Thursday, July 29

Fig Picking, Cherry Picking, And Selective Theology

It occurs to me that, many times over the four-plus years I have been writing this “Skeptic’s Collection” column, I have taken the political and religious right to task for the venerable practice of “cherry-picking”, i.e., carefully culling all the evidence for any thesis so as to pick out those events and data that support one’s position, while no less carefully ignoring or de-emphasizing those events and data that support contrary arguments.  Nowhere is this practice more prevalent than in theological discourse, in particular, theodical discourse. But progressives decidedly on the left of the spectrum, both theologically and politically, have an equivalent tendency to pick equally substantial cherry harvests. Herewith some examples that should make chardonnay-swilling, Bernie- / Warren-venerating, Obama- / Hillary-voting, Trump-reviling, “pussy”-hat-wearing, pro-choice, Whole Foods-shopping, kale- / quinoa-eating, gun-control advocating, LGBTQIA-rights-advocating left-leaning progressives – among whom the undersigned includes himself – more antsy than they perhaps do:

o Jesus in the Gospels is quoted as believing in an eternal Hell of torment (Mk. 9:47-48)

And if your eye causes you to fall into sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched …

While we can argue all manner of cultural, ideological, and political work-arounds about such texts -- e.g., historicizing such sayings by projecting onto Jesus irredentist and revanchist Jewish hopes for liberation from the yoke of Roman oppression, etc., etc. -- the point is that we must engage in that kind of maneuvering in the first place, because the text is actually there. I.e., there is something actually in the text that begs all manner of questions vis a vis progressive orthodoxy, if we are to deal with the text from a standpoint of intellectual integrity. To be quite blunt:  if Hell is as Jesus is quoted as believing, then we can forget restorative justice. Instead, vengeance -- Romans 12:19 -- is the paradigm. This is true of all the biblical texts that indicate a “Republican” Jesus. So what is the solution? I do have an answer, and even though you almost certainly will not like it, I refuse to spoil it for you. Keep reading.

o Jesus apparently had a temper, even a streak of vindictiveness (Mk. 11:12-14)

The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.”

On the surface, this pericope would, at the very least, seem to indicate that, as a horticulturist, Jesus sucked big time.  But far beyond even that, if, as orthodox Christians claim, Jesus was the Incarnation of the very God Who created the natural world and ordained the seasons and durations of “seed time and harvest” (Gen. 8:22), cursing the fig tree because it conformed to God’s (i.e., Jesus’) own prior design seems both childish and churlish. Let’s speak plainly:  it’s a temper tantrum. And while the fig-tree incident certainly makes Jesus seem human, it makes Jesus seem merely human. At worst, it would be environmentally irresponsible. I have no idea of what the long-term unintended consequences would be of altering the reproductive cycle of fig trees -- or even of this particular fig tree -- but that's just the point:  I don't know.  But 2000 years after Jesus, we do know enough about other unintended consequences of humans' meddling with the natural order to strongly suspect that those consequences would be disastrous. In fact, as it were, apocalyptic.

o “Radically radical” demands of discipleship (Matt. 10:35-37)

For I have come to turn ‘A man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. A man’s enemies will be the members of his own household'. Anyone who loves his father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me

I could cite other examples -- e.g., Jesus' having to be educated out of his initial ethnocentricity (Matt. 15:26-28); his apparently positive estimate of God's wrath against recalcitrant unbelieving villages (Matt. 10:14-15); the early eschatologically oriented Christian community's evident belief that Jesus would be a kind of second Judas Maccabaeus and execute God's judgment against the Seleucids (Rev. 19:11-16); his intermittent lack of empathy for the bereaved (Lk. 9:59-61, but contrast with his reaction to Lazarus' death and the grief of Mary and Martha in the 11th chapter of the Gospel of John); and the parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard (Matt. 20:1-16) is at flagrant variance with any version of progressives' advocacy of economic justice I have ever seen, but arguably consistent with Nike's policy toward its Third World sweat-shop employees -- but the point would remain unchanged.

No reason to further belabor the point:  the Jesus of the Gospels often acts at serious variance with good progressive "orthodoxy", in fact, very like a stereotypical Republican. We are not scandalized by this only because we are about as good at cherry-picking as our conservative siblings.

Why? That is, why do we -- progressives no less than conservatives -- have to cherry-pick, anyway?

The following is my answer.  We -- progressives no less than conservatives -- are children of the 18th-century European Enlightenment. To a greater extent than we know, to a greater extent than we probably can know consciously, we are all – even conservative Republicans – steeped in that socio-cultural brew. I  mean steeped in it even if, as conservative Republican evangelical / Reformed Christians often do (e.g., the late Francis Schaeffer), we are determined to repudiate it. It is too late to repudidate  it.  Even if we try to repudiate it -- as the current goose-stepping gaggle of fascist, neo-fascist, para-fascist, ueber-nationalist, and fascist-adjacent authoritarian politicians here and in Europe, like Trump, Orban, LePen, Wilders, Farage, & Co.  are often wont to do -- it is "always already" the European Enlightenment that we are attempting to repudiate.  The Enlightenment haunts us even if we revile it. It plays the Sphinx's riddle to our Oedipus. In particular, it is in our hermeneutic / exegetical / interpretive DNA when we read texts, both religious and secular. When we read Milton. When we read Dante. When we read Shakespeare. When we read the Bible. When we read the Gospels. When we read virtually anything, the Enlightenment is always standing at our elbow looking over our shoulder, rather like Banquo's ghost at MacBeth's feast. So when we read any text, we “always already”, even if in spite of ourselves, impose our Enlightenment filters on that text – and our tendency to do this increases the more remote from the Enlightenment is the text we are reading. So our Enlightenment biases color our reading of Dante more than our reading of Shakespeare. And our Enlightenment biases color our reading of the Gospels more than either.

One very common tactic deployed in the reading of texts in "Enlightenment mode" is the imposition of a metaphorical lens or filter over the text. That is, whenever any text becomes too transgressive of our Enlightenment sensibilities, we -- usually unconsciously -- read the text through a scrim of metaphor, almost always without even thinking about it, even when neither the text nor the context would justify such a reading. The red-italic quotation from Matthew above is an excellent example. We tell ourselves that ... awww ... golly-gee-gawrsh ... Jesus didn't really mean that we should love him more than we love our own parents and children. He couldn't have meant that! After all, he is ... well ... he is JesusIn making this judgment, we -- again unconsciously -- draw upon an Enlightenment, in this case Romantic, view of family, parenthood, and childhood, e.g., Wordsworth's "Intimations of Immortality and Childhood" and his great biographical poem, the Prelude. Ditto lesser known but still formative texts like Coventry Patmore's The Rod, the Root, and the Flower and "The Angel in the House". Ditto John Keats and Fanny Brawne, Robert and Elizabeth Browning, and the entire Pre-Raphaelite movement in art and literature. Etc., etc., etc. ... all of which passionately asserted the unconditional priority of the experience of purely human love and relationship, especially marriage, parenthood, and childhood, even at the expense of piety and conventional Christian faith.

If I were to go into this in detail and in its full dimensionality, the task would eat me alive.  Whole doctoral dissertations have been written on this subject, and that is just a drop in the ocean to the dissertations that are waiting to be written. And it would eat you alive to read it. So suffice to say that I think you perhaps get the idea:  we cherry pick because, no matter how hard we try, we -- conservatives and progressives -- cannot transform Jesus into a Romantic or Pre-Raphaelite -- least of all Enlightenment -- hero without a prior act of misinterpretation and misprision. (Prof. Harold Bloom made a formidable career out of meditating on, examining, and writing about this interpretive turn.) So what is the bottom line? Well, taking the above red text in Matthew as our guiding example, we can say that, if we refuse to conform to the Enlightenment-centric and -filtered interpretation, then, distasteful as it probably will be, we have to seriously consider the possibility that, in the absence of a context indicating the contrary, Jesus meant exactly and literally what he said -- that one's love for him must, in the most pristinely literal sense possible, take precedence over the love of parents and children -- all the more so, because nothing in the text or the context suggests metaphorical intent. Matters in the first-century CE being whatever they may, we daughters and sons of the European Enlightenment cannot, without fatally severe personal and societal dislocations, take Christianity straight up. Letting Jesus be Jesus, taking Jesus "straight up" and not on the rocks, would pull the rug out from under the Church and western civilization. So we do the next best thing:  we try to turn Jesus into a Semitic Voltaire or Rousseau ... or, at most, Pascal ... born out of due season.  For, brave rhetoric notwithstanding, our dirty little secret is that we love our spouses, our parents, our kids, etc., more than we love God, as we will usually admit when staring insomniacally at the ceiling at 2 a.m.

Concluding disclaimer:  I am biased. I am a big fan of the European Enlightenment. I support the Enlightenment ... ahem ... bigly. So I think that is a damn good thing!

James R. Cowles

Image credits

"An Angel Leading a Soul into Hell" ... Wellcome Trust ... Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International
Dead tree ... Pixabay ... Public domain
Yom Kippur prayers in synagogue ... Maurycy Gottlieb, 1878 ... Public domaibn
"Unbelief of St. Thomas" ... Rembrandt van Rijn, 1634 ... Public domain
"The Betrayal of Christ" ... Jacopo da Ponte, 1568 ... Public domain
Cherry picking ... ... Public domain






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