Reply to James McGrath

I guess I wasn’t clear enough in my previous post. I don’t merely think that the claim “fundamentalists really assert that they’re infallible” fails as an absolutely universal generalization. I don’t merely think you can find a few exceptions. I think it’s utter nonsense through and through, with no basis in reality whatsoever.

What fundamentalists typically believe is that the Bible, properly interpreted, is infallible. They also generally believe that their interpretations are correct, but that does not entail they believe themselves to be infallible, anymore than the fact that I generally believe my views are correct means I think I’m infallible. As Matt Yglesias once said (paraphrasing, because I can’t find the post right now): of course I think my views are correct, if I didn’t I would change my mind. (See: Moore’s Paradox, but also Preface Paradox for caveats.)

I have to say all this because of James McGrath’s post in which he calls my post “bizarre.” The feeling is mutual. McGrath stresses that, “Exceptions do not mean that generalizations are not essentially accurate,” hence the previous to paragraphs.

As for the contributions liberal Christians have made to Biblical criticism, yes I’m perfectly aware of it. But when I talk about admitting the Bible is deeply flawed, I’m not talking discussion of historical inaccuracies, I’m talking about being willing to say, “the fundamentalists are wrong because much of the Bible’s content is morally odious.”

There are liberal Christians willing to admit that, but as McGrath says, exceptions do not mean that generalizations are not essentially accurate. And it wouldn’t surprise me if McGrath actually agrees that much of the Bible’s content is morally odious. The problem is that when it comes time to deal with fundamentalists, liberal Christians all too often avoid such unpleasant truths in favor of spouting nonsense.

  • Gordon

    The problem with the bible isn’t a passage here or a passage there, and it isn’t the context or the nuance. The problem with the bible is the bible. It is its own elephant in the room.

    • Goldstein Squad Member

      Actually, the atheists I am meeting seem to think they are right, and that everyone else is lying, insane or evil (to paraphrase Dawkins.) Just a day or so ago Camels With Hammers had a post about how a truly informed atheist can never convert, and if they do they must not have been truly informed! (Yep…No True Scotsman.) Moreover, they demonize religion as the root of all evil and ignore the fact that most wars had many other reasons behind them.

      They seriously believe that if religion were just eliminated everything would be fine.

      • Dorfl

        Could you please give me the quote that you’re paraphrasing as everyone else being “lying, insane or evil”?

  • MNb

    I think you are on the wrong track indeed. But first I must stress that I mostly have experience with Dutch and Flemish christians, so what I write might not apply.
    Fundies claim that there is only one interpretation of the Bible – theirs. And they claim it’s the literal one. Liberal christians are right when criticizing this; for one thing it’s ahistorical. Ancient writers weren’t interested in seperating facts from fiction.
    My first problem with liberal christians is that their approach is even more random. If they don’t like some passage they explain it away – that’s were theology is for. But if they do like some passage they take it literally and conclude: “hey! what a great book of wisdom!”
    That’s basically why Jerry Coyne calls theology post-modern literal criticism.
    I have mentioned before, and you promised to address it, but the way to meet liberal christians is to debunk the myth that Jesus was such a great guy. There are several passages, even in the Gospels, which in a metaphorical sense suck as well according to our 21 Century standards.
    The killing of the completely innocent Gardarene swines reveals how little Jesus cared for animals, for instance.
    The point can be made that Jesus – or at least the authors of the Gospels – was a step forward in the context of their time. Liberal christians don’t want to admit it, but basically they want to stick to that time.
    Jesus is outdated.

    • Pseudonym

      Chris:

      I’m not talking discussion of historical inaccuracies, I’m talking about being willing to say, “the fundamentalists are wrong because much of the Bible’s content is morally odious.”

      OK, I’ll play. That is indeed a reason why the fundamentalists are wrong, especially given their claim that the Bible is some kind of universal moral guidebook.

      Pretty much any liberal Christian will point this out if asked, but probably won’t volunteer it because we typically consider it to be irrelevant. That was a discussion that was interesting when it was new 150 years ago. It’s not really interesting today.

      MNb:

      My first problem with liberal christians is that their approach is even more random.

      Not really. The liberal Christian approach relies on hard research about the culture, history, anthropology, archaeology, linguistics and literature of the Ancient Near East.

      You want to know how liberal Christians tell the difference between something intended as history and something intended as metaphor? Research. You use the same tools that you would use to analyse any other ancient text. Hell, that’s why liberal Christians developed those tools in the first place.

      This is one key thing that distinguishes liberal Christians from most “new atheists”. Liberal Christians really do treat the Bible as you would any other ancient book, for the purpose of understanding what it says and what it means.

      The killing of the completely innocent Gardarene swines reveals how little Jesus cared for animals, for instance.

      In context, Bertrand Russell’s argument makes sense. Out of context (e.g. here), it doesn’t. This would be like complaining that Richard Dawkins’ “ultimate 747 gambit” shows how much he cares about reducing carbon emissions.

      In reality, this is one of the simpler gospel stories to unpack. Some presumably Jewish farmer is keeping swine, which are ritually unclean animals. The demon has the name of a unit of the Roman army. There’s pretty much nothing about this story which requires special knowledge unavailable to anyone living in first (or even second) century Palestine, and which isn’t common knowledge to any educated person today.

      • http://deusdiapente.blogspot.com J. Quinton

        Not really. The liberal Christian approach relies on hard research about the culture, history, anthropology, archaeology, linguistics and literature of the Ancient Near East.

        You want to know how liberal Christians tell the difference between something intended as history and something intended as metaphor? Research. You use the same tools that you would use to analyse any other ancient text. Hell, that’s why liberal Christians developed those tools in the first place.

        This is one key thing that distinguishes liberal Christians from most “new atheists”. Liberal Christians really do treat the Bible as you would any other ancient book, for the purpose of understanding what it says and what it means.

        I’m not sure what liberal Christians you interact with, but almost none of them treat the Bible like any other ancient book. Because they haven’t read any other ancient book.

        Maybe you meant to say “liberal Christian scholars” but that’s an entirely different sample space.

        • Pseudonym

          Fair point. Most liberal Christians are just like most atheists: normal people trying to get through their day.

          I will point out that my experience with liberal Christian clergy and lay preachers (and I’ve known a lot of those) is that they very much value good scholarship and research even if they don’t do it themselves.

          The way that average people get access to the latest and greatest research is often second-hand: there are those who do the research, then those who organise it in a way that the public can understand it, and then there’s the public who has access to that. This is true in any academic area. Primary sources are often impenetrable if you’re not an expert.

      • Vorjack

        “In reality, this is one of the simpler gospel stories to unpack. Some presumably Jewish farmer is keeping swine, which are ritually unclean animals. ”

        Therin lies part of my problem with liberal Christianity. Gadara was part of the northern, hellenized, Gentile part of Galilee. The farmer may have been Jewish, but it’s more likely that Marc wanted us to understand the farmer was a gentile.

        So how does that affect your interpretation? Some Christians have argued that this is an allegory pointing towards the cleansing of the Gentiles: unclean pigs and unclean spirits banished, thus showing the power of Jesus over the impure. Others have viewed it as a fable: Jesus tricks the demons by allowing them to enter the pigs but then sends them to their deaths.

        Is the Legion supposed to represent the Roman legion or is it being used in a general sense of “many”? Is the possible connection of the legion being sent into pigs a reference to Circe turning Ulysses’ soldiers into pigs?

        I could go on for ages. There are loads of different interpretations that people have advanced for this one story. If this were just another first century novel that fact wouldn’t bother us. But if the Bible is supposed to be some sort of guide to life, then these multiple conflicting stories cause a problem.

        • Greg G.

          Is the Legion supposed to represent the Roman legion or is it being used in a general sense of “many”? Is the possible connection of the legion being sent into pigs a reference to Circe turning Ulysses’ soldiers into pigs?

          The whole story seems to be drawn from The Odyssey. Odysseus sails to a land where he meets a Cyclops named Polyphemus, which means “talked about by many”. Jesus sails to a land where he meets a demonaic who says “My name is Legion, for we are many.” The Latin word “legion” is similar to the Greek word “lego” that is used just before the statement to mean “said”, so Mark is telling everyone the source of the story. I expect it would be more obvious to any first century reader of Greek than the fact that O Brother, Where Art Thou? is based on The Odyssey to a modern viewer.

          • http://deusdiapente.blogspot.com J. Quinton

            “My name is Legion, for we are many.” The Latin word “legion” is similar to the Greek word “lego” that is used just before the statement to mean “said”, so Mark is telling everyone the source of the story.

            I’m not sure about this one. Mark 5.9 says:

            καὶ λέγει αὐτῷ: λεγιὼν ὄνομά μοι
            Kai legei auto: legion onoma moi

            The “legei” (LE-gei), which means “he says”, doesn’t sound anything like “legion” (le-gi-OWN) except for the first syllable. Legei doesn’t mean “I say”, so I don’t think your interpretation can possibly be correct. The verb “I say” would be lego, which Mark doesn’t use until much later in the chapter when he translates the Aramaic incantation that Jesus says before raising the dead girl (incidentally, the father in that scene – Jairus – his name means “awakened”. Which is what Jesus does to the girl).

        • Pseudonym

          Actually, it’s worse than that: manuscripts don’t agree on exactly where this story takes place!

          If everything you say is true, nothing changes my main point: It probably didn’t happen, and says nothing about Jesus’ position on animal cruelty.

      • MountainTiger

        “Liberal Christians really do treat the Bible as you would any other ancient book, for the purpose of understanding what it says and what it means.”
        Yet I find very few liberal Christians offering as much worship to the Divine Augustus as they do to Jesus. Odd that they would neglect the other god-men of the period like that.

      • Al

        @ psuedonym It seems you are making the point that the story of the swine did not happen. If so it still speaks to the writers presentation of the character of this “character” Jesus. As he saw nothing in the story that would imply a lack of compassion, because he had nothing in his knowledge of the Jesus character that said, Jesus cares deeply for the animals and would not mass murder them for no reason. So it still speaks to the point that the character laid out in the new testament as a leap forward in morality for his time and place, but a far cry from a “perfect man” to say the least.

        • Pseudonym

          It seems you are making the point that the story of the swine did not happen.

          I hope that’s an uncontroversial thing to say.

          If so it still speaks to the writers presentation of the character of this “character” Jesus.

          Do you honestly think that every little detail in this story was planned out in advance with the understanding that it would be picked apart in detail to tease out every little possible bit of subtext? I think you’re giving a little too much credit to those who translated and retold a half-remembered story.

          Think of the story of Constatine at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. Compare the version of the story which most people know with the most likely version of what actually happened.

          It would be a very bad general who would order a symbol of “the religion of women and slaves” painted on the shield of every pagan (and superstitious) solider. But it would be silly to conclude that whoever tells the story in the commonly-retold-and-incorrect form was trying to say something about Constantine being a bad general.

          I am certain that if you think hard about it, you too can think of several other inaccurate or nonexistent events commonly attributed to historical figures which, if you think pick them apart, paints that person in a bad light, even if the story is meant to make them look good, noble, or saintly.

  • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca Randy

    When I became Catholic I began to see that as a protestant I did treat many of my biblical interpretations as infallible. Sure I would never have accepted that word. But the truth is that I didn’t really believe you could be a Christians and be pro-choice or say per-marital sex was OK or tell people they didn’t have to go to church on Sunday or deny the resurrection. So I held those doctrines as essential. Logically essential doctrines must be infallible.

    So I came to understand Catholicism’s claim of infallibility to be just honest. All faiths need infallible doctrines to define the content of the faith. The Catholic church was clear about what they were. It was also clear that they transcended time and culture. Quite the opposite of my evangelical pseudo-dogmas.

    • smrnda

      This is why I reject all faiths. I would rather go with provisional hypothesis based on evidence that I might need to abandon later on if better evidence comes out.

      Religions need infallible doctrines because otherwise, they’d lack any claim to any sort of exclusive truth, and they have to be infallible since it would be difficult for them to come out and say “well, everything we used to say was bullshit.”

      I mean, let’s take a secular example – -whether a new law is good or bad is a point of open debate, and it’s also something worth experimenting with perhaps, but you can turn around and say “the new program didn’t do the job we thought it would so we’re ditching it.” You can’t do that with religion.

  • MNb

    @Pseudonym: “The liberal Christian approach relies on hard research about the culture, history, anthropology, archaeology, linguistics and literature of the Ancient Near East.”
    That’s what they claim, yes. But only when the results suits them. I still have to meet the first liberal christian who admits to actively dislike this or that passage, let alone reject. Their method is called pseudoscience.

    “Liberal Christians really do treat the Bible as you would any other ancient book”
    The ones I met really don’t – unless it suits them. The Bible remains special because of you know, the word of their god is in it.

    “Out of context (e.g. here), it doesn’t”
    Now this is typically the kind of lame argument I have got used to. Do you really expect me to present the whole context of the passage ánd Russell’s criticism (I have read Why I am not a christian too) in a reaction that already threatened to become overlong? You are reacting exáctly like the Dutch and Flemish liberals christians. It’s called nitpicking in English; ant fucking in Dutch.

    “which are ritually unclean animals”
    Exactly. And Hero Jesus didn’t give a shit. Seen it. Done it. An aspect liberal christians prefer to ignore. Thank you.

    • Pseudonym

      I still have to meet the first liberal christian who admits to actively dislike this or that passage, let alone reject.

      Really? How many have you asked?

      It might be that you have to get to know them first. I’ve known a lot of theologians, and almost all of them express a strong dislike of the last part of Ephesians 5. Most will admit that Paul of Tarsus had some ideas that are frankly bizarre, even if they’re understandable.

      Interestingly, most will express stronger emotions about the Christian part of the Bible than the Hebrew part, probably because academic Christians “own” that bit. It’s a reliable rule of thumb that the best quality critics of a movement are those within the movement, because they know where the real problems lie.

      FWIW, Martin Luther disliked the whole Book of Revelation, and thought it probably shouldn’t be in the canon.

      Having said that, it’s kind of like how pretty much every historian of the ancient world has a love/hate relationship with the Romans. There’s a lot to admire, and a lot to detest, by modern standards. Nonetheless, as an academic, you have to swallow your loathing and try to understand where they were coming from.

      Now this is typically the kind of lame argument I have got used to. Do you really expect me to present the whole context of the passage and Russell’s criticism (I have read Why I am not a christian too) in a reaction that already threatened to become overlong?

      No, I don’t expect you to present it.

      Much can and has been said in critique of Russell’s argument. Russell’s biggest problem, I would have to say, is myopia. For example, his claim that progress in Christian thinking was entirely the work of “unbelievers” was an understandable claim given that he was coming out of the Golden Age of Freethought, but seems to miss that even the Christianity of 1700CE is barely recognisable from the Christianity of 150CE. Christianity has always changed, and the change has invariably come from within.

      For our purposes, however, I think it’s enough to point out that by his definition, Rudolf Bultmann was not a Christian, Clark Pinnock was not a Christian, John Shelby Spong is not a Christian and I am not a Christian. He can accuse us of not being Christians if he likes, but even that is a claim that Christian fundamentalists made first.

    • Pseudonym

      Oh, one more thing…

      It’s called nitpicking in English; ant fucking in Dutch.

      I love that! I’m going to drop that phrase in everyday conversation.

      Having said that, nitpicking (or ant fucking, if you prefer) gets a bad rap sometimes. To most people, the difference between a navigator’s second (which is 1/86400 of a mean solar day) and a SI second (the duration of 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the caesium 133 atom) is nitpicking. For almost all uses, they’re essentially the same thing. But when the distinction matters, it really matters.

  • Tony

    In the end, the Faith-based claims (the ‘F’ indicating supernatural faith) of the liberal Christian exactly as relevant as those of the Fundamentalist Christian, or the Fundamentalist Islamist, etc. If liberal Christians are content with espousing Faith-based claims that are equal to any and all religious Fundamentalists, then that’s their moral paradox. The good Postmodernists among them can always just chalk it up to a Mystery, I suppose. I personally find such a position grossly unsatisfactory..

    • Tony

      correction: Faith-based claims (the ‘F’ indicating supernatural faith) of the liberal Christian *are* exactly as relevant as those of the Fundamentalist Christian…

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