Ramblings of a Southern Christian Engineer

Month: August, 2015

Civil Servant Disobedience

I have been reading about civil servants refusing to issue marriage certificates or other legal documents to homosexual couples. It seems like these civil servants are taking it as a matter of proper civil disobedience to refuse to complete these documents. Most of what I have read leads me to believe that these civil servants are claiming that to issue these documents would be a violation of their religious beliefs, and so they are refusing to perform these duties of their office.

They are wrong. In numerous ways, they are wrong and it has nothing whatsoever to do with homosexuality or religion. In fact, the specifics of sexual orientation do not even need to be considered.

Civil disobedience has a long and distinguished tradition in the United States of America.

Civil disobedience is the active, professed refusal to obey certain laws, demands, and commands of a government, or of an occupying international power.

I’m speaking of a civil servant defined as:

A civil servant or public servant is a person in the public sector employed for a government department or agency.

For example, when a County Clerk refuses to issue a marriage license, this is an instance of a civil servant refusing to perform the duty of their office.

Why is this wrong?

First, it is not civil disobedience. The person in the job is not being forced to obey the law. They have the option to vacate their office. This would be the proper course of action. Staying in office and refusing to perform one’s duty as prescribed by the oath a person takes on acceptance of that office is wrong. It is not civil disobedience; it is plain disobedience and this person should be dismissed if they refuse to resign.

Second, it is not a religious matter. Take an alternate example to illustrate. If the law says that muslims may marry, then a County Clerk cannot refuse to issue a marriage certificate because they do not believe muslims should marry based on their religious beliefs. Again, the civil servant has the option of resigning. They are not being forced to perform. Their job requires them to uphold the Constitution whether they like it or not.

Thirdly, it violates the separation of powers as intended by the Constitution. The Supreme Court has determined who can be married. If anyone meets those guidelines, the County Clerk shall issue a marriage certificate. Allowing them to not do so would give the Executive branch power to supersede the Judicial branch, circumventing the intended balance of authority that the framers of the Constitution intended.

Christ said to “render unto Caesar” with the intent of telling His followers that we Christians need not force our beliefs into our government, rather, that this was an unrelated matter. Government should be like mathematics. There is no “Christian math.” There is just math. And we do not need a “Christian government” to have Christians in the government and Christians making up the people being governed. Our job as Christians is to be a good witness, doing our jobs rightly in a way that reflects well on Christ: and refusing to perform the duties we have sworn to perform is not the right way to go about it.

The best way to manage a law you don’t like is not to cry that the nation is falling apart because the law was passed; it is to work to convert people to Christianity regardless of what is legal. The law has little or nothing to do with Christianity. Christ told us to obey the laws. But living like Christ is rarely anything like following civil laws. It is not illegal to give to the poor, nor is it illegal to ignore the poor: it is simply not a factor. It is not illegal to lie, but it is sinful. It is not illegal to dishonor your father or mother but it is sinful. The law is really not something we should be concerned with in that way.

So, the proper place to fight this battle was in the legislature and then in the courtroom. These battles were fought and they are over. It is now the responsibility of the civil servant to serve. The option of resignation is available and honorable if their disagreement runs deep enough to require they not participate in the performance of their duties any longer. Otherwise, they must execute their duties as described in their job titles or they should be removed from office.

The Proper Making of Holes in People

The 2nd Amendment to the Constitution reads:

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

Most Americans have understood this to mean that is it the right of American citizens to own and carry firearms. Most citizens have also agreed that some restrictions on this right are reasonable (you can’t carry fully automatic weapons in most places), though the exact restrictions have been debated as society changed or new weapons are invented.

Lately, what we often see the conversation centered around is the latest tragic incident where a gun was used. Someone kills some people with a gun and we hear some version of, “this would not happen (or not be as bad) if we had better gun control laws.”

Dwayne’s bad chemicals made him take a loaded thirty-eight caliber revolver from under his pillow and stick it in his mouth. This was a tool whose only purpose was to make holes in human beings.

– Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions

First, I would like to clear up something that bothers me when I hear people discussing this issue. Sometimes they put forth something to the effect that the full meaning of the 2nd amendment should be considered and that it means something other than, “Americans should have a right to own weapons which can be used to kill people.” This parsing of the argument is bad for both sides and it is not a reasonable interpretation of the meaning. We do not need to talk about “hunting rights” or about “property rights” or any other subset of the full American right provided for in the amendment.

For example, it is sometimes put forward that the starting words, “A well regulated militia” implies that the writers intended that the amendment would provide for local militia groups, not individual gun owner rights. This is simply not the case. Many articles and pamphlets were written by those attempting to get the Constitution ratified after it was completed. The signed paper was no good until the states had voted for it. So there are many published documents that expand and clarify the thinking of those who wrote the amendment. It is clear that they intended the amendment to insure that Americans would have the right to keep up arms against their own government so that they might overthrow the new government if it became too powerful and attempted to take the rights of the citizens. They did not want to finish a war for freedom just to be enslaved by a new government.

It is clear from the body of writing by the authors of the Constitution and by those people who were debating it in newspapers and public forums, that all understood the power in question to be the power to use technology to empower the citizens to revolt. All the watering down of the amendment is a very modern confusion. Let us do away with it.

So, in considering the proper argument, should we now, in our new and more modern society, disarm our citizens? Do we now live in a country where the concerns that pushed people to add the 2nd amendment in the first place are no longer applicable?

At the core, a gun is powerful because it levels the playing field. It does not matter who is bigger when both opponents have a gun. This is the effect of all weapon technology. It gives the advantage to the smarter opponent and removes it from the brutish. In a world without weapons, the bigger and stronger triumph over the smaller and weaker. In a world full of advanced weapon technology, the smartest always wins. And so also, whoever possesses the best, and most of the technology, tends to win. If citizens are unarmed, they are no threat to their government.

I can imagine someone saying, “the main thing guns let a person do is to kill many more people than they could otherwise.” Or maybe, “I don’t care about all that abstract stuff when kids are getting killed in schools.” Well, if you are one of these people I encourage you to stop. Removing technology will not save children, or movie theater patrons. It will however, take away a little more of our liberty (which is a shiny word for freedom):

Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.

– Benjamin Franklin

Franklin knew, because he was a genius, and because he lived in a time when it actually had been fought and bled over, that freedom is hard fought to win and very easy to give up. And at the bottom, America is about freedom.

So there it is. Would America be safer with gun control? Maybe. There are plenty of articles full of statistics you can read to figure that out. But it wouldn’t be America. It would be the country that was once the land of the free. Like many other things in our country, if we want to live in a place where people are free, we have to be willing to give up some safety in the knowledge that Liberty comes at various prices all along the way.

The Earth is Old and I Don’t Care and Neither Should You

I’m going to make this old argument here just so I can tell people where to look it up on the Internet in case I don’t have time or don’t feel like going through it all at the moment.

Executive Summary

The Earth is much older than 6,000 years. Scientists change their mind about things all the time (which is absolutely what they are supposed to do) so the date moves around but everyone agrees it is over several billion years old. The Creation story in Genesis is allegorical, not a historical account of facts with dates on them. This does not, in the smallest way, change the meaning of the book nor the impact it should have on Christian readers, since it was never intended to be read as history.

Genesis Contains Allegory

By allegory, I mean: “stating one thing directly while intending the reader to get another meaning from my statement indirectly and usually on their own.”

Parts of Genesis are allegorical. I’m certain of this. If you’re not, consider that St. Paul agrees with me because he said so in Galatians 4:21-24.

(24) Now all this is an allegory; these [two women] represent two covenants.

Feel free to read it all for context but rest assured, Paul is saying that this story from Genesis is allegorical. (In Jewish language it is midrash where Paul is telling us the real meaning of the story.)

Also, consider the common belief that the serpent in the garden story is really Lucifer and not simply a serpent. There is no direct written reference the states this. The serpent can only be Lucifer if the story is allegory. We must either admit that the story is allegorical or that it is only a serpent and there is no reference to Lucifer. We can’t have both.

Allegory is used all over the Bible in other books as well: Jesus spoke in parables which are also a type of allegory.

Since some of Genesis is allegorical, any of Genesis could be allegorical.

Bible Genre

Modern readers want to think that everything has always been the way it is right now. They might be shocked to learn that the way people have written things down over the years has changed quite a bit. The modern novel, short story, biography, and most everything we read, did not exist long ago. The author of ancient works had different ideas in mind and assumed the reader would be a certain type of person with a certain type of expectation that was different from ours.

An example of this is the classic myth. When we hear “myth” we think of mythological monsters and such but this is not what I mean. I mean the “likely story” of the Greek philosopher. This was a common technique where the philosopher told a story that was plausible and might even involve people the listeners knew but it was not “true” in that is may have never really happened, but the point was not to relate factual events, the point was to teach something. No one who was listening was “fooled” into thinking the events were real because the hearers were all familiar with the story telling device. If we read ancient writing without knowing that this technique was common, we might assume it was historical and meant to be a fact, when it was not written with that intent at all.

This Does Not Change the Story

I cannot understand why anyone thinks that since the Genesis Creation story might not be literally hooked to calendar dates it is somehow less valid. After all, the point of the story is to teach the reader something about God, not about how God made the universe.

Also, let me point out that this view is in good company:

In one of his books, Billy Graham wrote:

I don’t think that there’s any conflict at all between science today and the Scriptures. I think that we have misinterpreted the Scriptures many times and we’ve tried to make the Scriptures say things they weren’t meant to say, I think that we have made a mistake by thinking the Bible is a scientific book. The Bible is not a book of science. The Bible is a book of Redemption, and of course I accept the Creation story. I believe that God did create the universe. I believe that God created man, and whether it came by an evolutionary process and at a certain point He took this person or being and made him a living soul or not, does not change the fact that God did create man. … whichever way God did it makes no difference as to what man is and man’s relationship to God.

The Clergy Letter – from American Christian Clergy – An Open Letter Concerning Religion and Science
(signed by over 12,000 Christian Ordained Clergy Members.)

Within the community of Christian believers there are areas of dispute and disagreement, including the proper way to interpret Holy Scripture. While virtually all Christians take the Bible seriously and hold it to be authoritative in matters of faith and practice, the overwhelming majority do not read the Bible literally, as they would a science textbook. Many of the beloved stories found in the Bible – the Creation, Adam and Eve, Noah and the ark – convey timeless truths about God, human beings, and the proper relationship between Creator and creation expressed in the only form capable of transmitting these truths from generation to generation. Religious truth is of a different order from scientific truth. Its purpose is not to convey scientific information but to transform hearts.

We the undersigned, Christian clergy from many different traditions, believe that the timeless truths of the Bible and the discoveries of modern science may comfortably coexist. We believe that the theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests. To reject this truth or to treat it as “one theory among others” is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children. We believe that among God’s good gifts are human minds capable of critical thought and that the failure to fully employ this gift is a rejection of the will of our Creator. To argue that God’s loving plan of salvation for humanity precludes the full employment of the God-given faculty of reason is to attempt to limit God, an act of hubris. We urge school board members to preserve the integrity of the science curriculum by affirming the teaching of the theory of evolution as a core component of human knowledge. We ask that science remain science and that religion remain religion, two very different, but complementary, forms of truth.

Pat Robertson

…there was a point of time after the earth was created after these things were done, after the universe was formed, after the asteroid hit the earth and wiped out the dinosaurs, after all that, there was a point in time where there was a particular human being that God touched and that was the human that started the race that we are now part of and I think prior to that who knows what was here. ….

You’d have to be deaf, dumb, and blind to think that this earth that we live in only has 6000 years of existence. It just doesn’t.

Pastor Brian Houston, Hillsong Church Australia

I believe in creation. The Bible starts in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. If I waver on the first 10 words of the Bible I think I’m going to have problems properly representing the rest of the Bible. However, timeframes, over what period of time that was, whether there was room for any evolving in some areas of life as well, I’m more than open to that. I’m happy to leave that to the experts.

Pope Francis

“When we read about Creation in Genesis, we run the risk of imagining God was a magician, with a magic wand able to do everything. But that is not so,” Francis said.

“He created human beings and let them develop according to the internal laws that he gave to each one so they would reach their fulfillment.”

Francis said the beginning of the world was not “a work of chaos” but created from a principle of love. He said sometimes competing beliefs in creation and evolution could co-exist.

Pope Francis tells an audience that the Big Bang does not contradict the “creative intervention of God”. He says, “on the contrary, it requires it”.

“God is not a divine being or a magician, but the Creator who brought everything to life,” the pope said. “Evolution in nature is not inconsistent with the notion of creation, because evolution requires the creation of beings that evolve.”

This goes all the way back to Saint Augustine who said in effect that where the discoveries of science contradict our understanding of God’s Word, we should first reconsider our understanding of God’s Word.

So, I think this should do it. If not, feel free to ask me questions. I’ll try to answer them. I would especially appreciate any comments pointing out factual mistakes. Reread the story and see what you think.

Religion in School

I read the “How Great Thou Art” bit in the news. The band at a high school was going to play a hymn at half time but they where stopped because it is religious. (I’m sure there are tons of other behind-the-scenes bit I don’t care about).

I love that hymn. If you haven’t heard Elvis singing it, I highly recommend it or maybe even one of the live versions in all his 70’s glory.

What confuses me about this issue is that people who seem to have good, normally functioning brains under other circumstances, fail here. They seem to insist that our religion should be a part of our school system. It is lost on them that the very founding of our country was by people (you can read about the Pilgrims here if you need to) who fled other governmentally supported Christians (the State Church of England) who were forcing their religion (Church of England: mother church of the Anglican Community) on others.

Our country is about freedom of religion, not freedom to be Christian. We don’t force any religious belief on our citizens here. We don’t do that in America. That’s for other countries. We let you choose here.

Christ did not want Christianity forced on others. We don’t do that in Christianity. That’s for other religions. We let you choose freely who you will serve.

Do unto others” applies here does it not? If the band were going to start up a Muslim worship song would we be okay with that? A Jewish worship song? A Buddhist chant? Would we not prefer they chant elsewhere? Would we insist on our rights?

Maybe we simply decide to be okay with “rendering onto Caesar what is Caesar’s” and leaving religion out of our schools. It’s what our founding fathers wanted for certain. It’s what Christ would have wanted based on what is written in the Bible.

I didn’t look at the details in the article, so I don’t know the people involved in this specific incident. I don’t mean to offend them and I don’t know them at all as far as I know. They are probably all well-meaning, charitable, loving, generous, kind, and righteous followers of Jesus who attend a church, help spread the faith, and constantly repent of sin and shun wickedness. I’m sure they tithe, give to the needy, and support missions. These good people should come to the understanding that we ought not be putting our religion in schools based on the evidence I’ve already provided.

But for those who talk loudly about the right to have their religion in school, and do not observe the actual Christian faith, I would suggest to them that: these things (the actual acts of Christianity) would be a better place to start acting like a real Christian than complaining loudly and publicly (like a Pharisee) about an issue that comes nowhere close to the impact that even one of those above would have if you did them.

Another Bible

Lately, I have been thinking a little about translation of the Bible and interpretation of the Bible. Translation should mean rendering the words of the Bible into another language. Interpretation of the Bible would mean rendering the meaning of the Bible into other words. People often talk as if translation can be done without interpretation. They also speak sometimes as if interpretation is opinion, and one person can interpret into one thing and another into yet another.

This is wrong. It is very hard to translate from any language into any other with a direct word-to-word conversion. In fact, the point of the most direct word-to-word translation would be to get a rendering into another language that is as close to the original author’s intended meaning as possible by using the same words. The problem is that language does not work like this. Change a word in English for the closest word in French can often end up with something that is not what the author intended.

Take, as an example, the word “another” in English and “autre” in French. A “direct” rendering of the English sentence, “I would like another cup of coffee” would go like:

“I would like another cup of coffee.” -> “Je voudrais une autre tasse de café.”

“another” -> “une autre”

But in French, when you ask for “another cup” it is like asking for “a different cup” in English. Instead of refilling your cup of coffee, the server will bring you a new cup, or maybe a different kind of coffee. In either case, the direct rendering was not what you wanted.

This is the simplest example I can think of right off. Many are complex and well beyond my understanding. But I know that Hebrew to English is much more complicated. French is grammatically just like English, with less verb tenses. Most of the words are the the same with slight changes in spelling and pronunciation. So a totally different language like Hebrew cannot even come close to a direct rendering and a direct rendering would be much further than the author’s meaning in many cases.

All translation from one language to another requires some interpretation on the part of the translator. When you read any rendering of the Bible into a language other than the original, you are read the interpretation of the translator. It is simply not possible to do it any other way.

The King James Version of the Bible (KJV) is often though of as being special in some way. That is, some people seem to think that other translations are somehow less authoritative. There is no ground for this belief. This version was commissioned by King James of England and came after other Bibles had been rendered into English. In any case, the writers of the KJV were well aware that they were interpreting and written material survives from the period that shows this conclusively. In addition, there were many errors in the original KJV that were corrected in subsequent editions.

Would it not be better to read a Bible that was written to reflect as closely as possible the ideas that the original authors were attempting to convey? There have, of course, been Bibles written with this in mind. And new Bibles come out all the time. This is a good thing. There should be a complete retranslation of the Bible every so often to keep the language up to date for modern readers.

But there’s the rub. If each translation must be interpretation, then each edition is open to misinterpretation. (I believe this is one reason people like to think the KJV came from Heaven: the more translations that are done, the harder it is to think that there are no problems in them.) Each Bible also has the potential to be swayed, even slightly, toward one person’s thinking about the truth of what the author intended to communicate.

The other thing I hear a lot is that one can read the same sections of the Bible over and over and get a different understanding each time. I’m not sure this is what an author of the books ever intended. I’m sure this is supposed to be true of some books, like the books of poetry, but not of the historical books. I doubt if it is true even of Revelation, though I can’t say for sure. One can read a book from the Bible and see things they had missed before, having a clearer understanding, but if the meaning of the entire thing has changed then we should be thrilled to have discovered the truth, but this does not mean the earlier bits we had were also right. It means they were wrong and we know more now.

I don’t mean that there may not be layers of hidden meaning in places in the Bible. But I suspect this is less frequent than some seem to think. I also suspect that much of this would be lost in translation. Much of the “word play” and rhetorical devices that an author uses when writing to get subtle textural meaning vanishes when a translator rewrites the book. And let us not be confused: translation is a rewrite. The translator may get all of the correct meaning or may not, but unless the work is being rewritten by the original author, another person is writing another book from the first book.

If the writer of Job was using a pun, we wouldn’t know. I suspect that all of the humor in the original Bible would be lost since one must have context to understand humor. If I made a joke about being glad it is Friday (the end of the work week) and someone read this a thousand years later, the meaning of Friday in that culture may have lost that meaning entirely and the reading would marvel that I could be excited about an arbitrary day. I can’t imagine all the other kinds of things.

So, what’s to be done about it? Well, in the past, when the Bible was being translated, people used to keep multiple versions around for reference. I like this model myself. I have a phone with Bible apps. I use this to hop back and forth between translations. I read in whichever version I like and if I see something that I think may turn on how the wording is set up, I look at different translation. Sometimes I read a few. Sometimes I dig out the Hebrew words and look them up.

In the end, there’s little to be done about it. We can only read, try to understand, and use our brains. One thing to remember is that pulling out a section, even a large section with some context, can end up getting you to a place you didn’t mean to go. It is the best policy to consider the work as a whole, each book as a book, and so forth. If we have a firm understanding of what a book is about, who wrote, it, the time they wrote it in, and other contextual material, we are more likely to understand what we are supposed to understand.

Of course, if we, like I have heard others do, go looking for something we want to find in the Bible, if we read long enough and are flexible enough in our own understanding, we can find it, whatever it is.