Saturday, October 30, 2010

Theology vs Truthiness

In my previous blog I illustrated that claiming having lustful thoughts are exactly the same as being an adulterer is not only stupid, it destroys the entire Christian faith.  Now you may have read that and thought to yourself, "Well hold on, that may be a well reasoned argument* but that doesn't change what it says right there in the Bible."  You would be correct of course, it certainly does look like Jesus was agreeing with Christine O'Donnell when you read the passage in question.  But is that really all there is to it?

The answer is that no, there is actually a lot more to it.  Many Evangelical Christians prefer to use the Steven Colbert approach to Bible reading.  It's a lot easier to just believe what your gut tells you ought to be true and forgo all the hard work of exegesis, understanding context and looking at the bigger picture.  The problem is that this doesn't always lead you to truth.  You are far more likely to end up with "truthiness".  Just because it feels true that doesn't mean it is true no matter how convinced you may be that the feeling in your gut is actually the Holy Spirit.  See the Bible wasn't written for any of us.  Every Biblical author wrote at a specific point in time and space and addressed the work to a primary audience with a specific background, language and culture.  If you aren't willing to understand Scripture the way the original recipients understood it then you may be better off not studying it at all.

In this specific passage in Matthew we don't have an English speaking Caucasian pastor addressing a western mega church.  Instead we have a First Century Jewish Rabbi addressing a group of Jews seeking religious instruction.  Rabbis were not only people who taught you what God commanded (the Torah laws) but also tried to show people how living according to God's commandments was supposed to look practically (called halakhah, "the path that one walks").  So then we find Jesus in Matthew 5 using a rabbinic practice called "putting a fence around the Torah" (Mishnah, Pirke Avot 1:1).  See, the rabbis reasoned that since small missteps can (not inevitably though often enough) lead to the actual breaking of Torah law, the best solution was to give rulings that prevented people from even coming close to breaking the actual Law.  For instance, one such ruling taught people not to handle tools on the Sabbath lest the temptation to work became too strong.  (I have never struggled with that particular temptation myself but you can see the principle at work here. ) In short the idea was that if you never took the first step towards the slippery slope, the chances of you actually slipping were nullified.

Lest ye doubt me, here are some examples of the same practice by other rabbis, bearing a rather striking resemblance to Jesus' words in the Sermon on the Mount:

"He who violates, 'Love your neighbour as yourself', will ultimately violate, 'You shall not hate your brother in your heart', and 'You shall not take vengeance nor bear any grudge', until in the end he will come to shedding blood" (From a Rabbinical commentary dating around 200 to 300 AD)
The train of thought is pretty clear here.  While only murdering your neighbour is actually against the law, the rabbinic restrictions are there to keep you from ever going down the path that could possibly lead to murder in the first place.  Best to stay as far away as possible from small sins lest they lead to big ones.

They also - just like Jesus - seemed to come out very harshly against relatively mild transgressions like gossiping and humiliating someone in public.
"To which is gossip more similar, robbery or murder?"
"Murder, because robbers can always give back what they have stolen but gossips can never repair the damage they've done"
"... one should rather fling himself into a fiery furnace than humiliate someone in public." (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 59a.)

[Interested in learning more about the Jesus as a Rabbi?  My source here is "Sitting at the feet of Rabbi Jesus" by Spangler and Tverberg.  Its an accessable and easy read that does a great job at exploring the Jewishness of Jesus]

Actually I just realised that I'm wasting energy even explaining this.  Firstly, no one actually leveled any such criticisms at me.  Then again, there are probably not a lot of Biblical literalists who would regularly read a heretic's blog.  Secondly - and this is the big one - no one actually believes that claim, not for a second.  Oh they would say they do, but they don't.  If you asked Christine O'Donnell or Ray Comfort (or anyone who regularly speaks to Christian teens) if they believed that lustful thoughts were the same as adultery in the eyes of God they would reply without hesitation that yes they do believe that because that is what the Bible teaches.  But they lie.  They may not realise that they are lying but actions speak louder than words and no one lives as if they actually believe that.  Think about it, let's say you are totally committed to Biblical Literalism and you find out your pastor/spouse had a sexual relationship outside marriage last week Tuesday.  You would be upset right?  You would be asking for a resignation/divorce immediately.  Now what if you found out that last week Tuesday your pastor/spouse saw an attractive person and had a quick sexual thought about them, what would your reaction be then?  The same?  Somehow I doubt it.

*In my head you are very well mannered and courteous, whoever you are. 

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