So Wrong For So Long: On Liberal Biblical Reinterpretation

So Wrong For So Long: On Liberal Biblical Reinterpretation August 3, 2015

StainedGlass

Following up on last week’s affray over cognitive dissonance in pro-LGBT Christians, I have one more point I want to make.

Liberal and progressive believers have a variety of theological rationalizations for why they remain in a church that’s historically been an unrelenting enemy of people like them. One of the most common is that God is continuing to deliver new revelations, updating and overwriting old beliefs, and they have faith that this will eventually result in all believers recognizing the evils of the past for what they were.

Eliel Cruz, the Seventh-Day Adventist I quoted in my original post, writes about what he calls “Present Truth“, which he defines as the belief “that we have not yet discovered everything that there is to be discovered in scripture… that the Holy Spirit will continue to reveal truths to us throughout our time here on earth.”

Along the same lines, the liberal United Church of Christ has a campaign called “God Is Still Speaking“, which they present as a message of unconditional welcome to people who’ve been turned away from other, more judgmental Christian churches. Their argument is that the intolerant beliefs of ancient times shouldn’t be viewed as the last word, or as they put it, “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.”

Certainly, a religious person could claim that God is progressively revealing his will throughout history. There’s no logical inconsistency in that. However, there’s a pertinent moral problem with this doctrine: It leaves God wide-open to the question, “What took you so long?

If God wants LGBT people to be given equal rights, why didn’t he say so thousands of years ago? Why is that something he revealed only in the modern era – say, within the last forty years – ensuring that they were objects of hate, harassment and persecution for centuries before that? Why did he allow that injustice to continue for so long before finally delivering the revelation that would gradually end it? Whether you believe that the anti-gay verses in the Bible were God’s word but have been misinterpreted all along, or whether you believe God never had anything to do with them but that they were put there by fallible humans, the problem holds either way.

The same thing could be said about slavery, or the inequality of women, or racial segregation, or anti-Semitism, or any of the countless other evils that were justified in their day by citing holy books and the will of God. Even liberal Christians who wholly disavow these practices have to admit that they were the consensus position of Christianity for ages. Why did it take God so long to awaken people’s consciences? Was he less capable of delivering the necessary revelations a few hundred years ago than he is today? Or did he just not care about all the people who suffered because of an incorrect understanding of his will?

One apologetic I’ve heard is that, if God had given these messages to the more prejudiced and patriarchal cultures of the past, people would have rejected them, and that he had to prepare the ground until humanity had reached a sufficient level of moral development to accept the better message. But this argument asks us to believe, implausibly, that an omnipotent deity is helpless to overcome human ignorance; that even God himself is constrained by the superstitions and bigotries of the era he’s speaking to. What’s more, in both the Old and New Testaments, God routinely gives commands knowing that they’ll be disobeyed by the people he means them for. He tells the Israelites to stop worshipping idols, but they don’t. Jesus tells rich people to give away all their wealth to the poor, which hardly any of them do. Is it really plausible that “Treat gay people with respect and dignity” would have been an even higher bar to clear?

Well-intentioned though it may be, the liberal interpretation of the Bible can’t answer these questions. It can’t explain why an omnipotent, benevolent deity would for so long have allowed human beings to commit evil in the sincere belief that it was his will, without making a concerted effort to correct them. All it really is is an attempt to rear-project modern moral progress onto ancient texts.

The truth is that we human beings arrived at these realizations by ourselves, over long ages of persuasion, arduous struggle and open conflict. No deity or supernatural being had anything to do with our gradual enlightenment. I’d argue that, whether they realize it or not, the liberal and progressive believers are relying on their own reason and conscience to reject the unsavory parts of their own religious traditions. And that’s undoubtedly a good thing – but if you’re willing to go that far, why not take one further step, and come to the realization that you no longer need these belief systems for anything at all?

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