05 June 2014

Seriously, Biblical Justice Revisited, Beyond Strawmen

Beyond Straw Man Arguments

In my post earlier today on Biblical Justice, there is an implication that these expressions of Biblical Law and of Biblical justice are direct guidance to modern Jews and Christians. But, as a challenge to the extent to which these faiths are in touch with modern reality, this is a straw man argument.

These Biblical passages may cast doubt on whether Iron Age Jewish law in the form recounted in the Hebrew Bible even made sense, even then as a good and moral religious option for these people.  History is written by the winners, but maybe their win was just good luck and we are saddled with the legacy of the fact that this tribe rather than another won, despite its immoral sense of justice, as a result.

But, neither Jews, nor Christians, nor even Christian denominations that claim to be bound by Jewish law such as Messianic Christians and Seventh Day Adventists, apply these laws in daily life today. Modern Rabbinic Jews and Christians have "tamed" Biblical law with theological principles by which these laws are applied to modern conditions.

In contrast, one of the notable phenomena of modern Islamic fundamentalism is that Islamic law, which has a very similar "feel" to Biblical law of the Hebrew Bible, is comparatively "untamed" for substantial share of all Muslims alive today. Indeed, the fairly recent modern reality of widespread literacy in the Islamic world, which has allowed Muslims to read the Koran and other Islamic theological works, unmediated by the interpretive gloss of Islamic religious scholars, is one important cause of modern Islamic fundamentalism's rise now, despite progressive moral trends overall across the globe.

Beyond Abrahamic Faiths

Of course, issued of "taming" the "difficult" aspects of religious traditions is not particular to Abrahamic faith adherents.

While most citizens of India are nominally Hindu, differences between secular minded intellectual elites, well organized fundamentalist Hindu political forces, and "culturally Hindu" Indian citizens to whom their faith doesn't have much of an impact on their politics play a powerful role in the politics of India, although it is relevant in very few other places since Hinduism did not expand to many places outside India (whose boundaries itself were drawn based upon citizen's religious affiliation).

Eastern religions (e.g. Tibetan Buddhist and Falun Gong adherents in China), Confucian ideas whether or not religious, animist religious views in Africa and among indigenous peoples elsewhere, and other faiths face similar dilemmas.  But, those stories are for another day.

The Theological Common Ground Of The Abrahamic Faiths

This disparity between almost all Judeo-Christan adherents of Abrahamic faiths and many Muslim adherents, occurs despite the fact that all three of faiths claim to involve worship of the same God whose exploits are recounted first in the Hebrew Bible, then, according to Christians in the New Testament written centuries after that, and finally in the utterances of Muhammad purportedly dictated in the Koran several centuries later.

Jews obviously don't view the New Testament as a sacred and authoritative text. Neither Jews nor Christians view the Koran as a sacred and authoritative scripture. And, Muslims have their own theologically definitive account of the events of the Old Testament and New Testament that is not in perfect accord with the Jewish or Christian accounts. But, all three main branches of Abrahamic faiths acknowledge that their faiths are not independent of each other and that they worship the same God and draw on the same overarching tradition that began with the covenant between God and Abraham which the theologies of all three faiths describe as a pivotal event in the history of man's relationship with God.

Taming Biblical Justice

Given the centrality of the theological taming of Biblical law by Jews and Christians to the adherents of those religions, it is worth examining the legal and theological theory that has provided intellectual justification for the taming of this morally and practically difficult to apply scriptural primary materials that Jews and Christians share in the Hebrew Bible. Christians and Jews have different, but similar means of doing so.

How Do Christians "Tame" The Old Testament?

J. Daniel Hayes, writing in an article in the January-March 2001 edition of Bibliotheca Sacra (at volume 158, pages 21-35) an academic journal of the Dallas Theological Seminary, succinctly summarizes (on page 30) the status of Old Testament Biblical Law in mainstream modern Christian Theology:
The Law is tied to the Mosaic Covenant, which is integrally connected to Israel's life in the land and the conditional promises of blessing related to their living obediently in the land. Christians are not related to that land, nor are they related to the conditions for being blessed in the land. Also the Mosaic Covenant is obsolete, having been replaced by the New Covenant. Therefore the Mosaic Law, a critical component of the Old Covenant, is not valid as law over believers in the church age.
The first part of the analysis rests heavily on the observation that Old Testament Law is embedded in what is presented as a historical narrative of the Jewish people, with much of that narrative pertaining to a context that can never be repeated:
A critical part of this covenant was God's promise to dwell in Israel's midst. This is stressed several times in the latter half of Exodus (25:8; 29:45; 33:14-17; 40:34-38). Associated with God's presence are the instructions for constructing the ark and the tabernacle, the place where God would dwell (Exod. 25-31, 35-40). Leviticus is thus the natural sequence to the latter half of Exodus, for it addresses how Israel was to live with God in their midst. How should they approach Him? How should they deal with personal and national sin before a holy God who dwelt among them? How should they worship and fellowship with this holy, awesome God in their midst? Leviticus provides the answers to these questions, giving practical guidelines for living with God under the terms of the Mosaic Covenant.
He does not, however, dismiss the Old Testament as irrelevant to Christians. Instead, he proposes a five step approach for gleaning guidance from it, which he calls "principalism":

1. Identify what the particular law mean to the initial audience.
2. Determine the differences between the initial audience and believers today.
3. Develop universal principles from the text.
4. Correlate the principle with New Testament teaching.
5. Apply the modified universal principle to life today.

How Do Jews "Tame" the Hebrew Bible?

Jew's, obviously, can't resort to the replacement of the New Covenant by the Old Covenant in their own taming of Biblical law from the Hebrew Bible and in particular from the Torah (i.e. the first five books of the Hebrew Bible whose authorship is attributed to Moses by tradition), where much of the "difficult material" is found. But, the process of Rabbinical exegesis of the Hebrew Bible along lines very similar to that set forth by Hayes in his exposition of "principalism" is very similar to the process that Rabbinic Jews resorted to over many centuries that is recounted in the Talmud, a collection of commentaries and legal analysis of the Hebrew Bible for a Jewish people scattered in the diaspora after the destruction of the Second Temple ca. 70 CE.

For Jewish theologians, the destruction of the Second Temple, and elaborate institutions of the Jewish priesthood and sacrificial offers that accompanied that institution, serves a purpose similar to that of the New Covenant established by Jesus Christ, in Christian theology.

The Talmudic process of deriving modified universal principles to apply to life today from Hebrew Bible materials embedded in a purportedly historical narrative that took place in a profoundly different Iron Age context, has played an important role in producing a modern Rabbinic Jewish culture that functions in the modern world in a manner not entirely foreign to Christians with whom they share the modern world in most places where Jews have been found in the last twenty centuries.

How Do Muslims "Tame" Islamic Law?

Even Islamic law has been greatly "tamed" as the example of the Koran has been implemented in Islamic societies and communities, almost from the outset as an Islamic empire rapidly flourished after the death of Muhammad in the early 7th century.

For example, while Islamic law permits a man to take up to four wives at one time, the commentary and traditional of Islamic societies discourages polygamy, even though it does not prohibit it, for most men.  The Koran demands that a polygamous husband treat his wives equally, and the religious tradition that has emerged in Islam since the death of the Prophet Muhammad, has emphasized how difficult it is to practice equal treatment of multiple wives in daily life.

Various Islamic sects classified as "Shi'ite" can resort to clarifying pronouncements of Imans after the death of the Prophet, who those sects recognize as authoritative.  The mystical Sufi movement within Islam has provided an more humanist interpretive philosophical gloss that mutes the hard edges of Islamic law read strictly.  Islamic legal scholarship has found doctrinal "hooks" and implementation practices (such as options to pay blood money in lieu of death sentences, and extraordinarily high evidence standards) by which harsh Islamic law punishments are rarely meted out with the frequency that a naive reading of the Koran would suggest that we should expect in the majority of Islamic communities that are relatively less "fundamentalist." Some concepts, like the Islamic law requirement that women be "modest" in public, are extremely vague and are informed almost entirely by non-Koran tradition that has far more limited and less widespread and definitive authority.  In these cases, the presence of "standards" rather than "rules" provides flexibility that produces different practical outcomes in some communities than in others.

Big Issues

Why does all of this matter?

1.  The Future Of Islam.  A pivotal question in a wide variety of geopolitical contexts is whether it is possible to have Islamic societies that are less incompatible with global, modern norms of political economy that the Islamic monarchies, autocracies, and theocracies that are common place in much of the Islamic world today (or, for example, in the case of the Taliban in Afghanistan, in recent history).  This is really only possible if theological movements and cultural shifts within modern Islamic communities can "tame" fundamentalist visions of Islamic law to produce societies that function in ways that show sufficient decency and functionality as political and cultural systems to be livable and worth living in within the modern world.

If this is not possible (and a few notable examples like Turkey and Muslim communities in the United States and Europe suggest that it is) to "tame" Islamic law in the fashion discussed above, or if while possible it simply is not going to happen, then the logical choice for non-Islamic policy makers in the world is to suppress Islams and convert Muslims either to other faiths or to a secular ideology.

2. Reversibility.  Most Americans, most Latin Americans, and a great many Europeans are full participants in our modern global humanist democratic political culture who are nominally Christian in some form or another, but are lax in their observance which isn't very important to their identity.  But, even a very shallow religious identity provides a hook that can be activated to shift hearts and minds in the face of sudden controversies that come up.  Deep down, important parts of the Christian worldview are in the end analysis incompatible with modernity if you look more closely at it and are forced to explore the tension points.

Right now, nothing is forcing those people to chose and modern cultural ideas can infiltrate into people's consciousness and views of the world by osmosis without resistance, as a result.  But, even a very thin nominal affiliation to a religion can be powerful in an unexpected crisis where people have no strong preconceptions and the religion card is played.  The Christian worldview (or Jewish or Muslim or whatever) provides a reservoir a preferred ideas that can be drawn upon to influence people's decisions and perceptions in the future.

This lays a foundation for a possible reversal of progressive gains in policy and culture is some future crisis or shock leads people to question their more modern attitudes.  For example, nominal Christian worldviews, especially nominal Evangelical Christian worldviews, even if not lived very actively, could fuel a political movement to reverse gains for gay rights when some high profile media drama calls the correctness of that progress into question for a moment.

The Islamic fundamentalist political movement that is really less than half a century old, was made possible only because there was a wide but thin societal consensus in favor of Islam that was absent on almost any other ground in much of the world.  In the early 1970s, when the movement started to gain steam, this consensus was almost as thin as it was wide and people's daily lives and identity weren't nearly as conscious of an Islamic religious identity as it is now.  Whether practices of people's lived lives were Islamic or just cultural wasn't something people even really considered.  But, when Cold War conflicts, economic disruption and dissatisfaction with post-Colonial arrangements came to a head, even these thin and far from fundamentalist religious identities provides a reservoir of ideological commitments and sources of authority regarding ideal political economies that anti-Western leaders quickly learned to activate and mobilize to reverse gains in those societies in a Western and modern direction.  This reservoir of religious commitments, while thin, made it possible for modern, Western leaning progress in places like Afghanistan, Iran, and Lebanon to suddenly and dramatically reverse themselves when the forces backing that progress became unpopular.

We could easily see residual Christian religious affiliations of Christmas and Easter, Wedding and Funeral Christians in the U.S., mobilized at some point to roll back liberal gains on social issues over the past couple of decades such as gay rights, tolerance of atheists, relaxed attitudes toward legalized drugs, and more, given a sufficient flash point and skilled anti-progressive activists leading that charge.

3. Understanding Why People Change Religious Identity.  Some of what makes secular cultural identities seem attractive relative to Christian and Muslim and Jewish cultural identities to 21st century citizens of Earth, which has driven massive grass roots trends towards secularism in Europe and North America, is the absurdity of naive readings of religious laws in these faiths.  But, this straw man argument incorrectly frames the choice between "progressive" and tamed version of these faiths, and more fundamentalist version of them.

Also, manipulating perceptions of how people live their faiths in different traditions can drive conversions to and from religious faiths, and those conversions of whole worldviews are often more effective to reshape the views of society as a whole than trying to make changes within a rigidly settled cultural tradition.  If large numbers of people have already changed their cultural worldviews to something inconsistent with their formal religious identifications, the task of securing mass conversions becomes much easier once you can get the ball rolling.

For most people, questions about whether you should adhere to a religion are cultural choices, not logical or metaphysical or theological ones (although some more intellectually and theoretically oriented people like myself, who are unusual as individuals, do care a great deal about issues for which answers do lie in scripture)  What matters to someone considering adopting the Christian faith is not so much what is buried in a Bible that few people ever read cover to cover anyway, but how Christians in the particular denomination a person is considering adhering to, live their religious identity.  A tolerant and merciful gloss on a religion can tame a bigoted and wrathful collection of scriptures.

Many people on the left are alienated from Christianity in reaction to fundamentalist Christian expressions of that faith that are rare outside of certain regions in the United States and parts of Africa.  But, the may fail to appreciate or forget how other branches of Christianity, which are predominant in much of the world, may be a positive force for change in accord with their values elsewhere in the world, and how secular people elsewhere in the world may have non-religious ideologies and cultural views that are equally problematic to their progressive visions for the future.

In much of the developing world and Third World, secularism is a close handmaiden of authoritarian, militaristic, and old school conceptions of Soviet style communist or socialist worldviews and institutions, rather than the humanist democratic capitalist leftists who tend towards secular views in the United States and much of Europe.  Ideologies that they attribute to secularism may actually have little to do with religious identity in practice, but for the historical accidents of the world of their own daily lives.

4. Choosing Political Tactics.  An understanding of mainstream theological justifications for how people of faith actually live their lives in light of their faith's mandates is important to know what kind of rhetorical and political tactics are likely to be fruitful in debating political issues within the American political system.

Also, while the core of the reasoning expressed above is quite widely held, the authority of theological intermediaries in more fundamentalist expressions of Abrahamic faiths has been undermined among Christians, Jews and Muslims alike as the public has become more literate and educated.

Even if professors at Evangelical Christian seminaries recognize the absurdity of indiscriminately treating Old Testament law as authoritative in the modern world, many adults who practice those faiths and even ministers and religious organization leaders of those faiths haven't necessarily reached a point in their ongoing journey of understanding their own faith, where they have made the same realization.

On one hand, that means that as a matter of rhetorical tactics, they can be challenged credibly regarding whether their resort to these sources is really accurate in expressing the views of their own religious denomination (although this is hard to do as an outsider, particularly in the American context where freedom of religious conscious is personal and denominational authorities have no meaningful capacity to impose their beliefs unwillingly on others).

On the other hand, "no true Scotsman" arguments that "Islam is a peaceful religion", or that "Christians don't follow the Old Testament law" or that "Mormons have disavowed doctrines of polygamy and racial inferiority of blacks" need to be tempered with the fact that the lived faith of many adherents to these religions does fit the stereotypes and extremes, even if sophisticated mainline practitioners of these faiths do not share these views.

5.  Understanding The Economic Sources Of Religious and Cultural Values.  Students of history observe that cultural norms are often intimately associated with the predominant economic system of the society in which they emerged.  People in China which were traditionally fed with wheat and millet farming have different cultural norms than people who were in places traditionally fed by rice farming.  Places with a history of plough farming tend to have different laws and cultural features than those that traditionally had hoe farming.  Pastoralist societies, fishing based societies, terrestial hunter and gather societies, and "raiding" societies (usually temporary ones) tend to produce yet other sets of laws and values and cultures.

The evidence for an economic determinist model in which economic realities shape choices made in ethnogenesis processes as new cultures emerge which is then transmitted on for many generations long after the formative selective factors are no longer relevant, is quite strong, albeit a bit fuzzy.  It also allows us to see the lived cultures of various religions as something the evolves and is selected for in a non-random fitness conscious way, rather than randomly.

As one conducts that analysis, one can conclude that Islam in practice in much of the world still carries defining "culture of honor" features associated with herders societies, as did the Temple Judaism of the Hebrew Bible.  But, Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity are religious cultures that are among the first to emerge in more urban, settled, politically unified large empires.  It is worth the effort to come to a more accurate understanding of what economic roots the ideologies and values expressed in different faiths have, because misapprehending this reality can lead to major miscalculations about how societies and faiths will change in the future, and about how values that are part of an overall worldview are non-obviously related to each other.

This perspective allows us to understand why lived religious norms are similar or different between particular faiths, to take that into account when evaluating the relevance of those religious cultures for people today, and for predicting what kinds of religious or cultural frameworks are likely to emerge as a rapidly evolving culture is entering a new phase of ethnogenesis and understanding how those choices manifest, why, and how they persist.  Understanding the why behind a lived religious culture's elements also makes it possible to know how it may be changed and what causes the status quo to persist in the face of outside questioning.

Recent social science research shows that the process of changing people's opinions on matters integral to their larger worldview is entirely different from the way that people change their opinions in response to evidence on matters that are not central to their overall worldview.  Hence, in Europe, where the main Christian denominations accept evolution, factual presentations of evolution in schools reach little resistance and beliefs consistent with scientific evidence are widespread.  But, in the American South, where the main Christian denominations reject evolution in favor of a literal reading of the Book of Genesis, merely presenting evidence on the question doesn't make much of a dent in the widespread rejection of truth of this scientific fact, and change in views about this subject will only occur as people's whole worldviews are transformed.

If you can cause people to adopt new ideas on the "easy route" that applies to new ideas that aren't perceived as challenging someone's worldview in enough ways, before they realize that there is a conflict, these ideas that actually are in conflict with those worldviews when considered more thoughtfully, can provide leverage to flip someone over into a new worldview.  Getting the new ideas "under the radar" before the ideological immune systems of a person's worldview kick in, is a key political tactic in the "culture wars."

If new ideas can be presented in ways that don't challenge people's whole worldviews, they have a much greater chance of acceptance, than they would if the new ideas are at odds with the worldviews of the people to whom someone seeks to present the new ideas.

In the case of Islamic fundamentalism, economic determinism can help explain why it has not been "tamed" in most places to the same extent as Christianity and Judaism.  Some places, like Afghanistan where the Taliban emerged, Yemen, and the African Sahel where Boko Harem has emerged for example, are societies where the grass roots of society really are still full of pastoralists.  In many other places, oil wealth has removed the economic pressures that would otherwise powerfully encourage societies to modernize.  Oil money has subsidized pastoralist cultural practices that would otherwise have crumbled under the economic pressures of a modern middle class private sector enterprise based economy.  In places with less oil wealth where development has occurred via widespread business activity by middle class people, like Iraq and Egypt and Syria and Jordan and Turkey, fundamentalism was less extreme.  But, in places like Saudi Arabia, oil wealth has not only permitted dysfunctional pastoralist cultural features and values to persist.  It has also allowed these oil rich countries to finance the expansion of their own dysfunctional cultures (viewed in the context of the modern, non-oil economy) elsewhere (e.g. in the funding of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Islamic fundamentalist political movements and terrorist organizations around the poor, strife torn parts of the Islamic world like Yemen and Somolia and Mali).

Until Peak Oil hits and this economic means of subsidizing cultural stasis that no longer functions in the modern world is gone, there is little reason to expect Islamic cultures in these places to "tame" themselves.

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