Saturday, June 6, 2009

Question of the Day

How do you know when to do which?


Anonymous said...

In defense of theists everywhere, I would argue that you interpret when a scriptural passage is informed by an outdated or vastly different cultural context, and you don't when the message is either culturally relevant or can transcend cultural differences.

There is a middle road between absolutist morality and complete moral relativism, and it's not just for atheists and agnostics!

Free Radical said...

Who decides what constitutes an outdated passage, or an irrelevant one? Who decides that Leviticus must be interpreted, but the Ten Commandments should be taken literally? They are delivered to the same people by the same God. Who decides, for that matter, that you are permitted to interpret at all? Are we or aren't we talking about the word of God?

I'm not actually making an argument for moral relativism (which I suspect we're misconstruing here), but I will ask this: for a theist who claims scripture as a moral compass, what does it mean to say "My Biblical morality leads me to take the Biblical verses condoning genocide figuratively, or ignore them altogether?" Doesn't the circular nature of that argument speak to obvious cherrypicking?

Anonymous said...

It's not necessarily a matter of reading figuratively or literally. It's a matter of reading in context, which quite frankly should be the case in reading any document. If I remember correctly a professor of history recently taught me a mantra to the effect of: the document's content, it's author, his audience, and his purpose in writing the document.

I'll use an example of such reading when examining religious scripture, using the Bible simce I have the greatest amount of experience with it. Clearly, the Gospels were written with an agenda of portraying Jesus Christ in a particular light, and we intended to codify teachings about his life and mission. However, some criterion can be applied to get a more historical account of Jesus from admittedly biased documents. Stories where Jesus acts in a manner that is surprising or uncharacteristic of a Jewish man of his time and upbringing(treating women as equals, breaking the Sabbath), or acts in a way that is embarassing to a Christian are more likely to be true stories, particularly if they are corroborated across the Gospels.

The above example isn't supposed to argue for the historical accuracy or legitimacy of the Gospels (that's a whole different discussion), it's just to demonstrate how scriptures can be read contextually without deciding "I don't like this part so it's figurative; I like this part so it is literal." Passages have a historical context, and if the entire message of the passage is based around the context, when that context changes, so does the message.

Free Radical said...

But that would be a reading of the scriptures as a historical document - which indeed I would love. No holy text, however, has been read that way by its followers - indeed, most major faiths essentially forbid such a reading. Your perceptive method for determining the legitimacy of certain Gospel texts is certainly not the practice of the Catholic or Episcopal Churches, who still consider the New Testament a divinely inspired book of truths; Christian denominations become steadily less reasonable from there, arguing largely for a wholly literal reading of the Biblical texts as the received word of God himself.

I suppose what I'm arguing, really, is that you're being unfair the word? You're arguing that "figurative or literal" isn't the question, and it SHOULDN'T be, but it absolutely is. That is the exact question asked by theists on a daily basis to determine which Biblical verses should inform their moral outlook; a historical approach is fine by me, but could any organized faiths survive it?

Anonymous said...

I think I'm conceding the argument, then? I'll agree that most people DON'T read scripture in the manner I'm suggesting. I honestly don't think it would be destructive of religion, organized or not, if it were. That's how I do it, and I manage well enough. I guess I just wonder what's so wrong with applying my reason and experiences to a religious text to inform my moral outlook?

Also, I'm afraid I can't take the credit for the "perceptive" method of evaluating the Gospels. I was taught this method (in more detail) in my freshman year theology course, from a book I fear I no longer possess. It seemed relevant!