February 20, 2005

Ethics, Prejudice, and Theology

from - smijer

Carnival of the Godless

Armies of Bible scholars and theologians have for centuries found respected employment devising artful explanations of the Bible often not really meaning what it says. - J.S. Bullion, Jr., courtesy of Pharyngula

If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, which will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and [that], when they have chastened him, will not hearken unto them: Then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out unto the elders of his city, and unto the gate of his place; And they shall say unto the elders of his city, This our son [is] stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; [he is] a glutton, and a drunkard. And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die: so shalt thou put evil away from among you; and all Israel shall hear, and fear. - Deuteronomy 21:18-21

To the godless, one thing is quite clear about "fundamentalist" Christians. It's clear to nearly everyone about liberal Christians. That thing is that they do not really base their practices and beliefs on the Bible. Other religious groups who ostensibly take their doctrine from "received" scripture similarly put other influences ahead of scripture in determining doctrine.

If you ask a conservative Christian why they do not follow the Biblical edicts declaring murder to be required form of punishment for everyone from unruly children to "witches" to adulterers, they will likely give you a theological smokescreen worthy of a National Guard tear gas brigade... Inevitably its status as part of the "Old Testament" will be included in their reasoning for rejection of murder as discipline, and kosher on the dinner plate. But, they will continue to wag their fingers about those who violate the Ten Commandments or who ask to have them removed from a court house. Their preachers will still make the weekly fund-raising pitch out of Old Testament scripture, and to most of them, the Old Testament creation story is still to be taken quite literally. No such smokescreens are raised about the features of the Old Testament that they like.

I don't say this by way of criticism. In fact, I think its great when the thing that comes ahead of scripture is conscience, and I really don't mind if parishoners choose to put convenience ahead of scripture... though I hope that they will have conscience enough to put convenience ahead of scripture more on things like what's for dinner, and less on things about feeding my sheep. Furthermore, I think its wonderful that the more liberal congregations are conscious of the fact that they are putting other considerations ahead of scriptural dictates. They may justify this to themselves by suggesting that God is the force behind conscience, and that it is therefore proper to put that particular consideration first, but however they justify it, the fact remains that they are not allowing themselves to become morally corrupt on account of Iron Age ethics.

What is a problem is the conservative smokescreen. The reason is this: the conservative preachers, commentators and theologians argue that it is improper to put anything ahead of scripture. They take their own smokescreens about the old testament "dietary" or "customary" laws seriously, and continue to insist that conscience, when it conflicts with "scripture", is in error. At the same time, even they refuse to prescribe capital punishment for unruly children. The result is that they not only put conscience (in a few cases) ahead of scripture, but they also put prejudice there, and sometimes even more so. It is one thing to consciously pick and choose the scripture that you feel will help you make the most of life. It is quite another to pick and choose scripture without admitting that this is what you are doing, and to use your chosen scriptures to bolster your personal prejudices and to preach to your congegation that these scriptures that suit your prejudice are absolute and must be believed and followed, while quietly ignoring "feed my sheep". Personal prejudice is often nothing more than bigotry against a minority, or disdain of people whose station in life challenges you in some way.

This has been a mini-critique of conservative Christianity. I mean it not so much to tell anyone something they didn't already know about the fundies, but to lay a cornerstone for an eventual argument that the ethical godless should find reason to show solidarity with liberal Christians (and the liberal manifestations of other religions). I also mean it as an answer to the conservatives who would use such solidarity as a club with which to beat down the liberals in their religion. I grew up a member of a conservative religious family, and I distinctly remember the denunciations from the pulpit of "liberal" Christians as being in league with the evil "secular humanists". I didn't understand it then, but I think I do now. And I hope that we can help educate conservative laity about the phoniness and worthlessness of such attacks, and therefore help them resist the efforts their preachers make to convince them that their Bible should come before their conscience.


Posted by smijer at February 20, 2005 10:45 AM
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