Time magazine recently ran an article titled “10 Questions for Katharine Jefferts Schori“, an interview with the presiding bishop-elect of the American Episcopal Church. The article contains several questions about issues of social justice and compassion, and though I do not agree with Schori’s theology, I have no disagreement with the ethical philosophy she advocates. Some notable quotes:
What will be your focus as head of the U.S. church? Our focus needs to be on feeding people who go to bed hungry, on providing primary education to girls and boys, on healing people with AIDS, on addressing tuberculosis and malaria, on sustainable development. That ought to be the primary focus.
What is your view on intelligent design? I firmly believe that evolution ought to be taught in the schools as the best witness of what modern science has taught us. To try to read the Bible literalistically about such issues disinvites us from using the best of recent scholarship.
Is belief in Jesus the only way to get to heaven? We who practice the Christian tradition understand him as our vehicle to the divine. But for us to assume that God could not act in other ways is, I think, to put God in an awfully small box.
These are laudable sentiments, and I wish more Christians felt the same way. Christianity would be a far more positive and beneficial religion than it currently is, if that were the case, and I am glad that there are believers out there who turn their lives to positive goals and resist the hate of the religious right. However, Schori’s moral beliefs, as praiseworthy as they are, owe very little to the religious tradition of which she is a member. Her beliefs are good not because they are in accord with the Bible, but precisely because they recognize the fallibility and inferiority of the Bible, and because she has the courage to disregard scripture where it says things that conscience plainly shows to be wrong.
For example, take her belief that there may be paths to salvation other than belief in Jesus. Again, this is surely a belief praiseworthy for its compassion and tolerance; the opposite belief is an evil creed that makes one’s chance for salvation heavily dependent on the time and place of one’s birth, and that has inspired wars and inquisitions beyond counting throughout history as sects clashed over which one had the true path to God. However, this cruel exclusivism is undeniably taught by the Bible. In John 14:6, for example, Jesus states, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” Exodus 22:20 threatens death on anyone who worships any god other than Yahweh. Only by ignoring these teachings can Schori state her beliefs as she does – and she is right to ignore them, but in that case, why look to the Bible as a moral authority at all? I doubt she believes the Bible is inerrant, but in that case, what does she need the Bible for when human conscience and reason are themselves perfectly sufficient guides?
I wrote in “God Is Love” about this sort of salad bar theology, where believers pick and choose which verses from scripture they follow and ignore others. More importantly, their morality is always suffused with a generous portion of originally humanist ideas. As an educated person, Schori must be aware that the ideals of social justice she upholds hardly got their start in Christianity. In fact, most of the moral progress humanity has made came about not because of the Bible, but apart from it, and in some cases in spite of it. The idea of democracy, to name one basic example, did not in any sense come from the Bible, whose preferred model of government is monarchy and kingship. It came from the ancient Greeks, and secondarily from Enlightenment thinkers who recognized the injustice and the cruelties of divine-right rule. Democracy is surely one of humanity’s most important inventions, and yet the Bible has not a word to say about it.
The ideas of women’s rights and equality did not come from the Bible, and are in fact strongly condemned and rejected by the Bible, as well as by many famous historical Christians. The early suffragists faced vehement and bitter opposition from believers, who correctly observed that scripture indisputably speaks of women as inferior and subservient to men. (Elizabeth Cady Stanton said, “In the early days of woman-suffrage agitation, I saw that the greatest obstacle we had to overcome was the Bible. It was hurled at us on every side.”)
And then there is slavery. Although the movement to abolish slavery had many Christian participants, the Bible itself clearly approves of slavery, establishing an elaborate set of rules for the buying and selling of human beings and even how hard an owner is allowed to beat them. It contains not a word indicating that this practice was abolished or that it was ever meant to end. Similarly, the authors of the New Testament repeatedly exhort slaves to be faithful and obedient, and in one parable Jesus favorably compares God to a slaveholder who whips his slaves.
Today, we see this same pattern echoed in the struggle over gay civil rights, whose opponents point out that the Bible never speaks of homosexuals except when it is calling for them to be put to death or condemning them to eternal damnation. (It is worth noting that even within Schori’s own church, such sentiments as hers are not universal; though she appears to support the ordination of gay clergy, many other Episcopal leaders have made bigoted condemnations of homosexuality, and the dispute now threatens to tear apart the church.) As with many other civil-rights struggles in the past, the majority of people standing in the way of equality and liberty are religious conservatives whose fundamentalist beliefs cause them to view others as less than human.
Although the Bible contains many verses calling for basic kindness and charity, it is silent on, and often actively opposed to, the philosophical principles of justice and equality needed to build a truly good society and not just a society that contains a few good people. Believers who nevertheless support these principles are better than the Bible. They are more just than the Old Testament. Their morality is superior to the teachings of Jesus. They are better people than God.
Believers such as Schori might tell me that I am taking the Bible too literally; that it is not, as the fundamentalists believe it is, the unalloyed word of God, and that some of its verses are meant to be interpreted only metaphorically, or even cast aside as the product of fallible humans from a different culture and time, and that individual conscience must always play a part in determining what is right. I agree with this as far as it goes, but I would actually urge such believers to take the next logical step. Specifically, I would ask them: Why do you follow a book that you yourself acknowledge to be flawed? Why not just cast the entire Bible aside and instead draw your morality from a source you do not have to apologize for? And given your agreement that certain parts of scripture are not meant to convey literal truth but are only metaphors, why not take the next step and say that the concept of God is itself just a metaphor for how certain groups of ancient people saw the world?
Although I fault the religious right’s morality, I acknowledge their consistency. With the religious left, it is the other way around: I applaud their far superior morality, but call attention to their selectivity. We should neither defend these religious texts as factual nor make excuses for them. Instead, I would encourage both groups to come to the side that has it all, both factual consistency and reason-based morality: the side of atheism.