When the truth is right before your eyes…

These are two blurbs from consecutive articles in my Google Reader program. I had to laugh.

In response to increasing worldwide criticism of the Catholic church over the pedophile scandal, the Vatican has blamed just about everyone outside the church, from the liberal media to powerful atheist cabals. But I did not realize just how far outside and just how strong these forces were. Here is just one of the many tribulations the Vatican is facing:

Noted Italian exorcist Father Gabriele Amorth, commented this week that the recent defamatory reporting on Pope Benedict XVI, especially by the New York Times, was “prompted by the devil.”

This quote brings many questions to mind, some of which are not very nice, like, “How can anyone take this seriously?” and “Why do we allow this group to lecture us in the area of morality?” (Bonus fun time activity is to read the comments that follow the article.)

But then the answer was right before me in the next Reader blurb.

Scientists have discovered the part of the brain that makes people gullible, it was claimed today.

Please note the date of the Discover Magazine article. Don’t worry, though, they will find that part of the brain someday.

Sadly, the first link is true.

They are either crazy or idiots…

There is an old joke that says that everyone who drives faster than me is crazy and everyone who drives slower is an idiot. In a previous post, I took Andrew Sullivan to task over his belief that people of “true” religion are less political and full of love. Apparently, those who are not of “true” faith are more likely either to be missing something, or to be fanatics.

How does Sullivan distinguish true from false faith?

He would say (and has said) that he has confirmed his beliefs because he directly communes with God and has felt a warm glow and wishes to reflect that glow as love to others. He would probably acknowledge that this feeling is subjective. Consequently, it is impossible to confirm that he is experiencing God and not just basking in his own beliefs and desires. What he is not doing is coming to his values purely by reading the Bible. Like most moderates, (Andrew is a gay Catholic, which pretty much forces him to be moderate) he is selective in his Biblical readings. He is moved (as am I) by the many passages in the Bible that talk about love, redemption, and forgiveness. He glosses over (although he may use different words) the parts that are not so nice. That is where the trouble starts.

Moderate religious adherents are subject to a simple criticism of the literalist. The literalist argues that the moderate has no way to know which biblical passages to reject and which to follow.  Because the moderate is simply picking and choosing, literalists argue, they impose their own subjective biases on the Bible.

Exactly. But so what? Subjectivism here does not imply arbitrariness. We are all the children of the enlightenment. Much of what passes for moderate religion is simply the result of how churches dealt with the real threat that the enlightenment posed for them coming out of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. We reject slavery, overt racism, support feminism, free speech, and the concept of human rights not because theologians discovered that God liked these values, but because these were the inevitable outcome of the enlightenment. Churches could join the march to the modern world, be dragged kicking and screaming, or get left behind. Some Churches did recognize that enlightenment values were consistent with parts of the Bible, but they also knew that they were not consistent with others. As the enlightenment values became more pervasive with the development of democracy, more and more people took them for granted and some churches followed suit. This required the development of the modern moderate church to handle the inconsistencies.

Several years ago, I read a book by a Disciple of Christ minister who argued that Paul was an early feminist and that his letters give theological cover for women who wish to serve as preachers in churches. I thought it was great. Here we were in the UMC churches and we had theological backing from the king of apostles to continue allowing women in the pulpit.

But the more I thought about it the more troubled I became. Why in the world do I need Paul (or more precisely, this modern minister’s generous interpretation of Paul’s letters) to accept women in the pulpit? Of course there should be women in the pulpit. Women should be able to do anything. Likewise, why would I need to find some liberal theologian to explain why homosexuality is sort of OK despite the few (but clear) statements condemning it in the Bible? I don’t need some theologian to tell me that homosexuality is none of anyone’s business.

I believe that moderates struggle with how to deal with fanatics because they try to walk a tightrope between what they know is right and what the words in the Bible too often say. We eliminated slavery, not with an army of Christian soldiers marching against the forces of evil. We were one army fighting a different army, both filled with men of faith, convinced that their side was right and the other evil, both ignoring parts of the Bible and focusing on others. In the end, Lincoln did not stand strong because he gleaned the secret desires of God. Lincoln was a child of the enlightenment. Because of this, he held to certain values that led him to accept the notion that slavery was wrong.(1) Lincoln did not allow the fact that many of the supporters of slavery in the South were men of genuinely deep faith to mitigate that fact.

(1) It is true that most people and nations accepted slavery for many years during the enlightenment. The enlightenment did not so much dictate specific values as it imparted a way of thinking, of reasoning, of questioning authority (including the church) which led at least some to embrace the notion that all people were fundamentally equal. It still took a war to end the question once and for all.

Conservative Bible Project

Conservapedia has launched a new project called the Conservative Bible Project (CBP). At first glance, it seems almost laughable. A group of evangelical, literalists are going to analyze the Bible, using some of the hated analysis tools used by liberal theologians, to set the Bible right. They are going to tackle major theological questions such as Socialism:

“For example, the conservative word “volunteer” is mentioned only once in the ESV, yet the socialistic word “comrade” is used three times, “laborer(s)” is used 13 times, “labored” 15 times, and “fellow” (as in “fellow worker”) is used 55 times.”

At the same time, they will look to strip popular (though apparently liberal) passages such as the famous adulteress passage in John. They are also attacking the passage in Luke where Jesus says “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

But, on closer analysis, I say, more power to them. As much as I like the passage in John concerning adultery (it has done no small thing to mitigate some historical Christian misogyny,) the conservatives are probably correct (as are many liberal theologians). The passage is a late addition to John. This is also true of the passage in Luke. It too is a late addition. The trouble is that the NT is filled with late additions. The whole of the Gospel stories, as well as the letters from Paul and others were more than likely edited many times over the first several centuries to support this or that particular theological position.

Let’s look at Luke. The CBP points out that the disputed passage in Luke does not appear in the earliest manuscripts. This is true, but I wonder which manuscripts they mean. The trouble is that there are no clear records of Luke, in it present form, existing before the last few decades of the second century. We do know that an early version of Luke, based on some of Mark and possibly an early work called the Ur Lukas, made its first appearance in the hands of an early proto-gnostic named Marcion. He was a early to mid-second century Christian Bishop and later heretic who had the support of an estimated one-third of the Christian population. He had gone to Rome with a large donation to make peace with the burgeoning, and increasingly hostile, Catholics. He also had with him the first proposed cannon. Marcion’s cannon consisted of his short version of Luke and the currently accepted letters of Paul (who was not popular at this time.) Marcion had the theory that Jesus was the Son of the true God (not Yahweh) and that the original disciples were too stupid to see this (look at how brutal Mark–the earliest gospel–is to the twelve). In Marcion’s theory, Jesus approached a new apostle, Paul, to lead the early church. The Catholic Church of the second century would not buy this at all and excommunicated Marcion. The Catholics eventually brought out a revision of Marcion’s gospel and a “history” we call the book of Acts. Luke is the modified Marcion’s cannon. The same author probably wrote Acts as a means of engulfing the huge Paulian faction in Christendom by making the heretic Paul more Peter like and Peter more Paul like. This explains the similarity of language between Luke and Acts. The Church claimed that Marcion had shortened Luke, but there is no real good evidence that Luke existed before the middle of the second century.

But I look forward to what the CBP does here. I doubt they will break away from their usual apologetics (which holds that all the gospels were written before 60AD.) But we will see.

Forgiving seven times seven

There is a well known passage in the book of Matthew where Jesus tells his followers that they are to go beyond the traditional Jewish custom of forgiving just three times and even beyond the expansion to seven times suggested by Peter. He says that they are to forgive seven times seven times. This is, of course, a metaphor. He is trying to get his followers to forgive far more than they normally would. He goes on in a parable to tell a story of a rich ruler who forgives a servant a huge debt but then bristles when that same servant, so recently forgiven, refuses in his own turn to forgive someone who owes him money. The rich ruler responds by placing his servant into jail as punishment.

The notion here is that we should forgive, just as God forgives us our “unpayable” debt. I think this is a decent enough notion and one at which we are typically not very good. But I always wonder at the radical nature of this commandment. You often hear people say, “well, I should forgive, but I really can’t forget.” We, after all, keep people in jail, which is a good example of not forgetting. We don’t put people in charge of money who have stolen before or people in charge of children who have abused before. We assume that god didn’t really mean that we were to “forget” what bad people have done. Or should we? I am not advocating handing our money or our children to people who would abuse both, but I wonder if that isn’t what Jesus did mean? What is the point of forgiving if it is only for trivial offenses? What is the point in pretending to forgive, if we have to serendipitously keep one eye on the person we forgave? How is it a real forgiveness if we still remember?

I think this is an example of a passage that we find interspersed in the NT where Jesus (or the writer speaking for him) is making a radical commandment that is impossible to follow (or one most of us would not follow completely if we could) but one that is a target for those able to make the deep commitment in a way similar to what Catholic monks do to this day.

I think the way a typical Methodist takes a passage like this (like the church I attend) is to remind ourselves that we should forgive more than we already do. But where do we draw the line? Or for that matter, how do we determine where the line is? I think we do this the same way we always have. We decide for ourselves, taking into account all we are as a person, as part of a family, community, nation and world. We look at the relevant facts and, yes, our own subjective feelings. At some point, not that long ago, Christians finally decided that slavery was wrong. Sorry to say, they did not learn that explicitly in the Bible. I can understand the point that slavery is not consistent with Jesus’ radical love. But things would have been easier if Jesus had mentioned this or if the OT did not seem to accept it readily.

But there is one other aspect that bothers me about this passage in Matthew. The parable makes one last point, which is that God will not forgive you if you fail to forgive others. This seems inconsistent, and frankly, not “good”. Do we have to be threatened with eternal damnation to coerce us to forgive more often?