Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Mote and the Beam

There's a post (via) at the "progressive Christian" blog slactivist which deals with an interesting religious-freedom case that came before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.  The plaintiff was an evangelical Christian who refused to submit to "biometric hand scanning for time and attendance taking" at his job with a coal and energy company, because he saw the scan as a fulfillment of Revelation 13:16-17:
16 And he causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads:
17 And that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name.
The complainant's employer refused to make a reasonable accommodation with his religious belief, and the EEOC ruled in his favor.  As the blogger points out, this resolution has the effect of disproving, to some extent, the complainant's belief that those who refuse to wear the mark of the Beast will be persecuted.

Fine with me.  What I want to address, however, are the following remarks by the blogger.
Religious liberty, if it is ever to mean anything at all, must include the freedom to be wrong. It cannot matter, legally, whether or not a religious belief is orthodox, or coherent, or part of a longstanding established tradition. Protecting religious liberty means protecting the right to believe in the implausible, the idiosyncratic, the offensive, the stupid, the factually insupportable, the demonstrably false. Otherwise we’d wind up putting the state in the position of adjudicating between legitimate and illegitimate religious beliefs.

And that, we should have learned by now, never ends well. That’s a recipe for inquisitions and for sectarian violence. That reduces religious liberty from an inviolable human right to a privilege contingent on the religious perspective of the current regime.
Again, fine with me.  This is the basic rationale for freedom of religion as it's conceived in the US.  But I was struck by the irony of a Christian writer mocking another Christian's beliefs as implausible, idiosyncratic, offensive, stupid, factually insupportable, and so on.  It's possible that that string of adjectives is merely rhetorical, and that the writer doesn't necessarily mean them to refer to the EEOC plaintiff's beliefs.  However, elsewhere in the piece Clark calls the man's beliefs "ludicrous," "absurd," "weird, Barnum-esque folklore," and refers to him as "a devotee of the pseudo-Christian folklore promoted by the likes of Tim LaHaye, Hal Lindsey, and Jack Impe."  

Leave aside the fact that most New Testament scholars today would agree that Jesus himself taught precisely such weird, Barnum-esque folklore, and that it permeates most of the New Testament.  (Ironically, it is fundamentalist scholars who try the hardest to argue that Jesus didn't mean that the End was near, or that he would return on clouds of glory before the generation of his first followers passed away.)  There's a great deal of resistance to admitting this, and has been ever since Albert Schweitzer made the classic case for Jesus as an end-times preacher more than a century ago.  Laymen of all stripes try to evade it, first through ignorance of the scholarship, and second by displacing the embarrassing doctrine onto the book of Revelation alone.  They also try to forget that Jesus, far from being a cool, hip Enlightenment philosopher, is depicted in the gospels as a wandering faith healer, exorcist, and hellfire preacher, quite apart from his end-times teaching.

But as I say, leave that aside.  I don't know the details of this blogger's Christian beliefs, but since he is a Christian it is reasonably certain that he holds some absurd, factually insupportable, idiosyncratic, etc. beliefs himself, either in terms of what he believes about Jesus or how he evades the problematic parts of Jesus' teachings.  But he feels free to jeer at the beliefs of other Christians with different absurd beliefs.  Whatever else can be said about this, it flouts one of the few teachings of Jesus that I respect -- the one about attending to the log in your own eye before you complain about the speck in your brother's.

A few years ago a Christian minister named Barbara R. Rossing published a book called The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation (Westview Press, 2004).  With considerable Christian love she attacked evangelicals who believed in the Rapture.  It got a fair amount of attention and praise from people, Christian and otherwise, who didn't know much about the New Testament or Christian history, but knew what they liked.  I read it a decade ago and found Rossing's scholarship wanting, to put it politely.  That matters because Rossing is not merely a minister but professor of New Testament at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago.  Ever since then I've been meaning to reread her book and take more notes than I did the first time; maybe I'll finally get around to that this year.  But two things still stand out in memory for me.  One is Rossing's mean-spiritedness as she pointed out the speck in her brothers' and sisters' eyes.  Soon after reading The Rapture Exposed, I read a couple of other books that Rossing had cited, though she was unenthusiastic about them because their authors, though critical of their subjects, were less sure than she that Rapture-believing Christians were not really Christians: Heather Hendershot's Shaking the World for Jesus: Media and Conservative Evangelical Culture (Chicago, 2004) and Amy Johnson Frykholm's Rapture Culture: Left Behind in Evangelical America (Oxford, 2004).  The other thing I remember is that Rossing herself declared explicitly that she believes that Christ will return, just as he promised to do in the gospels and in the book of Revelation.  Since Jesus promised to return within a generation, that belief falls under the absurd, factually insupportable, stupid, and demonstrably false headings -- but it didn't seem to bother the people who trumpeted Rossing's book, like this writer whose post appeared at the same site, Patheos, as slacktivist.  And why should it?  Many of them probably had not actually read the book, just heard that Rossing put the bad fundamentalists in their place.

Do I include myself in these strictures?  Of course I do.  As an atheist and a homosexual of my generation, I know how important the principle of freedom of belief and expression is.  The gay movement relied on it for a long time.  There was a time, not really so long ago, when the idea that homosexuality was not a criminal aberration but a valid variation of human sexual expression, was counted absurd, factually insupportable, offensive, demonstrably false.  In this sense I'm a liberal, as Paul Feyerabend described the type:
A liberal is not a mealymouthed wishy-washy nobody who understands nothing and forgives everything, he is a man or a woman with occasionally quite strong and dogmatic beliefs among them the belief that ideas must not be removed by institutional means. Thus, being a liberal, I do not have to admit that Puritans have a chance of finding truth. All I am required to do is to let them have their say and not to stop them by institutional means. But of course I may write pamphlets against them and ridicule them for their strange opinions.
I'm also used to being dismissed in slactivist's terms by liberals and conservatives alike, who don't know what's wrong with my statements but are sure they're crazy.  As long as I can rebut them, without having to worry about being penalized by the state for doing so, I'm fine.  I don't need for everyone to agree with me.  So when one Christian attacks another Christian for holding absurd beliefs, what can I do but giggle and point and make rude noises?

Jesus himself didn't claim to be reasonable; he recognized that he wasn't, and blessed those who were not scandalized by him.  Paul exulted in the offensiveness of a crucified Messiah, a scandal to the Jews and folly to the Greeks.  Whatever the slactivist blogger's personal, idiosyncratic version of Christian belief, I doubt he regards Jesus or Paul as marginal figures.  Nor do I, but luckily I'm not a Christian, so I can freely regard their teachings as absurd, factually insupportable, and so on.