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CHARLTON: Biblical interpretations can be similar, different

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By Dave Charlton

I have read with interest the competing points of view offered by Chuck Souder, through his column of June 28 titled “The Founders’ Declaration of ‘In-Dependence,’” and the letter of response by Rich Lane (and upon finishing this column found there were a couple of letters in response to Mr. Lane, which I have yet to read).

Generally, I am not all that interested in debates between adherents and opponents of religious faith, as it seems to be an exercise in futility, with both sides so entrenched in their points of view that neither side really listens to the other. But I’ll jump into the discussion anyway, with the disclaimer, of course, that I am a person of religious faith and write from that perspective.

Though I write from a religious point of view, and Mr. Lane from a nonreligious view, I do agree with him on a couple of points. First, he is correct that our Constitution is a secular document in terms of language. Nowhere does it, or the Declaration of Independence for that matter, state that we are a Christian nation. Mr. Souder and others in the religious community often make the claim that the United States is a Christian nation, which is not correct in any formal or official way.

Never in our national history have we taken the legal step of formally establishing our society as a Christian nation. Doing so, in fact, would violate one of the most important ideas upon which our nation was founded, which was to escape the persecution and other problems inherent in an established state church.

One of the great advantages of the United States is that every person has the right to worship – or not worship – as they so choose. To impose a particular religion or religious point of view upon the citizenry would be to violate one of the most foundational principles of our country.

In contrast to saying we are a Christian nation, I believe it is more accurate to say our country is primarily Christian in terms of influence and heritage, with an obvious historical Christian hegemony and owing a deep debt to Christian thought and tradition.

Mr. Lane is also correct in his assertion that one does not have to be religious to be moral. To say that nonreligious people are not moral is simply a mistaken and unfortunate stereotype. It is incorrect to say that morality is unique only to religious people, but it can be said that our basic understanding of morality in almost every society has been greatly shaped by religious thought and tradition.

But just as Mr. Lane objects to how he is perceived as a nonreligious person, I object to his characterization of religious people. Religious people are not one large, united monoculture, as he supposes when he writes that “Christians profess that anyone who doesn’t follow their faith cannot be moral.”

That is a far too generalized statement and does a disservice to people of faith everywhere. I would say that the far majority of Christians in Shelbyville – or anywhere else – would recognize that morality is not the domain solely of religious people.

Speaking of morality, this is precisely where Mr. Lane makes a claim that is as predictable as it is erroneous. Attacking the lack of morality that he believes is inherent in religion he writes that, “if we held ourselves to the same ‘high moral standards’ of the Bible, there’s no question we would still be practicing slavery in this country today.”

That is not only mistaken but contains an insinuation about religious people that veers perilously close to insult. Many, many religious people, in fact, opposed slavery and worked tirelessly to bring it to an end.

In the modern era, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. – a Christian minister – continued to advocate for the rights and freedoms of all people, regardless of ethnicity or creed. Today, many people of faith continue to work tirelessly against human trafficking and other forms of modern slavery.

I will admit that terrible acts have been perpetuated in the name of religion and God, and when such acts have occurred, they are always wrong. Those of us who are religious can’t wiggle out of this fact, but there are two sides to that coin.

I would say that if religious people have to answer for the “Inquisition” and other such evils, then those who profess atheism have some explaining to do about historical figures such as Stalin, Pol Pot the oppressive regimes in China and North Korea and the violence of the French Revolution. The common thread in evil, more than belief or unbelief, is humanity, and the willingness of human beings to sometimes do terrible things to one another.

What is most interesting to me is the way in which Mr. Lane and Mr. Souder are so similar. Both Mr. Lane and Mr. Souder read the Bible with a literalism that fails to respect the historical context or appreciation for the use of various types of language.

That is not surprising for someone who is a conservative evangelical, but it is certainly ironic in one who professes no religious belief of any kind. In pointing out what he sees as a contradiction in the teaching of Jesus, for instance, Mr. Lane refers to Matthew 10:34, where Jesus says, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

Even nonreligious Biblical scholars (yes, such scholars do exist) would disagree, for instance, with Mr. Lane’s exegesis of that verse. In searching for what looks like a contradiction, Mr. Lane is guilty of the same type of cherry-picking and wrenching out of context of which he accuses Mr. Souder.

Both, in my opinion, are reading the Bible too literally and with too little appreciation for the various types of language the Bible employs. The Bible uses many types of language, such as hyperbole, irony, sarcasm, poetry and allegory – just to name a few – and to fail to recognize those forms of language leads to all kinds of interpretive problems, regardless of whether someone is coming from a perspective of belief or unbelief.

But perhaps most importantly, as residents of the same community, it is to our benefit to discuss these issues. We may not agree on every issue, and we may even disagree more than we agree, but isn’t it great that we live in a country where we are free to do so.

For that, I’ll thank God, even if you don’t.

 

Dave Charlton is pastor of First Christian Church. His column will appear every other week. You can reach him at davidpaulcharlton@gmail.com.