Saturday, July 18, 2009

More on Contextualism

The confirmation hearings of Sonia Sotomayor have given us another opportunity to listen to earnest members of the Senate emphasize that the U.S. Constitution should not really be interpreted, but rather only applied within the limited constraints of the intent of the framers. In making this point they employ the buzz phrase, legislating from the bench. This perspective, like all literalism, is patently absurd. Even if we could determine the framers' intent, using other writings and the like to build a case, we would still be left with the enormous question of what the framers might think about, say, electronic communication, or global warming, or moving the headquarters of a corporation to Bermuda so as to avoid paying taxes in the United States. Newsflash: they didn't think about such things.

Literalistic religion is even worse, in part because the scale of time is much greater. The WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?) crowd seems to be asking serious questions, though a Rolex wearing, Mercedes driving, Brooks Brothers clad member of a prosperity gospel church wearing a WWJD wristband is also patently absurd.

Before we can consider WWJD, we need to ask WDJD and WDJS (What Did Jesus Do?, and What Did Jesus Say?). The answers to these questions, however, are not clear. Though we have access to written works purporting to record the actions and words of Jesus, whole panels of scholars engage in lively debate about which accounts of Jesus' words and actions, if any, are literally true. (for more information, go to a link explaining the Jesus Seminar, here.)

Further, even if we established the historicity of any of Jesus' words and actions, we would then need to consider WDJM (What Did Jesus Mean?). Again, there is no unanimity about the meaning or intent of anything Jesus said. This is one of the explanations for the many different faith traditions and denominations within the larger "family" of Christianity. We interpret what Jesus (might or might not have) said differently.

Truth be told, we're really just making stuff up.

Now, we make it up in full accordance with the rules established by the particular branch of the Faith we follow. Before anyone can be recognized as having the authority of the church to which they belong, they need to pass rigorous examination by others within that denomination or sect to make sure they are making things up according to their tradition's established rules. After all, we don't want just anyone making up just anything! Heavens, no!

Look, I'm not picking a fight with the Faith.... In the first place, it's too easy, and in the second, you can't ever be recognized as having made a valid point anyway, so why bother.

My point is, if we are going to make things up, that is to say, select for emphasis certain religious tenets which may or may not be based upon historically accurate information for application to circumstances totally beyond the experiences or awareness of anyone that may or may not have uttered them in the first place (unless you're a member of a sect that believes that the Almighty is indeed All-Knowing and therefore anticipated everything that is happening and that will happen, and caused stuff to be said and written for just that purpose), let's be honest about it. And let's be purposeful.

Rather than worrying about whether or not we are getting our understanding of the past right, I propose that we concentrate on understanding the implications of present actions for the future. Can we find an ecological ethic in the Bible, or in the words of Jesus? Perhaps, but we really have to engage in some eisegetical gymnastics to do so. I'd prefer we just say that, given the time we are in, and the new circumstances we face, we cannot afford to spend much time wrestling with whether or not the words of any ancient text commend action. To continue to do so is patently absurd.

Could Jesus help the commercial fishing industry by instructing them from which side of the trawler to let out their 20 mile long drift net? Would following his teaching on the matter limit the ecological damage done to fish stocks and coral reefs?

We aren't any longer debating how many angels can stand on the head of a pin. Thank goodness we've progressed so far.

1 comment:

  1. One of my co-workers, Lanelle, decided to enroll her daughter in a Bible daycamp, some kind of international non-denominational deal. Her purpose in doing so was to allow her to explore the possibility that she would get something out of the bible that Lanelle hadn't. Instead, it seems it was more of a brainwashing attempt, where when Leila expressed doubt, she was pulled aside and questioned in a somewhat aggressive fashion about whether she 'believes' and it was put at a high priority that she go to church.

    I think that in a world where we are squandering our resources, but don't talk about how our belief systems fit into ecology, economy, even health care, *where* you believe is less important than what you do about it. The planet is not an endless basket of fish; we cannot reap without sewing. Stupid theological arguments don't deserve our time, for it is precious.

    Lanelle pulled Leila out of Bible camp.