Wednesday, August 23, 2006

MacDonald on Religion:

Heather MacDonald has been brilliantly raising some serious questions about "religious Truth" on National Review's website. See her latest remarks here.

I've long pondered these questions -- questions about the moral claims of religion, whether the Bible is compatible with the ideas of liberal democracy, how the Bible scores on the big moral issues of the modern era like slavery and genocide.

One of the most apt observations MacDonald made is that "The Bible is as open-ended a text as any other." I wouldn't go so far as to say that the Bible can be read to support any position. But I will assert that the Bible, read "literally," can support a whole slew of contradictory positions and outcomes. That indeed, many passages seem to contradict one another. And a "literal interpretation" is a theory which invariably focuses on certain parts of the good book and conveniently explains away or ignores other passages.

You can compare the Bible to the Constitution by way of an analogy. The "legal realist" argues that judges invariably will make policy judgments, that indeed, everyone is a legal realist whether they admit it or not. Likewise, it could be argued that everyone is a cafeteria or liberal Christian, whether they admit it or not. The biggest difference between constitutional and Biblical interpretation is that the Constitution is a much briefer document, and thus easier lends itself to one "correct" interpretation, with one "right" set of outcomes.

Let us raise a half dozen vital moral and political issues and see how they fair according to the Bible. First slavery and genocide. I've heard it argued that the Bible supports anti-slavery and anti-genocide positions because the notion of human equality and dignity is rooted in the fact that we are all born in God's image. Now, indeed, that can be plausibly gleaned from certain parts of the Bible. Yet, as Ed Brayton recently noted, in parts of the Bible, God explicitly orders the genocide, complete with the slaughter of innocent women and children, of certain "tribes" of people. And the Bible is replete with references that seem to endorse the institution of slavery. So in order to get an "anti-slavery" position out of the Bible, what do we do? Glean a theory from it which holds that all human beings derive inherent dignity rights by being created in God's image. Impose that abstraction as the dominant view of the Bible. And then ignore or explain away all of those other passages that seem to contradict such theory.

Such explanations often invoke "context." But while historical context can explain away human error -- for instance, for thousands of years slavery went unchallenged as an institution; because the notion of human rights just hadn't yet been "formulated" or "discovered," people weren't aware that slavery was wrong; thus I can accept that we don't treat famous historical figures who held slaves with the same moral outrage that we would direct against a present person who holds slaves -- historical context cannot, however, explain away the error of an omnipotent God, or the words of a book, eternally true, today as yesterday.

See this thread on worldmag's blog where I wrote: "If you can explain away 'the [Biblical passages which seem to call for genocide and slavery] by historical context, then why can't we likewise explain away God's prohibitions on homosexual sex in Leviticus by 'historical context?'"

To which a commentator replied:

When God demanded what you call genocide, it was in a particular moment in time and for particular moral reasons at that time--and applied to a particular people. It was not an open-ended timeless call to kill certain people.

When God prohibited homosexual sex, he was not couching that prohibition in a particular setting nor did He intend for the historical context to mitigate His point. The intended application of the passages that prohibit homosexuality are clearly more open-ended.

The commentator did exactly what I described above: Use certain passages in the Bible to support a particular position -- in this case anti-genocide, anti-slavery -- and otherwise minimize or explain away the importance of contradictory passages. And I would argue that a clever interpreter of the Bible, for instance, John Boswell, likewise could abstract a pro-homosexual message from the Bible, impose that as the "open ended and timeless Biblical norm" and use "context" to argue that the anti-homosexual passages are only applicable to "a particular moment in time and for particular moral reasons at that time."

Likewise with religious liberty rights. Many parts of the Bible explicitly forbid the worship of any God but the Biblical God (and, I might add, impose the death penalty for the open worship of false gods in the OT) and for thousands of years, "Biblical Governments" literally interpreted such passages to justify civil governments punishing non-believers simply for their non-belief. Eventually, because of the problems resulting from persecution of minority sects, Christians had to "rethink" their way through those passages to come forth with an interpretation which supports religious liberty rights.

Likewise with the right to rebellion. Many passages in the Bible unquestionably tell believers to obey magistrates. And such passages were used by Biblical literalists to support the notion of Divine Right of Kings and quell the notion of a right to revolt. I got some criticism on my last post for suggesting that anti-Revolution is the only "proper" literal interpretation of the Bible. And I will concede that using the same technique of "interpretation" that yields outcomes which differ on such things as slavery, genocide, and religious liberty, you probably can derive a "Biblical" position that supports a right to revolt.

Finally, even on the claim made by Michael Novak and many other orthodox believers of "a loving God." As far as I know, there are passages in the Bible which suggest this and outright say that God is a "God of Love." Yet, there are other passages which clearly use the word "hate" to describe God. Christians have claimed that such a God "loves the sinner but hates the sin." But that notion is simply a theory abstracted from certain parts of the Bible, which ignores or explains away other passages. Parts of the Bible explicitly state that God doesn't just hate sin, but hates people. Indeed, as much of a lunatic Fred Phelps & co. appear to be, every single assertion they make is grounded in some passage of the Bible.

See this debate between Fred Phelps and a "kinder, gentler" fundamentalist, our old friend the Reverend John Rankin, where both use Biblical passages to support their positions; in Phelps's case it's that God doesn't just hate sin, but hates sinners as well; Rankin argues the old Chestnut that God loves the sinner but hates the sin. While I don't care for the positions of either, and find Phelps's position far more abohorrent than Rankin's, on Biblical grounds, I'd say their positions are evenly matched.


Anonymous said...

Hermeneutics is treacherous stuff. Reader-response methods, which are now ubiquitous, can "justify" any and all interpretations.

There is NO doubt that the Bible endorses slavery; Saint Paul is clear. A skewed "interpretation" of certain passages can "justifiy" homophobia. But adultery, divorce, and stealing from the poor can NEVER be approved. Indeed, the Scriptures are certain about proscriptions of fornication, adultery, and theft, even if causistry can find elopements on other subjects. Not even "homosexuality" matches fornication, adultery, and theft as far as Yahweh's indignation is concerned.

Indeed, the New Testament is quite clear about "judging others." It's categorically prohibited, equal to idolatry, and punished forever in hell.

How the "fundamentalist" resolves these tensions in herself is something I cannot begin to fathom. I know for one that I'd much rather be a homosexual (like Jesus and "his beloved," David and Jonathan, etc.) than engage in adultery, fornicate, or steal, especially from the impoverished widowed and orphaned. Those sins cannot be redeemed, whereas the "gay" sins are merely on the margins of consciousness.

How the world's 144,000 "saved" will fit into heaven is not my concern, but the biblical literalist better recalculate his odds. His odds are extremely low, if not impossible. But hey, I only "read" what's there, and interpret it to my "satisfaction." But the literalist is not allowed those allowances. What s/he will do in the face of the "literal truth" would scare the Bee-Jeesies out of me. Personally, I'd bet AGAINST a literal interpretation, since to bet otherwise would make life today intolerable and irredeemable. It's simply Pascal's Wager morphed to a text.

Calvin's "literal and inerrant Word of God" is the SIN of human arrogance, the PRIDE of human jealousy, the DAMNATION of the righteous and the damned. Where he plucked this "gem" of wisdom only God knows, and maybe that's enough to discredit the whole enterprise. After all, the Incarnation meant to INCLUDE humans in becoming divine, not to exclude them. Why anyone would take such an arrogantly naive stance toward any text is beyond human comprehension, but against a "divine" text makes humanity truly depraved. Maybe that was Calvin's point. A terribly sad and unhopeful point, but a point nonetheless.

Jonathan said...

"Personally, I'd bet AGAINST a literal interpretation, since to bet otherwise would make life today intolerable and irredeemable. It's simply Pascal's Wager morphed to a text."

I couldn't have said it better myself.

Brian Tubbs said...

Most conservative evangelicals adopt a "grammatical-historical" approach to interpreting Scripture.

Specifically on slavery...

'The Gay Species' asserts, based on Paul, that the Bible endorses slavery. And Jon, you seem to take that position as well.

The pitfall with these kinds of statements is that when Americans think of "slavery," they conjure up an image of whites enslaving Africans - the institution of slavery that our nation experienced. This is NOT the type of slavery referred to in the Scriptures.

Slavery in the Bible is mostly of the indentured servitude variety, and was almost always on a term basis -- 7 years, 14 years, and so forth.

Permanent, race-based, comprehensive slavery is NOT endorsed by the Bible.

I don't have time tonight to tackle genocide, homosexuality, and all the other stuff raised. Sorry. I'm tired.

-Brian Tubbs

Jeremy Pierce said...

Paul makes statements to slaves about what their life should look like given that they are slaves and can't do anything about it. That doesn't constitute endorsement of slavery. That Paul tells slaves how to influence those around them by serving those they are slavery to does not mean that he thinks it's morally ok to own those slaves. It's just that what he says to all Christians (to serve others) applies when you happen to be a slave as well. The only place he addresses a slaveowner is in Philemon, where he strongly implies that Philemon should set Onesimus free as his brother in Christ but thinks it will only be a righteous act if Philemon sees why he should do it and thus doesn't command it outright.

I think the slavery issues is more complicated than that, though, and presenting the Bible as simply endorsing slavery without getting into exactly what kind of slavery it's endorsing seems way too quick to me. I've written about this before, so I'll just point you there.

On the more general issue, I don't see why inerrantists have to be seen as minimizing passages arbitrarily to make sense of others. Whether it is arbitrary depends on whether there is a plausible contextual limitation on the passage in question. Boswell has few supporters on his contextual limitations of what seem otherwise to be very clear statements. On the other hand, the New Testament very clearly defines the new covenant in such a way that any sense of a Christian nation with laws based on God's law for the old covenant people is just nuts.

There are difficulties in how to put together old covenant and new covenant teachings if all scripture is supposed to be fulfilled in Jesus, as Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount. But that doesn't mean that all such ways of putting them together are incoherent. I'll give you one other link for an example of how I've put together some of these issues, including homosexuality, that I don't think involves any arbitrariness is which parts of scripture are interpreting other parts.

I tend to agree with you on revolutions, by the way. I think the Christians involved with the American revolution were violating the clear teachings of scripture. I can't see how a Christian who follows the Sermon on the Mount could endorse such a thing.

Finally, I do want to say one thing about the Phelps/Rankin issue. Phelps is right insofar as there are some (but few) biblical passages that involve someone hating a person for the person's sin. This occurs in one psalm, and there is that nice "Jacob I loved, Esau I hated" that occurs once in the OT and once in Romans. But I'm not convinced at all that the kind of hate in mind is contradictory with love. We see love and hate as mutually exclusive, but I'm not sure the Hebrew mindset worked that way. The Jacob/Esau bit was clearly not about just some inner attitude but was about how God was disposed to act toward Jacob and Esau. The kind of love that wasn't involved was love that chooses someone to provide for and lead. That doesn't mean there wasn't the kind of love that appreciates the goodness of the creation, the image of God, and so on among those God loves in general. Hating someone in the former sense and loving someone in the latter sense could then coexist.

So I'd say that Rankin is right in terms of how he uses the terms for love and hate, and Phelps is thus wrong. But Rankin ought to say something different about the biblical texts to arrive at this view, and he does seem to dismiss hate language too quickly.

Jonathan said...

Many thanks for your thoughts Jeremy. I will do something special with this tomorrow.

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