The following is a reflection I wrote in the beginning of 2008 for the Faith and Leadership House of 2008-2009. With the caveat that standard Catholic modifiers now apply to everything I endorse, I still endorse what I had to say pretty much wholeheartedly. Anyway I dug it up, read it, and thought it worth sharing as a piece of blog.The Bible Tells Us
The Bible, the Old Testament at any rate, tells us to stone people for all manner of offenses, including but not limited to sex outside the context of marriage. The Old Testament provides a few humanitarian measures on the matter, mostly attempts to account for rape, and the New doesn't seem to call for stoning on almost anything, but still: all these old laws. How do we decide which parts of the Law still apply, and in what way? (And this is not even thinking of which punishments should still apply?) If we choose one over the other, must we sacrifice the unity of Scripture to do so?
The Bible tells us to submit ourselves to the governing authorities. Does this command have any veto power over the others? What are we to do if we believe it is given to us in Scripture not to lie, and the governing authorities tell us to lie? For that matter, what if our parents tell us? Does that commandment have so much power that we should? Is this a situational thing? Common sense seems to say yes, to me, but common sense also tells me that dead people stay dead and virgins don't have babies. Christianity is not a common-sense religion.
The Bible tells us to rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn. But what if our rejoicing is their mourning, or vice versa? If both parties try and do the noble thing, they're still not following the command, because one is still mourning and the other is still rejoicing. So what is to be done? Do both parties alternate the mourning and rejoicing? If this situation even arises, does that mean one party has done something wrong?
It is not only a question of when the rubber hits the road, but what happens when the rubber hits the road. At what point do contradicting ethical orders, or even contradicting theologies--and I do believe they are in play in the Scriptures--overrule each other, and how do we decide which one gets priority if there is a conflict between two or more passages?
But wait! You might turn to me and ask whether the whole problem hasn't already been solved by Christ, the Incarnate Logos, Jesus of Nazareth, who boldly put forth a mere two commandments as the sum of the Law and the Prophets: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind and strength. Love your neighbor as yourself. And who is your neighbor? Not the common sense answer, not just that jerk who puts up a 10-foot fence between your property and his or the nice old lady who keeps bringing you copies of Watchtower magazine. No, your neighbor is every man and woman: friends, enemies, short, tall, black, white, you name it, and to that end it strikes as logical that all our interpretations of Scripture, perhaps most when we see a conflict between two passages, ought to be guided by two principles: love of God, and love of humanity.
Of course, we believe that at least to a degree the problem has been solved, even if we don't know the solution. Christ establishes a new covenant. It isn't necessarily the case that every six-hundred-odd laws are still in effect. But as evidenced by the wandering writings of Paul on just about anything where the word "law" is involved, the matter is not simple, and at any rate, Jesus of Nazareth never gave us a chart of which verses trumped which. Whether he could have is a topic for another day!
Even at our most theoretical and uninvolved as Christians (and may I say in particular as an amateur Christian theologian) we are forced to get our hands dirty. Inevitably, it seems the case that one piece of the Inspired Word of God trumps another. And perhaps that is part of the point. Christianity is not a clean religion. It is not common-sense. If even the biggest theologians of a faith must get their hands dirty to do their work, what does this say for the lesser? If we're not getting our hands, hearts, and minds dirty as Christians, it means we might have to reexamine whether we're really going for the gold.
Thankfully, because we believe in a New Covenant it is allowed to us to talk somewhat of these things being a mystery, of not having everything handed to us on a silver platter, but handed to us nonetheless, of the world's issues having been addressed to some degree at least, and Sin in some sense atoned for, even though we don't really know why or exactly how. But when we get into specifics about what to believe, what to do, and what the Bible tells us--and to decide what orthodoxy meant, thousands of early Christians already had to do this, and imagine doing it without a defined canon!--when we get into the question of what the Bible tells us, of what we ought to believe and do, we get our hands dirty. We do have one agreement among us, at least, as a house; this is that God dirtied a hand for us in a very personal way. I suggest that it is our job, an imperative as Christians, to get our hands dirty in turn: by figuring out what we ought to believe and do, and by believing and doing it.
But not necessarily in that order.