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Why isn't Christianity considered evil? After reading the Bible, I noticed that homosexuality is 'abominable', that if anyone chooses to work on a sunday then they should be 'put to death', that slavery is fine, animal sacrifice is fine and that the mentally-ill are possessed by the devil. Why then, do we not actively supress Christianity? How can a Christian legitimately believe that homosexuality, for example, is fine and still call themselves a Christian, despite what it says in the Bible? It seems to me that it is an evil moral theory to subscribe to.

November 28, 2005

Response from Peter S. Fosl on November 28, 2005
A good and courageous question in my book. First, you should know that there are quite a few philosophers who have regarded Christianity as morally unsound. Nietzsche is perhaps the best known among them. For myself, I have argued that common Abrahamic conceptions of God are immoral (see "The Moral Imperative to Rebel Against God").

But your question calls for some qualification of its own:

Don't assume that the Bible defines Christianity. It's true that some Christians hold that the Bible is literally true and inerrant in every statement and command. Most, however, don't accept this view of Scripture. Rather, they hold that some parts of the Bible are today inapplicable, other parts erroneous, and other parts metaphor, symbol, or fable (including the portions you cite). From this point of view, it's not the Bible that defines the Christian church but the church (or community of believers, anyway) that decides how to interpret and what to do with Scripture. Remember that in the early days of Christianity, there were many Scriptural texts that never made it into the Bible. The Nag Hamadi library, for example includes, I think, 52 texts including a variety of so-called Gnostic gospels. And even today the Catholic Bible includes text not included in Protestant Bibles. At the command of the church and political authorities (not the instruction of the Bible), Athanasius culled Scipture down to what approximates todays Bible. And if I remember correctly, it wasn't until centuries later that the Catholic church (not Scripture) formally designated which texts belong to the Bible and which don't. Again, the religion defines and interprets Scripture, not the other way around--or, anyway, not principally the other way around.

Accordingly, many Christians resist "proof texting" or citing singular passages to define the teachings of Christianity. This practice is largely a recent one and has arisen as part of our commerial and litigious society, as well as with widespread literacy. Remember that for most of Christian history, most Christians neither did nor could read the Bible; and most wouldn't recognize citing specific passages to support legalistic arguments as the best way to define their religion. Your view of the relationship of the Bible to the Christian faith seems characteristic of only a small minority of Christians, notably some fundamentalists.

So, I think it's possible to be a Christian and to disregard certain portions of the Bible. In fact, I'd say that the morally best Christians do just that, and they disregard Scripture for the reason you cite. Some parts of the Bible on their face at least present immoral instruction.
Response from Richard Heck on November 29, 2005

A few comments.

First, the Bible nowhere says that one shouldn't work on Sunday. It says that one shouldn't work on the Sabbath, and the relevant prohibition is contained in the Law given to Moses, which means that it referred originally to the Jewish Sabbath, Saturday.

Second, as Peter Fosl said, the view that the Bible is literally true, through and through, is largely a recent invention and would not be accepted by most people who call themselves Christians. But I'll agree with this much: Those who run around quoting Leviticus's prohibitions against homosexuality while eating pork have a lot of explaining to do. Indeed, those who ban gays from their churches while admitting those who are divorced have some explaining to do, too. (Jesus is not recorded ever to have mentioned homosexuality, but Matthew records him as having prohibited divorce, except on grounds of infidelity, on two separate occasions.) Those who "proof text" tend to be rather selective, as indeed they need to be, since the stories contained in the canon contain so many different perspectives, and those excluded (largely for political reasons), such as the Gospel of Thomas, contain yet more. The people who wrote these scriptures weren't hung up on literality the way people nowadays seem to be, and it seems pretty clear that they didn't take themselves to be giving any kind of final answer either.

Third, it's often helpful to understand something about the culture in which Jesus and the early Christians lived when trying to understand the scriptures. For example, it is arguable that in prohibiting a man from divorcing his wife except for marital infidelity, Jesus was trying to defend not the institution of marriage but the dignity of women. In Jesus's day, a woman who had been divorced was often a social outcast and usually had no independent means of support. (The same is true in many countries today and was true even in the West until not long ago.) A man who divorced a woman was thus often consigning her to poverty. (For much sensible and accessible reflection of this kind, see Peter Gomes's The Good Book.)

Fourth, the question what relevance the Law has for Christians has been debated since Christianity's earliest days. Perhaps the hottest issue among the early Christians was whether one could be a Christian without being (or becoming) a Jew. This debate is recorded in Acts and often referenced in the letters of Paul, who argued vehemently that the new faith should be open to those of all nations. (That's what Paul's talking about when he talks about circumcision.) Paul won that argument, in the end, rather decisively. His reasons for doing so are beautifully illustrated in Acts 10. Many Christians take this story to contain a profound argument against exclusion of women from ministry, of homosexuals from full inclusion in the church, and so on and so forth.

Finally, then: Does it really matter how faithful this story is to Peter's experience? Does it matter whether Peter ever had such an experience? Does it matter whether it was "just a dream"?


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