Monday, September 07, 2009

The Bible and Ignorance: Weapons of Mass Misinformation

It is important to be clear. "Ignorance" is a word with connotations which are not always helpful. In this reflection, I use the word simply to describe the state of not-knowing, of being unaware.

It is my observation that there are at least two kinds of ignorance -- profound ignorance and elected ignorance. Profound ignorance is the state of simply not knowing due to lack of knowledge or the availability of knowledge. Elected ignorance is the state either of not knowing in the face of available knowledge, or choosing not to believe available knowledge. There are two sub-sets of elected ignorance, benign and insidious (or pernicious). Benign elected ignorance represents a true lack of knowledge -- in the face of available knowledge, choosing not to read and/or study materials one knows exist. Insidious (or pernicious) elected knowledge represents the intentional manipulation of others (or self and others) despite an awareness of and/or study of available knowledge.

It is very hard to judge the level of ignorance of others for we cannot always know of the available body of knowledge to how much another has been exposed. From the arena of faith, I take this example. The Dead Sea Scrolls and the finds at Nag Hammadi exist -- they are real, and they impact the study of Holy Scripture. However, if someone either does not know about them, or knows about them but has not learned what they might say, then we are dealing with benign ignorance when the leanings from these sources are not brought to bear. On the other hand, if someone knows about them and has studied them but simply chooses to ignore them when advancing a particular argument or point of view, then we are dealing with insidious ignorance.

The levels of ignorance which I observe when the Bible is discussed worry me. In a few cases I observe pernicious ignorance. In these cases I see trained, often ordained, people proclaiming nonsense about Holy Writ, apparently for the purpose of furthering their professional status by intentionally distorting what they know to be true about Scripture in order to gain popularity among their following. Such persons are educated and they know better, but they support popular prejudices because they perceive that it will further their success. Their behavior is reprehensible because it is intentional.

In the greater majority of cases, I observe benign ignorance with regard to the Bible. I see people reading Scripture in a particular English translation and drawing conclusions therefrom without much attention being paid either to other translations or, when necessary, to the original languages in which the Bible developed. One does not have to be fluent in either Hebrew or Greek to attempt a responsible word study to find the meaning of a given pericope. I see people citing a passage reflecting the culture and understanding of a semi-literate, pre-scientific, nomadic culture as normative for today without even attempting to consider the historical context. One does not need to be a scholar to observe that the body of knowledge which existed twenty five hundred years ago is not as extensive as that which we enjoy today. If we are to cite the Bible as a norm or standard for the living of life, it is critically important that we know what it says, and, where necessary, why it says what it says.

In the current culture wars, I observe the Bible being used as a weapon of mass misinformation. Here is an example which is both current and quite common, even though awesomely ignorant: "the Bible condemns homosexuality." I hesitate to make a blanket statement to the effect that all credible biblical scholars take exception to such an assertion, but I observe that certainly most academicians of stature do take exception to the assertion. It is easy to read the Bible in an English translation and lift a couple of verses from hither and yon to justify such an assertion. Commonly cited sources are to the letters of Paul and the Holiness Code in Leviticus. Less well-informed people will also cite passages like the story of Sodom and Gomorrah even though such stories do not obtain to the issues at hand. The problem is that people who cite single verses taken out of context fail to account for the underlying meaning and/or context of the prohibitions. It is unclear, for example, whether Paul differentiated between sexual behavior and promiscuity; it is certainly unclear whether many people who read his words today make such a distinction. If we believe that there is a distinction between sexuality, per se, and promiscuity, per se, then we have to read the letters of Paul with more precision. The issue is not sexuality, but promiscuous sexuality (for Paul, they may have been one and the same). I observe that thoughtful people today do draw such a distinction, noting that not all who engage in sexual behavior do so promiscuously. As another example, it is much more clear that the prohibitions of the Holiness Code found in Leviticus are dated by the standards and norms we all consider appropriate for life today. To this observer, if one is going to apply some of the prohibitions of the Holiness Code to the living of life today because "they are biblical," then logically one must apply all of them. Very few people, if any, today live their lives in total obedience to the prohibitions of the Holiness Code.

I make the case, therefore, for an approach to reading the Bible which emphasizes not only the printed words, but rather the greater meaning behind the words. As a rule of thumb, look for an overall message, a message the truth of which can be sustained throughout the various verses, chapters and books of this compendium of religious thought. Love of God and neighbor are tenets which can be traced from early parts of Genesis to the end of Revelation. Is a stated belief limited in scope to a particular moment in history or to a particular cultural need? If so, read and appreciate it for what it is -- a piece of history. Rules for the preparation and storage of food which make sense in a nomadic society may not make sense in a time when most every one has access to refrigeration! Is a particular statement directed to an unique and temporary situation? If so, does the situation exist today? As but one example, the advice given to the Hebrews during their time of enslavement may not be applicable to people who are not enslaved today.

Those of us who trace our faith through what we call Anglican tradition embrace a three-fold test of belief -- tenets of faith must meet the tests of Scripture, tradition and reason. We cannot, we must not, turn off our brains when we open the Bible.