On a friend’s recommendation, I’m currently reading (well, listening to) James Goodman’s But Where is the Lamb?, an interesting volume taking a look at the story of Abraham and the Binding of Isaac. This passage stood out to me yesterday:
To say that you prefer your church and its stories to another church and its stories is one thing. But to say that your church annuls another church (completes it, voids it, supersedes it) is quite another. And when that other church and its people are still with you—in other words, when the superseded past is still with you—well, that reading of history is a recipe for disaster.
The immediate context for this passage is a discussion of supersessionism, but I’m also intrigued by Goodman’s use of the word “church” rather than “religion” here, because it seems to me to generalize this to any insistence of religious exclusivism—even within Christianity. Supersessionism and exclusivism have both been on my mind recently. In addition to the general ethical issues associated with these topics—the “recipe for disaster” described by Goodman—I’m also interested in the distinction between “personal preference” and “asserted annulment” as it relates to theological commitments and interpretation of scripture. I’m slowly working on a longer essay that touches briefly on this, and here’s a preview of one specific paragraph in its current form:
Yet, it is also productive to recognize the ways in which scripture may not conform with our theological commitments. In particular, scholarly observations related to language, history, and archaeology may also constrain our interpretation. For example, Matthew 1:22-23 describes Isaiah 7:14 as prophecy of the virgin birth of Jesus Christ; although the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible referenced by the author of this Gospel does use the word “virgin,” the Hebrew Bible itself uses a word meaning “young woman”—not the word that the Hebrew Bible uses to indicate virginity. This need not prevent Christians from holding to the doctrine of Jesus’s virgin birth, but it should constrain them from insisting that Jewish readers, for example, read Isaiah through a Christ-focused lens. Similarly, Thomas Wayment’s translation of the New Testament respectfully notes that distinctly LDS interpretations of specific New Testament verses are often dependent on the exact words of the King James Version of the Bible and do not hold up to more accurate translations of the original Greek. Once again, there is (usually) no harm in adopting those interpretations, but there is little room for imposing those interpretations on others.
As a general rule (but with some pointed exceptions), I don’t think there’s anything wrong with holding distinct religious beliefs, even when they don’t match linguistic, historical, archaeological, or textual observations. However, in my mind, there’s much a higher burden of proof for insisting that others hold those same beliefs—or interpret scripture in the same way. I’ve referenced the book This is My Doctrine in a couple of recent posts; this book does a fantastic job of documenting the way that Latter-day Saint teachings have changed over time and how Latter-day Saint interpretations of scripture align with or differ from scholarly and other interpretations of scripture. I purchased and read this book during the time that I was considering transitioning into Community of Christ but also having a lot of trouble letting go of the exclusivist and authoritative Latter-day Saint beliefs that I had grown up with and so long embraced. Reading this book helped me see that as much as I personally appreciated particular Latter-day Saint beliefs, the burden of proof for imposing those beliefs on me was considerable. This gave me more freedom to respect those beliefs in context (again, with some pointed exceptions) but let go of what wasn’t working for me anymore.
I understand that distinguishing between “personal preference” and “asserted annulment” would be troubling for many Latter-day Saints (and Christians), given that exclusivism is a key (the key?) part of the identity and claims of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (and Christianity). Nonetheless, I’m more and more convinced that the burden of proof for “asserted annulment” is so high that it can’t be met—and that adopting a “personal preference” view resolves so many of the ethical dangers of religious commitment.
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