Sunday, December 30, 2007



Last evening, some friends and I were discussing how different people make different compromises in religious observance in a modern world. I know people, for example, who keep kosher at home, but don’t worry about it when they eat out — what we used to call “a kosher kitchen and a treyf stomach.” Of course, plenty of Catholics use birth control mechanisms — real ones. That sort of thing.

Some of these are simply choices that one makes: one knows that it’s not what one is “supposed to do,” but one opts for it anyway, as a way of adapting. But often it amounts to varying interpretations of “rules”.

An obvious example is the admonition against killing. Most of us will make an exception for self defense, or defense of one’s family. Some allow for the state to kill someone as punishment, while some don’t. It’s all a question of interpreting the meaning of the rule.

It’s what judges are assigned to do: they read laws, hear arguments, and decide how the laws apply to the case at hand, interpreting the law in the process. Usually, they use earlier interpretations as a basis for their own. Sometimes they branch out.

Of course, interpretations are opinions, not absolutes. And opinions differ.

The interesting thing is that when it comes to interpretations of religious texts and rules, people do tend to treat them as absolute. One seldom hears, “It’s my opinion that God doesn’t like [x], but others may disagree,” or “The Bible forbids [y], according to my interpretation.” We can read novels for school and analyze them in class. We can watch movies and talk over coffee about what they meant to us. Yet we claim to “know”, without question, the meaning of vague, archaically worded text that was written thousands of years ago.

I’m afraid I haven’t done very well at conveying last night’s discussion — it was more interesting than this. Sorry. I wish I’d had a scribe....


Ray said...

With regard to "interpreting" the bible, it is clear to me that people indeed do this: it's called cherry-picking. This technique is used to discover and quote those particular phrases that agree with their own views, regardless of context, and regardless of, well, anything really, except for bolstering their own opinions. A prime example, of course, is the book of Leviticus, wherein we are warned against consuming shellfish, wearing clothes made from differing materials, and, most famously, homosexuality (well, that is how some make their interpretation). All of these are, apparently, "abominations", and yet the only one that is quoted is the one that (apparently) rules against homosexuality.

Yes, cherry-picking is a wonderfully fulfilling pastime for these people.

Maggie said...

Another phrase is "cafeteria Catholicism." But how can you do it any other way? The bible is full of contradictions. Perhaps god's like the confused old uncle who mixes stories together and tells them differently every time. I don't understand how anyone can seriously consider the bible to be the word of a deity.

The only reason any of it works at all is because most of the values that people do pull out -- not killing and not stealing, for example, are moral values that are inherent to human beings. People need to realize this and ditch the silly supernatural justification.

The religious people I know are ashamed of their interpretations and make up excuses for them. "Father said I couldn't use birth control, but my children had health problems and I couldn't have more...," or "We were engaged to be married..." It's sad. I've always felt that organized religion retards people ethically. Now these two particular issues I think are very silly and even damaging -- of course people should use birth control, they should use it liberally and religiously ;-), and they also shouldn't be ashamed of premarital sex (as long as safe sex is happening). But other issues should be given more thought than the simple black and white interpretation you are supposed to draw from the bible. There also shouldn't be an idea of forgiveness, that committing a sin is okay if you feel bad and god forgives you. (You can see that I live in a predominantly Catholic area.)

It is hard to grow in a vacuum, and the shame of interpreting religious rules in a way you can live with causes people to hide their interpretations. It is definitely a case of the emperor's new clothes. I wish people would bring their interpretations out into the open so that first of all they could be healthier, and second so that they wouldn't be banded together. No, you are not all "Christians," because that means as many different things as there are people who call themselves that. Now let's all try to work together, "Christians" and those of us who aren't kidding ourselves, and come up with a healthy society.

Anonymous said...

I feel that the interpreting of the bible is up to each individual. In school, you get taught by a teacher to interpret a certain book a certain way, but there is no one who can fully help you understand and accept every concept of the bible. Not all members of a religion are going to agree with every aspect of that religion, but they accept one because it fulfills most of their beliefs.

The Ridger, FCD said...

Well, it's a bit difficult to accept something as "the word of God" without insisting (at least on the surface) that it doesn't have options.

Once you allow someone else's interpretation to be valid, what makes yours worth your life?