Isn’t it possible for authors to change their minds between books? Even if (as I argued in the last post) both Torah and the universe are products of the same divine author, it does not follow (as I thought it did) that the two books cannot contradict each other. So argues Rabbi Rick Block in a thoughtful note that I greatly appreciate.
Let’s rethink the issue, using a test case, philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of the most influential minds of the twentieth century. In 1921, he wrote Tractatus Logico–Philosophicus, a densely argued study of the logic behind language. Following the school of thought that we call logical positivism, he limited meaningful sentences to statements of fact that are ultimately rooted in evidence from the senses. That excludes religion, ethics, and aesthetics, none of which is open to empirical proof. Statements about God, goodness, and beauty are neither true nor false: they are simply meaningless.
Later, however, his Philosophical Investigations (published posthumously in 1953) seemed to contradict the Tractatus, in that it included religion, ethics and aesthetics as meaningful. Language, he now declared, was like a toolkit, that can be used to do different things: promising, hoping, describing (as in science) and so on. He called each of these things “a game.” The Tractatus described the game of science; but not the games of theology, ethics, and art, which are “meaningless,” perhaps, but only according to the game-rules of science. Investigations pointed out the need to describe the rules for these other games.
The Investigations does not disprove the Tractatus. It just limits its applicability and goes beyond it to include that part of reality for which the Tractatus did not work.
Like Wittgenstein, God too, we may say, has two books: Torah is God’s book of religion; Nature is God’s book of science. They are about different things; they cannot disprove each other, because they operate as different games with different rules of meaning..
Scientific knowledge works in mathematics, the language of Nature, it seems. When we translate those formulae into prose, we get sentences that follow Wittgenstein’s rules in the Tractatus. When we shift to religion, we change the game — and with it, the context in which to understand the sentences. Two sentences that seem to say contradictory things (“God created the heaven and earth,” from the Book of Torah, and “A big bang created time and a universe,” from the Book of Nature) sound like opposites because their syntax is similar. But they may both be right, because they operate in different realms of thought. In that way, they are like Wittgenstein’s two books. They complete, rather than deny, one another.
One more analogy is in order: fiction. Fiction is an art, much like painting, where Monet, for example, can paint several versions of haystacks, all of them equally accurate. A composer of fiction may, similarly, write two novels that contradict each other but be equally true. Insofar as scientific authors write metaphoric explanations of nature’s phenomena, they may do likewise, but when they try actually to frame nature’s laws, they may not make two contradictory claims, without one of them being wrong.
We can liken God’s two books to a nicely boxed set of two volumes, one on science and the other on what we loosely call religion. God’s first book, Torah, is the religious one. It is a work of art, containing such things as fiction, poetry, aphorisms, laws, ethics, values, and a subjective view of Israel’s history. Like any work of art, it regularly attracts new readings. The second book, Nature, is scientific. We change our readings there as well, but contradictory readings of Nature must refute one another, because the Book of Nature (as measured by mathematics) is changeless and, unlike art, a zero-sum game of “true or false.”
I do not mean to say that any reading of Torah is as possible as any other. Some interpretations of art are just wrong — as I said in an earlier blog, Hamlet cannot be a Marxist spoof on Capitalism. Also, ethics, unlike stories, poetry, and such, are absolute, so, like science, cannot admit two absolutely contradictory claims.
But comparing Torah with Nature, we can say that Torah and Nature are God’s two books which cannot refute one another. Like Wittgenstein’s two books, they represent extensions of one another – what we can call a dual extension of God’s mind.
When we look back at great authors, we call it a retrospective. Think of Torah and Nature as God’s retrospective, which we array with awe and reread with care.
Which book came “first” though? It would seem to me that’s an interesting question for both inter-faith discussion as well as a conversation with science and/or Platonic philosophy.
Yes, absolutely, I simply retained the order as Galileo gave it. In addition, however, an interesting Jewish tradition (Midrash to Bereshit Rabbah) assumes (with Plato) that Torah came first — as the architectural plan for the universe. Torah here functions like the Platonic ideas. The entire idea is metaphoric, of course: but in this case, the traditional Jewish version of the metaphor matched Galileo’s version, so I just stuck with it.
Oh yes, that tradition that reads Genesis in the light of Proverbs is very much what I was getting at, and I would argue, that it is the background to Paul of Tarsus’ arguments about identifying the Messiah with the pattern of God’s pre-existent wisdom. Hence the comments about inter-faith dialogue as well.
Lovely. I didn’t realize the force of your comment and hadn’t considered the Pauline connection. Do we know if Paul had Proverbs in mind? Or if Paul knew any midrash? The Midrash in question is rather late for Paul, I expect. Canonized 5th cent CE, and no record of anything like it early on.
Thanks. It’s a difficult one. It seems to me that Paul may well know something like the idea that God created the world for and by Torah, and then rewrites that in the light of his messianic eschatology. Exactly what form of tradition he knew is another question. However, it seems to me more plausible that he knew and reworked something like this tradition, than that he worked up – ex nihilo as it were – his understanding of Jesus’ role in creation.