25 June 2008

Barack Obama's Biblical Literalism

"Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is ok and that eating shellfish is abomination? How about Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith?

Or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount - a passage that is so radical that it's doubtful that our own Defense Department would survive its application? So before we get carried away, let's read our bibles. Folks haven't been reading their bibles."

Barack Obama's (June 28, 2008) homily on following levitical injunctions literally mockingly suggests that some might believe that in order to be obedient, they must live under the law. (Orthodox Jews follow the injunctions about Kashrut, but that's another matter entirely.)
However, some Christian, Muslim and Jewish literalists do make that mistake: not distinguishing between dispensations--that is, the specific, limited historical contexts in which specific revelations were given. Blinded by historical amnesia fostered by societies in too much of a hurry to understand their pasts, some believers, and their opponents, read sacred texts ahistorically. What is commanded at Sinai, or in Medina, only makes sense, they think, if the believer obeys literally, without regard for the subsequent development of revelation or law.

In Mr. Obama's case, his characterization of belief in the Bible was designed to show the dangers of using the bible, or religion, as a guide for life. Religion, viewed this way, is atavistic; a digression from the social progress that to him characterizes the movement of history. However, he is right that such literalism is a danger posed by Scripture: without careful interpretation, the Bible can be easily misused.

Good scriptural exegesis is possible only if properly guided. Good hermeneutics is based on the recognition that what God commanded under certain historic conditions applied only to those specific conditions. Those conditions no longer exist, and therefore must be understood for the principles that they can give us to our particular circumstances. Thus, the majority of Jewish people reject the horrific idea that the Palestinians, like the Canaanites, should be annihilated. Rather, they understand that in this dispensation, in the final analysis, Israel must adhere to international law. Most Muslims do not believe that they personally must wage jihad against non-Muslims, but, based upon the historical experience of Islamic polities, recognize the principle of religious pluralism. Christians now oppose slavery, because they recognize that although it was socially acceptable in the past, it was always a moral transgression against humanity. We are no longer under the law: we can eat shellfish if we choose.

Yet we must never mock sacred scripture, even if it is not our own, but especially if it is. Playing fast and loose with religions and their faithful shows a fundamental lack of respect for our neighbors and our Maker. Polemics are fraught with danger when essentialist interpretations are deployed against cultures and peoples. Careful higher criticism, based on philology and history, literary analysis, and all the other tools available to scholars seeking to understand texts, is still the best way to interpret religious texts.