The Bible Can Be Authoritative, Even If It’s Relative [Questions That Haunt]

Questions That Haunt Christianity

Last Tuesday’s Question That Haunts Christianity came from Chris:

This question has been bugging me for a while. To preface, I consider myself a progressive (certainly ex-evangelical) Christian. My question relates to ethics in general and the Bible in particular. We all assume that there is a particular way that each of us SHOULD or SHOULD NOT act. I.e., we all harbor the notion that some acts are inherently moral or immoral. As a progressive, I don’t consider the Bible itself to be the “Word of God” or some kind of objective moral authority. I consider (as I’m sure many of your readers do) it to be a collection of writings that detail the experiences of the authors with the divine. As such, it is just as captive to subjectivity as the rest of us are.

If this is the case, however, how is it that we are to determine moral decisions? If there is no objective moral authority we can point to in order to determine an ethical system, what are we left with? (These are honest questions I have been wrestling with, as I continue to struggle between determining the possibility of access to SOME kind of objectivity, if that even exists).

Great and numerous comments ensued here. My $.02:

Chris is touching on a problem that is vexing to very many people. It is, for instance, at the heart of many people’s fear that if they give up on an historical Adam and Eve, the entire biblical house of cards will collapse. And that fear, in turn, leads to laughable creation museums that, by extension, make all Christians look foolish.

Many people fear the slippery slope. The worry is that, once you’re on the slippery slope, you’re destined to slide to the bottom, and pretty soon you’ll be having sex with goats and murdering your neighbor. But that’s simply not true. We all live on the slippery slope. The question is how one lives on the slippery slope. Or, in other words, how one manages one’s life in the midst of myriad relative choices every day, not least of which is how to interpret various Bible injunctions.

Commenter CurtisMSP made this point:

Morality changes over time and place. What was moral in 1400 in Mexico was not moral in 1200 in Germany, was not moral in 2000 in Bismarck. Morality is based on people and culture. Moral authority exists in the people and culture that surround each time and place. If you want to determine what is moral in a given situation, you must listen to all of the surrounding people and culture. The consistency lies in the listening.

Aristotle made this same point millennia ago. In the Nichomachean Ethics, he argued that a polis is a self-inscribed moral territory. So, say you live in a polis in which murder is unlawful and immoral. Aristotle says that you cannot go visit another polis, see them murdering each other, and proclaim, “Don’t do that! Murder is universally immoral!” Instead, each polis works by a particular moral language and framework that has developed over time; in their context, it works perfectly. It doesn’t work if you don’t share that language and that history and those particular practices.

This Aristotelian thinking was recovered in the Scholastic period by Thomas Aquinas, and re-recovered in the 20th century by thinkers as diverse as George Lindbeck, Hans Frei, Alaistair MacIntyre, Stanley Hauerwas, and Will Willimon — the book co-written by the lattermost two, Resident Aliens, is the classic, popular articulation of this thinking in ecclesiology. Therein they argue that the church lives by its own set of languages and practices, and these often run counter to the language and practices of consumerism, militarism, and even liberal democracy.

While I have some quibbles with Neo-Aristotelianism (which I will unpack in my talk at the Progressive Youth Ministry Conference), in general I think that this is the most potent response to the relativism that is baked into the cake of postmodernism.

The question isn’t really whether objective reality exists or not. Even if it does — and it very well may — it is inaccessible to us. It makes no sense for us to talk about it, since we are finite and subjective beings at our very core.

But what we’ve got is each other. This is the most valuable recovery of the ancients during the postmodern era: that all truth is ultimately relational truth. The American pragmatist school says it this way: truth works.

Communities of people agree on what is moral, and the Bible that Chris and I revere so highly is a record of an archetypal community’s working out of truth, of figuring out what works. Murder doesn’t work. Neither, it seems, does eating pork.

Anything that I’ve said so far would work, with or without a divine being. I happen to believe that God is relationally involved with us — that God was involved in the community of Israel, and that God was ultimately, uniquely, and eternally connected to the human community in the person of Jesus.

But now the interpretative works continues. It seems, based on the experiences of the first Christians in the book of Acts and the communities of faith begun by Paul, that we work out the truth of Christianity best in small, ecclesial communities. The Bible does not prescribe how a community of faith deals ethically with a loving, adult, monogamous lesbian couple, nor does it tell us whether clones can serve as elders in a congregation. We’ve got to work these things out in community.

That’s why I like when we at Solomon’s Porch refer to the Bible as a member of our community.  We argue with it, debate it, challenge it. It is an authoritative member of our community — that is, it has a certain authority — but it is not a dictator.

  • Steven Kurtz

    Well said Tony. For me, I’d like to toss in one more ingredient: the community is constantly engaged with the Spirit – as messy and subjective as it is to work out in practice – nevertheless, the Spirit had something to do with the scriptures (in all their messiness, loose ends, and conundrums, and without trying to define that “something”) and the Spirit is still active in the community of faith, as she seeks to be open, to learn, to be nudged further and further down the Jesus trajectory, breaking into new territory – ending slavery, emancipation of women, full equality for people of different sexual orientations, even understanding that her work is not the exclusive domain of the Christian community – and that the Spirit has actually done some remarkable (if slow) work in us; at least we are here now, and not still stuck in the moral world of 1800.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/tonyjones/ Tony Jones

      Totally agree. The interaction between the Spirit and the community is worth another post, at least!

  • Craig

    Many rules of morality are obviously sensitive (“relative”) to the particular practices, values, etc. of a given community. But practices and values are themselves constrained by “objective” facts about human beings and the world we live in. And aren’t there some limits to what can and cannot be a valid moral prohibition, regardless of the factors that differentiate one community from another?

    Imagine trying to describe a community where it is morally wrong to whistle a tune. This can be done, but it is telling how it is done. Invariably, one describes a community in which, by arranging a few facts here and there, whistling a tune takes on moral significance (one may describe a community, e.g., in which tune-whistling expresses the worst sort of slander, or is carcinogenic for one’s neighbors). What’s of interest is how the alteration of these few facts can change the moral status of whistling a tune. The way in which this happens isn’t arbitrary. We seem to follow principles, even if we cannot articulate them. It’s these sorts of principles, which may be fairly abstract, that may qualify as largely non-relative.

    • NateW

      Exactly what I was thinking…

  • Thursday1

    So, I guess slavery is back on the table.

  • Thursday1

    I guess the next question is why the Bible should be considered part of the community at all. Why bother with it more than any other book or argument?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/tonyjones/ Tony Jones

      Yes, that actually is the next logical question. You should submit it!

  • http://practicingresurrection.wordpress.com/ Bill

    Isn’t this the very question that Phyllis Tickle says we have to come to terms with in this great emergence? Where now is our authority?
    As I understand Chris’ question, he asks how are we to determine moral decisions in the absence of any objective moral authority. If before the Reformation the Church provided authoritative answers to moral questions and after the Reformation (among Protestants at least) the Bible was believed to be the authoritative source of answers to moral questions, then where now do we go to find those answers?
    Phyllis Tickle believes, if I recall correctly, that our authority during this next era of history will be the Spirit. Of course that is problematic in that the Spirit may be even harder to pin down on such matters than the Bible was.
    But I think that to say that the Spirit is our source of authority on moral questions and that moral questions are worked out in communities, might be to say the same thing. In other words, maybe we should see the working out of these issues in community as the work of the Spirit. Allowing ourselves to work out moral questions as communities might be understood as allowing the Spirit to move and work among us, enlightening and informing us. And what better authority is there than that?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/tonyjones/ Tony Jones

      Yes, that’s Phyllis’s answer. The problem, theologically, is how we suss out the Spirit. It’s easy to say the Spirit is our guide, but it’s tricky to discern the Spirit in the midst of all the noise in our lives.

      • NateW

        I think, though, that this is the entire point. This is what faith IS. It is trusting, step by step, that the Way forward that leads to life involves following Christ into our own death. It means living in accordance with the same spirit/breath/life force/ethos flowing through an out of ourselves as Jesus did. It means believing with each footstep that death leads to life, that the last will be first, that the greatest will be the lowest humble servant. It is resolving only to know that true power and security is not about having a bombproof rational system for divining good and evil, but is in resolving only to know Christ and Him crucified.

        I just have to push back against all this “progressive” talk about the bible being entirely relative. “Love your neighbor as your self” is not relative. “Love your enemies, Bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” is not relative. “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” is not relative.

        What ties us up in knots about this is the vain assumption that we can abstract these into a theoretical system by which we can order our lives with certainty that we won’t make a wrong decision. These aren’t intellectual truths that will satisfy our desire to have “knowledge of good and evil”, these are moment by moment truths that can only be lived out one decision at a time. Yes, it’s scary to not be able to sus out all the details in advance, to be unable to see what the outcome will be, but this is why faith is all about.

        We HAVE to be able to pull our selves out of our head, to stop chasing after systems and knowledge and to embrace the present with utter sincerity. And we have to depend on grace to cover our mistakes when we misstep.

        Having to have a moral system figured out is fear. When I truly know ONLY that I am utterly loved then every good work will flow from faith in this one and only absolute objective fact.

      • Craig

        What, if anything, does the “Spirit,” and faith, contribute to a believer’s moral judgments? What, in this regard, does the believer have that the unbeliever lacks?

        These are fitting questions for #progGOD. Progressive Christians will agree that there are many ways in which this presumption of privileged spiritual guidance through faith turns out badly. Moreover, prog. Christians will often take their cues from non-Christians when taking a stand on moral issues.

  • Camp Whisperer

    Thank you for sharing this question and the unique concept of relational truth (or maybe it isn’t so unique, and I just haven’t encountered it before). I will be thinking deeply and critically about the ideas behind this article. Thank you again for speaking into this.

  • ChuckQueen101

    Well said. The slippery slope is all we have and we are entangled up to our ears in subjectivity. What I love about the Christian tradition is its capacity for self-critique and self-correction, a process quite evident in the Bible itself. We are always going to get some (maybe a whole bunch of) things wrong, as did the faith communities that gave us our sacred texts. But I believe that if we bring our best selves into this quest for truth, our honest, humble selves, open to what others have to teach us, not afraid to question and explore, employing reason and common sense, drawing upon our own as well as others encounters with the Divine, we can find our way (or is it being led) into a transformative relationship with God and our world.

  • Brian Pansky

    “The Bible does not prescribe …. We’ve got
    to work these things out in community.”

    …but the title says that the bible can be authoritative.

    doesn’t this quote basically throw it’s authority out?

  • Alan Christensen

    I wonder if we misrepresent what the Scriptures are just by binding them all into one volume. I think that tends to support the notion that “the Bible” is one book with one voice (God’s) rather than a collection of writings with many viewpoints (including God’s) that evolved over many centuries. There’s not only dialogue between us and the Scriptures but dialogue within the Scriptures. A good example is Paul vs. James on faith vs. works.

  • R Vogel

    Truth works! Brilliant! I am going to borrow that.

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