Context

So I read a blog post comparing the violence in the Bible to the violence in the Quran.  The author counted up the number of verses endorsing violence in each book, concluding that the Bible had more violent verses, but as a percentage of its content the Quran had more.  If that was some kind of contest, I’m not sure who won.

These days I see lots of people condemning religions as inherently violent, oppressive, manipulative, anti-intellectual, and worse.  Sometimes those pronouncing judgment are condemning all religions.  Sometimes it comes from religious people condemning all religions except their own.

Critical examination of religion is a good thing, it seems to me.  We should constantly examine and critique all institutions, especially when they have such immense sociological influence.

But as someone once said, “Text without context is pretext for a proof text.” Counting up verses as if the relative merit of religions can be determined by arithmetic is foolishness. The texts that are sacred to religious people are part of a much vaster context, which includes not only culture and history, but also reason, experience and tradition. Critical studies of the texts are valuable as such.  But ultimate judgments on them (and the religions to which they are attached) should take into account their total contexts and, most importantly, the lives of those who live within those contexts–both as individuals, and as a whole.  Let those lives speak, and hear what they say charitably.

That requires a lot more effort than reducing it down to something as simple as finding a few sentences in a sacred text that seem to confirm a pre-existing bias–then pronouncing judgment.  And it can’t be done with an adding machine.