Monday, August 29, 2011

The Language of the Left: Rejecting Relativism and Naming Bad Theology

By Garrett FitzGerald
August 2011

Growing up in a nominally Presbyterian household, my relationship with scripture was limitied for a significant part of my formative years, at least compared to many of the folks I was later to meet at Divinity School for whom learning chapter and verse of the Gospels was a matter of course in their youth.

At some point I clearly gained enough familiarity with the strange and sometimes wonderful world of the biblical texts to earn confirmation into the Presbyterian Church, but as youth gave way to the pressures of high school and the unheralded freedoms of collegiate life, precious little gleaned from my scriptural sorties seemed to have stuck, and the idea of turning to the Bible or other religious texts as sources of meaning readily applicable to my own life held about as much appeal for me as my lab science class (Sorry again, Professor Chuck. I know how much those little fish meant to you).

In the years since, as I have revitalized and transformed my own religious associations and sense of spiritual self-understanding, I have begun to cautiously seek out a real relationship with the Bible and other sacred scriptures as well. The process has been, admittedly, a bit slow. 

As a progressive “modern, degenerate, semi-intellectual” (to borrow a line from Orwell), the idea of turning to the Bible for moral support often leaves me feeling a bit insincere. Some of the most inspired and inspiring passages I have ever encountered spring from the Bible’s pages, but these passages are nestled in among other exhortations that provide the talking points for progressives’ nightmares, and knowing that the passages which offer me hope and comfort cohabitate with these other, more troubling passages can still make me feel uneasy. 

These are the passages, the stuff of conservative placards the world-over, that turn otherwise sympathetic progressives away from religion, and function as virtual trump cards in debates about social issues.

And it is precisely because of these passages that religious progressives of all faiths must revisit and reclaim our holy texts.

Arguing scripture no doubt feels like shaky ground for many progressives. Appealing to a document that effectively proof-texts the arguments you seek to overturn has its obvious disadvantages. As with most of the public discourse around religion, discussion of scripture in the public arena has been largely ceded to conservatives, and thus invoking scripture to support progressive arguments often feels like walking on to the home turf of a rival team. 

Many progressives also worry about the potential impact that appealing to scripture might have on the cohesion of progressive efforts, which by their very nature often tend toward pluralism in terms of the belief structures of the individuals and groups involved. Particularly when working with non-religious progressives, discussion of sacred texts can often lead to a feeling of perpetual defense and apology for passages that seem to confirm the worst suspicions of the many progressives who feel ambivalence or even outright hostility toward organized religion. But as daunting as the prospect may sometimes feel, religious progressives cannot afford not to talk about the texts that define our traditions.

When it comes to arguing scriptural interpretation, perhaps the biggest impediment to progressive success is the complicated bond between liberalism and relativism. Simply put, the liberal argument for relativism looks something like this: "Ah, well, despite the fact that certain groups are using their religious tradition to deny the basic rights and dignities of others, there is no way to objectively measure their morality against ours, so who are we to judge?"

Liberalism dreads few things more than the bogeyman of intolerance, and thus the contemporary liberal fetishization of relativism demands that progressives essentially forfeit the right to denounce oppressive moral positions, especially those tied into conservative religious beliefs, as categorically wrong. Confronted with faith communities that utilize our shared sacred texts to justify the denial of the rights and dignities of others, flustered progressives all too often fall back into some sort of flustered Big Lebowski-esque defense - "Yeah, well, you know, that's just, like, your opinion, man" - while we nurse our own secret sense of moral and theological superiority.

Centuries of inter- and intra-religious intolerance and violence remind us that a certain level of hesitancy when criticizing the theology of those with whom we disagree is well-founded, even if the extremes to which many lefties carry this hesitancy sometimes becomes problematic. As such, progressives are justifiably nervous when it comes to challenging or attempting to delegitimize the way in which different faith communities understand and relate to their own sacred texts.  

But past a certain point, when those relationships begin leaking into the public sphere and negatively impacting the quality of life for those who do not share them, beyond that point we cannot accede to the temptation of relativism. Past a certain point, an unwillingness to condemn oppressive moralities and the theological assumptions upon which they rest as immoral becomes immoral in and of itself.

Progressives need to own up to the simple fact that there is such a thing as bad theology.
And if we are to start naming and resisting bad theology, looking at faith groups who use anachronistic scriptural justifications to actively dehumanize others seems about as good a place to start as any.  

Religious texts, the raw stuff of religious tradition, are themselves some of the most deeply ambivalent artifacts by which humans make meaning. Regardless of how one understands the provenance of these texts, and despite the fact that any conservative religious leader worth the title would argue to the contrary, the notion of a singular interpretation of any sacred text is a fantasy. All scriptural interpretation exists in a state of internal and external contestation, a constantly shifting terrain of fresh understandings applied to scripture evolving into fresh meaning taken from it.

The conscious decision of which part of a scriptural tradition one will honor - and it is a decision, constantly made and remade - is not only a theological decision, but a fundamentally moral decision as well, as it relates directly to the lived experience of individuals and groups in the world. As a decision with moral implications, the selection of which parts of a a sacred text to emphasize or deemphasize is necessarily open to moral valuation.

There remains so much beauty and genuine moral truth to be gleaned from our traditions' sacred texts, and we must not be dissuaded from proclaiming the truth that we find there by the reactionary ends to which certain conservatives would bend these texts.

I acknowledge the real and legitimate fear among progressive and moderate religious people when it comes to denouncing the faith and practice of others. But bad theology exists, it is being used every day in our streets, our schools, our houses of worship, and our legislatures to deny the rights and dignities of our fellow citizens, and no slippery slope argument about the importance of relativism should trump the need to name and challenge this bad theology where it exists.

The next installment of the 'Language of the Left' series will delve even deeper into the vital questions of scriptural interpretation - particularly around the sticky subject of scriptural literalism - and explore ways in which progressives can challenge oppressive scriptural interpretations and their public, and especially political, manifestations. Thanks for reading!


  1. Garett, i look forward to more in this series.

  2. Thanks so much, Steven! As important as the more overtly political aspect of our work is, I think it is absolutely vital that we have religious progressives thinking constructively about theology.

    For my money there is still no greater normative force for the respect of human rights and dignity than theological anthropology - be it the Quaker notion of the Inner Light, the imago dei, etc. - and as such we have to identify and challenge individuals and communities that seek to draw on religious resources to deny the preciousness of each and every living person.

    Looking forward to reading through your blog, and please don't hesitate to be in touch if you'd ever like to share anything on!