Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Problems of Literalism

We had a problem a few years ago at the school where I work: We decided to create a comprehensive list of student infractions and the consequences that went along with them. For a long time, we labored over a gigantic list of all the things we thought kids could do wrong, and matched each with an adequate response on the part of the adults. We then published this gigantic poster. So, when a student caused an infraction against our conduct code, we would simply look at the chart and see what to do.

Immediately kids found the loopholes. So, talking back to a teacher got a consequence... but what if you just choose to sit there and refuse? We kept having to revisit the list to try to shore things up.

Finally, we realized that no matter how many infractions we came up with on the list, people would do something that didn't quite fit, and then we would all stand around trying to figure out what to do.

Herein lies the problem with literalism, which is currently rearing its ugly head in the political and religious realms, as well as creating an odd mixing of the two.

Religiously, we see that a literal interpretation of The Bible, or any other scripture, leads to the misuse of religion. Right now we are seeing literalists use biblical passages to levy a war against contraception and homosexuality. The very basis of this war is based on hatred, which is the antipode of the New Testament. By looking at specific words uttered by Jesus in a narrow interpretation, they completely miss the whole basis of Christianity, which is love and non-judgment.

We solved the problem at out school by reconvening and creating broad definitions, such as 'students must be safe - unsafe behavior results in detention.' Laws work based on intent and not on literalism.

The Old Testament was, in some ways, an attempt at literalism. In that world, children who talked back to their parents were stoned to death. The God of the Old Testament was moody and cruel. Many people are attempting to use the New Testament, whose message is 'Love your neighbor as yourself,' in the same way as the older verses. In The New Testament, there are 3 allusions to the devil, and 'Love' is mentioned 261 times, yet the thrust of many people who state that they follow the literal word of The Bible focus on the devil.

The Constitution of The United States was definitely written with the 'students must be safe' idea in mind. The Framers knew it to be a document based on intent, not on letter, and though words were chosen wisely, it was written with the ability to be amended, and the intent that as the country grew and changed, the intent of the document would be able to hold fast.

Many of the same people who are Biblical literalists are also Constitutional Literalists. They pick and choose passages from The Constitution to support and uphold - for instance, many of them are very excited abut the Second Amendment - "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." However, I keep noticing that they disregard the first clause of this amendment. Similarly, they seem to be blind to the freedom of religion clause in the First Amendment, and seem to be OK with putting religion and government together because it suits their purposes.

The problem with literalism is that it is used to be exclusive. It causes people to focus on minute details and miss the bigger picture. In the case of The Bible, it is hard to look at specific words, as the current Bible in English has been through several linguistic translations. The big picture intent remains the same, but when scholars debate whether what was coming out of Moses' head was horns or light, we can see that a micro approach to scripture is a slippery slope. Similarly, our government is based on principles of freedom. The general idea is that people should have as much freedom as they can, until the point that it infringes on the rights of others. I would debate that homosexuality or contraception impact anyone other than the people engaging in those activities, and they should therefore be freedoms that are allowed. 

Perhaps the downfall of looking at things from a general perspective is that it creates a situation in which there is a great deal of gray. I have found that most of my literalist friends suffer from a cognitive distortion that laws, both religious and governmental, should be black and white. Living in a world of gray requires us to be constantly making decisions, and requires us to think about the impact of what we do on others. It may be easier to live in a world of the massive chart of behavior and consequences, but the rewards are not nearly as great.

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