Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Figurative Morality

The Barefoot Bum wrote an excellent blog entry entitled ”The Moral Failure of Figurative Theology.” I am not quite ready for it to be consigned to the back-room of blogdom.

There has always been a tension regarding the literalism of the stories of the Tanakh. At one time, most Christians believed the Great Flood literally occurred as recorded in the Bible. (Whether Judaism always believed it to be an actual historical event is a matter of another discussion.) Christians believed there was an actual 40 days (and nights) with actual rain, and the entire planet, every continent, every mountain, every single piece of earth was covered with water. And Christians believed the entire animal kingdom was saved by virtue of one (1) very big boat.

Science began to discredit the story in two primary ways: 1) Geology demonstrated there was no universal flood and 2) Biology demonstrated the difficulty in all the species (including insect, plant, fish, and avian) either surviving such a flood, or fitting in such a boat.

This tension caused Christianity to fracture into three predominant groups. The first group continues with literalism. Any evidence pointing to the contrary is discounted, discredited or disavowed. Literalism is maintained at the cost of science, observation and (in my opinion) reasonableness.

The second group assumed a combination of literalism/allegory. That there is “some truth” (and how much is a matter of debate) to the story, but it didn’t actually happen as literally written out in Genesis. Most hold to a “local flood” concept.

The third group considered it a complete allegory. Entire myth. That this was just a story, made to give a moral point. Much like Aesop’s fables—there was no talking mouse and talking lion and never expected to be. The idea was what was to be conveyed.

We see these machinations in Creation (OEC vs. YEC vs. theistic evolution). In Exodus (including the Ten Plagues and Joshua’s genocide.) In the stories of Judges. Regarding David and Solomon—even later prophets like Daniel or Isaiah. And yes, in the New Testament as well. Did the authors of the gospels record what Jesus actually said, or did they record what they expected him to say? Did the author of Acts recording the literal speeches of Peter, Stephen and Paul, or summations or even broad doctrinal statements?

But The Barefoot Bum takes it a step further. A warranted step further. If the stories presented are of figurative historical nature; are the moral dictates within the stories equally figurative?

Going back to the flood story. If it was only a local flood, or was entirely a myth—what is the moral being proclaimed here?

God sees wicked people.
God kills all the wicked people.
God saves a few humans and a few animals.

In our current society, we attempt to rehabilitate people. If they are doing something wrong, we hope to give them an opportunity to correct their ways. We punish people based upon the extent of their wrong-doing. We do not levy the death sentence to rapists and jay-walkers alike.

We punish the actual wrong-doers. We do not electrocute the murderer, then kill his wife, then kill his new-born son and 5-year-old daughter. And kill his dog, his cat, and 10 gold fish.

Yet these are the very actions of the God of the Great Flood. He didn’t attempt to rehabilitate. He administered the same punishment for all. He killed 2-day-old infants for the sins of their fathers and mothers. He killed all of the household cats (except 2) because…well…cats are evil, I guess. (Dogs, I could see. But cats?)

In fact, we start to see figurative morality begin to take hold in the claims of Christianity. Ask about Onanism. Or the Mosaic Law. (“Much of that was done away with by the New Covenant.”) Or slavery. (“Their slavery was different than our slavery.”) Or Polygamy. (“Uh…er…”) Or women wearing gold 1 Tim. 2:9. (“That has to do with modesty, not actually wearing gold.”) Or Divorce. (“The wronged party can re-marry.”) Or alcohol. (“Their wine was different than our wine.”)

We see how the morals being imposed within the Bible no longer apply today (eating pork) or mean something else today (women dress modestly) or only meant for that time period (polygamy, slavery). They become a “figurative” morality.

Which brings us to the great question as posed by The Barefoot Bum. I would state it as follows (making it my own):

If the stories of the Bible are figurative, and the morals are figurative—what possible mandate would the Bible have upon us today? In other words—if we do not rely upon the Bible for history and we do not rely upon the Bible for morals—what DO we rely upon it for?

Other than stories of how former civilizations viewed their gods.


  1. Just FYI: I do publish my real name, so if you want to address me by name, you're free to call me "Larry".

  2. "If the stories of the Bible are figurative, and the morals are figurative—what possible mandate would the Bible have upon us today? In other words—if we do not rely upon the Bible for history and we do not rely upon the Bible for morals—what DO we rely upon it for? "

    Well, beyond the obvious (i.e., it makes an excellent door stop)...

    I rely on the Bible for history, but not in the sense you mean it. I consider it a compendium of religious history. A history of peoples grappling and responses to life.

    I think the primary use of the Bible is and has always been as propaganda. I think it has proven very effective as such.

  3. I’d say Dr. Haught makes lemonade with his lemons. If I am reading him correctly (and I have not read his book), we are in agreement on a number of points:

    1) The Bible has errors. Check.
    2) The Bible is historically inaccurate. Check.
    3) The Bible is scientifically and mathematically inaccurate. Check.
    4) The Bible is not inspired as traditional theologians claim. Check.
    5) The Bible’s dominant Biblical contribution is not applying its morality to today. Check.

    At this point, one wonders what the Bible is for; since it doesn’t seem much good for anything else. Dr. Haught claims the dominant Biblical contribution is “an emphasis on the themes of liberation, promise, and the need to trust in spite of all present doubts about there being any final redemptive meaning to history and the universe.”

    Of course, my immediate question would be this: What method do we use to determine the Bible’s (and I am presuming he means the 66 books of the Protestant Bible, although he is Catholic) “dominant contribution.” Do we look to the author of the various book’s intention? The intended audience of the original writings? God’s intentions? The contribution determined through the course of history? Our current determination?

    The biggest single problem you will ever have with liberal Christianity is getting them to commit to a consistent methodology. They are replete with, “Oh, I don’t believe _____ about Christianity.” The blank can be filled in with “hell,” or “atonement” or “original sin” or “Jesus’ deity” or this or that or the other thing. But when asked as to how to determine what is or is not correct about what the Bible is attempting to teach—you will get nothing but long words (like Dr. Haught) and no specificity.

    Can we find themes of liberation, promise and need to trust? Sure—‘cause we are looking for it. We can find covenant theology. We can find moral instruction. We can find Calvinism. We can find Arminianism. Heck, the Christians manage to find “prophecy” in the Tanakh that have the Jews scratching their heads, saying, “What the---?”

    Even if it WAS the dominant theme—are the other themes superseded by it? Can there be lesser themes equally as valuable?

    What I see (and I may be wrong) is the typical liberal theology that wants its cake and eat it to. It wants this “grand unified meaning and purpose of everlasting life” yet admits it sees all the humanity and faults in the very belief it wants.

  4. **Or slavery. (“Their slavery was different than our slavery.”) **

    For the life of me, I do not understand this argument at all. Because isn't this the same as saying a certain type of slavery is in fact okay? That slavery is only wrong when it's like the slavery from the 18th century?