The Futility of Biblical Morality

The Futility of Biblical Morality November 24, 2014

Editor’s Note: This is a updated version of a blog post on religious leaders’ support of LQBTQ teens that was written four years ago by a Humanistic Rabbi.  It is reprinted here with permission. 

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small_65347879By Jeffrey L. Falick

Several years ago, I wrote on my blog about the high rate of LGBTQ teen suicides. At the time I was impressed by the number of compassionate reactions by religious leaders. There was a certain amount of breast-beating and even a bit of guilt.   Many religious leaders sought ways to accommodate and even welcome LGBTQ people into their fold, citing their scriptural traditions of love and kindness.

Last year at around this time, I was invited to a demonstration at Detroit’s federal courthouse on the eve of Michigan’s hearing on the constitutionality of its ban on same-sex marriage. Once again I was joined by sympathetic liberal clergy who preached passionately about God’s love for LGBTQ people. Once again I was impressed with their commitment to equal rights for all.

What did not impress me, however, was liberal clergy’s reliance upon their various scriptures to justify their newfound openness to all things gay.  Because the obvious problem with this is that the homophobes cite those very same scriptures to justify their antagonism to gay rights. For many people this can be enormously confusing.

Which is it?

Does the Bible condemn homosexuals or does it call upon society to accept and love them just as they are?

Does the Bible teach that heterosexual marriage alone should be recognized by the state or does it encourage us to follow our own hearts and orientations to a life of committed partnership?

There is an exegetical battle taking place over this issue with each side claiming biblical authority for its position.  And this just underscores the underlying problem of using the bible as a source of our values.  An ancient literary collection can no longer fill that need. It is simply not up to the task.

In ancient and medieval times the scriptures were regarded as the word of God. But any honest historian of religion knows that even then moral reasoning did not really depend upon the text. In Judaism we find evidence of this in the sharp rabbinical reinterpretations of certain very clear scriptural injunctions at various junctures in history. Though they were obliviously unconscious of this evolution in their thinking, it’s undeniable that when they felt that something in the Bible was clearly outdated, they instituted a revised understanding. They did it when they interpreted the lex talionis (“an eye for an eye”) out of existence and they’ve it done with hundreds of rules ever since.

But what was good for pre-modern people is not worthy of us today when we have become entirely conscious of this process.   Attempts to make scriptures say what they clearly do not say are a relic of a time when we needed to believe that these writings were the word of God, not the opinion of men (always men). So while I certainly appreciate the efforts of those who seek a more humane exegesis, these attempts to salvage their texts as the inspired word of God are grossly misplaced. Scriptures are not a source of modern wisdom. They are a repository of outdated morality.

I wish that these liberal religious thinkers would come to the realization that the problem does not lie with how we interpret the book.  The problem is the book.

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Falick25551e_9ad1b36d762444a0be678812295f4b05.jpg_srz_261_372_75_22_0.50_1.20_0.00_jpg_srzBio: Jeffrey L. Falick is the rabbi of The Birmingham Temple Congregation for Humanistic Judaism in Farmington Hills, Michigan. Ordained by the (theistic) Reform Jewish movement, he later became associated with Secular Humanistic Judaism, an approach that combines adherence to nontheism with a celebration of Jewish culture and life. He serves as president of the Association of Humanistic Rabbis and on the Executive Committee of the Society for Humanistic Judaism.  He is also a member of The Clergy Project.

 

photo credit: <a href=”https://www.flickr.com/photos/b-tal/65347879/”>B Tal</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/”>cc</a>


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  • The fact of the matters is that the Bible, well, is filled with contradictions, double-talk, and other such things. There’s plenty of material about loving other people, being tolerant, being kind, expressing deep humanity, and so on. There’s also plenty of material about doing evil deeds, expressing hatred, and establishing prejudice. It’s so frustrating, because ultimately both Judaism and Christianity are like ‘pickles in ice cream’, to use a food analogy, of incompatible things mushed together.

  • Andy

    There’s a reason why liberal clergy flee to the Bible on this subject. I have fallen into the same trap. It’s far easier challenging a fundamentalist’s interpretation of a text than it is challenging his/her presumption of biblical authority. In other words, we are simply granting their premise. Many of us see this as a faster way to bring the church along into the 21st Century.
    I do, however, agree with you that the bible is an outdated source of authority. Thanks for the article Jeffrey!

  • Kent Truesdale

    The Bible merely reflects what’s been called “both the glory and the horror of being human.” When there’s evidence that the scale is tipping today toward the glory, then I’ll take more seriously smug statements like, “But what was good for pre-modern people is not worthy of us today …” But the increasingly efficient genocides of the past century are not encouraging.

  • Kent Truesdale

    Andy, it looks like the “trap” may be working! Justice for gays is spreading, albeit slowly, through the North American church. Or would the author prefer that liberal clergy just let the fundies have their way?

  • John Lombard

    Kent, actually, I’m afraid you have a rather narrow view of history. Those “increasingly efficient genocides” are actually DECREASING in both frequency, and total deaths. For evidence, please check out the following data: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_wars_and_anthropogenic_disasters_by_death_toll

    Based on lowest estimates of casualties, the most deaths suffered in any war were in WW II. That was almost 60 years ago. After that, the most deadly wars were actually hundreds or even thousands of years ago. If we go by highest estimates of casualties, we find an even stronger representation of ancient wars, as compared to modern wars.

    Part of this is specifically because of modern concepts of morality. Only a few hundred years ago, war meant deliberate targeting of ALL members of the target enemy — civilians as well as military. Today, the vast majority of military conflicts do their best to target only military targets. For example, for all the media coverage about civilian deaths in conflicts like Afghanistan and Iraq, the overall percentage of civilians killed, compared to military, is far far lower than in conflicts in the past.

    Today, we also have international peace-keeping forces…a concept that was virtually unknown only one century ago.

    We have a charter of universal human rights, signed by almost every nation on the planet…encapsulating fundamental concepts of human rights that again were almost non-existent only a few hundred years ago.

    Only one hundred years ago, seeing a significant portion of a civilian population killed by war would be quite common; today, it is very much the exception, not the rule.

    The total NUMBER of wars in the world is decreasing, compared with the past. The total number of people being killed, both military and civilian, is decreasing. International awareness of such abuses is increasing, as are international efforts to prevent/end such abuses.

    It isn’t enough to just point at violence today, and say, “Look at how terrible the world is!” We must look at the past also, and compare. We must put it all in perspective. And that historical perspective reveals a very different picture than what you claim.

    The very fact that we are aware of these deaths, and object to them, is a result of modern sensibilities dictated by very different moral values than in the past. Moral values that are becoming more common in nations around the world. We certainly are nowhere near to solving the problem of violence, and there are still terrible abuses…but in perspective, those abuses are decreasing in frequency and number, while international opposition is increasing.

    Now, compare that with “what was good for pre-modern people”. Ideas such as wholesale slaughter of captive women and children. Ideas such as slavery. Ideas such as deliberate obliteration of an enemy because you believe your god told you to do it. Yes, these things still happen today…but far, far, FAR less than in the past.

    So…yes…I’d be VERY comfortable with a “smug statement” about “what was good for pre-modern people is not worthy of us today”. In fact, the few groups that are still committing such atrocities are doing so IN THE NAME OF THOSE PRE-MODERN IDEOLOGIES AND MORALITY.

    I don’t see anything “smug” in such a statement; what I see is a very clear grasp of modern reality.

  • John Lombard

    Complete straw man argument. Nowhere did the author say that liberals should be quiet, or do nothing. This kind of argument is beneath you, a complete misrepresentation of the author’s arguments.

    Yes, liberal Christians who argue for more ‘modern’ interpretations of the Bible are better than fundamentalists who insist on literal and abusive interpretations. And I’m very confident that the author would agree with that.

    But even BETTER would be to get to a point where society doesn’t need an illusory crutch like religion to justify moral beliefs. Where the Bible is seen as having no more ‘authority’ on religious issues than any other book (and arguably LESS authority than some other books). Where we no longer have to wade through a morass of misogyny, intolerance, and violence from a religious text to try to salvage what few nuggets of ‘desirable moral values’ we can find.

    The Bible is not a source of reliable moral teachings; it is confused, self-contradictory, and in many cases based on values and beliefs that the vast majority of modern humans have long since rejected. The ability of some to be able to dig out some principles that HAPPEN to fit with modern sensibilities doesn’t demonstrate any value at all to those scriptures; it demonstrates only their determined imagination, their entirely unnecessary effort to adapt ancient moral values to the modern day.

    Far better to do away with that old nonsense entirely, and start over from scratch, than to play semantic games of trying to twist the scriptures to say what we want them to say today.

  • Gehennah

    They did the same thing with slavery as well. You had one side saying that he Bible was pro-slavery while the others said the Bible was anti-slavery.

  • Just Sayin

    The problem is, that with the weapons in place today, civilization could be wiped out in an afternoon and BILLIONS could die in the aftermath.

    So even if there are less wars, which I don’t accept, and even if civilians are more looked out for, which I don’t accept and can only be believed one who has never been in an actual combat zone, it will only take ONE limited nuclear conflict to shut down civilization.

    And if there is a full scale conflict, then its the end. Science and Secular ideologies could be enough to pull it off. No religion needed.

  • Just Sayin

    In your opinion. Never mind context and taking into account who was talking to who. Never mind that descriptions of what people did were no calls to emulate their behavior. Never mind any of that.

  • Andy

    In the best of worlds you are correct, John. Unfortunately the churches I have served over the last 35 years would never be open to this broadside. I’d be out of a career, and the churches would be even more entrenched in their resistance to the voice of reason. Perhaps in another century or two? Here’s hoping 🙂

  • Linda_LaScola

    Andy — I understand the part of you being out of a career, but not the part about churches — especially liberal ones like yours (UCC) – being more resistant to the voice of reason. Can you explain?

  • Andy

    I have found, even in my liberal environment, that people still have a kind of bias toward ‘biblical’ authority. Yes, a few might understand, but I try to speak with a view to a more common denominator, which is ‘biblical’ authority. My folk like hearing that the biblical texts about homosexuality, for example, can be interpreted in a different way than the fundamentalist one. They are less likely to appreciate my saying that we should just ignore a piece of ancient ignorance.

  • Linda_LaScola

    Thanks Andy — I think I get it, but wish we’d get through this phase quickly. Sounds like we’ve moved from biblical inerrancy to biblical interpretation (for some), but what’s next? forget the Bible? I don’t see how Christians get there while staying Christians.

  • Pofarmer

    “So even if there are less wars, which I don’t accept, and even if civilians are more looked out for, which I don’t accept”

    Sooooo, why don’t you accept those conclusions? Because the aren’t premises, they are conclusions from the data collected.

  • John Lombard

    Andy…I’d point out that the article IS SUPPOSED TO BE FROM THE FUTURE. It is not intended as a proposal about what should be done today, it is rather a (perhaps overly) optimistic look into the future.

  • John Lombard

    “Which I don’t accept” <– This is the kind of response that most irks me. REALITY is not affected by your personal opinions, nor your lack of knowledge on particular issues. There are PLENTIFUL statistics and information out there which FULLY support my claims. I linked to one in my response above. There are plenty of others available with a bit of online searching. It makes no difference if you want to accept it or not.

    And yes…IF we were to launch large-scale nuclear or biological wars, we could wipe out most or all of humanity. However, the claims I was addressing were not about "what MIGHT happen"…they were about WHAT HAS ACTUALLY HAPPENED. Which are two entirely different discussions.

    If we want to get into discussions of "what MIGHT happen", then how about this? It is an absolute CERTAINTY that we will be hit by some kind of massive natural disaster. Get struck by a large asteroid. Eruption of a super-volcano. Get caught in the wake of a super-massive solar flare. It is CERTAIN that such an event is going to happen SOME time…perhaps tomorrow, perhaps 100 years later, perhaps 1000 years later. Such disasters would destroy most of life on the planet.

    But again, NONE OF THIS is related to the claims that Kent made, nor the evidence I presented to counter that claim. If you disagree, great…then rather than a meaningless "I don't accept that", how about you actually present EVIDENCE to support your claim?

  • Take off the straitjacket of Biblical inerrancy that you have put around yourself and allow your mind to look at the verses openly, using logic and reason, rather than having the fear of God looking over your shoulder and the fear of hell coming upon you. Then, you can see the Bible for what it is, a very human book written by different human authors at different times.

  • smrnda

    The problem is even if someone attempts to take ‘context’ into account there is still insufficient agreement for much of it to be said to have clear meaning.

  • >’I wish that these liberal religious thinkers would come to the realization that the problem does not lie with how we interpret the book. The problem is the book.’

    There’s just something so profound there. Understanding it was a key part of why I finally left Christianity. One can go ahead and say that all of the negative elements of Christianity can be explained away, yes, but the fact is that you’re basically taking half or more of the text and just eliminating it away from the faith. And you’re creating your own faith in the process. Christianity as a religion, and the Bible as a text, fundamentally have a bunch of moral messages, historical descriptions, and the like that are just dead, flat wrong.

    If you have a recipe, and you look at the ten ingredients and say “Six of these just won’t work for me”, and then you make your own dish using just those four that are left… you don’t have the same dish as the recipe stated. You’ve stripped out more than half of it due to your current needs. Just admit that you’re doing what you need based on your own needs, not what the recipe says.