Attended a discussion last night between representatives of the Christadelphian church and the London Active Atheists. Not without some trepidation, since the old-LAAG’s are perversely proud of their disrespect and intolerance, their general snarky dismissiveness of anything non-objective in fact. I have an ongoing problem with that anyway, but doubly problematic initially, since due to booking mix-ups, the Christadelphians admitted they hadn’t brought their A-team, and we also had one of those embarrassing pauses where the host hasn’t checked if their guest’s presentation works before we start. Ho hum.
Two of the team largely relied on testifying their faith and love of god, and describing the good works of their ministry – can’t really argue with that – but one was able, and had the patience in the circumstances, to attempt to describe the theology behind their world view. As an objective debate, the atheists – especially those who’d done their homework on the history of the bible, the archaeology of its stories, not to mention fact and myth in attributing words and action to someone called Jesus – with their standards of objective evidence and weight of numbers, won the day. But I have to say these considerations miss the point for me.
No-one, not the Christadelphians, is saying the bible is perfect on any dimension, still less the histories of church actions purported to be based on it. More to the point, what it says (in the words) and what it says Jesus said (in words) is not the point. Yes they adhere to a “literal” reading of the bible, the bible in its most original (but imperfect) versions where possible. But that’s a literal reading of that whole bible. And, on the moral compass dimension, that’s a reading of action, not a reading of some academic record of the written rules and instructions. Reading the whole bible, means not getting focussed on one set of rules (of their time and culture – more later) in the ten commandments, but the the living of life according to the qualities of the prophet – the beatitudes, and more parables and the like.
This takes us into interpretation (and hermeneutics). Sadly, too much of the discussion of interpretation was between literal and metaphorical, and being subjectively selective in which interpretations to make of which bits. Seemingly arbitrary and random and, as the scholars in the audience pointed out, indicative of pre-developed moral preferences in the individual rather than the “literal word of god” in the bible. But again, it’s not literally “the words”. It’s the logos.
In fact at the level of the words, the counter to being literal is not being metaphorical, but being rhetorical in context, which isn’t to say some of the rhetoric isn’t also metaphorical, but it’s the context and the rhetorical purposes that require a more holistic reading. So, in the example used (I’m sure someone could quote book and verse) where Jesus says bring me your family and I’ll put them to the sword in front of you, interpretation is no mystery (and I’d never heard that passage before last night). Reading the whole, you know Jesus (even a 100% mythical Jesus) is about love in action.
Clearly when Jesus says something that gruesome – but doesn’t enact it, notice nor suggest anyone else should (as was noted to the contrary in the earlier example of his rebuke to his angry disciples) – he’s making a rhetorical point to his current audience in context. (I don’t even need to know what that was, in order to know that’s true.) Of course, needing to have context for the historicity of the recorded rhetoric is one reason Christadelphians prefer to stick close to the most “original” versions of the bible.
As a rationalist, atheist, humanist I have no problem with any prophet preaching love in action towards fellow man and the cosmos. Clearly the good books of the Abrahamic religions have checquered histories and variable quality in their content. One reason they can only ever make sense holistically, in the round, and why interpretation by individuals passage by passage can only ever lead to doubt, confusion and conflict. You either need the authority of a scholar in the hierarchy of your church and its good book(s) or individuals who understands that “holistic” caveat in how to read it. Christadelphians clearly comprise the latter kind of individuals. And, in their case, the whole bible includes the old testament, albeit read through the filter of the new covenant.
Nothing above says the bible is exclusive in originating and capturing such values; being imperfect, how could it be. Recognising the imperfection and non-exclusive interpretation, neither does it make sense to proselytise or attempt any conversion, so they don’t. Note also, little if any of the above refers to any God or the trinity – that’s two different metaphysical debates for another day.
Some useful stuff, though I fear not many were open to it.