Wednesday, March 27, 2013

How To Read Your Bible

It happens a lot, but it happens especially at times when we're debating some serious, divisive issue - an issue about which religion has something to say. So, to take the obvious example, it happens when we're discussing Same-Sex Marriage, as we are lately, with Prop 8 and DOMA going before the Supreme Court. 

It happens, unfortunately, very often in the comments section of some website*. Someone brings up how the Bible says something, usually in opposition to some liberal standpoint. You know the kind of thing I'm talking about - I say that I support Same-Sex Marriage, and then someone points out that, in case you haven't read it, Leviticus seems to oppose my position**.

* I say "unfortunately" because, in my opinion, there are few places better than the comments section of many websites to get really frustrated, and to wonder if we're making any progress as a society, or as a species. That isn't a statement so much about the content of many of these comments, but the tone and intelligence. But, that's another rant, I guess.

** I say "seems" because, if you actually study the Hebrew, Leviticus isn't quite as unambiguously anti-gay as it seems. But, that's another rant, I guess.

Now, the back-and-forth begins. Maybe I point out other areas of the Bible which we don't all follow. Maybe I point out the human origins of the Bible. Maybe I describe some overarching principle which I use to find my way through the Bible - maybe I even quote some great figure who said that "Love Your Neighbor as yourself" is the greatest principle of all.

Then it happens. 

Someone says, "You can't pick and choose. You can't treat the Bible like a Chinese menu, picking one law from column A, and two teachings from column B. It's all God's word, and it's sinful and idolatrous to think that you can use your own judgment over God's."

From there, it gets fairly predictable. Someone will (re-)state that overarching principle, claiming that that's God's will, or some higher truth (which, religiously speaking, are the same things). Someone will (again?) point out that we all pick and choose. And, we go 'round and 'round.

But, I feel like one part of this always gets missed. For lack of a better word, the philosophy which underlies the whole liberal approach to text and religion.

You say that it's wrong, sinfully wrong, to use my own judgment to decide between what's right and wrong in the Bible.

I ask you what better idea you've got?

I don't mean to imply that I'm better than God. That my judgment is perfect. That I am the ultimate, final arbiter of all that is Right or Wrong. That I trust myself to make these judgments, and to never make a mistake.

I just mean to state that I don't know a better alternative.

The Bible is not perfect. It isn't. Some people reading this will have a different opinion about that, and we probably can't have a meaningful, productive conversation, because our starting assumptions, our paradigms of belief, if you will, are fundamentally different. If you believe that the Torah, or your scripture, comes down, perfectly, directly from God, despite all of the countervailing evidence, then you're going to believe that, and my pointing out that the Torah claims that the rabbit chews its cud* probably won't convince you. 

* it doesn't

But, if like me, you come from a tradition which accepts, and even embraces, the human origins of our most sacred texts, then you are left with a pretty clear choice. You can either pretend that the Torah, and/or the rest of the Bible, is perfect, and try your best to follow it devotedly. 

Or, you can openly admit that it's not perfect, and try to find a different way to follow it.

This different way - and there are many - is going to be flawed. It's going to be ambiguous and vague. It's often going to be inconsistent and (horror of horrors!) even hypocritical. 

But, it's going to be honest.

Pretending that the Bible is perfect - is divine - even if we know it's not? That, my friends, is idolatrous.

Admitting that the Bible is often a source of great, holy inspiration, but is often also the source of misguided, and/or outdated views? That's troubling, and confusing, and fraught. But, it's true. It's honest. Personally speaking, I am (literally) religiously devoted to choosing honest complexity over simplistic consistency. 

Of course being the arbiter of what I do and don't believe, of which parts of the Bible I do and don't follow is tricky. Of course I'm going to contradict myself - I'm going to claim to believe something which seems to, or actually does, go against something I claimed to believe yesterday. Of course I'm going to apply my principles inconsistently - how else am I going to figure out how to apply them at all? I'm learning as I go. I'm thinking, and reading, and talking, and listening. I'm making judgments, and checking them against my other judgments, and against other people's ideas, and against the reality which is being created as I watch. I'm finding my way through a complex, ambiguous, ever-changing world. It seems only logical, only honest, that my way will also be complex, ambiguous and ever-changing.

If someone tells you they have simple answers to complex questions, be very, very suspicious.

Absolute certainty may seem strong and faithful and appealing.

But, I'll take ambiguous complexity. It may not be perfect. But, it's the closest thing we've got.

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