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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Jimmy Carter and "cherry picking"

Yesterday the Huffington Post published an article with an interview of President Jimmy Carter on a host of controversial questions regarding the Bible. The interview came in response to his recent writing of the book, NIV Lessons from Life Bible: Personal Reflections with Jimmy Carter. In the interview, the deeply religious former president says, "God inspired the Bible but didn't write every word in the Bible" and admits "there is some fallibility in the writings of the Bible". When asked about passages in Corinthians that say women should not teach men or speak in church, Carter said that many of these kinds of things came out of customs of the day, and that "every worshiper has to decide if and when they want those particular passages to apply to them and their lives".

This is exactly the kind of thing more religiously conservative Christians fear as opening the floodgates to chaos. One commenter on the article said, "...after that, religion has no credibility since you can pick and choose what you want to follow." and another said, " we all do our own cherry picking". "Cherry picking" is most often a negative phrase intended as a criticism, but I would like to offer a defense of cherry picking.

The first commenter thinks picking and choosing what we will follow harms the credibility of religion because they have a different understanding of the purpose or function of religion than Jimmy Carter. To them, the purpose of religion is to provide solid, unquestionable, absolute answers to life, meaning, and morality. Any subjectivity is then perceived as undermining the legitimacy of that source and letting everyone do whatever they like. But the problem with this approach to religion is that it locks us in to intolerant and inflexible ideologies which create extremism and just plain kooky ways of thinking and acting. Yet, Carter certainly doesn't advocate discarding religion and doing whatever we happen to feel like, so what's the solution?

A Christian of this variety might say that God speaks to us in many ways, and the Bible is one of them. He also gave us a heart and a mind. To place the Bible above all else as absolute is bibliolatry - or making the bible into an idol, with an even higher place than God himself. Cherry picking is exactly how we navigate a complex world in order to 'listen to God' and separate His will from our own chatter. Carter says that it is the general principles of humility, service to others, alleviation of suffering, forgiveness, etc. which should guide us in that earnest deliberation.

While I am not a Christian, I can identify with Carter's approach. The chief difference between Carter and myself on this matter is that my commitment to humility means I cannot know that something was inspired by God, or even if such a being exists. But I do share Carter's commitment to those general principles of humility, love, forgiveness, etc. As such, 'cherry picking' is precisely what I have been doing in my research and use of ancient philosophy as an augment to life wisdom consistent with a scientific understanding of our natural universe. Surely, in reading of Buddhism, Taoism, Stoicism, Socrates, Heraclitus, Chuang-Tzu, and yes, the Bible, I have come across many things I viewed as more relevant to the culture of the times while other things 'spoke to me' in that they rang true with regard to my current understanding and those general principles.

Many of my non-theistic colleagues might recommend ignoring it all and simply starting from scratch. But my experience has shown me that there are treasure troves of wisdom and practice which we have forgotten and have yet to approach today through other means. Not only that, but along with these streams of wisdom come a wealth of historic experimentation over the centuries. Cherry picking is exactly what we must do, within every faith, tradition, and philosophy - but we must do it earnestly and honestly, with pure motivation. Our reason, our experience, and our compassion will tell us whether we are on the right path and help humble and good people who try, to reach consensus.

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  1. “Our theories of the eternal are as valuable as are those that a chick which has not broken its way through its shell might form of the outside world.” Buddhist adage

    Our theories of the eternal may be quite naïve, but without some theory of the outside world, the chick would have no motivation to break its shell. Once outside of its shell, the chick can expand its theory of the world through experience. Similarly, we need some theory, however naïve, to break through the shell of our egoism. Once we have broken through to some experience of the enduring, we can expand our sense of the enduring through that experience.

    The great problem with fundamentalism is that it forms a shell (of dogma) somewhat larger than the shell of the ego, but still a shell. And it deters any further motivation to break through that shell. It replaces faith in individual experience with faith in dogma. It replaces faith in individual experience with faith in dogma. The faithful stay safely inside that shell.

  2. I don't think the problem has ever been cherry picking per se. The problem has always been cherry picking what makes sense to the individual and then passing it off as if it's holy writ. If somebody wants to cherry pick a lot of sources to come up with a morality, acknowledging that the sources are collections of historical writings by other people, I don't think anyone honest would have a problem with it, but I don't think that should properly be called cherry picking, either.

    The problem with cherry picking is that all too often the cherry picker doesn't want to bother coming up with supportable documents, they want their own interpretation of a text treated as if it were above question, and they use it to justify belief in unsupported supernatural silliness as well as institutions with dogmatic credos.

    If the content in question is wise, it doesn't need that false justification, there's going to be a reason to do it based on the natural human ethical give and take that develops out of a well-functioning social structure. But once one lets one justify something that does make sense for a bad reason, it gives the idea that the bad reason is actually a good reason, and too much of the horrible stuff that can also be found in those texts ends up being perpetuated when the supernatural appeal is retained.

    There is value to be found in many such texts, even in the Bible I like Ecclesiastes, although most of the stuff I like within it can be found in Greek sources. Keep the good stuff within them, by all means. But none of that material is good because it's old or in a "sacred" book, it's good because it makes sense on a human level.