Friday, November 18, 2005

Why You Need Both a Map and the "Antenna"

In a comment on yesterday's post, a regular reader warned against relying on your own intuition or conscience when it comes to moral matters. Criticizing the practice as "moral relativism," he advised sticking to Biblical absolutes.

It is true that the Bible teaches in Proverbs, "Lean not unto thine own understanding." (See this earlier post for my take on this verse.) There is great wisdom -- indeed, ultimate Truth -- contained in the Bible, and familiarity with Scripture is essential for being able to tell the difference between the two competing signals in our mind, as evil frequently succeeds by disguising itself as good. (This is how prejudice works; people justify their hatred, which is evil, by somehow coming to the conclusion that this is what God wants.)

But the Bible's explicit texts cannot be our only resource. For one thing, you can almost always find at least one verse to contradict another, depending on how you interpret them. Which, of course, leads to another problem: a lot of people argue that the Bible says what it says, end of discussion, but the reality is that different people can look at the same verse and see different meanings. And that is not to say that one is wrong, but rather to suggest that ultimate Truth is more complex than some of us would like to believe.

One must also consider the source; in the fourth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, Satan himself quotes Scripture to tempt Jesus. Scripture, taken out of context and wongly interpreted, can be dangerous and antithetical to God's will.

We must accept, as the noted atheist-gone-theologian C.S. Lewis wrote, that the Bible is not God. This is a shocking statement for many people to read.

I was reminded of this analogy this morning while I was reading an outstanding contribution to the New York Times Op-Ed page about the relationship between science and faith, and how natural disasters tend to bring out the religious crazies. It describes "the specific brand of faith that devalues reason and confers the mantle of infallible, absolute authority upon a leader or a book."

Lewis compared the Bible to a map of the Atlantic Ocean. The map is not the ocean, but it tells us a lot about the ocean, and it was put together by people who had extensive knowledge of the subject. Also, I might add that, as scientific advances are made, the map gets more accurate.

Jesus himself suggested that there are times when it's okay to let your own judgment override the Bible's instructions. According to the Gospel of Luke, the "lawyers and Pharisees" were outraged that Jesus healed a sick man on the Sabbath, since that seemed to constitute "work" and would therefore violate the commandment to "remember the Sabbath, and to keep it holy." Jesus replied, "Which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well, will not immediately pull him out on a sabbath day?"

They could not answer.

We need the map to help us figure out how to get where we're going, but God gave us a conscience and the ability to think for a reason.


Jean F. said...

I just wanted to let you know I finally created a blog for myself and issued myself a name... Formerly known as "JF" I shall now be "Jean F." and my blog is called "My Favorite 4-Letter Word Is Sale." Your friends can laugh it up now...

little-cicero said...

Good post, but very much wrong in my opinion. It is true that we can look outside the Bible for some matters, but those matters, such as that you cited Jesus's healing on the Sabbath, are not moral but ethical. You compare the Bible to a map, written by cartographers, not by the maker of the ocean, but God wrote the Bible himself through the prophets and through Jesus Christ, so this comparison does not hold water. The point is, if God created one moral code by which we must live, and God also wrote the Bible (indirectly of course!) then we must infer that the only way to find that one objective moral code, the only one by which we may live to reach moral perfection, we must look to scripture and only to scripture. The Bible is a love note, but also an instruction manual! -lc

Andy said...

LC, you might want to take a refresher course on church history. There was no such thing as "The Bible" until the 4th century A.D. at the Nicene conference under Emperor Constantine. There were many, many sacred texts floating around the world at that time, including several Gospels aside from MML&J, the interpretations of which were causing rifts in the early church. A group of bishops got together and selected which sacred texts from both the ancient Judaean tradition and the new Christian movement would be deemed "authentic" and they determined their order, etc.

Of course they were guided by God, but in order to follow His lead, they needed to use their conscience and intuition to determine which texts to include. This is how God communicates with us.

The Bible is God's word, but it's not really Christian doctrine that God "wrote" the Bible; of course He provided the inspiration and I don't believe there's anything there He didn't want, but the Psalms, the Song of Solomon and the history books don't really make textual sense as coming "from" God. They are man's experience of God. I think that applies to the rest of the texts as well, but those are the obvious ones.

And again I think you're misusing "objective" in relation to reading the Bible. I assume you're not fluent in ancient Greek or the ancient Judaean languages, so most likely you're reading in translation. All translations are subjective. Even so, there never has been and never will be unanimity on the meaning of many passages of Scripture; this has as much to do with the vagueness of some of what is written as well as cultural contexts. Meanings of words change over time. For example, if someone 3,000 years from now picked up a dictionary published in 2005, the first definition given of "gay" is "Of, relating to, or having a sexual orientation to persons of the same sex." Then let's say he picked up a novel written just about 100 years earlier in Victorian England which described a character as "a very gay fellow." The researcher would be wrong to automatically conclude that the author meant the man was "extremely homosexual."

No, the only way to read the Bible "objectively" is to research and try to read the writings in their original historical and cultural contexts.

matt said...

i'm adding this to the list of my favorite posts of yours. that said, though, i have a few questions.

first, when you say "also, i might add that, as scientific advances are made, the map gets more accurate," a parallel is drawn in my mind to a belief that science validates and confirms a better understanding of the bible. were you intentionally drawing that parallel? if you were, it seems to be a rather risky position, in that even facts are open to interpretation, based on how they are spun; note how adept politicians are at using numbers. i'm curious as to what you think.

second, a question for little-cicero. you say "it is true that we can look outside the bible for some matters, but those matters, such as that you cited jesus's healing on the sabbath, are not moral but ethical." it seems to mean that morals and ethics are very much tied together, regardless of how you define them. (for arguments sake, i'll say moral is "conforming to standard or right behavior," leaving the standard and right undefined, and ethical is "honorable, as defined by study of good, evil, and moral duty.") that said, how do you define the separation, how do you determine which issues are, as you say, "not moral but ethical" -- in short, which issues are questionable and which are not?

little-cicero said...

Moral is not about conforming, it is about being right and wrong in a concrete fashion. There are no shades of gray in judging right from wrong. Ethics are right and wrong as decided by one's conscience-they cannot be concretely stated in doctrine because there is no concrete ethical-vs-unethical.

Andy, you are saying that we can never really find moral truth because we can never truly know all of God's Will...We are in complete agreement on this. What I am saying is that a moral truth exists though we will never find it in its entirety. We should make it our mission, however, to find as much of it as possible! When I said "God wrote the Bible himself through the prophets and through Jesus Christ" I was reffering exclusively to the prophetical works and the Gospels. I should have been more clear, but the point is, the only path to truth is through these works which came from God. When God speaks to a prophet, he is not inspiring the prophet. If you were writing a book, and you had a typist typing what you tell him, would you consider yourself as "inspiring" the typist, the typist being the author? That's what prophets are, they are typists of God's Word!

Andy said...

Matt, thanks so much for the compliments!

Actually, when I was talking about science, I meant that studying things like evolution brings us closer to God. There is no harm in objectively researching the planet's origin, and the fact that it contradicts Scripture is irrelevant, because Scripture is not there to explain science, it's there to tell us who God is and how to behave toward one another. The culture that wrote Genesis could not possibly have comprehended what it takes to understand evolution, any more than they could have flown to the moon or sent each other emails.

Andy said...

If God wrote the Gospels, why do they contradict each other significantly about the timeline of Jesus' life? They are irreconcilable.

As a Catholic, you should not be talking about morals as black and white; that is not Catholicism's position. In fact, that was the mentality of a sect called the Manichaeans that was condemned as heretical by the Roman church.

little-cicero said...

First of all, the Gospels were written indirectly by God via the Words of Jesus Christ, who played in that respect the role of a prophet, but much more considerably so. If Jesus says "Love thy neighbor" that is God's intention.

I'm intrigued, how would you derive the idea that the Catholic Church does not believe in the existance of moral absolutes. Was it Cardinal Ratzingers sermon titled "The Dictatorship of Relativism" That sermon is where I derive most of my opinions on the matter of objective moral values.

On your first point, please give me an example and I will reconcile accordingly. I happened to read "The Case for Christ" which gave me some insight into the inquiries about which you speak.