When stuck in a conversation with a fundamentalist who believes in the literal truth of the bible, it can occasionally be instructional to point out that there are actually more disputed versions of the bible than there are words in the bible. This is hardly unsurprising, given the multitude of different often conflicting sources that had to be massaged into a coherent narrative, the push and pull of different groups within the early church who when creating a new copy would adapt the text to reflect what they believed Jesus ‘really’ meant and in doing so bolster the position of their sect in relation to others; and finally the natural errors that are so visible in the children’s game of Telephone when information is repeatedly imperfectly passed on.
What’s interesting to me in all this is the potential for these often minute changes in translation to have sent Christianity down very different paths than those it currently follows. Of these the most fascinating is the phrase that opens the gospel of John:
In the beginning was the word. And the word was god.
This has often been used to argue that the word of god (the bible) is indivisible from God itself and thus forms the basis of fundamentalist’s literal interpretations. However, in the original text the (greek) word used is logos:
In the beginning was the Logos. and the Logos was god.
This gets interesting, because while ‘word’ was certainly a possible translation of Logos, it was by no means the most common. In fact much had already been said about the nature of the Logos. The most common way to define it in Greek thought was as some kind of overarching reason; possibly usefully described as directions for a computer program of sorts. We had a certain free will as agents within the bounds of that program but were unable to breach it.
In the beginning was the program. And the program was god.
This program or ultimate rationality not only governed the physical world but was also a part of us, replicated within the structures of our brain defining our behaviour and morality.
What is truly fascinating about the different path for the Church that a more nuanced understanding of this one word might have meant is that it potentially resolves so much of the conflict between religion and science.
The problem of the Bible being unreliable and at times in complete contradiction to established fact is no longer an issue as the anthropomorphic God and his unchanging Holy book fade from view and are instead replaced with what might be first manifested as the Physical Laws of the Universe. Thermodynamics, relativity, motion: all laws that govern our lives and are, as far as we know, unbreakable. This means that Physicists search for the underpinning laws of the Universe becomes a search to better understand the nature of God.
There is also no need for scientists to discard or contradict the idea that this Logos is imprinted in ourselves too, defining our behaviour and morality. It has been repeatedly shown that morality does not principally come from us being read stories from a holy book as young children but from thousands of generations of evolution in which the actions we call moral today are simply those that made us more successful as survivors. Physical laws defined our world, moral imperatives evolved as the most effective pathway to survival within those boundaries.
Robert Wright talks about much of this far more eloquently than I in his ‘Evolution of God’ and the key point he makes is that as a result of the Logos we have been living within over time we have continuously been exposed to more and more beings in which applying those moral imperatives aids our success and survival. First ourselves, then our family, then our tribe, then our country, then our species, then even other species (vegetarians of the world unite!). Our moral circle is slowly widening over time to embrace more and more diversity.
Think of the church we would have had if they had embraced that definition of the Logos. A church not just in tune with science but proselytising it, a church that believed its mission was to accelerate the expansion of our moral circle and thus embrace equal rights and tolerance rather than quash them. That’s the kind of church that I might join.
(Some great books on this in addition to Wright’s include: Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman, The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker and the very long but utterly incredible How to Read the Bible by James Kugel)