22 June 2008

Why a "Bible" at all?

The Bad Idea Blog has an interesting article on Liberal Christianiy vs. the Bible. The author wonders why liberal Christians still use the Bible in its traditional form.

The Bible, as it is, is an artificially freeze-framed slice of spiritual speculation. Those texts are, by intrinsic implication, held as superior not only to others that the early Catholic Church rejected or never even knew of, but every single insightful thing that any Christian has thought or felt since. Heck, even the act of writing down what were likely once oral stories told and retold again with each generation is a sort of artificial freeze frame. The use of the Bible, by it’s very nature, is an act favoring routinized text over flexible oral traditions and particular selections of texts over all others. Is that bias (one that seems, in some sense, an arbitrary one amongst all forms of human understanding an expression) something you think your beliefs should support? Does the very existence of a Bible, as a religious practice, really make sense?
The Bible is limited to such a small collection of Christian thought. Why is it that Christians limit themselves to the Bible as it is now. Why not, this author wonders, amend and change the Bible to reflect modern morals?
Indeed, if the Bible is to be the ultimate text of human understanding of a living God’s will, it’s very, very odd that it should be frozen at a very arbitrary time in history, with no further chapters ever to be added, or subtracted, or retold for new generations. Has no theologian since the various missives and letters in the New Testament even had an insight into, say, the Trinity, that measures up to the previous material? I’m not a huge fan of theological work, but even I find that very hard to believe. Do the banal and absurd kvetchings found in many of the more forgettable Epistles really deserve a greater ceremonial place in the Christian corpus than the thoughts of Aquinas or Augustine? Has God really never spoken or acted since in a way that would demand inclusion?
The main issue I, and many others, have with the Bible is that it reflects the morals of a few fourth and fifth century scribes. Today's liberal Christians conveniently ignore the parts of the Bible that don't fit in with the morals of modern society.

I am genuinely interested to get some thoughts on these questions from some of my Christian readers. Not trying to play "Gotcha," or anything. Would you be open to amending the Bible to better reflect today's society? If not, why not?

7 comments:

aarondelay said...

Because reinterptation isn't something I'd like to see. To me, the Bible is the one way for me to stay true to Christianity. Let me think more on this and hit ya back tomorrow night.

Toby said...

Aaron, I look forward to your your expanded comments tomorrow.

But, what is it about the Bible in particular that you find so important to your faith? How do you choose which parts to follow (the gospels of Jesus, for instance) and which to ignore (eg, when Jesus says you should pluck out your eyes for lusting after a woman)? Would it not be appropriate to replace such outdated moral lessons with those of modern thinkers?

Scott said...

The assumption here seems to be that modern Christians ignore the like of Aquinas or Augustine, or for that matter Lewis or Packer. We don't. So long as the modern writers line up with mainstream Christianity the newer misssives get screen time. In fact a number of Christians read these sorts of theologians more than they read the Bible.

And as for the Bible itself I think the test of time has proven that the wisdom in the books still has plenty of worth to be mined. Reams and reams of paper are being turned out daily on interpretations of what the Bible has to say.

Then of course there are the various "apocrypahl" works. There isn't anything wrong with those from a Christian POV. They aren't canon but so far as I can tell that doesn't mean they're worthless. A number of Christians study these as well. So long as none of it contradicts what we believe to be God's word then it's fair game for reading.

Then of course there are mainstream Christians that believe that the gift of prophecy (that's more "truth telling" than "future predicting" btw) is still alive and well so they don't believe that it ends with the Bible. So these sorts of believers would scratch their heads at what you're saying.

As for this "The main issue I, and many others, have with the Bible is that it reflects the morals of a few fourth and fifth century scribes." I don't even know what to say other than the burden of proof for what you seem to be saying here should be on you. I am unaware of any significant textual changes that were made to the books of the Bible during that time period. That is when the canon was being "set in stone" so to speak. Is that what you mean?

"Today's liberal Christians conveniently ignore the parts of the Bible that don't fit in with the morals of modern society." You've got examples I'm guessing? I mean real ones, not softballs like the one about plucking out eyes.

"Would you be open to amending the Bible to better reflect today's society? If not, why not?"

What does "today's society" mean? Whose society? What deserves to be added? What's better than "love your neightbor as yourself"? Has "modern society" mastered this? Sorry if I'm getting a little excited here but I don't see that modern society is any better off than ancient societies save perhaps that a small percentage of modern society is cleaner.

aarondelay said...

Scott nails it. No need for me to expand. :)

Toby said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Scott.

"And as for the Bible itself I think the test of time has proven that the wisdom in the books still has plenty of worth to be mined."
That the Bible has been interpreted ad infinitum does not make it unique. Nor should it be exempt from criticism. Plato's works have been reinterpreted again and again as well, yet no one (that I know of) considers them holy or cites them as the ultimate source of morality.

What I meant by the Bible reflecting the morals of the fourth and fifth century scribes is that by deciding what books would go into the Bible, they applied their morals to it. As the author says, "... it is history that tells us just how much more there is beyond what the various 4th and 5th century scribes would allow as canon: why respect their veto and theirs alone for all time on what ancient insights are the ones deserving special place in our special compendium?"

You've got examples I'm guessing? I mean real ones, not softballs like the one about plucking out eyes.
Though I disagree with you that that example is a "softball," (the Bible contradicts human nature by saying that even by lusting after someone, you are sinning...) I take your point. The Bible endorses slavery and polygamy, then turns around and condemns both. The Bible is, at best, vague when it comes to these. I will not deny that there are valuable moral lessons in the Bible, but it should not be heralded as the ultimate moral authority in an enlightened society.

I should have been more exact than saying "today's society." I should have said "an enlightened society," which I'd like to think we live in, even if it is far from perfect. I should also point out that "love your neighbor as yourself" is hardly a Christian concept. Just about every philosophy and religion from the ancient Greeks to the Baha'i has some equivalent of the golden rule.

Scott said...

I didn't say it was unique. I said there is plenty worthy to be mined. That's true of a lot of books, sure. And it's not exempt from criticism. Criticize it all you like. I do.

You seemed to be arguing that it is outdated somehow. All I was saying is that it's not. Neither is Plato. Both are studied a great deal. My only point along those lines.

"why respect their veto and theirs alone for all time on what ancient insights are the ones deserving special place in our special compendium?""

Based on my research the books that we consider canon were already those in widest use by the early church. They didn't veto anything. I can read any works of early Christians that have survived the test of time. I don't worship the Bible, though I do find the sixty-six books in the Protestant Bible to be sufficient for my spiritual needs.

"the Bible contradicts human nature by saying that even by lusting after someone, you are sinning..."

The Bible doesn't contradict human nature it aids in defining it. We are by nature sinners. The Bible says that lust is wrong. Who are you to say that it isn't? We both agree that lusting is human nature. You just say it's not wrong. The Bible says it is. I know what moral authority the Bible claims. Where does your moral authority come from?

"The Bible endorses slavery and polygamy, then turns around and condemns both. The Bible is, at best, vague when it comes to these."

Wait, first it endorses and condemns them and then it's vague. That doesn't make much sense. The Bible does say how to treat slaves. It also says that slaves should be set free after the sixth year and all their lands returned to them. The NT admonishes a slave owner to receive his escaped slave back as a brother in Christ. So does it outright condemn slavery? No. Should it? I wish it did. Instead it tends to condemn sins that concern how we treat others and ourselves. If you mistreat people regardless of their social status that's wrong. I'd say that's pretty powerful. We should pay attention to that.

And it doesn't endorse polygamy, though it certainly exists in the OT. Of course is polygamy wrong in your eyes? You're equating it with slavery. In the NT it is discouraged, but seemingly not outlawed.

"it should not be heralded as the ultimate moral authority in an enlightened society."

What should?

Interestingly enough the religion and philosophy you cite post date the OT in the main. I'd not claim that the golden rule is solely Christian or Judaic. I'd say that it is the law of God writ on man's heart. In my study of it though I'd say that the Christian golden rule tends to be proactive (do unto others) whereas most others tend to be more restrictive (don't do unto others). Just an observation.

We are more enlightened in some ways, less so in others. On balance not much better off morally than those in the past. We don't have the same sort of slavery or exploitation of women that our ancestors did, but it's still there. I think we tend to glorify violence, greed, and lust more than other societies. Just turn on the boob tube.

Toby said...

My apologies for the delay in replying. Your arguments are coming from a decidedly Christian standpoint, which I cannot refute, as they are personal beliefs. My arguments are coming from a decidedly atheistic/humanist standpoint, which you will not be able to refute with Biblical arguments... That's not to say I'm done debating religious topics, though! But I do want to respond to a couple of your points:

"I didn't say it was unique. I said there is plenty worthy to be mined. That's true of a lot of books, sure."
But, what is fairly unique about the Bible is that it is looked upon by many Christians as the ultimate moral authority. As such an authority, it is flawed. You ostensibly agree with that analysis. I, however, find it difficult to overlook some of the less-moral passages.

"The Bible doesn't contradict human nature it aids in defining it. We are by nature sinners. The Bible says that lust is wrong. Who are you to say that it isn't? We both agree that lusting is human nature. You just say it's not wrong. The Bible says it is. I know what moral authority the Bible claims. Where does your moral authority come from?"
I think this might be an irreconcilable difference... Either God designed us flawed as sinners, or it's because of the original sin, in which I don't believe. Or, more likely, I believe is that our morals developed (and are still developing) as a result of evolution. That would explain the relative universality of human morals (Murder, for example is generally condemned at some level in most cultures, though, admittedly, not all. There are always exceptions).

"Wait, first it endorses and condemns them and then it's vague."
My apologies. Should have been more clear. What I should have said was that endorsing, then condemning them, it's message is vague.

As far as what should be considered the ultimate authority... I can't name just one source, but my answer is reason and rationality. People will never all agree on any one thing, but through reasoned discourse, a rational and ultimately, moral solution.

Defining what is moral is one of the central questions for humans to answer. And we're not even close to answering it. But bringing one book into the mix and saying that it alone is the ultimate moral authority slams the book (pun intended) on any rational debate. I am not prepared to say that Bible offers some valuable moral lessons. But the ultimate authority? Far from it.

As far as the Golden Rule being proactive vs. restrictive, these are from the examples I cited:

"What you wish your neighbors to be to you, such be also to them." -Sextus the Pythagorean

"Blessed is he who preferreth his brother before himself." -Baha'u'llah

There others on the Wikipedia entry for "Golden Rule" that are more restrictive, but they don't make my case, so I left them out. ;-)