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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Why Are Some Conservative Christians So Adamant That They Have the Truth?

Every now and then I take notice of what's happening in the Evangelical/Fundamentalist world. After all, I am a product of that world and look for signs that there may be movement away from traditional stands that might mean conversations can begin in earnest, especially about LGBT issues. And there are signs. There is movement away from the rigid notions of anti-evolution, awareness that the Bible is not fully without error, and some even hold out for an open-ended future unknown by God. Yet, unfortunately, these and other more open views are not held by the majority of conservative Christians.

I'm most interested in their view of the authority of the Bible, as their fall-back, bedrock position on all gay issues is that the Bible is unequivocally opposed to homosexuality. That this is demonstrably not true is a subject I have taken up throughout this blog, and wrote a book about it. (See the side bar on the left of this post.) My latest posts on Satan point to the problems associated with this belief, yet one more needs to be written: "What Is Lost in Rejecting Belief in a Literal Satan?" Stay tuned. As a warm up to that post, I'd like to examine another sacrosanct belief in conservative Christianity, the belief in the literal Adam. It sheds a lot of light on their notion of biblical authority.

Recently, my attention was drawn to a blogger who listed ten reasons why Christians must believe in an historical Adam, by Kevin DeYoung. (Blog here.) Others have taken each of his ten points and evaluated them quite well. (Here, for example.) You will be rewarded by looking these over. However, my interest is not in engaging each point, but in looking at the bottom line issue that is the heart of Evangelical theology and clearly delineated in the post.

If you read DeYoung's post, there is really only one argument he made, and he made it over and over. It is this: We must believe in a literal, historical Adam because the Bible believes it. He uses Moses, Paul, and Luke as his authorities. This is a perfect example of circular reasoning. "We must believe the Bible, because the Bible believes it." A faulty syllogism is often used in a similar way: Major premise: "Everything in the Bible is true." Minor premise: "A literal Adam is in the Bible." Conclusion: "Therefore, there was a literal Adam." Syllogisms stand or fall based on their major premises (if syllogisms are useful at all). This one's major premise is demonstrably not true.

What's really going on here is a desperate attempt to save the whole of Evangelical theology which depends upon the whole biblical story being literally and historically true. Take any one plank away and the edifice falls to the ground, at least in their minds. So, for Paul's notions of sin and salvation, there must be a literal Adam, or his argument fails. If his argument fails, so does the substitutionary atonement doctrine (Jesus died in your place). If that falls, then Jesus as Savior falls with it. That is to say, the Evangelical notions fall, not necessarily the essence of Christianity itself.

So, what does all this have to do with a blog that is essentially about gay issues as they impact the Christian faith and the public square? Perhaps it will be clearer now why conservative Christians cling so desperately to the literal sense of a biblical text. Once we begin to allow for non-literal meanings, it's a slippery slope that can only end in a devaluing of the conservative Christian understanding of Christianity. It's less an argument against LGBTs and more about shoring up conservative doctrine. Gays and lesbians are collateral damage.

In the less rigid Evangelical circles, where social issues are becoming more important, along with a less literal understanding of some biblical stories, there is less interest in trotting out the clobber passages to beat LGBTs over the head with, and more interest in understanding and loving them. Interesting, huh. It seems you can't have a literal approach to the authority of Scripture and an openness to new information at the same time.

Conservative Christianity is closing ranks against the onslaught of the postmodern era, and is losing the battle. In a famous sermon in 1922, Harry Emerson Fosdick asked, "Will the Fundamentalists Win?" We can now say it doesn't look like it. And with the diminishing of a literalistic approach to the Bible, we see an increase in acceptance of those we formerly thought were not suitable companions along the Way. Open Bibles, open minds, open Christianity; what a thought!

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Exorcising the Devil

Although the discussion of my last posting was done mostly on Facebook, it drew a few who found my admission here that I don't believe in a literal devil, off-putting. So I decided to continue the theme at least for one more post.

Some objected that since the devil is prominent in the New Testament, who am I to disregard that witness? Whenever one decides against a biblical point of view, it must be for good reason. Perhaps, I should first defend the notion that not agreeing with portions of the Bible is not heresy. In fact, we do it all the time. There is even a biblical precedent, after all, for doing so. The Deuteronomist School plainly taught that faithfulness to God will bring abundant blessings, including prosperity, health and progeny. Qohelet (the "preacher" of Ecclesiastes) begged to differ. His experience was just the opposite: the rich oppressed the poor, the faithful poor languished. 

An Evangelical commentator (read "Bible believer"), in an interview about his upcoming commentary on Ecclesiastes, summarizes the tone of the book. (“Everything is MEANINGLESS!” Interview with Pete Enns on Ecclesiastes
http://www.patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog/2011/09/27/everything-is-meaningless-1/

Qohelet looks around him and concludes that all of life is utterly senseless and absurd (“vanity of vanities” as the KJV puts it, “meaningless” in the NIV)....
You can’t make Qohelet out to be theologically safe. He does not give you that option. Nor can you write Qohelet off, either, as some heretical, impulsive, or immature simpleton. The fact that he is allowed to carry on for 12 chapters should send a clear signal that his words are not meant to be brushed aside.
Further, the end of the book won’t let you dismiss Qohelet’s words. In 12:9-14 we hear the voice of the book’s narrator (the same narrator who introduced Qohelet in 1:1-11). He neither condemns nor even corrects Qohelet, but calls him wise.
In the New Testament, James argues with Paul about the place of works in salvation. As Paul saw it, For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. Ephesians 2:8-9 But James disagreed: You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith aloneJames 2.24

Marin Luther thought James undercut salvation by faith alone so dramatically that he referred to the Book of James as "an epistle of straw," and tried to get it removed from the Bible. 

Arguing with the Bible is nothing new or cause for alarm. In fact, there is nothing honorable about taking everything in it at face value and not loving God with all of one's mind.

As for the rest of us, who would defend slavery simply because the Bible does, or the silencing of women in the worship assembly, or that women will be saved through childbearing? Or that long hair on a man is "unnatural?" (We could go on and on, couldn't we, but we won't.)

Now, as to specifically why I feel it is responsible to reject the idea of a literal devil or Satan, I first refer you to the harm that this belief has caused. Witch hunts, Inquisitions, exorcisms of the mentally ill, the naming of certain individuals as the Antichrist, assigning demonic motives to enemies, superstitions that immobilize people, living in fear of Satan that diminishes joy in the Lord, all stem from implications people see in a literal Satan who may materialize at any moment.  Admittedly, this argument is on tenuous ground, because belief in God has caused much harm as well. However, much of that harm is due to the belief in a literal devil that prompts others to defend God through various means, violent and otherwise, and see demonic presence in processes and people otherwise without fault. 

While I readily admit that some biblical writers believed in a literal Satan or devil, I'm not obligated to follow suit, as one could hardly escape that belief given the prevailing worldview of their time which is radically different from our own. I find a much more compelling view that comes from treating Satan as metaphor than reality. 

Before we dismiss metaphor as lacking, let us consider for a moment that even the notion of God must finally be considered metaphorically. Describing God in anthropomorphic terms, such as the hand of God, or the face of God, or anger, or even love, is to use metaphors, because God cannot really be described in any other way. God is a metaphor for that which we cannot get beyond. This prompted Tillich to say that after we have said God is, we are now in the reduction of God business. That's why he also said that the true representation of God is "the God above God," the unknowable God that is beyond human comprehension. 

Finally then, if God is a metaphor for that which upholds all good and is the ultimate subject of our devotion, Satan is a metaphor for all that is evil. This seems to me a better notion than Satan as instigator of evil. The "satanic forces of evil" surely describe a potent influence in our world, but not by assigning a real personage behind it. As I noted in yesterday's post, evil is real and is part of humanity's story quite apart from a need to create a source beyond humanity to explain it. In fact, if biblical explanations are necessary, how about this one: I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things. Isaiah 45.7

Given the horrors of our present world, those who despise our president because they think he's a Muslim, those who despise Muslims in general, those who kill the enemies of their God, those who kill abortion doctors, those who hate all non-Whites, those who send people to hell for whatever reason, those who hate gays, those who hate generallymost of them believe in a literal devil. Ironically, they are doing the devil's work for him, which prompted St. Theresa of Avila to remark: "I don't fear Satan half as much as I fear people who fear Satan." A popular bumper sticker in our time says, "Dear God, please save me from your people." I'll settle for just saving us from those whose belief in a literal devil leads them to make enemies of any who believe otherwise. 



Monday, October 14, 2013

The Devil Is in...Justice Scalia?

I've always considered myself at an advantage for not believing in a literal devil, Satan, or any other personification of evil. I don't concern myself with hell, eternal punishment or the like. I'm often asked when I reveal this if I don't believe in evil either. Why one seems to follow another keeps many in the literal devil fold, but it's not necessary. Evil exists and no devil is needed to authenticate that.

Consider the witness of the First Testament. The devil makes only rare appearances and those are very different from our received notions, usually as the literal translation of Satan indicates, the accuser. Take the Book of Job, for instance. Long after we are taught that Satan was cast down from heaven along with his angels, a picture drawn more from Milton than Scripture, we find him in a coffee klatch with God and associates. What's he doing back up there other than to serve as a trope for the book?

Then in 1 Chronicles 21:1 we read, "Satan stood up against Israel, and incited David to count the people of Israel." Here he is playing the more traditional role of tempter. However, the parallel passage in 2 Samuel 24:1 casts a whole different light.  "Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, ‘Go, count the people of Israel and Judah.’" The older version (Samuel) explicitly states that God does the inciting. How do we move from God to Satan? The Chronicles statement comes after the introduction of full-blown dualism into Israel's theology due to their exposure to Zoroastrianism during the Babylonian Captivity. Just as today's religious conservatives can't imagine God tempting anyone to do evil, neither could the writer(s) of 1 Chronicles. So a convenient switch was made.

This is all to say that the First Testament got along quite well without the use of the devil to explain all the evil that transpires throughout its pages. Human beings are perfectly capable of creating evil without any help. Note that following Cain's murder of Abel, God declares that evil is "crouching at the door" ready to spring on humanity, and Satan's entrance is delayed for a least a millennium. (And the serpent in the Garden is "one of the creatures God made.")

I got to thinking about this when I heard that in a recent interview Justice Antonin Scalia asserted his belief in a personal devil. Here's a brief summary from the Los Angeles Times.
 “Of course! Yeah, he’s a real person. That’s standard Catholic doctrine,” [Scalia] said. “You are looking at me as though I’m weird. My God! Are you so out of touch with most of America, most of which believes in the devil?” Indeed, polls have consistently shown that 70% to 75% of Americans share Scalia’s belief.
Naturally, belief in the devil does not stop there. Some actively seek to find where the devil is currently at work. Once determined where that is, we now have located both those on the devil's side and the "good guys." Those devil believers see the devil behind abortion, government expansion, Obama Care, gay marriage, et al, just as the devil was at work of old in inciting David to go against God and hold a census of Israel. No wonder there is little or no compromise--you can't be guilty of aiding and abetting Satan, after all. What would God think of that?!!! When an ideology is backed by demonology, no less than total destruction of the enemy (Satan and his followers) is called for. Here's an enlightening observation from the Evangelical online site for Christianity Today about the Tea Party Caucus in Congress.
This caucus is more evangelical than the rest of the House. About 45 percent of the caucus attend an evangelical church, compared to 13 percent of others in the House. Another 30 percent are mainline Protestants, mostly of a largely Southern variety. Several Mormons are also part of the caucus.
There are no African-Americans or Jewish members. The caucus is less likely to include Catholics, with only 15 percent who are members of the caucus compared to 32 percent of those who are not.
The article is entitled, "Evangelicals and Tea Party Overlap in Congress, Public."

The 70% to 75% of Americans who believe in a literal Satan are mostly among the Evangelical and Southern mainline denominations. The connection between the belief in Satan and their unwillingness to compromise is clear. Not only is the devil in the details, it's in the intransigence of ideology, as well.

Monday, October 07, 2013

An Answer to a Gay Conservative's Opposition to Gay Marriage

In a request by the editors of 10 Thousand Couples for people to evaluate a commentary by Mr. Doug Mainwaring, found here: http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2013/03/9432/, I offered the following statement.  Please read his statement before continuing on.

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For someone who claims to be led by reason, Mr. Mainwaring contradicts himself throughout and offers specious arguments. His lead assertion that “Neither religion nor tradition has played a significant role in forming my stance” is undermined by his statement that “marriage is immutable,” and his fear of the weakening of traditional marriage.

Throughout, he makes unsupportable assertions, each one demonstrably false. 

1.      False assertion #1: Philia love between men is far better, far stronger, and far more fulfilling than erotic love can ever be.

His assertion that “eros is promoted in its stead,” fails to note that when Plato and other early Greek philosophers praised philia, they included eros in the equation.  According to the influential journal Psychology Today, “Whereas Aristotle is not nearly as interested in erotic love (erôs) as he is in friendship (philia), for Plato the best kind of friendship is that which lovers can have for each other. It is a philia that is born out of erôs, and that in turn feeds back into erôs to strengthen and to develop it.”  Non-erotic love between friends is truly beautiful, but they will likely be heterosexuals who find eros in other relationships.

I wonder why he leaves out “love between women”? 

2.      False assertion #2: “To be fully formed, children need to be free to generously receive from and express affection to parents of both genders. Genderless marriages deny this fullness.”

This assertion goes against prevailing psychological and sociological conclusions. Here’s just one example: The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry approved the following statement in support of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender parenting in 2009:
All decisions relating to custody and parental rights should rest on the interest of the child. There is no evidence to suggest or support that parents who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender are per se superior or inferior from or deficient in parenting skills, child-centered concerns, and parent-child attachments when compared with heterosexual parents. There is no credible evidence that shows that a parent's sexual orientation or gender identity will adversely affect the development of the child.
The real “deprivation” here is that Mr. Mainwaring is withholding from his children the kiss of philia that every parent owes his or her children.

3.      False assertion #3: “Marriage is not an elastic term; it is immutable.”

Just a cursory exploration of the history of marriage demonstrates how marriage has evolved over the centuries from polygamy, including polyandry as practiced in Britain in Julius Caesar’s time, the acceptance of concubines and more recently mistresses as part of the family, eras of no religious significance until 1000 AD in the Roman Catholic west, and, of course, common law marriages throughout time.  So what makes marriage “immutable”?  Certainly not society, or tradition, or religion which have shown themselves remarkably flexible in honoring changing arrangements over the millenniums.

4.      False assertion #4: Gay and lesbian activists, and more importantly, the progressives urging them on, seek to redefine marriage in order to achieve an ideological agenda that ultimately seeks to undefine (sic) families as nothing more than one of an array of equally desirable “social units,” and thus open the door to the increase of government’s role in our lives. [Emphasis mine]

Mr. Mainwaring is not simply a gay man with a personal opinion. He is a right wing activist with an agenda.  This observation is fair game as he opines at length against liberals and gay rights activists.  He is merely a social conservative who happens to be gay.  His politics is not the issue; his claims of objectivity and reason are and they just don’t hold water. At best, one may say that his opinions are right for him, and he is entitled to them, and we wish him well.  But to draw from personal insight and make them universal is asking too much in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

10 Thousand Couples offers a unique approach to gay issues, especially for gay families, on their website:
http://10thousandcouples.com/.  Check it out and let me know what you think.  You will find my first article for them, "But My Bible Says...Pt. 1" here: http://10thousandcouples.com/issue/october-2013/article/but-my-bible-says-part-1.