the faith hope

an ongoing exploration of a thankless subject

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Location: Adelaide, Australia

Founding secretary of the Urbane Society for Sceptical Romantics, a club I take very seriously indeed.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

some stray comments re the Bible

one of nature's gentlemen - and he looks so Anglo-Saxon, too

As mentioned, I recently read Testament, an edited version of the bible. I'm also now reading The Message, a slangy Yank version of the New Testament, clearly designed to appeal to the young, comme moi.

My major motivation for reading this stuff is plain. I'm often faced with the claim, mainly but not always from believers, that the western world's morality is based on Christianity, or Judeo-Christianity. Now I know that people don't read philosophy much, but I occasionally do, and I've read some sophisticated and subtle probing of moral behaviour, language and the like from thinkers ranging from Plato and Aristotle to Peter Singer, which owe nothing much to Christianity. All this and my natural scepticism has made me wonder if Christianity, and the Bible in particular, has really had the moral impact that's claimed, pace the innumerable chapter-and-verse quotationers throughout the length and breadth of space and time.

There's very little systematic morality in the Old Testament. Obviously, many will except the Decalogue or Ten Commandments from this claim, and I'll examine that at another time (my first impression is that they were derived from earlier laws and that they aren't particularly original, reflective as they are of the attitudes and concerns of tribal groups of the time - some of them having near-universal application, others less so).

The New Testament is a very different set of texts, and for convenience I'll separate them roughly into the gospels and the Pauline writings. These latter I found v heavy going and soporific, and I'm mainly reading The Message to have another go at Paul, so I'll leave his work aside for the nonce. The gospels of course don't provide any logical ethical framework for living, instead they offer a handful of prophecies, wise saws and parables, many of them open-ended enough to allow a potentially infinite range of interpretations to fuel an infinite number of sermons to warm the innumerable flagstones of God's manifold houses throughout Christendom and beyond. It's possibly this body of written and spoken interpretation and rationalisation that's being unconsciously referred to when it's claimed that the west's morality is largely built on Christianity - and it might be that Paul's various letters constituted the first of these glosses.

As you might expect, I believe this says more about the human ability and compulsion to provide glosses than it says about the inherent wisdom or ethical value of the bible or gospels. All it takes is a few preferably ancient and mystic-fog-enshrouded texts with a bit more content to them than the phone book, and away we go. As to the parable form, so often lauded and held sacred by hot gospellers as if unique to their hero, some very cutting edge thinkers (eg Mark Turner) have argued that it predates language itself...

So I'm afraid I can't see what the fuss is about. Having said that, maybe it's a few simple, easily digestible remarks of a moral sort, remarks that constitute their only knowledge of the bible, even for many ardent believers, that makes the Christian message so potent - the meek shall inherit the earth, love thy neighbour, do unto others, turn the other cheek etc.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

would like to see some examples to back up what you say, without them your comments lack punch or the ring of truth, which is a pity. convert us!

11:36 PM  
Blogger Stewart said...

Examples of what?
As to 'converting you' (interesting use of plural - what group do you think you represent?), conversion is a revealing religious term. I don't think like that. Do you really imagine that not being convinced that a Jewish guy crucified a couple of thousand years ago, along with so many others, by a ruthless Roman regime, was the son of a being who created the universe, constitutes a kind of religious belief?

12:33 AM  

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