More than once in the last week I’ve been told that when we talk about human rights, such as a right to life or a right to choose, that we “aren’t asking the right questions” because these questions arise from a modern rather than Biblical framework for understanding humanity. I suspect that what is really happening is the those whose power was derived from a privileged place in an earlier culture and historical situation are attemping to disempower those who possess an emergent self-understanding and to silence those who read scripture with their own minds and hearts and draw spiritual water from their own wells.
A month or so ago I moderated a Muslim, Jewish, Christian dialogue on “dietary laws.” The Muslim Imam and Orthodox Rabbi each did a brilliant job explaining both the source of such laws in their tradition and the various ways of construing their meaning for a life of religious faith. Their traditions offered them rich resources. I think it is fair to say that the Christian pastor had a lot more trouble finding something relevant to say about the topic.
“Is it okay to eat this?” simply isn’t a question that Christians ask except with regard to nutrition and hygiene. Indeed, the incident between Peter and Cornelius is widely interpreted to mean that even asking such questions are a foolish remnant of Jewish legalism. Instead when we consider food at all it has to do with the meaning of the Eucharist and closely related to that the problem of food offered to idols. Food is entirely a matter of faith.
This makes it tempting for Christians to tell Jews and Muslims that when they ask about what to eat they are asking the wrong questions. Because they are not asking our questions we believe that they must be trapped in a narrow pre-Christian legalism. We have the bigger picture, the more comprehensive understanding of what it means to say “you are what you eat.”
But we must surely recognize that not only will this not work in inter-religious dialogue, it will untimely deprive us of learning anything from anybody whose worldview and conceptual framing of human questions is different than our own.
This accusation about the wrong questions comes up in another way in contemporary Christian discourse. The problem is less moderns rejecting the questions asked by the orthodox, than the assertion by self-identified orthodox Christians that questions asked within a modern frame are asking the wrong questions because those questions don’t arise from a Biblical framework for understanding who humans are in relation to God.
Modernity, it is asserted, is too self-limiting in its approach to the human person and human knowing. Therefore we must return to the supposedly larger framework of the Bible to find the questions we should really be asking. In short, it is asserted, we’ll never get good answers to our modern questions because the questions themselves are wrong. We don’t understand ourselves and our situation in a way that allows us to actually ask the right questions that will allow God to guide us.
Allan Bevere, a Christian blogger, offers an example of this assertion. He wants us to follow Stanley Hauerwas and reject the “stunted and myopic modern worldview.” He says that “if Christians continually argue within the conceptual framework of modernity, our discussions will often fall short of the kind of theological and moral reflection that will offer something different to the world than simply the same old discussions that everyone can have apart from Christian convictions.” (http://www.allanbevere.com/2016/06/on-questioning-questions-on-debating.html).
This assumes that the particular culture of modernity is inadequate as a way of understanding the human condition, and that, for example questions about abortion framed within that understanding cannot yield useful answers. Instead, Bevere suggests, “There is no such thing as a right to life nor is there such a thing as a right to choose, and Christians should simply reject this conceptual framework.” And “Choice is not a right; choice is a given, and the issue is not the choice itself, but what choices are made. Life is not a right; life is a gift from God. That is biblical.”
There are two problems here. First, whatever our theological anthropology it is meaningless to the mission of the church unless it can be communicated into the culture and the language of modernity. Answers that don’t make sense in the “conceptual framework” of modernity simply won’t make sense to those who hear them, and the church will lose its voice. Bevere, following Hauerwas, seems to believe that we should withdraw from an inadequate and unfriendly modern worldview for the supposedly larger worldview of the Bible. Being resident aliens in an unfriendly world we should withdraw into a worldview ghetto whose rich gardens are incomparably healthier than the wasteland beyond the walls.
But it seems to me that in doing so we might as well be Peter at Jerusalem claiming that you couldn’t understand the cross until you were circumcised into the Jewish community. Remember that a strong argument could have been made for that. After all, Paul’s whole theology of law and grace, sacrifice and atonement depended on a particular orientation within Jewish law that privileged Jewish culture and experience. And that worldview was, as Paul essentially argued at Athens, larger and more comprehensive in its understanding of reality than that of the Greeks.
However, as we see in the book of Acts, the Holy Spirit already blew way the idea that the “stunted and myopic” classical Greek worldview was inadequate to grasp the truth of the cross. Christianity had to speak into the Greek worldview instead of demanding that it become Jewish. In the process Christianity didn’t become less – it became greater. Christians gained new capacities to understand the nature of God and the meaning of the cross. And we came to understand as Christians that the essence of the mission of the church is to translate the gospel into new cultural forms, not to squeeze the conceptual frameworks of different cultures into Biblical forms.
Moderns understand that choice is NOT a given in our world. The modern worldview understands that humans are caught up in a matrix of forces not fully understood when the Bible was written. These can effectively keep humans from being able to choose the most fundamental aspects of their personhood. The modern state, allied with modern commercial interests, have a qualitatively greater power over human life than could be imagined in the times the Bible was written. Our understanding of both the neurological and psychological aspects of human behavior are richer than those of the Bible. And they all point to the fact that choice is NOT a given.
Thus the language of a “right to choose” is necessary if we are to make ethical assertions within this matrix of powers that we now understand. The same is true of language about a “right to life.” In our culture and situation there are powerful forces that can and do deny human persons a chance to live, with living understood in a way that enriches the relative narrowness of a Biblical worldview.
In an age of genocide and modern science it is inadequate to say that “life is a gift from God that begins at conception.” Does that include conception in a test tube? Does it include all the lives conceived through in vitro fertilization, of which most are ended barely after cell division? We have to make decisions in which the basic affirmation that life begins at conception offers no guidance, but in which the question of what qualities are necessary to posses the right to life are quite relevant.
Regardless of whether or not life is a gift of God it is necessary that we take it away from some human persons in order that others remain alive. The language of who has a right to live is both relevant and necessary. But leave aside abortion, how can we begin to deal with what we’ve learned about the inner life of primates, or dolphins, or even fish? The Bible teaches, via Peter’s vision, that humans can eat anything at all. Is that a sufficient basis for the ethical questions faced by modern people about which creatures have a right to live?
I will go further. The framework for understanding human persons that is represented in discourse over human rights, emerging in the classical documents of the enlightenment like the Declaration of Independence, is fundamentally necessary for the gospel of Jesus Christ to be articulated and its meaning expressed in contemporary society. In our contemporary situation the so-called Biblical worldview will be inadequate, just as Peter’s essentially Jewish grasp of what it means to be human in relation to God was sub-Christian until he was forced into an encounter with the Greeks.
I fear that the assertion that moderns “aren’t asking the right questions” is really just the old anti-modern attack against the emergent culture of the Enlightenment into modernity. It is the last resort of those whose power was derived from a privileged place in an earlier culture and historical situation, and whose place in the church now depends entirely on their privileged and esoteric knowledge of that ancient culture and its artifacts. I fear it is an attempt to disempower those who possess an emergent self-understanding and cultural framing of what it means to be a human in relation to God. I fear it is an effort to silence those who read scripture with their own minds and hearts and draw spiritual water from their own wells.
Rather than a worldview privileged for its “larger” understanding of humanity in relation to God, what we find in scripture is God revealing God’s self in a particular set of limited cultural frameworks, and how the peoples of these cultures come to understood God and their human situation in light of God’s continual self-revelation.
Scripture does not contain a larger or more comprehensive conceptual framework than is available in other cultural contexts (including our own). It simply has a different set of limitations and affirmations. Its function in Christian life isn’t because it records a more comprehensive framework for understanding human life than any other, but because it is God’s self-revelation that always enlarges our understanding of what it means to be human.
Put another way, and perhaps with more theological correctness: Scripture is privileged not by the superior comprehensiveness of its worldview, but by the correspondence of its limits with God’s self-revelation. It is the only place where we can fully grasp the meaning of incarnation.
This does not make the conceptual framework, or more correctly frameworks of scripture for asking questions irrelevant or passé. They can no more be rejected than modern framings and modern questions, or for that matter the conceptual frameworks found in other non-Western cultures. Stripping away the privilege we give to a so-called scriptural worldview reminds us that we need a lively conversation between worldviews to understand what it means to be human in God’s world.
Brevere suggests that “modern philosophical reflection hasn’t gotten everything wrong, but it has drifted far enough away from Christian theological and doctrinal moorings that Christians should be wary . . .” The image of “moorings” is misleading.
Scripture, and the orthodox Christian theology and doctrine that emerge from it are not a mooring but a sea-anchor – designed to keep us oriented in the right direction while beneath us are the unfathomable depths of an infinite ocean. Put another way, because scripture is the church’s book it travels with us through time and space. It isn’t a mooring, and therefore we can never leave it behind.
We need the old charts because they tell us where we have been and who we are. They remind us that there is always a world beyond our horizons so that we don’t imagine ourselves to possess anything other than a myopic and limiting worldview. They even tell us the rules of navigation discovered by our ancestors in the faith as God revealed God’s self to them. But if we are no longer sailing familiar seas it isn’t because we have become unmoored. It is because we are on our way in God’s mission.