The Heartblink

I’ve been thinking about the way good people often disagree about important life issues, especially in dealing with politics, morality, and religion. Part of the problem is that we don’t like feeling uncomfortable, and one way to stay comfortable is to close our minds.

With controversial issues, strong arguments may pull us in opposite directions, and it’s no fun to feel like the rope in a game of tug-o’-war. So we choose one side of the controversy, and screen out information that supports the other side. Blocking out threatening facts is similar to the way our eyes blink when we get hit with a bright light. It’s a sort of mindblink. Shutting out data in this way can be soothing, but it can also be dangerous.

What’s especially dangerous is a related phenomenon we could call the heartblink. To block out disturbing data we momentarily disable our moral instincts.

When I was a child, I read the Bible all the way through. But even though the Bible contains some extremely problematic verses, I didn’t let myself realize their significance. I remember sort of “blurring” after reading a troubling passage, feeling confused and quickly moving on. Mindblinks and heartblinks shielded me from distress.

Here’s an example: Leviticus 20:9 states, “For every one who curses his father or his mother shall be put to death; he has cursed his father or his mother, his blood is upon him.” Exodus 21:17 also demands the death penalty for parent-cursing.

Many Christians have been startled at this teaching. In Is God a Delusion? theistic philosopher Eric Reitan asks incredulously, “Would a good God call for the execution of children who curse their parents?”

Notice that this commandment is clearcut, black-and-white. Execute the child, period. Nothing is said about the child’s age. Are we talking about a twenty-year-old? A ten-year-old? A four-year-old? Nor are extenuating circumstances mentioned, such as mental illness, low intelligence, extreme provocation, or the child’s repentance. What if the child was temporarily enraged and apologized immediately? Or suppose a little boy or girl had reason to hate the parent, such as being the victim of sexual abuse? Sorry, little one. No excuses are allowed.

Furthermore, if this was the voice of higher guidance speaking, one would think that God would have revealed helpful principles of communication and mutual understanding. The creator of the universe would presumably realize that there are other ways of dealing with an angry child besides killing it.

I never cursed my parents, but as a child that passage should have gotten my attention. I should have asked myself, “If one of my classmates got mad and said, “Damn you, Mommy!” does God actually want that little kid to be stoned to death?

No doubt many Christians and Jews quickly heartblink Leviticus 20:9 and Exodus 21:17 because they are so obviously not the Word of God. But both of these verses are embedded in a long list of rules that are explicitly presented as God’s commandments.

I have posted a version of this essay on my new blog, Did God Really Say THAT!? A Blog about the Bible (didgodreallysaythat.wordpress.com) which focuses on Biblical literalism. In that blog I suggest that in order to accept verses such as Leviticus 20:9, people resort to mindblinks and heartblinks – suspending their ability to think and their ability to care. We can all learn to notice when we cope with an unsettling datum by momentarily immobilizing our own moral instincts, and learn to open our hearts instead.

The true visionaries, both religious and secular, urge us to open our hearts rather than hardening them. Regardless of their theologies, I think they would agree: Beware of the heartblink.

Roger Christan Schriner

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5 thoughts on “The Heartblink

  1. Isn’t it necessary to engage with the rabbinic and patristic literature on verses like these? Traditionally, the Bible has never stood alone, but has functioned within, and been interpreted by, a living community.

    • You are absolutely right that the Bible should be read in the context of a spiritual community. That is one of the main reasons I started “Did God Really Say THAT!? A Blog about the Bible.” Today millions of people accept a form of Biblical literalism which assumes that anything stated in the Bible as a divine edict must be obeyed. Fortunately they don’t obey these commandments consistently, so they don’t actually go around killing children for cursing parents. But when a Bible verse matches their personal beliefs, they may think, “God said it, I believe it, and that setles it.” That’s what happens when people take “sola scriptura” to an extreme.

  2. A rabbi told me that these death penalties were not enforced and other principles were used. I would think deaths were imposed at times, but perhaps the rabbis did what Jesus did to stop a droning. I also think of Tevye saying his third daughter was dead to him when she married a Christian, but later wished them well.

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