Left: Bill Maher; right: Ralph Reed (photos: Wikipedia.org)
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.”
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.
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
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.