Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry gives us this quotation from the 19th century religious provocateur Soren Kierkegaard:
“The matter is quite simple. The bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you?” 1
Of course, Kierkegaard famously wrote a lengthy exposition about the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac, an exposition that one assumes should have been entirely unnecessary if in fact “the bible is very easy to understand”. Kierkegaard’s point about Christians attempting to defend themselves from the implications of their faith is fair enough, but it’s hard to credit his notion that the Bible speaks for itself—it clearly never has and, like any human text (or even a divine text that falls into human hands), it clearly cannot.
Case in point: the Followers of Christ, a Christian sect that believes in faith healing and refuses to allow its members to see doctors or to avail themselves—or their children—of modern medicine. This has caused no small amount of controversy in places like Oregon and Idaho where the Followers of Christ seek only to be left alone so their children can die young as the good Lord intends:
Like Neil Jacob Randolph, a 3-year-old buried in Peaceful Valley Cemetery in Caldwell in 1982. “Sleep on sweet Neil — and take thy rest,” his headstone reads. “God called thee home. He thought it best.”
In another row are the graves of four infants marked with identical headstones on which “Infant Bailey” is hand-scrawled in capital letters — pressed into wet cement decades ago.
Many of the nearly 600 people buried here were Followers of Christ — a Christian sect that believes in faith healing and does not allow members — including sick children — to see doctors or use modern medicine. The Pentecostal religion, founded in the 1930s, has long had a presence in Western states. Former members say the church has become increasingly secretive about its beliefs and population after years of negative attention for deaths related to spiritual healing.
Several of the children buried here at Peaceful Valley Cemetery died from preventable ailments like pneumonia and food poisoning. And 70 percent of these children died after 1972, when religious exemptions protecting faith healers from charges of neglect, abuse and murder were enacted in Idaho and around the country. If a child dies or is abused in Idaho, law states that a parent can’t be found guilty if they believe in spiritual healing.2
I do not mean to be glib. I happen to believe that legitimate religious convictions deserve respect; but then, so too do the lives of children. I will not call the Followers of Christ "crackpots" or "fanatics" or "superstitious fools" simply because they trust utterly in a God whose very existence I seriously doubt. Perhaps our Supreme Court, which has given Hobby Lobby and other “Christian” employers a “Get out of Obamacare free!” card based on “sincerely held religious beliefs,” would like to weigh in on whether such beliefs also trump the rights of children to receive life-saving medical care: apparently the Followers of Christ have their own death panels in place and don't need Obamacare at all.
Most Christians do not share the “faith healing” beliefs of the Followers of Christ (or of Christian Scientists); then again, most Christians don’t share lots of beliefs held by other Christians. This seems odd, given Kierkegaard’s contention that the bible is very easy to understand and that, presumably, using it to discern God’s will should be a snap: either God forbids the use of medicine (or alcohol, or birth control) or God does not.
As I said, Kierkegaard wrote about Abraham and Isaac. Abraham dutifully obeyed God’s command to sacrifice his only son Isaac; for this, St. Paul said that Abraham’s faith was “reckoned to him as righteousness,” and Kierkegaard christened Abraham the exemplary “knight of faith” who made the required leap into the ethical abyss, sustained only by trust in God.3
All of which doesn’t change the fact that if a latter-day Abraham living in the United States of America, (or even in Idaho) told his wife he had received similarly murderous instructions from the Lord, the wife would almost certainly call Child Protective Services and the authorities would have Abraham in custody before he got very far up Mount Moriah.
So what should be done about the Followers of Christ in Idaho? They have an advocate in the state legislature, Rep. Christy Perry (R-Nampa), who has this to say in their defense:
“They [the Followers of Christ] have a clear understanding of what the role of government should be,” she said. “[It] isn’t how to tell me how to live my life.”
And perhaps, she said, Followers of Christ are more comfortable confronting death. “Children do die,” Perry said. “And I’m not trying to sound callous, but [people calling for reform] want to act as if death is an anomaly. But it’s not. It’s a way of life.”
Rep. Perry then added:
“As you move out West, we tend to be much more independent people, and Idaho is a lot like that. [Followers of Christ] do not look to the government to help them at all. They’re very self-sufficient and know how to take care of themselves. In Canyon County, people hunt to feed their families. They fish. They grow their own food. They are comforted by the fact that they know their child is in heaven. If I want to let my child be with God, why is that wrong? Is it really because these children are dying more so than other children? Or is this really about an attack on a religion you don’t agree with?”
Based on the clear instructions found in the Bible, many Christians insist that life is so precious that all efforts must be made to prolong it; thus, they oppose “end-of-life” measures and “assisted suicide,” and they take to the courts to prevent a brain-dead person in a years-long coma from being taken off life support. At the same time, and based on the same Bible, other Christians believe that respecting God’s will is more important even than life itself, and that mere humans shouldn’t interfere with God’s plan by means of medicine and medical technology.
I have no idea where to draw the line between acceptable religious beliefs and practices and those that society has a right (and even a duty) to prohibit. It seems to me, however, that when we grant religious exemptions for behaviors we would otherwise find criminal, we’re asking for trouble. Pace the Followers of Christ, my guess is that if God truly wants, for whatever inscrutable reason, a particular child (or adult) to be with Him in heaven, He’ll find a way to accomplish that in spite of medical intervention; but then, I’m not a Christian and so I can’t rely on the “easy to understand” Bible of Soren Kierkegaard.
1 http://www.patheos.com/blogs/inebriateme/2015/02/the-demands-of-propriety-and-the-hands-of-the-living-god/#ixzz3Sn14WVlO M. Gobry's post has nothing to do with the issue I address here; I just found the Kierkegaard quotation appropriate.
3 Around here, we call that "the teleological suspension of the ethical". It's also been described in less flattering terms (see above: "crackpot," "fanatic," etc.).