Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Polling for Faith

God doesn't have to run for election

According to a recent Gallup Poll, cited in Time magazine:
28% of Americans believe that the Bible is literally true, down from 38% in 1976.
19% of Americans view the Bible as an ancient book of fables, up from 13% in 1976.

Now, before this becomes a trend, "come let us reason together" on what it really means to be a Christian (or to believe in one God, or to trust the authority of the Torah, the Bible, the Qu'ran) in the United States of America.

I know, that sounds like "human reasoning." But God said it to Isaiah, so perhaps it is good enough for us too.

The questions in that poll were, of course, weighted. Most polling questions are. Most questions that superficial Christian political activists ask are equally weighted.

What does it mean "the Bible is literally true"? Let's try to break that down into some more meaningful questions.

Were the first five books of the Bible really revealed to Moses by Adonai Elohim, JHWH, the creator of all that is, seen and unseen?

I would answer yes.

Did that one and only God literally take a rib out of a man's body and use it as the foundation to create a woman?

I would answer no.

How can I answer the first question yes, and the second no?

I have plagued an Orthodox Jewish rabbi with questions about the original Hebrew meanings – the language in which Moses first wrote down what God told him. I could spend a thousand lifetimes asking such questions, and still not understand it all. I am informed that the word commonly translated "rib" is tzela, which means "side." According to the Talmud, the original adam was androgynous, being made in the image of God, and when the woman (isha) was removed from one side of the adam, the man (ish) is what was left, the other side. (She shall be called Isha, because she came from Ish). Thus, marriage reunites the complete image of God, if it is done right by both the man and woman entering wisely into a solemn covenant.

Just one example. I believe, as Galileo Galilei said, that the Holy Bible cannot err, when its proper meaning is understood. Ah, but understanding its proper meaning... a mere mortal human being should be very cautious about proclaiming that "I know what the proper meaning is." I pray that the Holy Spirit (for Jewish readers, think of it as a malach, or a sar, responsible to give some measure of enlightenment and understanding to Christians) will guide me to some understanding of the true meaning... but I do not proclaim to my brother or sister that I have achieved a perfect state of grace to know it all. We all fall short of the glory of God, do we not?

Is the Bible an ancient book of fables? Hmmm... nobody is at all certain that a man named Job actually lived, or experienced the horrible trials described in the book named after him. But, can there by any doubt that the book is in the Bible for good reason, intended by God? Whole chapters of that book are erroneous. How do I know? God said so (Job 42:7). Even very conservative ordained Christian ministers note that the story of the woman Jesus saved from stoning, when she was taken in adultery, may not have actually occured... but I am quite reassured that my pastor keeps a stone behind his desk inscribed "Let he among you who is without sin cast the first stone."

So let us not fall into the silly trap of measuring our faith, or the strength of religious faith in our society, our nation, our culture, according to the adjectives selected by polling companies. What "literally true" means for one person may mean something very different to another. The word "fables" also could have a very different weight to different listeners. A slight change of wording could produce very different percentages, without the slightest change in belief or unbelief.

I have no doubt that every word in the Bible is there for a divine purpose, or, if some scribe stuck in a few extra words here and there, that they are incidental. I would never write the book off as a mere collection of fables. But remember, fables is not a synonym for lies. Fables are stories which convey moral instruction. In this sense, there are many fables in the Bible.

The value, or the success, of Christian faith cannot be weighed either on the scales of polling organizations, or on the scales of polling done by secret ballot. The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America was written by Christians. They were perfectly confident that the truth of their own beliefs could light up the world, without depending on endorsement by a mere human government. That is why the Constitution makes no mention of God. James Madison calmly asserted that the better part of respect for the holy name of Jesus would be NOT to insert it into a legislative enactment. In fact, they knew from bitter experience that endorsement by the profane hand of the civil magistrate degraded religion.

Fewer Americans answer "yes" to the question "Do you believe that the Bible is literally true?" More Americans answer "yes" to "Do you believe the Bible is an ancient book of fables?" Those are questions shaped by decades of shallow propaganda out of the mouths of televangelist anti-Christs. Pious propaganda has led us astray. Let us throw away those questions. While we are at it, let us throw the money-lenders out of the Temple – along with the pollsters. Let the question be, "Do the truths found only in the Bible speak to you, your spirituality, your life, and your hope for salvation?" I would guess that the answer from 85% of those asked would be a resounding "Yes." Of course not all those who say yes would be sincere. How do I know that? I accept the authority of Matthew 25:41-45.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Focus on Papilloma

Dr. Dobson has a good take on new vaccine

I'm never quite sure what to think about Dr. James Dobson. Every Focus on the Family Bulletin, that I find inserted in the church bulletin once a month or so, is full of compassion, wisdom and common sense. What's not to like about this guy? When it comes to raising children, there is no better companion to Dr. Benjamin Spock's Baby and Child Care than Dr. Dobson. But every time he opens his mouth on a national political issue, a candidate for president, a nominee for the Supreme Court, he comes across as neurotic, ruthless, obsessed, thoughtless, paranoid.

I doubt if direct quotes in the press are outright lies. They may be lacking some context. There is no doubt that Dobson endorsed George W. Bush for president, a classic anti-Christ if there ever was one. It seems that in matters of constitutional law, Dobson's specific ends justify any means. He seems willing to destroy broad liberties that ten generations have died for. Dr. Dobson has not recognized St. Thomas More's warning: when you have knocked down every law in the land chasing after the devil, and the devil turns on you, there will be no law standing to protect you from the devil you were chasing. He is much better at giving advice to parents than to politicians.

But Dobson often gets an undeserved bad rap. Take the recent spate of publicity on vaccines for the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). From many press reports and a random selection of blogs, one gets the idea that Dr. Dobson wants millions of women to die of cervical cancer, so that fundamentalist Christian families can frighten their daughters into remaining virgin until marriage. The truth is, Focus on the Family has specifically endorsed the universal availability of these vaccines.

It is always best to read up on original sources before jumping to conclusions. The sticking point, over which reasonable citizens may disagree, as may reasonable faithful Christians, is routine or mandatory vaccination of 9 to 12 year old girls in school public health programs. Focus on the Family wants this decision made individually by parents, not en masse by public health authorities. Whatever the wisdom of that position, they have openly advised parents to tell their children "The shot is given to children at your age because it is most effective if it’s given at a young age and it will, most likely, protect you all of your adult life." Posted materials freely acknowledge that there are many good reasons to take early precautions, including the possibility of date rape, sexual assault, or of marrying someone already infected.

All of Focus on the Family's materials begin with a strong emphasis on abstinence from sexual activity until marriage. That is a good thing to emphasize. The existence of multiple sexually transmitted diseases is only one, relatively minor reason, why abstinence is a good idea. Has anyone stopped to think, lately, that if there were NO sexual activity outside of monogamous marriage, it would be literally impossible for any sexually transmitted disease to exist?

There is of course a flip side to that. As there have been sexually transmitted diseases throughout human history, obviously monogamous faithful marriage has never been a consistent practice of even a substantial majority of people in any century. More than half perhaps, but not most. There never were any "good old days." It is a good thing to be able to vaccinate against sexually transmitted diseases. Whether a vaccination is available or not, makes no difference in whether abstinence until marriage is the right way to live. Nor does it have much impact on how many people live up to that ideal.

Reading A Midwife's Diary brings home that around 1800, half of the women in deeply religious New England rural villages became pregnant before marriage. On the other hand, most of the pregnant couples (no woman becomes pregnant by herself) were married by the time of birth, or soon afterward. That happens far less often now. It is truly unfair to a child to conceive when there is no covenant in place to take full responsibility for raising him or her. Of course contraception might allow for unrestricted sexual experience, and not inflict life deprived of a stable family on any child. But contraception is not perfect.

Dr. Dobson insists it is God's plan that sex be experienced only within a monogamous marriage. If this is simply an arbitrary test of faith, then it doesn't mean much. If fear of painful disease is the only reason to obey, then vaccination against all STD's would render abstinence irrelevant. But there are positive reasons to keep sex within marriage. They are subtle, they are more difficult to explain to post-pubescent teens than "you're going to shrivel up and die, and then you'll burn in hell." But they are real.

C.S. Lewis explains, through the backhanded commentary of Screwtape, that "wherever a man lies with a woman, there, whether they like it or not, a transcendental relation is set up between them which must be eternally enjoyed or eternally endured." Man-child or woman-child, are you sure you want a piece of THIS infatuation to be part of you for the rest of your life, and a piece of you part of them? That is worth pondering, with or without STDs, with or without pregnancy. It is even worth pondering, whether or not there is a God who cares about the two individuals involved.

Finally, when God created man in his own image, "male and female created he them." It is one of the great mysteries how the image of an omnipotent deity, who by definition has no wife, nor husband, could be male and female. Putting a male and a female together is serious business, precisely because, done right, it puts the complete image of God back together. With or without vaccinations, it is not something to take lightly. We have animal instincts, we also have souls. Teach what is right, understand that none of us are perfect, vaccinate when we are able to develop a vaccine, let God judge the results. And don't be too hard on Dr. Dobson. He has some good things to say.