Thursday, October 06, 2016

Getting It Backwards

Christian response on the Internet to the ongoing refugee/immigration issue reminds me how easy it is to get things backwards.

This is not the first time it has happened, and it won’t be the last.

First, there was a barrage of pro-immigration posts at various websites that buttressed their arguments with what appeared to be supportive proof texts: we were to be “Good Samaritans”; we were to “welcome the sojourner”; we are “all one in Christ”. The writers of these pieces moved swiftly from cursory proof to immediate and morally-imperative action: “Here’s how you can help, Christians!”

And some of us did.

The Second Wave

Then, as the number of “refugees” multiplied across Europe and North America (and, yes, some were refugees, but many were, and are, simply migrants of convenience), and as some of the difficulties associated with attempting to instantly assimilate millions of new citizens from vastly different cultures began to hit the media (not to mention that the astonishing scope of the problem began to sink in for many who had taken this to be a short-term, single-country crisis), we were inundated with a second wave of scripture references that pointed us in a different direction entirely.

This second wave of Internet commentary set many of the original “supportive” verses and parables back in their original contexts, where they suddenly began to appear much less supportive, got modified and qualified, or were demonstrated to be completely irrelevant to the mass-immigration issue. For instance, somebody actually stopped to define “sojourner” biblically before using it as an argument for the conferring of instant citizenship and privileges. Somebody else stopped to ask whether there might not be neighbours in need of a Good Samaritan a little bit closer to home. Another raised the legitimate question of whether God really expects largely-secular democracies to govern themselves on the basis of laws provided to history’s only genuine theocracy. Yet another pointed out that the pro-immigration gang were failing to distinguish between believers and unbelievers with their “all one” argument. Suddenly what had appeared morally certain and the obvious right thing to do became a little more ambiguous.

What’s a concerned Christian to do? Really?

Approaching the Question in Reverse

Now, when I say it’s easy to get things backwards, I’m not talking about either side of this issue, or about who’s right and who’s wrong. Rather, what’s really backwards is the way such a question is approached in the first place.

The second wave of biblical “scholarship” treated the scripture a little bit more reverently and precisely than the first wave, but both waves were the product of intense emotional reactions: one, to the horrors of deprivation and death; the other to the horrors of ineffective assimilation and cultural conflict. Both sets of Internet pundits started with their agenda first, and consulted scripture only after the fact (primarily because it was the most effective way to gather support from a particular demographic).

But the question of which verses apply to any given issue is not an emotional one. A verse or passage either legitimately has something to say about a subject or it does not, as the case may be. To the objection “That depends on your hermeneutic” [a hermeneutic being one’s method of interpretation], I would say this: While we have an obligation to follow our consciences before God according to the best information we have before us, and while all Christians have some interpretive “default settings” that are better than others, at the end of the day only one answer to any question is objectively correct; the rest must be varying degrees of wrong. It’s even possible that no answer currently under consideration is correct: that happens all the time.

What is absolutely impossible is for two opposite interpretations to BOTH be correct. ‘A’ and ‘Not-A’ cannot simultaneously be true. And since, at least in theory, Christians are seekers after truth and not propagandists working in the service of non-stop confirmation of our own biases, it should bother us that we are so easily galvanized into action by an emotional appeal and a few highly dubious proof texts.

Emotional Distance

The safest way to find truth is to maintain an emotional distance.

I remember being told as a teenager that the time to figure out what I believed about controversial relationship issues — pre-marital sex, abortion, men’s and women’s roles, and so on — was before I had anything personal at stake. Nothing makes it so difficult to interpret scripture accurately as coming to it with an emotionally-based preconception about what we would like God’s word to tell us.

There is wisdom in approaching all controversial subjects this way: to tackle them with a concordance, discussion and prayer long before they ever become crises.

Devil’s Advocacy

Now of course this is not always possible. Not every source of social, personal or spiritual conflict is immediately apparent. In many cases we find that we have never thought about an issue at all until it appears as a full-blown catastrophe right in front of our faces, and it may well end up that we find ourselves struggling with very strong feelings about what we would LIKE the Bible to say.

This is where playing devil’s advocate can be a tremendously healthy exercise. Rather than uncritically accepting the first two or three bits of bias-confirming evidence in support of your thesis, try putting yourself in the shoes of the other side and start dismantling your own argument. My father was (and remains) an expert at this: no cherished spiritual fabrication goes unchallenged with contrary evidence in his presence.

Dare to come up with your theory first, and a lifetime of scriptural counter-testimony is launched in your direction.

The Google Solution

The ideal, of course, is neither the disinterested concordance approach nor devil’s advocacy.

Googling ourselves a pseudo-Christian solution to the Problem of the Week is a relatively new phenomenon. I cannot picture one of the psalmists engaged in the sort of flyweight theological puttering that characterizes much of our online use of the word of God.

A psalmist’s knowledge of scripture was holistic. It did not depend on his ability to find a keyword and search for it in a database:
“I have stored up your word in my heart,
     that I might not sin against you.
I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways.
I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word.”
All scripture is profitable. Singling out a verse here and there because a search engine or commentary suggests they have something in common with our area of interest does not mean we are guaranteed to misinterpret every time. We may well happen to read it correctly. But a man marinated in the scripture never runs such a risk in the first place. He has little difficulty discerning the mind of God on any particular subject. He doesn’t come to the Bible as a reference volume but as an integrated whole.

True wisdom is found in letting the whole Bible speak, not just ten words that appear to justify our case.

And maybe that takes a lifetime.

Letting Scripture Have Its Say

In the absence of a lifetime of learned wisdom, however we find our way to letting the truth come out — whether by keeping our emotional distance or by learning to see an issue from the other side — scripture must be allowed to have its say. As Proverbs says:
“If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.”
Plotting one’s next move before really drilling down and understanding what the word of God has to say about it has got to be at least equally unprofitable.

When, with some emotional distance, we go to the Bible to find out everything it says on a subject, trusting that — because it is the inspired word of God — there is consistency and harmony there to be found, we are in a position to prayerfully analyze all the data and perhaps, by the grace of God, find our way a little closer to the truth about it.

But when we go to the Bible seeking ways to convince others of something about which we have already entirely made up our minds, the tail is wagging the dog. Often it’s a small tail and very large dog, by which I mean that our current opinion has almost nothing to support it, while the potential consequences of spreading our erroneous views are much more significant than we realize.

Either way, we have the process backwards.

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