UI Philosophy Professor Leads Discussion on the Bible



A Kansas public elementary school is ending the free distribution of Bibles to students after complaints that the practice violates the constitutional separation of church and state, the school superintendent said. (Dreamstime)

Thursday afternoon, members of the Iowa City community were invited to partake in a discussion asking this question.

The leader of the discussion was not a member of any Christian denomination, but rather an atheist student of philosophy, Professor Emeritus Evan Fales. He is also a research fellow at the Center of Philosophy of Religion at Notre Dame.

Fales has long participated in discussions of the Bible and religion. He has written books on the topics of essences, identity, and philosophy of religion such as Causation and Universals (1990), A Defense of the Given (1996), and Divine Intervention (2010). He has also participated in numerous panel discussions on religion.

As literature, he offered respect for the Bible’s history and authors. He said it was genius, how the authors of the Bible understood their own culture’s traditions inside and out and used that knowledge to tell stories.

“Great literature is not produced by stupid people,” Fales said. “We’re dealing with texts that have to be weighed seriously.”

He also discussed anthropological theories from studies of societies like the Australian aborigines on why religions and deities were formed. One reason was to establish a figure, or figures, to help them understand their social orders and maintain that order.

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He did not deny the deeper meaning of the books of the Bible, his example being the Gospel of Matthew, Fales offered the idea that they were constructed. He compared the narrative structure to the chiastic, narratively symmetrical patterns also found in works such as Homer’s Iliad and The Odyssey.

“History does not work that way,” Fales said. “But the Gospel of Matthew does.”

Fales later agreed with a question posed by an audience member about facts and meaning. The audience member recounted a popular question about the Bible’s creation story, if it mattered more what the story’s serpent said rather than the accuracy of there being a serpent.

Fales agreed that getting caught up in factual accuracies in the Bible distracts from finding the text’s meaning.

He also said there’s a difference in his subject of interest and a Christian’s subject of interest in the figures of God and angels — Fales’ subject is instead the similarly intangible figure of nations.

“In order for me to make a serious case, what I would have to try to show is not just there is political stuff going on,” he said. “That the political stuff going on is so insightful and fundamentally important to the first century in that part of the world.”

Thomas Wolthuis, the director of the Geneva Campus Ministry, was one of the people in attendance.

“I respect him,” Wolthuis said. “He is a student of Scripture. He’s got a preconception already that rules out the concept of God, so already he’s ruled out an element of what I consider is there. But he also finds a wealth that is in the Scriptures that is meaningful and helpful.”

Wolthuis said Fales’ approach brings in a lot of truth, though he does not think it’s the whole truth.

Another one of the faithful in attendance was Senior Pastor Joshua Tilley of Iowa City’s River Community Church. He said he appreciates that Fales leaves behind negative preconceptions about the Bible and those who follow it.

“I really appreciated his humility to his approach to Scripture,” Tilley said. “Just admitting the fact that it’s good genre and actually scholarly work.”

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