Contradictions in the Bible — as a pro, not a con

Posted: September 30, 2009 in Josh Wimmer, Reason and Rhetoric, religion
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[Brought to you today by freelance Threat Quality writer Josh Wimmer.  Have something that you need written?  Perhaps you ought to employ a writer.]

My church’s Bible Conversations group dealt this week with Mark 10:2-12, which reads as follows:

Some Pharisees came and tested [Jesus] by asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”

“What did Moses command you?” he replied.

They said, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.”

“It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,” Jesus replied. “But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female. ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.”

When they were in the house again, the disciples asked Jesus about this. He answered, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.”
This was, as many if not most of our readings are, a difficult passage for a set of socially liberal folks such as ourselves. Divorce is never an especially desirable outcome, but that said, sane people acknowledge that there are some very good reasons for it. The most obvious is the need to escape from an abusive marriage — if a woman leaves a man who beats her and subsequently remarries, is Jesus really saying she’s an adulterer? That doesn’t sound like the Jesus we want to get behind, the one whose words we routinely accuse our fundamentalist counterparts of twisting. It really, unequivocally sounds more like the Jesus the fundamentalists love.

Worse, in this case it was hard to fall back on some of our typical defenses. “Well, you have to read it in the context of Jewish culture at the time” didn’t really work because we can be certain that even back then, plenty of women were being abused. (And it would have been even harder at that time, if not impossible, for them to obtain divorces, so calling such women adulterers was just more of a slap in the face.) Evidence for the old standby “According to scholars, it seems likely that Jesus didn’t really say that” was also lacking; and anyway, if you break that one out too often, it really waters down the whole point of something like Bible Conversations (and, y’know, your Christian faith) in the first place.

Confounding us further were the apparent contradictions between this passage and Jesus’s message in other parts of the Gospels. Just a few verses earlier, for example, in Mark 9:43-48, he’s telling his audience that it’s better to cut off your hand or pluck out your eye than to sin — so why the seeming zero-tolerance policy on being severed from your nuptially grafted-on flesh when the stuff you were born with is fair game? Why in Matthew 8:18-22 and even more strongly in Luke 9:57-62 is it OK to up and ditch your familial obligations? Why just a few verses after the divorce question, in Mark 10:29-30, is it suddenly laudable and reward-worthy to ditch those obligations?

Now, these sorts of contradictions are frequently pointed to by many unbelievers as proof that the Bible is not really divinely inspired, and that consequently, any religion founded on it is without merit. And that is certainly fair! I hear what they are saying. If God is so almighty, it does not seem unreasonable to expect that He could provide some clear instructions for His children. In fact, it seems downright unreasonable that He has not.

But on the other hand, that presupposes that there are clear instructions — that is, a general set of rules that can be universally applied — for divorce, or for any of the other big issues we face down here on the Prime Material Plane.

Perhaps my favorite thing about my boyfriend Marshall McLuhan is that his key work, Understanding Media, not only highlights some of the unconscious prejudices associated with a visual, book-based culture such as our own — for example, that we reflexively expect a clear, peg-in-the-hole-able answer to most questions — but that it actively undermines those prejudices. Understanding Media does not provide much in the way of clear, slottable answers so much as it raises interesting points in such a way that you’re forced to engage with what McLuhan is saying, whether you end up agreeing with him or not.

I mention this because the practical effect, at least on our Bible Conversations group, of all the contradictions in the Bible is that when we’re faced with a passage covering a very important matter like divorce, we’re compelled to grapple with it. The only intellectually honest approach (and the God I believe in is nothing if not very much pro–intellectual honesty) is to consider the relevance of commitment as compared with the importance of personal safety and comfort, and the significance of this particular command taken in context with the rest of the Gospels. Ultimately, what it boils down to is that whatever choice we end up making, we have had to think long and hard to get there. Of course, in Bible Conversations, we have the luxury of not having to come to a particularly clear conclusion, but even so, we’re constantly reminded of the near-impossibility of applying unswayable fiats to the always nuanced condition called life.

And that, to me, is really what a healthy religion ought to do for us. Now, I’m not saying the early Christians meant for the Gospels or any part of the Bible to be written this way — I’m not saying they knew what they were doing, the way Marshall McLuhan did. Nonetheless, I am glad of how it has worked out.
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Comments
  1. Moff says:

    Josh Wimmer, eh? What a handsome-sounding name.

  2. […] have a post up over at Threat Quality today, which is a fine blog maintained by my friend Chris Braak and his friend Jeff Holland. They […]

  3. Carl says:

    It’s like Threat Quality crack. I can’t help myself!

    So, I’m extremely skeptical of your use of divorce as a launching-point for a discussion of scriptural self-contradiction. I think, in fact, that this is one of the least opaque, most straight-ahead teachings in Christ’s otherwise nebulous catalog. The passages you cite as contradictory to Mark 10:2-12 can only be applied to the question of marriage in very roundabout ways (I’d argue that none of those given, taken in context, bear on this discussion) and only if we blindly impose on the scripture anachronistic expectations for what marriage and divorce look like. Rabbinic teaching on divorce is a long, extraordinarily complicated affair that had much evolved formally from what is described in the Pharisees’ answer, even by the time Christ arrived on the scene. Owing to their emergence from a patriarchal society, Jewish Divorce Laws empowered husbands in a way it did not empower wives, but if you examine the customs that grew up around ancient Jewish divorce proceedings, you will find a surprising amount of agency afforded to wives to protect themselves socially and financially. Christ’s move in the abolition of divorce is, in fact, a logical next step. In overturning Jewish Divorce Law, Christ very much treats the partners in the marriage as equals— a notion that would percolate for centuries and take an EXTREMELY long time to manifest itself in society at large. Note that there are not one set of rules for husbands governed by one set of consequences and another set for wives governed by a different set, as say, under the most ancient Hebrew Law or in present day Sharia Law. All of this to say: the equality between the sexes that we so readily, correctly assume in modern society wasn’t undermined by Christ’s absolution of divorce, it was rooted in it. Hard to swallow? Maybe from our side of the looking glass. But consider that Christian tradition has frequently interpreted this teaching in a spiritually legalistic but none-to-practical fashion. Particularly at this moment in history, nothing keeps a battered partner bound practically to a dysfunctional and destructive marriage. But the teaching does stipulate spiritual commitment to one, single, living partner at a time— at that was aimed at reigning in men, not tying down women.

    Anyway, I could go on and on with this, but it’s not really to my point. The question of whether or not the scripture contradicts itself in the matter of divorce aside, you are absolutely on to something with this:

    the practical effect…of all the contradictions in the Bible is that…we’re compelled to grapple with [these knotty, problematic moral questions].

    And as you say, no, this was not the way in which the men who composed and compiled the New Testament intended its teaching to be taken. The scripture was targeted to answer human problems in an age defined by hard moral laws that were made to govern a savage world of tribal identities. That it continues to illuminate human problems, in this fashion, in an age defined by moral ambiguties and relativties springing from a civilized world of individual identities, owes to its transcendence, IMHO.

    To the larger question of whether or not the presence of scriptural self-contradiction undermines legitimate belief in its Divine source (and to your response that criticisms on this basis wrongly assume that God intends particular directions for human behavior) I’ll say this: I can’t concede to your claim there aren’t instances of specific, Divine guidance intended through revelation, but it’s a muddy matter to know what those are, as the finite and imperfect channels through which revelations pass (men and women) must, by their very nature, be incapable of perfectly reflecting messages that have an infinite and absolute source. Sure, they’re will be contradictions. Just as the various, individual prophets and persons who channel revelation are contradictory in all the ways human beings can be contradictory. Just as life contradicts itself constantly. But that’s what I LOVE about the Bible. That (with respect to those of other faiths) it isn’t the Qu’ran or the Book of Mormon. It wasn’t handed down from God as to a single person as a fully-form, finished, unequivically perfect thing. It’s a rough, messy, complicated, frequently unlovely, frequently elequent collection of texts that passed through thousands of hands over thousands of years to arrive in its current form. Prayed over, argued over, bartered over, beaten into the shape it is— a document of the long and problematic relationship between Man and God, drenched in blood and sweat, inspired but not written by the Divine. And so we interpret what we get from the Divine, flawed though it is by the filters through which it passes, as best we can.

    I think Christ recognized the problematic ambiguity that his incarnation represented as a means of delivering clear directives to a people hungry for answers. And so he summed it up in the ethic of reciproisty, as if to say, “If you can’t figure it out by reading the messy trail I leave behind me, just hang onto this folks: love one another as I have loved you.”

  4. Moff says:

    @Carl: Yeah, I appreciate what you’re saying about the clear-cuttedness of the divorce issue — and that, as well as the idea that Christ’s commandment actually empowered women in the greater context of the time, did come up in our discussion. But from a practical standpoint, the passage did still serve to foment discussion within my group. And I think it’s fair to say that while, yes, there’s a very cut-and-dried way to look at it, the roundabout application of the verses we mentioned as contradictory do still hold some water: If someone said to you “Forget about your family—there are more important things” in one instance and “Don’t you ever get divorced” in another, it would give you pause, at the very least. Yes, there are ways to make it all click, but those have a bit of a roundabout feeling to them, as well. If nothing, the sort of overall tone that can encompass both edicts is remarkable.

    I don’t think I claimed that there aren’t specific instances of revelation. In fact, I lean toward believing there are. (But from a practical standpoint, I don’t know if it’s ever a topic worth addressing in an open discussion or trying to defend — it’s an unfalsifiable question.)

    Agreed on your last paragraph — I mean, the nice thing about the divorce passage is that even if you interpret it as “OK, you get divorced and remarry, you’re an adulterer,” Jesus’s ultimate message was “You’re still loved and forgiven, adulterers.” Again, though, it’s always the “love one another” bit, paired with the presumption that Jesus knew his teachings were going to apply to people in a much different culture, that make something like a seeming zero-tolerance policy on divorce difficult to accept at first blush.

  5. braak says:

    Carl: I will get into this whole discussion probably more at length, but your idea that the Qu’ran is a single work of clear revelation is slightly inaccurate. According to Islamic tradition, yes, Mohamed received dictation from God. However, he himself did not write it down; according to tradition, many of his companions did write portions of it down, but much of it was largely transmitted orally. The book as it stands now is actually assembled from a variety of different anecdotal, oral sources that were collected by leaders of the faith some time after the event in question. While the current form–the Uthmanic recension–is indeed regarded as a pure product of that dictation (much the same way certain Christians regard the KJV version of the Bible as a divinely-mandated translation, and therefore literally accurate), it is as full of messy contradictions as any other major article of faith.

  6. Carl says:

    @ Chris – I will concede that I know very little about the Qu’ran. I haven’t read it, and I certainly haven’t made a scholarly study of it historically or theologically, so I defer to your knowledge on the topic. It is still the case, though, that Muhammed is attributed as the sole source of the text of the Qu’ran, right? I mean, I understand that it was scribed by contemporaries, but the claim, from within the Islamic tradition, is that the Qu’ran contains the full revelation— the last, most complete, corrective revelation— given only to the last and greatest prophet, this one dude, who then gave it to everyone else, right? Then, scholarly analysis of the actual history of the document notwithstanding, my point holds. The Bible, viewed from within its own tradition, was never anything like that. Even if you believe that the Bible was directly, perfectly inspired by God word for word— or even a particular translation, which is silly— it’s still the product of hundreds of lives having that perfect encounter with God. It’s a literary manifestation of that diversified encounter with the Divine.

    @ Moff – Agreed, the marriage teaching is somewhat jarring from our vantage point. I think part of it may be that, generally, when Christ speaks in absolutes, he deals in matters etheral, spiritual, and internal, not civil and practical. (Render unto Cesar whatever you guys decide amongst yourselves to render unto guy, I want your hearts.) Otherwise, when absolutes are involved, the Christian tradition ascribes figurative meaning to his words. This business about marriage seems to be an exception to the rule (if you take Christ at his word— and you may not— perfectly acceptable way to go too). And if that’s the case, for me, the marraige teaching sticks out like a sore thumb tonally, demanding special attention.

    Because Christianity is a religion of creeds not laws— that is, what we believe about the way things in the world are and should be, and not what we are commanded to do, or else— ruminating on scripture always leads me towards principals. Can I give these passages a principal-once over, real quick?

    Mark 9:43-48 doesn’t have anything to do with marriage, of course, but with the wages of sin. I understand the desire to link up the two discussions of the importance of flesh, but flesh is clearly being used in two very different ways here. In Mark 10, its used metaphorically to describe a shared state of being. But my wife Meredith and I AREN’T one flesh! Nothing’s been grafted onto her from me. We aren’t symboits, right? We’re not two consciousnesses coexisting in single body? The metaphor is employed to explain the absolute indivisibility of the unity of marriage, from Christ’s perspective— as though you are one person, inseparable in all ways that matter. You can’t divide your body in half and go your merry ways any more than you can your spirits after the unison of marriage. But in the Mark 9, he seems to be talking about actual flesh. If any part of your body is leading you into sin in any way, you’re better off cutting it off than sinning. Though he’s talking about literal flesh, the tradition generally treats this passage hyperbolically. I guess you don’t have to, necessarily. But I can’t think of any Christian pastors or priests that I know who are advocating physically tearing your eyes out as an appropriate response to visiual stimuli. The point seems to be: sin is serious and damaging, avoid at all costs, no matter what, to the fullest extent of your powers. Maybe you disagree that these are the principals of these passages. But if you agree, then I’m not sure that these principals are mutually instructive or intended as interelated, and so the contradiction between devices used in them is probably illusory.

    Luke 9:57-62 and the corresponding Matthew passage are harder, but I think Mark 10:29-30 might clue us in. There is a presumption there that you DON’T want to leave your family. That being away from your family is painful and costly— the most painful and costly thing possible, save death. But to sacrafice what you love— being at home with your loved ones— in the service of Christ is a spectacular act of selflessness and means of grace. Moreoever, being away from your family for a time is very different from dissolving the family entirely. This question comes up all the time with the Apostles, right? How could they just up and leave their families and wander out across the region after this guy? How could Christ condone that being done? But we make a whole series of presumptions about that that are not scripturally founded. At this period in history, men went away to war for decades of their lives because they had to, without accusation of abandonment of their families— certainly without dissolving their families as is done through divorce. Provisions were made, they made their sarafices abroad, and then, if they were lucky, they came home. Pete, John, Simon— not so lucky. So it seems like the distinction about intention plays a large part here.

    The fact that Christ of the Absolutes shows up in a discussion of something so practical and routine as marriage might lead us to conclude that it isn’t just a practical and routine matter, but one of monumental spiritual import.

    I don’t think I claimed that there aren’t specific instances of revelation. In fact, I lean toward believing there are. (But from a practical standpoint, I don’t know if it’s ever a topic worth addressing in an open discussion or trying to defend — it’s an unfalsifiable question.)

    Not ‘instances of revelation’ but ‘instances of “clear instruction…that can be generally applied” is what you wrote. And yeah, I think there are some, and that its worth discussing— which was kind of the point of your post in the first place— to see what we can derive from what we’ve received, both individually and in larger communities of worshippers.

    Jesus’s ultimate message was “You’re still loved and forgiven, adulterers.”

    Which is more important than any of the rest of this crap.

    (I swear I’m done. But thanks for giving a sick guy something to do with his time on an otherwise shitty day.)

  7. V.I.P. Referee says:

    Don’t worry, Carl. We all go through that phase of apologetic embarassment. Then you get over it and accept the habit.

  8. V.I.P. Referee says:

    *embarrassment*

  9. Moff says:

    @Carl: It was my pleasure, believe me. Thank you for commenting awesomely and intelligently on the thing that I wrote.

  10. braak says:

    @Carl: Well, yes, that is the belief among most Muslims. I was just assuming that you, as a Catholic, did not share it.

    Anyway, I don’t know that I’ve really anything to add, here, as my super-close readings have all been on different texts than biblical ones, but I think that that itself serves as an important point.

    The question that I have is, given that the text does not provide a clear answer, but rather the fodder for which engaged disputation can occur–doesn’t that mean that the answers we’re arriving at are not a part of the text itself, but a result of the act of study? This is a personal act, and can be executed on any text of sufficient complexity. Is The Iliad a subject less suited to disputational engagement than the Bible? In fact, the Iliad has many of the same elements that Carl regards as appealing–it was manufactured over time by an oral tradition, rather than being the product of a single revelatory incident. Its recounters were seen as “ethusiastic”–that is, “filled with divine power” when they related it (literally: “in-Godded”). It’s a document of fascinating moral complexity, especially in regards to the cut-and-dried legal culture in which it was popular (uhm, 7th and 8th century Athens, mostly), without providing any specific moral answers.

    I don’t actually know the Catholic position, so I’d be curious about it–I had the feeling that faith–as a kind of condition of spiritual humility in the face of a supernatural power–was a hallmark of divine contact, regardless of the religion of the faithful. Does that mean that a document like the Iliad, or the Qu’ran (which, despite what Muslims believe, was an agglomerate work of many, many people), if they were composed in a condition of faithfulness or “enthusiasm” could be similarly divinely-inspired?

    And, of course, once you’ve opened up the fact that the Gospels were composed after the resurrection, and God most necessarily have been somehow involved in the translation process, you have to seriously ask the question as to why it was that Revelation is the last, and necessarily the last, divinely-revealed text. (Obviously, some people–like the Mormons–don’t believe that.)

    It’s a tricky question!

    The other question that I have is that if Christ is throwing out the legal statutes that apply to divorce, is he similarly discarding the legal statutes that apply to marriage? One of the significant problems that we have in modern society is a confusion between marriage as a legal arrangement and marriage as a divine concordance–in American, the two situations necessarily have no bearing on each other. If we’re suggesting that the Pharisees are not permitted to divide what God has joined, does that mean that we’re suggesting equally that the Pharisee do not have the power to join in the first place?

    Given that, all marriage is then a personal, spiritual relationship between to people, regardless of what secular or clerical authorities have to say on the subject. Priests are not God, and therefore cannot act with God’s power–we know from experience that priests, unlike God, can be mistaken, and can therefore err when they perform a marriage. Under those circumstances–that is, the circumstances under which a priest has joined two people together when God himself has not–well, you’d think divorce would be okay.

    Maybe that’s what anullments are for? I always found anullments to be unnecessarily complicated.

    And finally, I don’t buy that God’s instructions never need to be anything but clear. If God didn’t want to confuse people, he wouldn’t have. The idea that a perfect instruction can only be expressed imperfectly in an imperfect world suggests that God is incapable of acting perfectly in an imperfect world–that God’s only manifestation in the world is fundamentally imperfect. That doesn’t sound right, as perfection must be a universal condition. Besides, we already know that the gospel can be delivered in a miraculous way that is perfectly clear and comprehensible to anyone that listens to it. If God were really serious about making people believe, why doesn’t he just perform the miracle of Pentecost over and over?

  11. Moff says:

    @braak: I’m not all that interested in the marriage/divorce question except as to how it served as a jumping-off point for this post, but ultimately, I think the most consistent way to look at it is simply that Jesus was saying, “When you make a vow before God, THAT IS SERIOUS BUSINESS.” According to what our pastor said during Bible Conversations, the Pharisees approached Jesus with the question in the first place because it was a contended point in Hebrew law: Some rabbis believed legal divorce was OK, and some did not. The Pharisees wanted to hear what Mr. Tear-Down-the-Temple had to say. And, as usual, he was unwilling to let people off the hook for convenience’s sake.

    I’m not that certain about perfection having to be a universal condition. I know that’s the old ontological argument and all, but “perfection” seems to me to be an awfully nebulous term, one that’s even more impossible (the AP stylebook would have issues with “more impossible”) for us to really grasp than the concept of infinity.

    Anyway, the “Why can’t God just do what He wants?” questions, whether we mean communicating clearly or the problem of evil, seem like dead-enders to me. It seems clear to me that all the annoying and awful shit (not knowing what God meant, or even if there is a God; the fact that children get killed in typhoons; etc.) is built into our existence. Like, it’s fundamental to the point. Y’know, you don’t write a story that goes, “Once upon a time, everything was perfect, and then it stayed perfect, and when something bad happened, it went away instantly. The End.” The conditions of finity and entropy are built into our universe, and irritation and pain and death are an unavoidable function of them. I don’t see how you could have real growth or change without them.

    And I appreciate the mind-set that says in response to this, “WTF, God?” Like, why does God need to built a creation that grows and changes, then? And this, maybe, is the big point on which one’s faith or lack thereof hinges: As a believer, I think, Well, this Creator beyond Time and Space has His reasons, and no matter how smart I am, there’s never going to be enough information available to me to understand. And maybe as someone who doesn’t believe, you think, Fuck you, that’s not OK. I want answers. I get that. I can see how my willingness to concede to an unseen force can look like weakness or stupidity (not that I think you are saying that, but I can see how you or someone else might). But I still put it to you that I don’t think you, or I, or Stephen King can conceive of an imperfect world in which the perfect is manifested perfectly.

    We could do Pentecost over and over, maybe, but then why not do Cana over and over, too? And curing of the sick and raising of the dead? And loaves and fishes? I’m not sure how that would differ significantly from Perfect World, where nothing ever really changes. And as far as God delivering answers clearly, what I was trying to get at the with the post, and what I think a lot of theologians have ultimately gotten at, is that while we may be focused on wanting answers, the questioning process is actually what’s important. This is annoying, because we like having a clear endpoint to get to; but it’s also realistic, because rarely do we encounter any experiences with clear endpoints, until we die . And yeah, like you say, the same process can be applied to the Iliad and other works. But nevertheless, they don’t carry the weight that a work does that purports to be the Word of God.

    So, that was long and rambly.

  12. braak says:

    I know that wasn’t your initial point, really; it’s just that the question made me curious about it.

    And, of course, the Question of Evil is, you’re right, a dead-end. I just agree with Carl that the way we describe something is instrumental to the way that we think about it, and it is therefore incorrect to say that God’s perfect will is manifested imperfectly in the imperfect world. It is more accurate to say that God’s will is manifested perfectly–it only appears imperfect to us because we don’t understand it. So, to say that God’s will is interpreted insufficiently by his stenographers is equally inaccurate: they wrote the Gospels down exactly the way God wanted them to, because the universe cannot progress in any way except the way that God wants it to. I only think that this is important because of the position of privilege that the Bible has: certainly, it purports to be the Word of God, but so do many other things and some of those things must necessarily be false, and it is God’s will that those things be practically indistinguishable from each other.

    I believe that this is the strong argument in favor of Universalism.

    So, when we talk about the weight that the Iliad carries–and it isn’t precisely fair to say that it doesn’t purport to be the Word of God, as it does purport to be the word of a god, just not one that you happen to believe in–we have to accept the fact that the universe is expressly designed to give no more seeming credence to a document that pretends to be the word of god than a document that actually is the word of god.

    In that case, correctly establishing privilege is impossible, and the only way to judge a document’s legitimacy is by its efficacy, and in that case, there is a wealth of literature equally relevant to moral and spiritual understanding as the bible.

  13. Moff says:

    And I probably lean toward Universalism. And the only reason I don’t just come out and say “I’m a Universalist!” is that I haven’t done enough research on it, beyond some Wikipedia skimming, to appreciate everything that entails. But do I believe that baptism, confirmation, communion, and an explicit expression of fealty to Jesus Christ constitute the only path to True Righteousness and possibly ever-lasting life? No, I don’t. I’m a Christian because I believe that something really important took place — perhaps physically, perhaps metaphysically, perhaps only symbolically but with a genuine impact on “real” life — about 2,000 years ago, and that it matters where and when and in what culture it happened. I think things changed qualitatively for humanity; and I think there’s a higher power, knowable in a sense personally and directly, whose ultimate will it was.

    As far as judging by efficacy goes, y’know, it’s not a binary proposition. Saying, “Oh, well, this document also says these things that the Bible says” doesn’t diminish the value of the Bible, really. Moreover, it’s really tenuous ground, because I’m not sure how we would judge “efficacy,” given that part of the discussion is over what’s important to get out of a religious document, or a religion, or life in the first place.

  14. braak says:

    But, if the discussion is “what’s important to get out of a religious document”, then “efficacy” is the only thing we can judge it by. I.e., we must decide what IS important, and, having decided that, determine which document is the best one for it. After all, what else can we measure it in? We can’t establish its authenticity as the actual word of God, because God has specifically designed the universe to make that impossible. Since we can’t accurately say that the Bible is true because we can show its provenance, we can only say the Bible is true because it “does what it’s supposed to do.”

    Now, I’ll agree that that sounds unnecessarily cut-and-dried. Does it work or not? The end, period. Who cares if you’re from Saudi Arabia, or Iowa, or Timbuktu, the book either works or it doesn’t, period. Obviously, that’s nonsense. There are a lot of things that come into play when we judge the efficacy of a thing, and context is hugely important. This is one of the other arguments in support of Universalism, and one of the things that I think the Pentecost Effect is a metaphor for–the miracle of Pentecost is not saying “God will intervene to make you understood” but rather “the message–that is to say, ‘Love and do good,’ must be transmitted in such a way not that mandates the listener change to accommodate it, but rather in such a way that it accommodates the nature of the listener.”

    But, in any case, now it remains to say, “What is the point of a religious document?” And, pursuant to your belief, I think, “What is the point of the Resurrection?” Because I think that there is a profound difference between saying, “The Resurrection IS the point,” which necessarily yields a “Believe in Jesus or go to Hell” conclusion, and “The Resurrection is the illustration of a point.” Did Jesus die and resurrect so that we would know Jesus? Or did Jesus die and resurrect so that we would love and do good?

    If it’s the former, then it’s hard to argue that Christian literature is anything but the most effective. If it’s the latter, then all documents who take it as their purpose to teach love and goodness can be judged by how effectively they do so–the Bible’s value is not diminished because other documents do the same thing; but the Bible’s value IS diminished if other documents do the same thing better. (Here, context matters a lot: obviously, the Bible may be superior in certain circumstances to The Iliad. Potentially, in certain circumstances, it may not be.)

    The peril, obviously, of Universalism is a loss of focus. If all we care about, really, is that people love each other, then who gives a crap if they learn it from the Bible or from Moby-Dick? Do you? Does God? And if God doesn’t, then what is the point of a church that instructs its disciples to accommodate its principles, as opposed to a Church that accommodates itself to its disciples? The question, I think, is interesting.

    Moreover, we run into a fascinating question of cognitive dissonance. As you’ve pointed out, ambiguities inherent in the Biblical text (and, certainly, among all similarly agglomerative texts) mean that the engagement with moral issues is stronger, and therefore the fact of belief in those issues is stronger.

    But is this necessarily ideal? Is it better for a person to believe a good thing weakly, or a bad thing strongly? If years and years of Bible study have taught you that homosexuality is evil, then cognitive dissonance will make it virtually impossible for you to unlearn that position. You have become, essentially, uneducable, and therefore unable to do good where it is needed. Of course, by contrast, if you’ve learned good only weakly, your faith provides no shield against poisonous rhetoric.

    Also interesting. I don’t know.

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