Wednesday, March 07, 2007

How Elastic Are The Scriptures?

Reluctantly posting some thoughts on the Bible and Homosexuality. I guess I had to get around to it eventually…

Saint Jerome Reading a Letter, by Georges de La Tour (c. 1616 to 1627)

Last week I was reading an an online debate between Catholic columnist and blogger Andrew Sullivan (well known for being both gay & conservative) and Sam Harris, the somewhat militant atheist and author of the best-sellers Letter to a Christian Nation and The End of Faith.

Harris threw down an especially challenging and provocative indictment when he wrote:

Many religious moderates imagine, as you do, that there is some clear line of separation between extremist and moderate religion. But there isn't. Scripture itself remains a perpetual engine of extremism: because, while He may be many things, the God of the Bible and the Qur'an is not a moderate. Read scripture more closely and you do not find reasons for religious moderation; you find reasons to live like a proper religious maniac-to fear the fires of hell, to despise nonbelievers, to persecute homosexuals, etc. Of course, one can cherry-pick scripture and find reasons to love one's neighbor and turn the other cheek, but the truth is, the pickings are pretty slim, and the more fully one grants credence to these books, the more fully one will be committed to the view that infidels, heretics, and apostates are destined to be ground up in God's loving machinery of justice.

How does one "integrate doubt" into one's faith? By acknowledging just how dubious many of the claims of scripture are, and thereafter reading it selectively, bowdlerizing it if need be, and allowing its assertions about reality to be continually trumped by fresh insights-scientific ("You mean the world isn't 6000 years old? Yikes"), mathematical ("pi doesn't actually equal 3? All right, so what?"), and moral ("You mean, I shouldn't beat my slaves? I can't even keep slaves? Hmm"). Religious moderation is the result of not taking scripture all that seriously. So why not take these books less seriously still? Why not admit that they are just books, written by fallible human beings like ourselves?

Sullivan responded with:

Blogger, please. In many ways, the source of much of today's religious moderation is taking scripture more seriously than the fundamentalists. Take the Catholic scholar Garry Wills. Read his marvelous recent monographs on Jesus and Paul and you will see a rational believer poring through the mounds of new historical scholarship to get closer and closer to who Jesus really was, and what Paul was truly trying to express. For me, the deconstruction of a crude notion of Biblical inerrantism is not a path to a weaker faith but to a stronger one, unafraid of history, of truth, of the past, or the inevitable confusion that the very human followers of a divine intervention created after his death and resurrection. I find in this unsatisfying scriptural mess very human proof of a remarkable event - the most remarkable event, in my view - in the history of humankind.

I think it is especially interesting that Sullivan brings up Garry Wills here. In his book What Jesus Meant, Wills describes how Jesus identified himself explicitly with outcasts such as lepers and tax collectors and others who would have been considered to be in violation of the Hebrew Purity and Holiness Codes in force at the time. Wills offers the opinion that homosexuals surely would have been seen as being in violation of those Holiness Codes, and that Jesus just as surely would have reached out to them specially. Wills wrote:

In the case of homosexuality, the passive partner mixes with his male body the female role. In the Holiness Code, women are unclean anyway, because of their menstrual function. But this fictional "woman" who cannot menstruate is even more unclean. Those who have been anxious to keep this taboo alive in our time are selective in what parts of the Holiness Code they continue to observe from the Book of Leviticus. That is the point of a letter I was shown that came from the Internet (source unidentified-I would be grateful to anyone who can inform me on this). The letter is ad­dressed to a Protestant evangelical who believes in literal reading of the Bible:

Thank you for doing so much to educate people regard­ing God's law. I have learned a great deal from you, and try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind them that Leviti­cus 18.22 clearly states it to be an abomination-end of debate. I do need some advice from you, however, re­garding some other elements of God's laws and how to follow them.

1. Leviticus 25.44 states that I may possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can't I own Canadians?

2. I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21.7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?

3. I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of menstrual uncleanliness (Lev 15.19-24). The problem is: how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offense.

4. When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odor to the Lord (Lev 1.9). The problem is my neighbors. They claim the odor is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?

5. I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35.2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself, or should I ask the police to do it?

6. A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination (Lev 11.10) it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don't agree. Can you settle this? Are there degrees of abomination?

7. Leviticus 21.20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to ad mit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20 or is there some wiggle room here?

8. Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Leviticus 19.27. How should they die?

9. I know from Leviticus 11.6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?

10. My uncle has a farm. He violates Leviticus 19.19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/polyester blend). He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town to­gether to stone them (Lev 24.10-16)? Couldn't we just burn them to death at a private family affair, like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws (Lev 20.14)?

I know you have studied these things extensively and thus enjoy considerable expertise in such matters, so I am confident you can help. Thank you again for re­minding us that God's word is eternal and unchanging.

This is very clever and makes the perfectly valid point that as Christians we are not bound by the Levitical codes, and that as Gentiles, the Law was never meant for us to begin with, but in a way, he is begging the question. I don’t know what the hypothetical Protestant minister would have said in reply, but my guess would be that he might have responded with “OK, forget what the the Old Testament says about homosexuality. Let’s look at what the New Testament says about it…”

I’ve seen various writers who are in basic agreement with Wills on this matter offer various counter-explanations for what appear on the face of them to be anti-homosexual passages in the Bible. I’ve read for example, that the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah as described in Genesis was not homosexuality, but the inhospitality of the people of Sodom in threatening to rape Lot's guests. By and large, I find these interpretations to be strained, unconvincing, and a matter of wishful thinking – A matter of looking for something in the texts that really isn’t there, regardless of how well-intentioned and inclusive the motives might be. Skipping to the New Testamant, here are a couple of the passages that are considered most relevant:

Romans 1:23-28

While claiming to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for the likeness of an image of mortal man or of birds or of four-legged animals or of snakes. Therefore, God handed them over to impurity through the lusts of their hearts for the mutual degradation of their bodies.
They exchanged the truth of God for a lie and revered and worshiped the creature rather than the creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.
Therefore, God handed them over to degrading passions. Their females exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the males likewise gave up natural relations with females and burned with lust for one another. Males did shameful things with males and thus received in their own persons the due penalty for their perversity.
And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God handed them over to their undiscerning mind to do what is improper.

I Corinithians 6:9-10

Do you not know that the unjust will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators nor idolaters nor adulterers nor boy prostitutes nor sodomites nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God.

The best that I’ve seen liberal exegetes come up with in these instances is to suggest that St. Paul was calling homosexuality “unnatural”, but not necessarily “sinful”, or alternately, that what Paul is condemning is in fact what is unnatural… therefore, what is really being condemned are not acts carried out by people of homosexual orientation, but acts carried out by people going against what is natural for them (i:e, homosexual behavior being carried out by heterosexuals).

Again, I’m doubtful about such interpretations. The whole issue of a distinction between orientation vs. behavior would probably have been lost on Paul. I think we always have to be aware of the dangers of anachronism when we look at the Bible. It is one thing to say that Scripture always needs to be looked at anew for fresh insights by each generation, and that the Bible is full of inexhaustible truths waiting to be found, but it is another thing altogether to actually retroject our views as if they had actually been the views of the authors themselves. I think it is fairly well documented that both Palestinian Jews and Hellenistic Jews of the 1st Century abhorred the homosexuality, fornication, cultic prostitution, abortion, and infanticide that was commonly seen in the pagan world at the time. For their part, the Gentiles considered the Jewish practice of circumcision to be absolute barbarism, and resented being excluded from table fellowship with Jews due to dietary laws. We know about the contemptuous attitudes towards homosexuality from looking at rough contemporaries of Paul’s like Philo of Alexandria. As a Jew of Hellenistic influences himself, I see no reason to believe that Paul would have felt any differently. Most of the polemic in Paul’s letters was based upon the controversies of the day surrounding Gentile sexual practices, circumcision, kosher and non-kosher foods, and table fellowship between Jews and Gentiles (or the lack thereof).

My progressive friends here are by-and-large comfortable with the idea of gay marriage and the validity of sexual relationships between committed same-sex couples. I have other friends here who are not anti-gay, but adhere to the teachings of the Church on these matters. I don’t feel comfortable writing about homosexuality. I’ve done very little of it here. I’m sort of a live-and-let-live kind of person, and looking back over my own life, I can hardly hold myself up as having been the model of sexual purity and sinlessness. I realize as well, that marriage presents me with an option that the Church does not reserve for homosexuals, and this must be a nearly unbearably painful way for a gay person of faith to live.

Furthermore, as I’ve stated previously, I don’t claim to understand homosexuality fully, or what causes it. Do I think it’s “normal”? Well, who among us can claim to be really “normal” anyway? If you really press me for an answer on it, I’d probably have to say no… I don’t think so. It does seem like a case of crossed wiring to me. I don’t think there is going to be a gay gene found, like there are genes for eye color or hair color. From what I can see, there seem to be quite a few scholarly articles that indicate that the introduction or absence of certain hormones at key points of neonatal development may have an effect on sexual orientation. All babies start out with female sex characteristics (at least in appearance) before differentiation. It is the infusion of male hormones at key points of pregnancy that makes us male. It also has an effect on our brains. A lot of external factors can affect hormonal balances in our bodies. Is this the area to look? Take religion out of it for a moment. If someone wanted to look at it from a strictly scientific, Darwinian point-of-view, homosexuality doesn’t seem to make much sense, especially if you take the extreme Darwinian position that the body is just basically a vehicle to propagate the survival of your selfish genes.

I’m not gay-bashing here. How do I say all this without appearing hateful…? As a father of six, I know that I wouldn’t turn my back on any of my children if they turned out to be gay. I know I wouldn’t be able to explain the cause of it either. I’ve seen it happen in families where it was the very last thing they would have expected. I’ve seen those families have to modify their views on certain things as a result. I know it has nothing to do with the tripe about distant fathers and domineering mothers and singing show-tunes when you’re a kid.

While I don’t condone gay-bashing and the demonization of homosexuals, I don’t think it is especially necessary to ennoble them beyond reason either. According to some advocates, you’d think they’d make for better marriages and better parents than heterosexuals. People are people, all subject to the same weaknesses. In the case of gay marriage and adoption, I see no reason why gay people would be any more or less loving and caring as spouses and parents, but on the other hand, I see no reason why they would be any more or less abusive and neglectful either.

Just a couple of other thoughts… I hope they don’t come out the wrong way… We all come to our positions and views partly as a result of our own experiences. I do think that some women tend to take a more benign view of male homosexuality than a lot of men do. I started working city jobs in Boston when I was about 16 years old. I was of slim build and looked somwhat young for my age. I was startled and taken aback at how often I was approached by gay men. As I grew older, the less frequently it happened. I’m not an expert on homosexuality, but as a male, I do qualify as an expert on male sexuality. Having been married for nearly 15 years, and having had a few long term relationships prior to that, I think that I can at least say say that I’ve learned that female sexuality is very different from male sexuality. Homosexual males are still males, and their sexuality is still male sexuality. I do think that a plausible argument can be made that society does have a vested interest in putting some checks and restrictions around unbridled male sexuality.

I know many heterosexual men who can count the number of sexual partners they’ve had in their lives on their hands. I know some who’ve had tens of sexual partners. I don’t think I know any who’ve been in the hundreds or thousands (now we are getting into the territory of the legendary exploits of professional athletes and rock stars). Now, I know plenty of men who would have liked to have had hundreds or even thousands of women, who wished they could have had that many partners, but up until now, women haven’t been into playing that game (although with the new mores around “hooking up”, who the heck knows…). If we are honest with ourselves, I think we do need to acknowledge that tens of sexual partners might in fact be quite common for gay men, and that within a certain sizeable subset, hundreds (or even thousands) is not unheard of. In other words, this isn’t so much a criticism of gay men per se, as it is a recognition that gay men have the opportunity and the temptation to act with each other the way that straight men wish they could act with women. Therefore, this isn’t necessarily an attack on homosexual men but an acknowledgement of what unrestricted male sexuality can look like. I can well imagine that if there were rest stops along Route 95 where women were willing to have free, quick, unrestricted, unattached sex with men who were complete strangers, there would be a line of cars going up 95 as far as the northernost tip of Maine down to the southernmost tip of Florida. In this regard, perhaps we should congratulate gay men on their relative restraint….

I realize that those who support gay marriage aren’t advocating or excusing behaviors of the most extreme kind. I also realize there are plenty of monogomous or relatively monogomous people out there of all kinds, but as far as the extremes go, does that understanding give us the option to look at Paul’s words anew? Is it the profligate behavior that Paul is really talking about? As I said previously, orientation as opposed to behavior is probably something Paul wouldn’t have understood, even as divinely inspired the texts happen to be. Is it the heterosexual acting out in a homosexual manner that he was talking about, such as men in prison using other men as an outlet or as a means of asserting domination over them, all the way to female college students who sleep with their female friends because it has become trendy and fashionable (a practice that I hear is becoming more commonplace)? Or, if we want to become more accepting and inclusive of same-sex partnerships within Christianity, are we willing to say that Paul may have been just wrong about certain things?

Is there a precedent for the latter? Let’s look a slavery as an example… It is commonly and universally taught by all Christian denominations today that slavery – the buying, selling, and ownership of another human being – is intrinsically evil in and of itself. This was not always the case, since it is not explicitly found in the Bible. In the American South, prior to the Civil War, various pastors were able to make a coherent defense of the institution of slavery using biblical citations. Paul, in his beautiful letter to Philemon, urges him to treat his slave well, but not to free him. De facto acceptance of slavery can be found all over the scriptures. Thankfully, our way of interpreting scripture on that particular point has either changed or bowed to tradition.

How flexible is the Bible, and how elastic should it be today? How far can Christians go and claim fidelity to authoritative scripture and retain any sense of credibility? If we “stretch” it, are we acting like Sam Harris describes, or are we acting like Andrew Sullivan describes?


crystal said...

Jeff, another great post :-)

About the Harris and Sullivan debate, I'd agree with Sullivan when he says ...

the deconstruction of a crude notion of Biblical inerrantism is not a path to a weaker faith but to a stronger one, unafraid of history, of truth, of the past, or the inevitable confusion that the very human followers of a divine intervention created after his death and resurrection.

Ha :-) - that letter about Leviticus even found its into an episode of The West Wing ... the president spoke the text of it to a conservative religious talk show host.

About the NT and homosexuality, I look at the Gospels first, and see nothing there about it, which leads me to wonder if Jesus didn't think it was such an issue.

About Paul, James Alison wrote a paper that I thought was really good - “But the Bible says...”? A Catholic reading of Romans 1.

I take what Paul says about homosexuality with a grain of salt ... he also says bad things about women and sticks up for slavery.

I don't know for sure why people are gay but even if it were a choice rather than a biological imperitive, I'd be ok with it ... it eems like a vicitmless "crime" to me.

Having said that, I do think it is biological, though, and that people have no real choice in the matter. I read in the news a few months ago that it's been proven that the mother's body has to do with whether a male child is gay or not ... if she has a number of sons, the youngest is much more likely to be gay - link

And nature is stranger than we realize :-) ... there are fish and amphibians that can actually change their sex (like Nemo the parrot fish :-), and some kinds of fish have two kinds of males ... one's that are very "feminine" and build nests to lure females, and bigger more manly fish that steal the females and the nests away from them - link

Liam said...

Hey Jeff,
I commend you for addressing a subject that is important even though you feel uncomfortable, and for both being honest and sensitive about it.

I've seen the Leviticus letter before, and it is hilarious.

Paul is sometimes difficult for me. On one hand, I agree with Crystal about putting the Gospels first, on the other hand it's important to recognize that at least some of Paul was written before the Gospels. Then there's the textual problems: what's by Paul, what's not by Paul... My parish book group is reading Wills' book on him next month, I look forward to that.

I think one of the problems is that people take Paul's letters, which were written in response to specific situations, as if they constituted a systematic theology or moral code. People justify a number of things by quoting snippets from Paul as if they had come, unadulterated, from the mouth of God. That makes sense only if you're a fundamentalist.

The truth is Paul was a strong personality that represented one of the currents of what would come to be known as Christianity at his time. He is, I believe, inspired, but one has to sort out what is the kernal of that inspiration and what is the human interpretation that Paul gives on it. Those two things are not necessarily inconsistent, but they can be.

As far as the two passages on homosexuality, I would say that Paul is talking about sin in general. For him, a first-century Greek-Roman-Jew-Christian, as you said, homosexuality is equated with sin. The passages are about the wages of sin, but his examples are restricted by his own understanding which is limited by his surroundings, place, and time. Funny how few mainstream churches talk about the greedy and the drunkards in that same passage. It's okay to be a capitalist or drink beer and you can do so in moderation, but a dude can't fall in love with another dude.

I've said this before, but I have a lot of gay friends, and I can't imagine them being anything than what they are. Most of them are in committed relationships or would like to be.

Jeff said...

Hi Crystal and Liam,

Crystal, interesting links, thanks. You know, I’m really impressed by this James Alison of yours… I loved that link of his you put up once about what he wrote on the atonement, and this treatment on Romans is about the best attempt I’ve seen anyone make along these lines. I have to check out some of this guy’s books. He’s not bad… for a Dominican :-)

Regarding nature, it is interesting what happens sometimes in the animal kingdom. I read an article recently in US News and World Report about a study that had been done on the brains of same-sex-attracted rams. They are always “butch”, though. In evolutionary terms, I can’t think of what purpose it would serve, which leads me to believe that if it is indeed inborn, it’s a matter of something not qoing quite right(?)

I think Alison makes some superb points in that article. Anyone who has ever seen a Marine Corps drill instructor at work can probably recognize a lot of what Paul does in his letters. Gentile or Jew, he is going to smash your assumptions and feelings of superiority apart until he breaks you down to nothing, just before he decides to build you all back up again into a new unified creation. Just the same, I’m still inclined to think that Paul had a very, very negative view of homosexual behavior, as he obviously did for other things he considered “shameful” like drunkenness and fornication. As Liam and Alison point out, no one sinner should read the Romans passage and think that they are superior or priviliged in some way compared to anyone else.

As for Paul and women, I think that Paul gets an unfairly poor rap for that. On that score, he was actually a pretty forward-thinker. There are lots of references in the Pauline epistles to the women who were valued co-workers of his, such as Lydia, Prisca, and Thecla. Most biblical scholars seem to think that 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus were pseudonymous (written in his name, but by someone else), and these are the books that tend to have the controversial passages about women in them, at around the time that the monarchical episcopate was starting to take form. Colossians and Ephesians may have been written by someone else too.

Liam also makes some good points about the inspiration of scripture and how it works, particularly with Paul’s circular letters to specific communities with specific and differing pastoral problems. When Paul sat down to write a letter to Philemon, I don’t think he was thinking to himself, “I can feel the Spirit coming on, ready to dictate to me… I think I’ll set myself down and write me a little bit of scripture tonight.”

Jeff said...

By the way, I loved this quote from Alison:

The Catholic Church, heir to an extraordinarily rich tradition of creative Jewish textual reading, reads scripture Eucharistically, because for us the prime source of authority is not the text itself, but the crucified and living victim, alive in our midst, who is the living interpretative presence teaching us how to undo our violent and evil ways of relating to each other, and how together to enter into the way of penitence and peace. For us “The Word of God” refers in the first place to a living person, and only by analogy to the texts which bear witness to him. The living hermeneutical presence is more important than that which it is hermeneuting.

Rashfriar said...

Peace! Your quote from Harris reminds me of the question: can exegesis be done by a non-believer? He shows why it can't. Our belief, as your eucharistic quote also shows, is centered in the person of Jesus Christ and we look at all from that lens, as well as from the Spirit living among us now. So though Harris cannot conceive of how faith in the bible can avoid hate and fanaticism, the saints have shown us how. Easy, no, but possible and ultimately the reason for it all. God bless you!

Steve Bogner said...

Jeff, thanks for this great post. I happen to see it pretty much the way you do. Wish I had more time to write - but my wife & younger son are sick (they are the needy-sick type of people, so they are keeping me busy), and older son has a lacrosse match coming up... gotta run.

cowboyangel said...


Once again, you've written a heartfelt and thoughtful post. I still say you should be sending your work to magazines.

I have my own set of conflicted thoughts and emotions on the subject of homosexuality, most of which follow what you've said here. But you're braver than I am, in that you're willing to blog about these things. I'm not sure I'm comfortable enough to do that, fearing that I would offend people I care about or be subjected to personal attacks.

Spiritually speaking, in the end, I cling to the only thing I really know and believe in: I try, in my deeply flawed way, to love G-d with all my heart, soul, strength and mind, and to love my neigbour as myself. I have numerous gay and lesbian friends and colleagues, and I deal with them as I do with anyone else: If I like and respect them, I want to spend more time with them; If I think they're assholes, I try to avoid them. Their homosexuality, and whatever sin it may or may not be, is ultimately between them and their creator.

Politically speaking, though, I do have some issues with the typical liberal agenda. I do not see a direct and continuous line between civil rights based on ethnicity and gay rights, which, I guess, tells me that I'm not convinced that homosexuality is 100% genetic or biological. I'm sure it accounts for a lot, but I've never made the full leap on that score. These few examples from nature seem more exceptions that prove a rule rather than hard evidence. I think anyone who bashes gays or commits violence against them should be severely punished. And I'm not necessarily against gay marriage - committment is a good and important thing - or gay rights. On the other hand, I feel at times that there is an agenda being shoved down my throat that I don't necessarily agree with. For one thing, I've lost a lot of patience with identity politics, period. Secondly, as the Bible confirms, homosexuality has aroused anger, fury and passion for thousands of years. It makes no sense to think that it's suddenly going to be acceptable to a large portion of the population when it's been so controversial in so many cultures throughout history. Homosexuals make up 4-10% of the population (the 10% figure being based on old Kinsey data). Many homosexuals don't even share other policy concerns of the Left, especially those dealing with economics. They still vote Republican. Meanwhile, about 90-95% of the people in the U.S. do have common economic concerns. Why, then, do Liberals push a controversial agenda for 5% of the population, despite the loss of support this costs them for the other things they're supposed to care about? About 40% of the U.S. population suffers at least one year of poverty. 13% in any given year fall below the poverty line, which is pretty low in many ways. 1/3 of African-American children in the U.S. live in poverty. I simply don't understand the math. There are a lot of problems and a lot of people suffering in this country and around the world.

The question of how elastic scriptures can be is a good one, though certainly not new. The Leviticus letter, as funny as it is, doesn't really work for me as an argument, however, in that we're not talking about one obscure passage on homosexuality but a recurring theme in both the Old and New Testament. Of course, most right-wing Christians point to these scriptures and get all apoplectic, while failing to be anywhere nearly concerned about poverty, of which the Bible talks about a hundred times more. Whatever.

Your example of the Bible and slavery is probably the best comparison. I can't even imagine how the abolitionists dealt with the issue in the 18th and 19th century. (Off topic - has anyone seen Amazing Grace yet? It's got Horatio Hornblower [Ioan Griffudd] playing Wilberforce. I want to see it.) The difference, however, is that G-d never threatens to destroy an entire city with fire and brimstone if a couple of people freed their slaves. It's a tricky topic.

for us the prime source of authority is not the text itself, but the crucified and living victim, alive in our midst, who is the living interpretative presence teaching us

That sounds good on paper. Of course the problem is that everyone thinks the "living interpretative presence" has interpreted clearly for them what the truth is. I love the mystics, and I think the tension they create between the individual and the orthodox hierarchy is ultimately a positive one. But, let's face it, there are 6,000,000,000 people in the world, and everyone one of them has their own idea of how G-d operates (if He/She even exists.) Written guidance (spiritual) and regulation (human) is probably the only thing that keeps us from killing each other on a daily basis. Though, obviously, a tremendous amount of human cruelty and suffering has also resulted from these written texts. In the end, I guess we all have to find a balance between Scripture, Tradition, Church Teachings, a "living interprative presence," cultural norms, human law, family dynamics, and the still, small voice of the heart.

Jeff said...


Good to see you again. I trust that your exams went well?

You know, when I read someone like Sam Harris it makes me somewhat sad. Here is a man who is obviously highly intelligent, and I believe he is sincere, even though he's a bit patroninzing at times. It just serves as a reminder that faith is a gift that is granted to us through grace. It is not necessarily something that we can reason our way into... or out of.

Thanks for posting. I worry sometimes that the themes and some of the views that I post here might push the envelope too much for the guys in the religious houses. Thanks for sticking with me. Peace.

Jeff said...

Hi Steve,

Thanks for the support. I've been meaning to stop by, but I've been pretty busy with the same predicament as you, although my wife is a much better patient than I am. She's tough as nails and can keep on going no matter what. When I'm sick, I'm pretty useless. I just lie around and want to be left alone.

We've had a couple of bugs sweeping through the family. It's like the house of pestilence here. I took my youngest boy into the ER today for a few hours to get some fluids into him. He's hardly had anything to eat or drink since last Tuesday. They say he's OK, though.

Jeff said...


Thanks for the thorough response as usual. I share a lot of your sentiments while at the same time sharing a reluctance to hurt or offend those who may be very close to me. Although the relative size of majorities and minorities should not necessarly drive our priorities in combatting one kind of injustice or another, I do wonder sometimes if we in the affluent West have a way of manufacturing boutique problems for ourselves that don't necessarily resonate with a huge portion of the world's population that lives on a couple of dollars a day. Such tensions are tearing the Anglican Church apart right now.... but I think you put it in better words in your post than I just did.

I agree that a balance needs to be found between our private interpretations regarding Scripture on the one hand, and Sacred "Tradition" with a capital "T", and a teaching authority on the other. As woefully educated as I am on biblical history, archaeology, and languages, I realize how easily I can be persuaded by the very last thing that I might have read.

I have not seen Amazing Grace yet. Do you recommend it.

I'm about to go to bed with a cup of tea and watch The Departed

Paula said...

Jeff, the post is great, the comments also but all these are a bit confusing for me (maybe my eastern-european cultural heritage has a part to play here...).

Yes, I am back and I hope that I won´t have to make another break.:-). I missed you all.

Mike McG... said...

I'm late to the party, Jeff, but happy to join your guests in commending you for another remarkable post, with the graphic frosting on the cake. Several rather disconnected comments:

The Leviticus send up has indeed made the rounds. I recall finding it hilarious upon first and second reading. It was the cause of some introspection, then, to learn from you that its source is Garry Wills. Figures! In 2000, British church historian Eamon Duffy reviewed Wills' "Papal Sin," remarking on the contempt Wills dripped on his subjects:

"The past is another country, and travel, they say, broadens the mind. But only if we are empathically alert to difference. The historian has no business stamping around his subject matter like an outraged tourist, denouncing the sanitary arrangements and berating the low morals of the natives. The popes in Wills' book are caricatures... But people, the past, the church are all more complicated than that, and the historian does his readers no service by parading a gallery of grotesques to 'prove' an overarching thesis."

Wills is a really smart guy, eminently skilled in debunking traditional Catholic moral beliefs. I well recall demolishing a hopelessly conservative reflection made by a lay brother when I was a smart ass scholastic back in the '60s. His quiet observation: my having prevailed in that moment had no bearing on the veracity of his comments. I had to grow up to understand what he meant. The moral intuitions of regular folks are easily mocked, but that doesn't invalidate these intuitions.

I'm at sea on issues of sexual morality. I believe that celibacy is a gift very rarely bestowed in this era and I cannot believe that a merciful God expects permanent celibacy of millions of same sex attracted people. But I'm also reluctant to sign on the the zeitgeist, the conviction that contemporary moral insights trump the teachings of the ages.

Last comment: I think you are on to something, Jeff, regarding the issue of male sexuality as relatively more restrained in male-female bondings than in male-male bondings. But since there are plenty of male-male committed relationships...and an enormous amount of male-female promiscuity, I'm not sure the statistical approach is probitive with regard to the morality of homosexuality.

Again: bien hecho!

Jeff said...

Hi Paula!

It’s really great to see you again! Sorry if some of the terms in the post and the comments were puzzling. If you’d like me explain some of the slang and patois that was used, you can ask me here or by email and I’ll give it a try.

Hi Mike,

Apparently just about everyone had heard or seen that Leviticus riff before. I was unfamiliar with it previously. Actually, Wills does not claim credit for it. It seems to have urban-legend status. He mentioned in the book that it had gotten around the internet, and he would be grateful if someone could identify the originator, but yes, it is very much in the polemical style that can be attributed to him. I make it a point to read a lot of what Wills writes, such as Papal Sin and Why I Am a Catholic, but I always have to filter it through the lens of the “Garry Factor”. For a guy as smart as he is, he often uses fierce arguments of questionable logic and integrity, but I think he is worth reading just the same. For one thing, his Greek is excellent, so his take on the scriptures should always be taken seriously.

Good point about levels of commitment that can be see in male-male-relationships, but statistically, I ‘d frankly be surprised if they were more monogamous than male-female relationships. I wonder, though, if female-female relationships are actually the most stable of all. Anecdotally, I know it appears to some as if they mate for life.