Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Biblical Literalism, Take Two

Although I promised to address the issue of biblical literalism and its ramifications for children, women, homosexuality, and slavery, I think it's important to mention one other element about Christianity and the Bible. That element is that questions about how the Bible was assembled, whether its seemingly varying and out of time contentions about mankind and society are reasonable, and whether its tales of miracles really happened are not part of the process in the church community. For "people of faith", it is assumed that Biblical events, conversations, teachings and examples occured exactly as written about in the scriptures and no one questions that. That the God of this Bible is "just" is also unquestioned, at least publically. That these extremely vital issues are presumed to be beyond the realm of discussion and debate makes for a relatively united, if unfortunately susceptible audience, and carries with it certain implications for the investigation of Truth. I wrote about the most extreme form of this unquestioning an unsearching for truth in a previous post about Bob Jones University.

And I think it's fair to say that there is little difference between most Protestant churches and the Roman Catholic church hierarchy on this point. Evangelical Protestants reject the authority of the Pope, but not church authority in general. Of course, if one is unhappy with the Biblical interpretations and pronouncements of a particular church or denomination, than one is free to leave I suppose. But there is little space for debate, which may be part of the explanation for the multitude of denominations. And furthermore, one's salvation is supposed to be at stake.

Now, in my previous post I suggested that while the scientific arguments against Biblical literalism were interesting but not necessarily persuasive, I do think Biblical literalism has faired less well in terms of perhaps the most important area of life, and that is its moral pronouncements and its social prohibitions.

Some of these problem areas are familiar to non-Christians, even if most churches tend to dismiss or excuse them.

Let's consider the role of women. A supreme court ruling in the late 1800's judged against a woman's demand for the right to practice law. This court's ruling, included in Spong's Sins, includes the majority decision that the woman did not have the right to practice law (although educated for it) because of Biblical admonitions about the role of women in public life. And there is no doubt that at least some portions of scripture call for female submission to the male, in the home, the church, and presumably, in the community. On this issue, the secular world eventually turned against the church and acted to provide greater rights and opportunities for women. Spong contends that the church also opposed the right to vote for women (finally extended via Constitutional Amendment in 1920). Undoubtedly this is true for at least some church leaders and denominations. A more empirical study would be interesting. But in any event, the overwhelming evidence is that the church, and political leaders who justified their conclusions on the Bible, have been behind the rest of society when it came to improving the lives and rights of women.

The same could be said for slavery. While support for the institution of slavery was no doubt based more on economic necessity than on Biblical standing, a large portion of the Bible believing community supported slavery, while many more secular groups and leaders in society opposed it. The debate and conflict over segregation a century later similarly pitted mostly secular leaders and students against an entrenched and privileged religious superstructure, and at least for many whites in the south, the struggle to maintain power through segregation was framed in religious terms and relied on the Bible for spotty, if not authoritative support. So again, the political and social beliefs of the church, and political leaders using the Bible for authority, have been found wanting in the passage of time, as their ideas and claims came to be seen as illogical and inhumane.

Which brings us to sex, and homosexuality in particular. The church that calls for opposition to homosexuality and gay persons, does so on the basis of Biblical passages. The same Church and the same Bible that was once used to justify repression of women, and to support the institution of slavery, is now being used as a means for repressing gay people. Based on its past, the church and the Bible it uses for support, doesn't have the most credible of track records.

At this point it is worth noting that two of the main verses used by religious fundamentalists come from the book of Leviticus, which also includes a number of stringent requirements and punishments related to such requirements, for a variety of other conditions and behaviors, including what can and can't be eaten. Naturally, those who use this book to oppose homosexuality are probably unaware of what is in the rest of the book, and even less interested in following it should they be pointed out.

Other sexual matters include the practice of circumcision. Spong suggests that the practice of circumcision may have its roots (no pun intended) in the fact that women bled during menstruation and men wanted to replicate this condition they saw in women. Because blood was very important in those days (and in ours) there was a great deal of mystery around the fact that while women bled from the genitals they did not die. Spong argues that because men feared women, or at least this aspect of womanhood, they feared that in bleeding but not dying, women possessed a power not available to them. To compensate, men established the ritual of circumcision. This allowed them the opportunity to bleed from the genitals and not die (remember, circumcision was originally practiced on adolescent males, not newborns, as is the practice now). While this may be conjecture, it says something about the fact that the necessity for circumcision, at least in the Old Testament, goes relatively unchallenged by most Bible believers. Because the Bible suggests the act was given by God as a means to separate His people, most Bible believers take it at that. Although the apostolic church later rescinded this requirement for new gentile converts, the role of circumcision in the religious community has declined in importance. But its origins are left largely uninvestigated. And Biblical literalists should remember that the issue of circumcision was determined by God to be of such importance, that the Bible says that God set out to kill Moses when Moses was on his way to Egypt to deliver Israel from slavery, because Moses had not conducted this ritual on his sons. (this after God had given Moses the command and the promise of His protection to go to Egypt to begin with).

On matters of sex, gender roles, and slavery, the statements of the Bible have not been shining examples of enlightenment and have not faired well over time.

So then, how do we address this matter of Biblical literalism and inerrancy? That will be the subject for future posts.

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