Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Saying No in Ways That Sound Like Yes

Thanks to Alas, a Blog, I found this curious essay at slacktivist.  The writer, Fred Clark, asks a useful question: The Biblical position on women's equality, especially in the churches, is still being debated after centuries, with no resolution in sight; so is the Biblical position on homosexuality.
Given the apparent insolubility of those battles over clobber texts, it’s strange to consider that another similar argument — one far more heated and contentious — has simply vanished entirely. This was a fierce argument over biblical interpretation that split denominations and congregations, shaping and reshaping America’s churches, American culture and, ultimately, America’s Constitution. And then, abruptly, it just ended. It was settled, once and for all, and no credible person living today regards it as even slightly controversial.

I’m talking about slavery...
After summarizing some of the debate on slavery and the Bible from the 1800s, Clark concludes:
The dispute wasn’t resolved by exegesis or by theological argument. It was, rather, as Mark Noll wrote, “left to those consummate theologians, the Reverend Doctors Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, to decide what in fact the Bible actually meant.”
That's cute, but it overlooks a few things. Yes, it took the most horrific war in history up to that time, with 600,000 or so dead and many more wounded and maimed, to bring slavery to an end -- in the United States.  In England, by contrast, slavery was abolished in 1833 by act of Parliament without resort to warfare.  As this timeline from Wikipedia indicates, the US is the exception rather than the rule when it comes to the abolition of slavery.  If Clark were serious about the biblical and theological aspects of slavery, a look at how they were handled in England and other Christian countries would be instructive.  (I notice that the next day, he posted about American exceptionalism, though I haven't bothered to read that one.  But his post on slavery is a textbook case of American exceptionalism: it's all about Us, and outside our borders no one has dealt with this issue at all.  I daresay he knows better -- but in this post he chose not to know better.)

Did the Civil War resolve "what in fact the Bible meant" about slavery?  It did not.  It would be interesting to follow the theological discussion of slavery in the US after 1865, and see just how and why biblical defenses of slavery were abandoned.  Although slavery was formally abolished de jure, it survived de facto in various forms, and white supremacy was defended on Biblical grounds well into the twentieth century.

Still, as far as the US is concerned, the blogger is more or less correct: hardly any American Christian nowadays will defend slavery on biblical grounds. Most Christians try to ignore the biblical evidence, and explain it away if they must confront it.  (The same is true of secular rationalizations of slavery: I've argued before that drapetomania, a purported disease which caused slaves to run away from their masters, does not seems to have been proven bogus so much as abandoned in embarrassment.  Scientiific racism, of which drapetomania is an example, endures to this day, however.)

In sum, Clark writes,
That’s a huge, enduring problem for American Christianity. For one thing, it doesn’t offer any potential approach for resolving other theological and interpretive disputes. Opponents of women’s equality will continue to cite 1 Timothy 2:12 as authoritative proof that they are right, while advocates of women’s equality will offer alternative interpretations, but neither side will have the option of settling the matter definitively by burning Atlanta.

But the larger problem is this: We have concluded that some of our foremost and most influential theologians, pastors, and biblical scholars were utterly wrong about a monumentally important matter of biblical truth. Yet, because we choose not to explore why or how they were wrong, we are unable to learn from their grievous mistake. We have no way of knowing whether or not we are, in fact, repeating their mistake. We have no way of avoiding such a repetition.
Now, this confuses me.  Even if we could burn Atlanta, would it really 'settle the matter' of women or homosexuals in the church?  I don't think it would, and I don't believe that Fred Clark believes so either.  As he acknowledges, the question of slavery wasn't really settled but abandoned by American Christians; I don't think that's really the outcome he wants for other issues.

I'm especially confused by the claim that "we have concluded that some of our foremost and most influential theologians, pastors, and biblical scholars were utterly wrong about a monumentally important matter of biblical truth."  I can't tell for sure, but I guess he means that virtually all twenty-first century Christians now believe that slavery is wrong, and I guess he believes that he regards the contrary view as held by "some of our foremost theologians, pastors, and biblical scholars" is a "mistake."  Or maybe the mistake lay in letting the Civil War settle the issue of slavery: American religious thinkers and teachers abandoned their obligation to determine "biblical truth" for themselves.  But he seems to have lost the thread of the argument.

There are two separate questions here. The one on the table, so to speak, is whether slavery is wrong according to the Bible.  There is no reason to think so, as Clark more or less admits.  The other question is whether slavery is wrong (or right, for that matter), regardless of what the Bible says about it.  I think Clark confuses the issues, and that's why the article as a whole makes little sense.

By "clobber passages" Clark means the parts of the Bible that treat slavery as morally unproblematic, an institution to be regulated but not abolished, and indeed a model for the relationship between the believer and Christ.  He also means the parts of the Bible that assume or explicitly endorse male supremacy, the subordination of women.  But these are not isolated passages which can be used to "clobber" critics who reject these practices and principles: they permeate the Bible from beginning to end.  (The passages relating to male homosexuality, by contrast, are relatively isolated, but there is really no Biblical material that counters them.)  This is relatively uncontroversial; no honest scholar would deny that the Bible treats slavery and male supremacy as unproblematic, and I've noticed that numerous gay Christian apologists admit that the Bible treats male homosexuality as a serious sin even as they try to explain away the problem ("clobber") passages.

The question, then, is not 'what the Bible says' about these issues -- that's clear enough -- but what to do about aspects of the Bible that modern Christians can no longer accept as authoritative.  There are many of them, not limited to these three issues, and not all Christians today reject them.  But Clark seems to think that if we could just really understand what the Bible says, we could resolve these theological and interpretive disputes.  I think the English scholar and theologian Dennis E. Nineham identified this problem in The Use and Abuse of the Bible (Harper & Row, 1976, p. 205):
If I may quote Leonard Hodgson again, it must be on the understanding that quoted out of context he may seem to be saying more than he intended to; or should I say that he spoke more wisely than he knew?  'For too long,' he writes, 'study of the biblical writers (and, for the matter of that, of patristics, scholastics, reformers and the rest) has been based on the assumption that someone, somewhere, at some time in the past, really knew the truth, that what we have to do is find out what he thought and get back to it.'  It may be significant that this statement occurs in Hodgson's last book; for years he had been moving towards it.  My only doubt is whether even in the end he applied it with quite sufficient rigour either to Jesus or to the architects of trinitarian and Christological orthodoxy.
What Nineham is talking about here is the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, which most people confuse with "literalism."  It holds that the Bible, properly understood, is without error, and that if there seems to be something wrong with the Bible, it's really the reader or interpreter who has gone wrong.  Very non-literal interpretation is necessary to get rid of the inconvenient material. No issue can be resolved with this approach.  If you start at your end point -- the conclusion you want to reach -- only those who agree about the conclusion will find your interpretation plausible, and your critics will easily show what you got wrong. That accounts for most of the endless debate Clark laments, I think. It also indicates why that debate won't end.

The philosopher Walter Kaufmann also addressed this issue a quarter century before Nineham, in his book The Faith of a Heretic.  (I'm quoting from the 1963 Anchor paperback edition.)  In a print debate with the philosopher Karl Jaspers, the influential Protestant scholar and theologian Rudolf Bultmann asked rhetorically: "He [i.e., Jaspers] is as convinced as I am that a corpse cannot come back to life and rise from his tomb ... What, then, am I to do when as a pastor, preaching or teaching, I must explain texts ... ?  Or when, as a scientific theologian, I must give guidance to pastors with my interpretation?" (quoted by Kaufmann, 95).  Kaufmann commented:
Up to this point, Bultmann had generally referred to "the Easter event," and students had debated just what, according to Bultmann, had happened at the first Easter.  Now Bultmann let the cat out of the bag, not only about one particular belief but about the nature of theology ... 

Bultmann, asked about eternal torture in a conversation, said that on that subject he agreed with Lessing.  He had every right to expect that a younger colleague, no less than a student, would proceed to the nearest library and begin reading through a set of Lessing's works, in search of the crucial passage.  After the first ten volumes, he could safely be expected to give up.  Encouraged by my American training, however, I asked: "And what did Lessing say?"  The great theologian hesitated, then allowed that Lessing had once said somewhere that if even a single soul were in eternal torment he would certainly refuse to go to heaven.  It would seem, then, that Bultmann disbelieves in any form of eternal punishment.  In his huge Theology of the New Testament, hell and eternal damnation are simply ignored.

This refusal to let one's No be a No is one of the central characteristics of theologians no less than of committed Communists.  One does not emphasize one's points of disagreement with tradition or the scriptures; instead one emphasizes points of agreement and sidesteps embarrassing issues by raising questions of exegesis.  As a consequence, the agreement among committed believers is, to a surprisingly large extent, apparent only ...

[An American Protestant theologian like Paul] Tillich, like [Reinhold] Niebuhr, shares few of [Billy] Graham's religious beliefs ... But, like Bultmann, they say No in ways that sound like Yes [95-97].
I think this is a bit unfair to theologians: the behavior Kaufmann describes here is also common among lay believers.  (For that matter, Jesus often said Yes in ways that sounded like No, and vice versa. Consider "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's," which cannily dodges taking a stand on the very live issue of Roman taxation in first-century Judea and Galilee.) Theologians, because of their specialist knowledge, probably feel the conflict between apologetics and scholarship more acutely -- though that doesn't stop them from trying to evade it.  One of the first commenters on Clark's post wrote sarcastically:
Gosh, if only there were an all good, all powerful being who loved us deeply that could manifest itself and bring clarity to these sorts of issues. That would certainly help end a lot of arguments.
To which another commenter replied, apparently in all seriousness:
If only he had. But, he didn't clarify. He, in fact, made the law into a square circle that institutionized racism, sexism, and slavery and also commanded love and the golden rule. At no point does the bible even theoretically acknowledge a conflict. So, for biblical literalists, or at least those who believe God made the old law based on perfect morality, you're stuck trying to square that circle of being both loving and oppressive.
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If Jesus existed, was God made manifest, and was morally perfect, and wanted this clear, he had ample opportunity to clarify the evils of slavery, of making women into a second class of person, etc. At ,east according to the bible, he did not make use of that opportunity.
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So, yeah, it would have been nice, for Christianity, had Jesus clarified the matters.
From there the discussion turned largely into a debate about the historical reliability of the gospels, but that's not really important here.  I'm more interested in the fact that these people clearly want to see Jesus and the Bible as authoritative guides to morality, and they expect God's morality to agree with theirs, but it doesn't seem to occur to the second commenter that Jesus might not have bothered to "clarify" matters like slavery, not only because he agreed with the status quo of his time and place, but because he didn't see these issues as important matters of biblical truth.  And if you're a Christian, Jesus' opinion presumably counts for more than yours.

According to the gospels, Jesus believed that the Kingdom of God was "at hand," that is, it was going to be established on earth ("as it is in heaven") within the lifetimes of most of his followers.  (The rest of the New Testament is built on this assumption.  I'm not as informed on the "gnostic" scriptures as I am on the canonical ones, but they don't seem any more concerned with social justice, as opposed to individual spiritual purity, than the New Testament is.)  What mattered was not working for social justice but making oneself ready for the coming judgment, which would not be based on whether one owned slaves or allowed women to preach, but on other criteria that aren't spelled out coherently in the New Testament.  This doctrine is summed up in a well-known problem passage, "The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me" (Mark 14:7 and parallels).

These issues can't be resolved for modern Christians by biblical interpretation.  The Bible (leaving aside the absurdity of referring to the Bible as it were a person with a single point of view, but that's the convention) has no objection to slavery, the subjugation of women, the devaluation of homosexuality, and so on.  That doesn't mean modern Christians must agree with all of the Bible; no Christians ever have.  The problem, once again, is not "literalism" but inerrancy.  Liberal, even radical Christians still can't seem to shake the assumption that the Bible, properly understood, has all the answers.  This leaves them closer in principle to fundamentalists than either faction wants to think.  Some Christian thinkers, like Nineham, James Barr and others, tried to move away from inerrancy, but most Christians continue to try to fine-tune it.