How frail a foundation, ye saints of the Lord

How frail a foundation, ye saints of the Lord July 16, 2013

I’ve mentioned this quote from evangelical author and pastor Tim Keller twice recently (see here and here), but let me take another run at it here from another angle.

Keller was paraphrasing marriage equality advocate Jonathan Rauch in order to argue that condemnation of homosexuality as a sin is inextricably bound up with the lynchpins of evangelical faith. Here’s what he said:

If you say to everybody, “Anyone who thinks homosexuality is a sin is a bigot,” [Rauch] says, “You are going to have to ask them to completely disassemble the way in which they read the Bible.” Completely disassemble their whole approach to authority. You are basically going to have to ask them to completely kick their entire faith out the door.

To be clear, Keller isn’t saying that evangelicals’ “entire faith” is based on the belief that “homosexuality is a sin.” What he’s saying is that this belief arises from — and has thus become the pre-eminent shorthand exemplar of — a particular way of reading the Bible and of appealing to its “authority.” Since that approach to the Bible is at the center of what Keller says it means to be an evangelical Christian, it cannot bend without the whole thing breaking.

The deeper problem with what Keller is saying here is that he’s equating evangelicals’ “entire faith” with the “approach to authority” and “the way in which they read the Bible” that we have assembled. Assemble an approach to authority, then assemble a way in which to read the Bible and then you can build your faith on top of that. Your “entire faith” is a product of your prior choice to embrace an approach to reading the Bible and to authority.

That’s backwards and upside-down. It makes your entire faith an edifice constructed on top of the foundation of one particular, peculiar, non-negotiable hermeneutic. Keller is rewriting the beloved old evangelical hymn:

How frail a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith in your choice of a particular approach to authority and the way in which you read the Bible.

The original, for those unfamiliar with the song, goes like this:

How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith in His excellent word.

The remainder of the hymn shows that its composer, John Keith, agreed with the author of the Gospel of John — that Jesus is the “Word of God” upon which all our faith depends, not the Bible and certainly not the way in which we have chosen to read the Bible.

If Jesus is the basis for your faith — the object and the subject and the substance of your faith, then your “approach to authority” and “the way in which you read the Bible” can be completely disassembled without you having to “kick your entire faith out the door.”

In fact, if Jesus is the center of your faith, then you’re probably going to have to regularly and repeatedly “completely disassemble” your ideas about authority and the way in which you read the Bible. Your faith will require you to do that. Almost constantly.

And when you completely disassemble your approach to authority and the way in which you read the Bible, you’ll wind up with nothing left except your faith. Your faith is what remains after all those other constructs have been completely disassembled.

And they will be. Probably more than once. Probably often. All those constructs you’ve carefully assembled — your approach to authority, the way in which you read the Bible — will at some point be dismantled before your eyes. If they were the foundation, and your faith was something built later on top of them, then it will fall with them.

But if faith was your starting point and your foundation, then the collapse of all those things assembled on top of it won’t affect it. You can sweep away the rubble of them and begin building anew with the foundation intact.

For most Christians, embracing a previously excluded group of marginalized people won’t require a radical tearing down and rebuilding of the hermeneutics we’ve constructed atop the foundation of our faith. For others — those who have somehow convinced themselves that such exclusion is an essential aspect of their religious identity — that disassembly and reconstruction may be as dramatic and traumatic as Keller suggests. But that doesn’t mean this disassembly isn’t necessary. Or that it isn’t inevitable.


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  • P J Evans

    Or the other hymn:
    My hope is built on nothing less
    Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness

  • Michael Pullmann

    Houses built on sand…

  • Daniel

    Assuming that viewing homosexuality as a sin is the basis for your faith, why is it a bad thing to ask someone to abandon it? Assume for the sake of argument your entire faith was based on the assumption that all English people are evil (Mel Gibson) why would anyone else be obliged to respect that, and not try to get you to renounce it?

  • Becca Stareyes

    Because apparently the virtue of having faith of any sort outweighs whatever you do to others in service of that faith.

    Somehow I don’t think that Keller believes that is true universally, since I imagine that if someone’s faith called a group he belonged to evil or sinful, he would be trying to convince them that their faith needs to go, and that they should adopt his (or at least a faith he finds less objectionable).

  • Daniel

    “I imagine that if someone’s faith called a group he belonged to evil or
    sinful, he would be trying to convince them that their faith needs to go”

    and vice versa, presumably. I’d guess that a faith that has more or fewer than one god would not be good in his eyes. What’s his view on theistic Satanism, do you think?

  • SkyknightXi

    I don’t think it’s that homophobia is the basis, so much as such ones regard all the decrees (at least, the ones that suggest particular ideals) as not being discrete, but rather facets of a single whole. Keller et al. don’t so much see multiple decreed laws from God, as they see a single decreed worldview/manner of acting.

    On top of that, there’s the idea of God being invincible in everything. He canNOT be forestalled, swayed, or arbitrated with. ALL you can do is make sure you’re not on his bad side. In a sense, morality is subordinated to piety. Morality for its own sake is seen as nothing more than another form of “salvation by works”. Or at least, not dissimilar in worthlessness. Basically, if you don’t submit in totality to God, you’re regarded as scorning his absolute authority.

  • Carstonio

    Fred might believe that millions of evangelicals who marginalize gays and lesbians see this as wrong but also see themselves as forbidden from stopping this. Or he might believe that these millions want to marginalize those groups and are selectively reading scripture to rationalize this. For me, entries like this one can be read either way, as assuming an honest conflict of conscience or ridiculing the self-serving stance.

  • Jared James

    Would it matter if Jesus were not good?

    I’m presuming that the righteousness referred to in the poem as Jesus’ own, since the righteousness of the follower seems more like one of the authoritarian assertions than one of genuine righteousness.

    Put another way, if Jesus just said, “T’Hell with it, let’s get this crap over with,” rather than, “Here am I, Lord. Send me,” would the desired outcome (his life’s sacrifice) not have happened anyway?

  • Periodically re-examining the assumptions of your model seems like good science to me.

  • arghous

    “One of themselves, even a prophet of their own, said, The Cretians are alway liars, evil beasts, slow bellies. This witness is true.”

    Then you won’t mind me disrespect and renounce Paul, as he has all the moral authority of Mel Gibson?

    Actually, I’m fine with that.

  • Veylon

    Yes, but then they run into all those other laws that they don’t follow. Lending with usuary. Garments woven of different threads. Lighting a fire on the Sabbath. Jubilee.

    It really undercuts whatever credibility the notion of a ‘Christian’ lifestyle when all the things that might actually change the style of a life are cut out. All but one.

  • SkyknightXi

    I’ll admit I was thinking in terms of the ones that suggest actual philosophical ideals. Not the ones about poly-fiber garments or the Sabbath fire, but definitely the ones about usury and the Jubilee would count.

    Although I do wonder what’s so immensely important about interdicting homosexuality to them. At the very least, I’m trying to find reasons that run a bit deeper than authoritarian gender role assignments.

  • Fusina

    I have been in the middle of one of those re-examinations of my faith lately. It would be easier if I were an atheist. I envy my atheist best friend. If I could stop believing that there is a God, I think I totally would. The problem is that I don’t believe the part of us that makes us who we are goes “poof” after this body dies. What happens I do not know, but I look forward to someday finding out.

  • MaryKaye

    The response I’ve actually gotten from people like this is that those who disagree with them don’t actually *have* a faith, just a pretense and a bunch of rationalizations. This response is particularly likely if the faith in question is less legalistic than Evangelical Christianity.

    I think the root problem is authority. It’s hard for non-authoritarian religions to gain power and prominence; it’s hard for authoritarian religions to give any credence to individual conscience, since doing so undercuts authority. So even things that start out rather anti-authoritarian–Christianity itself, Protestantism–become more so as they gain temporal power. Wicca is pretty non-authoritarian but it’s also completely disorganized; we have trouble mustering political power.

    (A side rant: Time Magazine ran an article on how volunteer work is helpful to veterans–quite a decent article on the whole, but it has a little dig midway “You notice that secular humanists never send teams to do disaster relief.” Which just makes me want to argue nastily with an author who is not available for argument–bleargh!

    My coven’s “Empress” ritual resulted in a large grove of native dogwoods in a local park–they are 25′ tall now and have completely excluded the invasive blackberries, just as we hoped. But article author could have been working next to us the whole time and would never have known this was a Pagan volunteer project, because we just showed up and worked like all the other volunteers and didn’t publicize our religious nature. Which is funny, because “do good in secret” is an explicitly Christian virtue….

    Anyway, rant over.)

    It occurs to me that one reason Evangelicals may feel I don’t have a faith is that sometimes they hit the VERY hard situation of having their faith directives conflict with their conscience. I don’t get into this situation much, so I may look to them like I’m getting off easy. I’m never going to have to go up the mountain to sacrifice my firstborn son. I acknowledge that this is enormously hard. I just don’t think that you should do it–if you know it’s wrong, it’s wrong, even if the god himself appears to you to demand it. (Couldn’t that be a test of virtue rather than obedience, dude?)

    I had a long series of semi-friendly debates with a fundamentalist, years ago, and one thing I came away with was a conviction that he did not know the difference between “doing what feels good” and “doing what feels right.” I think this could come from callusing of the moral facility caused by authorities insisting that you must do what feels *wrong*.

  • As someone who wrestled between atheism and deism, I understand that feeling completely…

  • P J Evans

    Ah: that article was Joe Klein getting it wrong, again.

  • Marshall

    Fundamentalists are not Jewish; they don’t consider it necessary to be Torah-observant. The point would be that they have a different body of Law which they view as a unitary whole. Derived mostly from Paul, I guess, but really owing more to the authority-structure of “The Gatekeepers”.

  • stardreamer42

    Except for those few things that they pick out from the Torah and insist MUST be faithfully adhered to, that is.

    I call this “Country-Western Christianity” because it depends so heavily on pickin’ and choosin’.

  • I mean, easy is a hard word to define; it sounds like what you are saying is that it is easier to believe there is part of your that doesn’t go “poof.”

  • Fusina

    No, because among the rational people I prefer to hang about with, I have no proof, and rationally there is nothing to say that I will go on after my physical body dies. I wouldn’t say it is easy or hard. A friend and I discuss this all the time. She is, as I have mentioned here, an atheist. I am a christian, albeit a heretical one by some lights–mostly the ones that find other religions bad. I kind of pick and choose amongst the various religions, sorting out that which I find helpful to me and that which I do not. I cannot tell another to do this, it is a journey for one. It is lonely. But it is also rewarding. I am not a pagan, for instance, but I find their admonition of “An it harm none, please yourself” a very good way to live. I have found that it isn’t as simple as it would seem, as you need to examine what you want to do carefully, as harm that is unintentional is also to be avoided. I have found, as I study different religions, that all of them have good and bad within them. What I do is try to seek out the good and leave the bad behind. Someday, I may succeed. But I am not yet perfect–and as bad as some CCM could be, there is one song that I love the chorus of, and I quote,

    “Caught in between the now and the not yet,

    sometimes it seems like forever and ever,

    that I’ve been reaching to be all that I can,

    and I’m only a few steps nearer.”

    And so step by step I work my way to what may be, whether it is god or just a permanent sleep. I kind of hope there is resurrection, because I would like to have an eternity to discuss things like this with people like the ones I meet here.

  • Baby_Raptor

    His statement makes no sense. Christianity doesn’t have a “You cannot be a bigot” clause. It’s totally possible to be a bigot and still take this man’s view of biblical authority.

  • Baby_Raptor

    Might I recommend a slight change to your post?

    “All but the one that’s so easy for them to follow, because they aren’t gay.”

    It’s a matter of convenience. Changing themselves is hard and challenges their feelings of superiority/specialness. Taking a “righteous stand” on an issue that in no way affects them allows them to get the ego boost with no discomfort.

  • smrnda

    An issue might be that sexual ethics (only heterosexual sex, within marriage, and increasingly, without contraception is viewed as okay) is one of the few ways that Christians distinguish themselves, morally, from just ordinary humanists. I really don’t think you can throw the anti-homosexuality out without throwing out a lot of these teachings on sexual ethics. That’s the stances that gatekeepers use to decide who is in and who is out – sex and gender roles. If that went, the gatekeepers would lose, so they’re fighting this to preserve their power.

  • Reminds me of a February post, “The problem with evangelical sexual ethics is that we haven’t got any.” Fred’s point was that evangelicals group everything into two boxes: married sex and Everything Else. And Everything Else is wrong. It’s against The Rules.

    Who interprets, enforces and reinforces The Rules?

  • de_la_Nae

    Probably quite a few of them have a visceral internal reaction to it. It happens sometimes, for various reasons that I’ll let others argue about. Anyway, that ‘gut feeling’ is often equated with the moral compass.

    Anyway, won’t apply to all by any means, but I suspect it’s a good-sized demographic of sonsabitches.

  • Baby_Raptor

    That’s ultimately the problem.

    The answer is “people with power.” (The answer *should be* you yourself, but humans seem to like following a leader more than not, as a whole.)

    But the thing takes a right turn a Buggerville when you start looking at who has the power. those people aren’t in power for we’d call good reasons–helping people, a real calling to serve, ETC.

    They’re not good people. And thus they end up using the power they weild in a not good way.

  • I think I’ve quoted it before, but…

    What always happens when religion goes to the bad? Power. The love of power overcomes the love of the gods. Priests stop listening for the voice in their hearts and souls–which is very, very hard to hear even at the best of times–and start to listen only to what they wish to hear or to the voice of their own selfish desires. Priests begin to believe that they, and not the gods, are the real authorities. Priests confine broad truths into narrow doctrines, because more rules mean that they have more power. Priests mistake their own prejudice for conscience and mistake what they personally fear for what should universally be feared. Priests look inward to their own small souls and try to impress that smallness on the world, when they should be looking at the greatness of the universe and trying to impress that upon their souls. Priests forget they owe everything to their gods and begin to think the world owes everything to them.

    — Mercedes Lackey, “Redoubt”

  • Ryan Hite

    People who are against a cause tend to have the least faith in their beliefs.

  • Daniel

    No one ever seems to explain why this all powerful being is so precious either. Given God can do literally anything why is he so fragile as to be upset when people don’t love him totally, particularly when (in light of the whole gay thing) his rules make it so difficult to do this?
    The idea that by not submitting totally to him is to scorn his authority reveals a lot more about the believers’ fears for themselves than about God.

  • Daniel

    “”You notice that secular humanists never send teams to do disaster
    relief.” Which just makes me want to argue nastily with an author who
    is not available for argument–bleargh!”
    Yep. That’s one that gets wheeled out a lot- with the person smugly stating it failing to note that the reason is non-religious organizations do not define themselves as such in their names. Just off the top of my head, secular organizations that provide a sod of a lot of help around the world include:
    Medicines san frontiers
    The Red Cross
    The UN
    Amnesty International

  • AnonaMiss

    Have you considered that it continues to exist, but in the past?

  • AnonaMiss

    Erm, sorry, this is a better article

    Four-dimensionalism pages on Wiki aren’t well-grouped.

  • Fusina

    Is there a group that believes that after death we are freed from time? And the Perdure thing is interesting. I wrote a poem about how the angels maybe see us as long worms, only seeing us as we are when we have been freed of time. Alas, it has been lost to the mists of time–but now I may revisit the idea and recompose. I wrote the initial idea down after reading a sci-fi short story about someone who predicted the future, and people were described as long worms–I think it was by Asimov.

  • AnonaMiss

    Not as far as I’m aware. I’m just a philosophical four-dimensionalist and find that it helps me wrap my head around myself no longer existing – which sounded like the main source of your dissonance between what you should believe by your usual standards of evidence, and what you do believe.

  • Ross Thompson

    I do wonder what’s so immensely important about interdicting homosexuality to them.

    This is just my personal meandering, and I’m sure it’s not terribly original, but:

    There’s a subset of preachers that realises that if they rail against greed or anger or anything else Jesus condemns, they’re going to be making most of their congregation uncomfortable, and that leads to smaller congregations, which leads to less money in the plate. But most people are not tempted by homosexuality, so it’s safe for them to condemn.

    Then there’s a subset of preachers that does feel tempted by homosexuality, and (because we all tend to think that everyone is just like us) assumes that everyone else has the same desires. And they preach against homosexuality because they believe it’s the biggest temptation facing their congregation.

    These two groups shift the religious version of the Overton Window far enough that not taking a position on homosexuality becomes a statement in its own right. And the process accelerates.

  • Michael Pullmann

    Well, I know that in Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut said that to the Tralfamadorians, we all look like like worms, each segment a moment.

  • Carstonio

    I remember two cases from the 1980s of fundamentalist parents attempting censorship of school books. One book showed a card game, and the complaining parents believed that playing cards was evil. Another showed a boy cooking, which one mother said went against her god’s dictated gender roles.

    These would fit well with one theory I’ve heard, which is that such fundamentalists are trying desperatetly to keep their sons from turning gay and their daughters from becoming pregnant. The commonality seems to be controlling their kids by controlling society. I would think if such parents were more secure, they would simply stick with their own beliefs in their own homes while following a hands-off policy for the rest of society.

  • dpolicar

    My guess is you’re thinking of Heinlein’s Life Line.

  • Marshall

    What such things do you find in the Torah that you don’t find in Paul? Anyway the point is that it isn’t the Congregant in the Pews that does the pickin’, it’s the Gatekeepers, such as Albert Mohler. And even they pick within an existing framework.

    What they SAY doesn’t always or even usually explain what they DO. That’s usual among Humans.

  • Fusina

    He was my second guess as to the author, and the title is the correct one, if I am recalling it correctly. I don’t remember authors far too often–comes of reading voraciously. Some I remember–Andre Norton is one of them–I love her books. Did not, however, know they were fantasy/science fiction. I didn’t care about the genre then, I don’t now. I read things wherein the characters interest me, and of whom I would like to know what happens. I now know that the bookshelf I found that was jammed full of fascinating stories by authors from Asimov to Zelazny was the F&SF shelf, I didn’t when I was thirteen. So when someone a few years after I read through the shelves asked if I liked F&SF, I said I didn’t know what that was.

  • dpolicar

    (nods) I wouldn’t necessarily have remembered, except that I encountered the story in a large anthology of his work, and he makes a back-reference to the main character in a much later novel that caught my attention.

  • Dualism pantheists believe that there are spiritual components to the universe, including the possibility of spiritual realms where the soul might escape to after death. It’s basically like saying “atheism is all good and well, but I still believe religion got some things right and I’m not writing them off because we have no way of knowing.” There’s no one way dualism pantheism operates, but here’s an article which touches on a few concepts which may be worth reading.

  • phantomreader42

    But christianity, as it is practiced by many, has developed a “How DARE you call me a bigot!” clause. Christians of this type have no problem whatsoever with BEING bigots, but consider it an intolerable act of anti-christian persecution to actually CALL them on it.
    Fortunately, not ALL christians are this kind of narcissistic, thin-skinned bigots who can’t stand to be called out on their bigotry. Unfortunately, those who aren’t have disturbingly little influence.

  • smrnda

    It also ends up trivializing things like rape, since ‘rape’ gets shoved in a box with ‘masturbation’ as if the two were equivalent, along with ‘consensual sex between loving adults who just don’t happen to be a heterosexual married couple.’

    I really think that sexual ethics is where certain ideas fall apart, since once you’re ‘ethics’ isn’t about harm or benefit to anyone but rules, you’ve really just admitted that your morals are totally divorced from any concern for human welfare.

  • Monica Swanson

    Excellent post. Thank you for continuing to show the middle ground between “blindly following one interpretation of the Bible” and “rejecting Christianity/God/religion entirely.” As I continue my own spiritual journey, it’s good to be reminded that changing my own views on one particular aspect of Christianity is not wrong–in fact it’s healthy–and doesn’t mean I’m rejecting everything else.

    As an aside, I understand WHY some people end up rejecting Christianity, and I’m not saying they were wrong to do so. But for me personally, I cheer when I find someone who fits into the middle of a Venn diagram showing “Christians” and “Smart People Saying Smart Things.”

  • MarkTemporis

    I will note Paul himself does a bit of self-renouncing up there anyway. Isn’t this one of the great logic puzzles? If Cretians are always liars, a Cretian who says he is lying is what?

    Is this how Paul dealt with NOMAD?

  • MarkTemporis

    If he said the line you propose, Jesus would be one RIGHTEOUS ass-kicker!

  • hf

    You know, Christian burial looks like it started as a sign of faith in the resurrection. People would preserve their bodies as best they could. The modern version would be cryonics.

  • Fusina

    Ah. I had planned to request cremation (I’ll be dead, thus have no actual control) but now I am thinking about donation to a body farm as being better for the environment. Dunno if I’ll be resurrected–no proof either way–and yeah, Jesus said he did, but again, no physical proof–but if everyone gets resurrected, there are some bodies that are in–well–very, very small pieces. Back in the seventies there was a comic book from the same publisher as the Christian Archie stuff with a body being “resurrected” from the bottom of the ocean. The picture has stuck with me, along with a deep hope that such is not how it happens. Ick.