Sex and the Single Savior: On Reading the Biblical Text, Part 6

I think this will be my final post on Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation. Thanks for the great conversation. Once more into the breach...

i. The Constraints of Human Experience
One of the challenges Martin has to address is the objection that if the text doesn't provide constraints on its interpretation then "anything goes" in regards to biblical interpretation. Worse, if "anything goes" the fear is that our readings of scripture will become self-serving at best or, at worst, evil. How does Martin deal with these critiques?

Let's start with the objection that without secure foundations of interpretation "anything goes" in reading the biblical text. If the text is not providing constraints are there ANY constraints on reading? Martin says yes, but he locates these constraints not in the text but in the human experience (p. 15): "None of us can interpret a text in just any way--not because we are constrained by the text, but because we are constrained by many other things. We are all socialized to read in certain ways...human beings are not hermetically sealed individuals; we are influenced by people and other social forces all around us. Therefore, our readings of texts may be challenged by other human beings, and that experience may in turn change our own reading. The fear expressed by many scholars that 'anything goes' if we do not assume that texts control their own interpretation simply ignores that there are may other factors that control and constrain human interpretation of texts. Those things such as the contingency and socialization of readers themselves, the cultural formation of the self, and other people and institutions. These controls on interpretation never completely disappear, as much as we may try to step away from them. Therefore it is not true that people interpret texts in just 'any old way.'" In short (p. 5), "There are constraints on reading, but they are social and psychological constraints, not constraints exercised directly by the 'text itself.'"

But if we rely on human experience are we not prone to read the bible in a self-serving or evil manner? Martin's response to this objection is simple: Has biblical literalism or historical-criticism had a very good track record in preventing evil or self-serving readings?

The answer is clearly no.

So Martin says, let's not kid ourselves, there is no danger lurking in leaning too heavily on human experience. Biblical foundationalism does not guarantee readings that are ethical and pure. Many of the defenders of slavery and Nazism were well trained textual critics or biblical literalists. As Martin notes (p. 15), "My point is not that we should blame the method of historical criticism for the Holocaust, or slavery, or racism. My point is that historical criticism is powerless to prevent such readings. Historical criticism cannot be depended on to provide reliably ethical readings of Scripture, as history easily proves." Further, although fundamentalist preachers rage against the social evils of post-modern relativism Martin makes a sharp retort (15-16): "It is also ironic when Christian scholars insist that without a foundationalist use of the Bible for ethics we will be plunged into conflict and even violence...The lie is given to this argument by the universally observable fact that it is now foundationalists--even fundamentalists--who are key players in the current epidemic of violence, especially religious violence. Islamic fundamentalists, Jewish fundamentalists, Hindu fundamentalists, and Christian fundamentalists...are all much more central to the engines of current international and interreligious violence than is anyone under the influence of postmodernism, deconstruction, or antifoundationalist theories. The people who are nowadays the most violent are also those most secure in their theological-epistemological foundations. For biblical scholars to cry that without a foundationalist understanding of textual meaning we may have no recourse against using the Bible for unethical and violent ends is glaringly ironic if not simple disingenuous."

ii. My Conclusion: Cosmopolitanism and the Kingdom of God
Martin ends his book by noting that his "stance of love" (see last post) and his appeal to human experience is often accused of reducing Christianity to some kind of wishy-washy form of "tolerance" and ethical relativism. Martin defends himself on this point against the "we need more than love" critiques of scholars like Richard Hays and Stanley Hauerwas (see pp. 165-169), but I'd like to add my two cents and conclude this series with a defense of "tolerance" and human experience

Tolerance always gets a bad rap. It is always framed as morally weak or anemic. The thick and hearty stew of ethical absolutes is always seen to be at risk of being "reduced to" the thin, watery broth of tolerance.

I want to come to the rescue of tolerance. Let me state my thesis clearly at the outset: Tolerance has been the greatest moral breakthrough in the history of humanity. It is the shining star of the moral firmament. It is the glue, the moral adhesive, that holds society together. Without it we are lost. Just look around at the world. The problem isn't that we have too much tolerance. The problem is that we have too little.

But maybe we need a new name. Rather than "tolerance" I'd like to go with the label cosmopolitanism. The word "cosmopolitanism" comes from the ancient Greek Cynic philosopher Diogenes of Sinope. Diogenes was once asked where he came from. He responded: “I am a citizen of the world" (kosmopolitês). The root idea of cosmopolitanism is the notion that, regardless of our differences, we all belong to a a single community and we should all strive to cultivate this shared community.

Paralleling Martin's "stance of love," I would suggest that we read the bible as cosmopolitans, as citizens of the world. A reading of the bible should thus seek to create and cultivate a shared human community. Tolerance, as first step, is integral to this process. In the words of Kwame Anthony Appiah we need to learn to "get used to each other."

Now let's pick up the issue from the comments in the last post: Can we have ethics without a foundation? That is, if biblical interpretation is to be grounded in ethics where is a secure foundation for ethics to be found? Isn't this just a house of cards if ethics cannot be firmly secured?

As a psychologist I believe that ethics does have a foundation. It is not a logical foundation and it is not fool-proof. But it is a foundation. The foundation consists of the empirical realities regarding human flourishing. Biologically, humans consider some things to be intrinsically good and other things to be intrinsically bad. We don't choose these goods, they are given to us. And the great tower of ethics is built upon this foundation. "Good" and "bad" are, at root, biological notions. It is true that some of us come wired differently and deviantly. There are Hitlers. But the cosmopolitan vision seeks to define human flourishing as broadly as possible. This universalizing impulse is the moral pressure that is applied to the social deviance we define as "evil." Our rejection of evil cannot be defended on rational grounds. The ethical foundation isn't intellectual or propositional. It is biological and psychological.

What are the "goods" and "evils" that our biology recognizes? Simplifying, I would say this: Human flourishing depends upon freedom. Both negative freedom (freedom from) and positive freedom (freedom for). Humans call things good and right insofar as they free us from constraint, monotony, isolation, and biological disruption (e.g., violence, starvation, disease). By contrast, humans flourish when they are given scope, novelty, and community. The difficultly in life comes when my freedoms encroach upon your freedoms. Ethics is the study of how we collectively manage those negotiations.

In the end, this is why I resonate with Martin's reliance on human experience. That is, it seems obvious to me that the bible should be concerned with human flourishing. If so, then human experience is the only place you could conceivably ground out your interpretation of the bible. And if this is true, then a cosmopolitan reading is the proper stance as it seeks to define the human experience universally.

Is the bible trying to make us better? Is the bible trying to make us more ethical? Yes and yes. But I don't see these things as being opposed to human experience. Rather, these notions are grounded in human experience, in the concrete realities of human flourishing. "Better" and "ethical" have no other grounding than in the biological givens of the human person. One might suggest that ethics are grounded in God. But God's mandates for us are just that, for us. They are aimed at human flourishing. If not, then God's commands are capricious and arbitrary. So, in my mind, there is an identity between human flourishing and God's will.

But isn't God fighting against the flesh? Yes, but as we have noted, only insofar as I am seeking personal flourishing at your expense. And this brings me back to my contention that sin is an inherently social concept. (Recall: Can you sin on a deserted island?) That is, God isn't against our biological inclinations per se. God isn't anti-soma or anti-hedonic. God's concerns are social and communal. In short, the fight against the flesh is the fight against my impingement upon your right to flourish. This is why the notion of love is so critical to Christian ethics. The issue isn't that I seek to flourish. It is that I seek to flourish at your expense. That's the real problem and love is the corrective. I should take your interests to be as important as my own. In short, I seek both your flourishing and mine. I seek everyone's flourishing. This seeking the good of all is called The Kingdom of God. And it is the essence of cosmopolitanism.

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14 thoughts on “Sex and the Single Savior: On Reading the Biblical Text, Part 6”

  1. Richard,

    Two quick comments. First, I'm sure that you are aware that your position is pretty much the same as Aristotle advocated 2,500 years ago. (Position: good = that which makes for human flourishing)Mortimer Adler tried to popularize that idea as an antidote to the loss of a foundation for ethics in Modernity. The approach is pretty much "common sense," once it is explained. And, to me at least, that--being "common sense"--is crucial to ethical understanding: how else can ethics guide us--we can't write a philosophy paper every time an ethical difficulty presents itself! A post making the common sense connection might be worthwhile.

    Second, I think that you are right on target in stating that "This seeking the good of all is called The Kingdom of God." But then how does one deal with the very real problem--which I bring up for the second time in comments on your posts about Martin--that the world does not always present us with win-win options ethically. It's not just that I have to accept that I ought not take more than what I need to flourish, it's that sometimes I have to give up some of my flourishing in order to love others. And then the problem becomes, "I have to betray my hopes and dreams and values in order to love you." I have to lose so you don't. But it gets worse: if you don't share my values, I am in fact betraying what I see as "good" by making sacrifices for you! Sorry to say, this biological/anthropological foundation runs amok the same way logical analysis does...

    That is, unless one makes seeking "everyone's flourishing" the core of one's value system, just as you advocate. But that kind of cosmopolitan love can't itself be grounded in a factual understanding of the world and people's flourishing in it--for a great many people are egocentric, not ethically "cosmopolitan." A factual analysis might make a big flood to wash away all evil-doers the right choice (I note this only half in jest, for isn't this the idea behind much OT narrative that we find so distasteful?).

    Well, sorry these comments weren't "quicker."


  2. Richard,

    Some thoughts.

    (1) Tracy's conumbrum about sometimes facing win-lose or lose-lose alternatives, maybe caused by previous win-win situations. How we explain ethical causality and consequence is crucial. Ethically, is the crucifixion a win-win, win-lose, lose-win, lose-lose event--or something more complex and mysterious?

    (2) By the way, my take is that sinning alone on a desert island is possible. Sin against self is sin against God.

    (3) Likewise, to rework Plato: what and why do we social, biological creatures do (ethically) with the dead and gone--those who have once lived and are now dust, no longer social and biological? We wonder, we think, we grieve, we celebrate (or say, "Good riddance!"), we ritualize, we honor, and, eventually, we join them. Which suggests to me that we are more than biological or social components. Or to put it another way: we want to be more than those things and we want to be more than dust.

    (4) And while I think--along with Martin, you and others--that recognizing that personal and social experience is important as we read the text. I think it may be more important to keep in mind that the text, in the words of Andrew McKenna, "reads" us. It reads us because it captures our imagination and constrains us, shapes us, refines us, and strengthens our weak love and frail mercies. It elevates our wonder, shames our limited expectations, shatters our self and social idolatries, gives teeming life to our barren interior landscapes, re-members us in authentic communion, and blesses us with hope.


    George C.

  3. Hi Tracy,
    I see your point. It does seem to be a tall order to leverage my self-interest into a cosmopolitan worldview. Two responses:

    First, my sense, but feel free to clarify, is that you are putting more on cosmopolitanism more than it can bear. That is, the way you frame it looks more like agape love. And true, that is a tall order. But I think cosmopolitanism is a more modest affair, akin to "tolerance." People may see this as a weak vision but, as I have tried to argue, I think it is an amazing moral vision. We need more tolerance in the world if the bloodshed is to stop. The first and most vital ethical question facing the world is this: Can we live with each other?

    My second response is that there is a difference between offering a hermeneutic and then living in accordance with it. My suggestion in this post is that there is a logic to human flourishing that has two aspects:

    1. We take some things to be good and others to be bad. Human nature gives us a rough consensus on these things.
    2. A universalizing impulse. We recognize that all people want these things.

    Now how to implement all this (given that we impinge on each other) or whether or not we live by our reading is another matter. My aim here is simply to suggest that we can create a decent hermeneutic from all this. That is, does the reading recognize the goods that all humans recognize and, secondly, does the reading try to promote those goods in a universalizing manner? The actual implementation of all this is a political and ethical question. But again, my concerns are hermeneutical in his post: How can we adjudicate between better and worse readings? The cosmopolitan stance says this: Does the reading seek the goods that people really want? And, secondly, does the reading universalize (i.e., doesn’t restrict those goods to a sub-set of the population)? In my opinion, this hermeneutic holds up well as it is grounded in the realities of the human person.

    But I’m wondering if I actually answered you questions/concerns. Come back at me if I’ve missed it.

    George, I’m running to class. I see your comment and will get to it this evening.

  4. This past September during ACU's Fall Lectureship, Landon Saunders delivered a message, "Night Without Vision." A principle point from the lecture can be summed in this quote, "I do not intend to set aside Scripture, but until we get the people right, we cannot get the Scripture right."

    Thinking about Landon's life and ministry while reading this series of posts, it strikes me how he seems to be expressing sentiments similar to if not post-foundational. The force that has shaped his hermeneutic is his passion for communicating the Gospel to those outside the religious confines.

  5. In the words of Dr. Leonard Sweet from one of his sessions recently at ACU, "Jesus didn't come to make better Christians out of anyone. He came to make us better humans."
    There is a Sufi story about Jesus in which he is pictured as walking along a dusty road with his disciples. They came upon the decaying remnants of a dog. While the disciples commented on the flies, smell and putrid skeletal remains, Jesus stood quietly until all voices fell still. Jesus then said, "But look at the whiteness of the teeth!"
    To think on that which is good, virtuous and pure as Apostle Paul exhorted, I think we must seek and celebrate that which is good, virtuous and pure wherever we find it in this world, wherever we find it.
    A few thoughts prompted from the posting and comments.

  6. Richard, have you ever read Jonathan Haidt's research on moral psychology? I only know him from reading a couple articles, but one interesting claim he's made is that people living by the sort of social goods that you describe here, emphasizing freedom and tolerance, are less happy, healthy and charitable than those living in societies that are more cohesive and clannish. I haven't seen his actual research, so I don't know how valid it is. It does make sense, though, that if human beings are naturally clannish animals (which I see no reason to doubt), most people would naturally flourish under those conditions. This puts a slightly different spin on the question Tracy asked: if being more tolerant and inclusive of the oddballs means a general decline in happiness for the average person, is it still worth doing? And if our measurement is human flourishing, how do you argue that it is?

  7. George,
    On your #2: I agree in principle. But again, my sense is that our desire to flourish overrides any self destructive tendencies. I just don't see a person on a deserted island going to great lengths to harm themselves. And if they were we'd question their sanity (a mitigating factor in labeling their behavior "sinful").

    On your #4: Yes, I agree very much. I see it very much as a conversation between God and us. That's why I'm still in orbit around the bible; despite its problems it still surprises me, speaks to me, and challenges me.

    I was there for that talk and loved it. Yes, this post is very much in that spirit.

    I also liked that comment from Sweet. He's an interesting fella.

    I know Haidt's work very well but haven't seen that particular claim or data point. If you find its origin please let me know.

    Regarding cohesive clans. No doubt we flourish in community and the modern world is making that more difficult. But I don't know if that trend is a product of cosmopolitanism. We can be tribal as long as we respect the rights of the other tribes to flourish alongside us.

    To all,
    Also, to continue to clarify earlier points I've made. Just because we fail to behave as cosmopolitans doesn't mess with what I'm trying to do in this post. The post is about reading the bible, not about ethical practice. That is, even if we fail to live as cosmopolitans a cosmopolitan reading is still viable as a means to adjudicate between readings. That is, if we see someone reading the text in an evil or self-interested way we can still make an appeal to human flourishing to evaluate the reading. For example, let's say I read the text and conclude that slavery is okay. We all must admit that someone could get that from the bible. So how can we critique that reading? On historical-critical grounds? Biblical literalism? I don't think those work. So, I think we critique from the cosmopolitan stance: Humans, and this is a fact, don't like being enslaved. Thus, a reading that endorses slavery is adjudicated as being a bad reading as it goes against the objective facts of human nature. This is the idea I'm driving at in this post. The fact that people do enslave others is a different issue. My point is that you can only critique that practice in an objective manner (cuz it is a FACT that humans hate being enslaved) via a cosmopolitan reading of the bible.

  8. Richard,

    As the risk of implying that, nyaa, nyaa, nyaa, nyaa, nyaa, my hypothetical trumps your hypothetical, I will assert that on a desert island a person might be inclined to despair to the point of self-destruction.

    Keep up the good work.



  9. Richard,

    Morally it is difficult to seperate one's ideas of what is good for others, understood as flourishing, from one's "cosmopolitanism," understood as tolerence. For example, morally I should not tolerate allowing fall-down-drunk people driving. Every reasonable person will agree with this, because the threat to direct bodily flourishing is obvious. But do you draw the line there and say that everything is tolerated except that which threatens us bodily? Socrates was not tolerated because he threatened the body politic. Pretty much the same with Jesus. Do groups have a moral obligation to protect their social integrity? Sometimes, it seems, but not if they do so at the expense of other groups. As we begin asking these questions it becomes clear that toleration needs to function within a moral-ethical framework.

    Simply put, tolerance cannot be a first-order moral principle, because it has to be framed by a rule of law that protects flourishing. I like John Rawl's "Justice as Fairness" approach, but concede Cammasia's utilitarian point that being fair to all at the expense of most is unfair, making "fairness" a very unstable idea...

    I still think that, at bottom, it comes down to whether a person is commited to love for the other--agape first, not toleration. But agape needs to apply to the broadest possible scope of agent and action, or really bad things can be done in the name of love (weren't those inquisitors just trying to save souls?). So I really don't want to quibble about this. I'd rather try to figure out how to merge the two.

    It would be a lifetime project. I'd love to see "A Theory of Tolerance" on the order of Rawl's "A Theory of Justice" (but I think "A Theory of Agape" would be even better). Just the thing for a bright 20-year-old at ACU to start...


  10. Richard,

    To my embarrasment I just realized that you have--I think--been using "cosmopolitanism" in a "First, do no harm," sense, ethically and interpretively.

    So understood, you are absolutely right! Sorry!

    My perspective is to, first, deal with the questions that come up for a person making meta-ethical calculations. (And I think that virtually everyone counts the cost of their moral commitments.) It's like St. Thomas' vertical vs. horizontal causality...

    From my perspective, my comments were pretty much on target. But--and this is the embarrassing part--I should have been commenting on your approach to Martin's book.

    Just put this one down as another instance of people doing dumb things when they thing they are right.

    Thanks for making me really think--as usual.


  11. George,
    I find it sad that two great minds can't come to agreement on this most pressing of questions... :-)

    No worries. I know you to be one of the smartest and most charitable conversations partners I have.

    And your comments have made me clarify some things that I didn't know I needed to clarify, even for myself. In fact, in my next post I'm going to try to tie together what I'm saying with what you are saying. Let's see how that looks.

    I also appreciate your point (and everyone should note it) that I'm not saying anything novel here. Just voting for some ideas that have been around for a long time and have a rich intellectual history.

  12. I find it curious that the good that our biology recognises is such a culturally defined one. Trade-offs between freedoms, the artificial division of negative and positive freedoms and even arguably the importance of freedom relative to other goods are clearly rooted in a Western philosophical tradition - but our biology surely cannot be.

    Personally I would rather base a stance of love on empathy than on cosmopolitanism.

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