Tuesday, May 12, 2009

True Stories

Fictions are stories that are admittedly not accurate reportings of the real world, but which are valued because they tell general truths about the world. Non-fictions are stories that are valued as accurate reportings on the world.

So far so good. But then we get into religious stories, where we fight each other over whether the stories are true or not. Fiercely.

Why is it important to us whether these stories are fact or fiction?

There's been a similar (if more restrained) fight in the map-theory world over the "truthiness" of maps, and I think a similar question here can be raised: why is it so important that maps be seen as a reflection of the "real world"? Here, the answer is clearer: we want an accurate portrayal of the earth so we can use it as the basis of discussion of the real world. If it's not accurate, we can't use it the way we want to.

Is the same thing true of religious stories? Fundamentalist approaches to religion take this tack: "Everything in my Scripture is literally true, so I can use that as my Certainty. That's my foundation, my bedrock." But less fundamentalist points of view still need a sense of certainty in their stories... they need to look at their scriptures not as myth, but as something closer to Truth.

I think what often happens is, religious truth goes in a different compartment than everyday truth. Because what is said in religious texts is largely about extraordinariness rather than repeatable-experiment reality, we can put them into a mental space that is neither "made up" nor "verifiable", but is instead "non-verifiable but believed in." And religious texts do contain material that, like good fiction, contains general truths about the world: morals, ethics, love, justice, the very idea of truth.

The reason maps and other reference materials carry that peculiar aura about them is that they can (within limits) be relied upon. That in doing this they satisfy a need says to me there is something inherent in humans that needs this foundation. When people then ascribe to maps a level of "objectivity" or "truth" that we cartographers are aware they don't warrant, this is not an indication that people are stupid. I think it's an indication that people are people.

1 comment:

Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

Why is it important to us whether these stories are fact or fiction?

Good question! I think the answer might depend on who you mean by “us”. I don’t suppose that Hindus and Buddhists, who are very comfortable with mythology as a type of scripture, would answer the same way as Christians.

I might also question your statement that “what is said in religious texts is largely about extraordinariness rather than repeatable-experiment reality”. Most of the Jewish Bible, a.k.a. the Christian Old Testament, is historical stuff, which is not repeatable because we can’t recreate the past, but only a small fraction of it is about miracles. Most of the scripture of Theravada Buddhism is about how to practice so as to attain liberation, and it is a practice in which the dichotomy of ordinary / extraordinary is simply irrelevant.

Something else that ought to be taken into account, in trying to answer the question of why it matters whether the stories are fact or fiction, is what, exactly, we mean by “fact” and “fiction”.

Here I am reminded of discussions about the difference between “hard science fiction” and “literary fiction” that I listened to back in the 1970s: discussions dominated by people like John Clute, Samuel Delany, and Ursula LeGuin. One of the points these people made was that “hard science fiction” is written by people (like Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov) who believe that reality is essentially knowable, and that we can understand our own and one another’s motives completely, while “literary fiction” is written by people who believe that reality is not and that we can’t. So literary folks tend to cavil that “hard science fiction” is fiction at levels that its authors and fans think are reliable fact, while science fiction fans have been known to point out that, e.g., Jane Austen novels are written from a “hard science fiction” mentality.

This becomes relevant if you consider that what a “hard science fiction” fan would mean, in asserting that “the stories in Genesis are fact”, would be quite different from what a “literary fiction” critic would mean in saying the same thing. The former would mean, “the account in Genesis gets the physical events, and the motives and intentions of the human and divine actors in the stories, exactly right,” whereas the latter would mean, “the account is a faithful effort to record what happened; but it is inevitably rendered uncertain by the flaws and limitations of the observers and recorders.”