2015: Advent Religion: The Bible Says It, I Believe It, That Settles It

by on December 6, 2015

Someone asked about proof texting, so let’s talk about the Bible for a bit.

A proof text is a snippet, usually a verse or two, sometimes even part of a verse, that is used as evidence for a point of doctrine. When you have a sacred text, even quite a short one, different parts of it are going to relate to different concepts, and the Bible is not a short text. We have chapters and verses to make it possible to navigate to a particular place, and tell other people where you’re looking. If you quote some religious sounding words, and claim it’s in the Bible, you might be lying. If you can cite where exactly in the Bible it is, that’s a stronger foundation for discussion, and makes it possible for other people to join you at that place and read it for themselves.

Integrating the great sprawling mass of the Bible into a single coherent set of beliefs is something of a challenge. This is inconvenient, because the Bible is supposed to be authoritative. It would be awfully helpful if there was a list somewhere of what you were supposed to believe, like the start of a presentation – by the end of this sacred text you will understand 1. the nature of divinity 2. the nature of humanity 3. the correct use of prayer…

The Bible does not in fact contain such a list. What is does contain is a lot of verses and phrases which sound like they could belong on such a list, and these end up being used as proof texts. A sentence or two that proves you’re right about this. If you have one of those and you’re sufficiently adamant about it, it becomes pointless to argue with you, which feels a lot like winning the argument. It’s a kind of certainty, and I don’t think we should underestimate the appeal of that. Certainty is comforting. It isn’t nice to hear that the religion you’re trying to live by doesn’t have a clear answer to an important question. It feels like sand shifting underfoot. A definitive statement of principle restores the sensation of knowing what the fuck you’re doing. That is not an argument that people who use proof-texts are weak inferior people. It is an argument that they are human people, and I do exactly the same thing with statements like “Don’t be a dick” and “Tea always helps”.

A couple of worked examples:

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

This one is directed inwards, towards yourself and your fellow travellers. This is a reassurance that, even though The World thinks you are completely wrong about something, you’re actually even more right. The most unfortunate side effect is a desire to be persecuted, and a temptation to manufacture it, by provoking people to argument or interpreting things that aren’t about your faith as attacks on your faith. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake – so if you’re not being persecuted, are you not righteous? Are you not blessed?

“Do not be yoked unequally with unbelievers.”

This one was a huge deal for me when I was nineteen. I’d fallen in love with a young man who was a professed atheist. I was pretty certain my interest was reciprocated. I desperately wanted to believe it was okay for me to date him, and I didn’t believe that, largely because of this one sentence. This one sentence meant that I couldn’t ever marry someone who wasn’t Christian, and the right kind of Christian at that. And casual dating wasn’t in my worldview – going out with him was the first step to maybe marrying him, and it would be wrong to go out with anyone I wasn’t in principle willing to marry. I’ve seen arguments that this verse isn’t actually talking about personal relationship at all, but collective cooperation. I’ve personally always wondered whether all yoking with unbelievers must by definition be unequal, or if there’s some equal kind that is perfectly okay. But this one sentence sat there, implacable, and I sat up all night crying over my study bible because I wanted that boy and was convinced I couldn’t have him.

I never did find a way round it. I just started breaking the rules.

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