On Reading the Bible and Other Matters

I felt a bit of trepidation in engaging our guest Atheist Max on this site. My observation of him at RNS was that he was a persistent, if not aggressive poster. Some of you readers offered caution as well.

I do feel a degree of obligation to dialogue. I would wish it for myself, recalling the insults I’ve been dealt as a person who does not think with the mind of many Catholics online.

Max appears to struggle with words and events in the Bible, or at least, seems to assume these are problems for others. I think this statement is illustrative:

But that does not solve these problems because as a Christian you MUST accept SOME of the Bible as literally true. That is what I was trying to point out to you.

Call me post-modern, but while I can accept the Bible as “truth,” it does not mean I am compelled to accept all of it, or even any of it, as “literally true.” I am a traditionalist in the sense that being a disciple means more to orthopraxis than to orthodoxy. In other words, it about how I respond to God. Not so much the words I absorb about God.

So when Matthew writes about people waking from the dead and walking through Jerusalem, it is not important as a literal fact. Not at all. Decisions about accepting this literally or symbolically are indeed in the hands of a reader, a seeker, or a believer. But this is not what Christianity is about. Christianity is about the Beatitudes, about personal transformation, about following Christ, and embracing reform and renewal in ones life as a response to the initiative of God. The Bible may be a tool that helps me. But it is not an idol.

I appreciate that an atheist like Max has passion, and wishes to engage others on some personal level. I don’t intend my laughter–chuckling is likely more accurate–to be insulting or dismissive. I think about the discussions I’ve had with fundamentalists among Catholics and Protestants over the years. It’s actually funny to be accused of the sorts of things I’ve criticized in others. If I’ve really deluded myself, the laughter may well be directed to me.

And yet:

Yet you say I am a fool to not love this guy.

I said no such thing. People like Max are free to read the Bible carefully, and look for all sorts of errors, inconsistencies, contradictions, an such. They will not find in the pages of a book what I have found as the foundation of my Christian faith. They will not gain traction by insisting Christians think as they do, or in misrepresenting what we say.

Ask more questions, by all means.

But keep in mind that this blog is not about a two-person conversation. I have other tasks here and in my life off the computer. This is not about finding Eighty-three Biblical Inconsistencies and throwing them at a Christian like one would bail a sinking ship.

My friend Max declined suggestions to conduct this conversation by email. I can only conclude he didn’t take me seriously, or that he prefers to have an audience. (Those who believe in trolls likely think the latter.) I’m unwilling to turn this web site over to such an enterprise. Personal conversations are the proper sphere for dialogue. Not contests in who is more rational, or who can shovel water faster.

Without your answers, I am left with nothing but an impression that you and your religious crowd have accepted on some strange authority that a violent monster is okay with you – and you don’t mind this.

Speaking for myself, I don’t have any control over what people might read into my good intentions. Speaking of God as a “violent monster” is emotional language, and a gross exaggeration. There are no human behavior manuals that will tell a person not to write their objection to faith in this form. It’s something one learns from socialization.

When one wants to get a reaction out of another, one uses audacity to get noticed. That’s all this is. I advise us all to treat with deep, deep skepticism people who say a lot of things about things they criticize. Often they say very little about their own beliefs. Why would we listen to those who reject the very things they reject? Max strikes me as less an atheist and more an anti-religionist.

Max wrote, “I’m leaving with an even emptier bag than I came in with.” I never got the impression the bag was for anything except to deposit a lot of stuff. But I’m still willing if you want to write me personally and ask your questions. Once a day on this site is enough for me.

Max wrote:

When “Love thy neighbor” means ‘save their soul’ that is a recipe for conflict which religion can only fuel. Am I wrong?


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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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10 Responses to On Reading the Bible and Other Matters

  1. Atheist Max says:

    “Speaking of God as a “violent monster” is emotional language, and a gross exaggeration….
    When one wants to get a reaction out of another, one uses audacity to get noticed. That’s all this is.”

    Well I disagree with that.
    Is God not an endorser of slavery? Did he not build the conveyor belt upon which Humanity is poised for a one-way trip to Hell? The emotion is not coming from my words but from the claims themselves.

    It is God who wants to get noticed. And the people who claim him to be real.

    • Todd says:

      To answer your questions, no and no.

      My assessment of your approach to God and believers is like a student journalist or inexperienced debater. You haven’t yet plumbed the depth of your attempted topic, and you’re just scratching the surface. I think you realize the reaction you evoke in people. And I think that, deep down, it’s the person who posts multiple times on a post on a Christian site is the one trying to get noticed.

      I notice you, Max, but I don’t bow, clap, or approve.

      • Atheist Max says:

        Todd, you said:
        “I look at something in the Bible, even supposedly endorsed by God, and I can say: this is wrong. I don’t harm God by saying it.”

        How do you choose what you accept of ‘god’s word’ and what you reject?
        How do you not call yourself AUTHOR?
        How do you avoid anointing yourself as the AUTHORITY over the Bible?

        How is that different from me?
        As an Atheist I accept the ancient preachment of the Golden Rule in the Good Samaritan parable. But I reject ‘divinity’.

        Todd, you also said: “My instinct is to be honest.”
        Then why not act as if you mean it?

        I’m confident that you accept, “he is risen” as if it were literally true.
        How do you not also accept “Many rose from their graves” (Matthew 27:51-53) as if it were literally true?

        If they are both true, Jesus’ resurrection is a banality of the era.
        Furthermore, it would be completely incoherent for Thomas to have missed it (John 20:21)

        If only the resurrection of Jesus is true then Matthew must be entirely wrong about his account of the crucifixion.

        What is the price of looking at all of this and coming to the the wrong guess? Isn’t it just an arbitrary toss up? How does one begin to figure it out?

        You are no better off than the Atheist because you can’t truly believe
        in one answer over the other.

        You are by definition a non-believer in most of the Bible. Just like me.

      • Todd says:

        Hey Max, good to see you back in action. To respond to your questions …

        – I’m not a biblical fundamentalist. I’m a Christian with a conscience and enough theological training to perhaps be dangerous to myself and others. But first of all, I recognize that Jesus himself taught some commandments are greater than others. How would I know? Discernment. Not quite the same as guessing.
        – You asked how I’m different from you. Like you, I do use my intellect, but that’s not the only thing I have to utilize. Christianity is less a religion of a book and more a personal relationship with God. That’s not all affect, to be sure. But it’s not exclusively about the mind, either.
        – I also have a positive creed (small-c) and I don’t define myself by being against atheism. This is dramatically unlike you. You have conceded you have no “manifesto” or such. My sense of reading you is that you are more anti-Christian than pro-anything else. That’s one whopper of a difference.
        – The rest of your comment makes no sense outside of a fundamentalist approach to Scripture. Which I’ve repeatedly said I don’t have. You are grasping and missing here, Max. Instead of trying to trip me up with some other Christian’s arguments, you could be paying more attention to what I am saying and writing here. That’s dialogue.

      • Atheist Max says:

        Todd, you said, “How would I know? Discernment.”
        So your method of dealing with the bible is no different from mine. Like you, I discern what is true and what is not in the Bible. The difference between us is that you have decided (for reasons you won’t share) that The Bible is literally an authority on certain things. Otherwise you would dispense with the Bible, right?

        For instance, the relationship with Jesus which you speak of would require some authoritative claim from the Bible that such a relationship were possible, otherwise you would have no claim to have any more of a relationship with Jesus than I could have with Elvis Presley.

        So where in the Bible have you found any support for your claim that Jesus is capable of ‘having a relationship’ with you? Where is your specific evidence from the Bible that says this is literally possible?

        You also said, “…you are more anti-Christian than pro-anything else. That’s one whopper of a difference.”
        No. I am PRO honesty. I am pro truth. I am pro good manners. And I am pro humanist.
        So I’m anti-religion unless or until someone can demonstrate why religion is honest, true, polite or good for humanity.

        Even preaching the most benign religious beliefs are profoundly dangerous to people:
        Is it good to raise children to believe in Hell? Absolutely not.
        Love thy neighbor as thyself? Umm….Compulsory love is deeply immoral because it cheapens love.
        Forgive always? Deeply immoral to compel this in every instance. One must not forgive ‘always’ if the perpetrator is a psychopath.
        Again, If our discernment is our mechanism why refer to the Bible for anything? Why is a ‘relationship with Jesus’ worth the bother?

        Islamists are killing people at the direction of the their god:
        “Slay them wherever you find them” (Surah)

        Thankfully, most Muslims ignore their Quran
        in the same way Christians like yourself ignore the Bible. They discern.

        As in Jesus’ Parable of the Minas (an insidiously awful parable) Jesus ends with a gruesome, despicable and threatening lesson: “Bring to me those enemies of mine who would not have me as their King and execute them in front of me.” (Luke 19:27)

        Not only does Jesus fully endorse slavery here, but he punishes the disobedient by having the most obedient slaves do the killing!

        You have ‘discerned’ that this cannot be true enough to follow or true enough to recommend. Yet the same Jesus is the one with whom you have a relationship.

        But if Christianity is 100% true and correct why are its preachements so dangerous 100% of the time?

        You claim to not be a fundamentalist reader of the bible. But somewhere you must have some literalist understanding of something in that Bible otherwise your claimed relationship with Jesus would be just as impossible as my relationship would be with the very dead Elvis Presley.

  2. John McGrath says:

    Even as a child it seemed to me that the Bible was, at least in part, recording various wrong human concepts of God (God wants you to remain a dependent, unfree layabout ignorant of the knowledge of good and evil; God revels in genocide; God wants you to sacrifice your son; God wants you to kill all those sinners, etc. etc.). These wrong concepts get disowned in favor of “Love God wholly” and “Love your neighbor and yourself with equal respect” and build the kingdom of God on earth (communities of mutual respect and love). Never cared much for the “save your soul” regimens and piling of rule upon rule since I was educated early in the ancient Christian tradition that all whom God created eventually repent (even after death) and enjoy the friendship of God. Hosea 6:6, the final word.

    • John McGrath says:

      Hosea 6:6 was the theme selected by the rabbis who met in council to reformulate Jewish worship after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. That’s how they summarized their religious tradition and where it had to go.

    • Devin says:

      I am very sympathetic to the tradition of Apocatastasis, especially as espoused by Isaac of Syria. But the universalist strain is certainly a minority position and requires a bit of mental gymnastics. The Patristic sources who were sympathetic to this point of view would agree that 2 Timothy 3:16 is applicable for the entirety of Scripture. An understanding of the Bible as simply a catalogue of wrong understandings of God is approaching Marcionism. All scripture has a value in gaining a deeper understanding of God.

      • John McGrath says:

        I said “at least in part,” not “simply.” Putting aside the issue of God, the Bible scertainly offers deep understanding of what caertain people at certain times thought of God, that is, the ultimate reality and/or the basis for human morality. There’s no way to justify the savagery of Leviticus, and its uses.

  3. Todd says:

    My instinct is to be honest. I look at something in the Bible, even supposedly endorsed by God, and I can say: this is wrong. I don’t harm God by saying it. The people who wrote it are long dead and wouldn’t care for my opinion even if they took notice of it. Others who are scandalized by it might even take a second look at Christianity for it.

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