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Why cherry picking leads to mistakes

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[todaysdate]

By Tom Schmidt

Recently in the SpokaneFAV’s web conversations there have been a number of comments posted, most using a peculiar and often rather flawed method of justification. I do not exempt myself from this criticism. I have seen, in particular, numerous references to sacred Scriptures, usually the Christian Bible, and references to tradition; these are both calls to authority. However, there is very little use of scientific historical method, linguistics, or sociology and anthropology. The use of text and tradition has dignified history, and I do not say these sources should be ignored. After all, they are one leg of the Methodist quadrilateral. I find these authoritative sources as pointing to possible true interpretations, but I reject them as any proof. We must be aware of them, but we are not serving God by restricting ourselves to them. That is called cherry picking, and I know first hand what happens when I eat only one, or too many, cherries.

This reliance on the use of authority, thoroughly and convincingly critiqued for the past 400 years, is disheartening, especially after the call for more responsibility that we heard clearly a couple of months ago at a Coffee Talk. It is disheartening also because those who have resorted to it have often been trained in theology and biblical history and are very talented writers.

While I value my Disciples of Christ adherence very much, I do not credit the truths that it tells me over what I have learned through my other experiences — of different religions, spiritual work, meditations, and searches through the sources of the masters. That does not negate in any way my realization that, if my work is to prosper, I must have a thorough knowledge of the background and context of the sources, a thorough appreciation of how my brain processes meaning (linguistics), and an understanding of my own cultural and personal biases. Is my understanding limited to white, male, Euro-MeriKan understandings, or my need to avoid punishment and cultivate only acceptance and positive feelings? Can I be responsible, scientific, poetic, and take the heat?

Geering-Reimagining-God-wtWhat I write in the following posts will be mainly concerned with my reading of Lloyd Geering’s current works “Reimagining God” and “From the Big Band to God,” as well as Don Cupitt’s “Taking Leave of God.”  These are three works that summarize well the best of modern religious argument. I will also engage with “Fabricating Faith” by Richard Hagenston and “The Once and Future Scriptures: Exploring the Role of the Bible in the Contemporary Church,” edited by Gregory Jenks. Hagenston’s book presents a very readable history of the move from metaphysical to scientific explanation that has occurred over the last 200 years, and that have driven us from focusing on the divinity of Jesus to focusing on his humanity. I highly recommend these books, which present the most recent developments in evidence-based (rather than opinion-based) discussions in religion.

Although I have trained in a variety of schools, orthodox as well as heretic, I value that which is suitable in all schools as something worthy of consideration. My own personal biases have been toward peace and justice, and I find myself on the side of those who are marginalized by the powers and principalities of their respective cultures. I am an associate member of the Westar Institute of the Jesus Seminar, and early on (in the early ‘60s) had conversations with Bob Funk, who was a friend of my father-in-law, and who founded the seminars. I go to their twice-yearly meetings, where 300 or so scholars meet and argue extensively many questions about early Christianity, from the role of women to alternative gospels, and from ancient synagogue frescoes to fine points in linguistics and historiography. A minor amount of the discussion is about fine points concerning what Jesus said, and they use the best argument and discussion tactics to evaluation each decision. There is never unanimity, only occasional consensus. I have heard very direct statements, with a follow-up of explanatory conversation and friendship. That directness, done among scholars who are used to it, is valuable because they are responsible with following up, something I find not so prevalent in SFAV’s discussions. Hey, friends, we are often presenting ideas in an intellectual environment, and thus inviting comment—not partying at an after-hours social. I’m here to learn and be tested. So please argue with me, and listen and reply with your ideas about mine. I’ll be less acrimonious. Some of my following comments will be redundant, but belong early in the discussion.

Can we pretend God gave us only part of the Bible?

A recent discussion regarding what Jesus would say or do about ISIS got bogged down, because the conversation became focused with just one of several traditions of what God is like. This limited the examples to only those that upheld one bias — that God permitted violence and used it himself (sic). Many passages were ignored, such as the ones where God says that violence is not to be used, and that peaceful means are the only good ones. Now, I believe that neither are the direct and unchangeable word of God — whatever that means — but are in fact statements by very thoughtful intellects from a variety of cultures written in widely divergent times. All are worthy of consideration, and all merit an understanding of their context: who were the writers, who their audience, for what purposes did they write? Nothing can be said with exactitude, but a lot may be reasonably concluded with what we know about those times and what we can glean from the statements of other writers, as well as a knowledge of what use their works were put to. The discussants quoted mainly from the priestly tradition, which was written by the priestly tribe and their cults. They wanted to keep control over the industry that funded them: blood sacrifices at the temple. It was moderately influential and was key to Rome’s control plan for their Israeli colony. It was also very offensive to Jesus — so much so that he committed the revolutionary act of chasing them from the Temple. Paul, the first writer in the New Testament, was heavily influenced by this tradition, and used their arguments in his book. Ignored were the J and E traditions that make up most of the Torah and which portray God as a very forgiving, peaceful god. I like this view of God best, but can’t say it is the only one. I shall never use it to put down anyone who wants to bomb suspected ISIS gatherings, killing innocents and recruiting more adherents to ISIS’s bloody ranks, but I will hold it up to them as a good tradition that they need to consider as true as any other portrayal in the literature. If one bit of religious writing is true, why not others? And if they are not all true, then how does one decide which ones to believe? I accept the sayings of Confucius, as well as the Coyote tales of our predecessors on the same level: they are our ideas of what the forces are like.

Thus, with selective reading of our holy works and the cherry picking used to support what we want, many mistakes can be made. The worst is perhaps that such a habit severely limits our imagination and our solutions to problems, and horribly restricts us to solutions that often result in much more suffering and death than is needed. And that, I will say, is not what God wants.  This habit also, in my opinion, leads to idolatry, the elevating to the status of divine action a belief in one’s own cultural proclivities. This is not church, not the new kingdom, and certainly not what Jesus told us to do. I won’t quote the Bible here, because I suspect the readers know exactly what I’m talking about, even if they are hesitant to admit it publicly. They may also have better arguments for their view.

This brings me to the next topic relevant here: the turning away from the human Jesus to a notion of a divine Jesus, one who ignores the human to impose a rigid and limited view of what we should believe and therefore do. This will take us to the problem of resurrection, which is not much of a problem for many Christians, especially the early ones and the demythologized ones of today. Thank you, Bultmann.

Pardon me, please, for the serial presentation, but several people have asked me for more, and there are many subjects to comment on and many writers who often contribute. Finally, I am leading up to my big question: if we can no longer hold on to the medieval conceptions of God, then what are the images that are closer to our modern view of the world and how it works? I suggest two sources: the first, the great writings concerning democracy and equality, and the second, the many beautiful works about evolution and nature. All the religions and all faiths can chip in, even photographically.

About Thomas Schmidt

Thomas Schmidt is a retired psychotherapist and chemical dependency counselor who belongs to the Sufi Ruhiniat International order of Sufi’s and is a drummer in the Spokane Sufi group and an elder at the Country Homes Christian (Disciples of Christ) Church. He is a member of the Westar Institute (The Jesus Seminar people). He studied for the ministry in the late 1950’s at Texas Christian Church and twice married Janet Fowler, a member of a long tern TCU family and a Disciple minister. He was active in the Civil Rights Movement, studying philosophy at Columbia University and psychology in the University of North Carolina university system. He has taught philosophy and psychology, and was professionally active in Florida, North Carolina, and, for 25 years in Spokane. He has studied and practiced Siddha Yoga, Zen Buddhism and, since the mid 1970’s, Sufism and the Dances of Universal Peace. He has three sons and three grandchildren. With the death of his wife, Janet, he is continuing their concentration on human rights, ecology, and ecumenical and interfaith reconciliation.

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26 comments

  1. Well, this is a fine example of why SpokaneFAVS has been so challenged to gain participating evangelicals. I’m not sure whom this article is primarily written about but…it feels pretty directed at moi. I appreciate your depth of experience and breadth of learning Tom but I catagorically reject the arguments and conclusions you present here. Primarily because it is an unfair and unsubstantiated critique of my articles, reponses and conversations in and around SpokaneFAVS. My responses to ISIS, nonviolence and just war theory have been purposefully focused primarily on the examples of the New Testament not OT examples. Please if your going to take my positions to task, at least represent them accurately.

    I think the core of these bristled frustrations always comes back to the issue of authority. I’m continually told scripture isn’t authoritative by progressives and secularists. But that position isn’t held by all Christians, a fact that one would never come to reading and listen to the dialogue and debate that most often goes on here.

    Your comment that the Bible is simply “…statements by very thoughtful intellects from a variety of cultures written in widely divergent times.” is not shared by those in my circles. I know that doesn’t mean I am right, but just because one eats at Chinese food restaurants all the time doesn’t mean there are not other restaurants out there. Both of our views reflect communities of scholars that could equally provide answers to the preemies you are laying out. In the end one has to choose which group is the most reliable. I have chosen a differnt group than you have.

    • Thanks for your comments Eric. I hope that Tom, and others know, that SpokaneFAVS doesn’t control the comments that happen on the site. We’re happy for all dialogue! There are LOT of people who read, but don’t engage. It’s likely that they’re commenting on what SpokaneFAVS publishes with their friends, on other social media, etc. When two people engage on FAVS and go back and forth, we think that’s great and always hope more will chime in.

      And, we truly do want more conservative and/or Evangelical writers here and I’m sorry posts like make a bad impression. We are grateful for your voice here Eric!

      • I also am grateful for Eric’s input. I also expect engagement will bring controversy, and do not object if it is honestly and intelligently responded to, as you, Eric, d.. I value that.

    • Thanks for replying, Eric. I was not singling you out, but I do think you were cherrypicking when commenting on God supporting violence versus a nonviolent god. I think you are very mistaken about your not using OT verses or ideas and that you are using only NT ideas. You are right if you limit your considerations only to the Christian Bible as we now have it, but the writers of most of the works in that cannon were not using a tradition separate from the OT. The Jewish cannon was just then being formed, about the time most of the NT writers were writing. Certainly Paul, who was very traditional and using the traditions present in the OT writers. Therefore, ideas using Paul are using what he used, OT notions. These have been classified as coming from several traditions. Your using mainly Paul causes you to focus mainly on the Priestly tradition at the expense of the J and E traditions, which both have a different understanding. Even at that, you could have picked verses that countered your argument. I therefore stand by my criticism that you were being selective.
      Also, just because the sources we use as authority have many members does not mean that they are of equal value in terms of their scholarship. I am impressed by many “conservative” or orthodox scholars, but I find the best scholarship tends to be with the Society of Biblical Literature, the American Academy of Religion, and, of course, The Westar Institute. I’m impressed with their methods and have not seen any major critique of them that would suggest that they are wrong. I may change my mind after their San Diego meeting this Nov., when there are about a thousand papers being presented and discussed. Exciting. I’ll show you the listings of their offerings at the mixer.
      Also, for a , to me, shocking reevaluation of the meaning of the Gospel of John, take a look at JS Spong’s latest work, The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic. He’s restored my faith in that beautiful work. I don’t have to accept it as factual descriptions that are simply unbelievable, but as mystical writings that are full of meaning. It will be interesting to hear what others think of that reading. I’ll hear some of that this November.

    • Eric, you say you are
      continually being told that scripture isn’t authoritative. Not by me, for I
      honor it, and say it has a use, but never as the deciding point of any
      disagreement. It is something, usually meaningful, to pay attention to, but not
      evidence of Truth.
      You condescendingly
      compare my not using argument by authority illogically like you do when you
      suggest it is like eating in only one kind of restaurant and thereby nor
      experiencing other kinds. I have stated elsewhere that I have studied many
      faiths and read many levels and types of authorities, many conservative. I am
      very familiar with many differing arguments.

  2. There’s a lot to learn from observing interaction between Tom and Eric. Thanks guys!

    If we read Tom’s words carefully, I believe he surmises we ALL “cherry pick” from our chosen AUTHORITIES in order to substantiate our chosen lines of belief. Personally, I find this an extremely slippery slope no matter how it’s approached. In their simplest sense, I read Tom’s words as warning against blind dogmatic approach to scripture versus an investigative, reflective approach. If I were to acknowledge one trait I appreciate in Eric, it’s that I find him anything but blind and dogmatic in his approach to his chosen scriptures. What is being questioned is methodology of approach to scripture. Tom’s approach is heavy on what I perceive as endless cross analysis of historical context of scripture. Tom readily acknowledges here that this approach is light on definitive consensus regarding life’s rules. Eric, rather, embraces the principles of scripture as he personally came upon them and then exercises, questions, pummels, embraces, and elevates them. May he have one, or two, or many out of context? Sure, but how crucial is this if his personal exploration of his chosen scriptures truly satisfies the heart? The different emphases in approaches are not each without pitfall. By his own admission, Tom’s approach is highly inconclusive. This doesn’t work for me (life’s short and I want answers). While Eric’s approach comes with the danger of embracing too narrow a lens, I find his method of vetting his beliefs more in line with the masters to which I personally ascribe. At the end of the day, what matters more is how our unique choices serve us and much less the context by which history records.

    If there IS power in WORD, that power rests in today, not the lens of infinite past context.

    • Ok wait a daggum minute you two accuse me of cherry picking and taking verses out of context but don’t refrence the supposed acts of exegetical trespass. Not legit, if I’ve not got the option to aquit.

      • I hesitate to join, but here goes. The three passages you used, the two in acts and Revelation, share one thing that you neglect. They describe divine action. Peter does not take up the sword and slay the the couple who practice greed, nor does Paul physically gout the sorcerer’s eyes. God acts. And God’s acts are not ours. When we try to act like God, we indulge in original sin.

        You then claim we should also act, but as God says “Vengeance is mine.” The Paul echoes very theme in Romans. The only way your argument could make sense is that a modern prophet tells the nation that he heard from the Lord and to act. I am unaware of one. You practice eisegesis and having gone to one of the preeminent Evangelical Seminaries and knowing many others that have attended Dallas, i know you would have not have passed if you turn this in as a paper.There could many theological reasons to fight ISIS, this is not one. It is very much the problem that affects us all, looking in the Bible to justify own own biases. Now, there are good theological reasons to fight ISIS, but this is within Just War theory. Can we by acting save lives, but like Bonhoeffer we can’t just pick up Cain’s rock willy nilly. ISIS is a product of the Neo-cons doing just that.

        • My point in referencing those verses was not to build a case for using violence it was to counter the fundamentalist pacifist position that says Jesus or God doesn’t act the same in the NT as he does in the OT. That has been your continual argument.

          You portray a view of God and Jesus that the scriptures don’t support. I have shown that “verse lifting and cherry picking” is what the F/P positions relies upon.

          To say I would be failed in seminary because I defended a Just War theory is ridiculous Tito, come on. Just because someone doesn’t share your view of an issue doesn’t warrant such a judgment. I stand safely within a tradition that has greater minds than you or I within it.

          “Ideals are peaceful but history is violent.” -Brad Pitt’s character in FURY

          • Actually, i am not a Christian Pacifist at all. I have said many times that I agree with Reinhold Niebuhr and need to factor human sin, making me a Christian Realist (more Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King Jr than Thomas Merton and Martin Niemöller) who sees the need to support war when certain conditions are met (the Just War categories). Irony, I am in the same place you are theologically, though i would not question Christian Pacifists on their faith.

            So, Christian pacifism is not my view. Please get that part straight. I do know many pacifists and their views differ greatly from what you portray. I am asking you to at least look at what they actually say theologically before blasting them on what you think they believe. I did not say you would fail seminary course for defending Just War Theory, but HOW you defended it with a serious of passages that show divine action and can not be used as examples of going to war. There are a whole lot better defenses like the understanding that we are in a fallen world.

            Like I have said many times, theologically I think Just War Theory is correct, but I do not blind myself to what the pacifist argue and many of them are courageous. (I have known some to put their bodies in front of tanks in the Cairo during the uprising.) You end with a quote from Brad Pitt I will end one from someone else.
            The renunciation of war as expressed in the Japanese Constitution has given a first ray of hope to a world in darkness and despair, and men today cling to this hope passionately. Can we really do something about it or are we to stand aside as idle onlookers, unable to contribute for better or for worse? Martin Niemöller

          • Quoting your favorite theologian or engaging in philosophical ‘what ifs or what should be’ is the luxury of those sending people to war not fighting the wars. That was end of pacifist thinking for me. I realized I was debating a reality that wouldn’t actually be chosen if I was faced with choices that required action not just positions.

            I also realized I was calling people to believe in a representation of God that such ideology demanded but not the one scripture presents.

            I’m glad you are well educated and well read Tito and if the way you look at life, defense and God works for you than I’m good with that, but that doesn’t work for me.

          • If philosophizing around is the end game of pacifism, you would be hard to explain that the biggest American Christian presence on the ground confronting ISIS, putting their lives on the line is… the very group of Christian pacifists you denigrate. Not the Neo-cons calling for war (without taking responsibility for the roll in the rise of ISIS). http://www.cpt.org/cptnet/2014/10/11/iraqi-kurdistan-reflection-what-we-can-do

            These are ones taking action not the arm chair generals saying fight, fight, fight. These are men and women who take seriously Jesus call to be peacemakers and they put their lives on the line.

            Now, I wonder why when you saw the actions of ISIS, why did you get so made at… Christian pacifists. You must know that Christian Pacifists had no effect (none, nada, zip) on American Foreign Policy. American Foreign Policy is driven by axis of Real Politik and American national interests on end and crusading making the world save for Democracy campaigns on the other. (Their have been conservatives and liberals on both axises) At no point has pacifism had a seat at the table. The current administration is more Real Politik than anything else (like Nixon) and the previous was champion for Democracy (like Carter). So, why the anger at the pacifists who have not any effect on policy and some of the few Christians on the ground showing the face of Jesus?

          • Disagreement isn’t denigrating and I don’t do anything here that comes anywhere near anger.

            I have written plenty about the place of non-violemce in peace making. I’m not trapped by a philosophic painting into a corner. I see a place for all levels of response in the bible. There’s personal and public roles and responsibilities in dealing with different spheres of evil. I’m grateful for police, CIA, soliders and prisons as well as priests, activists and prayer warriors. But I don’t want a pacifist answering 911.

          • That is just it. I have had many heat debates with my Christian Brothers and Sisters in Christ who are Pacifists. We wrestle with text, but I can respect where they are coming from and while I believe in Just War, and I can their point. (To get their point, they look at Romans 12 and say who are we to take up the wrath of God). Christian pacifists have been part of the Church since the early days and their have pacifists at every phase of the church. Saying:

            “My point in referencing those verses was not to build a case for using violence it was to counter the fundamentalist pacifist position that says Jesus or God doesn’t act the same in the NT as he does in the OT. That has been your continual argument.

            You portray a view of God and Jesus that the scriptures don’t support. I have shown that “verse lifting and cherry picking” is what the F/P positions relies upon.”

            Does degrade them in two ways. First, it misstates their position, most of Christian Pacifists would agree with you about God’s wrath, they make the claim that it is God’s and not ours to practice and it is for us to trust the Cross and not the sword. Disagree or agree with but they take seriously many passages in the Bible like Rom 12.19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.

            Second, they you say their view of God does not come from the Scriptures, which whether you admit it or not, that puts them as Heretics. Whether Christians should take up the sword in very limited times ways or not and trust God’s wrath is not a question of salvation. Many of my Christians pacifists friends I disagree with, but I know by judging the fruit of their lives as true Christians who are faithful in wanting to follow Jesus. They have been so since the beginning of church. I suspect that you are unaware of this rich Christian tradition and somehow collapsed Christian pacifism with a boggieman of modern secular liberalism.

            My view of violence is a failure of not trusting God, we join Cain in letting sin run us, but it can be necessary. You like quoting movie characters, I will quote MLK jr. and real life.

            “”if your opponent has a conscience, then follow Gandhi. But if you enemy has no conscience, like Hitler, then follow Bonhoeffer.”

          • Tito why must you be condescending? You made your point. Thank you for your perspective.

          • Father / Son the same ONE – Yahweh is Jesus.

            It’s because the Holy name of God’s been removed, and people not loving the truth with all their hearts nor applying Gods LAW as a filter of their thinking/reasoning.

            They portray their JeZus instead of the Biblical one because their paradigm view forbade them to read the scriptures in harmony for if they would cease pitting scripture against itself and take to heart PSA 119.160 The sum of Thy word is truth, And to the age is every judgment of Thy righteousness! — this one text, if followed is a KEY to unlock much of the dark sayings of scripture.

      • Eric, I was commenting on your not using many references, thereby referencing indirectly everything you said, which I now again reference. Since my comment is that you have not done what is standard practice in any good argument that goes beyond polemics, which is to dignify your sources when they present two or more sides of the argument you are using them for by correctly referencing all their relevant sides. It seems you are dodging the issue of your one sided use of authority. That is what is “not legit.”

  3. Ok, I just sent Tracy my response in the form of an article: “My Evangelical Response to Historical Criticism, Cherry Picking and Verse Lifting”

  4. Tom, I appreciate this article and also your last one in response to Eric’s. But to be honest I got bored half way through and just skipped to the comments. I do respect your years of study and education but what is the point of waxing eloquent if there is no way to apply it. I am going back to South Sudan in a couple of months to try to be a minister of the gospel. I just read that government soldiers are raping women of the tribe they are fighting against. When the women resist or call for help the soldiers rape them with sharp objects. Its great to use philosophy and $10 words when we talk about our response to evil in the world. But that only seems to work when that evil is abstract. When we have to stand and look those raped women in the eyes our $10 words amount to garbage. So, I would ask you… How do you think Christians should deal with evil?

    • Very good question, Steve. We all must face it. At this point, I imagine God is crying, and I am also crying. There is no easy answer. Personally, I believe in non-violence, not pacifism. The latter is absolute ideally, and avoids the slippery slope of deciding when I might use violence. There are times I would avoid violence, as Jesus did in the garden. However, there are also times when I believe violence may be called for. Gandhi said as much when he suggested that it is better to die resisting evil on our feet than living submitting on our knees. The burden is then placed on me, to have tried often to avoid violence by myself or others through passivity, negotiations, reviewing how I might have contributed to the atmosphere of violence (say, through colonialism and using drones), and then accepting rules of warfare (as 9n the Qur’an or in just war theory, which has little philosophical credit, but still should be studied). Maybe we should send in troops, but I suspect there are deeper causes that that would just acerbate if used as the primary response, as our government usually does. We need to negotiate. We need to stop our neo-colonialism, and our trying to impose our culture on theirs. And then, if your horrible scenario were playing out in front of me, I would do my best to kill incapacitate, maybe killing the perpetrators. Of course, having talked to German citizens several years after the 2nd , as well as many Nam vets, I know that our soldiers did their raping and pillaging, and I might find myself killing a countryman.
      As a Christian, or a Disciple of Jesus, I think we should deal with such violence with as much nonviolence as we can muster, and that that nonviolence must start early. I have opposed our colonialism for 60 decades, and fought and suffered from racism and sexism all that time. Not always have I done so consistently, but I do believe I have done so most often to the best of my convictions, which I have always tried to develop. At the forefront for me is not what works for me, but the consideration of what works best for God. Forgive my anthropomorphism (is that worth $10 to you or need I define it) but it is not my heart that counts for much, but God’s. I thank God for God’s anger, and I also thank God for forgiveness.

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