Nature of Scripture: Part 3: Scripture as Subversion

File:Jacob Wrestling with the Angel by Leon Bonnat.jpg

Scripture as Subversion: A God To Wrestle With

The crucifixion of Jesus Christ is perhaps the greatest of all subversive stories. It profoundly subverts the authority of the Jewish rulers and of the Roman yoke. It brings into question the justice of criminal law. It subverts reliance on the righteousness of Peter or the other apostles who abandoned their Lord to the mob. It even subverts reliance on any perceived right to feel close to God if one is doing his will, for Christ felt himself abandoned. It casts down the idols of man’s authority, justice, righteousness, and peace (among others), and sets in their place the image of the tortured God-man whose broken heart is still set on his Father’s will.

God is a creator. He laid the foundations of the earth. His work is constructive, not deconstructive. But he is so relentless in purpose and so faithful in his vision of what he wills that he will fiercely cast down all idols, even by torture (e.g., that of his Son). He is the God who took away the gift of language from the builders in Babel, who prophesied that because his people rejected the true foundation, the foundations of the temple and the walls of his city would be torn down until not one stone was left sitting on another.

Lamentations 2:4 He hath bent his bow like an enemy: he stood with his right hand as an adversary, and slew all that were pleasant to the eye in the tabernacle of the daughter of Zion: he poured out his fury like fire.

God is not an antifoundationalist, but is the inveterate enemy of all false foundations that obstruct his building plans. There is therefore a strong streak of iconoclasm (“idol-breaking”) through the scriptures.

Every age has its idols. One of the purposes of scripture is to break them down. One of the chief idols that devours men’s souls in every age is gold, and to every age the scriptures teach that “ye cannot serve God and mammon.” To an age that glorified the warrior above all heroes, the scriptures taught that a king of conquest was not permitted to build the Lord’s house. To an age that idolized rationalism, the scriptures breathed a “peace that passeth understanding,” and taught that “knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifyeth.” To a culture obsessed with the oral traditions that had accreted onto the law of Moses, the scriptures taught a higher law, summarized as radical love and forgiveness.

Our age has its idols too, as do each one of us who persist in sinning. (To sin is by definition to place something above God and his laws.)

Among the idols of our age are equality, tolerance, autonomy, and free expression. These ideals, properly understood and deployed, can accomplish good. But to the degree that any of them become an excuse for sinning or even for failing to reject sin, they are by definition idolatrous. And to our shame they are used in this manner constantly.

Insofar as each person and each age have their idols, the scriptures set themselves against us as an enemy. Like Jacob wrestling with the angel, it is not without a long and painful struggle that we obtain the Lord’s blessing, and some part of us will be pulled out of joint. But the result will be that we become worthy inheritors of Israel’s name (“to struggle and prevail with God”).

The struggle is not one of servile submission—a wrestle would be a supremely inapt metaphor for such a struggle. There is give and take, as in a lengthy wrestling match. God has not given us reason and judgment just so that we can sacrifice them on the pagan alter of fundamentalism. This too is an idolatry that will lead a man to damnation if he will not repent of it. The wrestle with God afforded us in the scriptures is in large measure an effort of clear thinking and careful, whole-souled discernment. The wrestle enables us to interpret our lives, our age, and the sacred texts in a correct manner; and while we would do well to hold the text in higher regard than their own instincts or received wisdom, nothing is properly sacrosanct except Elohim (“the Gods”).

The uncharacteristic honesty of psychology concerning reparative therapy

therapy session

On September 14, 2015 a team of professors published a paper. The paper came out after a series of exposés revealed a general unreliability in the “science of psychology.” There were a number of high-profile replication failures, a few fraud cases, and questionable research practices. People were beginning to ask whether or not psychological research and conclusions could be trusted. The team observed that the field of psychology was almost entirely liberal and that the lack of political diversity was actually leading to a lack in scientific accuracy.

The scientists who published the paper were well known and respected, many of them holding liberal sentiments themselves. Yet they believed they could show how the lack of ideological diversity was interfering with the research. And what’s more, this interference was creeping into other fields as well. The result of this creep, they worried, would not only be less reliable research but, perhaps worst of all, a lack of respect, trust, and funding for future research. Their fears are being realized as funding for the social sciences is increasingly under threat from conservatives in congress as well as the National Science Foundation—which proposed cutting its own social science budget by 11% this year. Political discussions are less and less grounded in agreed upon facts because studies can be quickly dismissed as politically motivated, which is sadly often the case.

What these scientists hoped to show is that the field of psychology has some culpability in the current state of affairs. To restore the faith of the masses, they believed psychology would need to work much harder to avoid political entanglements, to stifle ideological homogeneity, and Continue reading

Autonomy as Enslavement

Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites . . . . It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.

–Edmund Burke, Letter to a Member of the National Assembly

I have written several essays critiquing contemporary liberal values such as equality, tolerance, and diversity. This adds to the number.

Autonomy too is a poor ideal to live by. It fails in roughly the same way as “equality,” which is incoherent if it means anything other than the semi-tautological and completely unhelpful proposition that we should “treat likes alike,” as I have argued elsewhere, though it is taken to mean much more, to the confusion of our political discourse. In the same way, there is a huge gap between the proper philosophical definition of “autonomy” and its popular meaning. “Autonomy” can mean mere unconstrainedness (lawless liberty, which is the popular meaning) or conscientiousness (following the law generated by one’s own conscience, the proper philosophical definition). Continue reading

In Defense of Dogmatism

Amazon’s “look inside” feature has preserved intact a perfect little essay from the book, “Things That Are,” by Amy Leach. I have met Amy Leach–I even hiked in Provo’s beautiful Rock Canyon with her, her husband, and my personal essay class, courtesy of Patrick McMadden, my essay teacher, who I think was involved in getting her to come out to BYU and read from her book during BYU’s Friday Reading Series. If you will follow the above link, use the “look inside” feature, and search the word “hoopoe,” you will find a complete, lovely, and very short essay titled “God.”

In this essay, Amy Leach points out that men take the name of God in their mouths, but they do not speak God’s words. “They say it pleases him, to say his name incessantly. They sing it in songs and chant it together and broadcast it loudly on the radio, on signs. Perhaps it pleases him. I do not know. It does not please me.”

These iterations of his name are totally different from his words. God’s words, according to this essay, are his creatures, who “mount up with wings or leap through brambles or swim blackly in ponds.”

I find this essay utterly charming, like the rest of the book, but I also find something lacking in the treatment of how men speak God’s name. Continue reading

Reconciling Religion and Politics in Post-Obama America

church and state

Hakim’s car smelled faintly of cigarette smoke, but it was clean and he greeted me warmly. Hakim was an African-American man with a raspy voice and a slight southern accent. This was my first experience riding Lyft, and it was a pleasant one. He asked me about my work and told me about his—he recently retired as a parole officer, and drives for Lyft on the weekends. Our conversation eventually turned to politics. I didn’t know what to expect. In the wake of an election that had been described as a “whitelash,” I wanted to tread carefully. I tried to say things that would assure Hakim that I understood something about the racial tensions that were unsurfaced and aggravated during and in response to the election. I wanted him to know that I appreciated President Obama and that I had not supported Trump’s candidacy. I was surprised when he said, “You know, I had a real hard time with this election. I actually voted Republican in the last two. Just couldn’t bring myself to vote for Obama. Religious reasons, you know? I had the same problem with Hillary. But Trump?” The way he said “Trump,” sliding into a raspy falsetto, made me laugh. That and my surprise: a middle-aged, middle-class African-American man voting for McCain and Romney rather than Obama, due to religiously-motivated objections (to gay marriage and abortion, as it turned out). Serendipitously, perhaps, our destination was a church. As I got out, he said, “God bless, my friend.”

I know that people of color are not monolithic, just as I recognize that many are forced to uncomfortable compromises when voting, trying to participate within a system that has often explicitly discouraged their participation, voting for what seems to be the lesser of two evils and the least likely to provoke direct harm to them and their loved ones. It is very likely that Hakim is not consistently conservative. But in a defining moment of American politics, he voted Republican. I’ve often wondered which candidate he voted for in 2016.  He never told me, but apparently it wasn’t a particularly straightforward question for him. Continue reading

Against Chronological Snobbery: The Lightweight Modern Values of Equality, Tolerance, and Diversity

Question the Answers by walknboston, on Flickr
Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/walkn/3526522573/

In my last “Against Chronological Snobbery” essay I introduced the debate between the “progressive” view of American history (that America’s history has been one of clear moral progress) and the “non-progressive” view (that it hasn’t—i.e., that the question is at least subject to debate). I endorsed the latter position. Representing the “progressive view” was Justice Kennedy’s Obergefell opinion, together with Justice Marshall’s assertion that the founders lacked any remarkable degree of wisdom, and that the greatness of the Constitution is its more recent embrace of equality and individual rights. Representing the “non-progressive” view was Justice Robert’s dissent in Obergefell and Justice Scalia’s dissent in U.S. v. Virginia, both of which included a scathing rebuke of the majorities’ chronological snobbery.

In this essay, I hope to continue my attack on the “progressive” view by assaulting one of its citadels—the self-satisfaction of contemporary mainstream culture with regard to its own value system.

Continue reading