Monday, June 30, 2008

Stop Wasting Time Debating What the Bible Really Teaches

1. The Bible teaches that homosexuality is wrong.
2. I believe that the Bible teaches that homosexuality is wrong.

The first statement is normative, purports to state an objective truth, and is highly debatable. It is
somebody's interpretation, and it can be disputed.

The second statement is descriptive, states a subjective conviction, and is indisputably true. I believe what I believe, and that's a fact.

Form 2 statements have the same implications for action as form 1 statements.

Most essentialist (Form 1) disputes about what the Bible really teaches in an authoritative fashion accomplish little. I could convene a conference on what the Bible teaches
normatively about homosexuality with the best biblical scholars and theologians in the world on the subject. It would produce a set of conflicting conclusions that I could predict in advance if I knew the general theological outlook of the participants.

As a rule liberal biblical scholars will conclude that the Bible condemns abusive sexual relationships of all kinds but not faithful, monogamous same-sex love. Conservative scholars will nearly always say that the Bible condemns all homosexual acts and relationships. Numerous conferences and debates in journals and books show this over and over. So I need not convene my conference. Seldom does anyone have a change of mind as a result of such debates. So, of what use are they?

Given all this I propose we abandon unhelpful essentialist or normative notions of what a given religion IS or TEACHES or REQUIRES. This approach states what is claimed to be definitive truth, so that anyone who disagrees is wrong. The result is a multitude of contradictory claims.

What finally matters is what people BELIEVE Islam or Christianity is, or what the Koran or the Bible teaches and what they do about in daily life and practice.

Does the Koran permit or require
jihad? Muslim scholars and theologians are not in agreement about what it is and when it is required, permitted, or prohibited? But what I want to know is: What do particular Muslims around the world actually believe it teaches about jihad and what they do about it? This is operationally useful.

In daily life we confront people who hold a variety of views about moral and religious subjects, many of which contract others. I can only decide for myself what the right interpretation is. I cannot decide for others. The important question, then, is how I am going to relate to them -- agree and form coalitions to promote our common beliefs or oppose them in every appropriate manner.

The text of the Bible and the Koran say many things, but none of it means much until it is interpreted by someone. It is the various interpretations that finally matter in a practical sense. So let every believer and every group try to discern in their own ways what the Bible or the Koran requires today in the way of belief and practice. Let them all confess their beliefs and be loyal to them. Let them all seek agreement with others where possible by joint inquiry.

Debates about the objective truth of the matter are mostly fruitless and largely a waste of time. Have we not learned this by now?

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