Trinity, Desire, Aesceticism: two Sarah Coakley books (part 2)

I’ve been looking at a couple of Sarah Coakley books during Lent: The New Asceticism: Sexuality, Gender and the Quest for God, and her earlier book God, Sexuality and the Self: An essay ‘On the Trinity’. In part one of this not-quite-a-review, I discussed a few themes that had struck me and stayed with me for a good time after reading the books. I am interested in her discussion of a theology of desire, and how we might align our desires with God’s desires. In this post I’ll focus on what I recall of her thoughts about the Trinity – these are interesting in themselves. But if Coakley is correct, our relationship with God as Trinity both shapes our views on desire and relationships, and is the means by which our desires are brought into alignment with God’s desires.

Romans 8 as a model of Trinitarian experience

One of the questions Coakley addresses is “Why Three?” – how did the early church arrive at a Trinitarian view of God, and how do we, ourselves, experience God as Trinity? She proposes Romans 8 (one of my favouritest chapters!) as a particularly good model of this experience:

For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory….In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.

Romans 8:14-17, 26-27 (NIV)

Coakley’s view is that when we pray – especially when we pray in that particularly wordless way – we experience God as Trinity. It is not that we experience God as three distinct and separate beings, as though each is fully distinguishable. But rather, we find that it is God who is praying in and through us, but also God who is receiving that prayer, and also inviting us “into Christ”, into our own adoption as children, sharing in Christ’s sufferings but also in the glory of his resurrection life. And in this experience, each “person” of the Trinity points to, and relates to, the other two. (Coakley is quick to point out that not all our prayers feel like this… such heightened awareness is rare!). It is notable that this experience is “Spirit first”… it is the Spirit who draws us in to these Divine relationships.

Coakley contrasts this with the perhaps more hierarchical, linear and sequential view of Father/Son/Spirit. Of course, as good Trinitarian Christians we are quick to point out that of course all three persons are equal, and equally God. Yet in our speaking and in our singing and (I suspect) in our thoughts we quickly snap back into a hierarchical view. The creeds have… one God, the Father Almighty, the creator… the Son of God, begotten of the Father… and the Spirit who proceeds from the Father and the Son. Any number of songs and hymns follow this pattern. We think of them sequentially: in the Old Testament it was God the Father, then came Jesus, then after that the Spirit.

Yet, there are dangers if we think hierarchically, in a purely linear model… the Father first, then Son, then Spirit; Christ – represtented by the (male?) priest – over the church; men over women; masters over slaves. It is perhaps easy to see how a hierarchical, ordered organisation might (subconsciously?) prefer a linear model of the Trinity.

Coakley’s further theory is that the Romans 8 path to the Trinity was known in the early days of the church, but proved “too hot to handle,” both in that it subverted hierarchy, but also because of other dangers. Romans 8 requires our desire for God to drive us towards a certain loss of control and submission as we allow the Spirit to draw us into the life of the Trinity. In writings on the topic during the early centuries, warnings are given of the potential for confusion and loss of control in other areas of desire… so that only the most experienced and mature, and least prone to temptation might be advised to pray in this manner. For these reasons, speculates Coakley, other Trinitarian models are more dominant and approved in the early “official” accounts. Yet, such issues perhaps should not be ignored or repressed if we are to confront current questions of desire and faith: there is potential for rich insight here.

Trinitarian iconography and “hunt the pigeon”

In Chapter 5 of God, Sexuality and the Self: An essay ‘On the Trinity’, Coakley takes us on a brief guided tour of Trinitarian iconography. Here are some of the images that jumped out at me. The last four, in particular, are worthy of longer pondering. I’ve added a few thoughts to each image, but it’s best just to look at them and think.

The central scene in “Throne of Grace” is an example of what Coakley calls “hunt the pigeon”… where is the Spirit? If you look really closely you can see the dove in the circle above the cross. But the scene is dominated by the stern Father and suffering Son… something that happens very easily when we focus on the cross. (Question: have I ever seen a fully Trinitarian theory of the cross and atonement? Is the idea of the Father separating himself from the Son really Trinitarian at all? And, where is the Spirit in the moment of the cross?)

Divine Fatherhood: this appears to be the usual very hierarchical image, with patriarchal Father and Son. But… what is nice here is that the eye is drawn to the Spirit in the centre… is this a way in to the Trinity?

Divine fatherhood, School of Novogrod, 14th Century

El Greco’s Trinity: has a very symathetic Father figure… but with the focus on the suffering Christ, the Spirit is somewhat separate and peripheral. Perhaps the Spirit is riding to the rescue for the resurrection, but not really involved in the suffering here?

Here is the very famous Rublev Trinity, based on the three figures from Genesis 18. The eye is drawn from one to the next, to the next. And is there welcome, a space at the table for us?

The Trinity, Andrei Rublev, 1411

This beautiful sketch from William Blake solves many of the problems of the El Greco Trinity. Here the cruciform Son throws himself, face-first, into the Father’s embrace, a leap from death to life; the Father, head bowed is fully involved in the suffering; the Spirit’s broad and enveloping wings match the Son’s outspread arms.

Hildegard’s Trinity is more abstract: the Christ figure (perhaps more gender neutral than intended?) welcomes us in and relates to us, through the surrounding bronze circles of the Spirit and the outer bright circles of the Father.

Finally a pastel sketch by Marlene Scholz. Here the Christ figure is also us: we identify with the central figure in deep prayer. The Spirit reaches to us and prays through us, drawing us up to the arms of the Father, and into the circling vortex (?) of Trinitarian relationship. There are clear echoes of the prayer life of Romans 8.

‘Blessed Trinity’, Marlene Scholz, late 20th Century

Reflections on “Jesus’ teaching on marriage”

In session 3 of the Living in Love and Faith course, we are invited to reflect on Matthew 19:1-12. According to the course booklet, this (together with a similar passage in Mark 10) gives the fullest account of Jesus’ teaching on marriage. Let’s take a look, particularly at verses 3-6:

Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?’

‘Haven’t you read,’ he replied, ‘that at the beginning the Creator “made them male and female,” and said, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh”? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’

Matthew 19:3-6 (NIV)

A traditional reading of this passage would say something along the following lines. This is where Jesus gives his fullest teaching on marriage. He goes back to the creation accounts, and sets marriage in that context. In particular, he emphasises that marriage must be “male and female”. So, there you have it – Jesus supports the view that marriage is between a man and a woman. (I admit this is a brief caricature of a traditional reading, rather than a full exposition).

Yet, this is not what struck me when I reflected on the reading, and I wanted to offer some alternative thoughts.

Firstly: the context. I am not sure it is correct to describe this as “Jesus’ teaching on marriage”. It is not the case that the disciples sat Jesus down and said, right, tell us everything you would want to say about marriage. Instead, the context of the passage is a (potentially) tricky question about divorce: ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?’ It would be more accurate to describe this as Jesus’ teaching about divorce. A good rule of Bible study is that we should always pay attention to the context, because this gives the primary meaning of the passage.

Secondly: the question itself. At least to my eyes, there are two objectionable aspects to the question the Pharisees asked. ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?‘ I take note of the unequal nature of this: men divorce women, not the other way around. ‘For any and every reason?‘ What strikes me here is the unfaithfulness and injustice of it. It does not need to be a good reason, any reason will do. The question implies a casual disregard both for the marriage contract and for the essential humanity of the woman involved. Divorce along these lines would leave the woman destitute, and likely cut off from her community. So, the question asked by the Pharisees emphasises both inequality and unfaithfulness. It seems to me that Jesus’ answer, and the Bible passages he cites, are a perfect riposte to these two aspects of the question.

Let’s take a look at the answer. So, yes, clearly God “made them male and female”. But, in the context of his answer to the Pharisees, there was no particular sense in which Jesus needed to emphasise the male:female aspect of marriage. Their question presupposed it (‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?‘). And, the wider cultural context presupposed that marriages were male:female. In short, no-one here was asking the question ‘Is marriage only for male and female?’; correspondingly, Jesus is not answering that question. In short:
Pharisees: Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?
Jesus: First let me emphasise that marriage must be between a man and a woman.
Pharisees: ??
It should be clear that this does not make sense!

The danger for us is that we are bringing a burning question to the passage from our own context: “Is marriage only for male and female?” So, seeing that Jesus uses the words “male and female” we assume that Jesus is answering our burning question. But, we should not assume that the passage is here to answer our questions. If we do this sort of thing, we should be aware that in allowing our question to dominate the reading, we distort the passage and might possibly be missing the very thing that Jesus is trying to say.

The first passage to which Jesus refers is from the first chapter of Genesis. When Jesus quotes from the Old Testament, it is often the case that he has the whole passage in mind, and not just the specific words he quotes. It is frequently informative to look at the whole verse or passage: an example of this principle is the two verses Jesus gives to explain his clearing of the Temple (I have written a blog post on that from some years ago). In the present case, the verse Jesus refers to is:

So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

Genesis 1:27 (NIV)

Here, we find the key phrase “in the image of God he created them/ male and female he created them“. Both male and female are created in the image of God: there is a deep sense of equality here, which I think is a perfect answer to the inequality implied by the Pharisees’ question. What Jesus seems to be saying is, “This woman you (men) are proposing to divorce – she is made in God’s image as well. She is profoundly equal to you, and profoundly loved by God. How dare you presume to hold that power over her, such that you can divorce her for any reason you choose?”

The second quote (from the separate, alternative creation story in Genesis 2) is more transparent, and I think most would agree that Jesus is emphasising the faithful and (in principle) unbreakable contract of marriage: “a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh… So they are no longer two, but one flesh.” Here, it seems to me that Jesus’ primary intention is clear, and the discussion later in the passage confirms it. You Pharisees say that “any reason” will do, but you are being unfaithful to your wife, and (also) unfaithful to God.

In summary: the Pharisees’ question implied inequality and unfaithfulness. Jesus’ carefully crafted answer, in return, emphasises both equality and faithfulness.

Desire, Trinity, Asceticism: two Sarah Coakley books (part 1)

The New Asceticism

I was looking for something to read during Lent. I was looking forward to the excellent Boyle Lecture on Science and Religion by Tom McLeish, and had noticed there would be a subsequent panel discussion. One of the names on the panel was Sarah Coakley: I felt I’d heard her name before, so looked up some of her books. I was starting to think again through Living in Love and Faith issues, and the themes she discusses seemed relevant. Well, I thought, I’ll take a punt, let’s give her books a go. So, I started with The New Asceticism: Sexuality, Gender and the Quest for God, then moved onto her earlier book God, Sexuality and the Self: An essay ‘On the Trinity’. These are heavy sounding titles, and a heady mix of themes, but the books were both readable and (it turns out) were exactly the thoughtful and challenging kind of books I was looking for.

It is now a good number of weeks since I read these books, and it is difficult to offer a full and accurate review. The more important aspects of any book, however, are the themes and ideas that stay with you long after reading ends, even if not recalled with utter accuracy. So, what follows in this post (and likely a couple more) are my recollections of ideas that struck me and stayed with me from my reading of Coakley’s books, and perhaps also of ideas that developed further in my mid after reading (it’s difficult to remember where reading stopped and further thought began).

Beyond the extremes

One aspect that I found attractive, even on reading just a few pages, was Coakley’s intention to move beyond the extreme positions of conservatism (repression) and liberalism (libertinism), that get all the attention. Having just finished reading the big Living in Love and Faith book, and found myself very depressed by the seeming intractibility of deeply entrenched positions, I was hungry for a different perspective. I don’t think Coakley presents all the answers, but she certainly asks questions and poses challenges that should give both sides pause for thought. Having said that, it is probably her challenges to the liberal side that have stayed with me most clearly!

For example, here is my paraphrase of one question which I think is most obviously critical of the liberal side, but which both sides need to consider carefully: is sexual ethics merely a case of staying within a set of rules, so that if you stay within the rules you are OK, but if you stray outside the rules you are not? So: to the extreme liberal, is it really true that I should be free to do anything within mutual consent, so long as I stay just on the correct side of the law? But, then, on further reflection, exactly the same question can be asked of anyone (that is, whichever Law you subscribe to, is it merely a case of staying just on the correct side of it?). Is legalism (of any kind) the best way of regulating relationships? Or, can we articulate a better way, that leads towards human flourishing, which is not merely staying on the correct side of a set of rules?

We need to talk about desire

For Coakley, it is all about desire. Most obviously, sexuality is about desire. But, what about our desire for food, money, for cheap clothes, for a clean environment, for friendship and community, for a healthy body, for purity, for God? And, what about God’s desires for us, for Himself, for the world? What is the relationship between all these things? Are all desires good? (clearly not! – but how do we sift them and discern between them?). Are there different kinds of love (as the preaching cliché would have it) or is all loving related, and ultimately rooted in God’s love? In short, Coakley’s project is all about a theology of desire, and about how we evaluate, regulate and act upon our desires. The current church debates about sexuality are just one aspect of a much wider set of issues. Desire can drive us to sin, to dominate, or oppress, to consume or control. But it can also cause us to bless, to love, towards justice and charity. Deep down, desire is what drives us towards relationship, both with God, and with each other.

This is the key idea that has really stayed with me: what we are aiming for is to unify, intensify and ultimately purify our desires in the “crucible of divine love”. We are trying to align our desires with God’s desires. This restricts our choices, but ultimately gives us freedom.

Coakley’s answer as to how we do this is not an easy one: we need to turn to the ascetic life, a life of self-discipline, prayer, contemplation. These reflections drive her back to the early monastic traditions, and especially to the reflections of Gregory of Nyssa. This is no quick fix spirituality! To be clear, though, she is not at all recommending that we cut ourselves off from the world and head off to the monastry or the nunnery, or that we should abstain from all that gives us pleasure, or anything like that. I think it is more about how we can apply the ascetic traditions of discipline and contemplation within our everyday lives.

On the similarities between marriage and celibacy!

Here is a small observation from Coakley that struck me and remained with me. Celibacy and marriage are often thought of as opposites; but there are, on reflection, many similarities between marriage, faithfully entered into, and celibacy, faithfully entered into. In both cases, you’re in it for the long haul: it takes commitment, discipline and perseverance, both in good times and bad. Any honest appraisal of a lifelong marriage commitment will note that there must be periods – sometimes significantly long periods – of sexual abstinence (that is, effectively an enforced celibacy). This could be brought on by all kinds of factors: ill health; pregnancy; forced separation because of work.

I’m quite pleased to note that there are stories of faithfully chosen celibacy as well as stories of relationships and marriage in the Living in Love and Faith materials, and especially in the story films. It seems important to consider both paths, and the desires and commitments involved in each.

No relationship is merely private

If it’s just between the two of us, behind closed doors, and we are both consenting adults, then it’s completely private and no-one it’s else’s business. Right?

Coakley would not agree, and I can see what she is getting at. The participants in any relationship connect to, and forge further links between, a complex web of friends, family, aquaintances, and colleagues. We exist within society, within community, and a relationship brings joy to that community. But, anyone who has witnessed the breakdown of a relationship will know not only of the pain of the participants themselves, but also of the ripples and tensions spreading outwards into the wider web. No relationship is merely private.

There is something profound about the public nature of a marriage ceremony. It is not a private contract. Promises are made, but in front of witnesses. It is open to the whole village to turn up and watch! And, in turn, those who are present make a promise to uphold and support the couple. It is not only a contract between the couple themselves, but also between the couple and the community. The couple take their place in that community; the community promise to support them.

I think this is an aspect of marriage that is frequently ignored in the churches wranglings over sexuality, when both sides of the debate become fixated (in their own ways) on the couple’s internal relationship. To put it crudely, it is not only about sex. Gregory of Nyssa speaks about how desire should last long enough, and to be sufficiently purified by God, so as to eventually lead the couple to give back to society. I think of couples who, together, seem to bless the whole church community: through generosity, friendship, welcome, service and love. This is where I see the complementarity of the couple playing perhaps it’s strongest role, where the gifts and strengths of each of them seem to work together, to produce a result greater than the sum of its parts.

When I mentioned these thoughts in my Living in Love and Faith group, a man in the group with a same-sex partner said, “that’s what we want too.” I would want to support him in that.

(Let me note that none of the above is to deny the great gift to the church of those called to celibacy: there is much evidence of that kind of service in the LLF story films as well – it is no less faithful).

Well, this post is long enough. I think the next stop is probably some of Coakley’s thoughts on Trinity.

In love and faith and uncertainty

I made a tactical error. I allowed myself to get drawn into long discussions in the comments section of the Psephizo blog (there are three helpful posts on Living in Love and Faith (LLF) from Andrew Goddard there, the latest of which is here). Some of those discussions concerned how we make decisions in the face of uncertainty, or when (if ever) should we require proof beyond doubt. Debates on the issues covered by LLF can very quickly get drawn into a binary argument, with each side stating their case as though they hold that position with rock solid certainty, then bringing in evidence to back up their position. “That’s rubbish evidence,” cry the other side, “we don’t accept it,” digging themselves in. It made me wonder, has anyone in this process tried to consider a framework in which different types, or domains, of evidence might be weighed and allowed to contribute properly in the light of uncertainty? What does reasonable doubt mean in this context?

For example, the Traditional position will tend to focus mainly on the interpetation of specific relevant texts in the Bible (e.g. in Romans 1:26-27 or 1 Corinthians 6:9-10)… what is the most likely interpretation of that text taken on its own terms? There might emerge a “most likely” interpretation, but other readings are surely possible, even if (perhaps) less likely. The more Liberal might bring in different evidence, either from the rest of the Bible, or from outside (e.g. scientific, or modern cultural evidence, etc.) and then claim on this basis of this new evidence that we should favour a different reading of the Bible texts in question. How do we weigh this new evidence?

Thomas Bayes.gif
A clergyman who might be Thomas Bayes, see

I advance the following proposal tentatively, because I really haven’t thought it through in great detail. What we are dealing with here is questions of probability: what is “probably” the right judgement? And, in the field of probability there is a good way of discussing how extra evidence can be brought to bear on a discussion. It is called Bayes’ theorem, with the closely realted topic of Bayesian inference, and it occasionally (but rarely) gets wielded in discussions on faith.

(but the Theorem was unfortunately called “obscure” in a recent Guardian article, where it was used to discuss Covid testing).

Before going further…. let me say: I do not think any of this can be discussed in an exact probabilistic sense, as though we can come up with a final number accurate to 4 digits. But Bayes’ theorem still provides a useful framework for assessing evidence and discussing the weight that we might give to different assertions taken in isolation, or taken together. I think it might be exactly what is needed if people want to talk about uncertain topics in any rational manner.

I could also imagine strong objections to using numbers to weigh moral evidence (“computer says no”!). So, if used, I think it would need to be used as a tool to aid discussion rather than as the decision-making tool (or at least it should not be used to make decisions without very careful thought).

Here are three reasons why I think it could be helpful in discussions:

  1. It requires an acknowledgement that uncertainty is involved. This is no small step in discussions which are so often extremely binary. So, I was very pleasantly surprised and encouraged that, when I suggested Bayes’ theorem in the comments section of the Psephizo blog, someone very readily and quickly volunteered a number (90%) for certainty of a Traditional reading… I wasn’t expecting that! (For the sake of fairness, he did later revise it… but my point is not what the number was, but that he had chosen a number at all).
  2. It then facilitates discussions about the probabilities we assign to things. We could address questions such as: Why did you choose 90% rather than 95% or 80%? What evidence do you feel you’ve already accounted for in that estimate?
  3. It helps with honesty, especially as a check on oneself. Am I weighing the evidence consistently?

I think Bayes’ Theorem might be an improvement upon just shouting “my argument is better than yours,” if you want to talk about “proving” something.

A worked example

For those who really want some maths, here is how it might work in practice (and, only read on if you want maths). Please note, I advance this more as an example of how it works, rather than to prove anything. I might want to advance some reading “R” of the texts in question. For the sake of example, my reading R might be as follows:

R = “all commands about sinful behaviour, where they are to do with our behaviours toward other people, can be deduced from the one command ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ So, we must rule out any interpretation of the texts on homosexuality that can’t be deduced from this principle.”

(There are details to consider here, but I think this would give rise to a liberal but culturally specific reading of the texts: this would need to be discussed).

Can I support my proposed reading “R”? The Traditionalist might say, no, because what matters is that we keep God’s commands, whatever they are. They claim that the most likely reading of the text is that God is commanding that all homosexual behaviour is wrong, irrespective of whether it is in keeping with “loving my neighbour”.

What the Traditionalist is doing here is assigning a probability to my reading, based on the text. The Traditionalist claims this probability is low: in maths this might be P(R)=0.1, representing only a 10% probability that I am right, based on the text itself (or a 90% probability of the Traditional reading, as suggested above). Case closed?

But I have not yet brought any evidence to support my claim. So, now I say that there is some evidence “E”. Assuming I can show E is true, what we now need to discuss is P(R|E)… this is a “conditional” probability of R, given that E is true. Here is where Bayes’ theorem comes in. Bayes’ theorem tells us:

P(R|E) = P(E|R) x P(R) / P(E)

P(E|R) is the probability of discovering evidence E, on the assumption that R is true.
P(R) is the probability of R as we had before, and,
P(E) is the probability the E might have occurred on its own, all other things being equal (i.e. whether R is true or not)

In other words, Bayes’ theorem allows us to update our probability for R, in the light of evidence E. Often P(E) and P(E|R) are difficult to work out, but we can sometimes take good guesses.

So, let me take a risk here. I don’t know for sure whether the following evidence is true or not, but it might be:

E = “every other command about sinful behaviour toward other people found in the Bible, that we take to be binding on us, can be deduced from the command ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’.”

That is, what I would be claiming overall is that since every other command in the Bible is a “love your neighbour” command, the commands about homosexuality must be too.

What is quite nice about this example is that I CAN start to discuss tentative numbers to P(E|R) and P(E).

So, trivially, P(E|R)=1. What I mean here is, if R is true, then E must also be true. If all commands about sinful behaviour are “Love your neighbour” commands (the assertion R), then every command found in the Bible must be found to be “Love your neighbour” command (E). So, probability of E, given R, is one.

(conversely, P(not E|R)=0… i.e. if R is true, then there is no chance that “not E” is true.. we will come to this).

What about P(E)? Usually this is the hard one to work out. But, here we have a chance. There is another formula:

P(E) = P(E|R) x P(R) + P(E|not R) x P(not R)

where “not R” means “R is not true”. Roughly speaking, this formula expresses the fact that we can calculate the probability of E occuring by adding together probabilities based on the two options of R being true, and R not being true. We know already that P(E|R)=1 and guessed P(R)=0.1

Then we can also calculate, P(not R) = 1-P(R) = 0.9.

What about P(E|not R) = the probability that E would be observed if R is not true. Can we guess this? Maybe. There are a lot of commands in the Bible. What are the chances that ALL of them are “Love your neighbour” commands, if they are not absolutely required to be (i.e. if R is not true)?

Let’s focus on a single command, and take a shot at this. Commands are quite likely to be “Love your neighbour” even if they don’t all have to be. So, let me take a guess… if a command is not required to be a “love your neighbour” command, then it still might have a high probability of being a “love your neighbour” command. Let’s call that probability p=0.9: the command is still 90% likely to be a “love your neighbour” command and only 10% likely to be a “not love your neighbour” command. You will note that I am guessing numbers here, but I am trying to guess numbers that are broadly favourable to the Traditional case.

But, there are a LOT of commands in the Bible. Not all of them are independent of the others… (i.e. the same command can occur in more than one place). But, even in 1 Corinthians 6:10 we have five non-sexual prohibitions of sins against other people: thieves, greedy, drunkards, slanderers, swindlers. The probability that all five turned out to be “love your neighbour” commands is p^5 (p to the power of 5), i.e. p x p x p x p x p = 0.9 x 0.9 x 0.9 x 0.9 x 0.9 = 0.59. (and, I think they are all “Love Your Neighbour as yourself” commands).

So, how many different things (apart from homosexuality) to do with behaviour towards other people are expressly prohibited or commanded in the Bible, that we still count as binding on us? I’ve never counted. Maybe thirty? More? Let that number be n. And let me guess n=30. Note, I am taking guesses, but not unreasonable guesses. If there are thirty commands to do with other people in the Bible, and they do not all need to be “Love your neighbour” type commands, then it’s not unreasonable to expect that maybe three of them are not, which is what the above numbers would say. But, we can discuss this, which is part of the point of the exercise.

Then, by the above reasoning:

P(E|not R) = p^n

i.e. if n = 30 and p=0.9, then P(E|not R) = 0.04.

So, then, P(E) = P(E|R) x P(R) + P(E|not R) x P(not R) = 1 x 0.1 + 0.04 x 0.9 = 0.136.

And, finally, from Bayes’ theorem:

P(R|E) = P(E|R) x P(R) / P(E) = 1 x 0.1 / 0.136 = 0.74.

So, by bringing evidence the E to bear, I appear to have raised the probability of R from 10% (on the basis of the text alone) to 74% (with the additional evidence E). The evidence increases the likelihood by a factor of 7. But, next, I might bring some additional evidence (e.g. that Jesus said “all the commands rest on this”), so maybe R has a still better chance?

The nice point of all this is that, yes, I guessed at the numbers. I plucked “0.1”, “0.9” and 30 out of the air to make the point. But the beauty is we can discuss these numbers, and try out different values, and assess how it affects the arguments. Should I have started from numbers more favourable to the Traditional case, like 0.05, 0.95 and 30? Maybe. None of this is exact and it is certainly possible to play with the numbers until you get the answer you want. Can I do that in an honest way, that is not deceiving myself? And, if I start from very extreme numbers, close to 100% or 0%, then it is a sign that I don’t want to change my mind under any evidence.

Finally, you might have noticed that P(R | not E) =0. This means that if E is not true… if I can find a single command in the Bible to do with relating to other people that isn’t a “Love your neighbour” command, then my proposal R is certainly not true. Bayes deals with this sort of thing too.

Yes, I know: it’s maths, and I can see many points for discussion in the above. But, discussion is what we want here, not proof. As I say, I think it might be an improvement upon just shouting “my argument is better than yours”.