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September 12, 2012


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Christianity has two sides, as do most religions: a metaphysical side and a secular side. I use the term metaphysical in the sense of supersensible or transcendent—meaning that it is not a part of the natural world we experience from day to day. The secular side of Christianity describes the natural world where beliefs based on metaphysical claims play themselves out in life from day to day.

     There is no right or wrong, or truth or falsehood to ideas based on metaphysical claims that shape religious beliefs—there is only opinion strongly held. One claim about the metaphysical is no better or worse than the next. What possible proof could be offered to demonstrate that my metaphysical claim is better than another’s metaphysical claim? Usually religious beliefs rely on a so-called spiritual world that is transcendent, and accessible only through faith. But a spiritual world is “somewhere” only if you believe it. What is asserted about life after death is another claim based on the metaphysical. One “promise” for the afterlife is as good as another (streets paved with gold, angel choirs, or 72 virgins). Likewise there is no truth or falsehood to claims about the afterlife. There is only strong opinion and denigration of another’s claims.

     I realize that many believe what I have characterized above as an absolute break between postulated metaphysical and natural worlds is simply mistaken. They believe that the metaphysical is permeable and their evidence for this belief is likewise metaphysical (angels, miracles, apparitions, prayer, etc.). That the perceived border between metaphysical and natural worlds is porous is itself a belief, and to use metaphysical evidence to assure the existence of the metaphysical is only convincing to those who believe.

     Hence religious beliefs can be evaluated as to merit only in terms of how they affect human welfare in the world. If a belief improves human life, that belief is helpful. If it impairs human life that belief is harmful—no matter how strongly held. Looked at in this way religious beliefs can be good, bad, or neutral—i.e., neither good nor bad.

     By these categories Deuteronomy 21:18-21 is a harmful idea. In this passage Israelites are directed by their legal code to present their stubborn and rebellious sons to the elders of the city declaring: “Our son is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice. He is a glutton and a drunkard” (Deut 21:20). Then all the men of the city are directed to stone him. The authority behind this religious law is the belief that God ordained the law and hence it should be followed. But there is no way of confirming the metaphysical claim that God authorized it. Hence their metaphysical claim is neither helpful nor harmful in itself, but that belief supported by the metaphysical claim and acted on is genuinely harmful because of the loss of human life.

     Matthew 19:10-12 attributes to Jesus the idea that castration “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven,” and hence self-mutilation, becomes a perfectly reasonable, if irregular, way to serve God in Christianity. What drives the idea is the metaphysical claim that Jesus is the divine son of God. Self-mutilation for religious reasons, however, can never be a good thing because of the physical and psychological harm that it brings to the individual who chooses that path of Christian service.

     Mark 12:31 attributes to Jesus the statement: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Actually it is a Jewish idea (Leviticus 19:18) in which “neighbor” means fellow Israelite (Deuteronomy 15:2-3). The idea has been brought over into Christianity (Romans 13:8). The idea of loving one’s neighbor has merit in itself quite apart from any imagined metaphysical authorization; practicing it would result in helpful consideration to those in one’s own circle. The shortcoming of “love your neighbor,” however, is that it does not go quite far enough, for it does not necessarily include the broader human family in the area of extended kindness.

     Here is the bottom line: religious beliefs are not protected from criticism and censure by appealing to metaphysical sanctions. In short, the claim that it is in the Bible or it is God’s will does not protect a harmful religious belief from censure no matter how sincerely and firmly one holds it. Assuming the ideas in this essay have merit, how would you, gentle reader, evaluate the belief of the writer of 1Timothy 2:11-13: harmful, helpful, or neutral (neither helpful nor harmful)?

Charles W. Hedrick

Posted by Charles Hedrick at 10:46am

Dr. Hedrick,
The writer of 1 Tim doesn’t help the world around me, but it is only one of many unsettling passages found in the Christian canon. The biblical view of women as chattel is just not acceptable. Inequality is not a value we should impart in our culture. I noted that the same word translated as “submission” in 2 Tim. is used over half a dozen times in relation to women or slaves. As long as the Bible is seen as “the Word of God,” that word and others will be used to do harm to others, whether physical or emotional. I encouraged the girls I taught in elementary and middle school to dream, to work to realize their dream, and they could reach it. Sundays they sat in church learning they couldn’t be Southern Baptist pastors or Roman Catholic priests. Though the “Word of God” does not still extend to slavery, why has the barbaric view of women persisted? Dennis
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Posted by Dennis Dean Carpenter on 9/14/2012 at 6:52pm

Silencing women’s voices is harmful to women, but it is much more harmful to the church. The church loses the critical (in both senses) voices that point to a better understanding of metaphysical things, of God. This is the loss that attends any silencing and repression of any voice from the Underside if only for the simple reason that these voices come from perspectives that are removed enough from the center, from the dominant voice, to enjoy a novel view of metaphysical, historical, practical things. I think this is what is meant by Assmann’s ‘epistemological privilege of the poor’.

But how do we know that women’s voices point to something better, that their loss is ‘harmful’ to the church? The idea that women’s voices offer a better understanding of metaphysical things implies, of course, that there are better and worse understandings, that there is some objective referent that can be understood apart from ‘harmful, helpful, neutral’. In fact, we have to pin our understandings of these qualities to something more ultimate than utilitarian concerns. Whitehead says, “But it is impossible to fix the sense of fundamental terms except by reference to some definite metaphysical way of conceiving the most penetrating description of the universe.”

This doesn’t mean we have to take 1 Timothy (or the Bible) as that ‘way of conceiving’. It doesn’t even mean that the ‘definite metaphysical way’ is a static Archimedean point. It is a ‘way’, and we proceed on that way. It is definitely interpretive, but not always practical or even rational.

Sorry so convoluted. This are just some quick, unclear ideas. When I get more time, I can clarify this. For you and for myself.
Posted by Robert McGill on 9/13/2012 at 2:11pm

Thank you for the comment. Actually I understood your point, though I have read little Whitehead and have no idea who Assman is (deficiency in my training, but one cannot read everything). But you do raise the point, must I have some metaphysical view of the universe? Why can I not have as my starting point a naturalistic view of the universe and work from that to some sort of limited "metaphysical" view, viz., there is likely some value behind all that we see but from our limited perspective we simply can never know it or anything about it?
Charlie (Athens, Greece)
Posted by Charles Hedrick on 9/14/2012 at 5:34pm

Dear Charlie:
Given that 1 Tim. 2:11-13 have traditionally been interpreted so as to prevent women--many of whom have probably had some very worthwhile things to say--from voicing their views, I'd have to evaluate their author's view as harmful.

One point I find interesting in your post relates to the term "religious beliefs." How should faith claims (such as that Muhammad split the moon, Moses parted the Red Sea, and Jesus was raised from the dead) be distinguished from knowledge about the natural world (e.g., that 1+1 = 2 or that, if I let go of the pen in my hand, it will fall on the floor)? If faith claims are not factual, are they mere hopes, or are they on a par with what one might refer to as values, such as love, justice, and honor?

Looking forward to your insight,
Posted by Lee Penya on 9/12/2012 at 1:36pm

Hi Lee,
The options you give me in your last sentence do not work for me, Such things as events that break with what we know of as how the world works (Mohammed splitting the moon, Moses and the red sea, Jesus raised from the dead) in simple language I categorize as “miracles”—i.e., deviations from what we know of as the functional norms of physics. Value laden statement must express certain values, viz. Jesus is divine, my wife is the most beautiful woman in the world, Christianity is the true religion, I love you, etc.
Not much insight, I suppose.
Posted by Charles Hedrick on 9/12/2012 at 7:09pm