that awkward moment (surreal actually) when Christians dismiss the scholarship of non-Christians

That awkward moment when you ask,

So it turns out that there has been a discussion online regarding my personal religious views (or lack thereof). Ironically, the subject made its way into the public realm when Dr. Jim West introduced the topic as a red herring distraction from a lengthy discussion we had been having about why he continues to support the denial of rights and privileges to same-sex couples when it comes to having their marriages legally recognized by various secular state governments. The discussion where I challenged Dr. West on his fallacious logic regarding what he insists must necessarily follow if same-sex marriage is legalized can be found in the comments here.

In response to our exchange, Dr. West posted this post, in which he introduces yet another logical fallacy (a red herring) which he has used in the past, namely, that only Christians can critique Christianity, and that critiques made by those who are not Christians can be dismissed because they have no vested interest in the preservation of the faith. Or, to use Dr. West’s words,

“…we have different perspectives PRECISELY because I see life through the lens of Christian faith and he does not. It is for this reason that our views on several issues differ…I simply recognize that, at the end of the day, we approach problems and issues from differing starting points.”

Of course, once anyone reads the original disagreement, one quickly notices the inherent logical fallacy is Dr. West’s line of reasoning: my critique was regarding Dr. West’s selective hermeneutic depending on the particular social issue he’s addressing. While discussing slavery, despite the fact that the Bible clearly establishes divinely ordained slavery (Lev. 25:44; Exod. 21:4-6; Deut. 15:16-17) and endorses this previously established slavery (Titus 2:9; 1 Peter 2:18; Col. 3:22; Eph. 6:5), Dr. West opposes it. Similarly, despite the fact that the Bible clearly sees women as secondary in status to men, and that the New Testament commands women to remain silent (1 Cor. 14:34; Col. 3:18; Eph. 5:22-23) and not to have authority over a man (1 Tim. 2:12), Dr. West does not preach the continued suppression of women’s rights in our secular government. And yet, when I asked him why he continues to support the suppression of the rights and privileges of same-sex couples, he responded with a different, more fundamentalist, literalistic hermeneutic, stating:

“…i’m a christian and we don’t have the luxury of dispensing with things just because our culture thinks we should. culture isn’t the final arbiter of truth. revelation is.”

Of course, the blatant hypocrisy and inconsistency of this highly selective hermeneutic is glaring. Are not the passages condoning slavery and the suppression of women also “revealed Scripture”? Why is it that when the biblical revelation orders women to remain silent, Dr. West uses one hermeneutic to work around the passage so as to allow some women to have authority over men in the secular state government, but when homosexuality is condemned in the Bible, all of a sudden this sacred revelation is binding for all time, even for our secular government?

The question I posed to Dr. West was why he inconsistently employed one hermeneutic to read passages he was OK with dismissing, and a different hermeneutic to retain prohibitions against things he didn’t like (like homosexuality). And yet, Dr. West’s response deflected from his own inconsistency, and he proceeded to attack the accreditation of the one pointing out the hypocrisy, namely, me. I wasn’t a Christian, so we simply have to agree to disagree. However, that wasn’t the point of contention! The issue was Dr. West’s inconsistency, not my accreditation.

I based my critique on logic and facts (what the text actually says), and because he had no answer to his inconsistency, he simply ignored the critique, and invoked a rhetorical red herring to deflect from the critique: I wasn’t a Christian, so we’re going to disagree on this.

The only problem is, ignoring a critique does not invalidate the critique. Or, to quote Aldous Huxley, “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.”

Or put another way, exposure of genuine logical fallacies and hermeneutical inconsistencies are valid regardless of who is pointing it out. The fact that one is not part of a particular group does not negate said person’s critiques of said group. To argue that one must first be a devout, believing Muslim in order to truly understand and therefore critique Islam is just as fallacious when it is applied to Christianity. (And qal w’homer, it is all the more fallacious when the one doing the critiquing has, in fact, been formally trained in both a graduate Christian seminary and at the doctoral level in one of the top state universities in the nation.) And, Dr. West would be among the first to affirm the notion that a person need not be properly accredited or affiliated in order to convey truth, be it an unaccredited college or an unaffiliated congregant. Dr. West knows that one’s lack of affiliation and accreditation does not limit one’s ability to speak truth.

And yet, rather than answer the question, Dr. West dismissed the critique arguing that since I was an agnostic, my point of view was not binding upon Christians (again, a non sequitur).

So, Dr. James McGrath called Dr. West on his dodge and non sequitur, describing Dr. West’s comments regarding same-sex marriage to be “so ridiculously illogical as to be bizarre”.

In response to this, Dr. West, rather than acknowledge that he had dodged the issue at hand, doubled down on my agnosticism, claiming,

“I didn’t say Bob wasn’t a Christian. BOB SAYS Bob isn’t a Christian. Bob calls himself an agnostic.”

And while the statement is true (although I would ask whether one can question the unprovable faith claims made by a group and still retain affiliation with said group), it continues to miss the point: Dr. West’s entire critique of whatever my personal religious beliefs may or may not be was a diversionary tactic designed to avoid addressing his inconsistent interpretation of passages, as well as his selective invoking of the “revelation” of the Bible. Dr. McGrath went so far as to remind Dr. West that the Israelite Exodus from Egypt is also “revealed” – (in fact, they named an entire book after it!) – and yet, Dr. West has elected to follow the interpretative conclusions of the so-called biblical “minimalists” and deny the biblical accounts of the Exodus as they are presented in the Bible. Dr. West has even written in defense of “minimalism”, and has argued that those who insist upon the historicity of the very “revealed” biblical accounts of the Exodus “are the true distorters of Scripture.”

Once again, Dr. West rejects slavery and the suppression of women, and rejects the historical biblical Exodus, but when it comes to marriage equality for same-sex couples before the law, he suddenly remembers that Scripture is “revelation” that must be codified into secular state law for all time. The selective inconsistency is obvious.

Joel Watts also chimed in with a thoughtful piece asking whether the religious preference of an individual actually matters in a scholarly discussion about the Bible. Mr. Watts rightly challenges Dr. West’s fallacy that “acceptable facts can only generate from acceptable quarters,” and rightly concludes:

“…who the hell cares what religion someone is if their statements are supported by the philosopher’s trinity — facts, logic, and reasoning? Further, the religion of the person, or the lack thereof, does not in anyway limit them from contributing to a discussion on said religion.”

But meanwhile, back at the Hall of Justice, an interesting thing began to occur on James McGrath’s blog; a conversation broke out regarding whether or not I was actually a Christian. I watched as different individuals chimed in with evidence for and against my religious affiliation. The conversation got so bogged down in claims and counterclaims that James suggested that someone take the time to just ask me. So one of the individuals making comments (named “pithom”) did just that: invited me to answer the question once and for all.

And so I did. Here’s the text of my response on Dr. McGrath’s blog:

“that’s not a bad idea. and thanx to pithom for the invitation.

so tell me: where in matthew 25, when the king is separating the sheep from the goats, does it list church attendance, proper position on same-sex marriage, or even belief in the existence of god in the list of reasons given by the king for admission into the kingdom.

where in this passage (matt 25:31-46) does it even mention doing these deeds in the name of jesus?

what is more important: proper action or proper belief?

i say action. lived life is superior to believed life, and i’m not even from missouri.

kind and just deeds are not means to an end; they are ends in themselves. we should not do kind things so we can get something in return (like a hypothetical star in a hypothetical crown in a hypothetical heaven). rather, we should do what is right because it is the right thing to do, understanding ‘right’ as that which builds up self and neighbor and community, and makes others’ lives a little brighter.

if we take care of each other, the afterlife will take care of itself. and if there is none, then we still lived a great life, and our children will speak highly of us at the city gates. and if there is, then all the better.

stop arguing about life after death and start living the one before it. live it well. be merciful. be fair. and love one another.

however you define that, that’s what i am.”

Of course, anyone who has ever read my “about me” page on this blog or my Wikipedia user page should be able to ascertain the answer. But still, my personal beliefs (or lack thereof) are not the point!

Rather, the points are twofold:

  1. One’s personal religious or nonreligious affiliation should not matter in a professional, scholarly debate about the subject matter. Unless one appeals to one’s own faith as evidence in support of an argument, one’s personal religious beliefs, or lack thereof, should be moot. As long as the argument is rooted in facts, evidence, logic, and reason, then it doesn’t matter if the scholar is Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, atheist, capitalist, communist, or Martian: sound arguments are sound regardless of who makes them.
  2. The entire discussion over the fate of my eternal soul and my status as a Christian was, from the outset, a diversion from the issue at hand: Jim West’s inconsistent hermeneutic, and his selective appeal to the “revealed” status of Christian Scripture when the condemnation of homosexuality was under discussion. The entire discussion of my agnosticism is moot.

So, Joel Watts decided to have some fun with the situation, and after asking me if he could, posted an online poll asking whether or not I am “saved”. But the poll was designed to highlight the above two points: that in scholarship, one’s religious affiliation or non-affiliation is moot as long as the arguments are sound.

Interestingly, Joel informs me that at last count, with 29 votes cast, over half of those casting votes apparently understand the fallacy of Jim West’s diversionary tactic, and 55% have voted that my religious affiliation “doesn’t matter because facts are facts.” However, I was also intrigued to discover that 34% went ahead and voted “no”, that I’m not saved, and that only a paltry 10% (3 votes) voted that I am, in fact, “saved”.

Thus, from this data we can conclude two things:

  1. that I had better stock up on otherworldly fire retardant, and more importantly,
  2. we can see why fallacious appeals to an opponent’s lack of faith (like screaming “ATHEIST!”) are so effective: nearly half of those casting votes cast judgment on the fate of my soul rather than notice that the poll was designed to test whether voters could recognize the logical fallacy of appealing to my moot religious affiliation. (But I do offer my thanks to those three brave souls who consider me saved. ;-)

I want my friend to change his opinion on same-sex marriage. I want him to see the beam in his own eye – the inconsistency of his hermeneutic – that everyone else so clearly sees. I want him to see that using an appeal to the revelatory nature of the Bible to suppress the civil (not religious, but civil) rights and privileges of LGBTQ individuals is just as wrong as when it was done to slaves in the 1860s and to women in the early 1900s. I want him to stop posting embarrassing (and to many, offensive) comparisons between homosexuality and criminal activities like polygamy and pedophilia, and lumping them all together by arguing, “insofar as they are deviations, they are similar.” Such comments are not worthy of scholars and professionals, but are instead what we have come to expect from many fundamentalist preachers and politicians. I want my friend to change his scholarly opinion, and I want him to stop attacking the beliefs (or non-beliefs) of other scholars making valid points. Again, such sloppy rhetoric is not worthy of scholars.

Rather than make my personal beliefs the topic of conversation, I simply ask my friend to apply a consistent hermeneutic to his reading of the Bible, and to stop singling out gays for special condemnation.


for the back story:

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scott bailey on acts 1:9-11 (astronaut jesus’ ascencion into heaven) and why it’s important

Scott Bailey recently had a good post on the ascension episode in Acts 1:9-11. Scott pointed out an aspect of this story that has been largely debunked by modern science, but has received less scrutiny as a story lacking any possible historical viability. Scott’s post is as follows:

For those not down with the liturgical calendar Ascension Day is traditionally celebrated on a Thursday, forty days after Easter Sunday. Then, 10 days after Ascension Day is Pentecost, when the disciples were the first to be en fuego.

As James pointed out earlier this week, Ascension Day and the story which inspires it challenges the claims of any person to read the Bible literally.

And after He had said these things, He was lifted up while they were looking on, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. And as they were gazing intently into the sky while He was going, behold, two men in white clothing stood beside them. They also said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:9-11)

There’s two aspects to this story I’d like to comment on. First, if we were to take the story literally then the two men in white clothing ask perhaps one of the silliest questions in the Bible. I can just imagine one of the disciples turning around and sarcastically replying, “Well, Jesus came back to life and started walking through walls and stuff, and now he just floated to heaven on a cloud… so yeah, I’m trying to get my head around this for a minute if you don’t mind.”

Second, and more importantly, we can’t really take this story literally for a variety of reasons. Literally, Jesus goes up to heaven in the story. This ‘perspective’ is built on the cosmology of first century persons:

However, as we all now know, heaven is not ‘up’, and if everyone on earth were to be raptured ‘up’ to heaven they would go in a variety of different directions in our solar system as we are on a planet orbiting the sun, while rotating at 23.5 degrees. Which one of these persons would fly ‘up’ to heaven?

So according to the story, astronaut Jesus flies his cloud up, and I assume we are to believe that he no longer needs oxygen in his resurrected body and that he is impervious to the vacuum of space. But, where would Jesus be traveling to if we know that it’s not just a short trip ‘up’ to get to heaven?

This is a picture of our galaxy:

Our galaxy is 100,000 light years across, so that means if traveling at the speed of light, “We now know that, if [Jesus] began ascending two thousand years ago, he would not yet have left the Milky Way (unless he attained warp speed).” ~ Keith Ward (The Big Questions in Science and Religion p.107, via James McGrath].

On the one hand it surprises me looking back at my earlier cognitive categories for reading and understanding biblical narratives that I could hear and read this story with absolutely no skepticism whatsoever. Jesus flew to heaven. Check. Flip the page to the Upper Room story without even considering some of the problematic issues in the ascension narrative.

Now of course there are theological ‘explanations’ for the story, but what I am referring to in this post is the material difficulties, simply put: it cannot be read literally and made to cohere with what we now know about our planet, solar system, and galaxy.

Scott brings to mind something I have been kicking around in my mind for some time (and touched upon here at the FRDB).

Modern Christianity is presently crippled by the fact that in the first few centuries of the faith, those who allegorized many of the Bible’s claims lost out to the literalists and those who claimed textual (and therefore historical) inerrancy. (See Tatian’s attack on allegorizing Christianity’s stories in chapter 21 of his Address to the Greeks: “Believe me now, O Greeks, and do not resolve your myths and gods into allegory…”) Today, many Christians are attempting to return to allegorical explanations as solutions to the increasing number of textual discrepancies and refutations brought to light by literary criticism and modern science. Again, if heaven is a real, physical place, and Jesus physically ascended there (so say the two men in white in Acts 1:11) in a real, human, resurrected body, and not simply a spirit (cf. the Corinthian heresy in 1 Cor. 15 and the Apostles’ Creed), then even if Jesus were to travel at the speed of light (the physical maximum of our universe for a physical, fully-human body not in a Star Wars or Star Trek movie), given the size of our universe, he’d still be on his way there today! But, attempts to allegorize this and other stories are held hostage by the earliest of Christian authors, who condemned the practice. Early Christian apologists won out (Constantine and his armies may have had something to do with it) precisely because they argued for the historical accuracy and inerrancy of the text – the very two ideals (historical accuracy and textual inerrancy/infallibility) that are causing the majority of problems for fundamentalist Christians today.

So we are left with three options: 1) denying logic and science and adhering to Christian fundamentalism (which claims historical accuracy and textual inerrancy/infallibility), 2) abandoning Christianity altogether because of the belief that the stories must be factual/historical or else the entire Bible must be discarded, or 3) finding a middle ground that acknowledges that the earliest Christian writers (i.e., the “Church Fathers”) may have screwed up a thing or two, upon which later Christian scholars (with the benefit of the advent of modern science) can improve. Of course, this would lead to a rethinking of every sacred Christian doctrine, which in turn would make church leaders in every denomination very uncomfortable (not to mention would undermine their powerful positions of “keepers of the(ir particular brand of) faith”), but the alternative is to watch Christianity continue with obviously irreconcilable errors.

This is what critical biblical scholarship is trying to do.

Instead of relying on the thoughts of men who lived in a pre-scientific age and saw their purpose as one of an apologetic defense of the historicity of all biblical claims and the harmonization of these oft contradictory claims into what we today refer to as “systematic theology,” why not rethink Christianity from the formation of the text forward (that is, pre-canon), abandoning obviously incompatible claims of early Christian authors (even if they were influential for their time), and approach Christianity from a modern perspective of critical analysis. Why can’t Christianity be relevant to modern society and compatible with a modern scientific understanding of the universe? Why hold Christianity hostage to ancient, obviously errant opinions and doctrines?

Can we at least ask the questions?

Or, must Christian scholars continue to sign confessional statements of faith and/or attend particular denominations in their private lives  in order to get the jobs that allow them to teach and study religion? If you force scholars to sign confessional statements in order to teach at a university, don’t be surprised if the results of their “research” continue to perpetuate the errant doctrines of old. (And don’t be surprised if state universities and private colleges that do not require such confessional statements continue to outperform and outrank confessional schools.)

It is only a matter of time before many Americans (including many Christians) realize there is little difference between Islamic fundamentalists who believe that their “inerrant” religious text (the Qur’an) should be the law of the land, and fundamentalist Christians who believe that their “inerrant” religious text (the Bible) should determine and guide our secular laws. Until there comes a time when rational thought, removed from fundamentalist, literal interpretations of a so-thought “inerrant” text, comes to guide and inform our nation’s laws, our nation (and Christianity itself) will continue to suffer.

via: Ascension Day and Astronaut Jesus.

three thoughts on egypt for 2/11/11

 

2-11-11 - Egyptian Democracy Day (image by Dr. Robert R. Cargill)

2-11-11 - Egyptian Democracy Day (image by Dr. Robert R. Cargill)

Here are three thoughts on Egypt for 2/11/11, the day Hosni Mubarak resigned the presidency:

  1. 2/11 did what 9/11 couldn’t: it showed that nonviolent Arab dissent can defeat what militant Arab dissent desired: a nation ruled by autocratic force.
  2. 2/11 used to be Islamic Revolution Day in Iran (here and here and here), establishing the present Islamic regime in Iran.
    Today, 2/11 becomes Democracy Day in Egypt.
  3. Less than two months ago, Egyptian Coptic Christians were massacred in a New Year’s mass in Alexandria (here and here and here). Today, the Egyptian President, Muhammad Hosni Mubarak, is gone. It was only when the people of Egypt – both Muslim and Christian together – rallied in a secular, nonviolent protest, that the people of Egypt united as one to take back control of their country.

Follow the celebration at UCLA’s Hypercities Egypt Digital Humanities project.

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