Unbelievable – When Morality Becomes Literary Criticism

It’s not my normal practice to listen to Christian radio. Although I love music, there’s nothing more likely to induce me to vomit than Christian Pop interspersed with pious priests talking in that sickly, syrupy voice they have when dispersing their moral goodies like cherry-flavored cough-drops from the family doctor.

However, each week I listen to Unbelievable?, a program on Premier Christian Radio. The purpose of the program is to tackle questions like “Can Christianity live up to the claims it makes?”, “Can we trust the Bible?”, “Why should I believe in Jesus over anything else?” and to “get Christians and non-believers talking to each other.” The debate is frequently lively and often well-informed, and Justin Bierley is an able moderator, not allowing his own Christian leanings get in the way of discussion (too much).

But recently there have been a slew of episodes discussing issues internal to Christianity, or between Christianity and Islam. One debated the rightness or wrongness of Rob Bell’s recent book Love Wins, focusing on whether or not everyone gets to heaven eventually, and what the nature of hell really is. Another questioned whether Osama bin Laden represented the “true face of Islam”. And a third, the most recent episode, asks “Should women be church leaders?”

Although the topics of these programs are wildly different, they all leave me with one unambiguous message: it is supremely foolish to allow questions of morality to become exercises in literary criticism.

Let’s turn to the program on women as church leaders. First, note that this is a dumb question to be asking. That there are still people, in 21st Century Britain, questioning whether women should be able to engage in any role available to men should be seen as an embarrassment. The fact that this is considered worthy of discussion at all is a sign of the profound weirdness of religious “morality”.

And why are we still discussing such questions? Because an old book is ambiguous on the subject, and like all complex texts can be interpreted in different ways. It’s striking that the argument around this question relates not at all to the ability of women to hold such positions, nor to principles of equality, fairness or liberty, nor to protections against discrimination against women in the secular law, nor to the suffering that might be caused to actual women who are relegated to second-class status in their religious communities.

No, the debate is all about The Book, and how to interpret its many sticky passages – “We must”, as both panelists aver, “start with Scripture”. So you hear John Richardson, a member of the conservative Evangelical grouping Reform within the Church of England, saying “I would, in the back of my mind, would have a big question about [women taking] a preaching role…I’d be less comfortable with that.”

To which the affable and intelligent host Justin Brierley responds:

“It’s difficult isn’t it. I know that some churches, who take a strong stance on not having women in leadership…they will be OK with them leading a women’s group, or teaching the children, or something like that. So is it essentially teaching men that is the problem?”

Cue interminable waffling about the “family relationship” and its importance to the church, which somehow means women shouldn’t be treated equally in church contexts.

The key is that Richardson’s “discomfort” at the idea of women preachers, and Brierley’s assertion that it’s “difficult” to work out whether or not women should be treated poorly, are based on interpretations of passages like Ephesians 5:22-24, which suggests that “as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything”. And that passage (along with others like it) – entirely abstracted from any moral context and the effect of one’s position on real human lives – is made the basis for sexist discrimination.

Christina Rees, who serves on the Archbishop’s Council and the General Synod, and is representative of the pro-women view, responds passionately. She cites the fact that Paul, when discussing in his letters missionary couple Priscilla and Aquila, “her name is used first, and that is generally an indication of the more dominant person”.

Again, the moral case – this time in favour of equality – rests on the authority of the text, and this one fallible person’s interpretation of the text.

And around and around the discussion goes. Is this any way to conduct our moral discourse?

To engage in sane moral reasoning we must recognize that there is no one “correct” interpretation of any text of such density as the Bible. Marjorie Garber and Stephen Greenblatt, two of the most respected Shakespeareans of our time, disagree wildly over their interpretations of Shakespeare’s plays. Is either one of them “right”? Could we ever come to a final “answer” as to the “meaning” of his plays and poems?

Of course not. Like any complex text – like Hamlet, like Moby Dick, like The Oddysey - the Bible admits of multiple interpretations. Multiple valid interpretations. So seeking secure moral guidance from such a text is like building your ethical house on sand – sooner or later the ground will shift and your dwelling will crumble to nothing.

Further, by looking always to a text for moral guidance, the debaters overlook the issues of primary moral concern. Their obsession with scripture blinds them to the more pressing reasons which should guide them to a pro-equality stance: the principles of freedom and dignity for all people, and the real harm that is caused by discriminatory policies such as the ones Richardson defends.

And these two deficits in moral reasoning affect both sides of the debate, making religious liberals who rely on scripture just as unconvincing as conservatives.

It is so much better to base our morality on the concerns and needs of actual human beings in the here-and-now, and use texts, if we look to them at all, as tools for helping us think about possible considerations in and responses to the ethical dilemmas we face. Giving primacy to old books when making moral judgments is to leave ourselves hostages to interpretation, and offers us no solid ethical ground.

When we take this position – this Humanist position – we see clearly that of course it is wrong to condemn someone to hell for believing differently to you, of course violence in the name of God is wrong, and of course women should be able to be church leaders.

We understand what’s truly Unbelievable: when morality becomes literary criticism.

Delightfully, apologianick on the blog ‘Deeper Waters’ wrote a lengthy response to this article. You can see it here. I still think my analysis is sound, but I like to foster discussion, so head over and see if you are convinced!

About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.

  • http://nathandst.blogspot.com/ LucienBlack

    While I agree that huge chunks of the Bible are open to interpretation, I think there are parts of it that are fairly unambiguous. Homosexuality concerns seem pretty cut and dried — please, please! prove me wrong, but I’m unaware of any ambiguity on that one. I would love it if I had a verse or two to trot out the next time someone quotes “man shall not lie with man.”

    To your actual point though, I absolutely agree. It’s not just old books, but any old text (such as the Constitution, which, while mainly a legal document, is held to have moral force in some people’s eyes). I’d like to strengthen one point that you make, that if we look to old texts they should be used as tools for helping us think about ethics. I think the writings on ethics that have come before are quite valuable, and worth studying, especially since it’s easy to see that someone could very well come up with a particular ethical thought on their own. When that happens, it’s nice to be able to say “well, you’re not the first to think of that, so let’s examine what’s been done before, and see if we agree or not, and if we have criticisms not addressed by this old writer.” Sadly, I’m not smart enough to think of all the good arguments, so a little help is appreciated!

    • TempleoftheFuture

      The point about gay people is an interesting one – the bible seems unambiguous about the specific point, but religious progressives point to other sections of the text which they think “override” those sections. So even in the sections that seem most unambiguous, people find interpretive strategies to get around them and support the moral principles that they have (obviously) derived from a separate source!

  • http://independent.academia.edu/JimFarmelant Jim Farmelant

    I like James’s characterization of appeals to scriptural authority as reducing moral reasoning to literary criticism. One of the part of Sam Harris’s “Letter to a Christian Nation” was his discussion of the tendency for many Christians to attempt to settle moral disputes by appealing to Scripture. Like James does here, Harris points out that on many ethical controversies, people on opposing sides can often find passages from the Bible to support their position. Harris cites the debates over slavery that took place in antebellum America, with both proponents and opponents of slavery citing the Bible in support of their views. As Harris pointed, in reality religious believers were simply using the Bible to lend support to moral positions that they held on other grounds. Given two such contradictory precepts, the believer usually claims Biblical authority for just one of them, chosen according to his own moral feeling; that is tantamount to circular reasoning.

    Anyway, it seems to me that even if we do posit a god, then that won’t help us to solve the problem of how to ground morality because that would take us into the famous Euthyphro Problem which was first outlined in Plato’s dialog with that name (see:
    http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/euthyfro.html).

    Classical theism attempted to solve the problem of providing a foundation for morality by taking God as the foundation. God is the ultimate law giver. But that raises the old question as to whether something is right because God commands it or whether God commands it because it is right? If we opt for the latter, then the commandments of God cannot be the ultimate foundation for morality because there must exist a logically independent morality which we use to judge the rightness of God’s commandments. If we opt for the former position, then we risk reducing the proposition that God’s commandments are right,to a mere tautology.

    A.J. Ayer, for example,in his book “The Central Questions of Philosophy” made that very point, first quoting from Bertrand Russell – “Theologians have always taught that God’s decrees are good, and that this is not a mere tautology: it follows that goodness is logically independent of God’s decrees. Ayer, himself, then went on to state that, “The point that moral standards can never be justified merely by an appeal to authority, whether that authority is taken to be human or divine. There has to be the additional premiss that the person whose dictates we are to follow is good, or that what he commands is right, and this cannot be the mere tautology that he is what he is, or that he commands what he commands.”

    • http://nathandst.blogspot.com/ LucienBlack

      The Euthyphro Dilemma is one of my personal favorites in moral reasoning. I posed the question on a Facebook status once, just to see what responses I’d get. They were interesting, I’ll give them that. One said that good is built into god’s creation, and the only reason we do evil is because we’re flawed. Not sure how that jives with a perfect deity and perfect creation. Another stated that God is incapable of doing evil, that good is built into god. The way they described it sounded like god has DNA that makes him good. Of course, neither of these really answers the dilemma, but I wasn’t trying to debate anyone at that point, just gather responses.

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  • http://www.deeperwaters.wordpress.com Nick
  • http://humaneaspirant.blogspot.com Andrew Lovley

    Great post!

    The religious discussions that you refer to exemplify the fundamental flaw of dogmatic morality. It is stagnant and inhibits moral development. It’s troubling that people believe in the timeless authority of sacred texts… They think all the answers are contained in there somewhere, it just needs to be found and tweezed out.

    Perhaps we could work against this trend by relentlessly promoting critical thinking, revealing the pitfalls to dogma, and enervating the professed authority of sacred texts. Of course this has been the agenda of secularists for a long time, but progress is and can still be made as we increasingly contribute to national discourse. I imagine there’s a need for both impassioned, heavy criticism as well as appeals borne out of compassion when trying to advance our goals.

    • TempleoftheFuture

      I wholeheartedly agree, especially with the educational component of the goals you envision. And nice to see you commenting here =D

  • http://chelashaw.blogspot.com/ Kip’ Chelashaw

    “It is so much better to base our morality on the concerns and needs of actual human beings in the here-and-now”

    And how exactly do we decide what our concerns and needs are? Some people say global warming is a hoax some people say it is for real? Some people say Uni Tuiton fees have to go up others say the Govt must pay – question is who decides and why?

    K

    • TempleoftheFuture

      Hi Kip, thank you for your question. You ask:

      “And how exactly do we decide what our concerns and needs are? Some people say global warming is a hoax some people say it is for real? Some people say Uni Tuiton fees have to go up others say the Govt must pay – question is who decides and why?”

      It seems to me there are two issues here. The question of “how exactly do we decide what our concerns and needs are?” and the question of how we assess the veracity of certain claims, for example regarding global warming and tuition fees.

      To the first, I’d generally say individuals should maintain the freedom to determine the good for themselves, as long as their actions don’t harm others. This seems to me a reasonable rule of thumb and not to hard to apply in the vast majority of cases.

      To the second, I’d say we have to examine the evidence. In both the cases you mention there is a fact of the matter and examining the best evidence is the way to come to understand the situation. In the two specific instances you mention, there is no doubt in my mind now that human beings contribute to climate change. Very few scientists now doubt it, and i find their arguments and evidence compelling.

      On the second, this is more of a case of a difference in values – and people can legitimately disagree as regards values such as the importance of free university education. Here people have to make their case the best they can and try to convince others. Hope that helps!

      • http://nathandst.blogspot.com/ LucienBlack

        “To the first, I’d generally say individuals should maintain the freedom to determine the good for themselves, as long as their actions don’t harm others. This seems to me a reasonable rule of thumb and not to hard to apply in the vast majority of cases.”

        In terms of individuals, that seems a good starting point, and some modern pagan religions hold that view as their primary ethical principle. Wicca, for example, states “An it harm none, do as you will.” As a secular value, it’s pretty decent. I’m not completely convinced that it’s the end of the story however, but that’s something to address at a later point.

        However, in terms of governments, I think the issue becomes more tricky. If you cut the budget in one area, you *will* harm someone, but if you cut it elsewhere, someone else is harmed. Same with increasing revenue: someone’s going to feel it. I am extremely skeptical about anyone who claims there’s a completely painless way of managing (to continue the example) government finances.

        Even issues of safety could run into this dilemma. Add a stoplight at an intersection instead of a stop sign, and you’ll probably increase some commutes. One stoplight at one intersection won’t affect it much, but the more stoplights at more intersections you add, the longer a commute will be. Longer commutes mean waking up earlier, seeing the family less, using more gas, and therefore spending more on gas, and possibly other issues.

        Of course, now that I go back and reread you a bit James, I realize that you probably don’t disagree, and your last paragraph drives at what I’m saying.

        Hey, Kip’Chelashaw? What he said.

  • http://chelashaw.blogspot.com/ Kip’ Chelashaw

    I don’t think either of you have really given a satisfactory answer. If we make individuals the arbiters what is good, then what do we do at the point where two individuals come into serious conflict of what they both believe to be a good?

    So to return to my earlier example some people say Global warming is a hoax and are therefore happy to buy a top of the range SUV (deeming that this harms no one and brings them immense joy) and yet others deem Global warming to be a fact and so would like the UN, G20, etc to impose strict limits on Carbon emissions including the suggestion that SUVs need to be severely curtailed – what happens then and who decides?

    K

    • TempleoftheFuture

      “what do we do at the point where two individuals come into serious conflict of what they both believe to be a good?”

      I think I’ve answered this – if it’s a case where evidence will solve the issue (like the global warming example) look to the evidence – it’s very clear on this point.

      If it’s a case of a real clash of values (which the disagreement over global warming is not), then people can legitimately disagree and attempt to persuade someone.

      The issue of curtailing the right to purchase SUVs, for example, introduces a new moral concern not in your original question – how much harm to the collective can be used as a justification to restrict the freedom of the individual. This is a complex question and you have to rationally investigate the competing value-claims. But the point of this post is that a primary reliance on scripture doesn’t help with this process.

  • http://chelashaw.blogspot.com/ Kip’ Chelashaw

    Well I think it does in that it (Scripture) specifically tells us what the good (both individual and the corporate is: love the Lord the God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all you strength and with all your mind and Love your neighbour as yourself). Apart from this, we end up with the vague mushiness of positing that discerning the good when two people compete = “a complex question and you have to rationally investigate the competing value claims.”

    KC

    individuals deciding and the tortured reasoning of supposedly investigating competing value claims

  • http://independent.academia.edu/JimFarmelant Jim Farmelant

    Kip writes:

    “. . .(Scripture) specifically tells us what the good (both individual and the corporate is: love the Lord the God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all you strength and with all your mind and Love your neighbour as yourself). Apart from this, we end up with the vague mushiness of positing that discerning the good when two people compete = “a complex question and you have to rationally investigate the competing value claims.””

    Kip doesn’t seem to realize that this doesn’t at all solve the problem. After all going back to the debates over slavery in antebellum America, both sides claimed to have the best interests of the slaves at heart. The proponents of slavery could after all cite Scripture (in both the Old and New Testaments) where the moral correctness of slavery was upheld, with the Old Testament having all kinds of rules concerning the proper treatment of slaves. And the New Testament, when addressing this institution, seemed to regard it as morally acceptable, providing that masters treated their slaves humanely. Opponents of slavery likewise could cite Scripture to argue on behalf of abolition. It should be evident that simply appealing to the Bible could not resolve the debate over the moral acceptability of slavery. And one cite a long list of other moral controversies where people on both sides appeal to Scripture. So, it would that religious believers like Nick are no better off than us non-believers in terms of being able to ground our moral positions. And Nick, I don’t think, really confronts the implications of the Euthyphro’s Dilemma. Like it or not, anybody who attempts to ground morality in terms of the will of God, or what they think to be the commands of God, are likely to find themselves gored on at least one of the horns of this dilemma.

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