Thursday is a good day for Chesterton:
Suppose that a great commotion arises in the street about something, let us say a lamp-post, which many influential persons desire to pull down. A grey-clad monk, who is the spirit of the Middle Ages, is approached upon the matter, and begins to say, in the arid manner of the Schoolmen, “Let us first of all consider, my brethren, the value of Light. If Light be in itself good–” At this point he is somewhat excusably knocked down. All the people make a rush for the lamp-post, the lamp-post is down in ten minutes, and they go about congratulating each other on their unmediaeval practicality. But as things go on they do not work out so easily. Some people have pulled the lamp-post down because they wanted the electric light; some because they wanted old iron; some because they wanted darkness, because their deeds were evil. Some thought it not enough of a lamp-post, some too much; some acted because they wanted to smash municipal machinery; some because they wanted to smash something. And there is war in the night, no man knowing whom he strikes. So, gradually and inevitably, to-day, to-morrow, or the next day, there comes back the conviction that the monk was right after all, and that all depends on what is the philosophy of Light. Only what we might have discussed under the gas-lamp, we now must discuss in the dark.
-G.K. Chesterton – Heretics
When I hear someone criticize Christianity based on the violence in the Old Testament (and they’re right in that there are pretty violent things in there) a few thoughts occur to me.
1) There is often a failure on the part of the reader to distinguish between description and prescription. – After reading through Judges, for example, one is struck by the violence related in the accounts. So does that mean the bible condones these acts? Or is it merely describing these acts? In the case of Judges, the main theme is repeated througout “In those days there was no king in Israel and every man did what what right in his own eyes.” Part of the point is to draw attention to the evil men do.
Even in the case of Israel’s conquering of the region it is a description of how God established a plan of redemption for a (very) wicked world and not a prescription for us to go and do the same. The Canaanites and the Hittites and the other “ites” were not just innocently minding their own business. For example, They were too busy burning their own children as sacrifices, among other things. (For a good treatment on this particular subject I recommend Is God a Moral Monster? by Paul Copan.)
2) There is often a tendency to impose 21st century sensibilities onto the text. – The world is not nearly as bad as it could be. And even though we have had and continue to have violence episodes, the Ancient Near East was brutality incarnate. I think some readers have a tendency to read themselves and modern culture into the text in an attempt to relate to it, and then come away indignant. They balk at the patriarchal society and spend so much time being offended that they fail to understand the significance of the account. They fail to get themselves out of the way and receive the text. They engage in what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery.” Their own time is the measure by which all else should be judged. (Lewis’ An Experiment in Criticism is a good take on different types of readers.)
3) There is often a failure to grasp the context or intent of the author(s) and/or literary genre. – Some assume (and even some Christians, sadly) that the Christian scriptures were merely dictated by God and literary devices don’t matter. Hyperbole, poems, figurative language and the like either don’t matter or are overlooked on the one hand by those who would like to find inconsistencies in the text. On the other hand, some Christians overlook those literary devices thinking that if they admit them into the equation then somehow the word of God is compromised. And after all aren’t we supposed to take the bible “literally?”
If we mean that we’re supposed to take literally what the author meant given literary devices, then yes. And granted, it’s more work. It would be easier if it were an instruction manual, but life isn’t straightforward and we’re not machines. The OT rings true to the human condition and the need to be saved from it, even if you don’t believe it’s inspired. In addition, we can’t hold an author accountable for not doing something he didn’t try to do. If it was the custom to round numbers up or to use hyperbole to make a point, then we can’t fault him for not being exact with the former or accuse him of being concrete (or “literal”) with the latter. (How to Read a Book by Adler and Van Doren is an excellent resource on the discipline of reading.)
I have had moments when thinking about eternity and God and heaven when the complete “otherness” and strangeness of it hits me. Not strangeness in the sense that I disbelieve it, but in that it’s all so different than anything I have experienced. I understand why an unbeliever would call it a fairytale.
But then I think of the fairytale I’m living in now.
I didn’t exist, and then I did – just like the universe itself. We move bodies of matter through space with our minds. Space? What is that anyway? Or matter, for that matter? And don’t get me started on “time.” (A theory/B theory anyone?)
Then there’s gravity, and energy, and magnetism. Why, it’s practically… magical.
Humanity started out with the earth. There we were, marooned in the universe on a rocky green and blue island in space with nothing but rocks, trees, grass, and the duck-billed platypus. And then there we are on the moon. THE MOON, PEOPLE! We built devices and dropped them on Mars and Titan, flew by Neptune and taken pictures of galaxies as numerous as the stars in our sky.
Through math we know the orbit of every planet in our solar system 1000 years in the past, and a 1000 years in the future. In other words, we have been given a tiny piece of information about the future. What is this prophet we call math? Using numbers to understand the skies? It sounds too amazing to be believed.
Our problem isn’t that spiritual realities are unbelievable, it’s that we have taken the material reality for granted.
In my last post (where I recounted my conversation the girl representing the ACLU) I had mentioned that under state law an employer could fire any one for any reason. I got a little push-back in the comments (which I don’t mind) and thought about it a little more.
First, I think I overstated that a little. The commenter is partially right. It is illegal for someone to be fired for race or sex. Religion was also mentioned, but it’s not true that a person cannot be fired for religion. Specifically, in the cases of churches and this was the context of my conversation with the girl. Can a person be fired for being a Muslim? Yes, if this person was hired into, or converted while working, a Christian or Jewish church or organization. And a Christian could be fired for the same reason in other religious contexts.
The question is, do religious organizations have a right to hire and retain only those people who hold to those worldviews/ideologies?
I think the they should. But this highlights one of the challenges with rights of this type. The different groups represented fall along a continuum ranging from non-moral to moral/ideological.
And one end of the spectrum we have Race. Race does not have a moral component. Race is expressed through appearance and physical characteristics. Sex is the similar, though one could argue that the differences between the sexes moves it slightly down the continuum.
As we move further, we come to two categories that differ from race and sex. Religion and sexual practice. Sexuality by nature is expressed through behaviors, and behaviors have a moral component. Religions deal with the nature of reality, inform our worldviews, and influence our behaviors and ideologies.
But sexuality also brings its own ideologies. Especially in a cultural climate where homosexuality is such a politicized area. If you disagree in regard to legal rights they feel should accompany this aspect of their lives, then you are branded as hate-filled. In essence, the accusation is that your views are immoral.
This moves sexual orientation and practice to the ideological end of the spectrum. The problem is that there are competing ideologies at that end, all fighting for what they see as their rights. To offer one group a right to say, never be fired for being a member of that group is to threaten other groups. In a sense saying to the other group “your ideology takes a backseat, you must embrace theirs.”
My point here is not to say what the neat and tidy answer is. The point is that this is the nature of the political and cultural landscape. So when I talk to someone on the street, taking money in order to promote rights at the idological end of the spectrum, I expect them to know the challenges. I expect them to have at least heard the other view. Unfortunately, the young lady I spoke with seems to have not been familiar with it at all.