A bit of a follow-up regarding my epiphany on Glenwood Drive …
I grew up attending a fundamentalist Baptist church and a nondenominational fundie school yet, fairly early on, I realized I couldn't reconcile much of what I was being taught with much of what I was otherwise learning about the world.
In the footnote to the previous post, I mentioned an epiphany of sorts that occurred when I was confronted with the disparity between the "trap street" shown on my county road atlas and the actual terrain of the actual county. The analogy is not precisely perfect, but that disparity between the map and the terrain somewhat paralleled the disparities I was also encountering between the text of scripture and the actual world around me.
So there I was, at the end of what was, undeniably, a dead end street, consulting a map that claimed otherwise. It was something of a Groucho moment: "Who are you going to believe? Me or your lying eyes?" I sided with my own two eyes, thus accepting the principle that reason and experience were essential considerations for evaluating the meaning and application of the text. In a sense, I was fumbling my way toward something like Wesley's "four-legged stool."*
No one was claiming, of course, that my county road atlas ought to be read as the inerrant, infallible and authoritative Word of God, so my fundamentalist teachers would not have disagreed with my choosing, in this case, to regard my own experience of the terrain as worthy of consideration.
Nor did they deny that I would encounter similar disparities when consulting the "map" of scripture. In that case, however, they taught that I must always side with the map. That is what it means to be a fundamentalist.
Thus, to cite one of the more infamous examples, we were taught that evolution was a lie. The map, the Bible, said that the world was only 6,000 years old, and if that's what the map says, then this must trump any claims of "science" or any other observation about so-called reality. If reality and the map conflict, then we must reinterpret reality to conform to the map.
That's not an ideal example, though, since it's based on a supposed, rather than an actual, conflict between the text and reality. The supposed conflict here is based on the premise that "the Bible says" that the world is only 6,000 years old, even though it never actually says any such thing. The whole elaborate 20th-century invention of "scientific creationism" is premised upon a misreading of the map, a misreading of the text.
The same is the case with Marshall Hall, our delusional friend over at Fixedearth.com, who believes that, "The Bible teaches that the Earth is stationary and immovable at the center of a 'small' universe with the sun, moon and stars going around it every day." Since this is what he believes the Bible teaches, and since he believes that this biblical teaching outweighs any other source of information, he is forced to concoct an elaborate system for reinterpreting all of reality. Hall's whole endeavor is based on a faulty premise, that "the Bible teaches" what it does not, in fact, teach.
Such cases, in which the supposed conflict is an invention based on a misreading, are probably more common than the cases of apparently actual conflict, but they are a separate category, a different matter.
Let's consider a case of actual conflict. Based on my e-mail, my fellow evangelical Christians are greatly interested in the matter of homosexuality. Many of my correspondents disagree with my advocacy of equal rights for homosexuals because they perceive such equality as incompatible with the teaching of scripture. I'm not talking here about the Phelpsian homophobes or those who seem primarily motivated by bigotry.** I'm talking about people who seem like they wish they could agree with me, but feel they are not allowed to do so because they have no choice but to side with the map.
I don't think this perceived conflict is as substantial or as actual as they imagine. Their premise of unambiguous biblical teaching may be much closer to Hall's "biblical" geocentrism than they realize. (I don't want to get sidetracked here into a detailed exegetical analysis of the handful of New Testament passages dealing with the subject, so let me just generally point out that if your interpretation of scripture leads you to believe that "homosexuality is a choice," yet you cannot find a single homosexual who thinks this is so, then perhaps you ought to consider rethinking your interpretation.)
But let's assume, for the sake of argument, that this is an actual instance of actual conflict and that I am, in this instance, siding with reason/experience against the text. In that case …
Wait. You know what? This example is too easy. I'm a straight guy, and my evangelical critics on this matter seem also to be heterosexual, so this seems a bit too conveniently abstract. (It's also unseemly, too much like we're telling homosexuals, "You wait out in the hall while we discuss your fate. We'll call you in later and let you know what we decide.")
So let's pick an example that hits closer to home.
The Bible prohibits the charging of interest. No getting around it. This is explicit and unambiguous and more frequently discussed in scripture than is homosexuality. Jesus himself didn't just repeat this prohibition, he amplified it by forbidding the expectation of repayment. So no wiggle room there.
The charging of interest is, of course, the basis of our market economy. It is as unavoidable now as the air we breathe. I have several interest-bearing accounts (as well as, unfortunately, several interest-charging accounts). So does my local church. So does my denomination. So do even the least "worldly" of our coreligionists, the Amish. And so do, I'm guessing, my evangelical detractors who feel my advocacy of homosexual rights is "unbiblical."
How on earth do we justify this? More to the point, why is it that we don't even feel the need to bother to justify this?
I would argue that free markets can be a Good Thing. The charging of interest, when properly harnessed, can be a powerful engine for growth and prosperity, creating incentives for investment that makes possible many good things which would otherwise be impossible. The recognition of this fact, over the centuries, led to an evolution of our interpretation of the prohibition against usury. It ceased to mean the charging of any interest (even "the hundredth part" or 1 percent) and came to mean, instead, the charging of "excessive" interest. We began to reinterpret the evident meaning of the text in an effort to reconcile it with what we were learning about the world and how it works. The prohibition against usury remains in recognition of the principle contained in the text, a principle we continue to honor despite the sometimes laughably elastic application of that weasel-word excessive.
This argument can be challenged as mere "rationalization," in the psychological sense, an after-the-fact attempt at self-justification by a religious tradition whose adherents had become wealthy and worldly. But I would counter that in the non-psychological sense, rationalization is, well, rational. The application of reason is reasonable and necessary, and I find the reinterpretation of the prohibition against interest to be a reasonable step.
This reasonable step is regarded as noncontroversial when the matter involved is our own money. When the matter involved is someone else's sexuality, however, such a reasonable step is regarded as extremely controversial. Why do you suppose that is?
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* Wesley's "quadrilateral" included scripture, tradition, reason and experience as the four "legs" of a stool. Ever sit on a stool with one leg that was longer than the others?
** Of course, as Atrios recently noted, "If you think your misogyny or homophobia is sanctioned by God, it doesn't make you not a misogynist or homophobe." True enough. But there are also those who I would characterize as reluctant homophobes. To understand their point of view, substitute "commanded" for "sanctioned" in Atrios' comment. About which more later.