I don’t know what possesses me to watch “Real Time With Bill Maher,” for Maher is, without a doubt, the most annoying anti-religionist on the scene today. Though his show is purportedly about politics, it almost invariably includes some attack on religion, especially Christianity. Even during a recent interview with former President Jimmy Carter, whom Maher very much admires, the host managed to get in a sharp attack on Carter’s faith. Just last week, his program included a brief conversation with Ralph Reed, the articulate gentleman who used to run the Christian Coalition and who is now a lobbyist and activist on behalf of faith-related causes.
For the first three or four minutes, Reed and Maher discussed the social science concerning children raised in stable vs. unstable families, and Reed was scoring quite a few points in favor of the traditional understanding of marriage. Sensing that he was making little headway, Maher decided to pull the religion card, and from that point on things went from bad to worse. Maher said, “Now you’re a man of faith, which means someone who consciously suspends all critical thinking and accepts things on the basis of no evidence.” Astonishingly, Reed said, “yes,” at which point, I shouted at the TV screen: “No!” Then Maher said, “And I believe that you take everything in the Bible literally,” and Reed replied, “yes,” at which point I said, “Oh God, here we go again.” Maher then did what I knew he would do: he pulled out a sheet of paper which included references to several of the more morally outrageous practices that the God of the Bible seems to approve of, including slavery. Pathetically, Reed tried to clear things up by distinguishing the chattel slavery of the American south from the slavery practiced in the classical world, which amounted to a kind of indentured servitude. “Oh I get it,” Maher responded, “God approves of the good kind of slavery.” The audience roared with laughter; Reed lowered his head; Maher smirked; and the cause of religion took still another step backward.
I would like, in very brief compass, to say something simple about each of the issues that Maher raised. Faith, rightly understood, does not involve any surrender of one’s critical intellectual powers, nor is it tantamount to the acceptance of things on the basis of no evidence. What Bill Maher characterizes as “faith” is nothing but superstition or credulity or intellectual irresponsibility. It is an ersatz “knowing” that falls short of the legitimate standards of reason. Real faith is not infra-rational but rather supra-rational, that is to say, not below reason but above reason and inclusive of it. It is beyond reason precisely because it is a response to the God who has revealed himself, and God is, by definition, beyond our capacity to grasp, to see, fully to understand. It involves darkness to be sure, but the darkness that comes, not from an insufficiency of light, but from a surplus of light. If you are ever tempted to agree with Bill Maher on the nature of faith, I would invite you to read any page of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, John Henry Newman, C.S. Lewis, or G.K. Chesterton and honestly ask yourself the question, “Does this sound like someone who has suspended his critical faculties?”
As for the Bible, the moment you say, as Ralph Reed did, that you take the entirety of the Scriptures literally, you are hopelessly vulnerable to the kind of critique that Bill Maher raises. In its marvelous statement on Biblical interpretation, Dei Verbum, Vatican II says that the Bible is the Word of God in the words of men. That laconic statement packs a punch, for it clarifies why the fundamentalist strategy of Scriptural interpretation is always dysfunctional. God did not dictate the Scriptures word for word to people who received the message dumbly and automatically; rather, God spoke subtly and indirectly, precisely through human agents who employed distinctive literary techniques and who were conditioned by the cultures in which they found themselves and by the audiences they addressed. Thus one of the most basic moves in Scriptural exegesis is the determination of the genre in which a given Biblical author was operating. Are we dealing with a song, a psalm, a history, a legend, a letter, a Gospel, a tall tale, an apocalypse? Therefore, to ask, “Do you take the Bible literally?” is about as helpful as asking, “Do you take the library literally?”
A further implication of Dei Verbum’s statement is that there is a distinction between, as William Placher put it, “what is in the Bible and what the Bible teaches.” There are lots of things that are indeed in the pages of the Scriptures but that are not essential to the overarching message of the Scriptures, things that were in the cultural milieu of the human authors but that are not ingredient in the revelation that God intends to offer. A good example of this would be the references to slavery that Maher cited. The institution of slavery was taken for granted in most ancient cultures and is therefore it is not surprising that Biblical authors would refer to it or even praise it, but attention to the great patterns and trajectories of the Bible as a whole reveals that the justification of slavery is not something that “the Bible teaches,” which is precisely why the fight against slavery in the western culture was led by people deeply shaped by the Scriptures.
There is much more, obviously, that can be said concerning these two complex areas of theology. Suffice it to say the kind of conversation that Bill Maher and Ralph Reed had is decidedly not the best way forward.