A polite religious flame war

August 24, 2010

Back in the good old days of the internet, before the advent of the World Wide Web—not to mention Facebook—when the internet was confined to ASCII text on mainframe terminals, we Georgia Tech students used to have heated arguments called “flame wars” with other academic types around the world on Usenet newsgroups. Today I relived a little bit of that spirit in a thread on Facebook related to Christianity.

These things never start out as flame wars. You add a little kindling, and someone else adds a little more, and before you know it…

Someone posted a link to an article talking about how American Protestantism—given its checkered history with slavery, violence, and warfare, etc.—is really the most dangerous religion in America (not Islam).

I don’t care about political discussions, but when the conversation turns to questions of Christian faith, I get very interested. I will excerpt the debate between me and another person (who I don’t know). I’ll call him James.

James: I dunno about you but the old testament I read is chuck full of religious warfare, wrath of god and other nonsense.

And as was mentioned already, religions are created for these specific reasons . . . they codify tribal norms and justify warfare and exploitation of “others” whatever you want to call them . . . gentiles, infidels, pagans, doesn’t matter.

Brent: The Bible, including the O.T., doesn’t speak with one voice, but the overarching theme is of love, mercy, and justice—and compassion for the poor and the outsider. You can proof-text a few verses here and there, but by doing so you’re ignoring most of the Bible! If you’re going to do justice to the text, you have to read it in context of the entire story. But the Bible is a big book and doing so takes patience and time.

Within that context, things like slavery, religious warfare, and genocide often existed or took place. The Bible didn’t invent those forms of evil. If God is going to reveal God’s self to the world, God has to start somewhere within history. God can’t wait for human beings to suddenly become ethically scrupulous people. The Bible itself judges the very actions in scripture that we find repugnant. In Jonah, for instance, the prophet resists the call to preach judgment against Nineveh (Israel’s enemy). Why? Because he doesn’t want God to destroy them? No! Because he does, and he knows that his God is a “gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”

Try to square that with genocide and gang-rape!

It has never been the orthodox teaching of the Church that the Bible is dictated by God; that’s not our understanding of inspiration. The Bible is a book for adults, and we need to read it like adults. Otherwise, we’re just playing games with the text.

James: @Brent: The Old Testament is the story of a Desert God and his “chosen” people.

I completely disagree with your notion that love and mercy are recurring themes in the book. They are there, but they stand out precisely because they are so out-of-character for this fickle and jealous diety.

Then you have the story of Job, of course, which is similar to greek mythology, i.e. even the most pious man among us is little more than a plaything of God’s to be made an example of whenever he sees fit. The devil in that story comes across more as God’s equal and the conversation between the two of them is reminiscent of conversations between greek gods on high Olympus as they meddle in the affairs of mortals.

These texts have had plenty of time to shake out in practice and in my opinion if “love, mercy and justice” were in fact the overarching theme then the societies based on this work would reflect that. They do not.

Brent: @James, yes, when human beings are involved, human beings tend to disappoint. They fail to live up to their professed ideals and beliefs. These instances of love, justice, and mercy are hardly exceptional. Indeed, Jonah, reflecting on the entire tradition of Israel’s religion knows that his God doesn’t endorse ethnic cleansing!

When Martin Luther King spoke of justice rolling down like a river, where do you think that came from? Did he misunderstand the scriptures he quoted time and time again? He was hardly a moral midget. Do you know something about the Bible (and the OT) that he didn’t? I suspect he read them much more than any of us!

James: Yes MLK was a great advocate for peace and non violence and yes he used the Bible as a source of inspiration.

Likewise many who have committed great atrocities have also found the justification they sought right there in the Bible.

If you are a cynic like me you might even say that the Bible is so long and contradictory and covers such a broad range of topics that it is possible to project whatever kind of moral code you wish right on to it, and then cherry pick individual passages whenever it suits you.

If you look at the history of all religion I think you find that society’s great heroes of peace and justice had that quality about their character already, and likewise so have the great villains of civilized society, who greatly outnumber the heroes. Paradigm shifts in society come about from shifting cultural norms, a change in the cultural narrative, brought about by economic or other circumstances or just by charismatic individuals. However it is these norms that are external to religion that color the way society interprets what is pretty much the same old text throughout the centuries.

The point here is that although most people assume their moral code comes from the Bible (or whatever religious text is predominant in their part of the world), it does not. Ethics and morality are malleable concepts that adapt right along with changing societies. Likewise, whether or not you are a good person has nothing to do with how religious you are. Texts like the Old and New Testament codified what was an evolving cultural narrative at that time, the danger I believe in clinging on to them is that we are worrying too much about what was considered right in the days of wandering desert nomads and then roman centurians and whatnot.

The other danger inherent in ANY religion is that people make the mistake (and it is definitely a MISTAKE) of assuming that what they have written in front of them is TRUTH. Whether it be true in the literal sense or at least a “true” message conveyed via allegory and metaphor, either way, it is fallacy. There is no such thing as an absolute truth, at least not one that human beings can articulate and understand. The truth can be approached via scientific investigation and consensus building, we can develop better working models of our universe using a horizontal dialectic structure. But a religious upbringing teaches us the opposite. TRUTH gets handed down from up on high, or it is found via deep introspection, and that is ABSOLUTE TRUTH. It teaches us not to question, or at least not to question when certain “triggers” are pulled, and this is dangerous and primes people for exploitation later on in life, by politicians, crooked businesses, and so on.

Brent: @James, I appreciate your much more thoughtful response! When you talk about committing great atrocities using the Bible, yes, I’m sure that’s true. But these atrocities haven’t often been sanctioned by the church—and when they have I would argue that it’s a failure to live up to the church’s own teachings. The Church fathers and mothers, reflecting on their understanding of the Bible and the tradition that emerged from it, opposed capital punishment and slavery. And we’re talking 2nd century! I’m sorry that the church or Christians haven’t consistently lived up to that tradition, but it gets back to the problem with human beings in general.

Of course ethics and morality are malleable concepts—and while we’re on the subject, critics like yourself have to answer for the positive impacts that Christianity has had on the world. It’s not as if the Roman pagans were all goodness and light before history was interrupted by the bad old Church and Christianity (although I’m well aware that that Enlightenment propaganda is out there in the culture.) Whether you’re a skeptical cynic or a Methodist minister, you’re standing on the shoulders of a lot of Christians whose values have helped to create concepts like “human rights” that we take for granted.

All knowledge is provisional. There is absolute truth, but as finite beings we human beings can’t get at it. (“We see through a glass darkly,” if I may quote the Bible). I’m not aware that the Christian tradition teaches anything else. The particular strand of American evangelicalism that considers the Bible “inerrant” is a modern innovation on the tradition. It dates to the 19th century. I like the ancient stuff.

I disagree that a religious upbringing necessarily teaches us not to question (again, are you talking about American fundamentalism?). By all means question! But also question the implicit assumptions inherent in modernity and post-modernity. How much of our “progress” and “individualism” and “non-conformity” are just different forms of the same old domination systems that the world has always struggled against?

James: “Critics like yourself have to answer for the positive impacts that Christianity has had on the world.”

Such as . . .? Manifest destiny? The Crusades? The Inquisition? Salem Witch Trials? Help me out here. How much bad do we have to take along with the good? What’s an acceptable ratio?

“It’s not as if the Roman pagans were all goodness and light before history was interrupted by the bad old Church and Christianity (although I’m well aware that that Enlightenment propaganda is out there in the culture.)”

I never said that. To be fair I think Christianity brought with it a new perspective on the value of human life and respect for it. Practices like human sacrifice and the Roman colliseum games died out as Christianity spread through the population.

But like I said before . . . its hard to pinpoint whether religion was the root cause or the adopting of a new age religion merely reflected values that were already changing within that culture. In any case the big three Abrahamic religions all brought their own unique atrocities with them into the world.

Brent: You’ve answered your own question: “…To be fair I think Christianity brought with it a new perspective on the value of human life and respect for it. Practices like human sacrifice and the Roman colliseum games died out as Christianity spread through the population.”

Julian the Apostate [a pagan Roman emperor after the Empire nominally became “Christian”] saw the problem rightly when he said that it would be easier to defeat Christianity if, instead of simply taking care of their own widows, the Christians didn’t also take care of pagan widows!

I believe the Spanish Inquisition was carried out by the Spanish sovereign, and not endorsed by the Church, even if local ecclesial authorities were involved. Likewise Manifest Destiny (in my own Methodist tradition, John Wesley and the early Methodists were famously opposed to this kind of imperialism. And African slavery!)

When we talk about tradition, we have to think in terms of consensus, not the isolated actions of individuals or groups operating throughout history. Einstein wasn’t a terrible or untruthful physicist because the vast majority of people fail to grasp special relativity or quantum mechanics. Why judge the “truth” of a religion based on the actions of its worst students and not its best? We can both name plenty of heroes of world history who did great, selfless, and humanitarian things exactly because of their Christian faith! And perhaps, just maybe, if you add it all up the scale it would tip in favor of Christianity. I think it would by quite a long shot, but that’s beside the point. Whether it does or not doesn’t prove anything.

And how do we calibrate the scale of right and wrong? That question would be greatly informed by the Christian tradition that we have inherited—consciously or not.

But here’s something that we’re both leaving out: being Christian. The Christians in history whom you happen to like weren’t simply reading a book or hearing a sermon and intellectually agreeing to a set of propositions. They were praying it and experiencing it and living it out.

By the way, the pope apologized many years ago for the Crusades and Southern Baptists apologized for American slavery. They admitted that they were unfaithful to their own traditions. As always, people tend to disappoint—but isn’t that the nature of sin and evil of which Christianity says a great deal?

James: Ummm… Yeah, but if you have Christianity and still have to live with this crap every day then why not just do away with it? Think of all the stuff you could get done on Sundays.

Ok, so we’ll both agree that Christianity, like Communism, is perfect in theory and the only real problem emerges when you stick humans in the equation.

Which is why I am a pragmatist . . . philosophy that falls apart in practice has little value to me.

[At this point another Christian jumps into the debate and argues about evolution, among other things. I return to the discussion…]

Brent: @James, you wrote: “Which is why I am a pragmatist . . . philosophy that falls apart in practice has little value to me.”

Speak for yourself. Inasmuch as I “practice” the Christian faith, I find it works quite well. Jesus meets the deepest longings of my heart. It’s just really damn hard to set aside my self-interest long enough to follow the self-giving other-directed way of Jesus. This is to be expected: we are to “take up our instruments of torture and execution and follow.” Is that meant to be “practical” as the world understands it?

Christianity in action is these Quakers who go to places like Iraq and chain themselves to a missile silo—or whatever—and challenge the U.S. not to resort to violence and warfare. Is that supposed to be practical?

You don’t really think that Christianity, like Communism, is meant to be a worldly system of government, do you? That it’s supposed to “work out” in practice in some kind of Hegelian way and suddenly the world has made “progress”? That was never the Christian message. Whatever life in the resurrection means, it implies continuity with the world as we know it, but also a radical discontinuity. In other words, we can’t get there from here. We can’t bring heaven down to earth. God does that at the end of history as we know it. That is why the Christian faith is, at heart, eschatological.

And you might say that’s pie-in-the-sky, but would you expect anything else? Say what you want to about Christians, we at least have a healthy respect for sin and evil; and we believe it’s pervasive. We can predict in advance that all human systems will fail. “My kingdom is not of this world.”

As for this talk about evolution, I love this quote:

“From my perspective extending my compassion towards all sentient beings is a logical extension of scientific understanding of evolution.”

Really? Prove it scientifically. Prove compassion scientifically. Prove love. At least the good old atheists like Nietzsche and Sartre knew that apart from God this universe is a terribly cold and meaningless place. From a materialistic point of view, whether a fellow human or animal dies is completely without meaning. You can “make up” meaning if you want, but the philosophical foundation is air. Good heavens, read contemporary ethicist Peter Singer and his view of any kind of “sanctity” (call it whatever you want) of life. The Romans used to leave unwanted babies at the garbage dump. Tell me Singer isn’t far removed from that! And he’s a respected ethical philosopher at an Ivy League school!

Of course, you may not feel that you have to prove it, because you—like us Christians—are a person of deep faith. We’re not so far apart!

By the way, I don’t see any conflict between evolution and Christianity as long as we understand that Darwinian processes can’t adequately “explain” why we’re here today any more adequately than my fingers tapping the keys of this laptop explain why I’m responding to this thread. There are multiple layers of explanation to most of the reality that we experience.

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