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What Would People Think?

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Getting Theological Instead of Grammatical

[I should SO be doing journal work right now. Instead of correcting some professor's grammar and citations, I will now engage in political-philosophical-theological argument.]

Improv comedy maestro and all-around cool guy Zhubin Parang weighs in on issues of scriptural interpretation and religious dialogue in the political sphere. I tried to respond in a comment on his blog, but I had too much I want to say. So here goes.

Zhubin's an atheist and understandably skeptical of religious argument. Folks like Pat Robertson and James Dobson give him ample reason to distrust those who use Christianity for their political arguments and as a basis of their political ideology. Folks like Jim Wallis, Christians who probably support most of the political goals that Zhubin supports, make him nervous because their religious language seems to exclude non-believers.

I, on the other hand, have become more and more confident that Christians like myself should use their faith to form their political ideology and - at times - in their political dialogue. That's one reason I'm wearing my "Proud Member of the Religious Left" shirt today. It's not the same as using God in a trump card for every political argument. I'll get back to that point. (If I don't remind me in a comment and I'll update. I should be doing a staff edit right now.)

I've been taking a seminar this year on Christian perspectives on legal thought. I've been impressed with the depth, richness, and variety of Christian thought on government that has come down through the ages. (How sad that Christianity in politics - like everything else in politics - has been reduced to shallow, simple talking points.) There's St. Augustine's vision of the government as a way for Christians to love their neighbors by working to ensure some measure of peace in a violent, depraved world. There's Martin Luther's (frankly disturbing) deference to government. There's 20th-century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr's explication of love and justice...and how humble recognition of our fallen, self-interested nature should lead Christians to support the welfare state. There's Dietrich Bonhoeffer's thorough, detailed theological analysis of what the idea of "Christian freedom" means for politics...an analysis that eventually lead him to attempt to assassinate Hitler. There's Stanley Hauerwas, who feels that Christians in government are so intent on "fixing" things that they have lost track of what makes them uniquely Christian. (Among the things that Hauerwas believes Christians should support but have lost sight of: pacifism.)

I certainly don't claim to have it all worked out, but I feel I have a whole new set of intellectual tools to work with.

Let me respond to one of Zhubin's points. In the context of discussing how Islamic feminists are re-interpreting of the Quran, he says:

Now, I fully support such re-interpretations, but only partly because it justifies feminist Islamic principles. More importantly, re-interpretations tend to dull the meaning of a text. The Bible has had the benefit of 1) undergoing an almost infinite amount of re-interpretations since its existence, and 2) the proliferation of Christian denominations that demand everyone "personally" interpret it. As a result, the Bible can be used to justify practically anything, from anti-homosexuality to socialism to feminism to fascism to whatever. With the multitude of valid interpretations, any individual one loses authority, and thus coercive power. I think this is a contributing factor to the separation of church and state in the West: there's no coherent doctrine that can be extracted from Christianity, so what can Christians rally around? You might as well make laws based on public policy reasons.

Interpretation is neither intellectually dishonest, nor does it "dull the meaning of the text." The Constitution has been interpreted and re-interpreted by the ever-disputatious and fertile minds of judges and lawyers. Is the Constitution, as a result, meaningless? A Strict Constructionist (who, by the way, I do believe are intellectually dishonest) might argue so, but I disagree. Its meaning is understood in the different light of modern society, but it still creates and enforces certain fundamental principles of governance. It still shapes who we are as Americans. It has NOT been transformed into a tabula rasa upon which anything can be written. Its meaning is shifting but bounded, and it still has an independent effect on our legal and political thought today.

So with the Bible. Yes, it has been invoked on seemingly every side of every issue in Western history. But...well, I have two related responses. First, I must agree with Matt Novak in Zhubin's comment section that it has been haphazardly and wrongly invoked in many instances. It's far too easy to take a single verse of scripture, ignore the rest, and create what I believe is an un-Christian political philosophy. (Not that I am saying there is only one Christian political philosophy out there.) This leads into my second point - although there are many legitimate interpretations of the Bible, its meaning is still bounded. There is no way one can interpret "love your neighbor" or even "kill the Caananites" (a part of scripture that DEFINITELY must be understood in context) to mean "torture children for fun." I would argue it can't mean "torture prisoners at Abu Ghraib" either.

More to the point, Christianity and the Bible have a meaning and basis independent of modern American society. (For this idea I owe a massive debt to H. Jefferson Powell, who is heading up the seminar of which I speak. On an unrelated note, I like the guy because he's a Free Speech absolutist.) It's very difficult to honestly critique a society from within it system of values and meaning. Cicero strongly criticized the decline of the Roman Republic and bemoaned its loss of nobility. What he missed is that the golden age to which he nostalgically hearkened was itself full of cruelty and violence. Since that time, many seemingly crusading social critics have appeared myopic to future readers. (i.e. How could so many anti-slavery activists - not to mention Abraham Lincoln - simultaneously oppose slavery on the grounds that Black people are human beings with individual dignity......and supported racism and segregation?) Part of the problem was that each of these people, however intelligent and independent, were inescapably a product of the system they critiqued. Try as they might, they couldn't really see with different lenses than those of their society. They had no place to stand outside the system to get a good view of it.

What the Bible and Christianity offer (at least to me) is a place to stand outside of American society in order to critique it....to see its good and bad parts in a different light. (Christianity also offers me the very meaning of my life, but that's outside the scope of this post.) Now I'm still a product of late 20th- and early 21st-century America, but Christianity offers me at least a partial way out.

Let me give you an example (again, entirely cribbed from Powell). I have become ambivalent about the fundamental American value of individual rights, or at least how it's used these days. (And with that, I sacrifice any chance of a political career.) Not that I oppose rights, but my support is more qualified. Jesus commands that I love my neighbor and gives the example of the Good Samaritan - who gave of his own time and money to help a man in need without a thought to how it might affect him or his safety. To a Christian, such selflessness is the standard toward which we must strive. At times, "individual rights" can point the other way. Its emphasis is inherently on "that's mine and you can't take it." It can encourage a self-centered view of the world that focuses on "my rights." Thus we have Supreme Court rulings that regulations intended to protect the environment are a violation of somebody's property rights. No room for looking at the greater good or the long-term in that vision. No sense of community or self-sacrifice.

I still support individual rights - but not for their own sake. Just as Augustine supports government because "loving one's neighbor" includes ensuring that there are police to protect her from getting mugged, I believe "loving my neighbors" includes protecting them from government oppression and violence. The American emphasis on individual rights does much to impose procedural and substantive restrictions on government violence (like the death penalty). It does much to ensure equal treatment of people that affirms their equal human dignity - which Christians should support because we all reflect the image of God. Historically, individual rights have often - though not always - worked to achieve social justice and social peace.

Ok, so that's one example.

[I just spent an hour and a half writing this horrendously long post, and I still haven't reached the topic of religious dialogue in the political sphere. That will have to wait for another time. I hope y'all take time to comment and respond to this. When you do so, feel free to remind me to get around to writing about that topic.]


  • Haven't read it yet... expect another comment after I do. Just wanted to let you know that this isn't on your main page yet for some reason. I had to get here from Zhubin's blog

    By Blogger Jeff, at 11/17/2005 1:22 PM  

  • I like. In fact, I really liked where you went on the individual rights vs. obligation to our fellow humans idea. It's something I've actually been bouncing around a lot in a healthcare context (i.e. does everyone have a right to healthcare? No. But I still think we should have universal healthcare because we should help take care of people regardless if they have a right to it or not).

    Anyways, I liked it a lot. I also think the "many legitimate, but still bounded" is a great way of thinking about it, especially as a response to Zhubin.

    And finally, being a Born Again Christian at Duke, is there any chance you know Jim and Krista Gates? It's a big school, I know, but I thought there might be a chance...

    By Blogger Matthew B. Novak, at 11/17/2005 2:02 PM  

  • ok, it's up now

    By Blogger Jeff, at 11/17/2005 2:10 PM  

  • I think it was MLK who talked about religion being the "conscience of the state." One of the beauties of the separation of church and state is that religion can be allowed to have the independent perspective of which you speak. Indeed, serving as such an "outside conscience" seems to be a purpose suited to Christianity (isn't that what Jesus was trying to do in the first place?).

    In America, the difficulty arises in the fact that Christianity constitutes such an overwhelming majority. It's tough to be an outsider when you're 80% of the population. A Jew in America can view society from the outside while remaining within their religious mainstream. But since established Christianity is such a major contributor to American culture, a Christian social conscience must separate themself from both society and mainstream American Christianity. Thus the disparity between the Dobsons and the Wallises - both seek to separate their views from "mainstream Christianity," and both find completely different ways of going about it.

    And here's where you point on the limits of re-interpretation comes in. In their zeal to pounce on things that mainstream Christianity has ignored/missed, the Dobsons of the world seem too apt to focus - heh - on a single verse. So I applaud Wallis and co. for setting themselves apart religiously and politically and still keeping the "big picture" in mind.

    I wait impatiently for your views on religious dialogue in the political sphere...

    By Blogger Jeff, at 11/17/2005 2:10 PM  

  • Without having met him, I already like this Powell guy for his "free speech absolutist" label. ("Oh yeah?" Mike said. "Well he's not as absolutist as I am!")

    I don't think your analysis of individual rights destroys your chances of a political career. Those chances disappeared long ago, probably when you started associating with a group of crazies known as The Slant.

    I join Jeff in my impatience. But then, I've been impatiently waiting for the abortion magnum opus for how long now? I'm kicking around writing my own just to force you to respond :-P

    By Blogger Mike, at 11/17/2005 3:56 PM  

  • All I'm saying about a political career is this: Imagine I'm in a campaign and my opponent flashes an ad quoting me as saying "I have become ambivalent about the fundamental American value of individual rights."

    BAM! There goes my career. It would be the only campaign in history where the Republican managed to outflank the Democrat on individual rights.

    (To all you amateur historians, ok so maybe it's not the ONLY campaign in history where that has happened. You may be able to point out a campaign where that happened. I don't care. Get back to the main point of this post.)

    By Blogger Ben, at 11/17/2005 4:27 PM  

  • Well, I'll only address the first part of your post, since with the paragraph that starts "more to the point" you veer off into a different discussion than the one I started.

    Let me start out by saying I'm not really atheist. But I'm not religious, either, so it doesn't make a difference here.

    Anyway, I certainly don't mean to imply that people who re-interpret texts are intellectually dishonest. I have no doubt that the vast majority of people who refashion religious texts do so with utmost sincerity. Nonetheless, frequent reinterpretation and revision of any text will lessen the text's authoritative strength, at least in societal terms. I don't mean, for example, that the Bible means anything less to Person X just because Person Y interprets it differently. I mean that society as a whole no longer has a unified, clear, doctrinal view of the Bible anymore, and as such the Bible, in the eyes of most people, becomes more of an abstract text intended for personal fulfillment.

    I agree that there are "boundaries" to Biblical interpretation, but sometimes I doubt even that. I have read compelling interpretations that deny Christ's literal resurrection, describing it instead as a metaphorical allegory. If that can be interpreted differently, who's to say you can't make a somewhat plausible argument for torturing children? God killed children by bear attacks back in OT land.

    But that's not the point. My point is that when texts are re-interpreted, they go from black and white to shades of gray, and each individual meaning is "dulled."

    I think your analogy to the Constitution has a fatal distinguishing feature, which is that the Constitution ultimately has only one interpretation, and that is the Supreme Court's interpretation, which is supported by the police power of the state. This is actually closer to Islamic legal systems in the Arab world, where a certain school, for example the Hanafi school, is the authoritative interpretation of Islamic law, backed up by the army. Certainly within the Hanafi school, just as within the Supreme Court, there is room for change and a flexibility of interpretation, but it is this final authority that differentiates it from the secular West.

    My hope is that the Quran undergoes the same process of re-interpretation, which will hopefully reduce the authoritative strength of any one.

    By Blogger Zhubin, at 11/18/2005 2:03 AM  

  • But Zhubin, doesn't the constant re-interpretation of the Constitution still dillute it's authoritative nature? I mean, sure, at any one time there is only one interpretation. But there are certainly different legitimate interpretations which 1.Have been recognized and enforeced, and 2.Which hold societal influence, whether or not backed by the police power of the State.

    Moreover, individuals may each have their own interpretation, but the idea of a Church is analogous to your idea of the police power enforcement mechanism. A Church is a body of believers who rally around an interpretation and worship in community. Anyone who shuns their interpretation can be shut out of the community, thus an effective enforcement mechanism.

    Ultimately I think you're right, that the societal utility/efficacy of a text is dilluted by constant re-interpretation, and that if there are many interps at any one time that may have an even more significant effect. But I think the reason efficacy is lost isn't because there have been many interpretations but rather because their is a fragmented following. It isn't the text which has become dilluted, it is the followers. And I think that's a huge, and important, distinction

    By Blogger Matthew B. Novak, at 11/18/2005 3:18 AM  

  • As far as the literal resurrection of Christ is concerned, I remember reading a statistic once that 87% of Christians believe in the resurrection. To this day, I remain unsure of what the other 13% believe in (the resurrection being a somewhat fundamental point). But then again, 84% of statistics are made up on the spot.

    Frankly, though, I generally prefer shades of gray to black and white, as rarely is anything that cut and dry. At the same time, Zhubin, I can see your point about dulling the meaning in the sense of losing clear distinctions between right and wrong. Whether that is for the better or worse is up to interpretation.

    By Blogger Mike, at 11/18/2005 12:37 PM  

  • Matt, that's a fair distinction, although it's inapplicable in the social context I'm talking about.

    (Also, your distinction would assume that the text has some sort of inherent truth or meaning to it, beyond what people think it means, and obviously I don't accept that.)

    Mike, I think it's for the better, since the less sure we are about the meaning of religious texts, the less likely we are to enshrine them into law. Again, this is all from a sociological perspective.

    By Blogger Zhubin, at 11/18/2005 1:57 PM  

  • I would disagree, and not only because the Bible has tremendous, life-defining meaning to me.

    There is value in the text of the Bible having meaning. (And I believe it does have meaning. I believe that constant reinterpretation hasn't destroyed that meaning.) That value is what the latter part of my post - which Zhubin chose not to address - is all about. (Note, I don't mean that as a dig against Zhubin's argument. I'm only mentioning that to steer y'all to which section of the ridiculously lengthy post I'm talking about.)

    The value comes from the independant perspective scripture provides. The Bible at least partially allows me to stand outside American society and critique it with a different set of values. To try, as best I can (which isn't too good), to see through the lens of absolute love and see where the best and worst parts of America fall short.

    It's important that somebody in the debate have that perspective. Really, it's important that everybody to have some sort of outside perspective.

    By Blogger Ben, at 11/18/2005 5:27 PM  

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