Thursday, September 30, 2010

Biblical Cosmologies, Part 1

Surah 2:22 of the Qur’an states,

[Your Lord]…Who made the earth a resting place for you and the heaven a structure…
This passage evidences the pre-scientific cosmology of the Qur’an. It envisions vaulted or domed heavens that consist of a solid structure. Such a picture of the cosmos is common amongst the ancients, and it is readily incorporated by the Qur’an and the biblical authors.

Oddly, if I were writing an article about the scientific absurdities of the Qur’an, many of my Christian readers would take little prodding to convince them of the idea that the Qur’an is lacking with regard to scientific realities. I do ask that my readers consider why it is that they are so willing to accept criticism about a book that nearly one billion religious adherents herald as the precious Word of God while they might be unwilling to countenance the idea that the Bible contains similar, if not more archaic, models of the cosmos.

In the next series of posts, I will develop several biblical portraits of the cosmos. It will become evident to the receptive reader that the biblical portraits of the cosmos are in disagreement and contradiction with the physical or material realities of the universe. How the incongruence between the Bible and science is understood by the reader is her own decision. I have taken this contradiction (and others) as grounds for rejecting the plenary inspiration of the Bible; however, I realize that there are educated, Evangelical [and Jewish] scholars who acknowledge such difficulties yet have developed exegetical paradigms by which to justify the biblical authors’ use of pre-scientific understandings. It must be noted that I have only encountered a handful of Evangelical scholars that are willing to deal with this difficulty. At the end of this series I hope to mention who they are and refer readers to their works about biblical cosmologies.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Hermeneutical Humility vs. Egoistic Eisegesis

Fundamentalist approaches to Scripture carry a fundamental egoistic component: they assume that the modern reader can assert a “God’s-eye” understanding of a given passage. The following is my response from a dialogue that I had with a fundamentalist creationist in 2007 in which he asserted that the proper reference point for understanding Genesis 1, and all Scripture for that matter, is God. In the following I attempt to show how such a “God-as-referent” approach equivocates God with the modern reader and looses the only basis for objectively-inclined study of Scripture: historical-critical hermeneutics.

In your posts you are asking for the reader to allow God to be the
scientist or referent of Genesis 1. In so doing I find that you are removing the
real-world anchor, the hermeneutical key, which is context. I see three primary
points of reference in Genesis 1 [and Scripture in general]: the modern reader,
the historical reader, and the ancient reader. The modern reader is any
contemporary reader that carries her biases to the text—we all do this. The
historical reader no longer exists, but through reading her reflections on
Genesis 1 [or any passage], we are given a glimpse into her interpretative
thinking about the text. The ancient reader is the reader that received the
Genesis 1 narrative in context. Our goal is to read the text as the ancient
reader. To posit that God is the referent is actually to camouflage the arrogant
assertion that one stands in for God to only now uncover meanings that are
relevant to the modern, individual egoistic reader (you or me).

Yes, the modern reader will never exhaust the possible meanings and
contexts that the ancient reader had at her disposal. This is unfortunate, but
it is the reality that every exegete faces with *every* text—ancient or not. I
do not assert that I have exhausted the hermeneutical means that were available
for the ancient reader, but I am trying to arrive at such a reading. Thus far
the reading that I am presenting does a much better job addressing historical
exigencies than the “God-referent” reading that you propose. Your reading
addresses modern-day exigencies. My reading grounds Genesis 1 in history and
deals with ancient exigencies.

Different readers read different
answers or questions into Genesis 1 [and any Scripture]. An Ethiopian will
likely find different meanings than a Laplander; a fisherman than a farmer; a
white collar than a blue collar, etc. This is important. When the individual
reader asserts that her biases allow her to construct the "God-approved" reading
of the Bible, this is bigotry....leading to such abuses of the Bible as
creationism. The *only* referent or point of reference that the reader can use
is that nestled in context: the sitz im leben. The process of contextualizing is
recreating the mind and interpretative framework that the original reader would
have relied on.

In this regard, special creationism as a scientific construct, fails at the
very foundation of its inception: the Bible. If the Bible contains the records
of numinous encounters, then the Author of the Bible is not a creationist. In
other words: God is not a creationist. If God is not a creationist, then the
entire creationist endeavor is simply intellectual backwaters, social backlash,
and repressive brainwashing. I think that creationism is all of the above. It
fails on the level of biblical interpretation. Need anything else be said?

Returning to the Cosmos - Reintroduction

Though it has been nearly three years since I last addressed this topic on my blog, the study of biblical depictions of the cosmos has remained a foremost area of study and thought. My discovery in late 2003 and early 2004 that the Bible depicts pre-scientific and incorrect models of the cosmos dealt a death blow to my faith in biblical inerrancy. Prior to this discovery I had always given the Bible the benefit of the doubt, trusting it despite the growing incongruence I was finding between my “biblical” and fundamentalist categories of veracity. I reasoned, “If the Bible depicted a cosmos consisting of an assumed flat earth with a solidly-domed cosmos over which the “waters above” were held at bay (one of the biblical models), and I could disqualify this model in the here-and-now, then why should I try to hammer out other inconsistencies such as internal contradictions and “old-earth” natural history?” The Bible became increasingly human, and my worldview became increasingly orphaned from the assumptions of biblical inspiration.

Really, if I had not been taught to expect an infallible record in the Bible by fundamentalist creationists, this discovery would have been far less likely to bring such a crisis of faith on me. I waivered for the next three to four years between ignoring the evidence and variously accepting its implications. Often in the same day or during the course of a week I would toggle between fundamentalism, atheism, and agnosticism. Again, to the fault of creationists, the thought of liberal models of religion never even crossed my mind. To me, as to the fundamentalist, the Bible was infallible and thus inspired or errant and thus uninspired.

Those who have followed this blog for any amount of time will recognize these posts—I posted them in the spring and summer of 2007, but I never completed the series. You are welcome to visit the originals and read the comments from others who have engaged me on this discussion; however, you will find no replies to the contrary that contribute anything but ad hoc and infertile propositions that detract from human ingenuity and knowledge of the natural world. I will re-post the first in the series tomorrow.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Asher (and cousins) at the Helm

Messianic Negation of Torah

Emerging almost entirely within a Protestant-Evangelical context, Messianic Judaism or Christianity (hereafter Messianic or Messianism), in its diversity of expressions, generally begins and operates with distinctively Christian Protestant assumptions and definitions. "One Law" or "One Torah" Messianics esteem the Torah, understood as the Pentateuch or the five books of Moses, as incumbent on Christians today. Using a post-Princeton, Protestant-Evangelical iteration of the doctrine sola scriptura Messianics operate, however artificially, with definitions and concepts inorganic to the very document which they esteem to be authoritative and so express a most basic form of anti-Semitism.

The Torah in Judaism is not just a document—it is not just the Pentateuch. For Jews of all sects and of all time, Torah is a process. The Torah as the Pentateuch is an authorized text and also an authorizing text—granting teaching and interpretive authority to the covenantal community who carries the torch from one generation to the next. To deny the covenantal continuity from the biblical era to the Jews of today is to deny the ethnic and pious experience of generations from the priest and the prophet to the scribe to the legal scholar to the rabbis. Such a denial is to deny the religiosity and piety of generations of Jewish people heralding from a diversity of historical-cultural locations yet within a unified and unfettered stream of transmission. Such a denial is itself the basest form of anti-Semitism.

As already indicated, Torah is more than Pentateuch. Deuteronomy 17:8ff, in commissioning the existence of a centralized authority structure, presents the priests and judges as authorized agents of interpretation. Regarding their verdicts in matters of legality and tort, Deuteronomy 17:11 states,

According to the torah (הַתּוֹרָה) which they shall teach thee, and according to the judgment which they shall tell thee, thou shalt do; thou shalt not turn aside from the sentence (הַמִּשְׁפָּט) which they shall declare unto thee, to the right hand, nor to the left.

The didactic role of the priests (cf Deut 33:10) and the judges is authorized here. The people are to learn torah/instruction from within the covenantal context—not alone in a supposed vacuum of private interpretation. Malachi 2:7 expresses a similar legal priority:

For the priest's lips should keep knowledge, and they should seek the law at his mouth; for he is the messenger of the LORD of hosts.

Torah/instruction is not to be sought from a book, from the Pentateuch but from a person. This chain of command, if you will, ensures the integrity of covenantal continuity and the passing of the torch not of a dead letter but of a living tradition. Messianics today attempt to keep Torah as a document. They import concepts of scriptural authority onto the text, concepts which deny the experience of the Jewish people and attempt to artificially construct the Pentateuch into a document that can stand alone, without authoritative interpretation. As a result of their confused amalgam between the Pentateuch and Protestant piety, the end result is an insult to Judaism and an impossible matrix of observance with such fundamental differences of observance as to preclude enduring community. Yet, frankly, to accept the authenticity of Jewish religiosity from the biblical era to today would necessarily negate their identity today.

Much has not been said here. I have left a lot undefined and undefended, and I hope that more will be fleshed out in any replies or in further posts. I group this topically in post-modernism as it expresses the importance of historical-cultural location awareness.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Arbitrary Morality: Another Unifying Characteristic of Fundamentalists

Disambiguation: Ritual and Ethical Morality

Before I continue, let me briefly disambiguate between ritual and ethical morality. Ritual morality is a meme of ceremonial observance that is shared by a community. The ritual can be based on any number or combination of sources: long-standing tradition, a scripture, an authority figure, etc. Examples of ritual morality include fasting on Yom Kippur for Jews, making saalat five times a day for Muslims, Sunday partaking of the Eucharist for Catholics, daily devotions for pietist Evangelicals, and innumerable others both in and outside of explicitly religious contexts.

There can be little question that memes of ritual morality can become the cement of deep-seated cohesiveness for a community. This cohesiveness, though morally neutral, can incite the participant into acts of kindness and other “good works” while just as likely engendering hostilities, prejudices, fear, and hatred toward those outside the ceremonial circle.

Ritual morality contrasts with ethical or social morality. Social morality is found in the memes and standards that govern interpersonal behaviors between members of an in-group. It should be noted that social morality is expressly exhibited in social vertebrates such as non-human primates, dolphins, naked mole rats, canines, and prairie dogs—it is not a uniquely human phenomenon.

Arbitrary [Ethical] Morality: A Defining Aspect of Fundamentalism

All ritual morality contains components of arbitrariness and is hence a form of arbitrary morality. However, the arbitrary morality that is present in fundamentalism is not that which is ritual or ceremonial; instead, arbitrary morality is what happens when ethical or social morality has lost a real-world anchor in reason, culture, or experience and is instead compromised by other influences including, but not limited to ritual morality or “voices of authority.”

Yesterday’s Question as a Litmus of Fundamentalism

Yesterday I used the following question as a test, a sample of arbitrary morality:

If the Bible was silent on the matter of homosexuality, would you consider
it intrinsically sinful?

The responses received were interesting. Seth’s reply, in particular, displays an extreme, puritanical fundamentalism that is willing to assert that even such heinous acts as rape and pedophilia would be deemed morality acceptable or neutral without presumed biblical prohibitions against them. Never mind, as Fizlowski points out, the Bible does not explicitly prohibit pedophilia. It is also worth nothing that institutionalized rape is legislated in Deuteronomy 21:10ff in which the female captive of war is forced of her Hebrew captor’s will into a marriage that she has no authority to refuse. Of course believers in biblical inerrancy will go about rationalizing the obvious injustice of this word from God—a process which itself is an act of moral injustice.

Though Seth was able to concede that he would be able to accept homosexuality apart from the Bible and despite his insulting and hateful association between consensual homosexuality and the crime rape, Tandi did not appear to be able to even address this question apart from an arbitrary authority structure. Tandi, though, does attempt to work in the modern and post-modern concepts of pluralism, but seems herself to be unable to reason apart from it.

Arrested Development

Tandi’s apparent inability to think apart from arbitrary morality, Seth’s immature, from a moral development standpoint, inability to segregate rape from sexual orientation, and Seth’s apparent inability to see the wrongfulness of rape and pedophilia are examples of one of the harms done by arbitrary morality. Just like creationism and ID attempt to wedge doubts and gaps into the methodological naturalism of the scientific method in order to create regions where human learning and ingenuity must come to a screeching stop, so arbitrary morality arrests the human mind from thinking beyond the boundaries of arbitrary social standards and so compromises moral reasoning.

Compromised Moral Reasoning

Arrested moral reasoning and the inability to question arbitrary standards, even when they engender injustice, are what makes arbitrary morality so dangerous. Arbitrary morality is what drives the terrorist and the crusader. It is dangerous and is part of what makes fundamentalism so dangerous in the world today. It exempts morality from standards of justice, truth, and compassion.

In addition to the previous qualities which I delineated to define and identify fundamentalists, I now add arbitrary morality.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

A Question to Measure Arbitrary Morality

Arbitrary morality is an ethical standard that is arbitrarily based on the voice of authority. The authority can be a holy book, a prophet, a scholar, etc. Arbitrary morality often becomes a discussion stopper when dialoguing with fundamentalists about ethical issues such as, "If God told you to kill someone, would you do it?" Naturally this question invokes memories of the binding of Isaac and becomes a defense of Abraham who did what was right not because killing his son was a good and righteous thing to do but because, so argues the fundamentalist, "God told him to do it."

The following question is a good test of arbitrary morality. The Christian right has been launching its battle against constitutional rights for LGBT minorities for some time. Those aligned with the Christian right, i.e., fundamentalist Christians, argue that homosexuality is wrong because the Bible condemns it (Lev 18:22, Romans 1, etc.). For those who consider homosexuality wrong, let me propose the following question:

If the Bible was silent on the matter of homosexuality, would you consider it intrinsically sinful?

Friday, September 17, 2010

What is Fundamentalism?

Emergence in Protestant Context

"Fundamentalism" as a term describing a religious platform first came into vogue in a specifically Protestant Christian context. The later half of the 1800's witnessed the early maturation and widespread scholarly acceptance of the theory of evolution and the higher criticism of the Bible. In Protestant churches the acceptance and theological incorporation of evolution and higher criticism lead to an official splintering of the churches, especially in America, into two camps: the modernist and the fundamentalist.

As the term modernist implies, the modernist churches which today generally are represented in the mainline Protestant denominations (e.g., Evangelical Lutheran, Presbyterian Church USA, American Baptists, Episcopal, etc.), responded more favorably to advances in scholarship. They became less focused on doctrinal purity, more accommodating of other religious perspectives, and placed an emphasis on social responsibility and social justice. Their critics accused the modernists of having a "social gospel" which sought to ameliorate conditions in the world today, not save souls for heaven tomorrow.

Fundamentalist Christianity reacted to modern scholarship with disdain and suspicion—entrenching itself deep into sociological demarcations characterized by doctrinal purity. Initially fundamentalist churches refused to even partner with modernist churches in outreach (a situation that changed in the post-1950's era of "Neo-Evangelicalism" which has further bifurcated the American Protestants into the categories "Fundamentalist" and "Evangelical"). Fundamentalists churches, in order to maintain the doctrinal purity of their pews and pulpits, asserted the enduring truths of the following:

  • infallibility of Scripture
  • deity of Christ
  • virgin birth
  • vicarious atonement
  • physical return of Christ (implied acceptance of miracles)

These five fundamentals were hence held forth as the necessary conditions of fellowship within and ecumenicism between Protestant churches. Ironically, the Catholic and Orthodox churches never went through the sociological rift engendered by the modernist controversies. However, for Protestants, the lines were drawn, and for the fundamentalists, who bore the torch of doctrinal purity in a world of increasing skepticism, they knew that vigilance was necessary to combat the incursions of the modernist disease into their churches and seminaries. How odd is it, I must note, that fundamentalist-minded Christians today have customized modernist ways of thinking and apology and are now seeking to combat post-modernism (another issue)!

Use Today for Protestants

The term "fundamentalist" was used initially in the Protestant Christian arena. When I apply this term today to Protestant Christians of any persuasion I am actually using it in the way that their forbearers honorifically applied it to themselves as keepers of the fundamentals. If one had called a conservative Baptist a fundamentalist in 1910, she would have taken the designation as a compliment, and there are indeed still churches and Protestant groups that consider the term a badge of honor. My three oldest children, for example, attend a fundamentalist Baptist church school which prides itself for its undiluted stance for the fundamentals of "biblical faith."

Use Outside of Protestantism

I have read various accounts of how the term "fundamentalism" came into application in non-Protestant contexts; however, it is clear that the term is now used to describe dogmatic demographics in far broader uses. This use, due to its broader accommodation to non-Christian religions, has taken on meanings different than doctrinal purity, Muslims, for example, maintain belief in the absolute inerrancy and plenary inspiration of the Quran and the prophethood of Muhammad as defining aspects of what it means to be a Muslim. If such a doctrinal demarcation is at the root of Islam, are not then all Muslims fundamentalist? The answer is no, and let me humbly try to apply the term "fundamentalism" beyond the limited context of doctrinal and dogmatic affirmation.

Fundamentalism, in its broader, trans-Protestant use, is characterized by the following attributes:

  • tribalism—resisting global consciousness
  • triumphalism
  • lack of situational awareness
  • indifference toward or outright rejection of scholarship and science

Any one of these three attributes would be sufficient to make one a fundamentalist.

Tribalism is a psychological position which assumes that one's in-group is superior to other in-groups. This superiority can be thought to reside in particularism of belief or conduct or even shared experience. Tribalism is a basic attribute of humanity—we all do it. It shows itself in many contexts beyond religion: politics, ethnicity, and even among adherents of scientific theories. Tribalism becomes a fundamentalism in all of the above contexts.

Tribalism is fear driven—fearful that caring for oneself and immediate others are all that one can reasonably do. Hence, it retreats, seeking refuge in a "fortified enclave" constituted by ethnicity, religion, age, class, region, profession, or lifestyle. As a result, single-issue, polarized politics; fundamentalistic, intolerant religion; and indiscriminately relativized ethics get flushed out to the fore, obscuring reality and justice.

Triumphalism is a theological assertion that one's given faith tradition or revelation "abrogates, supersedes, or cancels out all others." Regarding dogmatic or religious commitments, triumphalism is inherently anti-relativistic and anti-pluralistic. Triumphalism, with its close ties to tribalism, pits a given revelation or religious entity against the other with no hope of middle ground. It does not express a theological maturity that concedes to the legitimate existence of the other.

Fundamentalists often assert their "truths" in full confidence without situational awareness of the functions of the contingencies of their historical-cultural location, upbringing, or even personality differences. For example, the fundamentalist Christian accepts the doctrine of the absolute infallibility of the Bible and does so with full acceptance of modern definitions of history and uses of science. She does not realize how modernistic her thinking is and so imports the weight of her historical-cultural milieu into her reading of the Bible.

Indifference or rejection of scholarship is a trait of fundamentalism in its trans-Protestant use that anchors it to the original Protestant context. Though fundamentalists differ on what aspects of scholarship can be accepted, there is always, at some point, a forgoing of critical thought and scholarship—a rejection of what can be known and evidenced empirically, in favor for a dogmatism of some sort.


Though fundamentalism was originally a Protestant phenomena, it is clear that the term works well to describe other types of religiosity. Fundamentalist religious paradigms contrast with liberal religious paradigms which accept religious relativism and allow for an Ultimate Reality larger than their present horizons. However, on point, fundamentalism can be identified either in its original Protestant moorings or with broader characterization by the traits mentioned above.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Evolution and Divine Agency: Reflections from a Non-Interventionist Naturalist

What do Evolutionists who are not Atheists make of the Omnipotence of God? If God did not create, what DID He do? How can they trust in His Plan of Redemption if they cannot believe He created this world? Creation and Redemption are intertwined according to Scripture.

The above question was posed recently by a fundamentalist friend of mine. This question is difficult to answer not because the concepts are difficult to grasp, but because those who ask this question are most often lacking the appropriate theological and scientific definitions and categories. Additionally, such questions are most often raised by those who are victims of the artificial polarity that Young-Earth Creationism (YEC) and Intelligent Design (ID) has infused into the minds of those embroiled against evolution.

The fundamentalist who asks these questions probably does not realize that she already uses categories of divine activity that work equally well in understanding possible relationships between God and evolution. When faced with the proposition that life as we see it today can be thoroughly explained without divine agency, this person will find said lack of divine involvement to be a statement against the existence of God. However, when presented with other physical processes that occur around her such as photosynthesis, meiosis, and the chemical process of combustion, she would feel quite comfortable accepting the absence of divine agency. She might posit that God provided for the laws and designed the processes behind these ubiquitous physical events, but she would not need to invoke the miraculous to explain the combustion of fossil fuels in her automobile engine. In fact, if she did invoke the miraculous to explain how her vehicle became mobile, we would all agree that something was quite amiss in her thinking.

We see from the above that this questioner has already categorized divine agency into the buckets of miraculous and providential. Miraculous activities, as the name suggests, are miracles or actions that suspend or contradict the laws of nature. Providential agency, in contrast, would be that which includes the laws of nature unsuspended and uninterrupted. Resurrection from the dead, the dividing of the Red Sea, the burning bush, and the giving of the Quran by the angel Gabriel would all be examples of the miraculous. Photosynthesis, meiosis, combustion, and evolution, when categorized theologically, are then to be viewed as actions of providence.

From this point whatever I write will be an act of murderous selection as I chose the from the available words and metaphors. For every metaphor I use, I will be forgoing another dozen.

Omnipotence in classical theism is seen as the sovereign power of God over all things. Omnipotence, in this model, includes the prerogative of God to stop, interrupt, or intervene at will. The classical God of omnipotence, it should be noted, is a duly wicked God. Such a God sees the natural and moral evils that plague humanity and with every moment of nonintervention is a complicit agent of evil. The omnipotent, interventionist God is not worthy of worship. On the other hand, such a God, through creating by divine fiat, is a miser who withholds autonomy and giftedness from the natural order. In this model the natural order would be expected to have functional gaps or abysmal hurdles that methodological naturalism (science) cannot explain. This God inhabits these gaps with much ado and this God’s followers love to create make-shift, just-so wedges of doubt into the integrity of the natural order into which to shove their God’s throne.

As an alternative to the model above, omnipotence can be framed not as divine prerogative but divine empowerment which is how open and process theists understand divine agency. God is omnipotent because God empowers and grants autonomy—power is shared. The autonomy with which God gifts the cosmos then is a limit to God, one that God cannot intervene or stop without compromising the essential autonomy of the natural order. Such a God is not detectable by the empirical sciences and dwells instead in the realm of metaphysical speculation and faith.

Returning to evolution, the fundamentalist accepts by faith the omnipotence of God despite the evil that then becomes attributable to the deity. Likewise, to the degree that the fundamentalist emphasizes omnipotence in the classical categories, to that degree do photosynthesis, evolution, combustion, etc dismiss of the need for an interventionist deity. When the fundamentalist moves toward acceptance of providence and omnipotence as empowerment, to that degree do natural processes become acceptable.

Oh, more can be said, but my schedule is limited of late. Maybe I will develop more, but for the time being, this is all I have.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Biblical Morality -- Women's Suffrage

Ninety-two years ago this week, President Woodrow Wilson announced his support of the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution which banned all sex-based restrictions on suffrage. Today women enjoy the right to vote.

I am often annoyed by Christian fundamentalists who claim to base their morality on the Bible. Do Christians consider what bearing the Bible might have on the matter of women's suffrage? Do they not realize how far removed biblical ethics often are from their everyday "God-given" moralities and human rights?

Let me ask you--What does the Bible say about women's suffrage? Do the scriptures give women democratic rights--the right to vote and to hold authority on par with men?

A few passages to consider are Numbers 30:6, 9 / Isaiah 3:12 / I Corinthians 14:34ff / I Timothy 2:11,12