James Kugel’s How to Read the Bible

Most readers are probably familiar with the Documentary Hypothesis. The basic idea is that the Bible, as an artifact, is best explained by supposing that it is a compilation of several ancient texts, written by different people in different times and cultures. Somebody (“the Redactor,” maybe Ezra) compiled many of the texts by the third century BCE. This explains why not all of the stories fit smoothly together; why there are two accounts of creation, and two accounts of the ten commandments; and why the style varies so much. Moreover, as one delves into the Bible along with archeology and the study of ancient civilizations, one begins to suspect that many of the stories served quite different purposes that the ones uninformed readers project upon the stories nowadays — or, indeed, from the first century CE onward.

An example. After Moses and the Jews have left Egypt, they get into a battle with the Amelekites (Exodus 17). Moses’s plan is to have Joshua command the Israelites while Moses stands atop a nearby hill and holds up his hands. So long as Moses’s hands are outstretched, the Israelites do well; but if he lets them drop, they begin to fail. Moses’s arms get tired, so his helpers give him a rock to sit on and help prop up his arms, and the Israelites eventually prevail.

Weird story. What does it mean? Jewish commentators say something along the lines of, “So long as we turn up our hands in supplication to the Lord, we have his favor.” Christian readers suggest that Moses, in stretching out his arms, foreshadowed the crucifixion, and the victory over death. But compare these readings to a more ordinary hypothesis. The name of the place where the battle takes place, Rephidim, resembles a Hebrew phrase meaning “spread out” or “prop up.” When you say the name aloud, it sounds sort of like you are saying “the hands grew weak.” So maybe, in the area, there was a prominent hill with a couple of rocks on top of it, called “Rephidim,” and the Moses story was invented to explain how the hill got its name. My family when I was growing up similarly made up all sorts of stories about how “Sheboygan” got its name, all of them invoking an ancient Indian who was disappointed at his wife’s inability to give birth to a daughter (“She boy again!” Har har).

Kugel, in this book, provides many similar etiological hypotheses (explaining weird stories as attempts to explain how a place got its name, or why we have some expression, or why two groups don’t get along, and so on). The overall effect is twofold. On the one hand, the Bible becomes a very interesting and complicated text from which you might be able to learn a lot about how ancient people saw their world, as well as how they tried to explain it. On the other hand, a lot of divine significance is drained from the work. Many allegedly inspired and inspiring stories turn out to be just about as rich as my old “Sheboygan” stories.

What’s fascinating is that Kugel is an Orthodox Jew, and so he really wants to revere the text, though his reverence is challenged by his considerable expertise and knowledge. He ends up with the following view. Yes, there are humdrum natural explanations for everything in this old, complicated text. But what makes it sacred are the layers and layers of interpretations that commentators have shellacked over it for centuries. The text has managed to hold the fascination of brilliant scholars for all that time, and the interpretations are wondrous, and somewhere in all that lies the sanctity of the work.

I’m glad this works for Kugel, and I’m hesitant to ask whether he’d also revere any work that supported wild misinterpretations over several generations. (He does give a groovy religious reading of “She’ll Be Coming Around the Mountain When She Comes,” so I’m guessing this possibility has already occurred to him.) This seems to me to be clearly a case of denying what he knows to be true, and hiding behind a thin veil of hermeneutics.

This is a fascinating book, though — highly readable and well-informed (I guess, but what do I know?). I really think it needs to be read by anyone who wants to take the Bible seriously, or by anyone who wants to get a clearer picture of how this book — the most influential one in the western world, by far — came to be written.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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46 Responses to James Kugel’s How to Read the Bible

  1. Rob says:

    Any plans on tackling Crumb’s Book of Genesis?



  2. Huenemann says:

    Crumb’s book sounds great. I wish he’d do Exodus 4:24, when the Lord tries to kill Moses, but Moses’s quick-thinking wife circumcises her son and slaps Moses’s feet with the bloody foreskin, thus saving his life. So cool.


  3. Huenemann says:

    Kugel, by the way, understands this episode as an etiological account of a phrase, “You are a bridegroom of blood,” which must have been prevalent in the day when Exodus was written (or maybe a ritual exclamation at a circumcision). “Bridegrooms of Blood,” of course, would be an excellent name for a rock band.


  4. Vince says:

    Your post sounds like a short summary of Theologico-Political Treatise by Spinoza. I have no problem with Spinoza’s analysis at all. Erza was probably the redactor historian of most of the historical books of the O. T. There are two criticisms that I have of your criticism.

    1. You criticism from a modern perspective. You assume Hume as truth and modernism as you worldview. From that balcony you can only see silliness in the Bible to be chastised. These are not modern documents. The Bible is most certainly NOT a modern historical writing. It is a religious history, i.e., a reporting of events with a consistent religious interpretation to define a people. Many events of history are left out. Much of the timeline is compressed or stretched. Many naturalistic events are interpreted as G-d’s miraculous judgment or blessing. (Whose to say it wasn’t?) Post-Modern historical analysis is grand for identifying the bias or worldview of the story tellers of a group as they relate their history to each other and the world. Many of the events in the O.T. can be found in other middle eastern writings of the Assyrians, Persians, Babylonians, Sumarians, but with entirely different worldviews presented in the interpretations of the events. To judge the O.T. as worthless because it doesn’t come with a modernistic overarching worldview of history (there is one), is silly in itself. The Bible. is RELIGIOUS HISTORY not MODERN HISTORY. Modern history typically presents its story of history as one of an evolving human race from those sad myth-believing humans into the higher rational humans that we are today. The modern version of humanity seems to suffer from the same spasmodic mass murder tendencies today. But now we can argue that there is no such thing as morality. It’s just what humans do. I am not so sure our ‘irreligious history’ is that much better.

    2. The ancient mind (pre-socrates) is largely immuned from having a problem with logical contradictions origin stories that is typically identified in the two stories of creation in Genesis. They are two ‘truth stories’ that have two different purposes. (a) to relate the oneness and separateness of G-d and goodness of all creation. (b) to relate the origin of humanity specifically and the origin of the difficulties in the world. The fact that they don’t quite match up in details would not bother a hebrew of 2000 BCE (oral tradition from the Patriarchs?) or 1400BCE (written stories of the tribal elders under Moses) or 500BCE (Ezra compiling the history of their people to convey a religious message). If you want another example of the many contradictions in origin stories then examine the Navajo Nation origin stories. There are multiple storylines that are contradictory about the origins of all people and the Navajo Nation in particular. Or look at the Navajo stories of why the world is often a mess (their stories about Coyote, the trickster). They are beautiful and wise and logically inconsistent.

    3. (OK three criticisms). The most famous 20th century archeologist, William F. Allbright, concludes that the general historical presentation of the O.T. is based in real events. (I will try to get a quote or two from my copy of “Archaeology, Historical Analogy and Early Biblical Tradition”).

    If you would like to read a scholarly examination of the oldest of history in the O.T., then read “Understanding Genesis: The Heritage of Biblical Israel” and “Exploring Exodus: The Origins of Biblical Israel” by Nahum M. Sarna(1923-2005), formerly a professor at Brandeis University. These works are honest with the data of archeology and history, but he does not have the preconceived bias of modernists associated with Hume and others. He is trying to understand the messages the author(s) are trying to embedding in their telling of events.


  5. Huenemann says:

    I’m not sure where we disagree, Vince. We’re both saying the Bible is a an ancient text that shouldn’t be taken as a modern-style historical document, and that is has its own share of inconsistencies, both internal and external. I’ll agree as well that not everything in it is historically inaccurate; some archeological digs confirm what the Bible says about some events and about some people. And I’ll agree that people have been able to use the text as a basis for spiritual guidance and moral pronouncements, despite all its shortcomings.


  6. Vince says:

    We probably don’t disagree on this either. I have a long-trained knee-jerk reaction to modernist criticisms of old texts. I should know by now that you have a thoughtful approach to everything. Sarna’s book is still a great work. It was recommended by a friend from graduate school (now a Jewish Physicist — he was a boring generic Christian physicist in graduate school, but he didn’t like bacon or hummus.

    So the question arises. What new insight does Kugel bring to the subject over Spinoza’s insights from 350 years ago?

    Spinoza’s view of the apocalyptic language of the Hebrew prophets was very helpful to my reading of the Prophets in particular.. ‘The sun turning dark and the moon turning red … ‘ as a sign of The Day of the Lord (G-d’s judgement) is a harbinger of an advancing army that is burning towns and villages 100 miles away.


  7. Huenemann says:

    “I should know by now that you have a thoughtful approach to everything.” Can I put that on my next book’s desk jacket, Vince?

    I think that Kugel offers nothing new-in-principle to Spinoza: it’s more work in the same direction, with the advantage of further study, more evidence, etc. Indeed, I have read Kugel to help me make up my mind about Sp’s approach to scripture in the TTP. It’s proving to be a far more slippery topic than I’d imagined. I’ll post about it once I get a clearer idea of what I think I want to say about it!

    By the way, anyone interested should have a glance at the Wikipedia page on the Documentary Hypothesis I linked to in the post; there is an exceedingly cool graphic representing which parts of the Mosaic books came from which ancient sources. It’s the sort of thing Spinoza would have marveled at.


  8. Sven says:

    What does Kugel say about the N.T.?


  9. vince says:

    Oohhh. It’s my dream to be quoted on a desk jacket!


  10. vince says:

    I’d love to get the versus by versus breakdown of this graphic.

    If the graphic doesn’t show, its at:

    Documentary Hypothesis Breakdown of the Books of Moses.


  11. Huenemann says:

    Not much about the NT in Kugel’s book. A few observations, but primarily in connection with Xian interpretations of the OT.


  12. Huenemann says:

    Vince – the graphic seems to be based on Friedman’s Who wrote the Bible? Maybe he has the breakdown.


  13. Rob says:

    Edwin Curley’s eruditely devastating presentation at the YOUR WAYS ARE NOT MY WAYS conference is pretty damn entertaining stuff.


  14. Huenemann says:

    Very entertaining. I learned in grad school that Curley’s arguments are like tidal waves; they start small, and gradually become massive, and pretty soon you can’t find your village anymore.


  15. Rob says:

    His responses to Van Ingwagan, and the q&a which followed is also worth watching, too, if you haven’t yet.

    Also, Plantinga’s responses to Evan Fales’ no less devastating critique, followed by Fales’ response, are also good, cautionary viewing — cautionary, I think, in the sense I can think of no better proof of why I would never raise a child to believe in God than the noxious, repugnant, relativism-courting, apologetics-gymastics to which Plantinga resorts. (Another stupendous example is the conclusion of this interview in which Plantinga entertains the possibility that the suffering of non-human animals is the result of their “free activity”. That such a possibility can be seriously raised, it seems to me, on the basis of moral intuitions I trust are widely shared, is a symptom of a way of thinking gone terribly off the rails.) If THAT is what Christian intellectualism leads to, then, truly, to hell with bothering to deal with them in any other way than clinically, as moral psychological curiosities, or in the “militant” manner of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Maher, etc.


  16. Vince says:

    I had to find time to respond.

    van Wagen’s response is subtle and his presentation is not impressive. Curley’s presentation does have a sledgehammer quality with no subtlies.

    First let’s ponder the charge against G-d that G-d commands Abraham to sacrifice his son.

    Possible interpretation: The polytheistic religions of that millenium (3000-500BCE) sometimes had one god request the first born child to be sacrificed at a spring festival to bring a fertile harvest. Baal worship often fell into this request. Moloch was insatiable for child sacrifice. In Jeremiah 7:31, G-d mentions Moloch:

    “They have built the high places of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire, which I did not command, and it did not come into My mind.”

    Rabbi Rashi explains:

    “Topheth is Moloch, which was made of brass; and they heated him from his lower parts; and his hands being stretched out, and made hot, they put the child between his hands, and it was burnt; when it vehemently cried out; but the priests beat a drum, that the father might not hear the voice of his son, and his heart might not be moved.”

    The sacrifice of a child is supposedly an act of devotion for Moloch.

    So now, here is Abraham who is now in covenant with YHWH / Elohim. YHWH is Abraham’s only G-d. Perhaps Abraham is still learning about YHWH. Does YHWH require sacrifice like several other gods?? Perhaps Abraham’s devotion is being tested in the fashion that Abraham expects due to the surrounding cultures and gods. Perhaps YHWH makes the request, then stops the act, then forever forbids this act again for Abraham and his descendants. Animal sacrifice replaces the human sacrifice of other gods. It becomes a teaching moment for Abraham rather than a child sacrifice that Curley accuses G-d of.


  17. Vince says:

    As to rape, God never commands rape. If one looks at the verses that Curley might use to accuse G-d of commanding rape, one can place a more culturally attuned interpretation that He was commanding the Hebrews to ‘take wives’. Women had little to say. Marriage was generally arranged by parents. In Judges, after a city’s complete destruction, the virgins were permitted to live and were taken as wives. Certainly we would not condone this manner of taking wives now, but it was not seen as rape. G-d did not appear anywhere to condone rape. It is only through a grossly negative interpretation that G-d commanded rape.

    OK. Genocide. True. Kill everything. Men, women, children, animals, etc. G-d did command this. It is the hard one to swallow. Let’s look at this and assume that G-d is real. G-d is supposedly a g-d who requires morality. Perhaps we can also assume that van Inwagen’s proposal of the evolution of morality is evidence of G-d’s training of humanity to higher moral values through the centuries. In any case, the Hebrews are ‘given’ a land that G-d promised to Abraham about 400 years earlier. Now they are coming into the land where the current religion has fertility rites of prostitution and child sacrifice every spring to ensure Baal will revive the land for a new crop. Hmmm. If G-d is the one god and G-d doesn’t like the wife-swapping, ritual-prostitution, child-sacrificing festivals, perhaps He may request this society to be removed from the land. Hmmm. Why did he wait 400 years? Why didn’t he just wipe they off the map and let Abraham take over 400 years earlier? Well, Genesis 15:12-16 suggests why:

    12 As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him. 13 Then the LORD said to him, “Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there. 14 But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions. 15 You, however, will go to your ancestors in peace and be buried at a good old age. 16 In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.”

    Hmmm, again. G-d needed to let the Amorites have 400 years more to become a completely worthless society. Ok, now let’s wipe them out. 400 years is a bit longer that the complete history of the U.S.

    Even with all that, it is still hard to read Judges. I freely admit that I have difficulty with these events of Genocide being commanded by G-d. However, what the Jew and the Christian does with them now is another topic.

    Curley has criticisms that are based on the ugliest possible interpretation of sections in question. Granted, they are hard sections to swallow, but van Inwagen’s approach and a more thoughtful pondering of these sections, it is possible to survive as a ‘Bible believing’ Theist.


  18. Vince says:

    Those are generous views of difficult portions of the Bible.

    Now I will ponder Curley’s attack more directly. Dr. Curley is assuming there is a real morality. He stands arrogantly high in judgment over the low morals of these Biblical passages. Where does he get his ground to stand so high in his damnation of morals in the Bible? Does he does believe there is a True Moral Position of Platonic Realism? If so he must admit that the human race is evolving slowly towards this higher moral ground. Where in the world are we getting this improved moral direction towards the heavenly spheres where Curley himself sits. It seems that the ground Dr. Curley is standing on to judge the ancient Bible passages is the very ground that van Inwagen proposes — that the human race is being trained toward a higher morality by the Highest Good G-d of Socrates and/or Abraham, etc.

    However, if Curley really doesn’t believe in Plato’s moral realism, then he has no ground to criticize the morality of another era. The morals of the period in Judges is just as suitable as the morals of Curley’s boastful seat of judgment.

    Curley is just bluster. He really has no ground on which to stand. He either must agree with van Inwagen or realize that his own moral judgment is no better than the G-d of Abraham.


  19. Huenemann says:

    Well, now, wait a minute. Curley makes a very modest assumption about morality: if anything is clearly wrong, genocide and child sacrifice and rape are. (I’m letting “rape” abbreviate “forcibly taking virgins from their homes and having nonconsensual sex with them.”) It’s pretty hard to be skeptical or agnostic about that. And, second, the God of the Bible does recommend those things. Maybe at those times or in those places such atrocities were less out of place, but is anyone willing to say there was nothing wrong with them? So it follows that, if morality means anything, the God of the Bible recommends atrocious acts. I can’t see a way around that.

    I do find van Inwagen’s response interesting. But if you go along with it, you have to believe that sometimes it is morally permissible — even laudable? — to urge people to commit morally atrocious acts for their own eventual moral improvement. But could we ever imagine Hitler, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, etc., convincing us: “What I did was required in order to bring about the moral improvement of the survivors?” That’s a hard one to swallow. But van Inwagen urges us to accept this in the case of God, which is easier to swallow only insofar as we put the dense cloak of God’s unknowability over everything — i.e., to the extent we disown some of the clearest moral sensibilities we have.

    The best response in the presentation, in my opinion, was by the second or third audience member in Q & A. He stated quite boldly that Curley is wrong to treat the Bible as something like a comprehensive philosophical moral treatise. Instead, ‘the Word’ is to be sorted out in dialogue with many texts, including the Talmud and so on. It’s unfortunate his comment was passed over so quickly. I think this may be the best response: deny the primacy of scriptures, or at least fortify “scripture” with centuries of further commentary.


  20. Rob says:

    Where does he get his ground to stand so high in his damnation of morals in the Bible?

    As I recall, the thrust of Curley’s compliment to van Ingwagen is: yes, perhaps in large part, the values in terms of which the god of the Bibles under scrutiny in his presentation is condemned draw their succor from the very moral tradition piety towards that god has crucially helped produce and support.

    Does an internal critique of this sort depend upon some kind of Platonic moral realism? Even if it does, what comfort is that supposed to be for the pious?


  21. Rob says:

    I wonder what Vince makes of Fales’ presentation:

    In any case, I trust everyone can appreciate the moving coda with which he concluded his reponse to Seitz’s presentation:


  22. Mike says:

    Rob: I can’t remember where it was in the presentation, probably in Q&A but Curley goes out of his way to talk about how our morality is drawn from multiple traditions. I’m with Charlie, the best response for the theist is to deny the primacy of scripture in favor of something like the Talmud or the creeds (theologically based hermeneutics). I’m also guessing the former will be more valuable than the latter. I’m not sure this inquiry leaves a Christian believer orthodox; I would guess not. But with >30,000 denominations available to choose from, some would probably make the cut.


  23. Rob says:

    I’ve been pondering Vince’s especially acute last post, which I think raises a deep question as to whether the kind of moral condemnation of the Biblical god Curley (and other atheists) engage in somehow implies some sort of moral realism. Nietzsche, presumably, would think so: if “Christianity is Platonism ‘for the people,'” then the secular condemnation is Platonism stripped of the Christianity, but a Platonism imbued with the moral values promulgated by Christianity over the centuries.

    Charlie, however, says:

    Curley makes a very modest assumption about morality: if anything is clearly wrong, genocide and child sacrifice and rape are. (I’m letting “rape” abbreviate “forcibly taking virgins from their homes and having nonconsensual sex with them.”) It’s pretty hard to be skeptical or agnostic about that.

    However, given the historical and anthropological record, wouldn’t the Christian (and Nietzsche) be right in retorting something like: no, it’s owing to the influence of Christianity that it’s apparently pretty hard to be agnostic or skeptical about those things being clearly wrong. Before the advent of Christianity, if not for a good part of its duration, something like skepticism or agnosticism towards those kinds of actions was pretty normal in regard to those outside of one’s community or group. In fact, Nietzsche highlights a related point in his characterization of “noble morality” in BGE 260: this, he claims, is one of the most difficult aspects of “noble morality” for us Christianized, secular milquetoast moderns to appreciate. And he expands on this point later, rubbing it in our faces at greater length, in GM 11. And Doris & Prinz’s points about the evidence, from anthropology, ethnography, and electoral politics, for evaluative diversity in their recent NDPR review of Appiah’s exphil book might also be enlisted by Christians and Nietzsche against Curley’s “modest assumption about morality,” I would think.


  24. Huenemann says:

    I think you’re right, Rob: Nz would see the atrocities recommended by the God of the Hebrew Bible as atrocities only from the perspective of some latter-day modern milquetoast. He might accuse the perpetrators of such atrocities as being barbarians, and not as optimally refined or noble as he thinks humans can be, but his objections would not be based on the moral repugnance of the atrocities.

    And this is precisely where I “blink,” as Kleiner says. I just can’t go there with Nz, and judge the atrocities as anything other than morally repugnant. But I’m not sure this makes me a platonist. I’m happy to admit that my moral prejudices are the result of both biological and cultural natural selections. That is, I maintain all of the following:

    1. Those acts were atrocious, morally repugnant.
    2. The perpetrators of the acts maybe didn’t believe so, and there is a perfectly natural explanation for why they did not believe so.
    3. My judgments of moral repugnance are rooted in contingent factors that don’t make my views, objectively considered, better or truer than those of the perpetrators.


  25. vince says:

    Ah. I stepped on a few toes.

    I agree with Mike.

    “The best response for the theist is to deny the primacy of scripture in favor of something like the Talmud or the creeds (theologically based hermeneutics).”

    These portions of the Bible (Judges and else where) are very conflicting for the practicing Christian and Jew, or at least I hope so, though there are some fundamentalists who sadly embrace hateful dogmas. I actually think that Curley has an excellent argument against literalistic fundamentalists, who hold the Bible as Inerrant (perfect in the originals) and Infallible (cannot mislead). A literalistic approach with arrogant certainty is a dangerous stand to take. Somehow the orthodox adherent needs to figure out how to consider the Bible to be authoritative for praxis and theology and still hold these difficult passages at arms length.

    The rubric to do this was given by Rabbi Hillel the Elder (110-10 BCE) for the Tulmad follwer and agreed to by Jesus for the Christian (4BCE – 30CE?)

    A gentile, who was interested in Jewishness, asks Hillel to explain the Torah in a short sermon (while standing on one foot). If he can do that, then the gentile will become a Jew and study Torah. Hillel stands on one foot and says, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.”

    about 50 years later in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus reiterates Rabbi Hillel’s statement with a positive twist and he includes the Prophets along side the Torah.

    (Matt 7:12) In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Torah and the Prophets.

    He repeats this in Matt 22:35-40

    A lawyer of the Torah, asked Him a question, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Torah?”

    And Jesus said to him, ” ‘You shall love the LORD your G-d with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Torah and the Prophets.”

    He is quoting Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18.

    For the Jew and the Christian it is proper to reject an interpretation of the Bible the causes one to act against these rubrics. Somehow these difficult passages have to be ‘teachings’ that eventually lead to actions that are not hateful to our own sensibilities and not counter to loving our neighbor (and self). These rubrics are orthopraxy. The creeds would define orthodoxy.

    Mike said, “I’m not sure this inquiry leaves a Christian believer orthodox; I would guess not.”

    I think some fundamentalist congregations would not consider these rubrics as proper, but most mainline churches would. Obviously during various periods of Christian history, Christians have held an impoverished belief in a tribal god that led them to war against Muslims, Jews, and other Christians.


  26. vince says:

    This takes too much time to talk about nuanced approaches to these difficult portions of scripture. It is apparent to my reading that there is a lot of humanity in the atrocities of the events throughout. There is a lot of divine instruction to continually lift humanity up to higher moral sensibility. I can sit an talk about my views, but to write them takes too much time.

    In the final analysis, I would agree with Curley that an unsubtle fundamentalist literalist approach leads to an immoral tribal god.

    I prefer to hear a call to something higher. Try Karen Armstrong’s plea for Muslims, Christians, and Jews to consider a loving orthodoxy and orthopraxy.



  27. vince says:

    Note: Karen Armstrong is addressing a different question in her essay, but it makes an excellent point of the purpose of hopeful theism.

    “In the past, many of the most influential Jewish, Christian and Muslim thinkers understood that what we call “God” is merely a symbol that points beyond itself to an indescribable transcendence, whose existence cannot be proved but is only intuited by means of spiritual exercises and a compassionate lifestyle that enable us to cultivate new capacities of mind and heart.”

    She generally agrees with the use of Hillel’s and Jesus’ rubric of interpretation of the Torah and the Prophets.


  28. Rob says:

    This, and the comments to it, seem relevant.


  29. Rob says:

    Here’s a nice example of why I find Christian apologetics so ethically disturbing ( –in the sense that I seriously worry about the spread of such a style of thinking to children, at an age when they are too young to defend themselves against it, and so are at risk of having their receptivity to suffering and loss warped for the duration of their adult lives):

    “For a theist, the probability of animal suffering will depend significantly on the probability of there being a good theodicy for animal suffering.”



  30. vince says:

    Christian ethics and apologetics is broad. Here are a few of my Christian hero’s

    Francis of Assisi

    He saw the sun, moon, and animals as siblings under a Good creating Father. He also treated the mentally retarded as children of God in the midst of a culture that assumed them to be demon possessed.

    Mother Teresa

    She saw in every diseased face of humanity the face of Jesus to love in service.

    Dorothy Day

    She worked to support the poor and the laborers during the great depression and beyond.

    These seem to be following the ethics of Jesus. I abhor many of the fundamentalist Christian positions. For instance, this current article in the Salt Lake Tribune identifies the worst of American Christianity:



    I think there are extremes in atheist ethics as well. I think the largest mass murderers of the 20th century were athiest and/or non-Christian: Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, etc. Christians have not cornered the market on disturbing apologetics and ethics. In fact, as I try to think of atheists that might be parallels to my heros above, I come up with a list of none. I need help there. I can only think of theist saints who gave their lives to the poor (though buddhist saints may qualify for atheist saints.)


  31. Mike says:

    I don’t have much time to get into the broad variety of issues that have been brought up in this thread but I think Curley’s presentation is nice enough in they way it shows a greater depth of understanding of Christianity before criticizing it. That’s something Dawkins and others of similar ilk often fail to do. I also think it’s fair to criticize based on a common lay approach to scripture since I think this gets to the essence of what’s going on. Sure, some people are outside that criticism but I find the movements in American christianity are cross denominational and that these movements have the biggest influence and share the weaknesses.

    I’m not sure how much sense it makes to talk about “atheist ethics”. Is atheism an ethos? The people you mentioned may have been atheists but would you say that was the primary ideology they were working from? (i don’t personally believe atheism has enough meat to be a primary ideology unless it’s robustly reactionary in which case it might more accurately be called anti-Christian-theism) And was Hitler an atheist? These things aren’t matching up. Beyond that, even in the best cases I don’t think the expected behavior is often derived from an ideology — impedance mismatch?

    There’s also something to be said about irrationality here. For better and worse I don’t think the way people generally appropriate their religion/ideology is a purely rationalistic enterprise. It’s more like the starship enterprise — it takes some imagination and suspension of disbelief to enjoy.


  32. vince says:

    Hitler might be called an agnostic. His Christian rhetoric was filled with German pagan references. The main point is that one cannot criticism an entire tradition. I am discovering thoughtful approaches to life by people with theism, atheism, and pantheism as starting places.

    It is interesting. At my Church I have been recently asked to not participate in teaching ministries. I was basically told to not talk in Bible studies or Sunday School classes unless it fits with standard conservative evangelical doctrine. I was found to be too often defending people groups outside traditional Christianity. “Hey, Nietzsche had some very good things to say if you just try to listen honestly.” My own approach to science and the Bible was found wanting. “Hey, evolution is good science.” “Hey, I really like Kierkegaard.”

    While I continue to worship in at the same church, I have migrated to other places for excellent discussions. I enjoy the discussions with agnostics, atheists, and philosophers, but now I find myself defending traditional Christians! Hopefully, I won’t be told to stop talking (posting) unless I can stick to non-Christian philosophical approaches.

    A Devil’s advocate rarely rarely has the most pleasant voice for discussions. (Irony intended.) I really need to find a better voice so that I don’t irritate people. 8^>

    I do not agree that Curley’s attacks have anything to do with a thoughtful hermeneutical approach to the Bible. However, he does rightly identify the dangers of literalist fundamentalist sects.


    • Mike says:

      Well Vince, I certainly appreciate your voice in these conversations. Plenty of Christians have certainly sought to work out biblical inspiration issues and build an internally consistent outlook. I could spend some time talking and thinking about those sorts of things as well, and perhaps it would be a productive conversation but I think it would be better and faster to sort though in an in-person context. My personal experience in regard to those issues has led me to dead ends along a number of paths. And not Newport, Oregon dead ends either (which often lead to a nice walking path, sometimes down to the beach).


  33. Huenemann says:

    Vince – that’s too bad that your fellow worshippers aren’t interested in genuine dialogue. It speaks of weak faith, in my opinion.

    As for ethical nonreligious heroes, how about Bill and Melinda Gates, whose foundation has saved a huge number of lives — vastly more than Mother Theresa ever did? I don’t know whether religion still plays some role in their motivations, but if it does, they hide it well. And how about Larry Brilliant, who, with a UN team, eradicated smallpox (which killed half a billion humans in the 20th C. alone)? It’s true that he was into some mystic Indian religion, but again it seems to have taken a back seat to more straightforward, moral concerns.


  34. Mike says:

    At one point Curley mentions the Euthyphro, walking through that text does seem related to these issues, at least to me. Do you have a view on that dilemma, Vince?


  35. Rob says:

    And of course Mother Teresa’s wonderfulness is disputable on grounds Hitchens and others have provided. Also, she must presumably be rolling in her grave at the effectiveness of contraception in reducing AIDS in India (and elsewhere) — certainly no thanks to her, if condemnation in this regard is not in order.

    The Euthyphro is the most subversive thing I feel I ever read in my intro to philosophy class, even given that we read Nietzsche’s “Problem of Socrates” after Platonic dialogs.


  36. vince says:

    Rob, is Euthyphro subversive to piety or to gods or to thinking one fully understands piety and/or gods? If you think it is necessarily subversive to theists, then perhaps you missed a deeper point of Socrates. Perhaps Socrates can be subversive to the many gods that act like humans, but not to theism.

    So what is the subversive point? I completely agree with Kierkegaard in placing the wisdom of Socrates next to the piety of Jesus. (I forget where. Perhaps in his dissertation “On the Concept of Irony with Continual Reference to Socrates”). Kierkegaard’s point was that Socrates taught that a man is wisest if he knows that he does not know. Jesus taught that a man is most righteous when he knows that he is not righteous. Humility about one’s thinking and one’s doing IS the subversion. Socrates subverts Euthyphro’s prideful knowing of piety and perhaps his prideful knowing of the gods.

    This brings two possibilities for me to choose:

    First, I can say there is no piety and there are no gods. This certainly makes the dilemmas posed to Euthyphro moot. It also makes life choices simple and insignificant in one huge leap of faith into the void. I take this route if the subversion is of piety and gods.

    Second, I can say there is piety and are gods, but I “see through a glass dimly.” Paradoxes abound in the human rational approaches to these things. Therefore, I have to act humbly in regards to my thinking and my doing. However, it demands that I continually wrestle with rationalism, tradition, mysticism to continually grown into better understanding and doing. It is a choice that is difficult to balance. It is a leap of faith into the arms of hope and significance. I take this route if the subversion is of my own understanding of piety and gods.


  37. vince says:

    There is a third option that is a reasonable modification of the sterile and (perhaps) hedonistic void in option 1.

    Third, I can say that piety and gods are objectively unknowable. Piety and gods don’t matter, but I can chose to pursue subjective piety and live to make the my life’s world within its small horizon a place of piety based on my best understanding. There is no leap of faith here. I make my own significance and hope doesn’t matter. I live each moment with a choice that I should make a millions times if I live the moment a million times. The only subversion is perhaps the subversion of all other worldviews but mine.


  38. Huenemann says:

    I take it that the Euthyphro’s subversion is in making the point that a god’s authority does not extend to the point of being able to MAKE an action good/pious/virtuous. Even the gods are subordinate to the laws of morality. (Yes, there are divine command theorists, but I find them rather frightening.)

    Vince, I know I’m just being flat-footed once again, but can’t one’s morality be grounded just in human sympathy? I’ve reading lots of Hume lately, and (as usual) I find his views wholly persuasive. I can’t see that “treating others well because we are pleased to do so” leads me into any abyss. (Then again, maybe I’ve been lounging around in the abyss too long! I sing with Billie Holiday, “I’ve been down so long that down don’t worry me.”)


  39. Rob says:

    I think the Euthyphro is subversive in that it cracks apart the identity between God and The Good/morality, thereby paving the way for the Problem of Evil to more fully perform its demolition work in the minds of thoughtful freshman otherwise inhibited by their religious upbringing. I suppose, though, that it probably only has an effect on those whose piety was never much to speak of in the first place. (The “breakers” as one professor put it; not the “benders” who will never fail to find some way of accommodating or disavowing contradiction within their piety, like yourself.)


  40. Rob says:

    Didn’t catch Charlie’s comment right before mine, which gets at what I mean.


  41. vince says:

    Theists must take G-d as the Sovereign and the Good in identity, but the careful theist sees the crack between the Wholly Infinite Other and finite humanity. So Thomas Aquinas sees that the human can only talk of G-d, Good, Sovereignty in the theology of Analogy, because humanity just cannot conceive of the Wholly Other in any direct sense. So Karl Barth insists that any earthly thing or system labeled Christian is idolatry. So Levinas can never really sense the Wholly Other within his horizon of experience, thus, in the existential experience of this world G-d does not exist. G-d is always a breath not quite felt on our cheek, a trace of sensation just beyond our fingertips. The crack is between not G-d and Good, it is G-d(Good) and humanity.

    If a human or culture say they have captured G-d within their thought and actions, then they are dangerous ones. They don’t recognize the crack.

    If a human discounts G-d and the Good (Mussolini being a good example) in a way that frees them to amoral behavior, then they are dangerous ones. There is nothing and there is no crack in that nothing.

    Somehow there is a middle ground that strives towards the illusive Good above our heads (me … G-d) or within our heads (Huenemann … human sympathy) or both. Anything in this middle ground is just fine with me. I have reasons in my theism to find this broad middle ground good and acceptable to the Good.


  42. vince says:

    Ok. Let me reexamine the crack between G-d and Good.

    If Thomas Aquinas’s Theology of Analogy is use to say to one’s self, “I don’t understand how this life difficulty is G-d’s Good, but I will trust it is.”, then I am on safe grounds. However, if it is used so say, “I know this action I am doing seems evil, but god’s ways are higher than my ways and he told me to.”, then I am perhaps misusing the crack between G-d and humanity. This is Kierkegaard’s argument of Abraham’s Faith demonstrating the high regard for the religious individual over and against Hegel’s requirement to submit the individual to society.

    I was given an article from 1936 I think by Martin Buber arguing against Kierkegaard’s irrational faith. He basically said that one cannot tell whether one is hearing the G-d of Abraham, who aborts the sacrifice, or Molech, who does demand child sacrifice. Buber does not believe the suspension of the ethical realm defines the Knight of Faith.

    I agree with Buber, but I like to read Kierkegaard’s books anyway.

    In this respect, I do argue that it is a problem that Kierkegaard willingly defines a voice from god as the Good. The definitional crack between the god and the good is necessary as Rob proposes.

    Perhaps Kierkegaard would not have mistreated his love, Regina, to take a leap to his irrational religious ground, if he and Buber had talked. Perhaps it was just irrationalization of self-denying desires (oxymoron) and misbehaviour.


  43. Mike says:

    From the Euthyphro (and this conversation) I gather that the problem of goodness is a shared concern. It’s not a concern for which Christians or any other group that I know of has a trump card.

    At a certain point Charlie blinks (contra Nietzsche) and it seems Vince walks with Abraham and blinks (contra Kierkegaard).

    So I suppose we confront the fragility of goodness with fear and trembling. And blinking.


  44. vince says:


    Excellent. I do blink contra Kierkegaard. I do embrace ‘blinking’ at the extreme logical extensions of dogmas – theist or atheist. Perhaps Charlie and I both blink based on an intuitive sense of human compassion.

    I do blink at the possibilities opened up by Kierkegaard’s irrational religious leap to follow God’s voice beyond good and evil. It is the religious leap that has been used to biblically justify genocide, american slavery, torture of the inquisition, etc. Unfortunately, it often has nothing to do with a religious leap and has more to do with a religious rationalization. They should have blinked.

    It is the rational leap that permitted atheist Pol Pot to rationalize the killing fields as a means to eliminate old ways of thinking and evolve a new rational society (restarting civilization). He should have blinked.

    As I reread some of the comments above I highlight this good statement about van Inwagen’s response to Curley:

    “The best response in the presentation, in my opinion, was by the second or third audience member in Q & A. He stated quite boldly that Curley is wrong to treat the Bible as something like a comprehensive philosophical moral treatise. Instead, ‘the Word’ is to be sorted out in dialogue with many texts, including the Talmud and so on. It’s unfortunate his comment was passed over so quickly. I think this may be the best response: deny the primacy of scriptures, or at least fortify “scripture” with centuries of further commentary.” Huenemann

    The Jewish community understands this more clearly, in that, the Talmud is the interpretive glasses for reading the Torah. The different Christian communities have a hit and miss understanding about interpretative glasses, but there are excellent theologians who describe a similar historical conversation of the community to provide interpretive guidance.

    No less than Augustine stated that ‘love thy neighbor’ was primary for interpretation and that the interpreter must not assume that every action in the Bible is to be used as an example of proper ethics (“On Christian doctrine”). Augustine used a bit of In Wagen’s argument that ‘those folks’ were living in a cruder time and we understand things better now because G-d was continually teaching humanity. Of course, Augustine went on to write less charitable things in other works. For instance, in “City of God” he states that a civil judge must use torture if he is to find the truth (which the Inquisition used to justify it’s methods). Ah yes, they lived in cruder times.

    Yep. I blink at the excesses in logic and faith. Hopefully, it is based on wisdom and/or human compassion rather than fearful timidity.


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