Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Compassionate listening

I am working on many of the other issues raised by commenters, but I would like to post a quote from Eric Reitan's comment on Exploring Our Matrix. I know that readers here are seeking to understand the vast range of biblical interpretation. We are trying to make sense out of the fact that much of the preaching we have been exposed to silences us and denies out circumstances.

I don't presume to suggest what people should believe but I will stick to writing about biblical interpretation in the clearest way I can.

Reitan comments,

It's rewarding to see that a quote from me can stimulate such a lively discussion.

For even broader context than my RD article provides, it may help to locate the quote within my ongoing work on the nature of divine revelation. Some of that work is summarized in Chapter 8 of my book, IS GOD A DELUSION? A REPLY TO RELIGION'S CULTURED DESPISERS, especially on pp. 175-177. But the full development of my ideas here has yet to be published.

The gist of it is this: a God whose essence is love would not choose, as His primary vehicle of revelation, a static text. We learn most about love through loving and being loved. And it is PERSONS whom we can love, as well as who can love us. And so it is in persons and our relationships with persons that the divine nature is made most fully manifest.

Christianity affirms this when it maintains that God's most fundamental revelation in history was in the PERSON of Jesus. And Jesus was, if nothing else, a model of agapic love. His core message was love. And He never wrote anything. Instead, He made disciples--PERSONS--whom He sent out into the world.

In this context, a text that collects human testimony concerning divine revelation in history, especially one that reports on the life and teachings of Jesus, is going to be invaluable. But it will cease to be valuable if we come to pay more attention to this text than we do to our neighbors. Jesus Himself declared that He is present in the neighbor in need, and the community of the faithful is called "the body" of Christ, that is, the place where Christ is present, embodied, on Earth today. Not in a book. In persons.

When the biblical witness is treated as the proxy voice of persons who lived long ago, and we listen to the voices of those persons as we do the other members of the body of Christ, then the biblical witness becomes an invaluable partner in our efforts to understand what God is saying to us--that is, what God is communicating through the web of human relationships and the spirit of love that moves within that web.

But when the biblical witness is treated as inerrant in a way that no human being is inerrant, it trumps the voice of the neighbor and is used as a conversation-ender. It becomes an excuse not to listen to the lived experience of the neighbor. Or it becomes a measuring stick for deciding which neighbor should be listened to (their experience conforms with the biblical template) and which should be dismissed (because their experience does not conform).

And since compassionate listening is one of the most essential acts of neighbor love, it follows that a doctrine of biblical inerrancy is an impediment to such love.

Therefore, I conclude (contrary to what Craig argues here) that a God of love would NOT create an inerrant text.

As far as 2 Timothy 3:16 goes, let us recall that at the time this letter was written, "Scripture" referred to what Christians today call the Old Testament. The author of second Timothy says that these Hebrew writings are "God-breathed and...useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness."

Now we can ask two questions here. First, was the author of second Timothy right? Second, if he was, what does that imply about how we should approach these Old Testament Scriptures? Focusing only on the second question, we can reasonably ask what we have to believe about the Old Testament Scriptures in order to affirm that it is useful in the ways mentioned? And we can reasonably ask about the different possible senses of "God-breathed."

On both questions, Karen Armstrong's THE BIBLE: A BIOGRAPHY offers a concise historical account of the numerous different answers through both Christian and Jewish history. There is, in short, not a single, incontrovertible interpretation.


We learn how to love by getting on with the messy business of loving one another. And one of the most fundamental features of loving one another is really paying attention to one another. But why pay attention to fallible people when you think you've got an infallible book? Why listen to them when they share life experiences that are in tension with the most obvious meaning of the book? The tendency is to silence them by quoting chapter and verse: "It's says so here. It's never wrong. So you must be wrong. Now shut up."

The fruits of the doctrine of inerrancy are particularly vivid in the case of homosexuality: the anguished cries of gays and lesbians who are excluded from full participation in the life of the community are ignored in favor of Romans 1:26-27. For a vivid sense of how poisonous these fruits can be, the documentary FOR THE BIBLE TELLS ME SO offers a dramatic example.


Sam C said...


Packer's Fundamentalism and the Word of God is still very compelling and clear in it's argumentation; I wonder if Eric has engaged with it.

My initial reaction is that he certainly poses false dichotomies, eg: we learn to love by doing X, but why would we bother with X if we have inerrancy, as though inerrancy is an impediment to X.

Perhaps my lack of exposure to the mixing pot of Christianity in America means I don't "get" where he's coming from.

Suzanne McCarthy said...


I am going to be reading James McGrath's blog and listening in on his conversations there. I am not qualified to respond to this.

CD-Host said...

Wonderful post! Since you are posting videos today: is it a choice.

Gem said...

I have some far out thoughts on Romans 1. For example, I wonder when Paul said “For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature:” Rom 1:26 if the “natural use” was really about relationship, not sex (as it is traditionally taken)? Eve was created for RELATIONSHIP! Is a marriage that only has sex and no RELATIONSHIP “vile affections”? “And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman,” Rom. 1:27 God intends woman not to be a sex toy but to be a HELP MEET, to be heard, respected, valued.

Rom 1:27″And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet.”Have you EVER heard it interpreted as anything but homosexuality? But I think it might mean that they exalt men and go off on workaholism (or some other form of consuming fleshly lust) and leave “the natural use” of woman which is as EZER/HELP MEET to be respected, heard, valued as co-heir…. so they trade in the help MEET for a MEET recompense of their error. Any wonder the divorce rate is so high in the “church”? (yes I know that the "meet" wordplay in only the KJ translation and not in the original greek, but it did get me analyzing the passage more carefully...)

Frankly, I think Romans 1:26-27 is a good description of some forms of hard compism. Its is "unseemly"- brings discredit and disfigurement to marriage as well as the scriptures and God. And the men do lust for each other in the sense of for the envy and lust for male power and position.

And I consider it a lie and a slander on God’s character to think that he is only concerned about the SEX being conventional and NOT the “natural use” for which he created women which is not about sex but about being an equal companion, a help MEET.

Romans 1 continues:

28And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient;
29Being filled with all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity; whisperers,
30Backbiters, haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents,
31Without understanding, covenantbreakers, without natural affection, implacable, unmerciful:
32Who knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them.
soooo many think this is about “the other guy” and they are superior because they go sit in a pew or pound on a pulpit once a week. I suggest a re-reading and a hard look in the mirror.

Kristen said...

Good thoughts about Romans 1, Gem. Personally, I have wondered whether Paul might have been thinking about the teachings of Plato here (which many in his Roman audience would have been familiar with). Plato taught that since women were inferior, the greatest form of love of another human being (and yes, he meant romantic/sexual love) could only be found with another male. Women, then, were relegated to the home and considered pretty much as breeding stock, while real love and intimacy, both emotional and physical, was practiced between men. The women, I would imagine, being lonely and isolated, might very well have turned to one another in the same way.

This seems very much to fit the bill of "leaving the natural use with with the woman" and all the other things Paul mentioned. I have to wonder whether it was this sort of abuse of marital love that he was talking about.