Tocqueville and biblical literalism

Från 2006. En första sketch (vilket bland annat märks genom en referens till wikipedia) till en kort uppsats (bytte dock ämne). Handlar om en mycket spännande fråga tycker jag. Jag kan dock inget om den. Misstänker att jag blev alltför excalterad och förmodligen har övertolkat Augustinus/Galileo. (Min recension av The Cambridge Companion finns här.)

In The Cambridge Companion to Tocqueville there is a paper called “Democratic Religious Experience” which I found eye-opening. Joshua Mitchell’s essay concerns some of Tocqueville’s sociological insights pertaining to religion. His perspective is grand: using Tocqueville’s ideal types of Aristocracy and Democracy, and the corresponding types of persons (i.e. “Democratic Man”, etc.), Mitchell tries to understand religion in the democratic era.

The standard modernization theory, and the “fable of liberalism” as Mitchell calls it, holds, of course, that religion will disappear with better material conditions and education. Tocqueville, the prime storyteller of fable of liberalism, did not, however, agree with the secularist part of the story of modernization. As Mitchell writes,

“Tocqueville’s observations of religious practice in the United States, which lacked an aristocratic past, led him to conclude that the supposition of any number of European Enlightenment thinkers about the fate of religion in the democratic age must be turned around:  the United States ‘anomaly’ is actually paradigmatic, and the Europe of his own day is anomalous. Disbelief, Tocqueville says, is an (historical) accident; faith is the only permanent condition of mankind.”

Faith might be permanent, but it will certainly take different forms and expressions in a Democratic society. This was what Tocqueville tried to explain, and Mitchell in turn uses typically Tocquevillian psychological mechanisms, and his idea of the condition of social equality as driving force, to explain some developments of modern religion. Specifically, Mitchell identifies the three phenomena biblical literalism, personal unmediated experience of God, and the idea of man’s radical depravity, as typically “democratic”.

The idea of literalism as a modern phenomenon, rather than ancient, had not crossed my mind before. It is a striking idea, and though I am not in the position to estimate its truth, I find that it at least brings clarity to some paradoxes in the history of ideas.

Let me digress. I remember reading a volume of Galileo Galilei, his “Copernican Letters” (as they have been titled in Sweden at least). In those letters Galileo defend the position that the results his scientific investigations are not in contradiction with the Bible. He argues against those literalist interpreters who claim him to be implying that the Bible is false. Galileo defends himself, and what is particularly interesting is that he does so by referring to older authorities of the church in support of his position: the Church Fathers, and in particular Augustine.

With the view I held at the time I read Galileo, those old authorities seemed to me to be the more modern, the more progressive position, while the literalist position was the backward and ancient one. What I did was to equate the more allegoric approach with the approach of modern revisionist Christianity; there appeared to be a similarity between the non-literalism of modernist Christianity and the allegorical interpretations of Augustine — and the literalists facing Galileo simply seemed to be simply a regression to even older forms of beliefs.

That was wrong. What I should have thought, (and I believe I actually would have thought this had I taken time to reflect thoroughly on the issue ) was that literalism is basically just as modern as Galileo’s new science. In fact, from a sociological and psychological perspective they seem to share some important intellectual inclinations. Man in the age of equality, i.e. the Democratic Man, has certain habits of mind and inclinications in the way he thinks and takes decisions. Particulary, he does not find patience with symbolism, mysticism, and allegory. One result of these inclinations is represented by the new science. But for those who remain religious, the road will lead in another direction: they will feel the same inclination towards simple unmediated contact with truth, and the same impatience with too elaborate and far-fetched interpretations; and hence, out of convenience of mind, so to speak, they will read the Bible in a strict literal way — if the Book contains truth, its truth is literal. Strict literalism is, so to speak, an expression of logos, not mythos as one might have thought. (Or, if you rather will, an expression of mythos perverted by logos.)

Augustine and The Church Fathers, who were living in a more aristocratic society than Galileo and his critics, had other intellectual inclinations. They were more inclined toward allegorical reading of the Scripture. There are, however, two different dimensions to this question (and here I certainly have left Mitchells domains) . In the article on biblical literalism Wikipedia has a “History” sub-heading. It contains only two sentences:

“Biblical interpretations that were considered literalist have changed through history. For example: Saint Augustine, (4th century), claimed that the entire Bible should be interpreted in an as literal as possible way, but his own interpretation of the book of Genesis was made in such a way that would be considered ’allegorical’ by some modern readers.”

This highlights that though literalism as an aim might be constant, the standards for what constitutes a literal interpretation might change. And the modern literalists, while perhaps having the same aim as Augustine, have a much narrower view of which interpretations are literal; they have, so to speak, a more literal conception of what literal interpretation meant. This is what I above have called “strict” literalism). What Galileo is doing in his Copernican letters is, if I remember correctly, simply to remind his critics that his interpretations of the Bible (which were consistent with his scientific results, but accused of being too allegoric) were actually in line with what Augustine would regard as literal. That is, Galileo did not, I think, really dispute literalism as such, but rather propose a wider view of what counted as literal (and he also, crucially, argued that the results of science could be used in the very process of establishing what the Scripture actually was saying).


End of digression. To return to Mitchell: from a Tocquevillian perspective the ambition of literalism, and literalism as hermeneutic principle, might be described as democratic. One factor to reckon with in the explanation of “fundamentalism” in modern societies is . . .

“what could be called the epistemological prejudice that attends the emergent conditions of social equality. This prejudice, which we see already beginning to form in both the Enlightenment thought of Descartes and the Protestant thought of Luther, involves the desire to strip away the mystifications of knowledge, the desire to find the “clear and simple” truth of the matter, whatever it may happen to be.

The religious expression of this desire is scriptural literalism. In Tocqueville’s estimation, it is neither an accident nor an anachronism that scriptural literalism emerges in the democratic age. Scriptural literalism is a response to the problem of complexity, a need to find the plain and simple meaning of things when the exigencies of life provide scant time to dwell on the nuances and mysteries that are evident enough — provided there is adequate leisure time to notice them. In the democratic age, when such subtleties appear through the lens of impatience to be little more than mystifications, literal interpretations will always be appealing.


Whatever the other grounds for the incompatibility of the Fundamentalist Christianity and modern democracy may be, the two are in accord with respect to their epistemological prejudice in favor of literalism. Said otherwise, the impulse towards fundamentalism is a religious articulation of the democratic age. Notwithstanding its occasionally sharp opposition to the secular world, the impulse towards fundamentalism accords with the democratic epistemological prejudice in favor of simplicity and plain meaning. Far from being anti-modern, this impulse is only fully possible within the democratic age itself.


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