Sunday, May 28, 2006

The reasons people say can differ to what they think

If you have a strong view on something, and want to convince others, then you do your best to convince them. You tend to give them different reasons to accept your view. Generally, you give them one reason, and if they don't agree then you try another.

So one of the basic things we learn is to give reasons that others find convincing. Say I was trying to convince a workmate to do something instead of me. Say the reason I'm doing this is that I'm feeling particularly lazy. But the reason I might say to them might be something like "I did this last time, it's your turn". So my motivation for my position is my own feelings, but my explanation to them is some idea of fairness that I seize on. In reality the fact that I did it last time has nothing to do with why I don't want to do it, but it is a good way to convince them to do it.

People naturally act like this all the time. Motivations tend to be emotional, while explanations tend to be rational. Similarly, we have a tendency when trying to convince others to look for reasons that they might agree with, regardless of our own motivations.

So what's might point? Well I was reading someone's in-depth theological analysis of what Jesus had to say about divorce. They were reading a lot into Jesus' brief explanation about how you shouldn't separate what God has joined together. They thought this proved that marriage between a man and a woman is a God-ordained institution (it seems to me that a simpler explanation is that this is a reference to marriages taking place with vows before God). But anyway, that got me wondering. They are assuming that the short explanation given by Jesus is his real motivation.

As I noted above, real motivations and the explanations given are often two quite different things. Explanations given are usually ones that the hearers accept, not necessarily ones that the speaker accepts. So it seems faulty reasoning to say that because Jesus gave a certain explanation to his hearers that he not only accepts that as the explanation, but also endorses every single imaginable theological implication of that explanation.

You see, the Jesus I see in the gospels is largely concerned about caring for the excluded, the outcasts and the suffering, and being a voice for those who have no voice. So it seems a little random to see Jesus giving this commandment about divorce and supporting it with an abstract theological claim. I would expect Jesus to forbid divorce in his society for a different reason, as follows. The women in their culture had no rights, and were not legal entities - they only survived by being in the care of male relatives and then husband. Their husband divorcing them would quite likely put them in dire straits. I would expect the Jesus I see in the gospels to be concerned about this, and wanting to prohibit divorce for that reason. Furthermore, a prohibition on divorce for the sake of the woman is likely to have one exception - where the woman has brought it on herself. Namely in cases of adultery, where the woman has dishonoured her husband by sleeping with another man. (Remember, hubsands could not dishonour their wives by sleeping with another woman, because woman didn't have honour. So only wives could commit adultery in a relationship, not the husband.)

So Jesus' statement that a man should not divorce his wife except in cases of adultery [ie where she has committed it], fits perfectly with a motivation of concern for the woman, which in turn fits with the Jesus I see elsewhere in the gospels. So perhaps his explanation that man should not separate what God had joined was a reason for the hearers rather than a motivation for Jesus? Perhaps it was a proverb, or a common reason cited to prohibit divorce which Jesus uses to support his point?

Of course we can't really know one way or the other. My point is really that we should be aware that it is common that the reasons people give aren't the ones they have, and keep that in mind when interpreting the bible. Let's not get too enthusiastic about accepting the reasons given at absolute face value and doing deep theological analysis of them, in case they actually weren't the real reasons at all.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

The greatest commandment

When Christians think of the two great commandments, we often without thinking rank the first above the second. We see love for God as more important than love for our neighbour. After all, isn’t God more important than other humans? We are saved by faith in God, and not by loving others right? Loving others is something nice that we ought to do, but our eternal salvation doesn’t stand or fall on it, whereas it does on our love for God. That is generally the reasoning. And so we turn the list of two commandments into an ordered list, where the first is of primary importance and the second is of secondary importance.

However this does not seem an accurate reflection of early Christian use of those commandments. Christians today often take for granted that those two commandments were original to Jesus in the sense that he was asked by people who wanted to know what the greatest commandments were and he ranked those two commandments in order as a list given by God incarnate.

However, Jewish writings from the period show that it was an accepted Jewish religious truth that these were the two greatest commandments. The gospels reflect this – some depicting the commandments in Jesus’ mouth and others put them in the mouth of a Pharisee in answer to Jesus’ question. In other words this saying was not original to Jesus – he was repeating a common Jewish saying.

The interesting thing to look at then, is what new use he made of it. How did Jesus and the early Christians change or modify the existing Jewish truism? Which of the two commandments did they stress, emphasise or extend and which did they downplay?

In Luke, Jesus expands on the second commandment – enlarging it to cover love for all humanity and not merely one’s own race (which was the way most Jews understood it). In 1 John, both commandments appear and the second is stressed while the first is downplayed in favour of the second. We are told that what we have been commanded from the beginning is to love one another. We are told that love of God is to obey his commandment and that his commandment is to love one another. Hence by obeying the second we also obey the first (making the first subservient to the second). We are told that whoever loves his brother knows God for God is love and God dwells in them if they are loving.

If we look at Jesus’ ministry we see him campaigning against the religious leaders who were extremely zealous for God. He attacked them on the grounds that they mistreated the poor and suffering. He was challenging those who loved God because they did not love their neighbours. He threatened them with hell because they did not care for the suffering enough. In other words he threatened with hell the very people who thought they were assured of heaven because of their religion and love for God.

So we see that far from valuing the first commandment over the second, the early Christians turned it around and emphasised the second commandment over the first. Love for God was of less importance than love for others, God’s judgment would be based on how we treated others (Mat 25).

One of Jesus’ parables was about a man who had two sons, whom he asked to do something for him. One son refused and then did it, the other agreed to do it but did not. In Jesus’ society, it was of extreme importance to uphold your family honour. Part of this was a son’s public obedience to his father, so if a father asked a son to do something the son was obliged to announce his intention to obey his father’s will (regardless of whether he subsequently obeyed or not). To flatly refuse to do a father’s will was the height of disrespect and dishonour, and any father would prefer a son who agreed to obey but did not over the son who insultingly refused and caused a public loss of honour and then obeyed. This very story may well have been regularly used to teach honourable behaviour. The moral of the story would have been that the son who publicly honoured his father would have been the better son.

Jesus turns this around and says that God prefers the one who says no and then obeys. In other words, God prefers the person who dishonours him and insults him but does his will to the person who praises and glorifies him but does not do his will. That is a strong statement, but little different to what some of the prophets had said hundreds of years earlier when they criticised an Israel for worshipping God with their mouths and sacrifices but not caring for the poor or giving justice to the oppressed. Jesus is once again saying that God values action over religion. A similar point is made in James 1:27 where he says what God considers pure and faultless religions is to care for those in need and not be corrupted by the world.

Yet today evangelicals think that God values religion over action. We are saved by faith in Christ and our actions are just good works. In this way today’s church seems very much like the Jews of the time of Jesus, it needs the same critiques given for the same reasons. If that is true, we need to be worried, because Jesus didn’t pull any punches. To the Pharisees who were famous for evangelism he said “you go 10,000 miles to make a convert, and when you do you make him even more deserving of hell than you”. Those were harsh words to those religious people who were doing their best to save others! Yet who do Jesus’ words remind us of today? Evangelicals are famed for going to the ends of the earth to make converts. We better be careful then that we are not making them more deserving of hell! Yet we tell them that love for other people isn’t that important and what really matters is subscribing to our religion – if they become Christian, we say, they will be saved. That sounds a lot like the Pharisees who saved people by getting them to follow Israel’s God, and it sounds like the reason Jesus was attacking the Pharisees applies equally to evangelicals - we downplay love for others in favour of religion and the importance of believing in the right God.

Monday, May 08, 2006

The Bible as a timeless moral text

I have encountered a fair number of Christians recently who are determined to see the Bible as a timeless moral text which states moral truths for all the ages. The most common example of this is the idea that "homosexuality is wrong, because the Bible says so." In this post I have one point I would like to make: It's not as simple as that.

According to the bible it is...
wrong to eat shellfish (eg Lev 11:9-12),
wrong to wear clothing made of two different materials (eg Lev 19:19),
okay to have slaves (there are rules and regulations regarding its institution in the OT and nothing in the NT attacks it as an institution),
okay to commit genocide (eg many times in the OT with Israel on the warpath),
wrong to have long hair if you are male (l Cor 11:14),
wrong to have uncovered hair when praying if you are female (1 Cor 11:5),
right for men to kiss on the lips when they meet (eg Rom 16:16)
right that if a man is caught raping a woman that they be forced to marry and never allowed to divorce (eg Deut 22:28-29)
right to offer sacrifices (instituted in the Torah)
wrong to offer sacrifices (eg Jer 7:21-22, Amos 5:22-25)

Are they all timeless moral truths?

Several of the early church fathers tried to explain why it was that God had instituted the sacrifical system in Leviticus only to get rid of it again after Jesus. The best explanation they came up with was that God didn't like sacrifices but that sacrifices had been around long before the Mosaic Law (which is true). Thus God, over time, decided to wean Israel off sacrifices - firstly by strictly regulating their existing practices with the Mosaic Law, then by condemning them often through the prophets and finally abolishing them entirely with the destruction of the temple.

What is interesting here is the understanding that what God says at one time isn't necessarily a moral truth for all generations. Some modern authors have used similar reasoning to explain the genocides in the bible - back then it was a dog-eat-dog word and if God's people hadn't fought and killed to survive they would have been wiped out. The commands to slaughter other nations were necessary for their own survival - unfortunate morally, but necessary.

Once this sort of reasoning is accepted, we can see that what is morally okay at one time might not be morally okay at another. Just because God says something is right or wrong at one point in history does not make it right or wrong for all times and places in history.

In the previous post I looked at Jesus' statement on divorce and concluded that just because Jesus said that, it did not necessarily mean that divorce is wrong in all cultures and times. It wasn't as simple as that.

So, if the Bible says homosexuality is wrong, does that necessarily mean that homosexuality is wrong for all cultures and all times and places? It's not as simple as that.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Divorce, and Jesus' comments on it

According to a sociological analysis I was reading, the differences between ancient marriages and modern ones are quite large.

Perhaps most importantly, marriages were commonly arranged by the respective families and the bride and groom would both have little say. The families would arrange marriages for political and economic benefit to themselves. In other words, what was important in the marriage was the relationship between the extended families, not the relationship between the individuals. A divorce correspondingly involved a rift between the families and not merely the couple themselves breaking up.

The analysis I was reading suggested that divorce was closely associated with feuds between families, a divorce being the splitting up of the two families. If done without sufficient warrent in public eyes, the termination of such a relationship would be dishonourable, and offensive, serving as a valid reason to begin a feud. The purpose of many ancient regulations (including the ten commandments) was to prevent feuding between families and thus maintain a stable society. The analysis therefore suggested that a prevention of feuding was upmost in Jesus' mind when he taught against divorce.

It should be noted that adultery in the ancient world was a bit different to what we would now consider it to be. Only men had "honour", women didn't count on the honour scale. To commit adultery was to dishonour another man by taking what was his - ie his wife. A man by definition could not commit adultery against his own wife - the wife didn't have any honour that could be undermined. So if a married man went out and slept with as many prostitutes as he felt like, that was not adultery (and indeed was generally considered okay). Hence a man could divorce his wife for adultery (dishonouring him by letting another man sleep with her), but a woman couldn't divorce a man for adultery because a woman had no honour to be undermined. If a man committed adultery it would be against another man, by sleeping with that man's wife.

With the extended families involved, adultery gets even more complicated. By being party to adultery, the woman is (as a representative of her extended family) bringing dishonour to the man and his extended family. Such dishonour would be cause for the offended family to justly break off the relationship.

Jesus on the subject
So when Jesus forbid divorce except in cases of adultery, why was he saying it? Unless we know why he was saying what he said, we cannot tell whether his prohibition applies to us equally. Which part of the ancient marriage/divorce system was he commenting on, and why? And if we have that part in our culture today, is the same criticism still valid for the same reasons? It might be that Jesus' reasons for saying what he said would not apply in our culture. It might be that what he commanded would conincidentally still be correct in our culture but for totally different reasons to why he said it then.

Some Christians today are totally against divorce due to Jesus' comments. Others take Jesus' words as a nice ideal, because they see that divorces can be painful for both parties and especially for children involved, but they realise that a couple being forced to stay together could be even worse. Other Christians just say "divorce is fine, people are entitled to get divorced if they feel like, what's the fuss about?" So what ought to be the "Christian" attitude to divorce?

It seems to me that the "What Jesus said about divorce applies to us" argument is totally worthless unless it can be backed up by a careful study of exactly what led Jesus to say what he said, and how it is valid to apply this to our culture. For example, if Jesus said what he said because he was concerned about dishonour leading to family feuding then it has little direct relevance to our culture.

A lot of Christians think they can use the Bible as a timeless moral textbook, and import statements directly into our culture out of the one they came from. I find this scary. They are effectively saying that group of cultures 2000-3000 years ago (in which the Bible was written) are to be the authoritative judge of our culture now and all cultures still to come. At best that is pretty unenlightened, at worst downright terrible given some of those cultures sanctioned genocide.