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Be wary of those who claim to speak for God

Published April 29, 2005

The frequent appearance of scribes and Pharisees in the Gospels of the New Testament of the Christian Bible creates an important theme linking the various stories of Jesus of Nazareth, called the Christ: The conviction that one is speaking for God, or that one knows God's ways and God's will, or that one knows with certainty what is good and what is not, is foolish, misleading and arrogant. Time after time, Jesus shows up the false certitudes of the scribes and Pharisees - who were representatives of official religion of the day - with his characteristic humility and wisdom.

Perhaps the most chilling words in the Christian Bible are God's stricture on human understanding from Isaiah 55:8-9: "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways," says the Lord. "For as the heavens are higher than the Earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts." Man's struggle, so often a failure, to understand God's ways and God's judgments is the constant story of the Bible, from Adam and Eve to Job to Abraham to Paul and the prophets. There is nothing in either the Old or New Testament that excuses man from extreme circumspection regarding God's will.

This is the fallacy behind the attempt by so many ministers and politicians nowadays to speak for or presume to know the will of God with respect to contemporary issues of high moral concern: Neither the actions of judges, nor research on stem cells, nor the putative follies of the liberal media, nor the sad life of Terri Schiavo, nor the use of the filibuster are addressed in the Bible, and no one - no one on this Earth - has been given direct access to God's views on these matters, not to mention so many others. No amount of tub-thumping and high moral indignation should convince us and our fellow citizens otherwise.

"Christian values" do not amount to specific political positions, and they are simply manipulated when such claims are made. Christian values are much less political and much more specific and difficult than "Christian" politics. The values Jesus described in Mathew 25:35-36 are to feed the hungry, visit the imprisoned and clothe the naked. Jesus asks us to forgive our enemies and all others, and to give away all we have to follow him.

Most of the current ranting on behalf of "Christian values" or "people of faith" reminds me of the pompous self-importance of the scribes and Pharisees of the New Testament, whose righteous indignation contrasts so starkly with the values evidenced by Jesus at every turn. I am also reminded of the words of the Texas congressman who was not joking when he said, in rejecting calls for the use of Spanish in local schools, "If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it's good enough for me." This is the kind of educational and cultural ignorance that has afflicted our national polity throughout our history. As Abraham Lincoln said of both the North and South in his second inaugural address, "Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes his aid against the other. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has his own purposes."

Colleges like mine that seek to maintain a historic and on-going conversation with the Christian church make a determined effort to separate defining and advocating the essential values espoused in the Christian Bible from acting as if we know - as if anyone knows - how God would prefer to see those values encoded in contemporary law and civic practice. Even as highly educated teachers and scholars in the disciplines of biblical studies and sacred texts and values, we have no right to act as if we know God's will with respect to current events, and neither do our present-day scribes and Pharisees. The Almighty has his own purposes, and those who would pretend to know his will deserve only our enmity and our scorn.

Donald Eastman is president of Eckerd College, which is related by covenant to the Presbyterian Church, USA.

[Last modified April 29, 2005, 10:59:01]

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