The Subconscious Bias at Work in Conservative and Liberal Interpretations of Scripture

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I’m going to play the devil’s advocate and criticize a tendency of mine (and that of many non-conservative or more liberal-leaning or Emergent-type Christians) to rationalize God or make Him fit into our image of what we think God should be like. To understand what I mean, check out a previous entry of mine. I am doing this (criticizing such a tendency) because I think it may be a valid criticism. I say “may” because if I thought it was a totally valid criticism then I would listen to such criticisms, learn from it and desist from such tendencies. But actually I’m not sure where the truth lies. I do not like the dogmatism of conservative evangelicalism or fundamentalism, which often makes God out to be cruel and uncompassionate, but on the other hand I can’t be 100% sure that my openness to non-traditional beliefs is right either.

Let me start here by repeating the above and saying that because of my Christian journey, I’ve come to dislike the dogmatic and fundamentalist spirit I see so often in Christianity. I’ve become more open to different beliefs as I myself have in the past transitioned from one belief and tradition to another, and till now never really settling down in any (except maybe the Emergent tradition which is really an ongoing conversation that seeks to transcend previous traditional divisions). And most importantly for what I’m going to talk about here, I’ve come to question a lot of traditional Christian teachings that I feel does not square up with my view of how God is like. Let me give you two examples. Firstly, I’m not comfortable believing in a God that will send the majority of people who have lived on earth to eternal hellfire. That’s the traditional evangelical belief (as the majority of people on earth have not believed in Jesus) but I don’t think that’s really loving if God does that. Secondly, I have problems with the traditional view of homosexuality. As mentioned above already, I do think homosexual acts are sins but I’m inclined to think that God would be tolerant and understanding towards homosexuals in monogamous and faithful relationships because of the complexities of issues involved – most homosexuals are born like that, very few ever change and it’s darn hard to remain chaste one’s whole life! I can’t agree with the traditional view which demands the homosexual change or be chaste his whole life – if not suffer eternal flames in hell.

I think a good case can be made for a non-traditional view of Salvation (Universalism) and Homosexuality from the Bible. I can’t say there’s a perfect case to be made for the non-traditional view, nor can I say that there’s a perfect case to be made for the traditional view. There are arguments for both sides of any issue and the same for the two issues mentioned above. Who is right and who is wrong? I think ultimately we’re not going to figure it out totally here on earth. We all want to be impartial and evaluate the biblical arguments on both sides impartially and free from any bias. But that’s really wishful thinking. All theologians and scholars claim impartiality and neutrality but yet end up with quite divergent views. This just proves it’s impossible to be perfectly impartial and biblical in one’s interpretation of Scriptures.

So I believe everyone to be imperfect in their interpretation. Advocates of both the traditional and non-traditional view of Salvation and Homosexuality and of many other doctrines are all imperfect. A strong bias influencing a traditional Christian to hold on to the traditional view of any doctrine is simply the fear of change and the comfortability of hanging on to traditional, tried and tested beliefs. Traditions of man often get in the way of the move of God and that is very clear in the Bible. It’s also very clear in the history of the Church: it took centuries for Christians to accept slavery was wrong and it took many decades before tongues-speaking was accepted as not being demonic, but acceptable. Traditions die hard and advocates of traditional interpretations ought to recognize this danger. Recognizing any bias of course doesn’t mean it is overcome. If so, then we will have much more agreement in many issues than we have today. But that’s not so. The reason is because we’re often influenced by biases subconsciously. The reality is that there’s no way to be totally unbiased and impartial and neutral in one’s interpretation of the Bible here on earth.

But I really want to talk more about the bias that influences advocates of non-traditional interpretations of Scripture like myself. Here, the temptation is to accept interpretations that seem more reasonable to us, especially as it relates to our understanding of a compassionate and loving God. Therefore, we often believe in non-traditional beliefs as our reasoning tells us that only such beliefs would make God compassionate and loving. That is why we’re skeptical as to whether a compassionate and loving God would send so many people to hell or that He’ll treat homosexuals so uncompassionately. Like advocates of traditional beliefs, we non-traditional folks support our positions from Scriptures ultimately. However, we ought not to pretend that what’s motivating us is purely a love for Scripture and truth. As in the case of traditional beliefs, there are biases working in the background and we do well to acknowledge that.

I think the bias that is at work in us is the that of being too rational in our thinking. Because of this, it is possible that very often we don’t accept the plain words of Scriptures because it does not seem reasonable. We prefer to think more critically, pose questions here and there and come out with a more complex answer. What is always at the background of our minds is our strong belief that God is love. And therefore, when we come across any Scriptures that make God out to be a cruel despot, we seek to rationalize them away in the light of other Scriptures. Because of our strong affirmation that God is love (which is thoroughly Scriptural), we find it hard to accept other Scriptures which seem to question the love of God. Faced with two seemingly opposing characteristics of God in Scripture, we explain away the Scriptures that seem to make God less than a God of love. And so our rationalization that explains away everything that stands in the way of our God being love is the subconscious bias that is always at work in us.

Such rationalization can indeed be dangerous. After all, faith is about taking God at His word. Too much reasoning and analyzing and we end up with really not believing in anything at all or not knowing what to believe. Such is contrary to faith. Faith is very often childlike acceptance of certain things we don’t understand (sometimes because it seems tremendously unreasonable to us) and that is perhaps what God wants of us.

There’s a lot of Christian tradition (e.g. Luther and even Kierkegaard) seeing a contrast between faith and thinking/reasoning in certain ways. The Bible shows us in many places how God’s ways are so different from the world’s – e.g. in Jesus coming in poverty and then dying on the cross when we would have expected differently of a majestic King. Kierkegaard believed that “faith begins precisely where thinking leaves off” and Luther, that “reason is the enemy of faith”. I think to a certain extent and in some very important ways this is true.

So I do think that we advocates of non-traditional interpretations of Scripture need to challenge ourselves constantly. We need to ask ourselves if the stuff we can’t accept may be due to our lack of faith and the desire to shape God and His ways in our own image.

For conservative Christians who have read the above and in their hearts have said, “Ah ha, you’ve said it well. That’s exactly what you non-traditional Christians need to understand!”, my point of writing the above isn’t so that you can criticize us. I’m writing as a non-traditional Christian because I believe in self-reflection and self-criticism. I recognize there are dangers in our position. But there are also dangers in the position of a traditional conservative Christian. Let’s not criticize and judge one another without first realizing that our respective sides have their own flaws too. Let’s seek to take out the plank in our own eyes before pointing out the speck in our brother’s eye. Both sides need to acknowledge the underlying and subconscious bias at work in our interpretations of Scripture.

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