Inquiry: Thoughts about inerrancy by LJ Frank

Credit: Jean Philippe-Cypres, photographer

Inerrancy is a complicated subject. It implies that an object whether inanimate or animate possesses the “quality of being without error” or that it is free from error. It’s most commonly used to describe nature, theological literature and or scripture.

Is there anything in existence that is without error or free from error? If one looks closely under a microscope at the symmetry of flowers one can detect errors. Evolution is not perfect. Meeting with the Harvard paleontologist and evolutionary biologist Stephen J Gould in Syracuse, NY, around the turn of the century he and I talked briefly about inerrancy. He noted that within nature itself we find imperfections and diversity if we look close enough, though from a distance one may see symmetry. To gaze upon any flower one can find utter beauty as we hold it in our hands. Under a microscope it is a diverse and complex world. And one discovers the richness and beauty of the imperfect diversity and the diversity of imperfection.

The imperfections we view in life can easily viewed as perfection, especially when viewed from the human eye and the filters of our experience and internal wiring. Is it natural for us to seek inerrancy and perfection in an imperfect natural world? The idea of error free perfection apparently inspires man to reach for an idea beyond our own frailties and faculties. We apply our inspiration to our thoughts, literature and theological writings and whom and what we worship and the choice of words we use in corresponding rituals.

Once man observes that his inspiration is from a higher authority his language changes and writings are viewed as sacred. Man decides what is sacred. The decision-making that is arrived at for something to be decided as sacred can be convoluted with various language based theological, religious, spiritual, psychological, political and cultural roots.

Subsequent human action whether in the rituals of a cathedral, synagogue or temple or on the battlefield or in a corporate office are developed as a controlling mechanism. Language and thought feed off each other while our rituals serve as underpinnings to the beliefs that are incorporated into our daily life. Rituals have their place as they offer the illusion of constancy and consistency, obedience and discipline to a cause other than our own.

We might ask, as the John Wesley professor emeritus Burton L Mack at the Clairemont School of Theology, did in his work, Who Wrote the New Testament, The Making of a Christian Myth, “who made the bible the final authority” and who made it inerrant or free of error? The answer is, man did. Historically, the level of inspiration became substantially varied at times, especially when there was a transfer of power among rulers or want to be rulers.

The Bible, Torah, Koran and other sacred scriptures were written by men inspired by their own visions of a higher authority and putting those inspirations into a language written down and applied to an imperfect natural world. Man decides what is canon and what is non-canonical. The sacred is imperfect. During the “Middle Ages” gardens were designed in an ordered ritualistic fashion, as a way of dealing with the disorder found in the natural world, is just one small example.

Whether a higher authority, such as the human invented words “God, Yahweh or Allah” etc., suggest, actually exist or not, human language and the desire for inerrancy gets in the way of a deeper understanding of the existential and spiritual predicament/condition of humankind. Language is imperfect even when the writer and speaker are sufficiently efficacious with a given language. It’s the actions taken in the name of a word or words that acts as a stimulus with a consequential effect.

Human language can fail us as does the acts or actions that follow when not used with discretion.  The cliché of  ‘actions may speak louder than words’ is comfortable to say, however, prior to the act, our language in the form of thoughts may loudly reverberate in the malleable and imperfect human brain. Does there exist within each human brain the wish for perfection and is it an obsession about self and other control?

 Nothing is inerrant. Regardless, one might ask, has the language of civility and the civility of language reached a crossroads in our technological age? Are we on the cusp of human like machines replacing the “God” or “gods” that we created and subsequently been inspired by? What will happen to that which has served as our inspiration? Will a technological “god” become an inspired obsession for perfection and inerrancy or will we revert to the imperfect natural gods that primitive men and women encountered in their myths over the centuries?

Still, as Joseph Campbell, a leading mythologist and Mircea Eliade, historian, philosopher and interpreter of the religious experience would on some level agree that myths have kernels of imperfect truths within them.

Intriguingly the language of inerrancy quietly and paradoxically communicates the fear of “aloneness” in an infinite universe(s)” and the subsequent quest for meaning and for a truth, regardless of how imperfect.