Tuesday, July 15, 2014

We Live By Fiction as Much as by Truth

As a general rule we have little difficulty living by the fictions we invent.  Fictions are things "made up."  We recognize that they are not actually true, but we act "as if" they were.  The difficulty, however, is that some fictions harden into myths.
               For example, we sometimes fudge the truth by creating conscious fictions about ourselves to put things in a better light rather than the harsh light of actuality, and think of them as only slight "exaggerations."  Often we end up believing our own fictions, and even include them in our personal resumes.  Thus have we consciously imposed a fictional pattern on our personal reality, which becomes a datum in our personal story.  Over time some forget that it was once only a fiction.
               Society also creates fictions to live by.  In the recent court case of Sebelius vs. Hobby Lobby et al. Justice Alito cited the dictionary as part of the justification for regarding corporations as "persons," when they concluded corporations can have religious beliefs.  Corporations are fictional legal entities that can conduct business, acquire property, and sue or be sued, etc.  As legal entities they serve as shields for Boards of Directors. Even the most naïve among us, however, know that legal entities are not persons, for the first dictionary definition of person is "human being."  Corporations, do not have physical bodies and hence can neither make love, nor perform other human bodily functions.  They cannot think, feel, worship, or pray.  Therefore corporations cannot have "personal" religious beliefs as people do, even though the members of the Board of Directors of a corporation doubtless do have religious scruples.  Nevertheless the fiction that corporations are "persons" is now the law which governs our entire society.  The Supreme Court simply forgot that only Mother Nature can make a person.  What mischief this legal fiction will lead to in the future remains to be seen.
               Even scholars create fictions.  A good example is the collection of literary material shared by Matthew and Luke but is not found in Mark.  The source for this literary material is believed to be a hypothetical (fictional) gospel source, which is called Q (i.e., Quelle, i.e., Source).  Most New Testament scholars subscribe to the fiction that this collection of material comes from an actual written text that is no longer extant.  Degrees have been awarded, careers established, and money made on Q articles, commentaries, and theologies—forgetting, it seems, that Q is only a convenient fiction for explaining gospel relationships.
               Even church folk create religious fictions, forgetting in time that they are only fictions.  In a brief essay in the Springfield News-Leader on July 6, 2014 Rev. Cliff Rawley argued that Scripture "if used correctly" is a "proven resource of positive transformation…a guide to a peaceful life."  Rawley recognizes, however, that the Bible contains both positive and negative ideas, and used incorrectly it can be exploited for purposes detrimental and destructive to society.  He recites a litany of many who have misused the Bible for destructive ends.  But if the Bible is subject to exploitation by those who use it incorrectly, whence comes the idea that the Bible is an infallible guide?  The answer is that the infallibility of the Bible is a church fiction that has become doctrinal truth.  If the Bible can be misused by anyone who chooses to do so, it cannot be "infallible," since it has an inherent potential for misuse.
               Here is an example of a religious fiction turning into a myth.  Pausanias (2nd century A. D.), a Greek traveler and geographer, wrote a description of Greece, noting religious customs and traditions.  He described the beginning of the Hero cult of Theagenes of Thasos.  Theagenes was actually a famous athlete, a boxer, wrestler, and runner in fifth century B. C. Greece, who won awards in the Olympic Games in 480 and 476 B. C. It was rumored that he was actually the son of the divine Herakles, rather than the priest Timosthenes.  By the second century B. C., however, Theagenes was credited with curing diseases, and receiving divine honors as a God at cult centers in different parts of Greece (Pausanias, Description of Greece, Book VI [Elis II]. 11.1-9).  The fiction that great achievers in life have an affinity with the Gods, in time became the myth that the Divine Theagenes cures diseases and deserves to be worshipped.

What are your thoughts?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending. Studies in the Theory of Fiction (Oxford: University Press, 1967), 39.
Hans Vahinger, The Philosophy of "As If": A System of the Theoretical, Practical and Religious Fictions of Mankind (C. K. Ogden trans; New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1925).


Anonymous said...

Is there a difference between a fiction "made up" or "invented" and an hypothesis which could be true but is yet to be reasonably supported? If so, it would seem that biblical infallibility falls under fiction and "Q" falls under the latter. If Mark hadn't survived we'd be in the same situation with that material as we are with the possibility of "Q."

Gene Stecher
Chambersburg, Pa

Anonymous said...

Another slant, more personal, on this topic. At age eleven I adopted, after hearing a motivational camp speaker, the not reasonably supported hypothesis that I should be a pastor. At age 30 I labeled that hypothesis a fiction. Or how about this. At age 24 I was released from an anxious compulsive "demon," so to speak, when I heard a bell ring. I adopted the not reasonably supported hypothesis that this was the direct action of the deity. Perhaps as many as twenty years later, I labeled that interpretation a fiction and came to see the experience as a fullness-of-time naturalistic psychological maturing. This in itself could turn out to be a fiction. And perhaps just as likely these experiences, and others like them, don't neatly fit either/or labels.

Gene Stecher
Chambersburg, Pa

Anonymous said...

Good comments on fiction and myth, Charlie, and I agree, especially with your illustration of corporations posing as persons.

I submit that all myth begins with fiction. Of course many people don’t understand that most fiction was originally intended as metaphor, not literal truth, and as such served a valuable purpose. Much of myth in ancient times was never intended to be factual, but was used to instruct and control when most people were superstitious, and illiterate.
It is still used for that purpose today, although modern notions of the separation of fact and fiction are very different from pre-scientific times when truth, fiction and myth were blurred.

Also, in my opinion, many people don’t understand that myth and metaphor are still essential elements of our everyday lives.
They are used to instruct and entertain, beginning with Original Sin, fast forward to George Washington and the cherry tree, the myth of WMD’s in Iraq, and the perpetual myth that the Founding Fathers and US Constitution are “infallible” in the same way that you describe interpretations of scripture. In the wrong hands they can be dangerous.

But without myth, Elvis and the 60’s and TV sitcoms and poetry wouldn’t exist.
Without myth the world would be a hostile and barren place.
Without it we couldn’t dance, or even hear the music.

Wally akaButch Rees
Chautauqua, NY

Anonymous said...

What led you to Frank Kermode, Charlie? I don't think I've ever seen a reference to his work outside of literary critical theory. I learned of him after reading Julian Barnes' book of the same name. Two of my favorite quotes seem appropriate:

"Sometimes the things that a man needs to believe in most may or may not be true." Secondhand Lions

"Fiction helps us learn what we find emotionally true in the face of irreconcilable contradictions. " T. M. Luhrmann


Charles Hedrick said...

Hi Gene,
Thanks for the response. Yes, of course there is a difference between a made-up fiction and an hypothesis--but I am sure you knew that. The Q hypothesis (for such it is) is a "working hunch or single tentative guess, the truth of which is to be tested by experiment" (Young, Exploring the Universe, 23). I am reluctant to call it a theory. The infallibility of the Bible is an idea merely based on faith, and it can only be demonstrated to those who believe it. I call both fictions. The Bible infallibility fiction was invented to reinforce the authority of the Bible. The Q fiction was invented to provide a working solution to the literary relationship of the first three canonical gospels. But after about 100 years the Q fiction remains a working hypothesis or tentative solution. What would remove it from the category of working fictional solution would be the discovery of an ancient copy of Q.

Charles Hedrick said...

Hi Marcia,
I learned of the book when Bob Funk recommended it at an early meeting of the Jesus Seminar. The direction of what I write shifted some years ago into literary critical approaches of the New Testament and related literature. When I was writing my parables book I chanced upon the poetry of Wallace Stevens in a library in Chicago. In the course of my struggle with Stevens I learned Kermode was interested in Stevens as well (he published a book on Steven's poetry). I travelled to St. Louis where Kermode was delivering a series of lectures. We spent an afternoon talking about Steven's poetry, and I got his autograph on my copy of his "Sense of an Ending." There is more to the story but that is the short of it.

Steve said...

I don't know why I have the reactions that I do to fuzzy epistemology, but, I do.

there is nothing but "reason to assert" and "intersubjective agreement" making anything less, trivially true; trivial absolutely being axioms, truisms, and tautology.

a hypothesis is not a "guess", is not a "fiction", is not an "invention"; unless we're to say all ideas are "merely" guesses, fictions, and inventions (inclusive of the idea the finding Q proves Q is the markan source shared between the synoptics). these are ubiquitous limitations on man, but we use terms like "hypothesis" to denote the strongest sense we have arrived at some belief and how it is justified; and it's not that if we had this or that other feature that we'd be in any other state of affairs (again, as if having Q epistemologically tells us what is "true" about its relation to the synoptics versus being yet one MORE reason to assert what we already think IS the case with Q). so here, there must be a purpose for the use of these particular words, and probably, that's literature and not the nature of propositions and truth. it seems to be to undermine epistemology in order to say "we have to examine our ideas carefully".

I have to then ask about the dialectic implications. I don't understand what the purpose of the blog article is about, because it seems a statement about how we know what we know and how we can know it, but it cannot be. if it were, we'd simply say there are good reasons for believing some ideas reflect "the case with x" better than other ideas. instead, it's unclear what's going on. that we believe things sometimes more for desires and hopes than a wish to hold true some proposition with the best reasons to support it? sure, ok.