James Riemermann’s ‘Two Gods at least’

I didn’t intend to start posting on atheism/nontheism as much as I have lately, but I just wanted to highlight a post on the (relatively unnoticed, it seems) Nontheist Friends blog by James Riemermann, which I think is insightful.

To try to paraphrase it, James is saying he finds it hard to (at least without disclaimer) use the word “God” even as a metaphor, because he finds there to be two distinct – and not clearly related – entites that the word “God” refers to. “Both gods speak to me as metaphors, but I have difficulty calling them by the same name.”

The first entity (”God One“) is the awesome, omnipotent Creator of Genesis and Job; the second (”God Two“) is the God of love and peace of the New Testament (my association). Both of these Gods are powerful metaphors: God One “serves magnificently as a metaphor for the natural world,” which is so much more powerful than us and so ultimately mysterious. God Two serves as a metaphor for our ethical condition. But both of them are only metaphors: the brutally awesome God One simply represents the natural world, and the ethical-relational God Two is “entirely dependent on the existence of conscious and self-aware beings in relationship with each other and the world around us” (from the comments).

This last bit reminded me of something Pam wrote last month – the feeling in meeting as perhaps simply “the joy of community for me, a member of a social species.”

To borrow these concepts, what surprised me about the theist messages I heard at the sessions of New England Yearly Meeting last weekend (as I wrote in the last post) was not the God Two-style theism – that I’m very used to hearing from Quaker mouths – but the God One-style theism. (On that subject, there’s a discussion on Quaker Pagan about the ethics of talking about messages from a meeting for worship. I think perhaps I should try to contact one of the Friends whose message I recorded and express my concerns to them directly.)

I am also highlighting this post because I posted a long comment on it in response to a comment by Liz Opp of The Good Raised Up. I responded to it because it seemed to be a variation on an objection to nontheism by liberal theists that I’ve come across several times – that the God that atheists don’t believe in is a false god in the first place, and that the real God is different, more a God of love than of control, and so on. (Sarah, your comment on the first post, about the God I don’t believe in sounding a lot like the God you don’t believe in, I read as being along these lines.)

I think this is unsatisfactory because I don’t think we can change the meaning of “God” so easily to suit our own purposes, any more than we can recast Napoleon as a man of peace (or rename Gandhi “Napoleon”). But I won’t repeat the whole comment here.

72 Responses to “James Riemermann’s ‘Two Gods at least’”


  1. 1 Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) Aug 15th, 2006

    I honestly don’t see where you get your idea that “the brutally awesome God One simply represents the natural world”. Hebrews, Jews and Christians have been at tremendous pains to make it clear that the Creator is not his Creation for well over three thousand years now. You cite Genesis and Job, so I would ask you to notice that the point that the Creator is not his Creation is in fact made in both those places.

    Moreover, the Creator God, both in Genesis and Job, is identified with something we experience that the Hebrews and Jews all regarded as being outside the natural realm — namely, the admonitory voice that reproves us when we do wrong. That is the voice that reproves Adam and Eve for eating the apple; it is also the voice that asks Job just where he thinks he was when the morning stars sang together. The fact that the natural order seems so indifferent to morality seems to have been one of the reasons why that voice of righteousness and goodness in our hearts was recognized as being, not natural, but out-of-nature, i.e., supernatural (though it was certainly not the only reason; the sheer cosmic power and authority with which that voice can manifest to us is another reason).

    Speaking now for myself, it is when I experience that voice of righteousness and goodness, looking upon all the Creation, and pronouncing it “good”, and blessing it with fruitfulness (a repeated theme in Genesis 1), that I experience James Reimermann’s God One and God Two as being actually the same.

  2. 2 James Riemermann Aug 15th, 2006

    Marshall,

    I speak for myself and not Zach, obviously…

    It is a given that I do not accept the traditional Judaic and Christian interpretations of scripture. You are correct in pointing this out, but it is hardly a valid criticism of my central point.

    The fact that traditional Judaic and Christian theology distinguishes the creator from creation, does not mean that the Bible cannot legitimately be read such that the creator is a personalization of the power and mystery of the naked world. I am responding to the text (Genesis, Exodus, Job) directly, as ancient poetical reflections on the nature of the world. In this poetical work, the qualities of the creator are drawn from the qualities of the creation, which are inscrutable and often horrifying. Thus God’s brutality in the story of Abraham and Isaac, of the flood, of the destruction of Sodom, of the torture of Job and the slaughter of his household.

  3. 3 zach Aug 15th, 2006

    Marshall, I would repeat James’s point below; to clarify further, I admit that your point is indeed made by the authors of Genesis and Job. So what I’m saying isn’t that for them God is a metaphor for the natural world, but that I think this is the best we can take from the text now.

    But beyond that, you are probably making a valid point – I think, whether as metaphors (for an atheist) or as aspects of God (for a theist), there’s more to the God concept than just the physical universe plus the ethical universe. I think part of the remainder is God as a personification of authority, but I haven’t thought about this a lot.

    And yes, the world is generally amoral – but I believe that was James’s point: that ‘God One’ (roughly, nature) is amoral, and that the admonitory voice comes from not God One but ‘God Two,’ which for me represents, roughly, our altruistic social instincts as a social species.

    To let you in on a secret though, Marshall (since you’re the first theist to respond critically to my recent wave of nontheist posting), I don’t think that where I am differs all that much from where most liberal Friends, even maybe some Conservative Friends, are on the “God” issue.

    What I mean is that for me, atheism has been a verbal and even strategic move as much as it has been a substantial move (though it has been that too). Because I already believed, a few months ago as a theist, that God wasn’t really omnipotent, omniscient, personal, and probably not supernatural, but merely the God expressed in this passage from Therese of Avila: Christ has no body on earth but your own, no hands but your own, no feet but your own; it is through your eyes that Christ looks with compassion on the world; it is with your feet that he goes out to do good; henceforth it is with your hands that he blesses.

    And I could have gone on believing in this sort of natural force and called it “God,” but I feel this is confusing and even disingenuous, to use the name “God” to refer to something so drastically different from the public meaning of the word (even in Therese’s usage elsewhere). It seemed more honest to tell people I don’t believe in God than to say, “I believe in God, but I don’t think he’s like thus-and-so…” – since people are just going to ignore the thus-and-so anyway: Yeah, sure – as long as you believe in God… I find saying “I am an atheist” actually makes people stop and think.

  4. 4 Paul L Aug 15th, 2006

    James —

    But why would you choose to read the biblical text as you do when there are other readings — such as that suggested by Marshall — that are integrated and correspond to reality not only as we know it today, but as men and women have known it for a few thousand years or more?

    To me, your essay sounds like someone considering at a rose bush and dwelling mainly on the thorns. (Remember Mortica Addams who cut off the roses in order to admire the thorns?) Or of loving the rose and hating the thorns, instead of seeing it as a whole, one thing, not two.

    Or of reading the Abraham-Isaac story as one of horrifying brutality instead of one of faithfulness and promise-keeping.

    Or reading Job — the hardest of them all, to my mind — as a story about an arbitrary, bad, wagering God instead of being about man’s self-adulation and hubris, revealing a God whose character and justice so transcends human understanding that the only possible response is awe and reverence and repentence in dust and ashes.

    So just because you can think of love as an infinitely complex series of biochemical reactions, why would you want to?

  5. 5 James Riemermann Aug 15th, 2006

    Paul,

    I read the texts that way–particularly Abraham and Isaac, and Job–because they genuinely strike me that way. I have explored the traditional readings of these stories, and they strike me as terribly forced. Like beginning with the conclusion that God is good, and ignoring the obvious sense of the story because it conflicts with that conclusion. Any reading of those stories where God comes out of it without a stink on him, I see as a deeply flawed reading.

    I think–this is pure conjecture based on my own poetic sensibility–that the first writers of those stories had serious problems with the God-myths of their time, and were doing their level best to undermine those myths. With Job in particular this seems clear as a bell. The fundamental wisdom of the story is that God is not just, that thinking of God as just is naive beyond belief. God is simply the only game in town, and we are in no position to question. This is what Job learns.

    The thing is, to me the world really looks the way it comes off in books like Genesis, Exodus, Job. It presents itself to human beings as unimaginably powerful, beautiful, generous, bountiful, and in the next moment horrifying, cruel, brutal. We try to negotiate with the world but it doesn’t work. In short, the world is problematic, and all the greatest literature grasps that. A simple, unproblematic literature is a lie. The greatest books of the Bible are part of that tradition–in fact are the crown of that tradition.

    I see the rose bush, but I also see the thorns. I see sunrise over Lake Superior, the happy babbling of a baby, the love of community; and I also see the sweeping away of thousands in a tsunami, the long, slow death by cancer, the lame moose being eaten alive by a pack of wolves. It’s a hell of a world.

    I do see love as something that has *emerged* from biology, but I certainly don’t think that it is nothing more than biology. The love that I feel, that you feel, that’s the real thing. Not the chemicals, but the feeling. And the reason I believe that biology is the foundation for everything we feel, is because there is a boatload of scientific evidence that suggests (not proves) this to be the case. In answer to your question “why would you want to?”– because my best sense is that it is the truth. For me to claim otherwise would be dishonest.

  6. 6 James Riemermann Aug 15th, 2006

    I think I was unclear in my last post. I meant to say that the best books of the Bible in the tradition of problematic, truthful literature, and not in the tradition of simple, unproblematic literature.

  7. 7 Pam Aug 15th, 2006

    Wow, this is a great discussion!

    I find myself, unsurprisingly, agreeing with James and Zach quite a bit.

    I have to say I even get a little scared when someone doesn’t seem to be able to see why some of us have no use (?) for the God of the Abraham and Isaac story. And to me saying that reading that story to say that “God” is arbitrary and cruel is akin to seeing the thorns and not the rose sounds a bit to me like concern that people don’t give Mussolini enough credit for making the trains run on time or something.

    I have to assume that the awe and love of this God comes from somewhere else than the fact that, according to this story, he told a man to kill his child - as a metaphor about obedience, maybe (I have a firmly grounded fear of that sort of obedience to any authority figure), as a story about faith and not being able to see the big picture, but simply proceeding on faith, maybe (I just recently had the experience of having to simply live through an experience I wasnt’ enjoying - wrenching grief - but I was surprised at how “whole” I came out the other end - so right now I can tend to see it as an admonition to live into wherever you are, no matter how bleak it seems, and hopefully it wil get better (God will give you a reprieve) but taken at face value, it says to me something like “God is an arbitrary brat who enjoys torturing you in the most cruel ways”

    In that story, God isn’t even arbitrary, he’s just mean and selfish. I tend to think in that case it’s a bad metaphor for nature - nature doesn’t care whether you live or die, are happy or sad, etc. it’s arbitrary (in my opinion) - not cruel.

    I also have to echo James particularly in that it is not so much that I want to not believe in God (though if being his favorite gets you treated like Job, I’m all about staying out of that) but that I have seen no evidence. It does seem perfectly likely that all of our emotions and senses and being is simply how we evolved. If it had never been advantageous to have empathy and compassion, we would probably not. Certainly many human beings seem not to in our present world.

    I do not understand religion. I can understand its appeal, and I will never forget my aunt telling me that I would believe in God “when I needed him” - I understand it as something to lean into when we feel very alone and frightened, I certainly understand it as a metaphor for the great expanses in our lives and experience that seem unknowable but it has never rung truw for me.

    As Zach alluded to, there are many things I know intuitively that I could call “God” - but I could just as easily call them something else, or simply acknowledge them without naming, and that seems to cause less confusion, to be more honest.

    Pam

  8. 8 Marshall Massey Aug 15th, 2006

    James, I wasn’t pointing out that you do not accept the traditional Jewish and Christian interpretations of scripture. I was addressing Zach, whose comment that “the brutally awesome God One simply represents the natural world” went one step beyond any of the things you said in your own posting.

    You assert, James, that “the fact that traditional Judaic and Christian theology distinguishes the creator from creation, does not mean that the Bible cannot legitimately be read such that the creator is a personalization of the power and mystery of the naked world.” I would answer that it can only be so read if one ignores all the many elements in the text that specifically indicate that the Creator is not a personalization of that power and mystery — that the Creator is something beyond.

    So is it “legitimate” to read the Bible in a way that ignores all those elements in the text itself, in order to draw a conclusion about the Bible’s message that is at odds with the traditional understanding?

    Well, James, let me attempt an analogy. Supposing someone were to read your blog, and notice that in your portrayal of the Bible you are attacking an old Semitic document, and conclude from that that you are anti-Semitic? And when you then denied that you are anti-Semitic, that person were to ignore the inconvenient evidence of your denials and go right on publicly tarring you with the brush of anti-Semitism. Would that be a “legitimate” reading of your blog?

    Is it any more legitimate when you do it to the Bible, than it would be if someone else did it to your blog?

    I must also say that I am startled to see you bringing up “the story of Abraham and Isaac” (I presume you mean, the one where God tests Abraham by asking him to sacrifice Isaac) as a case in point where “the qualities of the creator are drawn from the qualities of the creation”. As far as I know, Nature never asks us to sacrifice our children as proof that we love her. It makes far more sense to argue that, in this particular story, the qualities of the Creator are being portrayed as analogous in some sense to the qualities of the tribe, or of the State, since the tribe and the State quite frequently ask us to sacrifice our children in wartime, as cannon-fodder, to prove that we love them.

    Zach, I thank you for your willingness to grant my points. May I have the wisdom to be similarly gracious when someone shows me my errors!

  9. 9 James Riemermann Aug 16th, 2006

    I guess Zach’s statement felt close enough to my own feelings that I felt it appropriate to respond directly. I do see God One aa a personalized symbol for the natural world.

    It is quite common in literature to portray something in terms of something else. In Moby Dick, the white whale serves a very similar symbolic purpose; it represents the unreasonableness of nature in its relationship with humankind; an unreasonableness which Ahab foolishly feels he can overcome/avenge with his little harpoon. As God in the Bible is a being; the white whale in Moby Dick is a marine mammal. But in my view, both God and the whale are products of human imagination which help to shed light on something important in our relationship with the world.

    I don’t ignore that, in the stories, God is portrayed as a personal being, the creator of the world. But for me, the meaning of the story doesn’t come alive until I start thinking of it in symbolic terms such as these, terms which, unlike the literal terms, actually describe what it is like to live in thw world.

    I don’t see myself as attacking an old semitic document, but praising it in an unconventional manner. But beyond that, I don’t understand your criticism here. What are you saying I am doing that compares Who am I “tarring”, and with what? I thought I was offering an individual interpretation of Biblical stories.

    The story of Abraham and Isaac has a lot going, but my main relevent observation would be that God’s arbitrary cruelty and generosity mirrors the arbitrary cruelty and generosity of the world. No, the word does not command us to kill our children, but it has historically put pressures on the heads of familiesby way of famine and other natural disasters–to abandon or even kill their children.

    But another, perhaps clearer way to read that story is a theological critique of the God-myths of the time it was written, and particularly the myths that required human sacrifice. It portrays a God who makes an unbelievably cruel demands, and whose heart is then softened and filled with pity, perhaps even remorse, when he sees the suffering his commands are causing. He changes his mind. A striking thing for a god to do.

    Without any of these interpretations, it is simply a shocking and heart-rending story of a man caught in the most horrible dilemma imaginable, and is saved at the last moment by the very one who put him in the dilemma. It’s just a very powerful story, aside from meaning and interpretation.

    As I’ve said, the only interpretations of the story that I simply cannot see, is one that sees this God as wholly good. No. His behavior is abysmal. It is good that God repents.

  10. 10 James Riemermann Aug 16th, 2006

    Maybe this will help make my view clearer.

    Let’s say you are a story teller. Your job is to imagine a being who created and continues to guide the universe.

    Given the nature of the world we live in, what kind of being would that creator have to be, to account for the whole complicated nature of reality, including our own nature and existence?

    The God of the Bible–particularly of the Tanakh–strikes me as that kind of imaginative creation. It accounts for all the contradictions, the dark and the light, the meaning and the meaninglessness, the change and growth and extinction, that we experience in the world.

    On the surface a story like this is going to look like a story about God, but it’s really using the imagined character of God to tell a story about being human in the world. The character of God brings a whole new level of drama and interaction to the story. But for me, the stories really start making sense at the deepest level when I realize that they’re not about God, but about us living in the world.

  11. 11 Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) Aug 16th, 2006

    Hi, James!

    Odd to be carrying on this conversation with you on a blog site that is neither yours nor mine. Maybe it’s for the best — neutral ground. But I hope Zach doesn’t feel imposed on.

    Your last post comes close to my own understanding. The earliest texts of the Bible — not only the tales in Genesis, but also such things as the Song of Deborah and the older Psalms — clearly include creation myths and charter myths: attempts to codify and justify the shared meanings which the Hebrew tribes found in their lives and their world and their histories, in terms of stories.

    (For the record, a charter myth, as defined by anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, is a story that attempts to uphold an existing social arrangement in terms of past divine or cosmic events. The archetypal charter myth is the story of King John of England and the barons who forced him to sign the great charter, or in Latin the Magna Carta, that supposedly justifies the social arrangements of modern England. The story of Abraham’s summons to sacrifice Isaac appears to me to be a charter myth, meant to uphold the twelve Hebrew tribes’ requirement that all their members give total loyalty to their common tribal God, and thereby, further, to uphold the ethical unity and military solidarity of the twelve tribes.)

    I do not, however, share your view that such stories are “not about God, but about us living in the world.” I would say they are very much about God, as well as about us living in the world! I would further add that is the fact that they serve more than one purpose at the same time, and serve each of their purposes very effectively, that gives them such power over our imaginations.

    Turning then to your earlier posting: you write that, “for me, the meaning of the story doesn’t come alive until I start thinking of it in symbolic terms such as these, terms which, unlike the literal terms, actually describe what it is like to live in the world.” I have absolutely no problem with that. My problem comes only when someone, like you or Zach, goes beyond the statement that this is what works for you personally, and makes a claim amounting to, that is all that the Bible itself means. — As for example when Zach wrote, in his original posting, that “the awesome, omnipotent Creator of Genesis and Job [and] the God of love and peace of the New Testament …. are only metaphors: the brutally awesome God One simply represents the natural world, and the ethical-relational God Two is ‘entirely dependent on the existence of conscious and self-aware beings in relationship with each other and the world around us’….”

    If Zach had said, “for me they are only metaphors,” I’d have had no problem. But as it was, I felt moved to point out that the Hebrews and Jews and Christians have spent more than three millennia saying that these are not just metaphors at all, and that they include some realities that such metaphors don’t point to.

    You ask, “Who am I ‘tarring’, and with what? I thought I was offering an individual interpretation of Biblical stories.” Yes, you were offering such an individual interpretation. But you were also tarring the good name of the God of the Hebrews (of Genesis and Job) when you stated that he “can rightly be described as … horrifying, indifferent at best and brutal at worst.” Certainly, if someone else described you as “horrifying, indifferent at best and brutal at worst”, you would feel yourself tarred, would you not? Just so. If God is not in fact “horrifying, indifferent at best and brutal at worst”, then it is tarring Him to describe Him as such.

    And my point was that this is not the God that the Hebrews — including the authors and redactor of Genesis, and the authors of Job — were saying is the real God. Indeed, modern historical scholarship seems to indicate that Job may have been composed precisely as a reply to the worldly-wise segment of Hebrew/Jewish society who were inclined, on theodical grounds, to perceive the divine or cosmic reality in such a way. Job, in other words, was composed as a reply to the James Reimermann/Zach Alexander position, rather than as evidence for such a position. The book of Job was not composed to present God as a “horrifying, indifferent, brutal” Being, but to reveal Him as One who cared very much and deeply about His faithful even as He took them through the hardest tests life dishes out.

    Let me ask you something, if I may. Are you reading God’s questions to Job in the final chapters of the book (”Where were you when I created the universe?”) as questions thundered by a God like a distant and judgmental father, someone with no personal feeling for what Job was going through? If so, please let me suggest that you are mishearing the text. There is plenty of evidence that the Hebrews understood God as Someone who speaks to us intimately and tenderly, through the agency of that still, small Voice. And the elders and rabbis who recited the story of Job aloud to their students, in the days before the Hebrews began writing their scriptures down — or who read aloud from the text, after it was written — would have put that gentleness into their recitations of God’s questions. For they knew that this is how God’s Spirit speaks to us.

    Please try hearing God’s rebukes to Job as things spoken just that softly and lovingly (and at points, perhaps, even with a touch of joy in beauty) in the place of Job’s heart, where he was feeling the most bruised, and see if it doesn’t shed new light upon the text. The point being made in this text, which isn’t necessarily obvious to a person who reads it without benefit of instruction in how to hear it, is that even as God rebuked Job, He was mending Job’s poor heart with the instrument of the awe His questions inspired, and with His power to inspire love through awe. Always after nature and evil men (God’s outward agents of testing) destroy what we hold most dear, God mends our hearts, even as He rebukes us for ever doubting Him. That is the Jobian cosmology, which you and I may accept or not as we please, but which we at least should take care not to misrepresent.

    To represent that God, the God who restores, as “horrifying, indifferent, brutal”, is indeed tarring Him with an unfair brush. I submit that it is not Him, but what you associate Him with in your own mind, that is “horrifying, indifferent, brutal”. And I do respect your associations and your right to them, James, but I must respectfully ask that you not conflate them with the original text, where they most certainly do not belong.

  12. 12 Zach Aug 16th, 2006

    Hi Marshall, I’m about to be busy for the rest of the day, but I wanted to leave a quick note (and I’ll read the last few comments in more depth tomorrow).

    First, I don’t mind at all having this discussion on my blog. Though I am deeply saddened that the threaded comments feature that I so love (”reply to this comment”) is not being used :)

    Second, I think it might help clarify the discussion if we bring in more texts for comparison, for example the Qu’ran (or perhaps a Hindu text you’re more familiar with). I and I’m guessing also James would generally interpret those books in the same way as we interpret the Bible, at least in terms of realism/nonrealism/myth/metaphor and so on.

    Now in some ways I wouldn’t personally put them all in the same class, because the Bible is what I grew up on, and there are still many things in it which resonate with me for that reason, e.g. the Sermon on the Mount, the Neviim, James, and so on.

    But still, I and I imagine James are deconstructing/demythologizing the Christian and Hebrew Bibles in basically the same way as the Qu’ran or the Bhagavad Gita.

    My question for you is, would you take the same approach that James and I take to the Qu’ran?

    If so, why is it hard to accept a person doing the same to the Bible?

    If not, how do you approach religious texts you don’t believe are telling the literal truth?

  13. 13 James Riemermann Aug 16th, 2006

    OK, I can accept that I am tarring God, by which I mean the omnipotent and omniscient character supposed to have created the world. That I meant to do, and I make no apologies for it. When I see the immense suffering in the world and imagine such a creature to exist, it just makes me see red. I’m in good company there: picking bones with God, even raging against God, is an ancient Jewish tradition, almost as well-established as hymns of praise. The Bible is filled with it. I take it a bit further than most, but not as much further as most non-Jews would assume. (I’m a Jew on my agnostic, refugee dad’s side. I didn’t grow up in synagogue, but I did grow up breathing the air of my Jewish heritage.)

    I have also clearly expressed my sense of the creativity, generosity and beauty of creation, but it strikes me as a reckless, not a loving, sort of creativity. I simply cannot accept that this world is the product of a being who cares about us. I know you disagree; we’ll just have to leave it at that.

    I hope I haven’t tarred any actual human beings, other than expressing strong disagreement with some of their beliefs. I do not accept that expressing disagreement with another’s religious beliefs–even strong disagreement–is disrespectful.

    We’ll also just have to disagree on the book of Job. When you speak of “a person who reads it without benefit of instruction in how to hear it,” I think that’s the essential problem with traditional readings. Those who’ve been well trained often can’t see the words through their theological presumptions. Your characterization of God’s rebukes as soft and loving, I find astonishing, completely out of synch with the words of the story.

    I am not claiming the author of Job as an atheist, but as a fiercely critical believer trying to undermine naive notions of God as a big daddy in the sky who rewards the good and punishes the bad. This aspect of my reading, actually, is by no means atheistic, in fact many liberal theologians would share it.

  14. 14 Marshall Massey Aug 16th, 2006

    Zach, I’m glad the conversation between James and myself is not offending you. Yes, I noticed the threading feature (with much admiration, I might add!) and would have cheerfully made use of it. But every time (previous to this present time) that I have posted a reply here, it has either been to your main posting, or to two or more different comments, or to a combination; and that makes it hard to assign my replies to any single subthread. This present reply is the exception — the very first one I’ve written here that works as a subthread.

    You ask, would I take the same approach that James and you take to the Koran? No. I see the approach that you and James have taken to the Bible as one in which you basically ignore or dismiss any features of the text that don’t fit your desired interpretation. I would no more dare do that to the Koran than I’d dare do it to the Bible.

    The long-established principle of Quaker textual criticism is that the text must be read in the same spirit as that in which it was written. I take that guiding principle as my own. But to discover the spirit in which a text was written, one must pay close attention to every little bit of the text, and not dismiss any of it, but hear the meaning of the text that emerges when all those little bits are factored in. Otherwise one is not hearing the spirit of the text itself, but rather, the spirit of one’s own reaction to the text.

    John Wyclif, the pioneer Protestant translator of the Bible into English, wrote that “it shall greatly help ye to understande Scripture, if thou mark not only what is spoken or wrytten, but of whom, and to whom, with what words, at what time, where, to what intent, with what circumstances, considering what goeth before and what followeth.” This is a nice checklist for using in making sure that one has properly factored in all the bits of meaning in the text. It has since become an essential part of the standard methodology of modern scholarly textual analysis of the Bible.

    But I do not see you and James doing the sort of thing Wyclif recommended in this present discussion. You two made no effort that I could detect, for example, to contextualize the story of Abraham and Isaac in the tribal society where it was composed, and in the world surrounding that tribal society, and with due regard to the audiences that the story was normally told to, and why, before jumping to your conclusions as to what it meant.

    No, Zach, I don’t believe all the Bible is literal truth. If you go back and read my comments in this very thread, you’ll notice that I’ve spoken of creation myths and charter myths — hardly the language of fundamentalist literalism!

    What I’m trying to get across here, though, is that good scholarship requires every bit as much attention to the details as fundamentalist literalism does, and more — and that this is true, even though good scholarship often winds up drawing quite different conclusions from fundamentalist literalism.

  15. 15 Zach Aug 16th, 2006

    Just a minor clarification, James – I don’t think Marshall’s example of someone reading your blog as being anti-Semitic was meant in to actually suggest you were being anti-Semitic or anything like that; I thought it was just meant to be an example of someone reading a text contrary to the way the author intends it to be read. Another example might be someone reading my (anarchist) blog as not really being in favor of a radically decentralized and democratic society, but as being about something else — like merely a sublimated expression of my rebellion against my parents (to invent a random example of a way a person could plausibly read my blog against my intentions).

  16. 16 James Riemermann Aug 17th, 2006

    Zach,

    I’m trying the “reply” feature here, though I wonder if it might get confusing and hard to read with long conversations, and simple chronological order might be clearer. Hard to say. However, I am very interested in some of your customizations of WordPress, and may want to pick your brains at some point.

    Marshall,

    It’s interesting that each of us sees precisely the same failing in the other. You see me as ignoring features of the text that don’t fit your desired interpretation; I see you as doing this. Your fundamental conclusion is that God is good, that no interpretation will suffice in which God is seen as anything but good. From my perspective, there are some stories in the Bible in which God is portrayed as good and loving, and many in which he is not. I have no problem seeing the former for what they are; but Job and Abraham and Isaac are clearly among the latter.

    Yet, the story of Job is one in which God empowers Satan to brutally abuse a good man in response to Satan’s transparent schoolyard taunts. Suffering the abuse, Job asks God, “Are you not just?” and God will not answer the question. Instead he says, in a thundering voice from within a whirlwind calculated to bring Job into trembling submission, “I am powerful.” And the story of Abraham and Isaac is one in which God commands Abraham to slaughter his beloved son like a goat. Abraham, out of fear and to his everlasting shame, silently obeys. Fortunately, God retracts his command, but aside from the unanswered question of whether God ever intended to let Abraham complete the task, the psychological brutality here is unfathomable. It’s like Stanley Milgram’s experiment, increased a thousand fold.

    In fact I did refer briefly to the social context of the Abraham and Isaac story, suggesting that one intent of the story was simply a condemnation of the practice of human sacrifice, and a clear sign that God no longer condones it. But I honestly don’t see the relevance of your point about contextualization: tell me, how does the social context make the actions of God in these stories any less abominable? I honestly don’t see where you’ve touched on this, other than asserting that I’m not contextualizing.

  17. 17 James Riemermann Aug 17th, 2006

    Geez, I thought I used “reply” that time. Oops.

  18. 18 James Riemermann Aug 17th, 2006

    I’ve got to start proofreading with a little more care. Marshall, I meant to write “You see me as ignoring features of the text that don’t fit my desired interpretation; I see you as doing this.”

    I also put in a bad link to the Milgram experiment. It is actually here:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milgram_experiment

  19. 19 zach Aug 17th, 2006

    James, I was only half serious about the threaded comments; it’s mostly helpful when there are multiple sub-conversations going on on one post, whereas this seems more like one big conversation.

    I’d be happy to let you pick my brain about WP customizations.

    Also, I fixed the wikipedia link, by creating a redirect to “Stanley Milgram” from “stanley milgram”. I would have just edited the comment, but it always slightly garbles it when you do that.

  20. 20 zach Aug 17th, 2006

    Marshall, by way of response to your last couple comments:

    There’s at least two senses of the word “meaning” – what the text itself means (and always implicitly “for some community or reader”), and what the author of the text meant by it. I recall a lot of wrangling in my philosophy reading over which is more important – the author’s intent, or the text itself without any dominating authorial interpretation; the father or the son. (We could call these Meaning One and Meaning Two perhaps.) But it seems a moot point, as both can be relevant or irrelevant to a given situation.

    Which I bring up because I think part of our disagreement is that you are insisting that we are getting the “meaning” of the Bible wrong – while having in mind the author’s intent – where I for one am not talking about that kind of meaning at all, as important as that question may be other times. I’m talking about what the text means itself – and that at a macro level. I can’t speak to Job, Abraham & Isaac, etc., as I haven’t read them for a long time; all I’m saying is that right now, when I read a passage in the Bible that says “And God did this,” “And God said that,” taken at face value it is postulating the existence of a personal, supernatural being whose existence I find very dubious, and that therefore the Bible is talking nonsense, no-sense.

    And so for me to say that “God” in the text represents, in some cases, the capricious goodness and awfulness of the natural world, is an attempt at, quite literally, “making sense” of texts that are otherwise nonsensical. I don’t think this is so very different from what you as a fellow non-literalist do; it’s just to a greater degree than you are comfortable with. And I respect that, but I also reserve the right to disagree.

    To draw an analogy, reading the Bible, I think, is like reading the journal of a child who doesn’t yet realize that the dreams he has are not reality. When the child writes, “Last night, I flew,” as someone who believes dreams are usually very meaningful, I think this is a fascinating and important revelation. We cannot take him literally, anymore than we can take the God of the Bible literally, but that doesn’t mean that the story of flying is complete nonsense; we might instead read the text as expressing the author’s feeling of hopefulness or freedom.

    And we might be right in thinking this to be the real meaning of the text, no matter how different this is from the meaning according to the author.

    In the same way, I think it is the right interpretation of theistic texts in general (not just “for me”) to read them as literally wrong yet expressive of any number of real, natural things – the authors’ beliefs about authority, the authors’ experiences of ethical reality, the authors’ experiences of the natural world, and much more – no matter how different this is from the intended meaning.

    So to bring in and re-deploy your earlier question, you ask, “So is it ‘legitimate’ to read the Bible [or, the dream story] in a way that ignores all those elements in the text itself, in order to draw a conclusion about the Bible’s [or story’s] message that is at odds with the traditional [or the child’s] understanding?” I would prefer “deprivileges” instead of “ignores,” but in both cases, yes, I think it is.

  21. 21 Marshall Massey Aug 17th, 2006

    Hi, James,

    I have no quarrel with you “tarring” the God you perceive. My only quarrel is with you “tarring” the God of the Hebrews, who is different from the God you perceive.

    And I quite agree with you about the ancient Jewish tradition of “wrestling” with God, which I too, like yourself, find very moving — both in the stories where the human wrestler wins (as in the archetypal Genesis 32:24-30), and in those where the human wrestler yields (Matthew 26:36-42) or gains only an ironic victory (Genesis 18:23-33).

    Finally, I also agree with you that “expressing disagreement with another’s religious beliefs–even strong disagreement–is [not] disrespectful.” However, I do think that misrepresenting their beliefs, and condemning the misrepresentation while conflating it with their actual beliefs, is disrespectful. The ancient Hebrews and Jews did not believe in a monstrous God. When Abraham wrestled with his God in Genesis 32, he won precisely by reminding God that He is not monstrous: “It is not in you, Lord, to do such a thing!” If you believe that the Hebrew/Jewish God is monstrous, it is because you are seeing something in their texts that they themselves did not see there. I shall continue to hope that you may someday recognize that what you are seeing are ideas you yourself are injecting into the text, and that your reaction is against what you are injecting, rather than against their God.

    I don’t doubt that many liberal theologians would share your reading. The ones I’ve encountered who share it, though, strike me as sloppy in their readings of the texts, too.

  22. 22 Pam Aug 17th, 2006

    Marshall -

    I am clearly missing something in your interpretation of all this.

    Please tell me how you can say that someone who reads Job, or Abraham and Isaac, and sees God to be cruel and vindictive is “injecting” something of their own into the text that is not there, whereas someone who sees a loving God is seeing a somehow “truer” version.

    If I told you that my boss, or the mayor of my city, told me to kill my child, I assume that your conclusion would be that that authority figure was quite cruel indeed.

    So, the stories taken at face value show a cruel God (I would say a psychopathic God) - I understand that they are perhaps metaphor, they are perhaps within a context where the authors perhaps sensed that God would NEVER be cruel and psychopathic, so that that was not the “point” of the story, but certainly, someone does not have to “inject” some sort of personal paranoia to see a “God” whom they are not inclined to like very much.

    Do you disagree?

    Pam

  23. 23 James Riemermann Aug 17th, 2006

    Sorry, Massey, I just can’t understand where you’re coming from. The actions of God as described in these two stories are monstrous. Same with the flood, the destruction of Sodom, and to a lesser extent the banishment from the Eden. Yet, unlike the countless others who see these cruelties in the Bible, I find the stories deeply compelling and genuine poetry about the relationship of humanity with a strange, awesome, frightening world that continues to turn a cold eye on our deepest needs and wishes.

    The primary distinction I have tended made between the Gospels and most of the Tanakh is, the former serve as a better moral guide, but the latter are fundamentally more *accurate.” The Hebrew tradition, by and large, understands the world. The Christian tradition, by and large, does not.

    And even there I am unfair to the Tanakh. The moral teachings of many of the prophets are as strong as the Gospels in many ways. Plus, they’re mostly better writing.

  24. 24 James Riemermann Aug 17th, 2006

    I’m sorry, Marshall, I somehow forgot for a minute that Massey was your last name, not your first. I didn’t mean to address you that way. I’m really not following my advice about proofreading.

    james

  25. 25 James Riemermann Aug 17th, 2006

    I’m sorry, Marshall, I somehow forgot for a minute that Massey was your last name, not your first. I didn’t mean to address you that way. I’m really not following my advice about proofreading.

    james

  26. 26 Marshall Massey Aug 17th, 2006

    James, you write, “Your fundamental conclusion is that God is good, that no interpretation will suffice in which God is seen as anything but good.” No, that is not true. I do not draw any such fundamental conclusions. I simply say that the texts you point to do not, in and of themselves, support the meanings you read into them.

    You read the story of Abraham’s summons to sacrifice Isaac as a fable about nature, when in fact the parallel is to human society. You read Job as a portrait of a monstrous God, when there is nothing in it that says God is monstrous. Your conclusions derive from what you project upon these texts, rather than from the texts themselves.

    God does not empower Satan to brutally abuse Job. God empowers Satan (whose name in the story means “The Accuser”, in the sense of one who brings the rightly or wrongly accused before the judge for trial), to test Job, to determine how Job is in his heart of hearts. For it is what is in Job’s heart of hearts that matters in this story, not how many thousands of sheep and camels he owns, or how many kids he has.

    So Satan strips Job of his property, and even of his children, not as an act of evil, but as an act of testing. And Job’s reaction is the reaction of a man who is wise and understands what is true: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” Job then grieves, which is totally understandable. But it is grief, not the shock of having been brutalized.

    You bridle at this because you are a modern Western consumer. You think it is horrible, monstrous, unconscionable, that a person should be stripped of his possessions and his loved ones. That is something you take to this text, not something that was originally there. The author or authors of this text were not modern Western consumers; they lived in a world where intertribal wars reduced people to poverty all the time, and where children died young all the time, and where this sort of tragedy was a pretty familiar, if unwelcome, aspect of being alive. They did not believe that outward possessions and children are more important than the Pearl of Great Price that Job possessed inwardly and that caused God to praise him.

    If you read the text through your own colored spectacles, though, it inevitably colors everything you see in the text.

    I see nothing in the text that says God replies to Job in a thundering voice, or that it is a voice calculated to bring Job into trembling submission. Those additions appear to me to be purely the effect of your colored spectacles. The relevant text is Job 38:1; it says only that God replies out of the whirlwind, not that He replies with thunder.

    Indeed, what is this “whirlwind” that God replies out of? We might remember here that all the Mediterranean cultures conflated wind, breath, and Spirit, freely using the same word to stand for the movement of air in the outward world, the movement of air in the body, and the movement of Divine Will that causes things to happen, including causing the body to breathe.

    What is this whirlwind, then? You apparently read it as being natural and external, which is the sort of “outward” reading that the early Friends generally rejected. It makes more sense in this passage to read the “turbulent motion of air” as referring to the turbulence inside Job himself, in his own agitated breathing: God spoke to Job out of the turbulence in his own mind and heart, like Truth rising to the surface of a roiled and muddy pond. Such a reading does not require a physical miracle, as your external reading does, nor does it conflate God with outward Nature, as your reading might. It fits with ideas expressed in other Wisdom books — e.g. Proverbs 20:27, “The heave of a person’s breath is the lamp of YHWH, searching all the hidden places in his gut.” And it is in accord with other places in the book of Job where God’s wind is spoken of in an internal rather than external sense — Job 34:14b-15, for example.

    If God’s voice is intended “to bring Job into trembling submission”, then why does He repeatedly tell Job, “Gird up thy loins like a man” (Job 38:1, 40:7)? He is not trying to break Job’s spirit entirely; He wants Job to retain his backbone and self-respect. But He wants to keep Job from falling back into the idolatry of seeking happiness in externals, and the sin of thinking God to be in the wrong when the externals prove ephemeral (as indeed they always are in the end). Some standard English translations tell us that Job “repents” at the end of the conversation “in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6), but the Hebrew verb translated here as “repent” carries a simultaneous meaning of “be comforted”: there is no trembling here, but a finding of heart’s ease. Job is healed by the conversation, not crushed by it.

    I appreciate and honor your point, James, that you did, indeed, at one point, “refer briefly to the social context of the Abraham and Isaac story”. But I hope you will bear in mind that when you made that brief reference to social context, the conclusion you came to — that “another, perhaps clearer way to read that story is a theological critique of the God-myths of the time it was written, and particularly the myths that required human sacrifice” — was at odds with your own original argument that the story portrays a monstrous Nature. After all, a monstrous Nature would not declare that it no longer requires human sacrifice, would it?

    And “how does the social context make the actions of God in these stories any less abominable”? Well, that’s kinda like asking whether God has stopped beating His wife, is it not? It’s a way of stating the question that presumes some measure of previous abominability no matter what.

    In the Hebrew world view, there is nothing God did wrong in either the Abraham/Isaac story or the Job story. As Job quite rightly observes, what the Lord gives, the Lord is entirely free to take back again; and blessed be His name. It is only your presumption that Abraham and Isaac and Job have property claims in their respective trials before the Lord, that puts any onus at all on the Lord’s behavior in either story.

    In your world view, where every consumer has a property claim before the Lord, of course the Lord is guilty. And I would note that your reasoning, if carried to its logical end point, would ultimately suggest that all death, all sickness, all suffering, even all fender benders and lost car keys are wrongnesses in the fabric of Creation, and prove the Lord monstrous for creating such a world.

    What contextualization — when it is actually performed — does for us, is to make it possible for us to see through other points of view besides our own. It enables us to see the God of Abraham and Job through the Hebrew world view, right alongside our own. We then see that it is more truthful to say, not that the God of these stories is monstrous, but that in our own way of thinking the God of these stories is monstrous — a different, and humbler, claim, than the one you and Zach originally made.

  27. 27 Marshall Massey Aug 17th, 2006

    Hi, Zach!

    You write, “I can’t speak to Job, Abraham & Isaac, etc., as I haven’t read them for a long time; all I’m saying is that right now, when I read a passage in the Bible that says ‘And God did this,’ ‘And God said that,’ taken at face value it is postulating the existence of a personal, supernatural being whose existence I find very dubious, and that therefore the Bible is talking nonsense, no-sense.”

    It seems to me that this is tantamount to saying, you haven’t read the whole of any of these stories in a long time, but when you take a passage of the Bible out of context, reading it without a clear knowledge of how it fits into everything else, it strikes you as nonsense.

    I could say the same of second-year calculus texts. I haven’t read the whole of one since I was seventeen (thirty-nine years ago), and when I read a random fragment of one now, it sure looks meaningless to me. (Alas for my memory!)

    But does that make it actually meaningless? Where is the lack of meaning? — in the text, or in my mind?

    Okay: so then you write, at the conclusion of this comment: “So to bring in and re-deploy your earlier question, you ask, ‘…Is it “legitimate” to read the Bible [or, the dream story] in a way that ignores all those elements in the text itself, in order to draw a conclusion about the Bible’s [or story’s] message that is at odds with the traditional [or the child’s] understanding?‘ I would prefer ‘deprivileges’ instead of ‘ignores,’ but in both cases, yes, I think it is.”

    Let me reply as I replied to James, with a counter-question: Is it then okay for me to read and portray your blog in the same way? — ignoring (”deprivileging”) any protests you might make, that run counter to the way I want to portray what you are saying?

    What if I promise to treat your words with the same care that you give to the Bible’s, however much or little that may be –?

  28. 28 Marshall Massey Aug 17th, 2006

    Hi, Pam –

    You write, “If I told you that my boss, or the mayor of my city, told me to kill my child, I assume that your conclusion would be that that authority figure was quite cruel indeed.” That is correct.

    Your boss, or the mayor of your city, did not create your child in the first place. His right to your child is infinitely inferior to your own right to your child as its mother. That is why drafting children for war is so horrific.

    However, God created your child. He is more truly your child’s parent than you are (and more truly my own beloved daughter’s parent than I am). What He gave, He can take back again. Indeed, He will take my beloved daughter back again some day, since some day she will die, and He will take back your child also. And what He takes back again, He can restore again. If I have any hope of being re-united with my daughter after death, that hope lies in Him.

    And I find much reason for hope in the fact that my experience of Him, as the still, small Voice in the place of my heart and conscience, is precisely an experience of a Voice that urges every being to do the most just and loving thing possible. Surely One who urges such actions, must be committed to those same values Himself; or else, why would He have placed a Voice that pleads for those values within us? And so I conclude that when he takes my loved ones — my parents, my siblings, my wife, my child — from me, He takes them, but without the intention to deprive me of them forever.

    So I do not see the two cases as being anywhere near the same. I utterly reject the claim of your boss or mayor to your child’s life. But as for God, I concede that He has all rights to everything and everyone.

    And I am very glad that my experience of Him, in the place of my heart and conscience, is of One who wills justice and goodness for all; for otherwise my helplessness as just a little guy before Him would make Him seem like quite the scary monster. (I was in fact quite scared of Him, too, before I discovered His Voice in my heart.)

    You write, “certainly, someone does not have to ‘inject’ some sort of personal paranoia to see a ‘God’ whom they are not inclined to like very much.” No, indeed. The paranoia is the cause of your inclination not to like Him very much, not the result of it. It has already been injected into the way you are disposed to read such stories, long before you form the thought, “I don’t like Him.”

  29. 29 Pam Aug 18th, 2006

    James - Wow, I was wondering about you using Marshall’s last name. That always make me think the speaker is about to offer to “take it out back, and settle this” or something - which juxtaposed with what I know of you, made me want to laugh out loud.

    Anyways…..

    See, the problem with the nesting thing is that it’s not infinite. So now I’m responding to something that Marshall wrote yesterday, but it’s way up on the list, sigh…..

    I guess I just fall into the same camp as James - those stories are just HORRIFIC, but, as he says, they are somewhat accurate of a part of human experience.

    I am having trouble, Marshall, with your contestation that *I* am bringing something extraneous to the text that makes me see God as a monster, with the implication that *you* are not bringing anything extraneous to the text in order to see in that an overwhelming, awesome love. Certainly, without a larger context, taken at face value, this story says “this person is a monster” (even with the added “right” to the child - If I, as a mother, walk into my child’s daycare and tell a substitute teacher who just met her to kill her, that is STILL a horrific thing - wouldn’t you agree?

    You are claiming, as far as I can tell, that there is a larger context, even (I think) that God is a loving God, and even when “he” kills our children, oversees the holocaust, sends hurricaine katrina and tsunamis all over the world to wipe out a bunch of poor people, he is acting out of love and we, poor simple mortals, don’t understand because of our comparitive ignorance (and stupidity?)

    I have heard people express that “take” on things, and accept that it is a somewhat popular one, but I do believe that, given a story where someone asks you to kill your child, the most reasonable assuption is that that person is some sort of pschopath, if a larger context needs to be expounded to explain our individual interpretations, I believe that the onus falls on YOU to provide the larger context.

    To use the math example, calculus doesn’t make sense to anyone who doesn’t have the whole picture - as you pointed out, but what if we are handed the question:

    2+3=?

    and I say “5″ and you say “1″

    Now, I’m just right if that’s all the info we have, though you could make an argument that we had incomplete information and that the “2″ was actually an incomplete representation of the number “-2″ (that something was left off) and your answer is as right as (or more right than, if this is reality and the background info that you provide is correct) mine is.

    But it’s up to YOU to provide that context.

    Now, if God speaks in your heart and you experience “him” as infinitely and unquestioningly loving, and you know (somehow) that this is the same guy that told Abraham to kill his son, and your faith, which is based on your true experience, tells you that there is NO WAY that he would ever do something that mean, and that it must be a loving act that we don’t understand, that’s all well and good, and I believe that you believe that, but God doesn’t speak in my heart in such a way that I believe that his seeming cruelty must really be kindness, nor does “he” identify “himself” as the same being who asked that of Abraham, so I’m not working in the same framework. And it might be because I’m simply ignorant (as we both are now of calculus) but I’m not convinced.

    Pam

  30. 30 James Riemermann Aug 18th, 2006

    Pam wrote:

    >James - Wow, I was wondering about you using
    >Marshall’s last name. That always make me think the
    >speaker is about to offer to “take it out back, and
    >settle this” or something - which juxtaposed with
    >what I know of you, made me want to laugh out loud.

    What, you don’t think I’m a tough guy?

    Damn! I’ve got to work on my image.

  31. 31 Marshall Massey Aug 18th, 2006

    Hi, Pam!

    You write, “I am having trouble, Marshall, with your contestation that *I* am bringing something extraneous to the text that makes me see God as a monster, with the implication that *you* are not bringing anything extraneous to the text in order to see in that an overwhelming, awesome love.”

    Hey, Pam, I don’t recall saying that I saw an overwhelming, awesome love in the story of Abraham and Isaac. Would you mind quoting me the words I wrote that appeared to you to mean that?

    And while I spoke of God’s love in connection with the story of Job (a later and apparently more sophisticated text than the texts contained in Genesis), I specifically limited it to the love expressed in the Voice with which God rebuked Job. I did not rate the testing part of God’s behavior as loving, any more than I rated it as monstrous.

    Actually, I do bring all kinds of extraneous stuff to my readings of Bible texts. But I do my darnedest to distinguish between those and the actual text. For example, I personally regard the persona of God in the sacrifice-of-Isaac story as an immature understanding of God — more sophisticated than the persona expressed in the Song of Deborah, which some say is the oldest text in the Bible, but still, like the God of Deborah, a tribal deity who has one sort of justice to dispense to good members of the tribe and another to dispense to all others. That is something I clearly bring to the story, for it is not explicit in the story, and it is an interpretation that depends on specific ways of answering certain questions which the story itself does not answer.

    However, I was responding in the first place to a thesis put forward by James and Zach, in which they did not just say, “I/we see the God portrayed in Genesis and Job as monstrous” — they said, “these parts of the Bible portray a monstrous God”. In other words, they were confusing their reactions to the text with what the text actually expresses.

    The argument here has not been whether my extraneous idea that the God of the Isaac story is incompletely just, is more valid than James’s and Zach’s extraneous idea that He is monstrous. The argument is whether the monstrous quality is in the actual text or in James’s and Zach’s reaction. If you ask instead whether the less-than-wholly-just character of God in that story is in the actual text or in my reaction, I will tell you quite cheerfully that it is in my reaction. It may actually be that the God of the story was intended to be One who’d have treated the same gesture by an Amalekite in the same way as he treated it when it came from Abraham. I don’t think so, but I will admit the lack of clarity in the text, and will thereby distinguish between my reaction and the actual story. I would be grateful if James and Zach would take the care to make similar admissions.

    You then write, “If I, as a mother, walk into my child’s daycare and tell a substitute teacher who just met her to kill her, that is STILL a horrific thing - wouldn’t you agree?” Indeed I would agree. Your right to the child’s life is still inferior to the child’s own right, which is inferior to God’s, and neither the child nor God are giving you permission to have her killed.

    But you are mistaking my meaning in my previous posting here. I wasn’t trying to say that military drafts are horrific only because the mother’s right in the matter is usurped. I was trying to say that they are horrific to the mother whose child is ripped away from her, because (among other things) there is a specific horror involved in the violation of the mother’s protective claim to the child by someone whose own rights are infinitely less. I apologize for my previous lack of clarity.

    You then write, “You are claiming, as far as I can tell, that [when God] kills our children, oversees the holocaust, sends hurricaine katrina and tsunamis all over the world to wipe out a bunch of poor people, he is acting out of love and we, poor simple mortals, don’t understand because of our comparitive ignorance (and stupidity?)”

    No, Pam. The Job story puts forth that position. It is not I that puts it forth, it is the Job story. My own position is actually quite different — markedly different both from the Job story’s position, and from the James/Zach/Pam position. But my own position is not the issue here. (How could it be the issue, when I haven’t yet said what it is?) The issue I’ve been trying to raise is the conflation of the James/Zach position with what the story actually says, which is unfair to the original story.

    You write that, “if a larger context needs to be expounded to explain our individual interpretations, I believe that the onus falls on YOU to provide the larger context.” I have already done so, at great length. I have been doing so in every single comment I have posted here, pointing out the parts of the written context that James and Zach overlook or dismiss, and talking also about the known social and theological contexts within which the two stories received their present shape. I have also talked a bit, in my comment timestamped 2006-08-17 19:16:03 above, about the present-day social context that causes us to bridle against the cosmology of the two stories in question. Didn’t you notice any of that, Pam?

    Finally, you write, “…God doesn’t speak in my heart in such a way that I believe that his seeming cruelty must really be kindness, nor does ‘he’ identify ‘himself’ as the same being who asked that of Abraham, so I’m not working in the same framework.” Yes, I know that. I’ve known that since before I left on my walk, because back before I left we had a little conversation — I think it was on your own blog site — in which you made that very clear. That is the difference between your viewpoint and the viewpoint of the two stories.

    As I have said, I am not asking you to buy into the viewpoint of those stories. I am simply asking Zach and James to distinguish between their own viewpoint and the stories’ viewpoint.

    It is getting a bit tiresome saying these same things over and over again in one comment after another.

  32. 32 Marshall Massey Aug 18th, 2006

    It’s okay, James. You can call me Marshall, or Massey, or You Idiot. All I care about is that, underlying our present disagreement, there be friendship between us. And I do believe there is.

  33. 33 James Riemermann Aug 18th, 2006

    Absolutely, Marshall–you are a friend and a Friend. If we bump heads it’s only because this stuff is important to us, we take it seriously. Perhaps that is a sort of common ground. Right or wrong, neither of us is lukewarm.

  34. 34 James Riemermann Aug 18th, 2006

    I’ve heard the criticism Marshall. I simply don’t accept it. I think you seriously misread the story. I think the mainstream of Judaic and Christian theology seriously misreads the story. I think these works are religiously subversive on a very profound level. I think problematic, prophetic voices are *always* misunderstood and homogenized by orthodoxy. Not just in the sphere of religion, but every sphere.

    Marshall wrote:
    >As I have said, I am not asking you to buy into the
    >viewpoint of those stories. I am simply asking Zach and
    >James to distinguish between their own viewpoint and the
    >stories’ viewpoint.
    >
    >It is getting a bit tiresome saying these same things
    >over and over again in one comment after another.

  35. 35 Zach Aug 18th, 2006

    Marshall, you again condescendingly assume I am incompetent to talk about the Bible, as though 20 years as a Christian were not enough — just because out of a desire to be humble I refrain from commenting on those stories that I haven’t read lately. But let me assure you, I am familiar enough with it to have an opinion of it. Shall I question your competence to reject Hinduism and Buddhism, as you did, with I assume much less time spent with them? No, because I respect your intelligence and judgment of your own experience more than that.

    I mean, I don’t want to be snarky, but it almost sounds as though for you a person either believes the Bible to be true, or hasn’t studied it enough to have a valid opinion.

    The calculus text is not a valid analogy, because I do actually sufficiently understand the “out of context” (or in context, if you prefer — it makes no difference) Bible passage, and judge it as nonsensical because I believe it to be false, as we both believe Greek myth to be false, not because I can’t understand it, as we cannot understand calculus.

    As for unexpected readings of my blog, I have no fear. I have no right to determine the One True Meaning of the texts I write any more than you do over yours; if you can come up with an alternative reading of my blog and give good reasons for it, you’re welcome to try, and I might not even argue with you. (Though you’ll need a better example than you gave for James’s blog; I don’t think a reaonsable person could be convinced to read it that way.)

    Actually, I’ll give you an example myself.

    I haven’t been writing about the environment very much, but when I do I have sympathies (and also antipathies, but let’s keep the example simple) with primitivist or other anti-civilizationist thinking, which sees civilization itself as the root of many of our problems. So, assuming I was posting on this topic more, a sympathetic or naive reader of this blog would believe:

    – that civilization causes alienation, disparities in wealth, causes or aggravates sexism, etc.
    – that we must resist the myriad forms of domestication imposed on us
    – that we must stop domesticating others (animals, etc.)
    – etc. etc. etc. etc.

    The pertinent question is: Is it legitimate for a person to read this blog not in the above way, but instead lines like these: Civilization is not evil, but this blogger thinks it is, probably because he has stumbled onto a primitivist site and been duped by their propaganda, which probably happened because he is the sort of maladjusted, misanthropic loner who is attracted to that sort of extremist ideology. The whole blog serves as a monument to how crazy a person’s ideas can become when they feel alienated from society.

    This isn’t my reading, but it’s a perfectly legitimate one, in the sense of “reasonable.” I would argue with such a reader about their interpretation, and try to convince them of a more sympathetic one — but I would not, as you are doing, try to disqualify them offhand as not even having presented a legitimate reading.

  36. 36 Zach Aug 19th, 2006

    Marshall, you are right that the discussion is becoming a bit tiring, but I will say for the record that I don’t believe in your distinction (of course it’s not yours alone) that there’s (A) what the text itself means, by implication without reader (the implication needs only to be made explicit to be seen as ridiculous) and (B) what a reader is bringing to it.

    You seem to believe that by defending a traditional interpretation of the text, you are merely acting as a passive defender of the “text itself.” But you are injecting your interpretation into the text (whether it’s truly your own or on behalf of a tradition) every bit as much as we are.

    Or to put it another way, the distinction you’d like us to make — saying “I/we see the God portrayed in Genesis and Job as monstrous” instead of “these parts of the Bible portray a monstrous God” — is an illusory distinction. To say one is to say the other.

    And in regards to your comment to Pam about God having a right to the child’s life, that kind of logic is precisely the reason I think theism has to end. That God, who has the right to kill arbitrarily without reproach, is nothing but Molech in drag, distinguished from Molech only by accident, not by essence, and by your logic would have every right to become a Molech if in his infinite wisdom he so chose — or rather, if some human believed and convinced anyone that such was the case.

  37. 37 Marshall Massey Aug 19th, 2006

    Hi, Zach!

    You write, “Marshall, you again condescendingly assume I am incompetent to talk about the Bible, as though 20 years as a Christian were not enough — just because out of a desire to be humble I refrain from commenting on those stories that I haven’t read lately. But let me assure you, I am familiar enough with it to have an opinion of it.”

    I understand and respect the fact that you have an opinion of it, but twenty years as a Christian does not automatically make anyone a Bible scholar. Biblical scholarship depends on intensive study of the Bible, not simply on being a Christian.

    You are more than welcome to question my competence vis-à-vis Hinduism or Buddhism or anything else. It would be counter to the tradition of Friends to let any claim of authority stand without checking out its basis first!

    As regards my assertions regarding any Biblical text, or any detail of Hinduism or Buddhism, I think it would be perfectly appropriate for you, if you know of facts or apparent facts contradicting my assertions, to bring those (apparent) facts up as objections to what I’ve said, precisely as I’ve done to you and James. And I would then feel obliged, either to show you how those (apparent) facts fit with what I’ve said, or show, with suitable evidence, how they are not valid facts, or else modify my original assertions — precisely as I have asked you and James to do. That is how Friends search for truth together, is it not?

    You then go on to say, “…It almost sounds as though for you a person either believes the Bible to be true, or hasn’t studied it enough to have a valid opinion.” But, Zach, there are substantial portions of the Bible that I myself do not believe to be literally true (as e.g. its account of the Creation), or know to be factually very dubious indeed (the swallowing of Jonah by the whale, the dating of Christ’s birth “when Quirinius was governor of Syria”, etc.), or personally regard as spiritually unsound (the main body of the book of the Apocalypse). Obviously integrity requires that I allow the same latitude to others that I allow to myself.

    I don’t, therefore, ask that you and James regard the Bible as true. I never have. I ask, rather, that you distinguish between your opinions of what is true, and the various Biblical authors’ opinions of what is true, and not confuse the one with the other.

    You write, “The calculus text is not a valid analogy, because I do actually sufficiently understand the ‘out of context’ (or in context, if you prefer — it makes no difference) Bible passage, and judge it as nonsensical because I believe it to be false….” Indeed, the analogy is not perfect. But the author(s) and redactor(s) of the Biblical text did not believe the text to be false, and within their world view, which differs from your own, everything about it does make sense, just as everything in the calculus text makes sense to its author(s) and editor(s). The text in each case, then, may be nonsense in your world view, or in mine, but it is not absolute nonsense, since it is perfectly sensible in the context of the language and world view within which it was created.

    You write of the person who might read your blog and think, “Civilization is not evil, but this blogger thinks it is….” You say that it is a perfectly legitimate reading. I would say, it is only legitimate if it is not contradicted by anything found in the blog, or in the blog’s context. You write, “I would not, as you are doing, try to disqualify [such a person] offhand….” But I am not trying to disqualify you offhand, Zach. I am disqualifying, not you, but some specific assertions you made; and I am disqualifying those assertions, not offhand, but on the basis of specific pieces of evidence that contradict them, that I have taken the trouble to dig up and present here in this conversation. There is nothing offhanded about a disqualification that has required as much effort from me as this conversation has.

  38. 38 Marshall Massey Aug 19th, 2006

    James, I’m not going to argue further with the bulk of your last two postings. I presented some evidence; you did not address it; you presented no counter-evidence; as far as I’m concerned the ball rests in your court at this point.

    As to your final paragraph, however: you write, “in regards to your comment to Pam about God having a right to the child’s life, that kind of logic is precisely the reason I think theism has to end. That God, who has the right to kill arbitrarily without reproach, is nothing but Molech in drag, distinguished from Molech only by accident, not by essence, and by your logic would have every right to become a Molech if in his infinite wisdom he so chose….” I understand and honor the fact that this is your opinion. This opinion, though, is not consistent with classic Quakerism, which regards our sense of what is right as coming from God himself, and as describing what God eternally is. You say that the God who has a right to the child’s life might decide to take a life in a way that violates your sense of rightness. The classic Quaker position — which I personally agree with — says that such a thing cannot happen because God and our sense of rightness are one, and God will not contradict Himself. This position is explicit in the famous “Declaration of 1660″ which Friends point to as the first clear statement of our collective peace testimony. It is anticipated, though, as early Friends pointed out, in the Bible, in such texts as Genesis 18:23-25.

  39. 39 James Riemermann Aug 19th, 2006

    Marshall,

    The quote here is Zach’s, not mine.

    But come now. Evidence and counter-evidence? It is not that kind of discussion; we see the story differently. My “evidence” is that God commanded Abraham to kill his son; that God approved the torture of Job and the murder of his loved ones; that God exterminated the people of Sodom; that God killed everyone on earth excepting the handful on the ark. If you do not think these stories demonstrate God’s profound though occasional creepiness, that has nothing to do with evidence. It simply shows that we have different standards for behavior. I find your standards, well, sub-standard.

  40. 40 Marshall Massey Aug 19th, 2006

    Apologies, James — not noticing who wrote it is really bad, even for me.

    What I think is not that “these stories demonstrate God’s … creepiness”, but that they demonstrate something about how the early Hebrews conceived of God. God is what God is, regardless of what they, or you, or I believe. But the stories say something about their collective authorship, just as your comments, and Zach’s, say something about you and him, and mine say something about me.

  41. 41 James Riemermann Aug 19th, 2006

    Marshall,

    I make mistakes like that all the time. Don’t give it another thought.

    I’m judging by the behavior of the imaginary character in the stories themselves, not the true nature of God. Which would obviously be a problem for me since I don’t believe that God exists, and everybody else is just projecting. And yet, as I’ve said before, I think the deeply disturbing way the Hebrews characterized God is an impressive attempt to characterize what such a being would be like, given the kind of world we live in. He blows hot, he blows cold. He gives us all life, he kills us all. He showers us with magnificent gifts we never earned, and then rains horrors on us just as arbitrarily.

  42. 42 kwakersaur (aka david) Aug 20th, 2006

    WOW! I just found you folks.

    I haven’t had time to plough through all the comments yet and may chime in again. But two points here now. God One and God Two are metaphors even for some of us theists of the apophatic stripe. While affirming God we also affirm that God can only be spoken of in metaphor. And secondly, one of the challenges of theism is accepting that God One and God Two are the same God.

  43. 43 Sarah Aug 20th, 2006

    Zach-

    That is more or less what I meant by that comment, yes, but I don’t try to recast the definition of God. I believe in God, therefore I believe in God as an absolute entity who exists as herself* regardless of what we believe about her. I know people who seem to define the word ‘love,’ a word just about as vague as ‘God,’ in terms of primarily sexuality, control, and a self-centered give-and-take. In fact, looking at today’s culture, I could make a fairly convincing argument that that’s the most common way of looking at love. While I don’t believe that that’s love, I bet when I use the word a lot of people think that’s what I mean.

    But I’m still going to keep using the word, regardless, because I DO believe in love.

  44. 44 Sarah Aug 20th, 2006

    James-

    I think it’s appropriate to read those stories with the assumption that they’re speaking about the goodness of God. They were written by the Hebrews, who did, in fact, also believe in the goodness of God (as far as I understand it). All of the Old Testament was in fact written by the ancient Hebrews as their response to a God whom they loved. To get the correct reading, that’s how we should approach it, as well . . .

    Clearly they had a much different vision of a loving God than we do, but the altered perspective is what I find so eternally challenging and compelling about the Bible.

    Incidentally, Abraham and Isaac is one of my favorite stories. There’s a passage in the New Testament where a young man asks how he can attain the kingdom of heaven, and Christ says he must give away everything he owns and follow him. The young man walks away. I see Abraham and Isaac as the fulfillment of that story- the what-if. Give away everything you own is a scary scary command- one which none of us here have followed, I am sure.

    I struggled with both of those stories, felt challenged by both of them, until a moment in Worship (and Zach was there- remember?) when I realized that they were talking about the same thing. We must be absolutely willing to lay everything we love down on the altar . . .

    At any rate. It IS a hell of a world, and I struggle with it, too.

  45. 45 Sarah Aug 20th, 2006

    As far as Abraham and Isaac . . . read my comment above to James?

    Job, I have nothing to say about; that passage has not yet been opened to me.

    I am surprised to find that you so often read scripture far more literally than I do. I am not shocked about a story in which God asks someone to kill their child, because I find it quite possible (although entirely irrelevant) that it never happened, and is being written about byt he Hebrews as a metaphor for how they understand God- requireing that they be willing to give up everything they value most to put her first . . .

    anyway.

    I don’t understand my faith as something I lean into when I’m alone and frightened. I really need to post my convincement story at some point, but I came back to Christianity because I suddenly understood it as a call to radical love (which I think is a valid reading of Christ’s ministry). My Christianity to me is much more of a challenge than a comfort- and much MUCH less a set of beliefs than a path.

    . . . and I call what I believe in God because that’s how I experience it. There is simply no other word for that experience.

  46. 46 Sarah Aug 20th, 2006

    Marshall-

    I more or less agree with you, but I did want to say that I have no problem with the Bible being referred to as metaphor, because I don’t read an ‘only’ in front of metaphor . . . metaphor seems just as true to me as anything else.

    That’s all. :-)

  47. 47 James Riemermann Aug 20th, 2006

    Sarah,

    I really appreciate your thoughts here. When you speak of the love of the ancient Hebrews for God (as distinct from God’s love for the Hebrews, or for us), something clicked for me. I cannot get to the point of believing that God loves me (God seen as the power, depth and mystery of the world)–my head just won’t tilt that way. But I can attest to my love–deep, but mixed, conflicted–for this strange, incomprehensible, though purely metaphorical God. For all the genuine horror it is a rich and beautiful world, a world that can shake me and bring me to tears of joy and sorrow at once.

  48. 48 Sarah Aug 20th, 2006

    Pam-

    I know that the stories were written by the ancient Hebrews, and by context I know that the Hebrews believed in a loving God. Reading them at face value, taken out of context, it is very easy to see a cruel, vindictive God. I shall not argue with that.

    There are many Gods in this discussion. There’s God as She Is, whom none of us really know. There’s God as I see Her. There’s God as YOU see her. There’s God as the Ancient Hebrews saw her. And there’s the God as you and I think the Ancient Hebrews saw her, and the God you think I see, and the God I think you see . . . etc.

    You seem to be saying (I might be wrong), that the Old Testament’s God (God as the Hebrews saw her, perhaps? I’m not sure which God you believe this of) is, as revealed in the Bible, rather nasty, and therefore you really dislike it and wonder why I don’t as well? And you ask:

    “Please tell me how you can say that someone who reads Job, or Abraham and Isaac, and sees God to be cruel and vindictive is “injecting” something of their own into the text that is not there, whereas someone who sees a loving God is seeing a somehow “truer” version.”

    All right. Your direct question first. I don’t think that you’re ‘injecting,’ because a flat reading WILL give you a cruel God, but I think you’re misinterpreting. The Hebrews wrote the Old Testament. From context I know they believed in a loving God. Why WOULD they randomly throw in stories meant to protray a nasty God?

    I believe you’re misinterpreting, because from a historical context they’re not meant to portray a nasty God, and when read that way they fall flat and lack meaning. When read as I believe the Hebrews wrote them and read them and intended them to be read (or told them and intended them to be heard), they take on far greater nuance and depth of meaning.

    I feel like you’re also asking an unspoken question, along the lines of: ‘You believe in a God of Love, and yet you also have an affinity for these creepy old stories. How can you possibly reconcile that without intellectual dishonesty?’

    Well, yes. I do believe in a God of Love, and I do find enormous nourishment in the Bible. I think that God as the Hebrews saw her is relatively close (though not identical) to my own vision of God, and therefore I have no issue.

  49. 49 James Riemermann Aug 20th, 2006

    Sarah, when you say that “by context I know that the Hebrews believed in a loving God”, I think you go a bit beyond the evidence. As you know, the stories were written by many individuals over thousands of years. We cannot assume a single faith and a single view of God shared by all those who wrote the books of the Bible. They were not only separated by time; they were individuals with highly distinctive understandings. This tells me that the best way to read any story of the Bible, is to read that story in the Bible, and not to assume that the writer of Job, or of the story of Abraham and Isaac, held the same assumptions of the writer of the 23rd Psalm. To my ear, it is seems strikingly clear that this is *not* the case.

    As I have said again and again, these stories reflect a deeply problematic view of the world, and thus of God.

    I think the only way one can come away from these stories with a view of the God portrayed as purely good and purely loving, is by ignoring the very essence of the stories. The poet who wrote the Book of Job, and the story of Abraham and Isaac, clearly saw God and the world with a deep sense of horror, but also a sense that the beauty and glory of the world cannot be separated from that horror.

  50. 50 Zach Aug 20th, 2006

    Marshall, I understand that the classical (and most current) Quaker belief is that “our sense of what is right [comes] from God himself.” And I think of myself as having more respect for Quaker tradition than the average post-Christian liberal Friend (perhaps it’s just a groundless conceit). But I still don’t think the classical Quaker positions, or anything else, are immune to challenge.

    And what I am saying is that I see the identification of God with “our sense of rightness” as needing to be so challeneged, partly because it is profoundly dangerous. Because the only thing keeping us from giving superhuman sanction to atrocities is our very fallible and human “sense of rightness.” People are perfectly capable of committing atrocities on their own, to be sure, but when a person believes, earnestly or not, that God is behind their actions, it gives them a kind of energy few other things can provide. A God who has the “right” (an anthropomorphization if there ever was one) to legitimately do anything he wants — or more accurately, anything someone says he wants — is something we cannot afford to keep around anymore than nuclear weapons.

    (Which can be taken as a call for atheism, or a call for softer varieties of theism. I take the former route, partly because I think the latter route is confusing and ineffective.)

    I mean, look again at the connection made in that phrase: “which regards our sense of what is right as coming from God himself. It’s like wiring an opinion poll to the American nuclear arsenal. The Inquisition is contained within that phrase. My family splitting apart is contained within that phrase.

  51. 51 Marshall Massey Aug 21st, 2006

    Hey, Zach!

    You wrote, “…Look again at the connection made in that phrase: ‘which regards our sense of what is right as coming from God himself’. It’s like wiring an opinion poll to the American nuclear arsenal. The Inquisition is contained within that phrase. My family splitting apart is contained within that phrase.”

    That’s an interesting claim, Zach. The Quaker position, from George Fox through World War II and to some extent even later, has been that our sense of what is right and wrong — That which comdemns us when we do wrong, and justifies us when we do well, to quote Fox’s own words for it — does come from God Himself. This position puts us Friends at odds with the rest of the world, the rest of the world believing as you do that this sense of what is right and wrong is “natural, not supernatural”, not to mention inconvenient besides, and therefore to be ignored or “deprivileged”.

    However, the result of this difference has not been that Friends have built nuclear arsenals and set up Inquisitions while the rest of the world has had more sense. Just the opposite: while the world has built nuclear arsenals, Friends have opposed them; while the world has set up KGBs and CIAs and Homeland Securities and other latter-day Inquisitions, Friends have opposed them. Not at all what your theory predicts.

    No, Friends’ behavior has not been perfect; but I would say that that is because Friends, too, have not always been loyal to that Divine voice inside. For instance, I’ll guess that Friends in those meetings that “separated” between Hicksite and Orthodox, Gurneyite and Wilburite, and Holiness and Conservative Friends in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, separated in part because they were too worked up about their ideological differences to listen to that inward sense.

    I don’t know about your family splitting apart, so I’m not going to talk about that.

  52. 52 Marshall Massey Aug 21st, 2006

    I suppose I ought to add –

    You say in your comment above that you prefer atheism as an alternative to obedience to the sense of what is right within, because you feel atheism is less likely to give us nuclear arms crises and inquisitions. But I am mindful that atheism, not obedience to the sense of what is right within, was foundational to the Russian Communist system, and the result was a Russian nuclear arsenal, a government-fostered culture that constantly glorified armed struggle against the rest of the world, a KGB, a Siberian Gulag, and the long dark social nightmare so eloquently portrayed in Darkness at Noon. What did Quakers ever do, in obedience to the sense of what is right within, that is even remotely comparable?

  53. 53 Zach Aug 21st, 2006

    Marshall, I’m going to reply to your recent comments below later today, but this main thread of the discussion I think is becoming fruitless, so I’m going to attempt to bring it to a close here.

    You seem to not be reading what I am saying very carefully (though perhaps you feel the same about me), because you again ask that I “distinguish between [my] opinions of what is true, and the various Biblical authors’ opinions of what is true, and not confuse the one with the other,” when I have made the very distinction you are again asking for twice already. Here, in my very first comment, I said your reading of what the biblical authors’ had in mind was true, and that what I am talking about is different: what we can take from the text now, what the text means to us now. And right here on this subthread I took pains to distinguish between the meaning of the text for a reader or community (such as myself or James or you or Pam) and the original authorial interpretation of the text.

    So I don’t understand why you still think I haven’t made this distinction.

    But I think part of the actual substance of our disagreement may lie in the fact that for you, perhaps as a good modernist, the authorial interpretation of a text (the author of Job of Job; James of his blog, etc.) in a very strong way takes precedence over all other interpretations. What James, the author, intends to say on his blog is what it means, period, and the interpretation of anyone else who says it means something different (e.g. is anti-Semitic to use your example) is subordinate by definition – subordinate simply by virtue of differing from the author’s interpretation, not because of the details.

    Which is why I characterized your dismissal of I and James’s opinions as offhand. A poor choice of words, I admit, for as energetic a discussion as this has been, but what I meant is that it seems you are wanting us to subordinate our interpretations of the Bible to the authors’ apparent interpretations (the “traditional interpretations”), simply because the former differs from the latter, which you privilege (calling it “absolute” just now) – rather than on its own merits or demerits as a reading (e.g. here you cite James’s reading and say you’d have “absolutely no problem” with it as long as he admitted this is not what “the Bible itself means,” which I read as you asking him to subordinate his interpretation to the authorial interpretation simply because it differs from the latter).

    For my part, that I will not do (perhaps as a good postmodernist), and this is a philosophical question, not one that depends on biblical exegesis. To state it clearly: I don’t believe the author of a text has any absolute right to determine the meaning of the text. (What the author meant is usually a very interesting and important question, just like what a parent wants for their child is. But texts and children have their own autonomy, especially after the parents are dead.)

    To use a visual metaphor, you seem to envision a Sun-like “absolute interpretation” around which people’s individual readings orbit, but I envision something more like this. In a binary system, which star is the absolute point of reference, and which is the satellite? Well, both and neither.

    So it seems there are two ways to read the specific textual arguments you have been giving:

    Are you (1) trying to show it’s “the wrong interpretation,” that is, (a) show in what ways the metaphorical reading in the OP differs from the biblical authors’ apparent interpretations, which for you I think amounts to (b) showing it to be somehow deficient?

    In that case, there is not much more to say because we grant (a) (see above) and will not grant (b), or at least I won’t. We can certainly have a philosophical conversation about (b), but I’m not eager to at this point, not until I’ve dusted off my Language & Interpretation notes.

    Or are you (2) trying to show that it’s “a bad interpretation,” in the same way that your own personal interpretation (which you have divulged a few details of) could be better or worse?

    In this case, there’s still more to say, but I think we should end the current very generalized conversation and pick it up later in a more specific way. I have for the past few months had thoughts of starting a collaborative blog for Quaker Bible (and probably other texts) study from a liberal, post-Christian-friendly perspective, a little along the lines of Radical Torah, or a webzine that would include that as part of its content (I even had quakersources.blogspot.com staked out at one point). More short term I may do that right here.

    In any case, I thank you for your spirited contributions to the discussion, and hope I have given no offense (other than the intellectual offense of what you regard as unsound claims); I think I was a bit too snarky in the last comment on this thread.

    Zach.

  54. 54 Marshall Massey Aug 21st, 2006

    Hey, Zach –

    Out of respect for your desire to bring the conversation to a close, I shall not respond to any of the points you’ve raised in your latest posting here.

    If you do want a response from me on any of those points, I trust you will bring them up a second time. Otherwise, Godspeed to you, friend, and adieu.

  55. 55 Zach Aug 22nd, 2006

    Thank you Marshall, though I hope you are agreeing to lay down the conversation here because you think I made a reasonable suggestion, not simply because I want us to. In any case, I’ll be reading Job and some secondary literature and post about it next month, unless a different book/passage strikes me. And I’ll reply to the other thread lower down today (apologies I didn’t yesterday like I said I would).

    Zach.

  56. 56 Zach Aug 22nd, 2006

    Marshall, replying as promised to this other subthread — I think you’re misreading my ‘theory’ as being about Friends vs. the rest of the world, when it was actually about people who link superhuman authority to human opinion vs. people who don’t. The former includes not only most Friends but also most Christians, Jews, and Muslims; and the latter includes not only atheists but also some apophatic religious folk, and I think most Buddhists.

    I will readily admit – Friends have been among the best of theists, and if the word God was owned only by them, I probably would have no problem with God-talk, and we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation.

    But as things are, Friends are not the only people who use the word ‘God.’ In fact we are the microscopical minority. (Nor are we, as you claim, the only people who believe our sense of right and wrong comes from God.) And so I don’t think the behavior of Friends counts very heavily as evidence of what the fruits of theism are. You judge a tree by its fruit, and in my judgment (limited and fallible, but it’s all I have), theism is a tree that has borne a lot of bad fruit. Not Friends’ theism but theism in general, which to me seems like the more relevant issue. As I said to Liz on James’s post, this is a word that is much larger than the RSoF.

    To be sure, there are many very bright chapters in the history of the monotheistic religions, that are well worth studying and cherishing. And as you point out, the atheist USSR did many, many awful things, as bad or worse as any extremist Muslim sect or Hebrew king or medieval pope, which should give any atheist great pause. So I’m definitely not trying to say that atheism/nontheism is any kind of cure-all.

    But in my own limited judgment, the notion of God is more trouble than it is worth, partly because it is such a powerful concept and so prone to abuse. I don’t expect to persuade you of this, because I’m already coming from the perspective that it is unimportant what we call the source of our sense of right and wrong – for me, we can call it “God” as we have traditionally done, or “Spirit” or “the Light” or something else – and I don’t think you’re coming from that perspective.

    A final word — in your second comment, “You say in your comment above that you prefer atheism as an alternative to obedience to the sense of what is right within,” but I never said that at all. To me there is no contradiction between “obedience to the sense of what is right within” and disbelief in what most Friends believe is the source of that sense. I can understand if you disagree, but I think it’s going too far to say that I said a prefer atheism as an alternative to obedience.

  57. 57 Chris M. Aug 23rd, 2006

    I’ve been reading this off and on for a few days and want to affirm the quality of discussion. I’m impressed with how people are able to express different opinions and listen for the answer. Yes, sometimes people feel misheard or believe their questions are unanswered, and yet people continue to engage with one another. That seems like healthy discussion. I also sense that people are really trying to explain where they are coming from in an effort to be heard — not to persuade others to change their views.

    Then there’s the meta-conversation! I especially want to give kudos to James for his self-clerking and eldering around proofreading. It does help lighten the discussion a bit.
    - - -
    Have others read Karen Armstrong’s A History of God? It’s a history of how the concept of God has evolved over time in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. I’ve just started it, and I have the sense it could inform this and the larger conversation. Perhaps I’ll blog about it at some point.

    Another two reference points would be Jack Miles’s God: A Biography and Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God. They cover the same territory, though with a literary lens rather than a historical lens.
    - - -
    Last thought: May the cauldron of the encounter in this discussion forge something stronger than what we started with.

  58. 58 Marshall Massey Aug 23rd, 2006

    Hello, Zach –

    I am reluctant to reënter the fray here, but you are touching on points that are pretty basic to Quakerism, and such are important to me.

    You write, “…My ‘theory’ … was actually about people who link superhuman authority to human opinion vs. people who don’t. The former includes not only most Friends but also most Christians, Jews, and Muslims….”

    No, this is not true, at least for Friends and other Christians. Zach, I have some relevant background here: from 1973 to 1976 and again from 1985 to 1991, I was deeply involved in projects that required me to collaborate with many different denominations, and that required me to become conversant with their doctrines. In addition to my conversations with leaders in these different communities regarding their groups’ teachings, I also made heavy use of denominational guides, dictionaries of theologies and other basic reference texts.

    In all that time, I never encountered any faith community, not even Friends, that “link[s] superhuman authority to human opinion”. The standard Christian point of view, which Friends communities share, is that human opinion is fallen and therefore unreliable. Human opinion must therefore be regarded with suspicion and tested against other, more reliable authorities. Such authorities may (depending on the faith community) include the Bible, the faith tradition, carefully tested systematic reasoning, the discernment of the community or of the community’s rightly-chosen leaders (”discernment” in this context being a very serious matter, only to be undertaken with due care), and/or the direct revelation of the Spirit.

    There may be individuals here and there who label themselves “Christian” and do think human opinion can be linked to superhuman authority. I never met or heard of any.

    As to the rest of your latest posting, I cheerfully accept all your clarifications of your own beliefs and opinions, although I do not share them.

  59. 59 James Riemermann Aug 23rd, 2006

    I loved all three of these books in different ways, but Miles’ “God: A Biography” was particularly liberating for me, offering a new way of thinking about the Bible that, for me, cracks the book wide open. The other two books were also rewarding and provocative, but the central theses of both books seemed a bit strained. Still, I highly recommend them.

    The main difficulty I had with Armstrong’s book was her sense, expressed again and again, that literalist understandings of the Bible emerged from the scientific mindset that emerged in the enlightenment. It seems quite obvious to me that Biblical literalism was a given among the religious public before the enlightenment. The rise of science and critical thinking is what began to kill literalism off. It just hasn’t died yet.

  60. 60 Marshall Massey Aug 23rd, 2006

    Popular readings of the Bible in medieval Europe very often treated Biblical texts as metaphorical rather than literal, and the metaphors they imposed on it frequently departed dramatically from the straightforward literal meaning of the text. This sort of taking of metaphorical liberties went out of fashion during the Reformation, due to the widespread feeling that it represented an apostasy from the original intent of Christ and the apostles. But at the same time, rationalistic criticisms of the internal contradictions and apparent historical errors in the Bible — which had existed even before the Reformation — emerged in the pre-Enlightenment Reformation era as a counterbalance to the excesses of Biblical literalism. The leading first-generation Friend Samuel Fisher was an outstanding pre-Enlightenment rational critic of the Bible, as witness his book Rusticus ad Academicos … The Rustick’s Alarm to the Rabbies, Or The Country Correcting the University and Clergy, published in 1660.

  61. 61 Zach Aug 23rd, 2006

    Yes James, I haven’t read that book yet but my impression accords with what she and Marshall say, though I’m sure the reality is complicated.

    I think I have a copy of Rusticos ad academicos on my computer if anyone wants to read it.

  62. 62 James Riemermann Aug 23rd, 2006

    Miles’ main point is not literal vs. metaphorical, but fiction vs. non-fiction. And even there he’s not really criticizing the approach of reading the Bible for history. Rather, he is suggesting that some new understandings unfold when you read the Bible as a literary work in which God is the central character–a character who grows and changes and learns over time just like any other well-drawn literary character.

    It’s not about deciding whether it’s this kind of book or that kind of book. It’s about how the experience of reading the Bible changes and opens up when you stop worrying about whether this or that is true or false.

  63. 63 James Riemermann Aug 23rd, 2006

    Zach,

    The thing is, Copernicus and Galileo and Darwin blew completely out of the water the notion that Genesis could be true, at a time when the vast majority of believers believed it was true. Long before these scientific revolutions, there were always mystics who warned against literalistic understandings, but Armstrong and others make the mistake of reading those mystics as representative of the religious views of their time, rather than reactions against those views.

    It is science that undermined the literalist approach to religion. The world is still shaking, the literalists and fundamentalists are still fighting, but it is no longer intellectually defensible. That is what has changed.

  64. 64 Zach Aug 23rd, 2006

    Marshall I will admit that what I said was not how most religious folk would describe their beliefs. So if we mean “mere, unsupported human opinion”, what I said was wrong.

    But I would still argue that even the other authorities you cite — the scriptures, group discernment, faith traditions — are wholly or mostly human themselves, and so the problem I tried to point out still exists, though admittedly on a less urgent level (i.e. linking superhuman authority with earnest human group discernment-derived opinion is much better than linking it with unreflective human opinion).

    And you must admit that even among the great majority who do own an intermediate authority between them and God (the Bible, their church, etc.), there still is a spectrum of more and less humble folk. Some can become completely certain that God is speaking through a Biblical text (or their own personal revelation), and equally certain that they are understanding the message correctly — and those are the people I find terrifying. Then there are people who are less cocksure, and at the other end of the spectrum are the radically apophatic theists who realize any human opinion, no matter how well reinforced by another authority, is ultimately inadequate and partial (like Pseudo-Denys and more recently I believe Merold Westphal).

    Which is why I included the more “apophatic” sort of religious folk, in my last comment, as among the people who to their credit don’t perform the linkage I was describing. By which I meant to say that I think I can get along with theists who do have a strong notion of their own fallibility. Which I hope we all do.

    (Said another way, at the theoretical level I was wrong and you are completely correct in your reply, because almost every religion or sect is officially “apophatic” enough to not trust their own prereflective opinion. But in practice, especially at the popular level, there is more of a range, and I think on that level what I said last comment is not entirely unfair.)

  65. 65 Zach Aug 23rd, 2006

    Sarah that’s a really great counterexample, and I’m not sure how to reply to it (which is no bad thing).

    Tentatively though I would question whether your “bad” meaning of love is the most common meaning of love. I’d say there’s a pretty even mix. And if there was the same mix among users of the word God (half using it the way the current overwhelming majority use it, and half using it in what for me would be a more acceptable way), I might not have a problem continuing to use it.

  66. 66 Paul L Aug 24th, 2006

    It seems to me that far from undermining literalism, science is the quintessential literalist approach to understanding.

    It isn’t enough to say that evolution is a good metaphor for understanding how life originated on Earth. You must believe that evolution is THE way life originated and grew and that any other belief in, say, a Creator is false or at best fictional.

    Someone will someday blow Darwin and Copernicus and Galileo out of the water (if they haven’t already), and will consider their explanations to be helpful metaphors but not “really” the way it is.

    The real question remains: How does your understanding or relationship with God or the Great Whatever affect how you live your one precious life?

  67. 67 Pam Aug 24th, 2006

    Paul, no, really???? Evolution isnt’ how life started, I don’t think that there is a theory that really claims to explain that right now - it’s still a mystery. And while evolution seems to be a good explanation as far as we can tell right now, no one really claims that it won’t be “blown out of the water” in the future 0 it is the nature of science for our understanding of things to change as we get more information (so, while it hasn’t been blown out of the water by claims that a literal reading of genesis 1 is somehow scientifically superior, that doens’t mean that it won’t be by new scientific discoveries in the future.

    In any case, I heartily agree with you,

    The real question remains: How does your understanding or relationship with God or the Great Whatever affect how you live your one precious life?

    Which is, perhaps, why I care so little whether someone calls that relationship one with “God” or “the great whatever” of “mystery” or “love” or “being” - I have seen people who call it all different things radiate light and I have seen others with all the various understandings who can only use those understandings to sow hatred and division.

    peace
    Pam

  68. 68 James Riemermann Aug 27th, 2006

    I have to agree with Pam here. In fact, the theory of evolution has nothing to say about the existence of God or the initial emergence of life. There have been some fruitful experiments where simple amino acids–the building blocks of biological life–have emerged spontaneously in laboratory conditions. But this is a long way from real and substantial knowledge of how the first life forms emerged. We may well die out as a species before such knowledge emerges.

    The bottom-line, revolutionary findings of evolution, however, are very well established and will not be blown out of the water: 1) Evolution occurs and can be directly observed; 2) all life on Earth today is descended from simple one-celled organisms; 3)once self-reproducing life emerged, natural selection took hold as one (perhaps not the only) immensely creative and completely natural method for more complex life forms to emerge. There are still huge holes in the details of our knowledge of all the particular mechanisms of evolution, but any such findings will refine and extend evolutionary theory, not contradict its fundamentals. The evidence is overwhelming.

    The same goes for the findings of Galileo and Copernicus. Indeed, by Einsteinian standards their descriptions of celestial motions were crude and primitive, but they were not fundamentally wrong. The jury is still out as to how quantum physical theory will extend Einstein’s findings, but no one is seriously suggesting it will prove him wrong. It does seem to reveal deeper levels of reality, but that does not discount the levels of reality closer to the surface.

    I try–often without success–to live my life in accordance with the best impulses of my heart, being attentive to everything around me in the world. The existence or non-existence of God or a Great Whatever really doesn’t figure into it very much. I don’t know anything about God, so I have to talk instead to you, my Friends, and listen to the world in all its diversity and complexity.

  69. 69 Pam Aug 27th, 2006

    Hey James

    I think I use the word “God” perhaps a little too freely, to name all of that about life, love, ethics, how to be, that is unnamed and unnamable. I never (well, rarely) actually think of it as a being with intent (and then only as a metaphor) but I find that I use the word easily, perhaps because I was brought up in a somewhat religious context, and while the “facts” that I learned at my catholic school never quite meshed into anything touching reality, many of the nuns really did show me through their lives, and how they talked to me, what kindness and love and even faith mean, and the power of those things.

    So, when I feel “right with the world” or a sort of peace or love that I first recognized in them, I can call it God, because they did. I get confused when anyone suggests that it’s tied to belief in Jesus’ divinity, or belief that his body got up and walked away from the crypt. - but I recognize something, from a time before I had many words for it, and I can be okay calling it God.

    And I wwonder if I’m lying. Sometimes to call this non-entity that I know “God” seems underhanded in the same way referring to my girlfriend as my “boyfriend” (because the people I’m talking to really just mean relationships, and they would be confused if I tried to actually speak to my whole truth….) - I would never do that, but would I say something ambiguous? “partner”, “lover”, “sweetie”? - I do it all the time. Am I lying?

    I feel often as if I know God, it’s just not the God of the Bible, it’s not nameable, and it’s not even consistent. It’s not a being, or an intent, or a set of rules,

    I most often think it’s “only” (such a dismissive word for such a powerful thing) love, sense of community, what can happen if we truly hear each other, work together. it’s glimpses of quiet perfection, it’s the amazing sliver of difference between living things and dead matter.

    It occurred to me once, when I was trying to explain it, that the birth of a child is a miracle. You can know exactly when it happened, how it happened, every spec of the science behind it. You can even have MADE it happen - I know plenty of people who went to a cryobank and bought frozen sperm, We all know at this point that God didn’t make it happen in some way beyond our grasp, and NONE of that takes a bit from the wonder of it. It’s all small potatoes in comparison, as far as I’m concerned.

    Would it be possible to scientifically map the quantum physics of a gathered meeting, or a leading? Would that really diminish it?

  70. 70 James Riemermann Aug 28th, 2006

    Another point, Paul. I didn’t say, or didn’t mean to say, that science undermined literalism. If you’re seeking to find the truth about the world, meaning that which is the case, you had better mean that literally.

    What science undermined was a literalistic understanding of religion. It literally disproved Genesis as a historical account. So it is no longer possible for educated people with intellectual integrity to believe Genesis as a historical account, which is how it had been understood by most believers for thousands of years.

  71. 71 Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) Aug 29th, 2006

    People were aware of logical disparities in the book of Genesis long, long before the rise of science. Genesis is actually a written compilation of at least two different accounts (the Yahwist, from the southern half of the Hebrew world, and the Elohist, from the northern half) by a third party (the Redactor), with editing and alterations by the Redactor. The editing and alterations wouldn’t have happened if the contradictions between the two accounts hadn’t been obvious, and bothersome, to an awful lot of people.

    Internal flaws and contradictions remained present in the Genesis narrative even after the Redactor finished with it. Genesis 1 still doesn’t really agree with Genesis 2. The story of the patriarch passing off his wife as his sister is duplicated, once with Abraham and his wife, the second time with Isaac and his wife. And so forth. One doesn’t need science to spot these flaws and contradictions. Any “educated person with intellectual integrity” who studies Genesis closely is going to spot these issues and have problems with them. He may not publish his doubts to the world, but he will have them.

    Anthropological investigations since around 1970 have made it fairly clear that most primitive peoples do understand their myths to be myths, not literal histories. Unless you are solidly convinced that the Hebrews were retards in comparison with most other humans, it is reasonable to believe that the Hebrews also understood the myths of Genesis to be myths, not literal history. It is likewise reasonable to believe that the Europeans of the Dark Ages, being very close to primitives themselves and having their own tribal myths to compare with Genesis, understood the myths of Genesis to be myths, not literal history.

    In short, the refusal to read Genesis literally did not begin in earnest with the rise of modern science. It has always been around. Judging by the stories that have come down to us, it was far more common for people in the Middle Ages to draw on the Bible as a source of metaphor than to take it as a literal account of history. The insistence on taking the Bible seriously as an accurate account of history began with the rise of Protestantism, after the early Protestants compared the teachings of the Bible with the misrepresentations and misbehaviors of the corrupted medieval Church. You can search the writings of earlier generations of Christians and Jews as much as you please, but you will not find an insistence there that the Bible has to be regarded as literally accurate at all points.

  72. 72 James Riemermann Aug 30th, 2006

    Marshall, we’re not going to agree about this. I acknowledged quite early that there have been those who have rejected literal understandings of scripture. They have never been in the mainstream, but critics of the mainstream. Periodically the church has tortured and murdered them by the hundreds, the thousands, for denying received truths.

    You imply that I am calling the Hebrews retards because I believe most of them believed outrageous myths. On the contrary, there has never been an age when most of the human race did not believe outrageous myths. I include the current age, though science and education is slowly improving on that sad state of affairs. You will not convince me with assertions that human beings are smarter than that. We are not. We are an ignorant and gullible race, tending to believe most of the nonsense our moms and dads and priests tell us.

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