Sunday, September 24, 2006

Sam Harris doesn't grok goats

Albert Mohler writes a brief review of Sam Harris' brief new book. I found it interesting mostly for the quotes. Naturally, Harris' new book has some things to say about "religious liberalism/moderation":
I have written elsewhere about the problems I see with religious liberalism and religious moderation. Here, we need only observe that the issue is both simpler and more urgent than the liberals and moderates generally admit. [...] If the basic tenets of Christianity are true, then there are some very grim surprises in store for nonbelievers like myself.
I guess he's talking about hell. I'm not sure why Harris has any interest whatsoever in what any theist thinks his fate in the afterlife will be. In any case, he wants to accuse "liberals" of faithlessness on the grounds that, for example, they think Christian salvation is more universal than the Bible really says it is.

Regarding what he takes the Bible to really say about salvation (and, by implication, where "liberals" get Christianity wrong), he writes:
If Christianity is correct, and I persist in my unbelief, I should expect to suffer the torments of hell. Worse still, I have persuaded others, and many close to me, to reject the very idea of God. They too will languish in "eternal fire" (Matthew 25:41).
It's a curious choice of scripture to prove this particular point. I can only assume that Harris came up with it by typing "eternal fire" into the search function of some site like BibleGateway and picking the best looking verse on the search result page:
Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.
Of course, before using this verse to prove his point, he might want to consider reading the context. In this case, the context is the parable of the sheep and the goats.
"Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.'

"They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?'

"He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.'"
Let's focus on what this parable doesn't talk about: namely, belief. In this parable there is nothing, not even a single word, about accepting Jesus as your saviour, or having any thoughts about Jesus at all, or having any thoughts about God at all. There is nothing here to support the idea that "unbelief" implies damnation. To the contrary, this parable ought to make one wonder whether professing a Christian faith, or being any kind of theist at all, is in any way essential for salvation.

Without presupposing any particular interpretation, it seems clear that you would be hard-pressed to read this passage and think that it makes the positive claim that salvation is the exclusive province of Christians. Either Harris didn't bother to read the rest of the parable, or he read it and decided to ignore the context and cite the verse anyways.

(It is also curious that Albert Mohler implicitly endorses Harris' use of Matthew 25:41, or, at least, doesn't think to comment on it. This might have something to do with his theology.)

(Hat tip to Jesus Politics)

No comments: