Sunday, February 13, 2011

Appreciating the bible

I've spent decades making fun of the bible privately - because it seems frankly, nuts. Let me take two steps back and show my appreciation for it. First, our duty as living things is to procreate - so job one is to stay alive, job two is to procreate, job three is to repeat as necessary to ensure the survival of the species.

It's in this ground that my appreciation grows, because we have the written texts (the bible) that give us a glimpse of what nomadic, bronze-age life was like. If any of us today had been born 2500-3200 years ago, we wouldn't know what we know now, and would have no way of learning, because our days would be spent looking for food, water, shelter, and our nights would be dark, and spent procreating, or resting so that we could repeat the effort of gathering food and water.

I'm over-simplifying significantly, but in magnitude, the spare time that is required to learn new concepts and new skills is probably not available in the average bronze age life. They say (well, Malcolm Gladwell says) that it takes 10,000 hours to master a new skill. That's roughly 5 working years for modern man. Given that the nomadic struggle to subsist might take 10-12 hours a day, every day, tacking on an extra hour a day to discover the things that you and I can discover in minutes, would have been an extraordinary burden. Mastering a new skill or concept might have taken a lifetime. Change would have been slow - many generations would pass before simple things like irrigation, food preservation, nutrition, sanitation, simple health care could be advanced to free people to rise above their circumstances in a broad way.

The bible and other ancient texts give a glimpse into the past that is priceless. It gives us a further glimpse into the generations prior to the writing of the texts - generations where oral history was all that is possible. Generations where the smartest of individuals may have been as intelligent as people today, but did not have access to information, did not necessarily have an organized way of reasoning, nor a handy way of checking their logic. They did not have the independent means to verify their observations, interpretations and reasoning. They did not have the time during the day, week, lifetime, to record their observations and interpretations so that others could verify, build on, rearrange, or discard those lessons so that new intellectual edifices could be built. Oral transmission of the best, or the most memorable concepts (right or wrong) was all they had.

We are privileged to read and reflect on this, it is a precious opportunity. I have been derisive in the past of the bible - what it says may be incredible, often redundant, contradictory, and nonsensical - but I probably wouldn't have done any better had it been me doing the speaking or writing 2500 to 3200 years ago. I doubt that any of my words would have made it on to papyrus.

So ... I'm thankful that we have these words, even though they're not believable. It reminds me how little we know, even today, and how we should never cease to observe, reason, record - and read and discuss others' observations so that we can push forward the boundaries of our understanding.

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