Among my biggest pet peeves has been the practice of Christians to cherry pick scriptural support for their particular point of view. Not that I am persuaded by arguments that rely on scriptural authority rather than on objective evidence and critical analysis. But, still, it is frustrating because the Bible is filled with all manner of writings that are inconsistent, not just with other passages, but with prevailing cultural norms.
One of the most common of these is the modern portrayal of God as an omni-benevolent deity eager to welcome us into his heavenly kingdom with open arms. This is at extreme odds with the Old Testament portrayal of God as a vengeful, bloodthirsty deity who is consumed with anger whenever humans disappoint him by failing to give him their undivided allegiance and devotion or simply by being, well, human.
And when God is not attacking his own people, we often find him engineering or abetting the genocide of other tribes who are standing in the way of the Israelites’ conquest of their “promised land.”
When I point out these enormous discrepancies between the murderous God of the Old Testament and the all-loving one of contemporary Christian faith, I get responses such as that Christ’s sacrifice changed all of that (somehow), or that God tried to work with the Israelites but then changed his mind and took a different approach through Christ, or even that the Old Testament accounts of God’s violence are falsehoods perpetrated by Satan. (Yup, really.)
The same could be said for other passages that are frankly inconsistent with modern standards of morality. These include, inter alia, the acceptance of slavery and polygamy, the subordination of women, and the condemnation of homosexuality. The usual Christian apologist response to these passages is simply that those were different times—you know, special rules for special circumstances—and that, again, Christ somehow changed everything.
But how do Christians know which scriptural passages to accept and which to reinterpret, ignore, or discount? It’s all part of holy scripture, isn’t it? In the case of God’s character, one could just as easily argue that it’s the Old Testament description of God that’s the accurate one. After all, God’s eternal, isn’t he? His personality hasn’t really changed, has it? So why not argue that God is in fact the jealous, vengeful, murderous deity portrayed in the Old Testament and that the kinder, gentler version described by Paul and others is a false representation? Not what we might prefer, but, hey, God is God and that’s who we’ve got. Certainly the gods of other mythologies weren’t necessarily known for their benevolence toward humans. So why should the Christian god be any different?
What’s really going on here? Most Christians will argue that the fundamentals of their faith have been crucial to the shaping of cultural norms, that without religion the world would be a much “darker” place. I believe this has it backwards. It is the evolution of culture that is transforming religion belief, not the other way around.
This has certainly been the case with progress in other intellectual realms, such as science. As it has become clear that the earth revolves around the sun instead of the other way around, religion has had to follow suit. The same can be said for other advances in astronomy, as well as in geology, biology, evolutionary science, etc., etc. that have overturned biblical accounts of the age of the earth and the history of life. Mainstream religions have acknowledged that those biblical passages that contradict modern scientific knowledge have to be reinterpreted and treated as “metaphorical.” And as to those fundamentalist sects who have clung to literal interpretations of biblical accounts that are contrary to modern scientific principles, well, let’s just say that they are slow learners.
By the same token, culture standards, including codes for morality, have evolved, not because of religion but simply as the result of our collective experience in having to live together in more and more demanding and sophisticated circumstances. Religion has had to keep pace with that evolutionary process or risk failure and abandonment. So slavery, which was approved of in scripture, is now nearly universally condemned. The same is happening with respect to the scriptural declarations that women are to be subordinate to men and that homosexuality is a sin. These societal changes have occurred despite contrary scriptural authority. And it is religious thinking that has had to change to keep up with these cultural changes.
This is true also for conceptions of God. The description of God over the course of the 1,200 year history of the writing of the Bible doesn’t reflect a changing relationship between humans and God. Instead, it reflects the changing conceptions of God in the face of the cultural evolution of the peoples who wrote the scripture. And as Western culture has continued to evolve since the scriptural canon was closed, apologists have had to scramble more and more to explain away those portions of scripture that reflect a vision of the world that is further and further removed from contemporary societal norms.
© 2014 John M. Phillips