Saturday, February 26, 2005

Babble, Bible and Babel

Over at, the question of proper Scriptural interpretation, usually a low-priority item among most UUs, is demanding a rare audience. Brother P asks his preacher colleagues whether, when UU clergy preach thematically but invoke Scriptural texts, they must necessarily depend on the interpretive technique of eisegesis, which is deemed a big no-no in more Bible-centered denoms where the eternal fate of your soul may depend on correct understanding. Since I’m not a preacher colleague, I thought I’d take up the question here.

My answer, Brother P, is, “Depends. What’s your hermeneutic?”

First, some vocabulary for those to whom these technical terms are unintelligible babble. Exegesis is drawing the correct underlying meaning out of a passage from Scripture. Eisegesis, in contrast, is injecting a meaning into a passage of Scripture that is not authentically there. In traditional circles, it can be tantamount to the sin of taking the Lord’s name in vain: preaching one’s own prideful and fallen personal views, and falsely calling them the Word of God. Hermeneutics are the sets of interpretive rules that you use in exegesis in order to ascertain the correct meaning.

In the early days of the Reformation, the Protestant hermeneutic was simple: the Bible is the perfect, inerrant, and complete Word and Revelation of God, and the sole source of all spiritual truth. This early understanding is reflected, for example, in the 1629 covenant still in use at the First Church in Salem, Unitarian: “We do covenant with the Lord and one with another, and do bind ourselves together in the presence of God, to walk together in all His ways, according as He is pleased to reveal Himself to us in his blessed Word of truth [emphasis added].” Although our Salem brothers and sisters no longer adhere to this literal, inerrant hermeneutic, in some other corners of Protestantism it still survives today. It finds parallels in other religions, too – for example, the way Muslims read the Qur’an or Mormons the Book of Mormon. However, in the 18th and 19th centuries, a “critical school” of Bible scholarship (arising first in German universities) began to examine Biblical texts in the same way that literary critics and anthropologists examined other literature from older cultures, in the context of what else was known about the cultural norms and literary conventions of the time.

These scholars unlocked many meanings that were quite different from the superficially apparent meaning of words read in isolation in a later time and culture. Form-critical, historico-critical, and other new hermeneutical approaches became the standard for mainstream Biblical scholarship in the 19th and 20th centuries, and contributed to the rise of Fundamentalism in protest against these new insights.

Unitarians have always stood firmly in the critical hermeneutical camp. The sections of Channing’s 1819 Unitarian Christianity sermon demanding reason in reading the Bible come straight out of the German critical school. Most UUs today who read the Bible understand it to be a diverse collection of texts by independent human authors that were preserved for their continuing relevance to succeeding generations: a compendium of human witnesses to the history and variety of spiritual experiences of a particular people, rather than a single unified and universal revelation from on high. In the UU view, “revelation is not sealed”, and personal discernment is the paramount spiritual authority, so in our tradition the Bible (as well as other scripture and tradition) is properly used as a testimony offered by witnesses of the past to assist our own personal discernment, not as a superior authority to it. For those who come into UUism from a different hermeneutical tradition, this is an enormous difference, and one that is rarely examined or explained, at least not in enough depth to make it widely accepted and internalized. Thus, many UUs still read the Bible through the eyes of religious traditions that they have left behind. Moreover, in the UU hermeneutic some of these ancient witnesses may be so constrained to their own time and culture as to be not particularly relevant to our contemporary context, but that does not impair the timeless relevance of other witnesses whose apprehensions continue to speak to us. Contrary to the impression held by some UUs, to us it doesn't have to be either all true or else all useless.

The implication of all of this is that UU preachers do have somewhat more latitude than their colleagues in more traditional denoms, and legitimately so, in their ability to interpret and apply Biblical passages before crossing the dreaded line from exegesis into eisegesis. We are somewhat freer than adherents of other Scriptural traditions to accept or reject older witnesses, and to supplement them with our own. Yet I would argue that even for UUs the line between acceptable exegesis and unacceptable eisegesis still exists, and still matters. Our devotion to reason and truth should not allow us to attribute meaning to a passage where it was never intended. I would also argue that UU clergy can do a lot of effective thematic preaching from Scripture without violating a more conventional mainstream hermeneutic. The way to do this is merely to argue by analogy or extension from what the original textual authors authentically did say.

An example of this exegesis-by-extension approach is an “elevator speech” I developed a couple of years ago to defend the high UU regard for personal spiritual intuition and discernment. It’s in the form of a mini-sermon, drawing on lessons from the Old and New Testaments: Genesis 11 (the Tower of Babel) and Acts 2 (when the apostles spoke in a wide variety of unfamiliar foreign tongues to the many foreign strangers assembled at Pentecost). I argue that the Tower of Babel story is a legend representing (among other things) the idea that diversity in human understanding and perspective is not only God’s will but God’s doing, and that desiring a unified common understanding is a misdirected and prideful human aspiration. I argue that the Pentecost story about speaking in tongues is a legend representing not how religious ecstasy ought to reduce you to rapturous gibberish, and not how only one truth is spoken in only one voice, but how the Holy Spirit respects and reaches through our God-given differences and diversity to enlighten each of us according to our own individual ability to perceive and understand.

I’ve given this speech to an evangelical minister trained at Pepperdine and Fuller who thought it was an excellent exegesis. I’ve given it to a non-denominational fundamentalist who accused me right away of committing a particularly heinous eisegesis. And I’ve given it to UUs who stared at me blankly and asked, “Why does the Bible matter to us?” It’s those blank UUs, not the thoughtful Fuller alumni nor the condemning fundies, whom UU exegetes need to be most concerned about reaching.

Friday, February 18, 2005

God, Man, and Nature

In harmonious co-existence.

Sound nice? Now imagine it all administered under the benevolent rule of Howard Dean.

No, it's not a crazy vision of an alternate universe; it's called Vermont. That is, all except the Dean part, since he has moved on. (Dot org.)

And Fausto won't be posting for a few days, cuz he and family are going up there to pay their annual homage to that weird experiment in collectivist capitalism known as Mad River Glen, the only major ski resort in the country that's also a nonprofit co-op owned by the customers. (If you think your average UU interest group's e-mail listserv can get overbearing, you've never seen MRG's the week after the base lodge cafeteria runs out of vegetarian chili.) For $1500, you can buy a share in the co-op, which entitles you to the privilege of donating $200 a year to the operating fund, which in turn entitles you to receive $200 face value of scrip (called "Mad Money") redeemable only on the mountain. Oh, and shareholders' kids get free seasons' passes up to age 12, if you remember to apply for them before October 15. If you're not a shareholder, you can still visit; they accept real money too. But if you are a shareholder, forget about capital gains; the only permissible buyer for used shares is the co-op, and they won't pay a penny more than $1500. Maybe less, if you're behind in your dues.

They've got dozens of long twisting trails through protected forests, a higher proportion of expert terrain than most other ski resorts, and remarkably uncrowded slopes -- because they've never gotten around to replacing the pokey single chair that was built over 50 years ago and still serves over half the mountain. No high-speed quads here. Yeah, they even have a trail appropriately named "Paradise", but to fend off banality they've also got "Quacky" and, for balance, "Quacky II". And if you don't like the service, or the food, or the lines, or the grooming, there's hundreds of other owners on the listserv just waiting -- nay, chomping at the bit -- to hear about it and discuss it for the next month. The costliest capital improvement in the budget last year was the new set of urinals in the men's room. (Complete with warning sign: "No Diving".) It's a freakin' UU reverie up there.

They've also had three feet of new snow in the last week. Later, dude.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Bush's Sex Scandal

Nicholas Kristof's column in this morning's New York Times rips the Bushies for promoting abstinence-only sex education. He's right; it's a scandal. Some excerpts:

...for all the carnage in President Bush's budget, one program is being showered with additional cash - almost three times as much as it got in 2001. It's "abstinence only" sex education, and the best research suggests that it will cost far more lives than the Clinton administration's much more notorious sex scandal.

Mr. Bush means well. But "abstinence only" is a misnomer that in practice is an assault on sex education itself. There's a good deal of evidence that the result will not be more young rosy-cheeked virgins - it will be more pregnancies, abortions, gonorrhea and deaths from AIDS.

Look, I'm all for abstinence education. I support the booming abstinence industry as it peddles panties and boxers decorated with stop signs (at, and "Pet Your Dog, Not Your Date" T-shirts.

Abstinence education is great because it helps counteract the peer pressure that often leaves teenagers with broken hearts - and broken health.

For that reason, almost all sex-ed classes in America already encourage abstinence. But abstinence-only education isn't primarily about promoting abstinence - it's about blindly refusing to teach contraception.

To get federal funds, for example, abstinence-only programs are typically barred by law from discussing condoms or other forms of contraception - except to describe how they can fail. So kids in these programs go all through high school without learning anything but abstinence, even though more than 60 percent of American teenagers have sex before age 18. ...

Other developed countries focus much more on contraception. The upshot is that while teenagers in the U.S. have about as much sexual activity as teenagers in Canada or Europe, Americans girls are four times as likely as German girls to become pregnant, almost five times as likely as French girls to have a baby, and more than seven times as likely as Dutch girls to have an abortion. Young Americans are five times as likely to have H.I.V. as young Germans, and teenagers' gonorrhea rate is 70 times higher in the U.S. than in the Netherlands or France.

The Rev. Earl Holt of King's Chapel was the visiting preacher in our church last Sunday, and he preached from Matthew 4:1-11, the account of Jesus' temptation in the wilderness. His point was that it is a mistake to see temptation as a primarily external phenomenon, that can be controlled effectively by restricting the external opportunities for temptation. In one of the archetypal stories of temptation in our culture, Jesus did not go to Sodom or Gomorrah or Nineveh or Las Vegas to be tempted; he went into the wilderness alone.

The right-wing religionists' approach to teen sexuality misses this point, from their own loudly vaunted religious tradition, in large part. Or "big time", to borrow from Dick Cheney's language of reverence. The conservative moralists suppose that if you withhold knowledge in order to make the wages of sin seem more dangerous, the perception of external danger will encourage teens to resist external temptation.

But do they really think they can successfully control teen sex by refusing to teach contraception? The studies are in, and the numbers show it doesn't work. When will religious prudes catch on that if they truly want to reduce sin and relieve suffering -- by reducing the incidence of abortions, unwed mothers, and STD epidemics, or by increasing the number of girls receiving higher education and children being raised in stable two-parent households -- a better way to achieve those laudable moral goals is with rational rather than taboo-driven public health policies? If abortion is seen as a grievous sin, the best way to keep a naive 14-year-old girl from committing it is not to try to scare her away from the far lesser sin of premarital sex by making its consequences more dangerous than they need to be, or to try in other ways to limit her access to external temptation; her greater temptation is internal and she will encounter it eventually anyway. Rather, it is to teach her all the ways that unwanted pregnancy and other sexual dangers can be prevented even before she begins to encounter temptation.

In Matthew's story Jesus successfully resists his own temptation, but only a few chapters later we also find him speaking of motes and beams. Isn't hiding truth from our kids, and knowingly exposing them thereby to a greater risk of harm, ultimately a more discretionary and therefore graver moral failure than their own potential lapses in their adolescent battle to gain wise and willful control over their hormones? Isn't it a scandal that Bush, who himself is intimately familiar with both the nature of adolescent temptation and the moral admonitions of Jesus, is trying to use our tax money to perpetrate this sin against our children?

Thursday, February 10, 2005


I came up with this a few years ago and still like it a lot. If I had been thinking, I would have used it as my blog's first post:

I believe in one God: a Force omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent and eternal, that created the universe and all that is in it, that sustains all, that permeates all, that transcends all.

I believe that while the full nature of the transcendent God is beyond our comprehension, God’s presence is manifest in love, compassion, truth, justice, harmony, and beauty, and is further revealed through worship, study, and contemplation. I believe that devotion to these develops the element of God present within each of us, and in so doing, binds ourselves more closely to God.

I believe that God is opposed by Evil: a lesser, yet likewise omnipresent and transcendent, Force, that seeks the corruption of God’s works and purposes, and that exploits the limitations of human nature through undetected cunning, falsehood, and deception. I believe that Evil prospers parasitically, by manipulating the power of God to its own ends, and withers when it is recognized and isolated from God’s vital, sustaining strength. I believe it is our sacred duty to learn to recognize and resist the many subtle guises of Evil.

I believe that God created Earth to sustain life, that the presence of God infuses all life and all creation, and that the land, air, water, natural systems, and wild places of Earth, being of God and with God, are sacred to God and mankind.

I believe that in diverse times and places diverse societies receive insight into the nature of God; that these disparate insights are both uniquely informed and uniquely constrained by cultural and historical context; that each of these distinct insights nevertheless contains a valid apprehension of the one transcendent God; that the differences among them, arising out of perception and not substance, are illusory; and that as these many experiences compound over the course of human history, a deeper, richer relationship with God becomes available to successive generations.

Ex Obscurito

In the previous John Adams thread, I detected a faint clamor for increased attention to matters obscure. To accomodate such demand, I offer herewith the handsome visage of Dr. E. Digby Baltzell, the late esteemed University of Pennsylvania historian and sociologist whose monumental opus, Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia: Two Protestant Ethics and the Spirit of Authority and Leadership, is an earth-shaking study, second in its sociological sweep and impact only to Famous UU Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities within the genre of dual urban comparisons. (Although, to be honest, I don't know whether the genre contains more than two published works.) Although published over two decades ago, it caused nearly-noticeable seismic ripples in the social fabric of both burgs that may yet burst into open palpability, especially if magnified by the sympathetic aftershocks of the recent Super Bowl.

Despite the vital importance of that work, at least on the northern and southern flanks of the New York exurbs, Dr. Baltzell is perhaps better known for his earlier studies, Philadelphia Gentlemen: The Making of a National Upper Class (1958), and The Protestant Establishment: Aristocracy and Caste in America (1964), in which he coined the now-famous term "WASP". Members of the Protestant power elite of twentieth-century America, and all others who know deep down in their souls that noblesse oblige is a high duty and sacred calling rather than a contemnable weapon of power and subjugation, owe Dr. Baltzell a debt of eternal gratutude. (And isn't that a dapper bow tie?)

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Famous UU John Adams Handicaps the Super Bowl

Phyladelphia with all its Trade, and Wealth, and Regularity is not Boston. The Morals of our People are much better, their Manners are more polite, and agreeable -- they are purer English. Our Language is better, our Persons are handsomer, our Spirit is greater, our Laws are wiser, our Religion is superiour, our Education is better. We exceed them in every Thing, but in a Markett, and in charitable public foundations.

--diary of John Adams, October 9, 1774

Says Boston Globe sports columnist Dan Shaughnessy:

"Somehow we never think of Founding Father John Adams as a trash talker, but it's clear that the second president had strong feelings regarding the two regions represented in this year's Super Bowl. ... Adams sounds like a true Patriot, one who wouldn't mind having a Sam Adams with Sam Adams and taunting the Yankees from the back row of the bleachers at Fenway Park."