Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Clean and Unclean 5

I'm going to cheat and insert an old post here.  I actually wrote it back when I started dabbling with the idea of a book or booklet on suffering.  Here's where I now think it might go.

Where is God?
Questionable Explanations
What is evil?
Pain is not Evil
Clean and Unclean (here is where this post goes)
What is sin?
Does God tempt? 1
Does God tempt? 2

The unclean foods and purity laws of Leviticus might seem at first glance seem to contradict the idea that morality is always a matter of someone's intentions (Lev. 11-16).  After all, in Leviticus simply touching something makes you unclean.  There are other instances where a person's intentions seem to be good and their touch gets them in trouble.  In 2 Samuel 6, a man named Uzzah reaches out to steady the Ark of the Covenant and died immediately.  Similarly, at Mt. Sinai, any animal that might have touched the mountain was to be killed (Exod. 19:13).

But as with all issues, we cannot simply appropriate one passage without consulting the rest of the Bible.  Similarly, the books of the Bible are in everyday language and categories, which means that it does not express things with philosophical precision, just as it does not express things with scientific or what we would consider historical precision.  When we turn to the New Testament, we find the apostle Paul saying that "I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean" (Rom. 14:14).

Paul's claim--quite surprising in the light of Leviticus--is that food in itself is morally neutral.  It is the way a person thinks about the food--his or her moral intent--that makes the food clean or unclean.  The matter itself is morally neutral.  We can accommodate the Old Testament by saying that, during the period of the Old Testament, God considered certain foods and actions to be "unclean" in his dealings with Israel.  But in the New Testament, God "declared all foods clean" (Mark 7:19), now making them clean.

Why did God consider them unclean?  In itself this question potentially tells us a great deal about how God relates to the world.  The instructions on animals with certain hooves or not having fins and scales seem ridiculous to us today.  One explanation that has made sense to our modern mind is that these rules had to do with hygiene, and this explanation does go back at least to the time of Jesus.

However, explanations that make sense to us are as often as not anachronistic.  A much more likely explanation in light of the ancient world is that these laws mirrored the way the ancient Israelites viewed the world in their socio-cultural context. [1]  In other words, rather than God instituting arbitrary rules, these laws reflected God meeting the Israelites within the categories of their own day.

The food laws all imply a certain order to the Israelite world.  Things in the sea should have fins and scales.  Birds should fly.  Blood is a power that should stay inside the body.  Israelites are shepherds; other nations herd pigs.  The holiness codes of Leviticus thus reflect the lines Israel drew around their world, just as all cultures draw lines and boundaries around their worlds. [2]  These laws thus set Israel apart from the nations around them that served other gods.  When the gospel expanded to the whole world, these boundaries became more of a hindrance than a help, and so the New Testament in effect revokes them.

But of course, though Paul takes this position on food, he does not say that everything is either clean or unclean because of how we think about it.  For example, it is doubtful Paul would have talked about sexual immorality in this way.  But again, Paul's writings are letters, not philosophy books.  We can still extend the basic principle and account for what he says about sexual immorality in a more precise way.

The key is to bring God into the picture as we did with Leviticus.  There, it was not the food that was moral in  nature, but the fact that God at that time was declaring those foods unclean for Israel, meeting them within their categories, taking on their flesh, so to speak--incarnating the truth.  It is thus possible that certain sexual actions would remain "unclean" in the New Testament era because God considered them unclean, regardless of the intentions of those involved (e.g., sleeping with your step-mother; 1 Cor. 5).

But we are arguing, once again, that it is not the act itself or things themselves that are unclean or morally wrong.  Rather, it is either what God thinks about those acts and events or what we intend about those acts that makes them either morally good or evil.  And here the principle is once again love.  Can a person ever act in love toward his or her spouse and have an affair?  Highly doubtful.  Therefore, cheating on one's spouse is always a morally evil act--not because of the act itself, but because of the intention involved.

[1] See Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger.

[2] See The Social Construction of Reality.

4 comments:

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Ken,
Cultures differ as to what they "prescribe" as "moral", thus we have polygamy in many countries. This custom has little to do with the "right view" of "God". though "God" is used to justify such things.

People 'project their own cultural understanding upon the text", which is quite normal. How else can one understand things, as this is "the way it is". And some customs are so subtle in difference, that some Western cultures might do things inapproprate. In our own country, these are regonal differences.

"Paul" was useful for Church Tradition which has become THE Christian Tradition in evangelical circles.

Science gives us many avenues to understand humans, behavior and emotional needs, rather than a 'form' of "Tradition". Traditon can be a "neutral" aspect to culture too, as it can be in need of change, or be an appropriate means for "social control".

There is no "gospel", other than "the human" and "peace". So, don't spiritualize things that aren't really "supernatural".

The problem of "the human" and "peace" s the problem of ethnic cleansing, genocide, etc. Humans define themselve within cultural environments, and speicified groups, religious or not. These form a way of understand the world and life. And many times these ways are at odds with one another. This is the cause of conflict and "war".

ALL Things are neutral, in this sense, whatever one chooses, whether secular view that accepts "the real world", or a "sanctioning of the secular" as a way to honor or worship God, it makes NO DIFFERENCE, as to "God".

What DOES make a difference is whether one has behaved in a way that is tolerable, that means, civil. It does NOT mean a lack of FREE SPEECH. FREEDOM of Assembly, etc.! The problem today is with prescribed behavior, such as Sharira that desires to conform our laws or supercede our laws in our own country!

Scott F said...

"these laws reflected God meeting the Israelites within the categories of their own day."

Are you saying that the food laws were God's way of keeping Israelites as far as possible from the corrupting influences of their neighbors?

It would make sense that God would use understandable rules to help his people avoid dangerous activities. Humans do the same thing, and not just elites trying to control the rabble. We do it as parents in, hopefully, loving ways.

If we extend this to God's and Paul's commandments on sexual behavior, might we end up with a liberal position on, say, homosexuality where it is the danger to the social fabric of the time that made same-sex relationships undesirable. Could God come back and ease such restrictions because the perils to his people's stability are less in a day where gay Christians in committed relationships have mainstream "lifestyles" and follow Christ in ways that are recognizable to straight Christians?

I seems that listening to where God is telling you today requires an open mind of rare proportions.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Yes, Scott,
Today in science there is questions about whether there is a difference between the male and female, not just in social terms, but in biological terms. And even then, we have individual differences as to personalities and tendencies towar liberal or conservative values!

Therefore, how is one to make sense of the variabilities that go into the mix of "free societies"? Liberty grants individuals the right to express that individuality in numerous ways. Therefore, what might not seem appropriate to one, is natural for the other.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I'd like to put the "clean and unclean" into a regional understanding within our own American cultural value system.

My cousin went with her husband to California to a pretty conservative (I'd call it fundamental) seminary. She was invited to a "Tea" for other seminary wives, when she decided what dress to wear and would be appropriate (minus the hat and gloves that used to be the tradition in the South,), she had little clue about what was appropriate (allowed) in California's society. When she got there, she was "floored" that some of the ladies were wearing "hop pants"!!!

After living in that area for awhile, she came to understand there were many difference between the East and West coast, as well as the South and the North. These are not about "right and wrong" issues, though they might be "felt that way". These are issues about traditions that grew up around a region to develop certain behaviors, certain values and sometimes to protect certain ability to survive.

Needless to say, that in America where diversity and individuality reigns supreme, no one want others to legislate what they are to wear, what they are to believe OR, for the most part, what they are to do.

We are a people that believes in liberty of conscience, not a tightly fitted ship. And individuals can find their place without questioning themselves and how they are innately made, without "putting on" unuseful or unnecessary apendages to one's person! This is where science is of value in allowing one to understand one's personal tendencies without moral judgments, but understanding of the human.

Academic freedom, human rights, civil liberties, and other such things make for America's values. These are places where one can become and the American Dream is of importance, because it valued what was human, that is the desires of human hearts to flourish.

I am human, and I am an American citizen and I also desire to be valued, as to my right to life and liberty. That means that no one has the right to decide for me, what my values or my commitments will be. That would be undermining the most basic right to choose about my own surivival and place in society. Therefore, I require to be treated as "equal before the law". Traditional religious "convictions" won't do that, as I might be considered "unclean"! Why? many reasons that certain types of christians despise...as these are their cultural values!

I remember reading a book that made such a difference to me, as it was honest about the human NOT IDEAL....it was Shelia Walsh's " Honestly". She told of how she tried to maintain the facade of "religous culture", but had a nervous break-down and ended up in a mental institution! Very real..she made a difference in many who were hiding behind walls of various kinds, religous, cultural, societal....