Leviticus: I Like it Here

A student, on finding his Rabbi, day after day, examining the pages of the Leviticus Talmud, asks “Why are you preoccupied with this text?

The Rabbi replies, simply, yet profoundly, “I like it here.”

I, too, like it here. I still can not grasp the depth of the Levitical text, but it is a deceptively deep. This much I may dare to say.

Once we are wiling to wade waist deep through the purity protocols of Leviticus, aware of the subtle strength of the ritual currents that run through Israelite religion, the significance of Israelite spirituality becomes clear: in every hour, day, week, month and year, through the most regular routines of birth, life, and death, the unintentional becomes deliberate, implicit becomes explicit, extrinsic becomes intrinsic. Transformation is offered, and experienced.

The intangible nature of God becomes concrete, becomes imminent, dwells in their midsts; The lofty concept of love is embodied, absorbed, and experienced through repentance, forgiveness and grace.

Israelite spirituality is not mechanistic, abusive, and domineering. This is what it became when polluted by selfishness and greed of the human heart.

Israelite spirituality is life lived in and for love of the community: small details are deliberate, with the hope of kindling comfort in the expansive unknown.

Israelite spirituality is a conscious remembering and imaging of goodness and kindness, with the hope that kindness and goodness may be inspired spontaneously.

The mysteries of Leviticus are still largely veiled to me, yet for the few profound mysteries of God that have been revealed, with the hope of many more to be revealed, I can say of my dwelling, I like it here.

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Science of Biblical Interpretation: (1) Nexus Causality

[This is Science of Biblical Interpretation Cognitive tool-kit article (1). The mini-series is explained here.]

In his article for This Will Make You Smarter, John Tooby discusses nexus causality, moral warfare and misattribution arbitrage (read online here). I will be picking up the concept of Nexus Causality.

Nexus Causality

Tooby writes:

Causality itself is an evolved conceptual tool that simplifies, schematizes, and focuses our representation of situations. This cognitive machinery guides us to think in terms of the cause- of an outcome’s having a single cause. Yet for enlarged understanding, it is more accurate to represent outcomes as caused by an intersection, or nexus, of factors (including the absence of precluding conditions).

It is not always as simple as A=B.

Sometimes it is a case of A+B=C.

Or, A+B=C, only in the presence of D.

Outcomes, events, and explanations have multiple causes, and can rarely be reduced to a simple cause-effect, or be isolated from a context.

Biblical Texts as Causal Nexus

When interpreting the biblical text we must be careful not to reduce our understanding of its formation to simple cause-effect. The Bible is not a sterile instruction book handed down by YHWH: God said it (cause) so humans wrote it (effect). We must avoid reducing the bible to divinely dictated rules, or single verses, to be taken at face value and arbitrarily applied to our own individual context.

Verse X says do this, so I will do it; verse Y says don’t do this, so I will not do it.

When handling the biblical text we must always have in mind that we are dealing with a collection of texts: each one is a nexus, an intersection, of various causes. They are written at a particular time, by a certain group, in a certain social context, in response to a certain need.

The writers, and the community from which they came, had access to and were influenced by the texts previously written. But, most obviously, not to the texts that were yet to be written in in the coming centuries. Over time separate texts were merged and edited to be more harmonious, or to solidify understanding.

Different communities would have used words and language slightly differently; word meaning would have shifted over time. We must take into account the switch from Hebrew to Greek from the Hebrew Bible to the documents of the Early Church. The first century Jews, it must be remembered, were speaking Greek as well as Aramaic. So important was this social linguistic fact, that a Greek-language translation of the Hebrew Bible, known as the Septuagint, was produced.

This is not mutually exclusive to holding the view of the divine inspiration of the biblical text, though. It remains, for those with a high view of scripture, as one of the legitimate causes for the biblical text. God, through affecting the communities, would have been reflected in the text. God could have also influenced writers through the writing process, too.

Biblical Interpretation as Causal Nexus

The same is also true of the individual moments of interpreting the biblical text: each is produced at a nexus of multiple causes. Each interpreter is found within their own social context, at a certain point in history, responding to a certain need. Each will be working in their own language and working with translations of the original texts. They will also be influenced by the biblical interpretations that have preceded them, but also will be unaffected by biblical interpretations that will come further on in time.

Conclusion

Life, communities, and texts are not simple. They defy being reduced to simplistic understandings. If they are, then depth, richness, and worth will undoubtedly be lost. Rather, we must acknowledge that we function within a web of causes, and individual moments become a nexus, an intersection, of these causes. Every instance of biblical interpretation will be a causal nexus, and at this point there will be the added complexity of trying to understand the causal nexus in which the biblical text itself was written, and the causal nexus of other biblical interpretations which are being engaged.

The next instalment of The Science of Biblical Interpretation will deal with an implication of the causal nexus understanding of biblical interpretation: Context Sensitivity.

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Evangelical Alliance Marriage Briefing: ‘Inaccuracies’ in the Video

A few days ago I posted about a few issued I had with the EA Marriage Briefing document.

This time I want to address two of the issues I have with the content of the video.

At 1:50 Steve Clifford says:

Sadly, David Cameron and the coalition government, without a manifesto commitment, or even as it now appears, an authentic consultation process, has decided that they are going to change this fundamental part of how we do society together.

Once again, ‘misleading rhetoric’ is being used.

Manifesto Commitment:
It may not have been a key issue of the Conservative manifesto during the 2010 UK election, or one that was heavily debated, but it was laid out in the Conservative Contract for Equalities. This document was published before the election.

On page 2, it states:
This contract for equalities will be central to what we plan to do in government.

On page 14, it states:
We will also consider the case for changing the law to allow civil partnerships to be called and classified as marriage.

Authentic Consultation:
An authentic consultation process is being held, and can be accessed through the Home Office website. The government is not offering a referendum on the subject, and never promised one. The consultation is to help the coalition government best implement same-sex marriage. The consultation is designed to listen to the thoughts and opinions of members of the public, especially religious groups, who are listed in the ‘intended audience’ list.

They acknowledge the implications for some religious groups, and want to work with them to be able to express their beliefs under the new system. And I say ‘some’ groups quite deliberately. The Liberal Jews, Quakers, and Unitarians, have wanted to perform same-sex marriage for quite some time, but have been held back by the UK law. Christian groups who are staking a claim on marriage, and want to be able to define UK law, are in fact denying other religious groups their religious freedom. Even within the evangelical umbrella, there are groups who favour same-sex marriage as a normalising of same-sex relationships alongside different-sex relationships.

Concluding Thoughts:
Once again, I think it is a shame that the Evangelical Alliance is not providing accurate information, and is misleading people who may see them as being a reliable and informed source. Scaremongering and emotional manipulation should not be a tactic for a large and influential Christian organization.

Additionally, it should be noted that a legal change in the definition of marriage does not directly affect evangelical theology. Those with certain beliefs about marriage will still be able to hold them, and practice them. equally, the general population cannot be forced to act Christian by forcing UK legislation to mimic a certain theological viewpoint.

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The Science of Biblical Interpretation: Introduction

Published this year, This Will Make You Smarter,[1] edited by John Brockman of Edge.org, contains 150 answers, by leaders in their field, to the question: What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit? That is, what tools do we need to reliably gain knowledge about anything?

When thinking about the myriad systems within the Universe, scientists must utilize a broad cognitive tool-kit, a tool-kit which continues to grow in response to shifting understanding and praxis.

For scientists, this diverse tool-kit is necessary to:

  • Deal with huge quantities of data, sift them for patterns , and to move towards the most probable explanation.
  • Enable scientists to work within contexts where experimentation is not possible, feasible, or ethical.
  • Minimize the inevitable bias which enters the interpretative process due to the many people involved with the interpretative work.

The task of the biblical interpreter is not too different:

  • Dealing with huge quantities of data: Biblical texts, historical documents, and secondary commentary sources.
  • Reconstructing historical settings/ groups/ individuals, reconstructing the development of the texts in relation to those settings/groups/ individuals, contemplating a Spiritual realm, and constructing understandings of the future in our eschatology.
  • Working with individuals and groups who are bound-up with social, cultural, institutional, educational, and doctrinal biases.

When viewed in this way, the similarities between the enterprises suggest that it could be beneficial for biblical interpreters to keep abreast with advances in the cognitive tool-kit within the scientific community.

While biblical interpreters already make use of, and have expertise in, history, cultural studies, linguistics, and literature, it is also profitable to be aware of advances in psychology, neuroscience, analytical models, and data handling. Better understanding how the minds of individuals and groups process information will is invaluable knowledge for reconstructing the past and working within our contemporary interpretive communities.

Over the next few days I will be posting (at least[2]) three concepts from the cognitive tool-kit which can play a part in biblical interpretation:

  1. Nexus Causality
  2. Context Sensitivity
  3. Uselessness of Certainty

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[1] Brockman, John (ed.), This will Make You Smarter:New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking, London: Doubleday, 2012.

[2] I have only read 25 of the responses, so more than these 3 are likely to follow. These initial 3 have stood out as most beneficial/applicable to biblical interpretation.

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Evangelical Alliance Marriage Briefing: Bad Arguments and Misleading Hyperbole

The Evangelical Alliance have released a Marriage Briefing for churches.

Once again, a Christian response to the same-sex marriage debate shows itself to be badly thought through in argument, as well as using misleading hyperbole.

Bad Argument: Use of Matthew 19

As with many of the arguments from Christians who are against redefining marriage in the UK, the text of Matthew 19 is raised. This was not a big flaw in the EA Marriage Briefing, but it is something which has frustrated me for the last few months within the debates surrounding the UK Home Office equal civil-marriage consultation.

Usually it is simply Matt 19:4-6 which is quoted, itself being Jesus quoting Genesis 2:24: A quote of a quote. Ideally the whole unit of text, Matthew 19:1-12, should be used. This is good exegesis, taking the whole context into account, thereby helping us, the readers, to fully understand the purpose and meaning of the text.

The encounter concerns the Pharisees asking Jesus about the Jewish laws concerning divorce. As with many of the questions posed to Jesus, it was intended to trick him. The contemporary argument (greatly simplified) was between the school of Shammei, who taught that divorce was only granted in the cases of adultery, against the school of Hillel, who taught divorce could be granted on any grounds.

Jesus takes the argument from Genesis 2 that those who are married should remain together, and again in response to the Pharisees, that divorce is a concession, and that divorce and remarriage, in cases other than adultery, is to be seen as adultery.

The disciples, as ever, are stunned, as seen in their response: “It is better not to get married at all!” Jesus affirms this route as being difficult, highlighting that there are many who remain incapable of marriage from birth, those who remain unmarried by the actions of men, and those who choose to remain unmarried by choice for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven.

In context, then, it is the commitment to a marriage relationship, and the theological views on divorce, which are in question. Further, the end of the text unit also suggests the legitimacy, and laudable status, of remaining single. Is it possible, therefore, that Jesus is moving the focus away from an argument concerning divorce and marriage, and towards the relational qualities and commitment of marriage, and the relational qualities of the wider community as a whole? A move away from a selfish view of getting one’s own way in marriage towards how one can best play a part in the wider group, whether that be married or single.

This viewpoint is echoed in 1 Corinthians 7, which, coincidentally, I’ve yet to see used in the current debate, despite it being the most substantial exposition in the New Testament concerning marriage in a local-church context.

Misleading Hyperbole:

Page two, under the heading ‘marriage works’ can be found the statement:

All the evidence shows that children do best with a married mother and father. Making marriage gender neutral would hamper a child’s chance to form intimate and appropriate relationships with both men and women.

I have chosen to understand this as hyperbole, as rhetorical style, on the part of the EA. If I did not, I would have to understand them as boldly lying, and misinforming many thousands of Christians who trust the EA publications.

It is difficult to collect data concerning the well-being of children raised in same-sex parent families, as many remain anonymous due to social stigmatization. However, many sociological and psychological studies of children raised in family units with same-sex parents suggest that the binary of mother and father are not the stabilising factor. One study concludes:

Children’s optimal development seems to be influenced more by the nature of the relationships and interactions within the family unit than by the particular structural form it takes. …[T]he weight of evidence gathered during several decades using diverse samples and methodologies is persuasive in demonstrating that there is no systematic difference between gay and nongay parents in emotional health, parenting skills, and attitudes toward parenting. No data have pointed to any risk to children as a result of growing up in a family with 1 or more gay parents. Some among the vast variety of family forms, histories, and relationships may prove more conducive to healthy psychosexual and emotional development than others.

It is concerning that the Evangelical Alliance, against the findings of research, will use such strong language which is only supported by their own presumptions about the functioning of the world.

It is also concerning because individuals within the church may take these statements at face value due to the reputation and authority of the Evangelical Alliance. The issues may not be properly considered, or thought through, which ultimately leads to weakened theology and a lacking of a robust theological worldview.

Concluding thoughts

Contrary to many comments I receive from people when I talk about this subject, I am not militantly against those who hold a theological viewpoint which includes marriage as a union between a man and a woman only. If that is their theological conviction then I support them in it.

I will always, however, have a problem with viewpoints being held on assumption, against legitimate understandings of the Biblical text, and against other honest and serious investigations into the workings of our world.

Further, one group’s theological viewpoint should not then become normative for all people in a wider community. A theological viewpoint should be accepted and chosen, not forced upon someone.

Christian viewpoints do not need to be hidden behind, or sink into, bad argument and rhetoric. If they do, then what is being defended cannot be of much worth. Likewise, if a Christian viewpoint has worth, then this will be seen by others in the wider community and accepted when it is seen to function in the Christian community endorsing it.

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Cardinal Keith O’Brien On Same-Sex Marriage

Yes, this is another post about the UK government’s stance on introducing same-sex marriage. I do not apologise for this fact, but I am well aware of the volume of material written over the past 2 weeks on the subject.

Cardinal Keith O’Brien, leader of the Catholic Church of Scotland, wrote an article for today’s Sunday Telegraph.

He said many things I do not agree with, on legal, social, and historical grounds. One such argument, which I will likely return to at a later date is that of family integrity, mothers, fathers, and teaching marriage in schools. What I want to address here, however, is his use of a hypothetical comparison. Near the end of the article, he stated:

No Government has the moral authority to dismantle the universally understood meaning of marriage.

Imagine for a moment that the Government had decided to legalise slavery but assured us that “no one will be forced to keep a slave”.

Now, what I have a problem with is his use of a hypothetical alternative which does not correlate to the question at hand. In this scenario there is the option to opt into, or out of, the direct taking of another person’s human right to freedom, and being subjected to ownership. In this scenario there will always be individuals, the slaves, who have had their right to freedom removed against their will.

However, with the case of legalised same-sex marriage, no one’s rights are being forced or removed. Legal rights are being made universal and open for same-sex and different-sex couples regarding civil marriage; it will be their choice to form one or not. Those who do not agree with same-sex civil marriage will not be forced to enter into one, and they will not be forced to perform a civil-marriage in a religious setting. As is the case now in UK law for different-sex couples, there is a distinction between a civil-marriage and a religious-marriage. This distinction would continue so as to not override individuals religious freedoms.

The issue of allowing same-sex civil marriage is one of equality within UK law. This is, in fact, where the C4M advocates have got it right. As they have pointed out, currently a civil-marriage, and a civil-partnership, do indeed afford the same legal rights in UK law. C4M, however, wish to maintain this form of legal segregation, whereby same sex couples can be similar, as long as they are kept separate.

Maybe a more apt scenario, or hypothetical comparison to liken the argument to, is not the government attempting to reintroduce optional slavery, but of campaigners trying to retain racial segregation, allowing a social sub-class similar rights, as long as members of the sub-class are kept separate from them.

Or, maybe we can stick with Cardinal Keith O’Brien’s scenario, but change its interpretation. His scenario fits perfectly to the current legal system regarding same-sex couples and civil-partnerships. Currently, Same-sex couples are enslaved to a civil-partnership, without the freedom of a civil-marriage, and the onlookers in society can either agree with this subjugation, or reject it.

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Civil-Partnerships and Civil-Marriage: The French Way

Goodness, to my detriment I am severely out of the loop. Especially as it has a significant impact on my viewpoint concerning marriage and civil partnerships in the UK legal system.

France have been offering civil partnerships to same-sex and different-sex couples since 1999. By 2009, 95% of civil partnerships in France were between different-sex couples. For every different-sex civil partnership, there were 2 different-sex civil-weddings.

Civil-marriage in France is performed by the civil authority. A religious ceremony may be performed afterwards, but has no legal status.

As a response to the ongoing debate concerning marriage, is creating equality in the UK legal system possible by allowing civil partnerships for all legal couplings, with a religious authority performing a ceremony to bestow a social status afterwards?

If so, more difficulty could be caused for those groups (e.g. C4M) who are trying to control the definition of marriage. Under such a system it would be the prerogative of the group performing the religious ceremony to decide the definition of marriage, including the option to bless same-sex couples.

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