In my last blog, I talked about the idea of “soft” scripture. That is a scripture that we hold very tightly to our hearts, but which has enough bend and softness so we would not use our beliefs to harm others directly or indirectly. Martin Luther described scripture to be like the cradle of Christ. It is a soft bed that holds us together softly with Christ, and with room for all. This should not be confused with any sort of relativism. My point is that our doubts serve to make us treat each other with more grace, and thereby in a more Christ-like manner. They give us room to deeply listen to others, to honestly roll their beliefs around in our heart and be open to the moving of the spirit.
Be very wary of anyone trying to sell you an absolute truth. If there is such a thing, there is no evidence that we have a means to access it.[i] If you believe the contrary, simply look back at the history of Christian peoples and at all the horrible things they did while believing it was absolutely right to do so. Are we doing the same thing now? Would we be able to see it if we did?
The problem of fundamentalist interpretations of Biblical morality lies in the fact that what is “good” for people and actually makes them happy is an empirical question. The intratextual nature of fundamentalist interpretation obscures this fact from many of its followers in ways that we understand sociologically and physiologically, but it does not change the actual empirical facts. It is simply used to justify the denial of psychological, biological, medical and sociological fact in closed religious systems.[ii] We can through these means actually see what creates good physical and mental health, and happy people and communities. It is often these empirical studies and discoveries that have caused us to reinterpret scripture and make changes in our moral structure. Discovering how society passes cultural technologies, that race is not a “natural divide,” that women are as capable intellectually as men, that hard physical punishment is not good for children, that homosexual behavior exists in all mammalian species, that the Earth rotates around the sun – and so many other discoveries – have caused Christian peoples to adapt their morality and theology to a world that looks very different than we once thought.
Again, this is not necessarily about the truth of scripture, but about how historically consistent we have been in our misunderstanding of scripture and the moral lessons we derived from it. We have demonstrated in our religious, moral understanding in the past that we are very capable of doing horrific acts, completely convinced that they are in fact “good” for society and the very people who are being harmed.
These presentations of absolute truth, or understanding of the absolute truth of a fragment of scripture, is most often a way to sneak through the door an understanding of people and the world that has become incompatible with our knowledge of reality.
There are, however, ideas deeply rooted in scripture that we hold dearly – that God loves and values us, that Jesus was God’s son, that the Spirit of love is with us, and that God’s grace is available to all. We must see God’s working in the world through these sacred and foundational beliefs. When these values and our understanding of the world cause a contradiction with what we have understood as a moral truth in the past, we must begin to question whether what we are really doing is abandoning our most sacred of beliefs, casting off the God of love for a flawed human tradition. For Methodists, we use the tool on the quadrilateral to accomplish some of this work of better illuminating scripture and Jesus in our hearts. We use tradition, rationality and the experience of the spirit in the world to help us better find Christ in our foundation of scripture.
I find the idea that someone can be loving while at the same time brutally condemning another for something they cannot control, denying the happiness or the blessing and experience of partnership – and casting them out from our community – repugnant. How do we know that this is so? We know because we can empirically see with a high degree of certainty that this actually harms our gay, lesbian, intersexed, and transgender neighbors. [III] [iv] There is no reputable disagreement about this. Again, if someone tells you there is significant empirical disagreement in medical, psychological or sociological professions, they are lying to you. There is not. We know that the encouragement of negative religious coping and condemnation impacts physical health and mental health outcomes.[v] If we believe that love, creating joy and wholeness, is a foundational part of our faith, then we must accept that holding some of our traditional views of gay and lesbians has itself been a violation of the scriptural teachings of Jesus. Empirical data created doubts in our historical understandings of scripture that have allowed us to better understand and live our scripture. Such was the understanding underlying the ELCA’s decision to end its exclusion of gay and lesbians from full participation in the church, through its blessings and offices.
To continue our historical behavior toward gay and lesbians is to understand that we are actually hurting them. You can claim that is loving, but it is not. It would be equivalent to an abusive parent hitting his child because he actually believes that it will toughen the child and in the end be better for him. We medically and psychologically (empirically) know that it is not “good” for children. As a society we have come to accept that being a loving parent is incompatible with severe physical punishment. Interestingly, extreme physical punishment was used in many Christian orphanages as it was once seen as a morally necessary part of raising children.
This does not mean that we abandon or weaken scripture. I believe very much the opposite as we come to better understand our world, each other and how we can better live God’s call to bring love, joy and the wholeness of Christ into this world. Discoveries cause us to see more clearly the teaching of Christ and understand how our actions do or do not reflect the love that Jesus calls us to bring into our families and communities.
There are some beliefs about the world that are beyond compatibility with Christianity. The irony is that the best examples of these incompatible beliefs, just as in Jesus’ time, are often found in fundamentalist Christians who believe that theirs in the only way of holiness. That rigid faith that causes the death and brutalization of so many in the name of God is still very alive in our Christian and Islamic traditions, causing the same evil in this world that it has for millennia.
And, as we in the UMC turn our eyes toward the upcoming General Conference, where we will take up the issues of human sexuality, we need to confront how our actions and inactions have caused and continue to cause harm to so many of God’s children. We need to ask ourselves how our better understanding of teen suicide, rates of depression, damage to families, and negative medical, sociological and psychological effects can be reconciled with our belief that Jesus calls us to be people who do not harm others, especially the most vulnerable. Is our understanding of the reality we live in illuminating our long misunderstanding of scripture and God’s world?
Peace and blessings to you all.
[i] Absolute truth is probably an imaginary entity, impossible to define coherently. It seems that most commonly the existence of absolute truth is argued in one of two ways:
- A combination of self-contradiction and a negation: This has commonly become referred to in fundamentalist Christian pseudo-philosophy as the “Roadrunner tactic.” There are several problems with this approach. The argument begins with a negation, “There is no absolute truth.” The second step is to point out that this then would have be an absolute truth, since “it would need to be absolutely true that there are not absolute truths.” The final and perhaps most problematic and intellectually dishonest step is to then claim that there must then be absolute truth. The logical failing lies in the fact that a self-contradictory argument can only tell you that the argument is poorly formed. It cannot tell you anything about what is actually true – only that your current formulation of the argument is logically inconsistent. It also does not tell you if absolute truth is in any way a real entity or an imaginary concept such as unicorns. It may be like saying, “No unicorns have horns.” Defining a concept does not make the idea or entity it describes real. This pseudo-philosophical sleight of hand is covered, by beginning with the negation. It functionally has an unstated premise, namely that absolute truths are real. You can’t just declare the negation an absolute truth anymore than you can declare it a unicorn. Otherwise the argument is circular and meaningless other that telling you that if things like absolute truths exist, things like absolute truths exist.
- An appeal to mathematical truth: Mathematical truths exist only in a closed definitional system. They are useful representations (which can be imperfect in very interesting ways) of real or imaginary entities. For instance, 2+2=4 is true in base ten, but not in some other base systems. 2+2=4 is an objective truth inside its own system, not an absolute truth. It is not an absolute truth as it is not true in some other base systems.
Further, as a concept, absolute truth would require us to find something that exists that is not dependent on any other thing that exists. In other words, it can be in no way relational or dependent on any other thing. We would have to find something unchanging and timeless with no dependence on the observer, no cause, no special relevance, no conceptual dependence, and be unchangingly determined. By definition, it is impossible that something could exist in reality, thereby relative to its existence, and also be absolute.
[ii] Hood, Ralph W., Peter C. Hill, and W. Paul Williamson. The Psychology of Religious Fundamentalism. New York: Guilford Press, 2005.
[iii] Friedman, Michael. “The Psychological Impact of LGBT Discrimination.” Psychology Today. Accessed August 24, 2015.
[iv] There is a repulsive trend to say that Christians are the ones who are truly suffering when they are called intolerant for their beliefs. I will remind you that this is a claim that can be empirically shown to be a false comparison. There is no existing study that shows harm actually being done to Christians either because of their views about gender or sexuality. It would be similar to someone saying that white supremacist churches were really the victims during desegregation. I do not pretend that changing such a deeply held belief is easy, but it is not as hard as being the minority on the receiving end of dehumanizing prejudice.
[v] Koenig, Harold G., Michael E. McCullough, and David B. Larson. 2001. Handbook of religion and health. Oxford: Oxford University Press.