Saturday, July 12, 2008

Selective Biblical Readings & Imago Dei:

I want to address one more thing in the Acton Institute's Kevin Schmiesing's post on Freedom & Christianity. He wrote:

I don't agree that Christ's liberation from sin and death has "nothing to do" with other connotations of liberty, such as slavery and political freedom. Christ's life and teaching had many ramifications, including the gradual working out of freedom in political, economic, and social spheres. If not, then it is hard to explain, for example, the teachings of recent popes that slavery and political oppression violate the gospel message. One would have to argue that these teachings are illegitimate developments of the Christian moral tradition, lifted instead from some other secular or religious source. Some so argue, but I don't buy it.

I'm not going to argue that the teachings of recent popes embracing human rights, anti-slavery doctrines and religious and political liberty violate the Gospel. Rather, that a selective reading of the Bible can lead to differing outcomes on these vital moral issues. One thing I respect about Roman Catholicism as opposed to sola-scriptura Protestantism is the willingness to "philosophize" on these issues using natural reason. Men need more than just the Bible, because the Bible alone can yield vastly different results on issues of vital moral importance.

For instance, every single point articulated by Fred Phelps' grotesque Westboro Baptist Church they justify with citations to scripture. They correctly note that the Bible never says God hates the sin but loves the sinner. Rather such is a doctrine gleaned from a selective interpretation (their selective interpretation teaches God hates people; God hates sinners). Likewise the doctrine of the Trinity is not found explicitly within the text of the Bible. Implicitly? Sure. However, a selective reading the Bible can find texts to support a unitary, trinitary, or even a binary God (yes, these folks argue, fairly articulately, from the authority of the BIBLE ALONE for a binary Godhead that includes the Father & Son, but not the Holy Spirit).

Larry Arnhart has a great post that demonstrates how a selective literal reading of the Bible can justify terrible evil and how fundamental rights teachings need more than just the Bible alone but an additional step of "philosophizing" (and again, I'm sure traditional Catholics would agree with this; rather I'm write this to remind the Sola Scriptura crowd of the inadequacy of the "Bible alone" to address issues like slavery, political liberty and human rights):

[Anti-Darwinist Carson] Holloway repeatedly asserts that religion supports some very specific moral positions--such as condemning slavery. But he never cites any specific religious texts to show how they necessarily support the moral positions that he favors. The case of slavery and "universalism" illustrates the problem. He assumes that religion necessitates a "universal" morality that would deny the morality of slavery. But many religious traditions have allowed slavery, and the Bible never condemns slavery or calls for its abolition. On the contrary, in the American debate over slavery, Christian defenders of slavery were able to cite specific biblical passages in both the Old Testament and the New Testament supporting slavery. Opponents of slavery had to argue that general doctrines such as the creation of human beings in God's image implicitly denied the justice of slavery. But they could never cite any specific passage of the Bible for their position. Here's a clear case of where the moral teaching of the Bible depends on our coming to it with a prior moral understanding that we then read into the Bible.

Moreover, the "universalism" of the Bible is in doubt. I don't see a universal morality in the Old Testament. Moses ordering the slaughter of the innocent Mideanite women and children, for example, manifests a xenophobia that runs through much of the Old Testament.

Now, of course, the New Testament does seem more inclined to a universal humanitarianism. But the Book of Revelation teaches that at the end of history the saints will destroy the Antichrist and the unbelievers in bloody battle. The bloodiness of this vision has been dramatized throughout the history of Christianity. (See, for example, Tim LaHaye's popular LEFT BEHIND novels.)

Holloway speaks of the moral universalism required for opposing Nazism. Is there any evidence that those who rescued Jews in World War II were all moved by religious belief? My impression is that religious belief was not decisive for the rescuers. And, of course, there is a continuing controversy over whether the Christian churches in Europe did enough to oppose Hitler. The German Lutheran Church was inclined to interpret the 13th Chapter of Romans as dictating obedience to the authorities. Martin Luther himself was brutal in his expression of anti-Semitism. How would Holloway explain cases like this? Would he say that the true doctrines of biblical religion always require universal love, and therefore any behavior by a biblical believer that violates universal love is based on a misinterpretation of biblical doctrine?

As Arnhart noted Imago Dei is a doctrine gleaned from various texts of scripture, as one person in the Acton Institute's special noted, it's implicit in the Creation story. And I've come to accept the importance of Imago Dei as a "firm" place to rest our notions of unalienable rights. As my friend Jason Kuznicki, with whom I saw the Acton Insitute's special, summarized, Judaism and Christianity have birthed

the idea that there are higher standards of justice than mere promulgated law; that individuals possess a worth and dignity beyond what the state or the society imputes to them; and that every individual has supreme, inviolate purposes of his own, rather than being made for the purposes of others.

However, we don't necessarily need the traditional, orthodox understanding of the Deity to serve the role of the ultimate guarantor of liberty and equality rights (one could argue that society needs the orthodox God for other reasons, but that's a discussion topic for another day). The God of Jefferson, J. Adams, and Franklin (the men who actually wrote the Declaration of Independence) serves that role just fine. Indeed some might argue, given this was the God in whom the formulators of liberal democracy believed -- the God who inspired them -- this God is a better guarantor of political rights than the orthodox biblical God. Keep in mind that Thomas Jefferson's God, though an active intervener, was stripped of the characteristics of the orthodox Christian God as Jefferson rejected, in no uncertain terms:

The immaculate conception of Jesus, his deification, the creation of the world by him, his miraculous powers, his resurrection and visible ascension, his corporeal presence in the Eucharist, the Trinity; original sin, atonement, regeneration, election, orders of Hierarchy, &c.

Here is how I summarized the God of the American Founding in a post that the Cato Institute reproduced:

Nature’s God was theologically unitarian, universalist (did not eternally damn anyone) syncretist (most or all world religions worshipped Him), partially inspired the Christian Scriptures, and man’s reason was ultimate device for understanding Him. He was not quite the strict Deist God that some secular scholars have made Him out to be. But neither was He the Biblical God. Rather, somewhere in between.

And indeed, their benevolent unitarian Deity created man in His own image. But unlike the biblical God, He didn't order Moses to slaughter the innocent Mideanite women and children and probably didn't inspire Paul to say slaves obey your earthly masters either.

While atheists and hard core secularists may not see a role for this Deity in public life, I have a hard time believing many traditionalists desire this to be the God to which we publicly pay homage in America.

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