Sunday, August 7, 2011

(Non-)Conversations with Fundamentalists

What does it mean to be a Christian?  You may think that believing in the divinity of Jesus, accepting and trusting in Him as your Savior, and loving God with all your heart, soul, and mind would answer that.  That's what I had always believed.  Apparently I was wrong, at least according to fundamentalists.  In their view the punctum saliens of a "true" Christian is how hard you fight against "the gays" and their perceived agenda to destroy the Earth.

Christian fundamentalists are a very unique group of people.  They can be incredibly hard shells to crack in any debate or discussion.  The most likely outcome is for both sides to merely end up shouting at each others' hardheadedness, which isn't productive or beneficial to anyone.

I've been asked many times about what I think is the best way to have a fruitful discussion on gay rights with people who are very fundamentalist in their views.  Do you remember this line from the movie Avatar?:  "It is hard to fill a cup that is already full."  This can often be the case when speaking with fundamentalists (and I'm quite sure they say the same about those on the other side of the argument, too).

But before continuing, let's get our definitions clear so we know who we're talking about.  Every religious group on the planet has their fundamentalists - the most conservative believers in the bunch - and Christianity is no exception.

Fundamentalist Christianity essentially got its kick-start in the U.S. in the early 1900s, and really took off in 1920 in strong opposition to evolution, secularism, and liberalism, as well as in heated opposition to the "vexing moral issue" of that time:  interracial marriage.  Fundamentalists are also referred to as biblical Literalists, which I think is actually a better term, and is the one I will be using here.  They believe that the Bible is 100% literally true for all time and all places, and that it is absolutely without error.  Any other Christians who raise questions or study deeper into the Bible's historical, cultural, and linguistic contexts, are accused of watering-down or "twisting" the Scripture.

Biblical Literalists today focus much of their time and effort on fighting against abortion rights, gay rights, and any legal recognition for same-sex couples, as well as promoting so-called "Creation Science."  Baptists, Pentecostals, and Evangelicals of many non-denominational churches are largely Literalist.  While mainline Christian churches welcome modern ideas that science brings, Literalists are absolutely opposed.  (Though, ironically, the vast majority of them gladly benefit from advances that modern science has brought.)

This distrust of science arose from a knee-jerk reaction against evolutionary theory.  Today they feel that very little about science can be trusted or accepted if it challenges their literal interpretation of biblical verses.  They believe they are "holding the line" and "defending biblical truths."

I can't Hear you with my Fingers in my Ears

If one thing can be said about Biblical Literalists, it's that they are tenacious.  I don't mean that in a bad way.  Tenacity can be a good quality.  Stubbornness, however, is not.

It is difficult to talk with a Literalist about gay rights because it is difficult to talk with a Literalist about homosexuality.  Homosexuality is hurdle number one.  If they are not willing to concede that the myriad complexities of human sexuality are far more diverse than "this is black and this is white," then they will never be able to see the need for anti-discrimination protections, let alone couples' benefits.

To them the situation truly is black and white:  all people are born straight; anything that deviates from that norm is sin; sexual orientation (except for heterosexuality, of course) is merely a choice - a choice that needs to be corrected through prayer and counseling lest it sends you to hell.  Period.

The main problem, in my experience, is that Literalists enter the conversation already assuming that they're right and that they have all the answers.  The "cup that is already full" phenomenon.  You cannot discuss with someone who does not really want to discuss.  You can only listen, which is essentially what they want.  They want to do the talking, to show you you're in the wrong, and then heal you of your malfunction.  If you speak your mind, become argumentative, or challenge their beliefs, many will inform you that you've been blinded by the world or that you're twisting the Scriptures.  If you're a Christian, they'll graciously inform you that you're not a real, true Christian -- because only real, true Christians think the way they think.  There is no middle ground with most Literalists.  It's their way, which is the only way, or no way at all.

As an example, J. Robertson McQuilkin, President of Columbia Bible College in South Carolina, USA, says that "When the teaching of Scripture conflicts with any other idea, the teaching of Scripture will be accepted as truth and the other idea will not.  The other idea, regardless of its support from empirical research, will not be accepted as truth."

In other words, if the facts do not fit the Bible, they must be reinterpreted until they do.  The notion of reinterpreting facts to make them fit a predetermined outcome is what we in science call unethical.

When someone takes such a doctrinaire approach to faith, without being willing to accept that he may be wrong, it becomes very easy to believe that he knows what is right for everyone else as well.  When he believes he knows what is right for everyone else, it is a very short leap to the feeling that he has the right, if not the responsibility, to impose on others the point of view he is so sure is not only correct, but even infallible.  After all, it's for their own good, is it not?

A Literalist's version of a conversation
It is incredibly hard to have a conversation with someone who thinks like this.  For most Literalists there really is no interest in hearing what you have to say, what scholars have to say, or what science has to say.  It all means nothing because they have three or four verses that they've plucked from the Bible, and they take those verses literally.  To them, these are not debatable.  They already know they're right and there is no convincing them otherwise.

How do you reason with a person like that?  Honestly, you cannot.  I assure you it's a futile effort.

This becomes even more true because Literalists believe that each and every word of the Bible was communicated to the writers directly from God, just as it is in its present form.  Therefore, any perceived condemnation of homosexuality represents "God's opinion," and has nothing to do with the social values of the time it was written, or of the authors' personal or cultural biases.  This is one of the reasons Literalists repeatedly say things like, "I'm not condemning you, it's God Himself who is condemning you.  I'm just telling you what God has said about it," or "We love the sinner but hate the sin."

That last statement is one of the all time favorites of the Literalists.  Amazingly, they actually believe that LGBTs will interpret such a statement as one of love and grace.  For LGBT persons, however, it is hypocrisy that cuts deeply.

Science today is showing us what LGBT people have known for a very long time:  their sexual orientation is not a choice or a preference, but is in fact a deep-seeded and innate orientation.  It is insensitive and unchristian to say to a gay man or lesbian or bi or transgender "I love you but I hate your sin," because, to Literalists, an LGBT person's very orientation is a sin.  An LGBT person cannot separate their orientation from their personhood, just as a straight person cannot separate their orientation from theirs.  You are what you are, whether you're in a relationship or whether you're celibate.  If one's sexual orientation is a sin, as Literalists believe in the case of LGBTs, then to hate the sin is to also hate the person.  Literalists do not see this, however, and expect LGBTs to repent with heartfelt thanks when they're told "I love you but I hate your sin."

When dealing with a street preacher, the very best thing you can do is ignore him. He wants a confrontation, that's what he's there for. Take the high ground - deny him the argument.
Literalists also believe that homosexuals, along with liberals, feminists, abortionists, and Hollywood, are in league with Satan to destroy the nations.  Because of these views, most Literalists believe they must fervently oppose equal rights for gays and lesbians.  They see it as a battle front in a literal war against Good and Evil.  Remember, they're the good ones on God's side, and everyone else is evil and on Satan's side.  They literally and deeply believe this.

I too have been accused by Literalists of twisting the Scriptures.  It doesn't bother me on a personal level, but I do think it's sad that when anyone merely studies the hotly debated so-called "gay verses" and offers exegetical analysis, they are shot down as heretics or people who willfully want to destroy God's Word.  As a Christian myself I certainly do not seek to destroy anything, let alone the Bible.  Study of the biblical texts (something that Christians are actually told to do in 2 Timothy) does not damage them, twist them, harm them, or add to or take away from them -- it simply studies them.

This "twisting the Scriptures" notion is a knife that cuts both ways, though, for one could just as easily accuse Literalists of doing some twisting of their own.  They cling to dogmatic translations of words that do not carry the same meanings in ancient Hebrew and Greek.  Studying the texts in their original language actually works to de-twist things that have become twisted through centuries of language-on-language translation, interpretation, and re-translation.

As theologian, professor of psychology, and psychotherapist Daniel Helminiak says, the Literalist branch of Christianity maintains its antagonistic teaching about homosexuality only by systematically ignoring all the counter-evidence.  It is not a reasonable or coherent position.  It is a mistaken belief from a bygone age that refuses to die, a superstition that refuses to succumb to reason.

The best advice I can give if you're ever in a "discussion" with a Literalist:  Do not argue and do not try to convince them of anything.  Their position is impervious to argument.

You cannot bring up scientific research on the hypothalamus or hormonal influences in the womb, because they dismiss it.  It means nothing to them.  You cannot bring up constitutional rights and equal guarantees, because their misinterpreted verses from the Bible are higher than any constitution, and most believe that the Bible is what should set the laws of the land in the first place.  You cannot bring up the fact that homosexuality and same-sex pair bonding is found throughout the animal kingdom, because they consider it irrelevant due to their belief that humans are so very different from animals, even though, biologically, we are not.  You cannot bring up the linguistic context of verses, because they say you're twisting the Scripture.

The very best that you can do is to limit the discussion to the general topic of how one determines the meaning of biblical texts.  This general topic opens into a discussion of history, and that is what needs to be addressed before any talk of individual texts can be fruitful.

An Historical Example in Perspective

The ancient world was vastly different from the world we know today.  There was no modern understanding of sexual orientation.  In the Roman world, for example, it made little difference who an adult male citizen had sex with, as long as he was the one "on top," i.e. the one doing the penetrating.  The gender of the person he was penetrating was inconsequential; only the person's status or "social station" mattered.  Manliness and masculinity were not determined by whether or not a man slept with women, it was determined by whether or not a man was always the one doing the penetrating.

It was a world where male slaves were kept by free male citizens as sexual pets.  A pagan world where temples were staffed by priests, priestesses, and ritual prostitutes who often incorporated sex into their worship - usually non-procreative anal sex.  It was a world where the soldiers of vanquished armies were often anally raped by the soldiers of the conquering army - not out of lust or attraction, but out of power - because it shamed the defeated army, it "put them in their place," and it drove home the point that they were now to be submissive to their conquerors.  One such example is the Eurymedon vase (460 BCE), to the left, showing an Athenian soldier with erect penis in hand on one side, approaching a defeated Persian soldier who is bent over in submission on the other side.

This is the cultural backdrop of the time when the Bible was written.  Old Testament times weren't much different from New Testament times, except for the fact that Egypt, rather than Rome, was the superpower.  It is insurmountably important to understand such things because it puts texts into the context of the time and place in which they were written.  For us to read "you shall not lie with a male the lyings of a woman; it is an abomination" as a stand alone, and assume that it carried the exact same contextual meaning in the 11th-century BCE as it carries for us in the 21st-century CE, is incredibly careless.

This verse (Leviticus 18:22) is part of the Levitical purity code, which was written for the Israelites only, instructing them not to do the pagan rituals that their neighbors did for their gods.  These included child sacrifice, having sex with animals, and ritualistic male-male anal sex, all of which are described as to'evah (translated 'abomination').  This Hebrew word, to'evah, means "idolatrous taboo" and was used in connection with pagan ritualism.  The word zimmah, which means "moral sin" or purposeful wickedness, was not used in this verse.  (Zimmah was used, for example, in references to adultery, incest, and murder.)  This is a very important distinction, yet modern translations simply say "abomination," conjuring up sinful disgust and total forbiddance.

All three of those acts, by the way, were routinely practiced as religious ordinances by all of Israel's pagan neighbors.  People would place infants in the arms of a statue of the god Molech, and flames would burn the child alive.  Both men and women would have ritualistic sex with bulls and rams, symbols of strength and fertility.  And male worshipers would have ritualistic anal sex with consecrated priests and/or male temple prostitutes who often wore female robes, perfume, and a mask of the goddess Ashtoreth.  The semen, which was thought to be the essence of life, was consecrated as an act of worship to the gods, and ensured that the male worshipers would have fertile crops, as well as many children with their wives and concubines.  The Canaanite word for male priest actually meant "anal womb," and the Sumerian cuneiform symbols for male priest were penis + anus.  The terracotta relief pictured to the right (from 2,000 BCE) was found near the birthplace of Abraham, and depicts a man penetrating a male priest in ritual sex.

This also became a problem within Israel itself, and the Old Testament references the qadeshim, or "holy ones," who were males consecrated to the service of the gods for sexual rites.  The Israelites began absorbing the religious rites of the surrounding cultures, which they were instructed not to do in Leviticus, so much so that they began accepting Ashtoreth as "the wife of God," and "holy ones" became available for ritual sex.  Qadeshim is incorrectly translated as "sodomites" in Deuteronomy 23:17 and five other places in the Old Testament, but that is far too generalized for a word with such a specific meaning.  It means, in fact, male temple prostitutes.  It is the male version of qadeshah, or female ritual harlot, which it often appears side by side with in these verses.

This cultic religious practice is a substitution of the male body for a female body in male to male idolatrous sexual activity (i.e. lying with a male as with a woman).  It is not homosexuality, but cultic, ritualistic, sexual behavior as practiced by the pagan religions of the day.

That is why a proper understanding of history, culture, and language is vitally important.  We must understand the context of verses in order to properly apply them:  who wrote them, when they were written, and to whom they were written.  It is inappropriate and dangerous to simply pluck out individual verses here and there, removing them from their context, and then hoist them up as proof of what we in the 21st-century think they literally mean.  That is called eisegesis, an interpretation that expresses the interpreter's own ideas or bias, rather than the actual contextual meaning of the text.  We must be wiser than that.

Actually, we already employ such an historical-critical reading with many verses in the Bible, and rightfully so.  Because we apply context we no longer condone slavery1, we no longer forbid women from speaking in church or wearing jewelry2, we have stopped stoning women who aren't virgins on their wedding night3, and we no longer forbid interracial marriage4.  The verses that condone and even proscribe these things, and many others, are simply ignored today, even by Literalists.  Yet when it comes to the very few verses that refer to some form of same-sex behavior, Literalists insist that they must be interpreted broadly and literally, word for word, for all time.  Most of us (outside of the Vatican and the Philippines at least) also apply context to the verses regarding divorce.

On some level everybody knows that there are some things in the Bible that aren't meant to be applicable to all people at all times.  Otherwise, we're all in a lot of trouble because nobody follows every single Old Testament law.  And as Paul said, anyone who puts themselves under any one point of the Law obligates themselves to keep the whole Law, otherwise they are guilty of violating the whole Law (Gal. 5:3).

If Literalists would only be honest and admit some doubt about the causes of homosexuality and sexual orientation, it would at least be possible to have a discussion with them.  If they would only acknowledge the facts, they would at least be crediting the evidence and countless hours of peer-reviewed scientific research.  If they could only admit that they might be wrong about something they think they are right about, it would at least show a measure of maturity.  But they do not.

They claim to have all the answers and are unwilling to listen to anything or anyone else.  They seem to think that, because they hold something as true, it is true, period, and no one should dare call it wrong.  Such stubbornness among Literalists in the past has caused undue oppression of racial minorities, women, and mixed-race couples, and the same is happening today in the case of LGBT persons and same-sex relationships.

(Comments may be posted in the field below.)

Footnotes:
1. Leviticus 25:44-46; Exodus 21:20-21; Deut. 20:14, 21:10-14; Ephesians 6:4-6; Colossians 3:22, 4:1; Titus 2:9; 1 Peter 2:18
2. 1 Cor. 14:34; 1 Timothy 2:12; regarding jewelry: 1 Peter 3:1-6; 1 Timothy 2:9
3. Deut. 22:20-21
4. Acts 17:24-26; Deut. 7:3, 23:2; 32:8; Gen. 10:5, 28:1; Num 12:1.  These verses were used to "protect morality" and enact anti-interracial-marriage laws in Nazi Germany, apartheid-era South Africa, and in the U.S. from its colonial days up until 1967.  Fully 41 states had such marriage bans, and the laws in 15 states specifically listed Asians and/or Filipinos as being forbidden to marry or be intimate with white persons.  While not specifically outlawing them, other Western nations (e.g. Canada) typically disapproved and greatly discouraged mixed-race marriages in the past, fearing moral decay and family breakdown.

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