In Which I Lead Astray

741px-Pied_Piper2I wouldn’t call writing a careless enterprise.  Every writer has obligations–some particular, some general: to be honest, to be truthful, to communicate in good faith. In this sense, every writer should take care, but as someone who writes about religion among other topics, I’ve noticed that the expectation that I be careful is voiced more often when I write about matters of faith, particularly my own.  There is the concern that I might lead others astray.

This isn’t surprising.  Religion often deals with professed matters of eternal life and death. If you believe, as many religious people do, that attaining salvation depends upon your having and assenting to the knowledge of what salvation requires, then you’re likely to fear any sort of discourse that questions or challenges or clouds that knowledge.  If I write about my doubts, I might cause others to doubt.  If I voice my disagreements, I might lead others to disagree.  As these doubts and disagreements put souls at risk of eternal damnation, I shouldn’t raise them publicly, certainly not on the internet.

I don’t buy it. As a Christian, I read the Bible as a sacred text, as God’s Word.  You know what I get from it?  God’s not a control freak, scrupulously worried that we get the message exactly right.  I can’t think of a book that in practice reaches its degree of ambiguity, engendering so many conflicting interpretations.  Another religious text, perhaps?  Even Shakespeare doesn’t come close.  Consider the figure of Jesus–God revealed in the flesh.  So far as we know, he didn’t write a thing (except in the sand), he taught by way of parables, he kept his followers in the dark, and he said things that prompted the immediate departure of the crowds.  He didn’t teach in a way that minimized misunderstanding.

The history of Christianity is a history of rupture and division helped along by the ambiguity of the scriptures it holds sacred and by the desire to interpret these scriptures according to various odds and ends. Even seemingly clear passages, such as Paul’s exhortation that women learn in silence and with submissiveness or the old commandment not to kill, have received creative hermeneutic treatment and lots of it.

If religious writing runs the risk of putting people in danger of damnation by leading them away from the right path, then the Bible is in the running for the work that has run that risk most effectively.  And it’s the book that Christians believe has the words of eternal life.  You’ll have to forgive me, then, if I don’t worry about potential doubts and discord my writing may prompt.  I take care to write honestly and truthfully and in good faith, but I don’t care to sanitize my own questions and criticisms because someone might also question and criticize.

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15 thoughts on “In Which I Lead Astray

  1. If you write of your doubts and disagreements and leave the reader thinking that they reflect orthodoxy, and they don’t, then you confuse people. I haven’t given it much thought, but I’d guess that’s what most people find problematic. I once heard Joseph Campbell described as a “get out of Heaven free” card. It’s not that his writings deny Christianity, but that they undermine the intellectual foundations by which Christian thought may be understood. I imagine that your writings could have the same effect, not on the plane of thinking but on that of assenting in faith.

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    • I agree that presenting as orthodox what is actually heterodox would confuse and mislead (although one can have and express doubts and disagreements without running afoul of orthodoxy). It would also be untrue, and I do believe, as stated, that writers have an obligation to be truthful.

      I would also note that orthodoxy and truth are not the same thing. Orthodoxy can be wrong, suffer from weak intellectual foundations, and so forth. Criticism of intellectual foundations can actually aid the assent of faith. It can also lead to the loss of faith, but then so can apologetics.

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      • Can heterodoxy be Catholic? It seems that Catholicism differs from Protestantism by the latter’s relative decentralisation. If you reject one protestant doctrine or another, you just become just another protestant sect. I don’t know that Catholicism has the same definitional latitude.

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      • Not the same, but there’s some. Today’s heterodoxy could be tomorrow’s orthodoxy. I can show you, for example, official statements by popes that non-Catholics are doomed to burn in Hell unless they convert, not an idea you’ll find taught in recent memory. In Catholicism, there are certain tenets without which the whole edifice would crumble, but there’s also a lot of room for development and reinterpretation. Catholics will say that its doctrines and dogmas cannot change, but there’s still the question of whether this teaching or that falls into those categories.

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      • Your comment from December 3, 2013 at 9:57 pm reminds me of the mindset of schismatic traditionalists. They love to talk about St. Athanasius. They talk about him so much because he’s one of the very few examples of the individual being on more solid ground than the institutional Church. You can talk about the question of salvation outside the Church, and interest rates, and a few other things, but not many.

        Obedience isn’t supposed to be blind – the Catholic intellectual life is robust – but the default position should be that that which is orthodox is correct. Maybe that’s why the phrase “development and reintepretation” seems out of place in your comment. It implies discontinuity. “Development and reconciliation” seems more apt, as we grow in understanding without losing the value of the original position.

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      • I would say interpretation implies both discontinuity and continuity. Interpretation tends to be circular or spiral: the whole is interpreted in light of the parts and parts in light of the whole. As you get a better sense of one, you get a better sense of the other, and sometimes a new discovered meaning prompts you to reinterpret everything you thought you knew or at least see everything in a new light. Some scientific discoveries have had this effect on biblical hermeneutics. New philosophical terms and theories have led the church to develop its moral and theological thought, sometimes radically. The church, for example, didn’t used to speak of human rights in the way it does now. Rights language wasn’t part of its vocabulary. With new vocabularies come new interpretations and reinterpretations.

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  2. If you believe, as many religious people do, that attaining salvation depends upon your having and assenting to the knowledge of what salvation requires

    Well said. Nutshells and all that.

    I don’t buy it. … So far as we know, [Jesus] didn’t write a thing (except in the sand), he taught by way of parables, he kept his followers in the dark, and he said things that prompted the immediate departure of the crowds. He didn’t teach in a way that minimized misunderstanding.

    I don’t think he was *trying* to keep his followers in the dark, or to intentionally make things confusing. He was talking about a different paradigm of thought, one that was confusing to most people all on its own. Parables were probably the best way to reach the ears that could hear.

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    • Here’s maybe a parabalistic way of saying what I meant to say:

      If I have an intensely evocative and empirically determinable (from my pov!) religious experience, one which reveals to me a way of eliminating suffering and fostering joy for all people who truly believe, *and* I actually care about eliminating suffering and fostering joy in other people, the *last* thing I’m gonna do is argue from an appeal to authority on the topic. I’m gonna express my new view-point in ways that other people can internalize all on their own, independent from my claims to Divinity. I’d speak in parables. Make the Big into the Small. And so one.

      A lot of the problems with Christianity can be attributed to someone other than Jesus, it seems to me.

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    • I think we’re on the same page here. I don’t see that Jesus sought to confuse as a means or an end of his teaching. Uncertainty and confusion were rather consequences of his manner of presentation and the simple alleged fact of divine disclosure–the infinite communicating by way of finite terms.

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  3. I wrote on this a bit last year, but I continue to believe that it is its very lack of absolute clarity that has allowed to the Bible to remain relevant and beloved over so many centuries and cultures.

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