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Friday, February 17, 2012

Link on Sports and Faith

David Brooks reflects some of my own thought on the ethos of sports and faith.
Thursday, February 16, 2012

Thought Provoking Article

Gary Gutting, our neighbor over in South Bend, had this in today's times, which is giving me something to think about.
Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Biblical Trajectory

I have finished one book recently, and am working on another, each dealing with some facet of intellectual history.  This one makes the case that violence has decreased dramatically through human history, especially in the last several hundred years.  The author, Steven Pinker, assumes that the critical recent development in this process was the intellectual revival experienced in western Europe during late modernity and the enlightenment.  The other book is an intellectual history of conservative political philosophy beginning with Edmund Burke.  The author, Corey Robin, looks for the essence of conservative thought animating conservative politics.  Both books are secular, written for a secular audience.  One of these books assumes that the biblical tradition functions largely to legitimate violence of the powerful against the powerless (which, thank God, the enlightenment came to save us from), the other book assumes that the biblical tradition has been a powerful force undermining the violence of the powerful against the powerless, and has given the powerless a voice by which they might call the powerful to a transcendent moral standard.

I bring this up to highlight the fact that the Bible has been used by the powerful to justify violence AND it has been used by the powerless to protest the injustice and violence perpetrated against them by the powerful.  So what is the Bible?  Is it whatever we need it to be?  Is it a tool for the powerful?  The powerless?  If we can make of the Bible whatever we want, the what's the point?  How can the Bible legitimately be any kind of authority for us?  This is especially so given the genocidal God portrayed in its pages.  What can such a book possibly offer us enlightened moderns?  We come to the Bible with good intent, and with a belief in a loving God, the Golden Rule, and in peace, service and justice, and what do we find?

"Okay, nobody move, put your Bibles down and walk away slowly" has become, for many of us, a way of coping with this strange and frightening and dangerous book.

In the book by Corey Robin is a chapter on Supreme Court Justice Anonin Scalia, a constitutional scholar who leads the originalist camp of constitutional legal theory.  Constitutional originalism believes that the constitution must be followed according to its original intent.  For example, if the public in the 1790s understood flogging to be outside the category of cruel and unusual punishment, then the cruel and unusual punishment clause of the constitution does not prohibit flogging today.

Legal scholars who are not originalist also hold the constitution in high esteem, and have no interest in throwing it out, even though its meaning  was understood differently when it was written than we might understand it now.  The constitution functions as a high authority, but how can we possibly apply this old document of floggers and slaveholders to our times today?

One of the ways to think of this legal challenge is to look at principles and extrapolate trajectories.  What is the principle involved, for example in the cruel and unusual punishment clause, and what kind of trajectory emerges from the late nineteenth century?  If we fully extrapolate this principle from the late nineteenth century to our own times, we can and do say (at least those who are not originalists) that flogging is a form of punishment that violates the constitution.  The founders were on the right road, in other words, they just needed to go further along.  Somebody reading the constitution, then, in 1800, comes to precisely the opposite conclusion some of us might today, each holding the document to be a normative legal authority.  This hermeneutical (interpretive) task of extrapolation is complicated and difficult work, but is necessary if the constitution is to remain a living legal document.

The task of interpreting the constitution is not so different from the task of interpreting the Bible, although the latter is more complicated in that is a jumble of authors and genres, written over hundreds of years, thousands of years ago among cultures long gone.  But, for these reasons, the Bible is also way more fun and exciting than the constitution.

The other challenge in biblical hermeneutics relative to constitutional scholarship is epistemology.  The source of constitutional authority is clear, and on what basis we define it as truth.  But how do we experience the Bible as an authoritative document in our lives?  On what basis do we say it is true?  These are questions of epistemology.  How do we know something is true?  In particular, how do we know what the Bible says is true?

Let's take a look at one of the most difficult sets of passages in all of scripture, the practice of the ban during the Israelite conquest Canaan.  The ban refers to God's specific instructions to kill every man, woman or child, in the Canaanite city-states being conquered.  We are rightly horrified by this, and my natural impulse is to forswear anything to do with God, or this book as an authoritative document.  But people looking on in the biblical times would not have been horrified by this, in the same way that the founders could not conceive of flogging as cruel and unusual punishment.  The sort of behavior in which the Israelites engaged was normal for their time.  The violence in these texts is quite unremarkable for literature of the time; indeed, its depiction is rather tame.  Genocidal violence forms a kind of literary baseline out of which we can identify what is remarkable in these passages, and begin to identify a trajectory which moves into and speaks to our own times.

One remarkable aspect of these stories is the severe prohibition against plunder.  This ought to catch our attention.  Why was it so necessary to burn the possessions of the victims of these massacres?  The Israelites had spent forty years wandering the wilderness dependent on God's abundance for provision.  The impulse to plunder was an impulse to self reliance rather than God reliance.  The Israelites had left bondage in a society dedicated to acquisition, acquiring, reaping, gathering, storing in barns (Matthew 6 in case you aren't getting the reference), where some had over abundance and others not enough.  The prohibition against plunder was a reminder of the kind of people the Israelites were to be as God's people.

Another remarkable aspect of these passages, of course, is the minor role the Israelites themselves play in the conquest stories.  They do not conquer because of superior technology, larger armies, or mighty royal leadership, but through the power of God.  Again, a reminder that they are led directly by God, with no human regent, and leadership functioning with little human institutional authority.

Another remarkable aspect of these passages is that the Israelites are not to occupy these cities.  This is interesting for several reasons.  One is the innate biblical antipathy toward civilization, and the human hierarchies that inevitably arise and circumvent God's purpose for creations, namely that God's gifts be used to sustain all life in abundance, not just a privileged few.  Another interesting aspect of this is that the Israelites were being given freedom by God to be God's people, not authority to dominate a conquered people.

Remember by remarkable we mean unique relative to the literature contemporary to this period in Israelite history.  We begin to grasp how God might be at work among these people and through this book (epistemology), and are now prepared to do the work of hermeneutics.  How does the trajectory emerging from this baseline move into our own times.

So begins the biblical trajectory.  I am grateful to Mary Shertz and Perry Yoder, my professors at AMBS who introduced me to the concept of the biblical trajectory, which sustains me in my relationship with the mysterious book we call the Bible.