Friday, July 03, 2009

"Biblical" Faiths/Beliefs (?)

I’m continuing to try to articulate the problems I have with people who insist that their religion is “Biblically based” (and therefore, I take it, right). I think I’ve got it down to the simplest statement I can give (though it’s still a Matt Cardin-worthy wall o’ text).

There are two claims, I think, behind this overall claim.

First, that every word of the bible is true (this is called “inerrancy”) and should be taken as normative for followers.

Given the disparate material in the bible, often with more than trivial disagreement on details of fact or belief; given its haphazard composition over centuries; given that many of its injunctions (esp. as to the treatment of women and non-believers) are utterly inhumane and barbaric; given how selectively this is applied by most people who claim to follow this hermeneutic – given all that, I don’t see any way that such a belief is sensible or helpful. Indeed, when I found out all the stuff I DIDN’T have to believe in order to be a Christian, it was like the scales falling from my eyes and I could finally believe. I understand that there are lots of people for whom the opposite is true – if they thought one word of the bible WASN’T true, it would destroy their faith. I try to respect their belief, but it seems so absurd and fragile and useless in the modern world, that I find it a very difficult proposition. But I’ll continue to try.

The second claim is that the speaker’s beliefs (but not mine, and I’d assume not the beliefs of other Christian denominations, never mind Jews or Mormons or anyone else) are ONLY from the bible. Everyone else’s beliefs are based on interpretation and tradition, but the follower of a “biblically based” religion has only 100% biblical beliefs and practices.

The problems with this are almost more insurmountable to me. It’s bad enough that it makes any real discussion or respect impossible between Christian denominations (never mind with people of other faiths) as setting them up as irrevocably and irredeemably “wrong” and the other person’s beliefs as unassailably “right.” But it stumbles on the fact that “biblical” was a category that evolved over time – the list of books that we think of as the New Testament wasn’t accepted as canonical until 200 CE, and several books had significant opposition. So from the beginning, “biblical” can’t really be contrasted with “tradition” – it was tradition that determined what became biblical. And finally, there really is no Christian doctrine you can think of that isn’t based (to some extent) on post-biblical interpretation and tradition – not the virgin birth, not original sin, not the incarnation, not substitutionary atonement (or any other attempt to articulate what it means for someone to die “for” someone else’s sins, since the NT is rather coy and ambiguous on anything as systematic as that). All of those were being debated among Church fathers and so-called “heretics” into the fifth century and beyond, all of them marshalling biblical texts in their support. Again, when I could see that I didn’t have to recover some apostolic faith and try to follow it in order to be a Christian, when I could acknowledge that beliefs are being negotiated and debated and evolving over time – that was not a stumbling block to me, but the removal of one. And on this point, I can’t really see how it wouldn’t help all Christians if they removed this strange, self-justifying belief from their thought world and tried to live more humbly in the light of uncertainty, but also with mutual respect and learning from others.

On this second point, I remember when a very earnest student asked me if the Christian Scriptures could be proven right, and the scriptures of other religions proven wrong, so that we could hurry up and evangelize and convert all those millions of people so they’d be saved (like us, I suppose). In her defense, I really don't think she meant it as any disrespect, but really felt sad that all those people were going to hell. And way back then, I was much quicker on my feet and I said, “Why in the world would I want to do that? As it stands now, I can learn from other people’s religions and expand and grow my own faith and knowledge. Why would I want them to be wrong, and lose all those opportunities for learning?” Maybe that’s what it comes down to: if you think your faith is “biblically based,” then you’re done learning and you can discount everything else out there, or even try to beat it over the head with your book until it submits. But if you think your faith is not a static artifact, but a work in progress, then you can seek out new dialogue partners and work on your faith and understanding together with them.

But, what do I know? “Dialoguing” probably isn’t as deeply a part of our human nature as “beating over the head,” so I assume the latter will be going on long after my dialogue has come to whatever conclusion it’s going to come to.


Blogger Matt Cardin said...

You really nailed it in this post, Kim. I have the same conversation with myself semi-frequently. My thoughts and feelings about the Bible and its unfortunate misuse by a huge portion of the world's Christian population -- a *fundamental* misuse, based on a fundamentally erroneous set of assumptions about this ancient library of texts -- have been shaped via much study and personal intellectual-emotional engagement with the biblical texts and with Christian religiosity and spirituality. And when I articulate my understanding of it, what comes out sounds very much like what you've said here. Nicely done.

8:43 AM  
Blogger Nick Cato said...

Never mind any denomination's interpretations or traditions; the words of Jesus Himself are beyond clear, which is why He is so hated, even among many who claim to follow him. How many times did He say (for example), things such as "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the father except through Me." (John 14:6). He continually said HE was the doorway to heaven (John 10:1) and also that anyone who tried to enter by ANY other means was a thief and a liar. Harsh words, yet from the mouth of the Son of God. SO either Jesus was speaking the truth, or He is the biggest liar in history.

10:09 AM  
Blogger KPaffenroth said...

Hi NickC! The answer to your question would be, "Not many!" There are some verses in John, as you note. And while I appreciate the fourth Gospel's beautiful description of God's love for the world, and the believers' love for one another, I don't think its description of a very exclusive, sectarian group of believers is helpful or necessary to us as believers (esp those of us who don't hate Him - and I hope you count me among those).

10:16 AM  
Blogger KPaffenroth said...

MattC loves him some wall o' text!

You know, here's the short version:

Question Set #1, or two people talking at cross purposes:

Well meaning person: "You mean, you don't think every word in the Bible is true?"

Me: "Nope."

Well meaning person: "Then you're not really a Christian."

Me: "Okay. Sorry. Wanna buy a zombie book?"

Well meaning person: "Oh, zombies? Why didn't you say so!"

Question Set #2, people at cross purposes redux:

Me: "You mean you believe all non-Christians are forever damned and cannot be saved unless they convert?"

Well meaning person: "Yup. Bible says so."

Me: "That's the most ridiculous, monstrous thing I've ever heard imputed to a loving God."

Well meaning person: "Sorry. Hey - did you write those zombie books?"

Me: "Why yes, yes I did."

Well meaning person: "ZOMG I love zombies!"

So,the moral is - zombies bring people together across ideological lines better than rational discourse ever could. Romero - 1; Socrates - 0. Go figure.

10:24 AM  
Blogger John Goodrich said...

What annoys me, personally, are the people who profess belief in Biblical literalism, but haven't read the whole thing. Specifically, Leviticus. Why is it that Biblical Literalists seldom have read and follow the hard parts of Leviticus, like not allowing anyone physically imperfect into the Temple, keeping menstruating women who are out of the temple, and all the rest of that stuff?

2:52 PM  
Blogger KPaffenroth said...

Well, since the temple doesn't stand, they're off the hook for a lot of the rules. Now, I think you mean they're highly selective in their application of the "holiness code" - the rules for inclusion in the covenant people, which include all sorts of things, but the only ONE rule of which they find very interesting is the anti-sodomy rule. (Which they of course don't interpret literally in this case, but think it applies to gals, too.)

3:35 PM  
Blogger rich said...

You know, I wish you'd allow users to click on your blog titles and get a separate page. This is definately a post I'd love to link to, just because you lay every thing out so well with convincing authority.

The one thing, however, is the nature of fundies and "bible thumpers." It's kind of like the die hard apologists --still!-- for George W. Bush (and sorry I have to bring him up). No matter how much logic and reason is laid before them, they'll still stick their fingers in their ears going "I'm not listening, lalalalalalalala!!!!!?!"

11:50 AM  
Blogger KPaffenroth said...

Rich - I thought I had it set up for that, but you're right, it's not one click away. You have to go to the sidebar, find the blog entry, and click on it. Then you'll get to the actual entry by itself. I don't know any more convenient way to arrange it.

12:34 PM  

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