Can Spirituality Survive Religion?

In an 1876 speech, “The Great AgnosticRobert G. Ingersoll said, “Religion should have the influence upon mankind that its goodness, that its morality, its justice, its charity, its reason, and its argument give it, and no more.” (Ingersoll, 14). In many ways, Dr. George E. Vaillant makes the same argument in his Spiritual Evolution. He suggests that today’s religions have survived, and will continue to survive, because of their emphasis on the positive emotions – which, according to Vaillant, are faith, forgiveness, hope, joy, love, and compassion. But, in today’s world, are religions, especially Christianity, which is the most dominant tradition in America, a significant enough source of positive emotions to justify their flaws?

To be clear, Vaillant does separate ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality.’ While generally defensive, if not fully sympathetic to religions, he does admit that “intolerant dogma … [and] religious beliefs have provided cultural justification for some of the most heinous and selfish human behavior ever committed” (Vaillant, 11). In his argument promoting spirituality, he addresses (but, as I will try to explain later, does not adequately answer) the question of why individuals seeking spiritual unity seem to so often lead to brutal institutions; he writes, “Sometimes in a quest for unity rather than community, religions forget to love their neighbors as themselves” (Vaillant, 79). He explains, “On the one hand, religion asks us to learn from the experiences of our tribe; spirituality urges us to savor our own experience. On the other hand, religion helps us to mistrust the experience of other tribes; spirituality helps us to regard the experience of the foreigner as valuable too” (Vaillant, 188). While “cults and religions tend to be authoritarian and imposed from without,” Vaillant argues, “[S]pirituality is more likely to be democratic and arise from within” (Vaillant, 189). While he clearly differentiates between the two, he notes that they often go hand-in-hand: “[T]he survival of the world’s greatest religions, relatively unchanged, for the last two thousand years has been due as much to their ritual emphasis on the positive emotions of faith, forgiveness, hope, joy, love, and compassion as to “guns, germs, and steel” or cancerlike memes” (Vaillant, 186).

Clearly, Vaillant recognizes that, for all the positive emotions that come with religion, religion also brings a significant amount of problems as well. So how do we tell the difference? Here’s where I find Vaillant’s argument problematic: “[T]he way to distinguish such unshakeable beliefs is to ask whether they are empathetic or paranoid” (Vaillant, 75). But, outside of his clear examples of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Hitler, the difference is rarely clear. Admittedly, he acknowledges, “The danger is that the line between self-soothing trust and self-soothing delusion is unclear” (Vaillant, 75).

Specifically regarding Christianity, Vaillant contrasts the “belief in religious dogma that led to the Spanish Inquisition” with the “faith in a man [Jesus] who spoke of what was in his heart and lived his message” (Vaillant, 66). But that idea is inherently flawed. If we truly take Jesus and his message seriously, it almost certainly leads to conflict. As professor Crane Brinton told Vaillant, “If you don’t believe your religion is the only religion, you have no religion” (Vaillant, 190). Sure, in many ways, Jesus and his followers, like most religions, have provided many benefits to the world, as Vaillant notes. But that doesn’t change the problematic fact that Christianity rests upon having the one true belief system. Jesus himself, in John 14:6, says “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Vaillant argues “[T]he danger is the lack of empathy and the false beliefs of those who profess faith,” but immediately before that he argues that “Faith … is not the danger.” (Vaillant, 79). But if your faith inherently suggests that, for example, Jesus is the only way to ‘the Father,’ it’s almost guaranteed that a lack of empathy will follow.

Especially problematic is how Vaillant defines faith, which, to him, “involves basic trust that the world has meaning and that loving-kindness exists” (Vaillant, 73). Not only is faith, as defined by Vaillant, possible without any blatantly anti-scientific and/or supernatural beliefs, but faith, in the more common sense, is defined as “firm belief in something for which there is no proof,” which often requires quite a different worldview. Indeed, many Christians believe in Hell, which is generally considered a place of suffering. According to many Christians, Jesus – and only Jesus – is the only way to be ‘saved’ from Hell. The belief that many people will suffer for all eternity for not accepting Jesus is hard to justify with the idea that spirituality is only about positive emotions. Furthermore, the belief that your religion – and only your religion – has the ‘Truth’ leads to more intolerance, making Vaillant’s argument especially unhelpful in today’s world. If you believe that someone you know is bound for eternal hell unless they convert to your religion, you obviously should want to help them get into heaven. Is that empathetic? After all, making people uncomfortable or even suffer – as is the case with the Spanish Inquisition – for a short time could arguably be justified if that short-term pain could save them for eternity. Clearly, the line between ‘empathy’ and ‘paranoia’ is almost never as clear as Hitler and Martin Luther King Jr. While I have my reservations about Freud, his idea of religion as “a universal obsessional neurosis” seems especially useful, considering how arbitrary Vaillant’s distinction between ‘empathy’ and ‘paranoia’ is (Pals, 65).

In his support of spirituality, Vaillant writes, “[S]pirituality refers to the psychological experiences of religiosity/spirituality that relate to an individual’s sense of connection with something transcendent (be it a defined deity, truth, beauty, or anything else considered to be greater than self) and are manifested by the emotions of awe, gratitude, love, compassion, and forgiveness.” (Vaillant, 187). While in general I agree with his statement, I would argue that, again, “a defined deity,” in practice, is often incompatible with real tolerance and love. Oscar Wilde famously quipped in The Picture of Dorian Gray, “To define is to limit” (Wilde). This is especially true with defining deities – which, arguably, is what led to what we call religion today. Religion, according to Robert Bellah’s definition, “is a system of belief and practices relative to the sacred that unite those who adhere to them in a moral community” (Bellah, 3). Additionally, Durkheim, as noted by Bellah, defined “the sacred as something set apart or forbidden” (Bellah, 3). Similarly to how “writing created dogma as well as technological advance,” making certain ideas sacred – set apart or forbidden – inherently limits humanity’s pursuit of knowledge (Vaillant, 51). As Vaillant pointed out, a “major reason that many prefer science to religion is that the former is more ready to admit error,” since we think for ourselves rather than accepting something as the unquestionable truth of God (Vaillant, 205).

In the end, religion must be ruled out. Instead, we should embrace, as we already do, social play, which “is firmly based on a foundation of fairness” and seems to have helped humans develop a sort of justice, according to Marc Bekoff and Jessice Pierce (Bellah, 80-81). Not only do social bonds, especially parental care, provide us with our needs and safety, they also help us develop culture, history, morality, science, and literature (Bellah, 90). Play has reduced divisions and conflicts, while religion, which sprang from play, has often promoted divisions and conflicts.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Bellah, Robert N. Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011.

Ingersoll, Robert Green, and Tim Page. What’s God Got to Do with It?: Robert G. Ingersoll on Free Thought, Honest Talk, and the Separation of Church and State. Hanover, NH: Steerforth, 2005. Print.

Pals, Daniel L. Eight Theories of Religion. New York: Oxford UP, 2006. Print.

Vaillant, George E. Spiritual Evolution: A Scientific Defense of Faith. New York: Broadway, 2008. Print.

Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. New York: Modern Library, 1992. Print.

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How Biblical Interpretation has influenced Anglo-American policies in The Promised Land

A review of Irvine Anderson’s Biblical Interpretation and Middle East Policy: The Promised Land, America, and Israel, 1917-2002, by Mac McCann.

In an 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists, Thomas Jefferson wrote that “religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God” and famously suggested that the First Amendment built “a wall of separation between Church & State.” Writing the majority opinion for Everson v. Board of Education (1947), Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black built upon that, arguing that, “That wall [between church and state] must be kept high and impregnable.” However, no matter how “high and impregnable” that wall is or should be in theory, it’s undeniable that, throughout American history, religion has mingled with politics. In his 2005 book, Biblical Interpretation and Middle East Policy: The Promised Land, America, and Israel, 1917-2002, Irvine H. Anderson provides an illustration of how Biblical interpretation has influenced the Middle East policies of the United States and the United Kingdom.

Over the book’s 138 pages, Irvine H. Anderson, a retired professor of American diplomatic history specializing in the Middle East, discusses Biblical interpretation and how it’s affected American and British policies in the Middle East. Divided into two parts, the book starts by examining the Bible in Anglo-American culture, before transitioning to the more specific British and American policy. While the book focuses mainly on the period between 1917 and 2002, it discusses some of the movements and ideas as early as the 18th century that led up to that period, and most of his points are easily applicable to the world today, even after 2002. To be clear, Anderson doesn’t argue that religion has dictated or dominated Anglo-American policies; instead, Anderson simply argues that certain popular Biblical interpretations and influences “have created a cultural framework within which Zionist and pro-Israel lobbies could more easily function” (IX). In addition to the Biblical interpretations themselves, the influence of such ideas was also aided by the lack of, what Anderson called, a “real countervailing force,” since there was “no general knowledge of Islam, Arabs, or the Middle East among the electorate, no powerful Arab lobby, and limited understanding of the importance of maintaining healthy relations with friendly oil-producing Arab states in the region” (2).

In Part I’s Chapter 1, Anderson focuses on “Biblical Criticism and the Rise of Fundamentalism” (7). He opens by discussing how scientific and philosophical developments in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries led to the “historical/critical” method of analyzing the Bible by using “the emerging tools of archeology, history, and literary analysis” (7). In reaction to these advancements – which called into question the historical accuracy of the Bible – religious fundamentalism became much more prominent, as some held the idea that “if one doesn’t believe the Bible to be literally true, there is no moral anchor for the country” (7). For fundamentalist Christians, the more critical approach to the Bible “threatens the Christian system of doctrine and the whole fabric of systematic theology” since even if “one error of fact or principle is admitted in Scripture, nothing – not even the redemptive work of Christ – is certain” (17, 18). Then, he laid out some of the main ideas of what is known as Christian Zionism that have affected and influenced Anglo-American cultures and policies.

He first examines the idea of The Promised Land – the idea that God has given Israel specifically to the Jewish people. He briefly discusses some of the Biblical passages that have led to the idea. For example, Anderson points to Genesis 12, in which the Lord tells Abram (later known as Abraham) to go “the land of Canaan,” which the Lord will give to his offspring (10). Especially related to many Christians’ perspectives on Israel today, the Lord tells Abram, “I will make of you a great nation, I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse” (10). Such passages – or, at the very least, the ideas that they suggest – are still clearly influential today, even almost a decade after Anderson’s book was published. For example, according to the Pew Research Center in 2013:

“[T]wice as many white evangelical Protestants as Jews say that Israel was given to the Jewish people by God (82% vs. 40%). Some of the discrepancy is attributable to Jews’ lower levels of belief in God overall; virtually all evangelicals say they believe in God, compared with 72% of Jews (23% say they do not believe in God and 5% say they don’t know or decline to answer the question). But even Jews who do believe in God are less likely than evangelicals to believe that God gave the land that is now Israel to the Jewish people (55% vs. 82%).”

At this point, I should note that, although Anderson makes some of his strongest points early on in the book, he also reveals some of the book’s limitations. For example, Anderson betrays either his carelessness or his lack of Biblical knowledge by writing that “the first ten books of the Bible … [are] called the Pentateuch,” which simply isn’t true (15). Additionally, in a review of the book, Paul Merkley criticizes Anderson’s “biblical exegesis” as “disconnected, bouncing from one colorful point to another, showing no acquaintance with the traditional theological or biblical commentaries” (Merkley). While I agree that Anderson definitely doesn’t come off as the most brilliant Biblical scholar, I don’t think his arguments really require him to be a groundbreaking Biblical scholar. After all, even if some of his uses of Biblical quotes and passages aren’t the most theologically sound in the eyes of Merkley, the average Anglo-American isn’t a theologian either. As noted above, 82 percent of white evangelical Protestants “say that Israel was given to the Jewish people by God,” but that doesn’t necessarily mean that 82 percent of white evangelical Protestants can tell you the full and exact Biblical justification for their beliefs. Or, as Lawrence Davidson wrote in his review of the book, “Even if the average citizen is indifferent to the issues of the Middle East (and in terms of daily life most people assuredly are), there is no popular inclination to object to the policy-shaping influence of men like John Hagee, Pat Robertson, and Jerry Falwell” (Davidson).

In addition to discussing the idea of The Promised Land, Anderson also discusses the complex idea of dispensational premillennialism. Largely based on Daniel and Revelation, as well as a few passages in the Gospels, dispensational premillennialism, Anderson explains, is an “interpretation of scripture as prophecy regarding the Second Coming of Christ and the End Times” (19). Here, as in most places, Anderson doesn’t dive especially deep into the textual support and justification of the idea of dispensational premillennialism, but, again, he wasn’t discussing the theology itself, but its impact on Anglo-American policy in the Middle East. He specifically points out the importance, in some End Times interpretations, of “the ingathering of Jews to the Holy Land as prelude to the events that follow, and the special role that they are destined to play in those events” (20). This idea, Anderson points out, has influenced many of the more fundamentalist Christians to so thoroughly support Israel as a country. While discussing this idea, and while discussing various ideas throughout the book, Anderson notes and generally explains the various interpretations of the mentioned passages; still, it’s the more fundamentalist interpretations that he focuses on.

In Chapter 2 of Part I, titled “The Promised Land and Armageddon Theology,” Anderson builds upon the ideas mentioned in the chapter’s title, but shifts the emphasis to the spread of the ideas rather than the ideas themselves. He highlights the rise of the Sunday school movement, which began in the late 18th century in England and its expansion into the United States and beyond during the 19th century. While the ideas of The Promised Land and the End Times etc. were not an all-consuming, dominating theme among 18th and 19th century Christians, Anderson recognizes that – and that was never what he was arguing. Instead, he discusses how a significant portion of the population was exposed to and taught those ideas early on in life. For example, supporting his idea of “a cultural disposition,” he points out that, “By 1851, 13 percent of the entire population of England, Scotland, and Wales were enrolled in Sunday schools,” and that some of the themes of the lessons dealt with Abraham, Joshua, Canaan, and various people and places related to The Promised Land and End Times ideas (34). With even more supporting evidence, he discusses how The Promised Land and End Times ideas were a constant in post-World War II Christian teachings and sermons in America (37). In addition to theological teachings and sermons, Anderson explains how more popular media, such as novels, books, and radio and television programs, have also helped spread the idea of the End Times in the second half of the 20th century in America (44-47). To be clear, Anderson doesn’t hesitate to admit that “it is difficult, if not impossible, to establish the exact impact of any one or all of these influences on the attitudes of the general public” (49). Still, he provides ample evidence that would definitely seem to suggest that there’s a connection between the ideas and the policies of the nations.

After establishing the various factors and influences behind the “cultural predisposition” in Part I, Anderson discusses some of the various impacts of that predisposition between 1917 and 2002, in Part II, “British and American Policy.” In Chapter 3, “The Balfour Declaration and the Palestine Mandate,” Anderson opens by discussing the British foreign secretary Arthur James Balfour’s 1917 letter to Lord Rothschild, a prominent British Jew, which declared Britain’s support for the Jewish Zionist movement (53). He then describes the connection between Methodism and the Labour Party, before looking more specifically into the Balfour Declaration. Here, like in much of the book, he doesn’t go into nearly as much detail as he could have, writing that, since it’s been “so thoroughly analyzed by scholars over the years,” it’s “not necessary to enter into a detailed discussion” (57). But, again, he still strongly makes his points. Throughout the chapter, he describes some of the “long though muted history” of the idea of a return of the Jews to Palestine, as well as various factors leading up to the establishment of an independent Israel state after World War II (58).

In Chapter 4, Anderson focuses on “Truman, the Bible, Israel, Oil, and the Soviet Union.” Yet again, Anderson declines to go into too many details, noting, “The decision by Harry to recognize the State of Israel immediately after its creation in 1948 has been so well researched by historians that it would appear almost redundant to bring it up again” (75). Still, he provides enough evidence to support his claim that “by 1948 a highly effective Zionist lobby had been at work for over a decade and that it had appealed to an American concern for the plight of the Jews in Europe and a biblically derived understanding of Palestine as their historical homeland” (100). In contrast to the United Kingdom’s “perceived national interest (in this case, British war aims)” which “pointed in the same direction” as “a Zionist lobby, and a biblically derived predisposition … to support the return of the Jews,” the Zionist lobby in America had to compete with the Departments of Defense and State, which “were adamant in opposing premature recognition [of a new Jewish state] in the belief that it would seriously endanger America’s strategic position at the outset of the cold war” (58; 101). Still, despite that opposition, and while other factors played a role, Anderson argues that, like many other Christian leaders, “Truman’s biblical background clearly predisposed him to favor the return of the Jews to Palestine” (101).

In Chapter 5, “Christian Influence and Congressional Support of Israel,” Anderson focuses on the period after Truman’s recognition of Israel, the second half of the 20th century, especially in America. In the chapter, he reiterates one of his main points by quoting “one scholar,” who noted, “Confronted with the need to draw conclusions and make policy on the basis of ambiguous evidence, people tend to fit data into a preexisting framework of beliefs” (103). Through the Cold War and into the present, Anderson argues that, at least partly due to Biblical teachings, “a de facto alliance between the pro-Israel lobby and the Religious Right” has fostered the idea that Israel shares “the same cultural, religious, and political values as the United States” (129).

Finally, in the epilogue, Anderson briefly discusses “The al-Aqsa Intifada, September 11, and the Dynamics of Policy” but recognizes that “It is much too early to speculate on where America’s war on terrorism and the Arab/Israeli conflict will lead” (138).

Overall, I was a little disappointed in, what I saw as, Anderson’s relatively surface-level examination of the subject. However, I completely understand that it would be nearly impossible to cover such a wide range of ideas, people, and events in depth without making the book much, much longer, and therefore, arguably, less accessible. As Lawrence Davidson put it in his review of the book, “It does not break any new ground on the subject, but it does function as a valuable historical summary” (Davidson). While I accept some of Merkley’s criticisms of the book (such as the previously discussed issue of Anderson’s Biblical understanding not being as thorough as it could have been), I also agree with his general compliment of the book: “The substantive value of Anderson’s work lies in his insightful analysis of how this “predisposition” helped shape political policy at decisive moments in the establishment and consolidation of the Zionist agenda” (Merkley). Like Davidson, I found Anderson’s statements to be adequately supported, and, quite frankly, a bit frightening. As Davidson wrote, “Christian Zionist leaders lobby against negotiation, compromise, and peace. Thus, it can be argued that Christian Zionism stands as the antithesis of diplomacy. [Anderson’s book] makes this depressingly clear” (Davidson). At times, Anderson does occasionally seem to agree with Davidson, such as when he seemed to denounce America’s seemingly relentless support of Israel “despite warnings from the Department of State that too strong a tilt toward Israel could seriously undermine the American role as a peacemaker and jeopardize its other interests in the area” (129). However, while the book arguably wasn’t strong enough in its denunciation of some of the negative consequences of the influence of Biblical interpretation, its lack of inflammatory and/or combative tone might make the book more accessible to some who otherwise wouldn’t be as open to the book’s argument. As a whole, Irvine Anderson’s Biblical Interpretation and Middle East Policy is definitely a very thought-provoking and informative introduction showing that how the Bible is interpreted definitely is a factor in governmental policies.

 

Bibliography:

Anderson, Irvine H. Biblical Interpretation and Middle East Policy: The Promised Land, America, and Israel, 1917-2002. Gainesville: U of Florida, 2005. Print.

Davidson, L. (2010), Christian Zionism and the Formulation of Foreign Policy. Diplomatic History, 34: 605–609. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-7709.2010.00874.x

Merkley, Paul C. “Biblical Interpretation and Middle East Policy: The Promised Land, America, and Israel, 1917-2002 (review).” American Jewish History, Dec. 2004. Web. 13 May 2014. <http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/ajh/summary/v092/92.4merkley.html&gt;.

Christianity & Homosexuality

Written as a personal email to a Christian friend who is struggling with his sexuality, the following is an informal, conversational examination of what the Bible says about homosexuality, and whether or not it’s possible to be both gay and Christian. In honor of Paul’s epistles, I begin the letter with a personal greeting before going deeper into the issue.

Subject: Re: Does God hate how I love?

I’m honored that you trust me enough to discuss this incredibly personal – and incredibly important – topic of whether it’s possible to be gay and Christian at the same time. But before I put on my more formal scholar cap and discuss the Bible more specifically, I feel like I should be open about my personal stance. After all, you’ve always been honest with me, so I’d like to show you the same respect, even at the risk of being a bit too blunt.

Since we’ve discussed what the Bible seems to say about slavery before, you might remember the quote of an abolitionist: “Prove to me from the Bible that slavery is to be tolerated, and I will trample your Bible under my feet, as I would the vilest reptile in the face of the earth.” In the same way – from my perspective, at least – I personally find it easier to reject the Bible because of its homophobia (or what I interpret as homophobia, but I’ll go more into that later), rather than try to reconcile the idea of a ‘loving’ God with a homophobic God. And I’m not alone on this, a Public Religion Research Institute survey earlier this year found that nearly one-third of Millennials (ages 18-33-years old) who left their faith cited “negative teachings” or “negative treatment” of the LGBTQ community as a significant factor in their decision to leave organized faith. Additionally, the survey found that 58% of Americans – and 70% of Millennials – said that religious groups are “alienating young adults by being too judgmental on gay and lesbian issues.” Even without facing the struggle that you’re going through, I’ve come to terms with my lack of faith, and I have no doubt that you could find such comfort as well.

Again, I don’t think you should feel obligated to hold your faith if you don’t feel your religion accepts who you are as a person. After all, religion is much more of a choice than sexuality. However, I understand that that’s simply not the case for everybody, as I understand and respect how important your faith has been to you.

With that said, I’d like to discuss what exactly the Bible says about homosexuality, why some people think you cannot be both gay and Christian, why some people think you can be both gay and Christian, and, in the end, why it’s your decision more than anything else.

For all the attention and controversy surrounding Christianity and homosexuality, the Bible, perhaps surprisingly, rarely discusses homosexuality, only mentioning the topic in fewer than ten passages. Additionally, given the time when the Bible was written, the Good Book has many questionable (to say the least) ideas about sexuality, gender, marriage, etc., so we shouldn’t take the passages about homosexuality without thinking about them critically. But, yes, at face value at least, the Bible seems to consider homosexual actions to be sinful; homosexuality as a sexual orientation (as we understand it today) isn’t discussed in the Bible.

The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18-19 in the Old Testament is sometimes cited as an indication that God condemns homosexual activity. Specifically in Genesis 19:5, the men of Sodom demanded Lot to “Bring them [the male angels] out to us, so that we may know them.” In that context, “to know” means “to have sex.” Later in the chapter (Genesis 19:24-25), “the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the Lord out of heaven; and he overthrew those cities, and all the Plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground.” It seems clear that God wasn’t happy with them. Many have interpreted God’s actions as a result of their homosexual activity. Even in today’s world (although the term is fading), non-procreative sexual activity is often negatively referred to as “sodomy.” Furthermore, while noting that it’s “deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action,” then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) wrote in 1986, “There can be no doubt of the moral judgment made there [in Genesis 19:1-11] against homosexual relations.” However, a few things should be noted when discussing this passage. First off, even if you believe that God condemned the cities because of homosexual activity, it’s important to understand that their actions are not the same actions as the way that most people practice homosexuality today. In contrast with today’s world, sex in Biblical times was usually for procreation or to show dominance over another person. Far from looking for a consensual and meaningful relationship that happens to be between people of the same sex, homosexual acts during the time period, such as the intended gang rape in the Biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah, were often intended as a way to humiliate and dominate another man. Additionally, not all scholars even agree that it was the homosexual actions that led to the cities’ downfall. Some, such as Jennifer Wright Knust, claim that the intended homosexual gang rape was one of Sodom’s many sins – such as pride, hatred, injustice, oppression, inhospitality, etc.

In Leviticus 18-20, also in the Old Testament, homosexuality seems to be denounced even more explicitly than in Genesis. Leviticus 18:22 reads, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” And Leviticus 20:13 says, “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.” As if the verses alone aren’t clear enough in their disapproval of homosexual actions, such verses are seamlessly intertwined with verses denouncing other sexual interactions, such as prohibiting sexual relations with any animal – a comparison that’s often made today (unfortunately). However, while the verses about homosexuality seem pretty clear, other Leviticus verses, which we often reject, seem pretty clear as well. For example, Leviticus 20:9 says, “All who curse father or mother shall be put to death,” and luckily I don’t know of any Christians who suggest the death penalty for disrespectful children. Later passages in Leviticus seem to condone slavery, such as Leviticus 25, yet we’ve blatantly rejected that as a society anyway. Furthermore, thinking more critically about the rules laid out in Leviticus, recognizing that the Jews were a relatively small group, it would make sense for them to condemn non-procreative sex in order to promote a higher birth rate, especially with the high infant mortality rates.

In the New Testament, Romans 1-2 have often been cited to support homophobic interpretations of the Bible. Specifically in Romans 1:26-27, Paul seems to suggest that, as a punishment for worshipping idols, “God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.” To some, this passage is clear; Dale Martin quotes Robert Gagnon who claims that Romans 1 “makes an explicit statement not only about same-sex intercourse among men but also about lesbianism.” However, as Martin notes, this passage, while seemingly a denunciation of homosexuality to some, seems to suggest that said homosexual actions were not deliberate choices, but punishment from God for their idolatry.

In 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, also in the New Testament, Paul writes, “Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers – none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.”  Even if you do think that homosexuality is a sin, it seems extremely unreasonable and unfair to lump “sodomites” together with “thieves” and “robbers.”  While there are questions over the translations of “male prostitutes” and “sodomites,” I don’t think any interpretation of this passage can justify its flaws.  For example, Martin argues that malakos, translated above as “sodomites,” actually has various meanings, and arguably refers most widely to the “entire complex of femininity.” Taking the phrase this way, rather than simply condemning homosexuals, it would seem to condemn “effeminate” males; and considering how the Bible, especially Paul’s letters, seem to portray women, this would seem to be a blatantly sexist insult. Additionally, the following verse, 1 Corinthians 6:11, has been used to justify “ex-gay” “conversion” therapy, which aims to ‘free’ people from their homosexual desires – which many professionals consider to be extremely demeaning and harmful. The now-defunct Exodus International, for example, used the idea that despite “what some of you used to be,” such as a homosexual, you can be “washed” and “sanctified” and “justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the spirit of our God.” Having interviewed multiple people who went through various ‘pray the gay away’ programs, some of what they went through is absolutely horrifying.

To be clear, no one has the right to tell you what you can or can’t consider yourself. If, after examining the various arguments, you do consider homosexual actions to be immoral, some people would suggest simply remaining celibate. After all, the Bible does seem to denounce homosexual actions, but homosexual attractions wouldn’t seem to be any more ‘sinful’ than heterosexual lust, which is also denounced in the Bible. It’s also extremely important to recognize that the Bible’s discussion of homosexuality doesn’t even touch on the possibility of a consensual, loving and supportive homosexual relationship, so it’s quite possible that you could remain a Christian even while living “a homosexual lifestyle,” as many gay Christians do today. As I’ve told you before, while writing about a variety of Dallas-Forth Worth churches last summer for the Dallas Observer, the church that I thought was truly the most “Christ-like” was the Cathedral of Hope, which is one of the largest LGBTQ-inclusive churches in the world, with thousands of members and almost 80-90% of their congregation identifying as LGBTQ. In the end, it comes down to whatever makes you feel the most comfortable.

No matter what you decide, know that I will support your decision, and I’m always here to help if you need me.

Sincerely,

Mac McCann

What does the Bible say about slavery?

Today, the institution of slavery is almost universally rejected. However, that wasn’t the case for most of Christianity’s history, or for most of civilization’s history either. The discussion of slavery in the Bible, often cited as the moral authority for Christians, is often controversial for many Christians today, especially since both slavery advocates and slavery opponents have used the book to support their opinions. In this essay, I will discuss the relationship between slavery and the Bible by first examining the Old Testament, then the New Testament, then reactions to the Biblical mentions of slavery, before concluding.

To put it briefly, T. David Curp, a history professor at Ohio University, wrote, “Slavery is regulated in the Old Testament, but there’s no sense therein that God disapproves of the institution per se.”

The Old Testament provides multiple Mosaic laws regulating Hebrews owning other Hebrews – but, to be clear, it in no way seems to have an issue with slavery in and of itself. For example, Exodus 21 lays out rather specific rules for buying “a male Hebrew slave” and how to treat them. While male Hebrew slaves can “go out a free person, without debt” after serving for six years, when a daughter is sold into slavery, “she shall not go out as the male slaves do” (Exodus 21:7).

However, not all mentions of slavery in the Old Testament are in complete agreement; Deuteronomy 15:12, for example, says, “If a member of your community, whether a Hebrew man or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you and works for you six years, in the seventh year you shall set that person free.” So while this verse advocates treating a Hebrew woman similarly to a Hebrew man (in contrast to the distinctions in Exodus 21), it’s still okay with the institution itself.

Although the Hebrew Bible promotes preferred treatment for fellow Israelite slaves, foreigners were not granted the same protections. In Leviticus 25, after advocating against treating “any of your fellow Israelites … with harshness,” Leviticus 25:44 clarifies that “it is from the nations around you that you may acquire male and female slaves” and even treat them “as property” that your children can inherit.

Throughout the Old Testament, slavery seems to be acceptable to God, since slaveholders like Abraham and others (whom God seemed to bless) were never condemned for having slaves. The Old Testament, it seems, does advocate certain protections for Hebrew/Israelite slaves, but has no problem with foreign slaves, or slavery as a system in and of itself.

For some Christians, the Old Testament lacks the authority of the New Testament, because the life of Jesus and the rise of Christianity were different in many ways from the teachings of the Old Testament. Unfortunately for abolitionists, the New Testament was a particularly thorny place.

Since the Old Testament is pretty clear regarding slavery, it should be noted that Jesus, according to Matthew 5:17, said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Some could interpret the claim that Jesus didn’t “come to abolish the Law” as an implicit acceptance of the Mosaic Laws, including those regarding slavery.

To be clear, similarly to the Old Testament, “The New Testament, too, is without anything like a formal condemnation,” according to Professor Curp.

Specifically related to slavery, Jesus (according to Luke 7:1-10 as well as Matthew 8:5-13) recognized, applauded, and helped a Roman soldier who was also a slave owner. Far from denouncing the man for owning slaves, Jesus highly praised the soldier’s faith. Far from encouraging the soldier to free his slaves, Jesus rewarded the soldier’s faith by healing the soldier’s slave.

Similarly, in Luke 12:47-48, Jesus seems to be completely fine with a master beating a slave, even if the slave isn’t aware of what he did wrong: “That slave who knew what his master wanted, but did not prepare himself or do what was wanted, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know and did what deserved a beating will receive a light beating.”

While Jesus said very little regarding slavery, Paul discusses the institution in various letters, and at times with significant clarity. The Epistle to Philemon in the New Testament, in particular, is considered Paul’s most extensive discussion of slavery. Paul’s letter is written to Philemon regarding his runaway slave, Onesimus. While Paul send Onesimus back to his master Philemon, he seems to at least encourage Philemon to treat Onesimus, not as a slave, but as a brother in Christ. It could even be argued that Paul implicitly urges (but does not force) Philemon to “do even more than I say,” which arguably means freeing Onesimus (Philemon 1:21). However, while Paul seems to encourage freeing Onesimus, a Christian slave, he clearly doesn’t explicitly reject the institution of slavery as a whole.

In addition to Philemon, Paul seems to accept slavery in multiple other letters. For example, Ephesians 6:5 states, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ.” In Colossians 3:22, a similar statement is made.  Additionally, slaves are told to be content with their current position as slaves (1 Corinthians 7:21), and “accept the authority of your masters” even if they “are harsh” (1 Peter 2:18-21).

Arguably the clearest discussion of slavery in the Bible is 1 Timothy 6:1-5. In 1 Timothy 6:1, slaves are encouraged to “regard their masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be blasphemed.” While that statement itself isn’t especially unique within the New Testament, it seems to hold more weight since it’s immediately followed by 1 Timothy 6:3-4, which claims that “Whoever teaches otherwise and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that is in accordance with godliness, is conceited, understanding nothing, and has morbid craving for controversy and for disputes about words.” So while the statement that slaves should obey their masters (even non-Christian masters) appears in other places, 1 Timothy 6 follows the statement by unquestionably claiming that anyone who teaches otherwise is wrong. Essentially, it would appear, according to 1 Timothy, that if one opposes the idea of a slave obeying his master, they are essentially opposed to God.

After reviewing what the Old and New Testaments say about slavery, it would seem, as Vaughn Roste of the United Church of Canada put it, “If we apply sola scriptura to slavery, I’m afraid the abolitionists are on relatively weak ground. Nowhere is slavery in the Bible lambasted as an oppressive and evil institution.”

However, it should be noted that, according to Greg Carey, a professor of New Testament at Lancaster Theological Seminary, “Without exception, biblical societies were slaveholding societies. The Bible engages remarkably diverse cultures — Ethiopian, Egyptian, Canaanite, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, and Roman — but in every one of them some people owned the rights to others.” So, although the Bible lacks any clear condemnation of slavery, almost no one during Biblical times rejected slavery as an institution.

Additionally, Carey notes that if Christians openly and actively rejected slavery, it would be extremely problematic for their movement: “[I]dentifying Christianity with slave revolt in the Roman Empire would have been the fast track to corporate suicide.”

It should also be noted that, although the Bible doesn’t reject slavery as a whole, it did promote the radical idea of a spiritual equality. For example, Galatians 3:28 reads, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

As many proslavery authors noted, the verse didn’t literally advocate abolishing slavery, since writing that “there is no longer male and female” didn’t change the fact that the genders were still expected to be treated differently; women were still expected to obey their husbands. Still, for most cultures at the time, slavery was not only a socioeconomic condition, but “a state of absolute spiritual inferiority,” according to Curp.

So while the Bible didn’t free the slaves, it did benefit slaves in some ways, such as Onesimus, who, despite being a slave, was to be treated as a brother in Christ by his master Philemon.

On a larger scale, the abolition movement in the 19th century, led and supported by many Christians, radically changed the way that many people read the Bible. Since the specific texts of the Bible seem to accept slavery, many Christians took a more holistic approach to the Bible that promoted a “Christian ideal” over specific rules. For example, while the Bible seems to accept slavery, Jesus’ message in Matthew 22:39, “love your neighbor as yourself,” could override other verses that accept the institution of slavery, because in order to treat others like we would like to be treated, we wouldn’t enslave them.

In conclusion, although it does suggest treating slaves with kindness and care, the Bible – both the Old and New Testaments – never seems to explicitly reject slavery as an institution.

Comparing & Contrasting American Evangelical Attitudes Toward Nature

As Dr. White pointed out, “When one speaks in such sweeping terms, a note of caution is in order. Christianity is a complex faith, and its consequences differ in differing contexts” (White, 3). While I recognize the impossibility of addressing every Christian’s views in all their complexities, I will examine two contrasting Christian views of the environment. In this essay, I will describe how the ‘dominion’ viewpoint and the Christian Stewardship viewpoint – which are both rooted in Scripture – are radically different.

First off, I will examine how the dominion viewpoint developed in Christianity and how it contrasted with other religious’ views of the environment. The idea that humanity has dominion over all other species is taken from the Book of Genesis in the Bible. White explains, “Man named all the animals, thus establishing his dominance over them. God planned all of this explicitly for man’s benefit and rule: no item in the physical creation had any purpose save to serve man’s purposes. And, although man’s body is made of clay, he is not simply part of nature: he is made in God’s image” (White, 2). The view that mankind has dominion over all of God’s other creations is arguably the most dominant view of the environment among Christians today, especially (and, for this essay, most importantly) for Evangelical Christians. While the view does not seem radical today, White argues that this view contributed to the fact that “Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen” (White, 2). The dominion viewpoint “not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God’s will that man exploit nature for his proper ends” (White, 2). Not only that, but “by destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects” (White, 2). Conservative Christians (which includes many, if not most, Evangelicals) often hold “other-worldly attitudes” and focus their minds on things like salvation and heavenly reward (Kearns, 353). Many disregard any consideration of the environment since they believe that God will eventually make a new world (Kearns, 353). While unique compared to other religions, the dominion view of the natural world became dominant in the Western world.

This dominion viewpoint became especially significant after the Industrial Revolution, when the dominant Christian view was used to justify exploiting the environment. In fact, modern science is deeply rooted in Christian theology. White explains, “From the 18th century onward, up to and including Leibnitz and Newton, every major scientist, in effect, explained his motivations in religious terms” (White, 3). White argues that even “despite Darwin, we are not, in our hearts, part of the natural process. We are superior to nature, contemptuous of it, willing to use it for our slightest whim” (White, 4). Because Evangelicals place such a significant emphasis on Scripture, many could be described as having an anti-science bias, which can make it difficult to discuss environmental issues with them (Kearns, 354). As Kearns also notes, “The strong linkage of conservative Christianity with capitalism and “the American way” makes it difficult to preach any message critical of economic practices” (Kearns, 360). This linkage is especially clear between the Reagan administration and the religious right in the 1980s, both of which were often criticized by environmental activists (Kearns, 353).

But the dominion viewpoint has become so common in American society that it even extends into secular society. For an example, a Jeep commercial shows Jeeps being driven through natural environments – overcoming and “conquering” nature in a safe metal box complete with air-conditioning and a radio. The commercial does not address the fact that the domination of nature by humanity (and their technology) largely contributes to the destruction of nature. So while the commercial does not include any religious imagery or terminology, the environment is still shown as something to be conquered, enjoyed and exploited by humanity and technology. Another commercial shows Al Sharpton and Pat Robertson, Christians who hold radically different political beliefs, advocating for the protection of the environment. But even while advocating protection of the environment, they display the dominion viewpoint; while they are shown sitting on a beach, they are filmed while wearing suits and sitting on a couch – imposing their human inventions into the natural environment of the beach.

While the dominion view has historically been the dominant view within Christianity, it has faced opposition. Long before our current ecological crisis, Saint Francis, according to White, “tried to depose man from his monarchy over creation and set up a democracy of all God’s creatures. With him the ant is no longer simply a homily for the lazy, flames a sign of the thrust of the soul toward union with God; now they are Brother Ant and Sister Fire, praising the Creator in their own ways as Brother Man does in his” (White, 5).

Somewhat similar to Francis’ ideas, the view of Christian Stewardship has gained popularity in recent years, partly in reaction to the ecological crisis arguably caused at least in part by the dominion viewpoint. For Christian Stewards, human sinfulness (like arrogance, ignorance and greed, all of which Scripture warns against) caused the ecological crisis, contrasting with Dr. White’s view that the ecological crisis should be blamed on Christianity (Kearns, 354). Perhaps surprisingly, like the dominion viewpoint, Christian stewardship is rooted in Scripture. Countering the dominion argument rooted in Genesis 1:27-28, the idea of Christian stewardship argues that the Bible (specifically Genesis 2:15) mandates that humans should take care of the earth (Kearns, 353). In other words, in order to honor the Creator, they have to honor the earth (the Creator’s Creation).

The rise of Christian environmentalism was largely in response to the rise of secular environmentalism; the Church was largely silent on environmental issues until the last few decades (Kearns, 358). While arguing that Christianity deserves much of the blame for our ecological crisis, Dr. White notes, “Since the roots of our trouble are so largely religious, the remedy must also be essentially religious, whether we call it that or not” (White, 5).

Interestingly, because Evangelicals put such emphasis on scripture, more and more people have accepted the Christian Stewardship view – despite directly contrasting the dominion viewpoint. After all, it is rooted in scripture and, in a way, scriptural basis for a belief is arguably more important than what the belief itself is (Kearns, 353, 356). Rather than Evangelicals having to change their entire belief system, Christian Stewardship “provides the minor retooling of a conservative religious worldview that enables some conservative Christians to respond to the ecological crisis” (Kearns, 360). Rather than citing scientific data to argue in support of conservation, Christian Stewards try to appeal to conservative Christians by arguing that “Noah was the first conservationist and Noah’s Ark presents a clear mandate for preserving species” (Kearns, 357, 361). As Wayne Frair puts it, “The answer lies not in rejection of one Biblical teaching but rather in acceptance of entire Biblical doctrine” (White, 7).

The various views of Evangelical Christians concerning the environment are evidence of how complex and diverse Evangelical Christianity is and can be. The dominion view, rooted in the Bible’s Book of Genesis, considers man to be the master of the natural world. This idea, White argues, is to blame for our ecological crisis. However, to hopefully address such problems, Christianity as a whole does not need to be abandoned. The environmental view of Christian Stewardship, also rooted in the Bible’s Book of Genesis, argues that Christians have a religious duty to protect the natural world. These two viewpoints show that evangelical Christians, even while essentially holding opposite views, agree on the importance of scripture.

How do evangelicals talk to, hear from, or talk about God?

Because the existence of God cannot be definitively proven, it requires faith.  Especially with the onslaught of scientific breakthroughs that have called into question some of the claims in the Bible, faith arguably requires more attention than it did in the past.  However, some surveys have found that up to 95 percent of Americans believe in some sort of a higher power, and even two-thirds of Americans think that angels and demons are active in the world. To strengthen one’s faith, as I will discuss in this essay, many people, especially evangelicals, talk to God, hear from God, and talk about God, (like many figures did in the Bible).

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Who are American Evangelicals?

Today in America, Evangelicals are estimated to make up a quarter of the population, or, at least, according to other estimates, 50 million people.  The term ‘evangelical’ has a lot of connotations and stereotypes associated with it.  For example, some consider an Evangelical to be “anyone who likes Billy Graham.”  Like most stereotypes, some of the characterizations of Evangelicals are at least partly rooted in truth.  But who are American Evangelicals really?  In this essay, I will examine what it means to be an evangelical, the origins and history of evangelicalism, and modern evangelicalism before concluding.

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Converting to the American God: The Transformation of Immigrant Religion to American Religion in Film

Before examining how a religion brought by immigrants can be ‘Americanized,’ we must first understand what a religion is.  Anthropologist Clifford Geertz has defined religion as a system of symbols that acts to establish powerful, pervasive and long-lasting moods and motivations in people by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and presenting those conceptions with an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.  With this definition, religion as a cultural system can be seen as it is traditionally seen, as well as the less common civil religion, in which religion goes beyond spirituality and rituals into more general and secular society.

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A clarification of my Dallas Morning News column “We should value religious uncertainty more”

This past Saturday, my column, “Faith can polarize us – and certainty is not the answer,” was published in the Dallas Morning News.  Well, it turns out that writing about faith can be polarizing as well.

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What do you want for Christmas?

When Christmas approaches, I often get caught up in my desire for material things, and I lose sight of what really matters. Continue reading