The merits of “moderate” faith

On beliefnet, Sam Harris is debating theism with Andrew Sullivan. Both the content and the tone of the debate remind me of the recent discussions on this blog. Harris and Sullivan respect each other, and they diligently seek common ground, but inevitably they end up talking past each other.

The debate gets edgy at times. Sullivan is a “moderate” Christian. Harris opposes religion of all stripes, and argues that moderate faith is no real improvement on fundamentalism.

(An aside: I’m not sure “moderate” is a fair description of Sullivan’s faith, although I understand why Sullivan and Harris are using that description in their dialogue. As a gay Roman Catholic, Sullivan has had some very negative experiences. Moderate cannot equal insubstantial or half-hearted, or Sullivan would have given up on his Church long ago. But he is a moderate in other respects: e.g., in his admission that the New Testament is the word of fallible human beings, not the infallible word of God.)

Does moderate Christianity constitute an improvement on fundamentalism? Here are some excerpts — just the parts of the discussion where they debate that issue.

The reason I find fundamentalism so troubling – whether it is Christian, Jewish or Muslim – is not just its willingness to use violence (in the Islamist manifestation). It is its inability to integrate doubt into faith, its resistance to human reason, its tendency to pride and exclusion, and its inability to accept mystery as the core reality of any religious life.

How does one “integrate doubt” into one’s faith? By acknowledging just how dubious many of the claims of scripture are, and thereafter reading it selectively, bowdlerizing it if need be, and allowing its assertions about reality to be continually trumped by fresh insights — scientific (“You mean the world isn’t 6000 years old? Yikes…”), mathematical (“pi doesn’t actually equal 3? All right, so what?”), and moral (“You mean, I shouldn’t beat my slaves? I can’t even keep slaves? Hmm…”). Religious moderation is the result of not taking scripture all that seriously. …

While religious moderates don’t fly planes into buildings, or organize their lives around apocalyptic prophecy, they refuse to deeply question the preposterous ideas of those who do. Moderates neither submit to the real demands of scripture nor draw fully honest inferences from the growing testimony of science. In attempting to find a middle ground between religious dogmatism and intellectual honesty, it seems to me that religious moderates betray faith and reason equally.

In many ways, the source of much of today’s religious moderation is taking scripture more seriously than the fundamentalists. Take the Catholic scholar Garry Wills. Read his marvelous recent monographs on Jesus and Paul and you will see a rational believer poring through the mounds of new historical scholarship to get closer and closer to who Jesus really was, and what Paul was truly trying to express.

For me, the deconstruction of a crude notion of Biblical inerrantism is not a path to a weaker faith but to a stronger one, unafraid of history, of truth, of the past, or the inevitable confusion that the very human followers of a divine intervention created after his death and resurrection. I find in this unsatisfying scriptural mess very human proof of a remarkable event – the most remarkable event, in my view – in the history of humankind.

The Gospels really aren’t, to any fair reader, about owning slaves, the age of the planet, or the value of pi. They are stories about and by a man who preached the love of the force behind the entire universe, and the need to reflect that love in everything we do. Yes, there are contradictions, internal clashes, vagueness, politics, cultural anachronisms, and any number of flaws in a divinely inspired human endeavor. But there is also a voice that can clearly be heard through and above these things: a voice as personal to me as it was to those who heard it in human form.

I have not argued that the book is principally “about owning slaves,” just that it gets the ethics of slavery wrong. The truth is that even with Jesus holding forth in defense of the poor and the meek and the persecuted, the Bible basically condones slavery. As I argued in Letter to a Christian Nation, the slaveholders of the South were on the winning side of a theological argument. They knew it. And they made a hell of a lot of noise about it. We got rid of slavery despite the moral inadequacy of the Bible, not because it is the greatest treatise on morality ever written.

Harris voices some of the criticisms that I face because of my awkwardly moderate approach to Christianity. He alleges that a moderate faith is a weak faith; one that doesn’t take scripture seriously; one that doesn’t do justice either to faith or to reason. I’ll let Sullivan’s eloquent response stand in for my own.

I also note that they are, indeed, speaking past each other. Sullivan could not be any more clear in acknowledging that there are “contradictions, internal clashes, vagueness, politics, cultural anachronisms, and any number of flaws” in the New Testament, a divinely inspired but human book. He goes so far as to admit that the accounts of Christ’s resurrection are a mess.

Why then does Harris argue that the New Testament “gets the ethics of slavery wrong”? I think this is a superficial reading of the New Testament, by the way, typical of someone who reads the text only to find fault with it. But never mind that — why does he think he’s scoring points on Sullivan by arguing a position that Sullivan has already conceded?

Atheists can’t get past their beloved straw man:  Christians are necessarily inerrantists, and innerrancy is indefensible. The second statement arguably is true; the first statement manifestly isn’t.

I’m going to follow up tomorrow with an excerpt from Sullivan’s blog, in which he maintains that the scientific method is not the only road to truth.


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. juggling mother
    Jan 27, 2007 @ 12:58:43

    in answer to the question, imo moderate christianity (or any religion) is a vast improvement on fundamentalist religion, if only because they are open to debate and willing to move with the times.

    I do not have a problem with faith per se, but with the dogmatism it requires to remain a power in the world.


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