Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Bible and Weasel Words

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve had several occasions to encounter religious arguments that have utilized what I call weasel words.  The Wikipedia entry for this term notes that weasel words refer to “anonymous authority” and are “aimed at creating an impression that a specific or meaningful statement has been made, when instead only a vague or ambiguous claim has actually been communicated.”

The entry goes on to say that “Weasel words can be used in advertising and in political statements, where it can be advantageous to cause the audience to develop a misleading impression.” My observation is that they are often used in discussions of Christian thought, a practice that I admit to finding maddening.

It’s Biblical…

The weasel word I encountered this past week was the term “biblical.” In an online discussion site, one of the discussants argued that all Christians must be subject to a “biblical perspective” without any further clarification. Meaning what? In a Facebook posting, a poster made reference to “biblical” understandings being beyond question, again with no further clarification. Meaning? And in yet another instance, the bishop of the diocese where I currently reside sent to the vestry of my parish a chapter from a book in which its author argued that homosexual acts were sinful, this being offered from a “biblical perspective,” as if this were the beginning and ending of the discussion.

Clearly this is a common pattern of argument among religious conservatives. It finds its roots in the premise of sola scriptura of Luther and his descendants in the Protestant Reformation, a premise that sadly devolved fairly quickly into a rather uncritical fundamentalism by the end of the 19th CE.

Asserting that any given idea must be seen from “a biblical perspective” begins with this presumption that the Christian faith is somehow defined by the contents of its sacred scriptures. That’s a Protestant presumption which served an agenda to distinguish a mythical “early church,” where everyone held the same opinions and loved one another without exception, from a later Roman Catholic Church whose self-serving teachings corrupted the faith. The Reformers believed they had a self-appointed mission to scrape away those later encrustations and return to a pristine primordial Christianity which, not surprisingly, was identical to the understandings they held.

Of course, there is little to support this version of the golden age myth pattern in which a once perfect world devolves into the chaotic reality currently experienced. Even a casual read of Paul’s epistles and those written by later authors and attributed to him reveals that the early Jesus movement was marked more by conflict than harmony. St. Paul spends an awful lot of his time in those epistles telling his co-religionists to stop fighting and at least act like they like one another.

Indeed, in reading the Epistles one could well imagine that the players and actions described could be an account of modern day culture wars. The warriors in these struggles often bear little more in common than the name of the broad stream of tradition of which their tribe is but one of many possibilities but presumes the right to speak normatively for all of them.

The presumption that true Christian attitudes, statements and actions – indeed, true Christianity itself -   are somehow determined with reference to the Bible is problematic on a good day. At the very best it is ahistorical.

A Cast of Thousands

It is important to remember here that the church is not the Bible’s institution, the Bible is the institution’s book. Without a church to decide what was included in - and to determine the many writings which were eventually excluded from - its contents, there would be no Bible. And while the ongoing theological interpretations of that Bible would eventually come to form the basis of doctrine and dogma which would shape the church thereafter, for the first four to five centuries, there simply is no “Bible” as we know it to defer to, much less to tell us what we must believe.

It’s also important to remember that the canonization process is a milepost occurring near the mid-point of the life history of the Bible. Prior to that point, starting with the eye witnesses to the events described, there were countless transmitters of oral traditions. There were transcribers reducing the oral traditions to writing and copiers who produced the raw material with which the canonization process – itself several centuries in length – wrestled. By the 5th CE, when a consensus of church authorities had been reached about the writings that most versions of the Bible today contain, the next step was the suppression of all the unsuccessful contenders, many of them bearing the title Gospel.

After the canonization process, a whole host of new transmitters come into the picture -  copiers and editors of scripture in manuscript forms. It is not until the first printing press, a device already in use for many centuries in China by the time it was devised by Gutenberg in Europe in the 15th CE, that a single version of the scriptures began to be read by large numbers of people. Prior to that, the few who could read had only manuscripts carefully copied by monks for centuries to read, none of them identical to the next.

King James and the translation team for the Authorized Version

With the widespread dissemination of scriptures post-Gutenberg, a whole new set of players came into the picture. Round after round of interpretive efforts would produce hundreds of versions of the Bible, each with their own angle and their own advocates for their version being the correct version. Even with the hundreds of versions already in existence, that interpretive process continues today.

What is critical at this juncture is to step back and consider all the human agents who have been involved in this process: eyewitnesses to the events reported, transmitters of what was essentially hearsay about those events by those who preserved the oral tradition, transcribers of oral tradition into written form, editors and copiers, publishers and interpreters.

There is a virtual cast of thousands involved in the process of producing any given version of scripture one might hold in their hands today. For those of us who value the scriptures their efforts produced, we are in their debt.

But this is precisely the point that the problem of asserting a “biblical perspective” reveals itself.  And there are several problems with such assertions.

The first is that it serves to anthropomorphize the Bible. Bibles don’t speak. Bibles don’t teach. Bibles don’t permit or prohibit given behaviors. Bibles don’t believe. Those are all human activities. 

The Bible is not a human being, it is a human artifact, i.e., anything that is made by human creativity and labor. As such, the Bible, like all human artifacts, reflects the understandings of the human beings and the cultures out of which they arose.

And herein rises the second concern. The anthropomorphizing of the Bible so as to provide it a “perspective” essentially erases the perspectives of all the human agents who actually played indispensable roles in its production and preservation. The notion that this cast of thousands had no impact on the contents of scripture that were preserved for posterity is little more than magical thinking.

Divine Inspiration, not Dictation

Of course, for people of faith, the scriptures are not merely human artifacts. They are not mere writings among millions of other written texts. Christians see their scriptures as indispensable in informing their beliefs and their lives. What makes the scriptures different, they say, is their divine inspiration.

Here, then, is a major point of contention. What does it mean for scripture to be divinely inspired?

For conservatives, it has meant varying degrees of divine dictation. Fundamentalists have argued that every syllable of scripture is dictated by G-d and often cite a verse from that dictation in support of their position: “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” 2 Timothy 3:16.

Of course, the problem with such “proof” is that it cites the very source it claims to be divinely dictated to prove that source is divinely dictated. That’s a circular argument on a good day. One can see the problem instantly when applied to any other text: “The Wizard of Oz is a historical account because on page 89 it says that all the words in this book are historically true.”

Assertion of a “biblical perspective” requires ignoring all the agents of production of scripture from the ancient sources to the modern-day interpreters. It requires ignoring the context of those agents, the cultural understandings which informed their worldviews, as well as the subtext of their endeavors. That the scriptures reflect the agendas of those who produced them is not a question. The only question is whether we are able and willing to see them.

Some are fairly transparent. The Gospel of Luke begins with a preface which reveals the agenda of the Lukan endeavor:

Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.

In other words, the Greek speaking G-d lover (Theo-philus) is being provided what the author(s) argue to be the best account of several possibilities. The clear goal of the gospel writer(s) here is that the reader ultimately comes to share their perspectives. 

Some are less transparent but equally powerful. Franciscan scholar Richard Rohr has long argued that Jesus himself was a critically selective appropriator of the Hebrew Scripture available to him. Undoubtedly much of that was only available as oral tradition in a pre-literate society. Even so, the hermeneutic of Jesus, as Rohr calls it, is discernable:

Jesus did teach us in practice how to use the word of God, what to emphasize and what not to emphasize. It is rather clear in Jesus’ usage that not all scriptures are created equal. He consistently ignored or even denied exclusionary, punitive, and triumphalist texts in his own Jewish scriptures in favor of passages that emphasized inclusion, mercy, and honesty. Check it out for yourself. He knew what passages were creating a highway for God and which passages were merely cultural, self-serving, paranoid, tribal, and legalistic additions. Jesus read his own inspired scriptures in a spiritual and highly selective way, which is why he was accused of “teaching with authority and not like our scribes” (Matthew 7:29). He even told the fervent and pious “teachers of the law” that they had entirely missed the point: “You understand neither the scriptures nor the power of God” (Mark 12:24).

Jesus recognized that within the scriptures of his time there were elements of thinking that transcend ordinary human understandings. This transcendent voice of G_d is discernable among the many other voices which crowd these writings. But it requires a critical mind, a broad vision and a compassionate heart to recognize them and a willingness to endure the pressures from conventional authority to selectively ignore the rest.

Intellectual Laziness, Honesty, Courage 

It is at this point that the real problems with references to “the biblical perspective” arise. To recognize and honor the many perspectives of the agents who brought us the scriptures and to hear the divine inspiration in their midst requires the willingness to engage scripture with a critical mind, broad vision and compassionate heart as Jesus did.

At their most fundamental levels, references to “the biblical perspective” reflects an intellectual laziness in refusing to engage the scripture on its own terms. It’s a lot easier to simply project our own understandings onto scripture and “discover” what we brought to the process of reading it than to expend the time, energy and devotion to discern the divine amidst all the other voices.

The logical extension of such intellectual laziness is the anthropomorphizing of scripture that somehow comes to have a perspective of its own. In the process, “the word of God” comes to be contained in the scripture quite literally and the G-d whose words appear there becomes confined to a box of our own making.

As writer Annie Lamott so poignantly puts it, “You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out he hates all the same people you do.”

At a very basic level, making an argument under the proviso that it somehow reflects “the biblical perspective” is an attempt to avoid responsibility for the content of one’s argument. To the degree that the maker of such arguments is aware of this, it is fair to note that they are engaging in intellectual dishonesty.

So, how to avoid that? Speaking for one’s own understanding is always the most intellectually honest practice assuming one actually believes what they say. Whether that view is seen as persuasive turns on whether it can be successfully defended with reasoned arguments. Repeating an understanding articulated by a council or a theologian can also be intellectually honest when sources are cited. Whether those views are seen as persuasive turns on the quality of the arguments they have made. Councils and theologians can be wrong.

But simply declaring one’s view “the biblical perspective” seeks to engage in an end run around the burden of persuasion that the maker of any theological argument must carry. As Wikipedia notes, this use of weasel words is “aimed at creating an impression that a specific or meaningful statement has been made, when instead only a vague or ambiguous claim has actually been communicated.”

There is nothing intellectually honest about such practices. And when such arguments are made as an attempt to reassure oneself and others that one holds the theological views demanded by one’s coreligionists, such affirmation seeking amounts to little more than intellectual cowardice.

Over the centuries, many people have sought to speak for the Christian tradition if not for G-d Himself (sic). There is no small amount of hubris in such an undertaking. There has never been a single normative understanding of this stream of tradition from its beginnings and the estimated 43,000 denominations worldwide today reveals that its original diversity of understandings has only increased over time. Presuming to speak normatively for such a diverse stream of tradition is problematic on a good day.

Hermeneutics of Generosity and Suspicion

So how do we talk about the Bible, then? 

On the one hand, the hermeneutic of generosity suggests that those of us who are the inheritors of the tradition from 2000 years of progenitors should consider that tradition with open minds and gratitude for their hard work. We owe an awful lot to unsung -  indeed, mostly unknown -  heroes and heroines whose hard work and diligence ensured that the scriptures we cherish made their way to our hands. 

On the other hand, the notion that any given understanding of a spiritual reality that eludes definition on a good day must be seen as normative for everyone - and accepted without question as “received tradition” - must be viewed through the hermeneutic of suspicion by anyone with a critical mind, a broad vision and a compassionate heart.

In other words, people who would actually seek to follow Jesus.  

References to “the biblical perspective” may play well within the tribe whose own perspectives ultimately define that “biblical perspective.” No doubt such tribe-speak will be seen there as self-evident and obvious, no explanation needed. But outside the circled wagons of the true believers, such assertions are hardly obvious and they readily appear to outsiders as self-serving, sectarian and far too often, smug.

As the Jesus who drew into question the “biblical perspectives” of his own day would often say, “Let those with ears hear.

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d?
 (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)

© Harry Coverston 2017