Is the Story Dangerous? (RJS)

Seriously_Dangerous_ReligionThe final chapter of Iain Provan’s book Seriously Dangerous Religion: What the Old Testament Really Says and Why It Matters gives an answer to the question suggested by the title. Is Christianity, grounded as it is in the Old Testament Story with new dimensions from the New Testament, actually dangerous? Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion) and Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything) among others have suggested that religious belief in general and Christian belief in particular is downright dangerous.

I have argued in chapter 13 that the biblical story about how the world came to be, what the human place in it is, and how we should live here is plausible. Is it at the same time dangerous? As the biblical book of Proverbs observes, a prudent person will always want to avoid danger. Is there danger, then, in biblical faith, from which we might wish to “take refuge,” rather than “keep going and suffer for it”? My argument in this chapter, in brief, will be as follows: there is some danger, but not of the kind that people often imagine. Biblical faith is dangerous only in promoting the good. (p. 379-380)

A key point here – there are versions of the biblical faith (although Provan would claim that they are not really biblical) that are dangerous. There are versions that lead people to consider creation as a consumable and to consider others as subhuman or subservient in some fashion. These perversions are dangerous, but the Old Story is only dangerous in promoting the good. Provan divides his discussion into six sections and I will follows his outline here.

On God and the World. Is devotion to one God, the (supposed) creator of the world dangerous? Provan quotes several writers who make this claim. But the danger of monotheism must depend on the character of the one God and what this means for the way that his/her followers should live.

For example, if the one God is not “for” all creatures, but only “for” human beings, and he wills that I should live in a manner consistent with this “truth,” then it may well be that nonhuman creation will suffer. Again, if the one God is not “for” all human beings, but only “for” me and my tribe or my state, and he wills that I should live in a manner consistent with this “truth,” then bigotry and violence toward other human beings may well follow. If, however, the one God is the kind of person that I have described in this book, such consequences do not at all follow. In this case, I find myself obliged to imitate a God who is generous to all of his image bearers, and who cares for all of his creatures, human or not. I am obliged to “keep”both neighbor and garden. (p. 381)

Provan has argued that God is for all and we are to view all humans as his image bearers while keeping his “garden” on earth. This isn’t dangerous. Far from it. Now it is certainly possible to point to examples of people who acted in rather unfortunate (even despicable) ways in the name of Christianity.  But in the same times and places it is possible to find examples of Christians who were governed by the command to love and keep both fellow humans and the earth.  The belief in the one God of biblical faith as such cannot be the problem. Nor is abandonment of such belief the solution. Certainly absence of such belief has not prevented violence. Violence is as old as the human race and penetrates all forms of human society, monotheistic, polytheistic, spiritualist, atheist.

michelangelo's Adam 2On Humanity.  The biblical view of humanity is only dangerous to the powerful and ambitious (or to those who think the earth might be better off with humans gone extinct). The biblical view of humanity is dangerous to those who think that might makes right and the world should be ruled by survival of the fittest.

Is the biblical view of humanity dangerous, then? Certainly it is. It is dangerous to anyone who does not wish to think of every other human being as their image bearing “neighbor” or to love him or her as such. … Biblical faith is also dangerous to those who have become confused about where the boundaries between science and philosophy lie and who think that because human beings are, in some sense, products of a great evolutionary struggle in which only the fittest survive, society itself should be organized on that same basis. Biblical faith is dangerous, moreover, to those among the powerful who would like to be left alone to use and oppress the weak and to those among the rich who would like to be left alone to use and oppress the poor. Such faith threatens all those for whom the current social order is everything or for whom individual human beings are merely dispensable flotsam and jetsam on the great sea of inevitable social change. It challenges every “ends justifies the means” and every “greatest good” argument. It confronts any idea that anyone is too young or too old, too black or too white, too sick, too different, or too foreign to have the same rights as everyone else, including the right to life. (p. 385)

Provan argues that “rights” are an ephemeral phenomenon, without foundations when the Old Story is abandoned. This doesn’t mean that all others are amoral, or that they do not value human freedom and human rights. Far from it. However these other narratives do not provide a foundation for universal human rights.

People need a good reason to respect other people as genuine equals and to protect their rights. For those who hold to biblical faith, this is the “good reason”: “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” Strip away this foundation, and what exactly remains as the “reason”? (p. 388)

Certainly Christians have not followed the command to respect other people as genuine equals with consistency. Slavery in the United States and the rather paternalistic view of European colonialism are cases in point. But there were and are Christians who take the biblical view of humanity to heart and act accordingly.

On Evil and Suffering. The biblical view of evil and suffering is not dangerous. Rather the biblical view comprehends the power of evil and its depths. It leads people to be realistic about the presence of evil and suffering and to act to avoid evil and alleviate suffering whenever possible.

Some competing views are dangerous however. Fatalism leads to despair and inaction. If nothing can be changed, why try?  Even worse is the view that questions the objective reality of good and evil leaving everything up to the flow of the time.

Provan also suggests that views such as those of Confucianism and Islam are dangerous in that they underestimate the power of evil. With proper education (something quite different in these two cases) humans can and should pull themselves up.

For my own part, I believe that such views display a perilous naïvety about evil and about what needs to be done to overcome it. Right knowledge, of itself, evidently does not bring about moral transformation in human beings—even supposing that right knowledge is something we are predisposed to desire in the first place. (p. 391)

But good is only achievable and evil avoidable if one has a limited view of what constitutes good. But the biblical faith demands genuine love of God and genuine love of neighbor. The Story of the Old Testament is a story of God’s covenant faithfulness and Israel’s unfaithfulness. The new dimension added by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is the answer to evil, an answer that appreciates the power of evil and its depth.

Lake and SkyOn Human Beings and the “Natural” World. Biblical faith as Provan has developed it in this book requires a faithful keeping of creation.  As a result it is dangerous to those who would like to treat creation as a product to be used as we please. The biblical faith is also to those who hold the view that humans are unnecessary and the world might, in fact, be better off with our extinction. “We need to hold together love of neighbor and love of creation. That is, indeed, what the Old Story demands of us. (p. 395)

On Politics. Biblical faith is dangerous to those who wish to simple uphold the status quo and to those wish to implement an ideological utopia (including “Christian” states).  Concerning a passive stance:

A biblical politics challenges both the passive stance and the truthfulness of the stories that justify it. Biblical faith proposes that we should all be participating, as far as we reasonably can, in the reconstruction of the mundane, political world in the light of the larger biblical vision of the kingdom of God. Biblical faith is, therefore, dangerous to the passive. (p. 395)

Concerning utopian visions, whether Islamic, atheist, Christian, or anything else:

Biblical faith itself raises serious questions about the authoritarian, antidemocratic, repressive, totalizing tendencies of utopian politics of all stripes and about its tendency to blur important distinctions between morality and politics, between morality and law. This is no less true of quasi-Christian utopianism than of any other kind. (p. 396)

A biblical faith is also dangerous to those who defend the naked public square that relegates religion to the personal and demands that all act only as citizens leaving religious identity at home. But there is no such thing as a naked public square. “There is a lot of clothing being worn, even if it is disguised under apparent nakedness.” (p. 401)  Provan argues that we need a clothed public square where all views and competing metanarratives are open for respectful and constructive inspection and critique.

On Hope. Certainly there is some support in Christian thinking and writing for a dangerous biblical hope. However this is based on a misunderstanding of the biblical hope.

Real biblical faith requires of its adherents a very high valuing of the world as it is now, as well as active work within the world to make it better. Biblically, hope is what keeps one going in the work of mediating God’s blessing to the world, even in the face of great challenges that might tempt one to despair. …  However, it is precisely the hope that God’s kingdom will indeed one day arrive that strengthens the believer in pursuing the prophetic biblical vision in the present, even though it might seem impossible that it should ever become a reality. Hope is what allows love to persevere.

Such hope is not dangerous. Its absence is, however, very dangerous. Human beings are wired to hope, and they need to hope. (p. 404)

Biblical faith is not dangerous, although it has been misinterpreted and misapplied in dangerous ways at times. Provan argues that real biblical faith, when we understand what the Old Testament really says, is dangerous only in promoting the good. It provides a sure foundation for care of neighbor, that is genuine humanism, and for care of creation.

I will wrap up the series on this book with one final post on Provan’s epilogue and some concluding thoughts of my own, both positive and negative.  This is enough for now.

Is biblical faith dangerous?

Has Provan successfully answered the critics of the Old Story?

If not, what else needs to be addressed?

If you wish to contact me, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

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