to laugh or to cry?

February 12, 2007

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I was guilty of commenting while under the influence of atheism over at my favorite progressive Christian blog, Slacktivist. I began with the mistake of watching the clip of Chris Hedges interviewed on the Colbert Report about the fascism he sees breeding in certain subcultures of American Christianity. Then, my cri de coeur at Slacktivist deteriorated thusly:

And I'm wondering myself, are some Christians (like Hedges) now in the position of telling other Christians (like Dobson): “You're not real Christians?” What IS the real Xianity? How are you supposed to tell them apart? Isn't the difference between moderate Xians and fundamentalist Xians that the former use secular ideals translated into Biblical language, while fundamentalists actually reflect what is IN that Biblical language?

Remember, children, just because you typed it, doesn't mean you have to send it. The comments ran thick and furious. Edited highlights follow.

Which 'secular ideals' need to be “translated into Biblical language”? Which ones can't already be found in a straightforward reading of the text? Justice? Peace? Helping the poor? Respecting everyone, even those different from us? For that matter, what uniquely fundamentalist ideals can be found in a straightforward reading of the bible?

[Beth]

If that's right, then Christians spent 19 centuries (give or take) not having the foggiest clue as to what that Biblical language meant; Christianity had to wait all that time until some terribly clever Anglo-Americans came along, invented “fundamentalism”, and figured out what's really IN that Biblical language. When St. Augustine (along with other early church fathers) said that insisting on a literal reading of Genesis misses the point, because the true meaning of the Bible is centered on God and salvation – well, they just didn't know how to read their Bible. It's just too bad that this lot didn't have a fundamentalist handy to clue them in to what the REAL content of Christianity is. I mean, just think of all those poor unbiblical Christians down through the ages: St. Francis, St. John of the Cross, Kierkegaard, etc., etc., etc. – all these Christians unaware of the true message of the Bible, sadly dying before the invention of fundamentalism!

[Toby]

…we have seen nowadays the bizarre insistance by some atheists that the Bible can only be read literally: fundamentalist atheists, if you will. They share with fundamentalist Christians the inability to mentally process any other way of reading the text, are ignorant of the history of Christian thought, and assume that anything other than strict literalism is merely an attempt at weaseling out of uncomfortable truths. I have had interesting and enlightening discussions with atheists, but not of this anti-intellectual sort.

[Richard]

[This] is where Andrew really goes wrong: he's taking the fundamentalists' claims of literalism more seriously than he should. Sure, maybe they're reading a selected mashup of Genesis I-II and “do not suffer a witch to live” and a few of the bloodiest lines in Revelation literally, but there are a lot of bits they have to twist around, such as the parts about how you have to give all your stuff away and every mention of Jesus drinking wine…

Currently I'm more sympathetic to Dawkins than I used to be, because I agree with one great point that he makes over and over, which is that people who cite sophisticated liberal seminary theology when arguing with atheists shouldn't ignore the effect of crazier forms of religion on the debate, especially in the US. If people pushing insane fundamentalist or apocalyptic notions have powerful positions in the government, sell millions of books and are affecting the popular conception of what Christianity is, it's a bit unfair to expect atheists to completely ignore that when rejecting Christianity.

On the other hand, atheists, for their part, do need to keep recognizing that not all Christians are like that, and some are on their side against the crazies; and Dawkins does sometimes understate this.

[Matt]

I'm not saying I think fundamentalists are right and everyone else is wrong about what the Bible really means, but I'm an atheists who generally has a hard time understanding how the liberal Christian interpretations are supposed to be truer than the fundamentalist ones. I'm a terrible literalist in general, and when I've seen debates, dicussions, or interpretations of the Bible, the literal interpretation usually makes sense to me. That could be because I don't tend to see things as metaphorical or symbolic unless it's fairly obvious (I don't need it explained that the parables aren't literally true, for instance), and the Bible looks to me the way most writing does.

…Most of the interpretations I've seen tend to be liberal Christians arguing that a passage other people find objectionable (frequently about homosexuality or the role of women) or simply unbelievable (literal readings of Genesis). This might contribute to the impression that it's an attempt to avoid uncomfortable truths. I'm pretty sure there's selection bias involved [on the atheist's part].

[Ako]

Ako-type atheists seem to say, at the beginning of the talk, “let's put aside the thousands of years of tradition about what this biblical text means.” Then they say, “OK, now explain it!” The trouble is, the explanation does, in fact, involve a long history of questioning and analysis. That is an inherent part of the faith.. There is not a single Christian denomination out there that reads the bible purely as written words to be interpreted in a vacuum (despite what some might say). In fact, the study of semiotics teaches us that it is a mistake to interpret any text without considering its context and paratext…. If you can believe it, most Christians do actually believe that just like any text, the Bible is a message (or, as Eco might say, a sign) that must be interpreted. The Bible is even more confusing because it also contains symbols, which instead of being interpreted, must be lived (in sort of a Jungian sense). This was known about the Torah long before there even was a “Bible.”

When an atheist throws up his or her hands and says, “I can't make sense of this here Bible, so it must mean that you're deluded or lying,” it just doesn't impress me. Either trust us when we say that there is considerable work that has been done to understand what the Bible “means” (it, indeed, fills libraries), or get a good book like Alistair McGrath's Christianity: an Introduction and see for yourself how much more complicated the issue is than you make it out to be.

[A. Kennedy]

If God exists — if the word “God” signifies anything meaningful — most theist conceive of God as possessing an entirely different ontological status, an entirely different order of being, than human beings (or indeed, than ANY other kind of being.)

Yet human beings only have human language, and human concepts, available to them, to express their understanding of that Being.

Therefore, of necessity, ALL texts discussing God (or Gods) must be, to some extent, metaphorical. Even the most “literal” of Fundamentalists, for example, do not nestle within the rachis of the feathers on God's wings, nor worry over the disposal of the fingernail clippings from God's hands.

So “literalists” and “liberals” are disputing the degree of metaphorical interpretion necessary, and what the correct interpretations are. As a general rule, I suspect that the amount of metaphor one is willing to accept is directly proportional to the degree of difference between your ontological status and God's ontological status — or even the difference between your self-interests and God's purpose — you are willing to concede.

[hapax]

The idea that the Bible is simple to interpret maybe traces to certain Reformation figures. Luther got angry at Erasmus for saying that some parts of the Bible are, you know, not entirely transparent. I guess that if you admit that you might not be able to figure out the entire Bible on your own, that's just the first step on the slippery slope to having Rome feed you its theology.

[Toby]

There are two main problems with literalist interpretation:
1. This school of thought assumes that Bible is a single coherent text. It's not. It's not to such extent that speaking of “what the Bible says” beyond the simplest metonymy is just wrong (I am eternally grateful to Jesu for reminding me :o). There's Leviticus and there's Deuteronomy. There are synoptic Gospels and there's John. And most famously, there is Paul and there is James.
2. In spite of 1., literalist exegesis often consists of picking out a single verse/a short passage and insisting that this is the final word on X. This violates the most basic rule of intepretation/exegesis: no cherry-picking. Always consider the whole of the text.

[bulbul]

Let's say I'm a Martian (“Okay, you're a Martian!”) who wants to know about this Bible. I read it and am very puzzled. Some tell me that the Bible is not literal, but who decides what each part (verse, chapter, whatever) means? Yes, there's 2000 years of analysis and critique, but all that's done (to me) is confuse the matter — I have hundreds of conflicting theories about what is meant. Some authors expand on those that have gone before, but others flatly contradict others.

Since I have no reason not to, I'm going to “cherry-pick” those parts that resonate with me, even if some of the rest seems to conflict with it (wheter I take a literal or metaphorical meaning).

Two contemporary scientists may flat-out contradict each other (it's pretty much essential, given how science works), but once an idea has been shown to work, following scientists will build on the idea, not contradict it. Einstein didn't contradict Newton, and Feynman didn't contradict Einstein. I can with-hold belief in warm-blooded dinosaurs (the evidence is sketchy) or cold fusion (the evidence says no). It's pretty easy to believe in Newton (since I believe in the Apollo landings) and Einstein (Hiroshima/Nagasaki).

One the other hand, I could easily find dozens, if not hundreds, of Christian authors who have nothing in common — some of whom don't recognize each other as being “true Christians”. Where's the “evidence” for one over another. What conclusion do I draw other than I must either be literal or “cherry-pick”.

[Jeff]

What am I thinking at this point? I sympathize with the atheists, who see right away that interpretation is an art and not a science, and so wonder why so many Christians refer to Scripture as their touchstone of rationality for their beliefs – as though it was the Bible which keeps us from flying off into sheer fantasy or heresy or Koresh-style cult doctrines. I also sympathize with the liberal or moderate Christians, who feel the atheists are being a bit obtuse or a bit disengenous. Frankly, though, I think it's the position of my own folk – the liberal or moderate Christians – I find most exhausting. Harris has a great discussion of the passage in Deuteronomy that legislates the stoning of apostates or idolaters. I can hear arguments until the cows come home as to why this particular rule has been superseded by the coming of Jesus, but doesn't it bother anyone that this is the God we worship? If we want to praise God and learn the ways of justice at his feet because of the Jubilee laws, then why aren't we turning away from him in distress at his idea of making religious plurality a capital offense?

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