Honestly confronting the failures of your own religion

There’s been a bit of curfuffle online recently concerning Bill Maher’s statements concerning Islam which garner accusations such as ‘racist’ or ‘Islamophobe’ that are not really logically valid if you pay attention to what Maher has actually said. When he criticises Christianity, some Christians will say, ‘You are wrong.’ To my knowledge, most of us don’t think Maher is a racist or bigot for thinking our religion is a lot of hooey. We think he’s just plain wrong.

And that’s the way things are supposed to work in a just, liberal society. People can criticise my religion all they want. And I, in response, can offer reasoned refutation of their position or perhaps a clearer explanation of my own. But it’s not the Carolingian age anymore. People shouldn’t and, in most countries, don’t go to jail for criticising Christianity. And that’s a good thing. I can’t remember which Late Antique or Early Mediaeval Christian said it, but you can’t force people to believe. Not truly. If we truly want people to love Jesus, everyone needs the legal and social freedom to be able to reject him as well.

What some people do when their religion is criticised by a person such as Bill Maher is simply state contraries, with no evidence, that this fellow is wrong. That there is nothing in Islam that would promote the subjugation of women or the beheading of prisoners.

Or that there is nothing in Christianity that would promote, say, slavery…

Oh, wait.

Well, that’s awkward. There is.

What shows intellectual maturity in how you defend and view your own faith is when you meet something like, say, 1800 years of Christian slavery, you don’t explain it away, you don’t say that those people weren’t true Christians. You admit that this is a thing that went on.

Oh, and you don’t blame Constantine. Can’t play the Constantine card here.

Instead, admit the truth. Say, yeah, most Christians for most of history were pro-slavery. It’s one of those things in the ancient world — you wouldn’t want to be a slave, but almost no one makes the logical conclusion that no one else should be, either. Some do, and some of them, I’ve been told, are Christians. Some are ‘pagans’.

Maybe mention the anti-slavery ancient Christians, if you have a chance. Mention also that a great many of the earliest Christians were themselves slaves.

But admit that, yeah, Christians were slave owners.

Also, don’t act like there’s no slavery in the Bible.

Disagree with Sam Harris’ interpretation of how Christians should apply those passages, but don’t act like they aren’t there. They are.

17th-c Quaker John Woolman opposed slavery

But then, if you do want to show that Christianity is good for human rights, talk about the early Quakers who were abolitionists as early as the 1600s and who made pacts to avoid acquiring goods involved in slave labour. Then talk about the biblical basis for Quaker opposition to slavery — that, yes, there is slavery in the Bible, and, yes, you’ll even hear a few people to this day using those verses to support it, but there is a thematic thread running through the entire Old and New Testaments that points to the emancipation of slaves to a position of legal freedom that parallels their spiritual freedom.

This is how to look at your religion’s history full-on. Own the moral and intellectual failures of your predecessors. And then show the way out of this difficulty.

Such should be the response of moderate Muslims when people such as Bill Maher criticise the extremist and conservative practices of many Islamic states — acknowledge the weight of history and the errors of the past, but then show a way out. It will do a few things:

  1. Free up intellectual debate and conversation about Islam so that critics do not hide in corners but can speak their minds and have a real conversation about religion, and be corrected when they are wrong rather than shouted down by Ben Affleck.
  2. Show Muslims who may sympathise with more extreme visions of the religion a way forward that is still Islamic.
  3. Address the real Islamophobes and their problems, rather than attacking Bill Maher, and demonstrate to them that, while they may fear certain things, there are real Muslims who share some of their fears and who are seeking alternatives.

This is how debate is meant to work in free, just, liberal societies. And this is how people of faith should engage the failures of their own religions.

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How are we to interpret the Bible?

I have previously posted about Biblical interpretation in “Killing Enemies & Bashing Babies on Rocks: Reading the Difficult Psalms” parts one & two and in “Layers of Meaning.” Today’s post is spurred on by yesterday’s.

Sam Harris argues in Letter to a Christian Nation that the Bible does not offer a clear statement of morality (p. 33).  He uses the expected argument by taking civil laws from the Pentateuch and saying that the injunctions to stone various people and sell as slaves to be evidence that the Bible does not direct people to live lives of compassion and love.  He further argues that Jesus himself bolsters the Law by saying that not one jot or tittle of the Law will be erased.  He also argues that eschatological statements about God’s coming judgement will also make people violent (pp. 13 & 14).

Harris acknowledges that Jesus does say some good stuff, although Confucius beat him to the Golden Rule.  I don’t imagine that the rest of the Sermon on the Mount would sit well with people like Harris.  It’s true that all humans, Christian and otherwise, could probably follow the bulk of the Ten Commandments with no need of their being written down; even certain primates do so.  But what Jesus calls us to is more radical than the Golden Rule, is bigger than the Ten Commandments — “Love your enemies,” “Bless those who persecute you,” “Turn the other cheek,” “If an enemy soldier forces you to march 1 mile, go a second,” “If someone steals your cloak, give him your tunic,” etc.*

How can we reconcile this apparently garbled account of morality?  Indeed, the Good Book gives us leeway to kill heretics or to forgive them if we read the way Harris does.

We must read it systematically.  If you approach the Bible expecting it to be garbled and unclear, you will be rewarded with a garbled and unclear text.  If you approach it expecting it to be capable of being clarified, you will find that you can produce a systematic morality and theology from the Bible.

Nevertheless, you could potentially create a heretical morality and theology.  You could end up a polygamous Mormon.  You could end up an Arian.  Depending on your translation, you could end up Jehovah’s Witness.  You could end up Nestorian, or Monophysite, or the average Anglican.

Where do we turn?  We must abandon any idea that sola scriptura means the Bible interprets itself.  It does not.  And if sola scriptura means the Bible interprets itself, then sola scriptura is wrong.  Thomas C. Oden, in The Rebirth of Orthodoxy, remarks that the texts of the New Testament were written as a way of preserving the oral tradition that had been handed down from the days of the Apostles.  The spoken word is alive, but — as anyone who has played the Telephone Game knows — it is fragile and open to manipulation, both accidental and malicious.

When we look at the community that accepted the New Testament documents as being authoritative, we see that various factors are at play when these early Church Fathers interpreted Scripture.  The first factor was the “Rule of Faith” or regula fidei, Irenaeus’ (d. c. AD 202) account of which looks a lot like the Apostles’ Creed (see Chadwick, The Early Church, p. 44 and Webber, Ancient-Future Faith).  According to Irenaeus, the Rule has been handed down from the Apostles through their successor bishops.  Tertullian (AD 160 – 220) said that the Bible was to be interpreted by the Rule of Faith.  This is the first piece of the Patristic puzzle of biblical interpretation.

The second factor at play is the lens of Christ.  As Christians, we are worshippers of Jesus Christ.  He is the cornerstone of our faith.  It is his teachings that we are following.  Therefore, everything should be read in relation to Jesus.  I cannot think of a patristic source for this at the moment (my apologies), but the idea is, first, that Jesus trumps all.

The Sermon on the Mount sets the standard for our conduct.  Thus, no longer is eye for eye and tooth for tooth.  Lustful looks count as adultery.  Hatred is murder.  The behaviour of Jesus, as encapsulated in the Woman Caught in Adultery, is to be our exemplar.  Thus, no more stoning of homosexuals, heretics, and witches (burning isn’t allowed, either).  Tertullian says that in disarming St. Peter, Christ disarmed every soldier.  Worth a thought.  I admit to not knowing how it is that not one jot or tittle will be removed from the Law while at the same time Jesus gives us standards of living that run counter to enacting the civil punishments of the law.

However, I think that if we take a third principle, that the Old Testament (aka “Hebrew Bible”) is to be interpreted by the New, then things move forward.  The lens of Christ tells us that Jesus has taken away our sins on the cross, and Hebrews tells us that we no longer need the sacrifices and ceremonies of the Temple because of the Cross.  Thus, out go Jewish ceremonial laws.  We are also freed from them by Acts 10, when St. Peter has the vision of the sheet full of unclean animals which he is told to eat.  St. Paul in his many letters also shows us that we are free from living under the civil & ceremonial Law when he says that we are saved and live by faith, and that the law won’t save us.

However, since Jesus takes the moral standards of the law very highly, then we are stuck following the morals of the Old Testament law.  This will show us that, while we can’t stone people for being homosexuals, heretics, and witches, we know that we shouldn’t engage in the practices associated with them.

Thus, when we read Scripture, the Rule of Faith (the Creeds), Christ, and the New Testament should be used as our keys to intepreting the difficult passages.  The clearer should also be used to illuminate the obscure.  This was the way of the Fathers, and it should be the way we follow as well.

*This is the source for nonviolence as practised by Martin Luther King, Jr.  King got it from Gandhi who, contra Harris (p. 12), did not get it from the Jains but from Tolstoy.  Tolstoy got it from Jesus and the simple faith of Russian Orthodox peasants.

The Allure of Eastern Orthodoxy

I just finished Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris.  He admits that there is the possibility of some sort of being having designed and caused the universe; he just sees no reason to believe this being to be the God of the Bible.  Nor does he see any way to solidly argue the evidence for the existence or character of any such being.  The lack of incontrovertible proof leaves him much unswayed by theists.

And I thought that, this is true.  The physical sciences cannot measure the metaphysical.  God is metaphysical.  Thus, Dawkins and Harris are blind; so are you and I.  The only sure way for us to know that/if there is a divine being would be revelation.

Harris spends large portions of his book attacking the Bible, but rarely with any adroitness, and what I felt was, “It would be much easier to be Eastern Orthodox right now . . . !”

How so?

First, many of the idiocies with which he accuses Christianity (such as torturing heretics [St. Aug] or killing them [St. Tom Aq]) are lacking in pre-Constantinian Christianity (because Christianity is only dangerous when twisted and wielded in the hands of the powerful).  The East has a stronger connection with this era than anyone else.  And why is this?

Tradition (this is also my second thing).

If there is a God, and if he revealed himself to us, and if his revelation was encapsulated in the man, Jesus, then those who were/are closest to Jesus have the truest view of who he is.  And the many troubles and difficulties Harris sees in the Bible are dealt with by a systematic reading of Scripture and by the concept of tradition.  If Jesus handed on his teachings to His Apostles, and these traditions were handed on down the ages, they would help provide the key to proper interpretation of the Bible.  And this is what you have in the Eastern Orthodox tradition.

In the West, we used to have it with Rome and the Anglicans, but both of these institutions have recklessly dived into the world of modernity as modernity flounders and sinks.