Here's to a good time, a good life, and a good death.
Alright so this will likely rank the most controversial post that I will write for a while. I’m now directly going to open up some arguments in my own personal purview of Christianity.
I want to preface by saying that this post does not, by any means, unilaterally reflect my beliefs on the religion. I operate under the belief that religion does a lot of good for people and is an integral part to a strong society. I simply want to take a jab at what I was originally raised to believe as well as what some around me consider to be “impeccably true.” Ultimately, my argument culminates to the point that while there seems to be a multiplicity of “little” arguments against Christianity, there are only two large ones that I find actually rather problematic. The first one is what I call the Achilles Heel of Christianity.
And that, my friends, is the incredibly diverse set of interpretations/set of beliefs that one can conclude from the Bible’s scriptural texts.
Let me clarify: While, Christianity does have a vast degree of diversity in interpretation, it does have some core tenants that help narrow the breadth of interpretative diversity. This, in a sense, what gives meaning to the word “Christianity.” Otherwise, what would being a Christian even mean? These core tenants sort of set the parameters for the rest of the beliefs. These include the gospel of Jesus Christ, the divination/Resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the belief in a monotheistic, benevolent deity.
Below is a simple list to demonstrate some of the vastness of difference of interpretation.
How is it that one might view sexual purity as a strict as not having “lustful” thoughts and another may take it as simply not having sexual intercourse before marriage?
How is it that one might view “drunkenness” as strict as not having a single ounce of alcohol and another may take it as simply not becoming intoxicated to the point of losing responsibility for one’s actions? (which usually takes about 4-5 beers for an average person)
How is it that one might view “keeping the Sabbath holy” as strict as not doing any work or shopping and another may take it as simply being sure to attend some religious event?
How is it that one might view “hate” as strict as “thinking merely a thought about hurting somebody” and others view it as just an act of violence.
How do Christians justify war?
Why do some Christians believe that you must be baptized in order to be “saved” and others do not?
Why do some Christians emphasize certain parts of the Bible and completely disregard others?
Why do some Christians adamantly witness to others and some other Christians go their whole lives without direct witnessing?
The list just goes on and on…
In fact, we can see this trend of ambiguity manifested in macro events. Take for instance, the emergence of all the different denominations of Christianity, such as Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopalians, Pentecostals, Adventists, Reformists, Calvinists, Evangelicals, etc. Hell, we even have Non-Denominational as a denomination (this is what I had the privilege of experiencing for 18 years). Back up even further, and we can see the multiple strands of religious belief involving the Bible, including Judaism, Church of Latter-Day Saints, Catholics and so forth.
Furthermore, let’s not forget that the Bible was created through a slow evolutionary process of adopting different pieces of works to the great collection. Eventually, through different people deciding what was valid and what not, we have the Protestant Bible. For whatever reasons, the Protestants didn’t like the Apocrypha or the so called extra books of the Bible as some say. But Catholics disagree and decided to have those extra books in their Bibles. So even before the good book’s formal existence, there was ambiguity in the interpretive role of deciding which books “God” would want as his authority. Furthermore, how do we even know which Bible is better?
As a side note, just like people decided what the Bible was, I have no problem with people deciding which parts of the Bible that they like and which they don’t, although many contemporary Christians consider it fundamentally critical to not do this.
To illustrate a fun example, let me discuss a personal story involving one of my close friends . This particular friend happened to be a very devout Christian in his earlier part of life. He also heavily enjoys playing video games and socializing around them. Jesus speaks a lot about the importance of one’s intentions and “matters of the heart” so to speak. He clearly states that thinking or desiring something bad “like lusting after an object or woman” or like “hating someone or wanting someone to die” is already a “sin.” My friend took this very seriously. One day, it occurred to him, while he was playing James Bond Goldeneye on the N64, that he was simulating the killing of people, albeit he was playing a first-person shooter video game killing virtual bad guys (nothing more than codes of information). Now, he remembered what he had learned in church, that God hates “hate” (take a moment to appreciate that paradox) and “murder” pretty explicitly. It’s even laid out in the ten commandments. Now, this may sound drastic, but he started to ask if playing these video games that involved violence were wrong? He slowly became more and more convinced that playing video games was wrong because it caused him to want to kill. Eventually, he determined that he didn’t care if it was, it was harmless to other people, and proceeded about his life and video games. Now, I’m pretty sure he would say that playing first person shooters is not wrong in the slightest and that that was simply a period of unwarranted seriousness.
Now that story, while factually true, was in good fun, but it does a great job at getting at the heart of this matter.
The Achilles Heel becomes the observation that nobody can blatantly and clearly interpret the meaning of the messages in the Bible. Now, the Bible recognizes this, hence the reason that the Holy Spirit becomes the cornerstone of interpretation according to the testaments of Jesus. Scholars also recognize this issue, which hence gives rise to the seeming “thorough and disciplinary” tools of exegesis, apologetics, and context study so to speak. While these tools can be helpful and restraining in interpretation, they are also limited and not necessarily indications of what was totally meant. This is, in part, due to the difficulty of measuring certain concepts/ideas regarding ambiguous language.
Some Christians will say that as long as you are trying to follow God with all your heart, soul, and mind, (Luke 10:27) then it doesn’t really matter what practices you have. (which also begs the question, at what point is the Christian following God to the sufficient level of each of those “alls”?) But anyhow, in essence, the intentions are all that matters to God and genuine Christianity. But this just side-steps the problem, because how do you know if your intentions are pure? By consistent re-examination? But that doesn’t work because your intentions may already be corrupt from the start. It’s a paradox of a selfish man trying to will himself to be unselfish (the next post covers this in-depth). So then, by invoking the “Holy Spirit?” (That ends up being the best answer that Christians can provide, which I will explain in better detail). Funny, that there seems to be a problem in that nobody can measure intentions apart from actions. One can assume them, but nobody can “prove” them. Further, what if your intentions are presumed to be wholly good, in fact so good, that you theoretically take God’s commandment that murder is wrong and then subsequently go on a raid destroying abortion centers? Is that the correct interpretation of “Do Not Murder” so now I will stop other people from murdering their unborn children?
Further, as is common knowledge in spiritual circles, the Holy Spirit doesn’t cause people to unilaterally agree on the doctrines and teachings of the scriptures. People still have differing interpretations. So now what does that mean?
I was recently discussing this very subject with a close friend who happens to identify as bi-sexual and Christian. Yes, both bi-sexual and Christian, rather a sort of liberal Christian that is. (In all honesty, that is the closest form of Christianity that I have the greatest sympathy towards and would strongly consider identifying as). Fascinating. Anyhow, he is currently dating a good male friend and sees nothing wrong with a homosexual relationship as neither do I. He responded that he thought the diversity of Christian beliefs/interpretations was an enormous strength for the religion. (Many Christian advocate this). He made the point that there was certainly something to be said for any religion that could attract that many people to it. He marveled at the fact that he could be in the same religion as some extremists like the Westboro Baptist Church (I’ll get to that later). He made strong arguments in favor of the relativity of morality in context to individuals. While I do agree on a wide level with his statements, I would challenge that his particular stance is more of a rather rare, but growing, viewpoint for a Christian to harbor. The vast majority of Christians disagree with these notions, particularly because they advocate Biblical fundamentalism, which is nearly the opposite of Christian liberalism. In other words, many evangelical Christians would not declare him to be a Christian, and to be “headed for hell” due to his homosexual choices, according to their Biblical interpretations. Many fundamentalist Christians argue that the Bible is a source of utmost objectivity and truth and that people with certain interpretations/views are simply wrong. Liberal Christianity basically loosens the parameters of interpretative tolerance of the Bible, while Fundamentalism tightens those parameters.
Just the other day, I was driving home from class to notice this wonderful bumper sticker.
Another Example as to the diversity of Biblical Interpretation
So the question becomes, how do we measure the validity of a particular interpretation of a scriptural passage? What standard can we weigh against it?
Who really knows who has the correct interpretation of the Bible?
DO NOT WATCH THIS VIDEO IF YOU ARE SENSITIVE TO RELIGION AND THE REMOVAL OF ITS SANCTITY. THIS IS A JOKE AND NOT TO BE TAKEN SERIOUSLY.
Alright it’s pretty easy to see how disturbing that video is on different levels, but the underlying logic it implores is quite humorous. Of course, it misses the point of Christianity in that the Christian is supposed to desire purity in a non-legalistic sense.
A funny t-shirt I saw a friend post about on Facebook. A great illustration of different interpretations.
You see, the Achilles Heel is actually not that there is no seemingly singular interpretation of the Bible (although that is a large part of it), but it is more complex than that. It is rather more about the implications that the lack of interpretive clarity open up. Again, functionally speaking, what does this mean that one can have a seemingly wide array of interpretations from scripture?
My argument is that relying on the “Holy Spirit” is not a spirit of Biblical discernment. It is not a metaphysical ghost that allows people to “see the truth” so to speak. It is instead rather a complex function primarily determined by the communities that one surrounds himself/herself with, but also as well as the various experiences that one has had in earlier periods of life. Interpersonal relationships also play a great deal into this. Basically, in my model, I advocate that religious people gain assurance and affirmation as to their interpretations of scripture through interaction within their religious communities. They will gravitate towards and attend ceremonies of highly similar teachings, practices, modes of worship, etc. Basically, the community that the agent chooses will cause a positively oriented feedback loop of constantly reinforcing the preferences/beliefs into a homogeneous mode of interpretation. This operates under the assumption that the agent is free to choose the religious community.
Perhaps that phenomenon described above happens to explain partly why many Christians tend to nest inside an like-minded religious social bubble of ideological protection? Hmmm. I’ll get to that later.
So then, what restrains a religious community from going completely “off the deep end” so to speak. What keeps their beliefs and interpretations of religious scripture in check with reality? Or in other words, what gives them validity or a lack thereof?
Perhaps it is the integration into larger society that upholds this constraint. The broader cultural sphere, manifested in social norms and political institutions, seems to be the greatest restraint towards advocating and adopting deviant religious/moral behavior. The degree to which the religious community is removed/isolated from society, the greater the probability of deviant behavior.
So how do Christians respond to the wide diversity of religious interpretation of the scriptures? In my experience, they like to appreciate the beauty of “how God works in people” and further they argue that it is doesn’t really matter. They say it is not a problem so long as everyone agrees on the Biblical fundamentals so to speak. These fundamentals are in direct reference to the core tenants of Christianity earlier in this post. That may be what they say, but in reality, it becomes a very different story.
Now are there any empirical/actual events of serious deviations of Christianity occurring?
It doesn’t take long to find some. First example to come to my mind is Westboro Baptist Church. They are aggressive in advocating anti-homosexuality, anti-abortion, and anti-Islamic political/moral views. Their provocative posters and demonstrations are just one example of the possible deviations in interpretation. Another easy one includes Mennonite and Amish communities. Another wonderful example also includes the Protestant-led KKK.
In fact, there’s even a Wikipedia article on Christian Terrorism. Would you look at that.
A very recent, fascinating strand of Christian interpretation is culminating into what is called the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR). This sect builds off the more Pentacostal and charasmatic interpretations of Christianity and deviates into some very bizarre practices. There are other strands of neo-charismatic evangelical Christian stuff going on with one example being the Toronto Blessing (if you wanna see something freaky just Google that haha), but needless to say, some evangelicals are not having a very happy time with it. See Here. And yes, I did my research and that lackluster article is a response to the NAR movement despite its bountiful ambiguities.
There is also the controversial Word of Faith movement, well known for their “wealth and health” gospel otherwise known as Prosperity Theology. This is a similar strand like NAR although I believe it is supposedly distinctly different and unrelated.
Just this past year, right before Christmas, there were multiple popular news stories of a pastor on an anti-gay rant/sermon. Now, I will say that it is exceptionally rare to find your average Christian that is that outspoken on this issue, but to see a pastor exemplifying this behavior with no remorse or guilty consciousness. Well, if that isn’t evidence for diversity in scriptural interpretation, then I don’t know what is.
Looks like this guy is just too busy ruining Christianity for everyone. Or maybe this is what “true” Christianity is.
If you’re looking for something a little bit more serious and tragic on some of the obscure interpretations of Christianity, I saw a friend recently post this article on Facebook relating that it personally affected her Spiritual warfare at Sterling’s Calvary Temple church. This wasn’t the first time I had read a cult post of Christianity on Facebook and it won’t be the last. But in all actuality, all that one really has to do is search in Google “Christian Cult” and look through the first few pages for results.
I recently saw a friend post this link about a potential Christian Cult. What makes this a cult? I’m not quite sure exactly, but essentially the preacher, F. Nolan Ball, thinks that he is an apostle and I suspect that just crosses the line for some people. Apparently, spiritual abuse and other big scandals have surrounded this church and its pastor.
There’s even a Presbyterian minister who is promoting “belief-less” Christianity. He doesn’t believe in God and many of the other main tenants of Christianity.
So one may point out these examples and say Christianity is wrong. This is a poor argument because first of all, you are cherry-picking the examples that fit your argument. There are plenty examples of good as well. But even more important, this isn’t all of Christianity. This is just one particular set of interpretations at given points in time in varying contexts. That’s why average evangelical Christians can brush off these guys as “fanatics” and argue that their interpretation of scripture is “wrong.”
Again the point of my argument is not that these are “bad interpretations of scripture” but that merely the fact of their existence shows the diversity of interpretation from the Bible. These are simply pieces of evidence to support my claim.
So how do we go about actually measuring the interpretive strength of a particular scripture? Instead of adopting the Christian method of using social groups and analytic tools, my argument is that the most correct way to really do this, is to think how the interpretation relates to the PSIC framework. If the interpretation shares many pro-social interactive cooperation complex similarities, it is likely a strong and robust interpretation. What I mean by this is, that the interpretation should push individuals towards positively reinforcing interpersonal relationships. And as long as it does not go against PSIC, then it becomes a neutral interpretation. Do not forget that Mill’s Harm Principle, the idea that only physical harm requires reactionary force, is a key base component of PSIC. There are also emotional and spiritual harm, but those are confined to context-based situations (usually linked to property rights). Now of course, applying PSIC to Biblical scriptures is no easy task. In fact, in most cases, it may be tough to determine an outcome. But it is the beginning of how to think about good interpretations of scripture.
Let’s take for instance, my friend’s dilemma with first-person shooter games. We can speculate, “Does my friend playing these video games become detrimental to his interpersonal relationships?” Well, he was socializing around them so they are probably not damaging to relationships. Has playing these video games lead to any degree of him causing harm? Not that he can recall. That is a relatively easy answer. Is it harmful in any capacity of harm (emotional and spiritual)? Perhaps in its desensitizing nature, but again, no concrete evidence or at least none that we can observe. So we can casually conclude that having a positive interpretation of playing first-person shooter games as a relatively safe stance when thinking within the framework of PSIC. However, what if the video games had led to personal distress? Would that be within PSIC?
“If no set of moral ideas were truer or better than any other, there would be no sense in preferring civilized morality to savage morality.”
― C.S. Lewis
“A moral system valid for all is basically immoral.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche