Seeing through a dirty windshield

We recently got new windshield wiper blades for our car. The old wiper blades were so bad that on one snowy day my husband had to stick his head out the window to see because the windshield was so covered with salt and slush.  As I’ve been reading about the ongoing battle waged by the Religious Right against gay marriage (including last week’s introduction of the Congressional Marriage Protection Act of 2011)  it suddenly struck me how sometimes, trying to understand God’s will by reading the Bible is similar to trying to see through a dirty windshield: you know there’s a road out there, but it’s hardly visible through the detritus that’s been kicked up along the way.

So here’s the thing:  I don’t think the Bible is the literal, infallible word of God.  I embrace the viewpoint articulated by Christian scholar Marcus Borg in his book The Heart of Christianity:

  • The Bible is the product of two historical communities, ancient Israel and the early Christian movement. 
  • As such, it is a human product, not a divine product. This claim in no way denies the reality of God. Rather, it sees the Bible as the response of these two ancient communities to God.
  • As their response to God, the Bible tells us how they saw things….It is not God’s witness to God…but their witness to God.
  • As a human product, the Bible is not “absolute truth” or “God’s revealed truth,” but relative and culturally conditioned. ..“relative” means “related”: the Bible is related to their time and place….the Bible tells us how our spiritual ancestors saw things–not how God sees things.

So how does this view of the Bible help in thinking about homosexuality and gay marriage? Well, the Religious Right’s opposition to gay marriage (or to any homosexual act), is based on statements in the Bible that condemn homosexuality. Based on these statements, some religious people believe that homosexuality is against the will of God.  As Dennis P. Hollinger writes in The Meaning of Sex: Christian Ethics and the Moral Life, “When we look honestly at the teachings of God’s Word, including those of Jesus, it is evident that Christians and the church cannot legitimize same-sex relations.”  Hollinger spends much of his efforts critiquing revisionist attempts to reinterpret the relevant biblical passages so that they can no longer be used to oppose homosexuality. I actually agree with Hollinger (maybe the only way I agree with him) that these attempts mostly fail.  Biblical statements such as Leviticus 20:13 “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them” are pretty hard to interpret differently.  However, what seems much more crucial is to remember that these statements are related to the time and place in which they were written – which is very different than our own time, in at least four relevant ways:

  1. It’s only in the last few decades that we’ve begun to understand the biological, and particularly the genetic, underpinnings of sexual orientation. We now recognize that one’s sexual orientation is not a choice, not a pathology, and not something that can be ‘cured’ (despite extremely disturbing attempts to do that in even the recent past). Ancient communities had none of these insights.  All people knew back then was that homosexuality was different and didn’t do much to accomplish a crucial societal goal at the time:
  2. Procreation. Back in Christ’s time, infant mortality rates were astronomical (as they remain in the poorest nations of the world). Just to sustain a community, it was important to encourage procreation, since it took a significant number of babies just to ensure that one person would survive to adulthood.  In contrast, in the modern developed world, infant mortality is now rare. For most of us, if you have one baby, you’re stuck with that kid till they reach adulthood (or beyond) – at great financial cost to you and your spouse, which brings me to the third point:
  3. The Biblical authors lived in agricultural societies, where you needed to produce lots of children who could help you work on your farm. Having a large family in ancient times was usually an economic blessing.  In contrast, having children in a post-agricultural economy is a bit of a different story. Still a blessing, no doubt – but kids today are mostly a negative hit to ye’ old cash flow. 
  4. Taking it a bit further – not only are children in modern society expensive at the individual family level, but the significant resources consumed by people in the developed world is leading to real questions about what current population rates are going to do the health and sustainability of our entire planet. The Biblical authors couldn’t possibly imagine a future world where planetary overpopulation or depleting the earth’s resources would be real concerns. But the earth’s population is approaching 7 billion, and expected to grow by another 1.5 billion by 2030, while the fossil fuels consumed by developed and developing nations are leading to a range of environmental disasters including record melt of the polar icecaps. It seems that, if God were making a new covenant with Abraham today, His blessing might be a bit different: “You can still be fruitful, but do my creation a favor and cut down on the multiplying, OK?”

So, bottom line: the culture in Biblical times was one in which it was crucially important to encourage procreation. So is it any wonder that it became part of the mores of that time to oppose sexual activity that had no hope of producing children?  And shouldn’t the fact that we live in times that are so different lead us to a different understanding of the role of sex for our society?

Now, I’m sure some of you out there are thinking, well isn’t this a slippery slope? If we just decide to reject any part of the Bible that doesn’t fit with how the world is now, then what’s to prevent us from throwing out the whole damn thing (and by using the word “damn” just now haven’t you just made it clear that you’re really an atheist?)

Right. Well anyone who’s read my last few posts will know that I’m not an atheist, and I wouldn’t be participating in two separate Bible studies right now if I didn’t think the Good Book was, well, good. So here’s why I don’t at all believe that what I’m arguing for leads to a slippery slope (and I also strongly recommend reading almost anything by Marcus Borg since he has written so much on this subject):

  1. There are many parts of the Bible that do stand up to the test of time (and the test of different cultures or even worldviews). I am constantly in awe of how powerful some parts of the Bible are – and how these ancient words resonate today.  For example, Paul’s words in Romans 7:14 “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” is something that perfectly expresses how I frequently feel (more on that in future posts).
  2. Typically the parts of the Bible that do not stand up as well to the test of time are parts that are not ‘core’ to the Biblical message.  For example, I love the fact that Hollinger, who is trying to make the Biblical case for rejecting homosexuality, says that there are seven relevant passages in the Bible about the subject. Seven. OK- for those of you who may not know, the Bible is a really long book. Seven passages is a teensy portion of the Bible – less than one tenth of one percent. It is remarkable, therefore, to consider the significant percentage of time being spent on this issue by supposedly devout followers of the Bible. The word ‘disproportionate’ comes to mind.
  3. By rejecting the Biblical passages in question, I believe we will be able to more effectively follow those parts of the Bible that  are core. Obviously there’s much debate about what the ‘core message’ of the Bible is, but when it comes to ethics I tend to listen to Jesus:

When asked “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”  He (Jesus) replied “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and the first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 23:36-40).

I should note that there is an almost identical story and message told in the Jewish tradition, except that the teacher is Rabbi Hillel rather than Jesus.

So –given what we now know about sexual orientation, and given our current context – it seems to me that supporting gay marriage does a better job of following these two greatest commandments. First of all, I know that if I was gay and was in love with another woman, I would want to be able to marry my true love in a church (given that I am religious) and have my marriage acknowledged by society and be able to get all the same financial benefits available to heterosexual couples.  I also know that being told that the only way to truly follow Jesus would be to reject some of my deepest desires and attempt to be something that I’m not would destroy me.  It also seems to me that if any two people truly love each other and want to make a life-long commitment and provide a stable home for children (especially orphans or foster children in need of a home) that this celebrates our God-given capacity to love and nourish others. How could it be anything else?

4.  Finally, there’s always that great question: What would Jesus do?  In Hollinger’s book he acknowledges the fact that Jesus has squadoosh to say on the subject of homosexuality (squadoosh being my term, not his). However, he argues based on other statements by Jesus that he almost certainly opposed homosexuality. Well, given that he was a 1st century Jew, of course he would. What’s more interesting to me, is what would he say if he were a 21st century Jew. And that we know: 76% of Jews support legalizing gay marriage.

So, looks like all we needed was some new windshield wiper blades, and maybe a refill on wiper fluid. The road ahead looks a bit clearer now…

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19 Responses to Seeing through a dirty windshield

  1. Hensatri says:

    Well I am glad to see a Christian support Gay marriage. I am glad to see a Christian admit that the Bible is a fallible and humanly authored document that is a product of it’s time.

    What I would like to know is, if you accept this about the Bible, then why not just accept it as literature like we do with every other book and move along? Why not just take the good stories and lessons, study the history, delight in the Myth, and discard the mean ugly bits? Why not treat it the same way we go the ancient stories and mythologies of a dozen other faiths that were, once upon a time, heartfelt religions to millions?

    People can study the Hindu religious texts, find those wise lessons and teachings that provide insight into human nature even to this day, and set the rest aside as just being myth. Why not do this with the Good book?

    • seeingfaith says:

      Hey – this is a great comment and set of questions. My response is a little long so I am going to put it in as a post – hopefully by tomorrow. The bottom line is that in a lot of ways I basically agree with what you suggest, but I think there is still something more to the Bible as well as to other sacred texts that makes them more than just ‘literature’. Thanks and more soon!

  2. sabepashubbo says:

    I’m new to your blog, so I apologize if I hit on something that you’ve already touched on, and if so you can link it for me and I can read it.

    That said, I have to disagree with your viewpoint, friend. Not necessarily about gay marriage; while I am opposed on moral grounds, I am not opposed on legal grounds. I am opposed to homosexuality–not homosexuals getting married if they choose to be gay. That said, homosexuals are still people, and we love them because Christ said to love our neighbors as ourselves. As the cliche goes, “Hate the sin, love the sinner.”

    However, my issue is more with your attribution of the Bible as human and not divine. The Bible makes clear in 2 Timothy 3 that ALL Scripture is given by inspiration of God. The text was not written for God by men. The text was written BY God THROUGH men. I don’t think that verse can be much clearer on the subject. And if God wrote the whole thing, then it must all work in unity, otherwise God contradicts Himself and therefore ceases to be God.

    For the Bible to be errant and fallible, God must be errant and fallible. Is that really the position we ought to be taking?

    • seeingfaith says:

      Hi there and thanks for your comments. My blog is still pretty new and this is actually the first one where I’ve talked about my views of the Bible (I am going to write a follow-up post about my views which I hope to finish very soon). I have to say though that bottom line – we are probably going to have to agree to disagree. That doesn’t mean we can’t have some good conversations about this – but I see a number of problems with your view (as you do about mine). The one clarification I’ll make is that I think the Bible was written by men who were inspired by God. But – and this is a big but – I think that frequently, in the process of writing down their inspirations, some of the message didn’t get put down right. Things got lost in the translation. Furthermore, often the person who experienced the moment of inspiration wasn’t even the one to do the writing – rather – they passed their stories to others – maybe sometimes across a few generations before it got written down. So the way I view the Bible is more like the game ‘whisper-down-the-lane’. There was a real, original message, but along the way some things got distorted. This seems to me a way to look at it that allows for the possibility of an inerrant and infallible God, while recognizing that the Bible is not perfect. The amount of Biblical scholarship that supports the view that I am presenting is pretty substantial. I can get you names of books to read if you’d like. I’ve already mentioned Marcus Borg – he writes about this quite a bit as does Karen Armstrong (see perhaps her book The Bible: a biography)

    • sabepashubbo says:

      You’re right. We may have to agree to disagree. If the Bible is the Word of God, and God is infallible, then His Word must also be infallible, otherwise it is not His Word. I think allowing for any errancy in the text is like trying to stop up a flooding dam with Scotch tape–you can’t stop the tide if you allow any part of it through. Compromising the text does that. How can the Bible be “fit for teaching, for correction, for reproof, for training in righteousness” if at least some of it is wrong?

      I can’t say I will listen to anything Marcus Borg says. He’s an avowed panentheist, which is completely contradictory to Biblical text. The Bible is clear that God created the universe, not that God is the universe. The Bible is clear that God never changes, not that he is in the process of changing, like panentheism states. To me, Borg has no authority to speak on the text if he goes against what it actually says.

      You may think the Biblical support for your view is substantial, but it is nothing compared to the level of support for the orthodox view of the Bible as inerrant. That view has stood the test of time, and for good reason. It is the only way we can look at God’s Word and really believe that it’s God’s Word, instead of man’s.

      • seeingfaith says:

        Hi — so I have to go to bed soon and can’t reply to all of what you wrote right now, but just three things:
        1. It’s worth keeping in mind that trying to convince me of your point of view by quoting the Bible is logically problematic. Your position is that the Bible is the infallible word of God because the Bible tells you that it is. Your position involves circular logic, and will not convince anyone who has not just decided to ‘take the whole thing on faith’.

        2. Can you point me to where Borg admits to being a panentheist? I’m curious about that since last I heard he was a Christian.
        3. I am totally fascinated that you find the Bible so clear. I don’t at all – and actually find the ambiguity in the Bible to be one of the things that lends it so effectively to spiritual searching and contemplation.
        I will be out all tomorrow co-leading a Retreat on prayer, so won’t be able to respond for awhile. But thanks for your comments – I don’t know many people like you so it’s interesting to hear your viewpoint.

  3. sabepashubbo says:

    Hi Seeingfaith,

    Let me do my best to answer each of your points in turn.

    1. The view on inerrancy is an orthodox view that has spanned from the early church fathers to modern times. Starting with folks like Ignatius, Justin Martyr, Origen and others, moving through the medieval era with the likes of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, and finally being embraced by guys like John Calvin, Charles Hodge and most evangelical theologians today. So not only is there Biblical support, but its corroborated by most church scholars as the most doctrinally sound view. The support for your view is from relatively new (by comparison) thinking, and there are far fewer public proponents of it.

    2. As for Marcus Borg being a panentheist, here’s a link to an interview with him:

    http://www.gracecathedral.org/enrichment/interviews/int_19970601.shtml

    And he goes on to further detail in his book “The God We Never Knew,” including using the statement that panentheism affirms both transcendence and immanence, while supernatural theism does not (p.26). This is a false statement, as orthodox theism (with both Biblical and historical support) has always endorsed the view that God is both transcendent and immanent.

    3. I think the Bible is meant to be clear. While there may be many ways to use the Bible in terms of its application, there is only one meaning to the text. Think about it like this: people can take your blog many different ways. Some may see it as inspirational; others may see it as hateful. Still others may see it as misleading, and some could say you are breaking new ground. All of these are different applications of the same blog, but you only had one purpose behind creating the blog. That is how the Bible works. There is only one meaning to the text, and when reading a verse if you look at what is actually being said, using hermeneutics to understand the context for what is actually on the page, the meaning usually becomes quite clear. It’s only difficult for those who either try to read too much into it or not enough into it to understand the context. I’d be more than happy to try and demonstrate that type of hermeneutical thinking for you if it would help you in your study.

  4. seeingfaith says:

    Hey there – thanks for the Borg link – I am going to read that right now, and also just got a book on Biblical Exegesis that I’m going to read that I think will help me better engage in this discussion. Thank you for offering to give an example of your hermeneutical analysis of Biblical texts. Giving examples of how you think is always helpful. Perhaps you could show me how your approach would work with this text: 1 Timothy 6:1-2
    ” 1 Let all who are under a yoke as slaves regard their own masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be reviled. 2Those who have believing masters must not be disrespectful on the ground that they are brothers; rather they must serve all the better since those who benefit by their good service are believers and beloved.”
    Thanks,
    -Louise

  5. sabepashubbo says:

    Sure. I expect you might have picked this one because it’s a bit controversial due to its supposed favor of slavery. Let’s begin.

    Start by looking at what leads up to this passage. The end of chapter 5 is filled with charges that Paul is giving to Timothy as to how to handle the church and its constituents. He is supposed to pass on these teachings to the church he was at, so it make sense that that this passage also falls in line with that. The end of verse 2 (“Teach and urge these things.”) also supports this view.

    Now let’s look at what the text actually says. It does not say, “Put those under a yoke as slaves…” because it’s not talking to the masters. It speaks to those in the position of slave, saying that if you are a slave, you are to give honor to your masters. Doesn’t this seem right in line with Jesus’ teachings that the greatest would be the least, and that in order to be esteemed you must first serve? Those who are subservient must give respect to those that are over them in authority. Colossians 3:23 says to do this “without complaining” or “heartily, as for the Lord.”

    We see this type of submission lots of places in the Bible. God calls wives to submit to their husbands, slaves to submit to their masters, church members to submit to the authority of elders. It is not limited to any one social group or situation. Those under authority are to respect those in authority over them. So if you find yourself in such a position, that is your charge.

    Why? Because God teaches and asks for it other places (as I’ve just shown), so to go against it here would be to revile God’s teachings, and therefore His very name.

    Verse 1 is the blanket teaching to all of those in positions of submission. However, verse 2 is more specific and speaks of believer-to-believer submission. Not only are you to do it because God teaches it, but because you are brothers (or sisters) in Christ. Just as Jesus says, “Whatever you do for the least of your brothers, you do for Me,” so we honor and respect God when we honor and respect those in authority over us.

    And the reason is multiplied among believers. How much more eager to please one’s friend or brother should you be than if it was an enemy? We would go the extra mile for our brothers in other circumstances; so should it be in these roles.

    So that is how I would exegete these passages. I could look more specifically at the Greek text if you wish, but the meaning is pretty clear from a look at these verses. It’s also clear that this is the doctrine of the church and of Jesus from verses 3-5, because Paul goes on to immediately say, “If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain.”

    Hope that helps!

    • sabepashubbo says:

      What I did was give you the context for what the words ACTUALLY SAID. Keep in mind that both of your arguments against it are a result of prior disobedience (on part of the slave traders and on part of the abusive husband). The Bible doesn’t say “don’t defend yourself.” It says “don’t disrespect the ones God has placed in authority over you.” So the battered woman shouldn’t kill her husband because he beats her; the slave shouldn’t attack his master because he was enslaved.

      To your point, look at the historical context for the term “slave.” It’s much different than the Civil War-era slave you are referring to. If you want me to get into the historical side of it, I can, but don’t think you’ve caught me in a trap. The New Testament doesn’t teach human justice (Remember “vengeance is mine, says the Lord”?), and the position that is so clearly taught here is one of compassion (of the submitter to the authority), so contradictory to what you’ve said.

      The problem you’re running into is saying “because it doesn’t apply to me today, I can just ignore it.” That’s most definitely NOT the case. To use your windshield analogy, that’s like driving through a hailstorm with only half a windshield. You’re opening yourself up to serious trouble when you choose to ignore that which doesn’t make sense to you right away. There is truth in every word of the Bible, so choosing to ignore pieces that you think don’t fit means missing out on elements of truth. And I think that’s the far worse position to be in.

      I’m not surprised you missed the forest for the trees. I would just expect you to try a little harder to at least look for it.

      • seeingfaith says:

        I have limited time to reply right now, but I find it interesting that you didn’t directly answer my question. Let me try again, adding in the nuances you mentioned: based on your understanding of the Bible, did African-American slaves who simply escaped from their Christian masters (but did the masters no physical harm) – did these slaves disobey God’s will? I’m looking for a yes or no answer here: Yes, they disobyed God’s will, or No, they did not. Looking forward to your reply.

      • sabepashubbo says:

        You’re asking for a yes and no answer to a multi-level question. That’s rather unfair. If you could give me the motivation behind why they escaped, I might be able to answer your question. But you’re asking me to understand the heart of an African-American slave who escaped. Perhaps the better question, which I will now pose to you, is this: if YOU were that slave, why would you be escaping, and do you think that reason is disobedient to God? Not God’s will, to God.

        And just so you’re clear on my position, who was more obedient–Joseph (Jacob’s son) or the prodigal son (Luke 15)? Both were under authority, and one escaped. Who was the more obedient of the two? And who was the more rewarded of the two?

      • seeingfaith says:

        Hi there, this is the last time I’m going to reply to this string because, at least to my mind, this exchange has now become ridiculous. You say “If you could give me the motivation behind why they escaped, I might be able to answer your question”. Really? Gee, maybe because no human being would want to be owned by another human being and forced to work for no pay? Even a slave who lived in the most posh conditions (which was rarely the case for African American slaves) – any slave would still prefer to live free than not. There is no ambiguity to this situation. If you take the Bible literally than you also believe that we are all descended from Adam and Eve. Therefore, we are all equal, under God. Furthermore, we you also accept the Exodus story that God helped His people, the Israelites, escape from slavery in Egypt – showing that God wants His people to be free. Given that God wants His people to be free, I can not imagine how a slave who simply tries to escape from slavery could be acting against God’s will. And realize that there are other Biblical passages that make clear that when there’s a choice to be made between obedience to earthly authority or to God, we have to choose God: ‘We must obey God rather than any human authority.’ (Acts 5:29). To deal with the passage in Timothy you have to do other forms of exegesis – perhaps looking at the context of the time when Paul was writing and concerns he may have had regarding helping the early churches survive in the hostile environment of the Roman Empire. But as you have helped me prove, just reading such passages as literal and infallible leads to repugnant conclusions that contradict other Biblical passages, and more importantly, contradicts Christ’s vision of justice and compassion for the downtrodden and poor. The whole goal of my blog is to show that there is a different, and valid way to be religious that is very different from your approach. Thanks so much, but I have nothing left to say to you.

  6. seeingfaith says:

    You know, this truly exceeded my expectations. So, according to your ‘exegesis’, African-American slaves who escaped from slavery through the underground railroad were disobeying God’s will? And a wife who is being beaten by her husband and runs away to a battered women’s shelter and tries to get a restraining order is disobeying God’s will? Your ‘exegesis’ so massively contradicts Christ’s call for compassion and justice that I am left almost speechless. It ignores so many other parts of scripture that call for resistance and rebellion in the face of unjust empire (I am currently studying the Book of Revelation in Bible Study – that entire book is all coded messages encouraging the early church to resist the oppression and injustice of the Roman Empire). Anyway – I think you could really benefit by doing some reading about what exegesis is really supposed to be. I have started reading Biblical Exegesis (the 3rd edition) by John H. Hayes and Carl R. Holladay. Just read the first few pages and you’ll understand how reading the Bible is an art- involving drawing on a tremendous background of knowledge including history, literary analysis, linguistic insights, etc. Trying to read the Bible without understanding the context leaves you driving blind with a very dirty windshield. And in my opinion, you just crashed.

  7. seeingfaith says:

    Dear Adam,

    So I know I said that I had nothing more to say to you, but upon further reflection, I realize I do: I am sorry. It is the height of irony that in a discussion inspired by an exploration of the Golden Rule that I ended up violating that rule. While I have not changed my mind about any of the points I made in our exchange, I realize that in my last few replies I used an unacceptably rude tone. I treated you in a way that I would not want to be treated. This exchange has taught me something important about myself, and I am committed to doing a better job in the future to remain courteous in dialogue, regardless of how much I disagree with someone’s opinion. I hope that if you find inspiration in the future to respond to future posts on this blog that you will do so, and I will try to do so as well on your blog when appropriate.

    Sincerely,

    Louise

    • sabepashubbo says:

      Louise,

      I appreciate your apology, and I accept. I also apologize if there was anything I said in my comments that violated the Golden Rule and the spirit of Christian fellowship as well. It’s OK (if not preferable) to disagree on these issues, if we keep it amicable. I will do my best to treat you with deference in respect in future posts as well, and hopefully our conversations can continue to be fruitful. I’ll pop by from time to time, and feel free to do so on my blog as well.

      Thanks, and God bless.

      Adam

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