Sunday, March 12, 2006

Examining the Text: An Interlude

OK, Scott and Connor say that no one is going to argue with the previous post, so I'm going to chalk that one up as a perfect interpretation of Genesis 19. Let's say it together one more time,

"The Sodom and Gomorrah story has NOTHING to say about the morality of consensual homosexual sex."

From here, I had intended to proceed to the vice lists or Leviticus, but before I do that I first need to answer a nagging question. Because I think we can arrive at similar answers regarding what the text has to say about homosexuality, but only if we can agree on what we expect the text to say in general.

So my question is, how do we expect the Bible to inform our ethics?

This isn't a rhetorical question; I want to know what you all think. I'll go first and suggest some possibilities.

First, we could expect the Bible to act as a God-given rulebook, the perfect source of negative ethical guidance, telling us every single thing we should not do -- explicitly or by inference -- and possibly, but not necessarily, providing some helpful guidance on what we should do.

Second, we could expect the Bible to function the other way, as a God-given playbook, the perfect source of positive ethical guidance, telling us all the good things we should do, and possibly indicating a few things that we should not do.

Third, we could expect the Bible to be a storybook, containing tales that don't carry any normative moral weight, but may be helpful in honing our moral reasoning so that we can more accurately tell for ourselves what's right and wrong.

Or it could be none of those. Or it could be all of those, in bits. Personally, I'm not satisfied with any of those three approaches, and I'm hoping you'll give me something better.

(Also, Mike Cope posted another few bits on the B-I-B-L-E. They kind of tie in, I guess.)


scott said...

OK, here's my suggestion for getting at how we understand the Bible as informing our ethics. My question is, What does obedience mean for a mature Christian?

One way to put it is, at the end of the day we may decide that we are not bound to the Bible's comments concerning gay sex. But first we need to establish whether on not we really care what the Bible's prespective on the topic is.

In short (to focus Matt's question in a particular way), before we look at particular texts, we need to answer up front: Could there be some way God could have said (in Scripture) that the simple act of gay sex is simply wrong, which we would take as being binding on Christians today?

If we answer 'no' to this question, then we may still reach an appropriate theologic conclusion (i.e., if God wants us to learn from Scripture that he seeks human flourishing but doesn't care so much about particular commands), but I think we would be disingenuous to then go on and try to convince people that the various scriptures don't apply in a modern context. To try to convince other adults of something in terms that you yourself find irrelevant is, in my opinion, intellectually dishonest (although, come to think of it, I think I do it sometimes).

OK, Quick illustration which I've heard from Randy Harris (in relation to forgiving enemies, not homosexuality, by the way):

A father in the 1800's sends his sons out West with instructions for the homestead they're settling: where to build the house, the barn and the well. The sons find the place where their father said to build the house and it's perfect, so they comply with his instructions. The barn, too, is in the ideal spot on the father's map, so they build it there. But the place the father has picked for the well is a lousy location, very inconvenient and not, in their opinion, the right place. They find a better spot and dig the well there.

The punch-line: in how many of the three instances (house, barn, well) did the sons obey their father? The "sucker" answer is two (the house and the barn), but the "correct" answer is zero. In all three cases they did what they saw fit; their father just happened to agree with them in two of the three. So obedience can only be demonstrated precisely in those situations where we disagree with what we're told to do. (Perhaps this illustration is overly simplistic, sets up a false dilemma, etc.; personally, I find it compelling.)

OK, my questions (I'm hoping Socrates would be proud):

1. Obviously obedience doesn't refer to doing things we simply want to do. So, can obedience refer only to doing something we don't want to do although we agree it's right, or does it also require (at times) doing things we neither want to do nor agree with?

Quick Reflection: In the case of parenting young children, obedience means doing what the parent says "because I said so." In parenting teenagers, on the other hand, a good parent will often help the teen understand why they must behave in a certain way, rather than just expecting blind obedience.

If we take this to our relationship with God, are we the child (weak and foolish, needing to take God's word for it) or the teenager (in the process of developing the kind of maturity by which we can make these decisions for ourselves)? Before anyone too glibly answers "teenagers," let us all take a moment to remember some of the horrendous actions perpetrated over the centuries by presumably well-meaning Christian adults (perhaps including ourselves) trying to exercise their best collective judgment. Why do we think we're necessarily right?

1a. If we say obedience is limited to doing only the things we agree with but don't want to do, then we may have solved our problem: obedience to God is compatible with disregarding the passages of Scripture which we don't, after careful study and observation and prayer in community, agree with.

1b. On the other hand, if we hold that obedience has to mean that at least sometimes we do things which we neither want to do nor agree with, that raises the next question:

2. Do we aways obey? Presumably not (see 2a below), so how do we decide when to obey?

2a. Well, first we need to ask what the commands are in scripture that we don't obey because we simply disagree with them. Most of us can answer this one easily enough by quoting something about head coverings, or perhaps about leaving the camp for seven days after menstruation or an emission.

2b. The second half of the question is a little tougher: What are the commands in scripture that we would genuinely disagree with but obey anyway?

3. A negative answer to 2b leads basically to the question I asked at first: If there aren't any particular commands that we disagree with but obey anyway, then could there be a command in scripture that we would disagree with but obey anyway?

4. If not, then in what sense do we consider ourselves obedient? Does obedience perhaps refer simply to us being persuaded by the Gospel to live our lives in certain ways pleasing to God (such that we can disagree with teachings we're not persuaded are grounded in the Gospel)?

That leaves us to ask ourselves whether this view removes too much of the content from the idea of obedience.

I guess I'm persuaded by the homestead story.

Brother Carl said...

In response to Scott,

I find that I am actually not persuaded by the "homestead story" that you describe. At least I disagree with the correct answer. I find that one could quite just as easily contend that "three" is the correct answer. And I think your point #4 has something to do with it.

I can tell you from real-world situations that sometimes the obedience asked for expects rational reasoning on the part of the sons. What did the father want? He wants a good home for his family. And that is what he is expecting to find when he arrives. He is not setting out a "test of obedience" for his sons. If they had followed it to the letter and the father comes out to find that perhaps because of (a) conditions had changed since he had surveyed the land, or (b) he had not actually seen the land but was drawing his plans up based on some general description, that he in fact realizes too late that it was a horrible place for a well and challenges his sons as to why they followed his instructions so blindly as to build in such a lousy location instead of finding a better one. I'm not saying this alternate viewpoint applies to all situations, but I can tell you I have lived this one out before.

I am firmly convinced that God doesn't expects blind, automaton obedience. If he did then why give free will? Or consider a story that Jesus is recorded to have said -- The one of the "talents" (Matt. 25:14-30). The man who does nothing with his talent is rebuked for not using his brain to think about why he was given the talent and what might it be useful for. Instead he did exactly, and only, what he was told and kept the talent. The other two men are praised for searching for a deeper reason that they were given their talents. For seeking to know "why" and acting accordingly.

So in reply to the original posting's question, I offer the following. The Bible says God is love. And I look to the Bible to inform my ethics by giving guidance on how to love. Guidance through Jesus' teachings and guidance through examples of peoples' situations. One passage I do take to interpret quite literally is the one where Jesus is asked what is the greatest command. He answers to love God with all your heart, soul etc., and love your neighbor as yourself. That all the law is summed up in these statements. And I believe that every "rule" that needs to be followed can be very rationally traced back to this summation.

If we are not expected to understand the "whys", then I wonder how Scott explains his paragraph "2a". That is to say, if the correct answer to the homestead question is "zero", then why aren't women wondering off for seven days?

scott said...

brother carl, i think you post is very well put and to the point. If I may press, though, could you (or anyone else) suggest an answer to my question 3: could there be a command in scripture that we would disagree with but obey anyway?

Matthew said...

If I may press, though, could you (or anyone else) suggest an answer to my question 3: could there be a command in scripture that we would disagree with but obey anyway?

Oh, me! How about this one, from James 5:

Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. ... the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.

Personally, I can't see the point in intercessory prayer. It just seems dumb. If God knows our hearts and desires, why voice prayers? And why pray that a person be healed? I'm pretty sure that if we set up some well-controlled experiments, we'd find that other people's intercessory prayer makes no statistical difference in whether a person is healed from a disease.

But throughout the Bible, we see people engaged in both intercessory and supplicatory prayer. Jesus did it often. The church has always done it. My experience has been that while prayer may not "work", it doesn't hurt anyone. So to use Scott's word, even though I don't "agree" with prayer, I should pray because God tells me to.

Brother Carl said...

If I may press, though, could you (or anyone else) suggest an answer to my question 3: could there be a command in scripture that we would disagree with but obey anyway?

That's an interesting question. And I've been mulling it over for awhile. I have a tendency to give short and long answers to questions like this. I think I disagree a bit with Matt.

Short answer:
No, there could not.

Long answer:
Now to explain my conclusion I am going to present a few disjoint things that all hand-in-hand point to my answer. They do not sequentially lead one to the next nor do they necessarily each individually lead to any conclusion. Hopefully I can express myself well enough that you understand my viewpoint.

The book of James has a well known passage that (I assume) kicked off a centuries long debate among churches on the topic of faith vs. deeds. It's been my experience that the CofC (which I grew up in) "officially" leans on the "faith" side of the argument. That is faith gets you into heaven, not doing good things. In a sense, I agree with that.

Is Christianity a set of rules? Did Jesus really come down to write a revised Torah to act as a civil government system? Were all the "do this" and "don't do that" statements Jesus made meant to be legislation? When the rich man asked Jesus about what he should do and Jesus concluded with "sell all your posessions..." was that a command? Or perhaps was Jesus giving a lot (a lot) of examples of the types of things you would do with your life if you loved others as he did. As God loves his creation. The things that are expressions of the mindset and attitude that pleases God enough for him to want you to join him for all eternity. As you may have guessed, I lean toward the latter statements here.

I do not think of my beliefs or my faith as a religion in the institutional sense of the word. As such I do not see it as a government with a set of rules that I have no choice but to follow. Compare this with our federal government which has plenty of commands that I must obey that I don't agree with (if you really need examples you can ask). And by "must" I mean must or else punishment ensues.

Rather, joining a religion is to accept a set of beliefs. I don't call myself a Christian because I am a card carrying member of XYZ church, but rather because my set of beliefs is a subset of a collection of beliefs that modern society associates with Christianity. If I am accepting these beliefs then it means I believe in them. And if I believe in them I agree with them. If the beliefs then dictate a thing I should or shouldn't do with my life then I follow that "command" because I agree with it. If I disagree with a command then it is not a part of my beliefs. Thus If it's not a part of my beliefs, then it is not that I disagree with a particular command, it is that I disagree that it is even a command in the first place. (this is perhaps the extended short answer)

Going back to your points 2a and 2b. I infer from your statements you believe that it is possible for a person to accept that something is a command but does not have to be obeyed. But if it does not have to be obeyed, then you are already declaring it is not a command. This is the difference between saying "well, I know there should be head coverings, but I don't want to wear one" vs. saying "head coverings were a time-localized, cultural custom that some considered inappropriate to not wear and therefore I can choose not to wear one."

As you may have gathered, I don't necessarily make the common assumptions about the definitions of scripture, command, church, heaven, hell, etc.

I determined that using my parent's belief as a springboard for my beliefs wasn't really good enough. I needed to step outside of the norms of what the CofC taught me and look back in.

Now to come back to Matt's answer. In light of all that blathering I just did I pose the following (mostly rhetorical) questions. Are you (Matt) saying that you don't agree with prayer? Or that you don't agree with intercessory prayer? Do you consider that passage in James to be a command (in the sense of the word as it relates to this discussion)? Do you pray but not make intercessory prayers? If you do make intercessory prayers are you really obeying them if you don't believe them to be intercessory?

And in closing, this is a question I've never been asked before. My answer is based on less than a couple days worth of pondering. As such I would be blindly stubborn to say my reasoning is fool-proof science and that it's not all subject to change.

Matthew said...

Are you (Matt) saying that you don't agree with prayer? Or that you don't agree with intercessory prayer?

Yes, and yes. I just don't see the point. (And I don't like the word "agree", but I can't think of a better one.)

Do you consider that passage in James to be a command (in the sense of the word as it relates to this discussion)?

I consider the passage in James to be a command of James for his audience, but in itself I don't consider it to be a command of God. As a rule, I don't consider singe passages normative. However, I chose the James passage as an example of the theme of prayer throughout scripture, which I believe does constitute a command. (It would be interesting to hear what people think characterizes a command as opposed to a request or a suggestion.)

Do you pray but not make intercessory prayers?

I try to do both.

If you do make intercessory prayers are you really obeying them if you don't believe them to be intercessory?

I think intercessory prayers are intercessory simply because I ask for something for someone. My ethical obligation is to do something, not to believe something. In fact, I would go so far as to say that all ethical obligations are about action or inaction, and that it's nonsensical to say that someone is obligated to believe this or that.