Friday, June 01, 2012

Why do we criticize moderate christian beliefs?

This question keeps coming up.  Not just with me, but is asked in other venues and other blogs.  I know other bloggers have dealt with this before me, and a lot of them are probably a lot better writers than I, but, here goes.
One wor… ok, two words:
Cherry pickers!
“Let’s see what we can find in this book!  Ok, that’s nice, I can deal with that.  Nope, that one’s illegal.  Oh, this one’s great, and the next one after that is just peachy!  Uh oh, gotta ditch the whole next chapter, it just makes me ill.”
Take a look at that for a minute.  Yep, it’s a bit hyperbolic and overdone, and no, very few christians probably go through the bible and process it like that.  But it illustrates my point.  It is the process that takes place, albeit silently and in the back of your mind - or would, if many christians would actually read the bible instead of just reading the weekly suggestion from the pastor or the Sunday School teacher.
The American religious scene is a widely varied one.  It goes from the very liberal to the very fundamentalist and even the crazy nutters like the guy who got snake bit and died the other day.  So, with so many convenient targets of the crazy and the insanely flipped, why target the moderates?
Because they legitimize the nutcases.  No they don’t agree with them.  Not at all, as a matter of fact, and they think that’s the end of it.  But it isn’t.  It isn’t, because at the very most basic level, they do agree on the essentials: Jesus Christ died for your sins, ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God.
Now there is plenty of disagreement over the details.  Was he born of a virgin?  Were there really three wise men?  Or shepherds?  What was his essential nature?  God?  God-man?  Only man?  There are a thousand different bible verses that seem to say one thing, but can be interpreted in others, often many others.  
But, wait!
Another thing most christians agree on is the fact that the bible is the word of god.  Again, there is disagreement, because there are many differences of opinion over just how much can be taken literally.  Some?  All?  Where does one draw the line?
Ah!  That is the real crux of the problem!
Where do you draw the line?  Where do you draw the line?  Exactly what criteria do you use to decide which verses are valid and must be taken at face value and which are “obviously” simple metaphor, and thus, can be ignored as “law”?  Some are taken as mere guidelines, and others will get you into heaven!  (or keep you out!)
Be honest.  Think about that for a moment, I’ll wait.
Back already?  Cool.
Do you have a special edition of the bible which has annotations that say what god meant as metaphor and which are serious and have to be taken literally?  I’ve never seen one.  But I think that many clerics would like you to think they do.  They’ll use theological arguments that’ll tie you into intellectual knots, twist your brain and rot your teeth (well, maybe not that last, but you’ll grind ‘em enough), to justify their twisted logic for using this one but dropping that one.  Often enough, they’ll just ignore the need for justification.
There’s a saying in law schools:
If the law is against you, pound the facts.If the facts are against you, pound the law.If both the law and the facts are against you, pound the table.
There’s a lot of table pounding over this.
Atheists look at it this way:  If your god had really wanted you to know how he wanted you to live in order to avoid getting thrown in hell, he’d have laid it out nice and clear.  No equivocations, no contradictions, no hemming and hawing.  If the consequences of not believing (or believing the wrong way) were so horrendous, you’d think he would take extra care to ensure that his instructions were especially easy to understand, wouldn’t you think?  Especially if he loves you like he’s supposed to?
Instead, you’ve got a collection of documents, written no less than 1800 years ago, at the very latest, edited constantly over those ensuing 1800+ years by clerics with plenty of motive to be sure that their specific version of christianity was included in that book.  Plus, at least half of the letters supposedly written by Paul are known by scholars to be forgeries.  That means NOT written by Paul at all, but by some guy whose ideas are often at odds with that worthy individual and often took great pains to ensure that anti-semitism and misogyny were well included in his forgeries.
The gospels were NOT written by the Big Four.  Nobody knows who did.  Nobody!
The entire first half of the bible wasn’t christian at all, but was added in once it was clear that the church needed some ancient writings to convince the Romans that it was a valid religion (and Judaism was respected for the antiquity of its holy writings).
So, tell me again, just how do you decide what is valid and what isn’t?  Most folks aren’t biblical scholars, and none of the above matters to them.
What does is how you were raised.  You were raised to know and understand what this society thinks is ethical, if you were born and raised in the US - or in a Western European country.  Our laws are based, in the US, on principles of the enlightenment - humanist principles.  Principles which enshrine the American ideals of individualism and the rights of the individual which are to be protected from encroachment by the government.  Modern European governments are largely based on those same principles, too.
The bible isn’t.  It’s principles are those of theocracy.  Worshiping god and surrendering to him and his will.  We hear that every time a fundamentalist preacher opens his mouth.  The very word we use to describe him, “The Lord”, is a word based, in english, on a word used to describe a feudal noble who had, for centuries, the power of life or death over his subjects.  There is nothing democratic about the bible and christianity’s basic teachings!  It was used for centuries to justify the principle of the “Divine Right of Kings”, or the idea that god appoints them, so you’d better obey them!
The US Constitution establishes the principle that the power of the government is derived from the people and our agreement to give it those powers.  The right to rule isn’t given by god, but by the people.
Nothing is further from biblical teachings than that!
So, once again, just what criteria do you use to decide what biblical verses to follow and which to silently ignore?
You cannot dodge this question.  It is at the very basis of how you believe what parts of the bible are valid and which are not, which are interpreted the right way and which other christians are getting wrong.
If you are not a fundamentalist christian with designs on turning this country into a christian version of Iran, then you are cherry picking the bible.  There is no way to avoid this conclusion.  If you read the bible and take it literally, believing that it is the word of god incarnate, you must have the desire to obey the bible before and over man’s law and you must secretly (or loudly) think that America is going to hell in a hand-basket if it doesn’t turn back to god.  Otherwise, you are disobeying god’s word.
Being a moderate christian and believing in only parts of the bible doesn’t let you off the hook.  Quite the contrary.  Your continued belief of the same basic theology of Christ and his redeeming death is exactly what the fundamentalists believe, and that, to them, justifies their continued attempts to bring this country “back” to their way of believing.  To them you are simply misguided, and it is up to them to guide you properly to avoid this country’s destruction.
That’s why we attack moderate christian beliefs.


Vincent said...

This type of argument kind of annoys me because it ignores that the largest faction of Christians in the world - Catholics - don't believe the Bible is the "word of God".
To them it's a book written by men, inspired by God, chronicling the changing relationship between God and the people he created. It is mostly metaphor.
They don't avoid the question of how to decide what to take literally. The answer is, "that's what the priesthood is all about."
Catholics believe the Bible is an inspired book but that the will of God is not expressed through the Bible but through the unbroken succession of the laying on of hands from bishop to disciple, that started with Jesus and the 12.

Now that interpretation has flaws but not the flaws you complain about here.

Robert Ahrens said...

"...but through the unbroken succession of the laying on of hands from bishop to disciple, that started with Jesus and the 12."

But this doesn't get the church off the hook, here. This is essentially, still an argument from authority, it simply transfers the authority from the bible to the church hierarchy.

"They don't avoid the question of how to decide what to take literally."

Oh, but they do. They still oppose homosexuality, fight it's growing influence in this society, while at the same time, totally ignoring those commandments in Leviticus just above and below the ones about gay sex which, inconveniently, have been rendered passé by society. They still don't (and can't) tell you what the clear, understandable criteria are which separate one commandment (a good one) from another (a bad one we no longer obey). They have, like the Mormon church, simply stopped talking about those inconvenient ones which society now thinks are barbaric and nasty stuff. Fluff it off as some metaphoric nonsense so people won't see it as important so they don't see the hypocrisy, is what they do.

No, this is endemic in religion, and worse by far with the Abrahamic ones, though the Eastern religions such as Hinduism don't get off the hook, either. I just haven't studied them as much, and they aren't as much of a problem here.

Robert Ahrens said...

I suppose I should make one further point, which is that the real criteria people are using in that cherry picking is the reason they won't admit what they are. That's because, as I alluded in the OP, they are really using the humanist principles of ethics used by the secular society as a whole. That's why churches in this country, no matter how fundamentalist, don't preach about such commandments that allow slavery or not wearing mixed fabrics. One can twist theology in all sorts of ways, but the reality is, that is what is really happening.

Note that when the US passed the Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887:

"The act disincorporated both the LDS Church and the Perpetual Emigration Fund on the grounds that they fostered polygamy. The act prohibited the practice of polygamy and punished it with a fine of from $500 to $800 and imprisonment of up to five years. It dissolved the corporation of the church and directed the confiscation by the federal government of all church properties valued over a limit of $50,000."

It appears LDS President Wilford Woodruff was responding more to political realities than to the voice of God.

That's the real point, and nobody is willing to admit it. Because "god's law" is supposed to be unchanging and absolute.

Except when it isn't.