Thursday, July 10, 2014

Why Christians Can Eat Shellfish

So in all the many, many religious liberty debates swirling around, a certain set of arguments emerge time and again, namely:
  • Christians claim that their religious texts, particularly the Bible, ban certain acts and behaviors.
  • Christians don't live up to all the laws in their Bible, including the prohibitions on eating certain foods, wearing clothing of a certain composition, or touching a dead pig's skin.
  • Christians are arbitrarily cherry-picking doctrines from their religious texts and being inconsistent. This is obviously all an exercise in banning things you don't like and pointing to certain passages to justify your bigotry.
A prime example of this sort of reasoning appeared on The West Wing.
There's a huge gaping problem with the line of argumentation, though: the people using it haven't taken the time to read their Bibles. See, it's not as simple as "The Bible is our holy book and we must do what it says." Why? Because the Bible isn't simply a book. It's the collected works, the omnibus edition of inspired writings, with human authors and a divine author. So you don't just do what the Bible says, because the Bible says a lot of things, just as I don't just walk into a library, grab a book off a shelf, and attempt to use it as a guide to driving through downtown Manhattan. I can go into a library and probably find the appropriate map if I go to the right section and read that map according to the rules of its writing, but a poetry text or an encyclopedia will probably be highly unhelpful. Similarly, I would not ask someone to look to the deeds of the Babylonians or the Egyptians as recounted in the Scriptures as paragons of the sort of religious behavior demanded by the God of the Bible. Just because it's in the Bible doesn't make it normative. Also, there's a key concept guiding our interpretation of the Scriptures called the divine pedagogy, or the divine condescension. Simply, God accomodates his revelation to our weakness. We are like children--we have to go through the grades in school in order. You cannot ask a kindergartener to undertake college level work, not normally. There are especially gifted people, just as some people are saints from childhood (the luckies!). But for the great mass of humanity, training is required before great feats of intellect or of sanctity. So the laws God gives at certain points are accommodated to the weakness of the people, such as Moses' teaching on divorce (Matthew 19:18). Do portions of the Old Testament shock you? God was accomodating the weakness of the people. Keep in mind that certain aspects of modern society would shock the ancients, as well. God is merciful. We are sinful and concupiscent. He tells us the truth, he holds us to the highest standards, and he is infinitely merciful. Why does the law change? Because the covenants change; because the people change. There are elements which are permanent, however, and it's important to discern which are part of what C. S. Lewis called the "tao" or the natural law, and which are part of the disciplinary norms for a given people or age. Similarly, not all the books of the Bible are to be read in the same fashion by a Christian reader. The whole is part of our heritage, yes, but not everything within it is binding upon us. That's not just me or extra-biblical Catholic tradition talking--that's the Scriptures themselves. Read Acts 15 and its account of the Council of Jerusalem. There, a Church council, guided by the Holy Spirit, taught with authority that the Christians were not bound to obey all the tenets of the Mosaic law:
‘It is the decision of the holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities, namely, to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, from blood, from meats of strangled animals, and from unlawful marriage. If you keep free of these, you will be doing what is right. Farewell.'"
So out of all the tenets and prohibitions of the Mosaic Law, including the bans on shellfish, the clothing of threads from several plants, etc, what remains? Do not eat meat sacrificed to idols, do not eat the blood of animals or the meat of strangled animals, and keep the laws regarding marriage. Is this the whole law binding upon Christians? No, for there's more taught by Jesus:
  • Love God and neighbor (Mark 12:30-31 and crossreferences)
  • Love one another as Jesus has loved us (John 13:34-35)
  • Keep the Ten Commandments (Mark 10:17-31)
We also have the sermon on the Mount and a rich repository of other moral teaching from both Jesus and the early Church throughout the rest of the New Testament, but the above covers what remains from the Old Testament's law. There's a great deal of wise counsel in the Wisdom literature, of course, and much more to learn from the rest of the Scriptures. But next time someone tries to complain about controversial Christian teachings when "they just pick and choose what they're going to enforce!" take some time to explain the different genres of Scripture, the way in which later texts interpret earlier texts, the notion of divine condescension, and the Scriptural teaching on which portions of the Jewish Law apply to Christians. For more on all this, see:

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