run outta choices. What am I? (Hmmm, the Bible as exceptional history, David?)

  • Derek

    This post reminds me of one of the chapters in C.S. Lewis’ book “Miracles.” It talks about the use of imagery and language and all of that. He says something along the same lines but as always, strikes a very balanced and insightful tone, pointing out that even when we recognize some of the Biblical language as metaphorical, its doesn’t mean that its not still useful or even the best language to use. In any case, we’d probably end up switching out one metaphorical term for another one thats just as metaphorical and might miss some of the original flavor. Part of the other danger involved in this kind of operation, which I do agree is necessary at times, is a form of chronological snobbery. Assuming that we, with our modern/postmodern, “scientific” outlook, will do a bang-up job explaiing what the Biblical authors were trying to say but didn’t have the language for. I mean, I do get your point, but I’m not really sure that Luke wouldn’t have written about Jesus floating on up into the clowds or that he obviously would have had to tell it some other way. I mean, he might have, but he might not. I’m not sure that its any less problematic to speaking of Jesus “fading out”, “transporting”, or what-have-you than to speak of him ascending on up. Again, I get the point. Lets not be wooden literalists. But, I would just say that while wooden literalism is one danger, at least as many, if not more, texts have been butchered by some kind of Bultmannian De-mythologization programme.

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