Disclaimer: This definitely does not reflect the views of anyone, but me. Don’t bother PCUSA, Young Adult Volunteers, Joining Hands Network, or any other entity with your displeasure at any of my opinions below. Bother me. I want to hear your thoughts.
The title is a question I have struggled with for much of my life. It’s not a new one and I’m sure most of my readers similarly struggle. And given the average age of my readership, I’ve been asking this question for far fewer years than most of you. All the same, I’ve been reflecting rather deeply on this question in the last few days. So suffice it to say, I’ve come up with several promising additional questions. And then I offer some shaky answers, which provide me with at least some solace.
I’m writing this post as a follow-up to my thoughts on reinterpreting the bible with a more progressive outlook. Soon after sharing this post on Facebook, a friend commented that he felt there was still a need to be apologetic for a religion involved in deaths of so many throughout the years. I acknowledged his question by admitting that claiming (reclaiming as it feels at times) Christianity comes with a lot of baggage and there is no use denying that.
And as often happens on Facebook, several highly intelligent and opinionated friends joined the conversation and the debate quickly took a turn for the condescending. After discussing whether or not all Christians are responsible for the actions of those who misinterpret the gospel. And then I watched the discussion enter the territory of how the absence or presence of belief plays into mass atrocities. Several studies and articles were cited about the connection between religiosity and morality. If past observation is any indication, the discussion was about three comments away from accusations of similarities to Hitler, so I’m glad to say the debate quieted down.
Honestly, and with respect to those involved in the debate, I think these were the wrong questions. The question to me is, why reclaim a faith that has already been so tainted by centuries of interpretations that have provided rationalizations for mass atrocities throughout history? The debate affirmed that immorality is independent of where someone lies along the faith spectrum.
Likewise, it requires a substantial amount of research and work to place the Bible within its political context and pull out the progressive message offered by Ched Myers and relayed to us YAVs by Rick Ufford-Chase. So if morality is independent of faith, why put in all the work to reclaim faith? What’s the purpose of faith if it isn’t necessary for morality? Why reclaim a faith that people associate with centuries of mass atrocity?
A strict cost-benefit analysis could label this practice irrational. You’re wasting energy, time, and possibly money for something that is not linked to greater ethical ability? Obviously, one could argue that there is no place for rationality in conversations about faith. Still I’d rather entertain the notion and the possibility that this type of biblical study could be somewhat rational.
I’ll start from the fact that rationality must be defined within the constraints of the world. If this thoughtful study of the bible pushes someone to be more ethical, then for that individual it could be a rational choice. Yet, I find myself uncomfortable with the outcome here that some people are somehow more inherently moral without faith. At best that disturbs me and at worst it implies that some people are more inherently moral than others.
Instead, maybe reinterpreting the gospel is a response to those who use it to justify violent acts. As a fellow YAV put it during orientation, “Jesus’ message was co-opted by the empire” when Constantine made it the official state religion of Rome. During a Bible study, Rick added that this made mandatory military service and the Christian faith part of citizenship in the Roman Empire. While this led to the end of persecution of Christians that characterized the early centuries, it led the religion to be used with war. My dad has said for awhile that granting this act by Constantine was the worst thing to happen to the church. I’m not sure if I fully agree given the possibility that the church could have disappeared, but I never quite appreciated what he meant until now.
Given this “co-opting” of the message, treating the Bible as a progressive political document becomes an act of speaking truth to power. And that is how you truly go after systematic problems. You have to do much more than apologize for the discomfort and baggage associated with a faith, race, gender, sexuality, or level of privilege.
Another friend wrote to me, “Don’t apologize for your beliefs, it’s unattractive.” I’d take that one step further: Don’t apologize for your beliefs, reclaim them.
Still, this is troubling because it implies that one interpretation is not progressive and that is troubling. I do not want to engage in open debate on the best reading of the gospel, but I guess my point is: what are the costs of this argument? Are some interpretations of the Bible better or more accurate than others? It’s not a statement I’d want to make lightly, so instead I’m just raising the questions that logically follow.
Many might feel that this is all too much fuss when they find no additional solace or greater morality in faith. To that I offer two responses.
First, it’s fun. I found meeting the challenges in this week’s studies to be an absolute blast. It’s an incredibly cross-disciplinary act, involving linguistics, history, political science, economics, geography, archaeology, literature, and many more. So of course it aligns right with my liberal arts values.
Second, it provides a richer sense of fulfillment for me. You see it is amazing to think that 2000-plus years ago, Jesus was spreading a message with which I already identify very much. In fact, I believe there is more to the message than I would come up with myself. For example, I tend to reject violence as a means to solve problems as I believe the Bible does, but what does the bible-in-context say about issues like locally-sourced food, an issue I struggle with currently? There may be issues that humanity may grapple with in the future, which the Bible can speak to when placed in its sociopolitical context. Or not, it’s just an idea.
I guess, my point is, I very much value this contextualization of the Bible for many reasons above. I don’t think that your placement on the faith spectrum directly explains your morality. In fact, several studies conflict on the issue. There’s no causality there, but there is still a lot of value (to me and many I met this last week) to putting in the work to contextualize and find guidance in the Bible’s word.
That being said, I’ve got lots of questions I’m still struggling with. For example, what happens when the Bible is still at odds with my values when placed in sociopolitical context? Will some stories lose their previously progressive and, in my opinion, positive message when placed in this context? That’s a little unsettling and even more motivation to dive in deeper and get to contextualizing.
A follow-up point: Another reason to bother with faith is because we are worshiping the one triune God as raised by a reader. It’s an obvious answer to the question, but one I didn’t consider as I was writing in response to the Facebook debate mentioned in the article. Of course, there’s always future posts!