Saturday, May 07, 2011

Further thoughts

I was searching online for peoples' thoughts on various matters when I came across a little religious series on YouTube, which further articulated the points of my previous post, but which came to different conclusions, and I wanted to mull them over here.

This video likened church doctrine to a pick-up game of basketball, in which everyone had different interpretations of the rules. These different interpretations caused fights and quarrels to break out all through the "game," in which no one could agree on where the lines were or anything regarding the rules of the game. Some played with a free-throw line in a different spot or no line at all. Some played with no out-of-bounds. Traveling or double-dribble was not an issue for some. The whole game was a mess and it wasn't fun for anyone.

I like this analogy - up to a certain point - because it illustrates what I was saying before about the state of affairs in the church today. Interestingly, their conclusion (I did not hear them address any criticism of this conclusion) was that people in the church need to basically buckle down and learn to interpret scripture properly, so that everyone can understand the "rule book" and agree to "play the game" together the same way. This is where the analogy goes off kilter for me and where I disagree with their assessment.

They make a couple of assumptions in their analogous commentary on the church, and the main one is that the Bible as we know it is some sort of a "rule book." I've heard this idea - grew up with it actually - and it is a very popular notion that the Bible is a precise sort of manual for life or a letter direct from God to his people where he lays out exactly what we're supposed to believe, do and be. The problem is, I have found little or no evidence supporting this view. I've read the Bible a few times, and I have a Biblical studies degree. This does not make me an expert, but I think it is enough to make some intelligent observations (assuming I'm an intelligent guy). The Bible doesn't read like a rule book, unless you're reading Leviticus and Deuteronomy, and part of Exodus. The Torah (the first five books of the OT, also known as "the Law") is really the only part of the Bible that reads this way, where God explicitly sends a message to his people laying out exactly what they are to do or not do. Only in this situation then would the vast wealth of rabbinic commentary be accurately likened to interpreting the rule book. The rest is stories, histories, letters, prophecies, parables, poetry, and scattered teachings.

Teachings are not necessarily about rules and exact do's and don'ts. The words of Jesus in the gospels do not spell out a concise list of steps, and even the more rigorous theological meanderings of Paul are contextual corrections for specific situations. It is easier to interpret leviticus, because it reads like a straightforward list of how to live with God in ancient Israel. Don't eat shrimp. If you do, leave the camp for a few days. present sacrifices in this place in this way, and don't get it wrong or try to do it somewhere else. Don't worship other gods. Practice the Sabbath. Despite possible variations in practice and modifications involving further specification, these are rules, and they are fairly straightforward. Jesus didn't often teach rules. The taught principles. He and Paul and the apostles in the NT corrected aberrant behavior and yes, they often corrected misguided or destructive theology. But a set of beliefs is not a set of rules and there is no perfect interpretations of those set of beliefs, even if you adhere to the idea that none of them ever got it wrong when they wrote the words that eventually ended up in our Bible.

One other thought I had is that this mess of religious debate and strife might be a strong argument in favor of the hierarchy of Roman Catholocism or eastern Orthodox churches. If you have people "in charge" who are responsible for interpretation and theological explanations, then you might not have the big protestant mess, so to speak. While this argument is more utilitarian (and my views often lean utilitarian anyway), I do not believe they hold up under a critical look at history. For one, I believe the hierarchical systems of the past couple millennia have done more harm than good. The religious authority of the pope and of bishops quickly turned to quests for political power and the corruption, greed and fear that led to the crusades and the inquisition. Religious authority was no protection against false teachings and may have harbored a host of them while burning at the stake any who disagreed. Religious authority got us nowhere and such corruption gave rise to the Reformation in the first place, a movement which began as a fight against corruption, but without that centralized authority, quickly turned into a quagmire of various teachings and debates, sometimes resulting in outright bloodshed.

This failure of authority to uphold moral standards might be enough to undermine its reliability in terms of accurate interpretation of sacred texts, but furthermore, it puts the mistakes of the many (multiple strains of Christianity) into the mistakes of the few (centralized authority). Who's to say that errors of one man or a few people would be better or worse than the errors of many? One might argue that a sort of competition in scholastic interpretation could provide an innate check and balance system. If no one was arguing with each other, we might just stray complacently into a theological void. Debate brings out rigorous, disciplined study, and I do believe that there are several out there who have contributed nicely to that process. But we still have the same problems outlined in the basketball analogy. Everyone's arguing about the rules, and so we end up just angry and confused.

This is why I can understand when Brian MacLaren says lets just put a moratorium on the homosexual debate and just not talk about it for five years. Or when people like Doug Pagitt try to undermine arguments themselves by rephrasing the questions. I think these people recognize that because of our arguments about "the rules" we've stopped playing altogether. We need to stop thinking of the Bible as a rule book that no one can interpret correctly, and start living. We're trying to live in the way of Jesus: giving to the poor, loving our neighbor, showing mercy and compassion instead of judgment. Instead we're heaping judgment on each other and passing around verbal abuse like it's candy. Knowing the "truth" about calvinism vs. armenianism will not help you love your neighbor. Knowing what heaven and hell look like will not help you show compassion to the poor. Having the answers does not help you "take up your cross." I am all for serious intellectual study, but I think treating the Bible like something that it isn't has pushed us into being something that we're not.


andrew j. ulasich said...

Recovering Evangelical?

Jake said...

well, yeah, I guess this stuff would fit in with you guys.