By Helen De Cruz
A few years ago, I was singing in the choir of a local Anglican church (something I have had to give up, but hope to take up someday again). One of the carols we were practicing was Adam Lay Ybounden; the relevant lines in this intriguing late medieval macaronic text goes as follows:
Ne hadde the appil take ben, the appil taken ben, Ne hadde never our lady a ben hevene quen. (If Adam had not taken the apple, our lady would never have been a heavenly queen).
I discussed this text with a fellow singer, a baritone who is also a natural scientist, and asked him: "Do you think that if the Fall had not happened, the Incarnation wouldn't have happened" (as this song implies). He thought deeply and said: "No, I think God would still have been incarnate because we had still so much to learn from him". Now, neither the baritone nor I believe in the literal Fall narrative. There was no literal Adam, no apple (or other fruit) etc. But yet it seems that the question is theologically interesting.
This short conversation indicates that one can find theological significance in something one does not believe to be true. Indeed, I wonder how many congregants, that Christmas eve, really believe the Christmas story, cobbled together from diverse biblical passages and the tradition.
Does it even matter if such stories are true for the religious believer? Eric Schwitzgebel recently argued, using the case of Passover, that yes, it does matter. He writes:
It matters ... because if the story is literally true, then a god who works miracles really exists. It matters if there is such a god or not. I don’t think I would like the moral character of that god, who kills innocent Egyptians. I’m glad there is no such god.
Fictionalism as developed by Andrew Eshleman and others says that atheists can be fully participating members of religious communities, and use religious discourse in a non-realist way. But some stories are more central than others. For example the Resurrection in Christianity is a central part of the religion, and it is a difficult exercise to be a Christian without believing in its truth. However, that does not mean that a Christian (or any religious believer) has to take all stories literally. Call this position "patchy religious realism", in analogy to Doris and Plakias' patchy moral realism. Literal belief in some narratives is more important for some religious believers than belief in other narratives.
In some cases, a narrative might work better if it is not literally true. Take the Binding of Isaac (here pictured by Caravaggio), where Abraham is asked by God to sacrifice his only son Isaac. He obeys and does so, even though it's a puzzling and horrible request, but an angel stops him at the last moment. Abraham lied to his son about their purpose of what is going to be offered (although according to Jewish tradition, Isaac knew, and yet he obeyed).
It is a beautiful story because Abraham and Isaac are key figures in Judaism. They are patriarchs, founders of Judaism. Obedience without question is important, and what better way to do that but to ask Abraham to do something that would be the worst possible thing someone could do? If taken literally, the story is troubling because God is tricking and distressing Abraham. If God is omniscient, why put Abraham through this test? But if the story is not true, it is not so distressing as it is dramatically effective in establishing the importance of obedience to God. God could still exist, in a patchy religious realism way, but not put Abraham and Isaac through this ordeal, or kill Egyptian firstborns for the deeds of their Pharaoh.