Edited from Saving the Appearances by Owen Barfield (1965) - the chapter "Religion":
The needful virtue is that which combats the besetting sin. And the besetting sin today is the sin of literalness...
The relation between the mind and the heart of Man is a delicate mystery, and hardness is catching.
There is a connection, at some level - however deep, between literalness and hardness of heart.
The above quotes hit me with the power of insight - 'literalism' is indeed our besetting sin; and this comes out most starkly in disputes; and Christians are just as prone to it as are the majority secular culture. And literalism does often lead to hard hearts - indeed that is how it can usually be noticed - by the hard, brittle, cold tone which enters discourse.
In mainstream secular culture, literalism is seen in the legalism, the microscopic analysis of sentences and individual words, which prevails in modern bureaucracies (which means in most of modern life - since the interlinked bureaucracies - the system - is almost everywhere).
And in Christianity literalism is also a besetting sin - which can be observed in all denominations - although some are worse, in this respect, than others. It is my impression that literalism is what attracts some people to Christianity, and retains them in it.
The problem is that literalism justifies itself, by dichotomizing Christian discourse as all or nothing, and dividing the faithful from the heretics on clear technical grounds: either either people fully implement every line of scripture (when quoted line-by-line) or people have rejected the Bible; either people fully live by the rule-book or people are making it up as they go along; either everyone fully submits to church authority; either people adhere to traditional practices and ritual in every respect or else they have rejected it; either people are theologically orthodox or they are heretics or apostates.
In practice, individuals have their own favourite tests - the response to a particular passage of scripture, attitude to contraception or doctrine. In modern culture-wars (Christians versus secular mainstream) litmus test issues include abortion, and the ordination (or pastorate, or full membership) of women and sexual-revolutionaries. Within Christianity the tests are much more numerous- and generally reduce to the authority of authorities - the primacy of church leadership, scripture, traditions etc.
My point is that these disputes have a horrible way of playing into the enemy's hands; and the way this often works is by literalism - both sides end-up using literalist arguments, and both sides have their hearts hardened and chilled by the process. Those with the hardest hearts come to the fore, take charge and and
take-over the disputes, and ensure that - from a Christian perspective -
there are no winners but only losers.
What I mean is that the right side - the side which holds the correct views - ends-up as being corrupted - so they come to hold the right opinions for the wrong reasons - and thereby the right opinions become invalidated and irrelevant.
Because in Christianity, having the right beliefs for the wrong reasons means having the wrong beliefs: the reasons are a non-optional part of the right beliefs.
It should be obvious, and it certainly is true, that a persona can sincerely hold all the correct beliefs, and do all the prescribed actions - every single one of them, and obey all the legitimate church authorities to the letter - and not be a Christian because they have hard hearts.
In other words because they lack love - also termed 'charity' and agape.
This hard-hearted lovelessness seems to be terribly common among strident self-identified Christians on the Christian blogosphere and even more so on the secular Right Wing/ Reactosphere.
Among Christians, the inference is that these are people who have become Christian to provide a transcendental excuse to indulge in hatred.
In other words, a literalistic definition and interpretation of Christianity is being used to justify an attitude which is consistently and hypocritically directed at teh expression of hatred.
This is sometimes called Phariseeism - after the revealed attitude of Jesus's enemies among the Jewish priesthood - but it remains extremely common (albeit less rigorous, and not always focused on 'the law).
This kind of thing is very obvious to non-Christians, and 'hypocrisy' by this definition is one of the legitimate criticisms of the Christian churches throughout history.
Because, hypocrisy is properly a matter of motivation - the prime hypocrisy is to be motivated by hatred and pride in the name of a religion that regards love as the primary and always necessary virtue.
We are almost all of us prone to this kind of hypocrisy, and it is understandable how debates and arguments easily degenerate in this way. But while it can be explained, there is no sufficient excuse for it - and it is very, very dangerous (I mean morally hazardous) to seek to excuse hate-motivated discourse on the grounds of necessity, on the grounds of the greater good.
When we detect it in ourselves, we must repent and cease; when we detect hate-motivation in others we must be careful not to treat them as mentors, teachers, authorities, or good interpreters - no matter how learned or rhetorically skilful they may be, no matter how correct in their expressed beliefs practices and obedience.
Such hypocrites (by the above definition) are extremely dangerous if given power as Christian leaders - dangerous to those under their authority, and damaging to the faith itself; and very difficult to get rid of once in place because it is their motivation which is at fault, rather than their actions - which are always correct and orthodox.
So Christians must guard against hate-driven-pseudo-Christians - who are often the most orthodox and obedient in their behaviour; and must recall that love comes above all: Love of God and Neighbour covers, compensates-for, is far more important than total literalistic correctness.
In other people, but also more importantly in ourselves. We must guard against hardening of our hearts.
And if our hearts are hardening and we become aware of this, then there can be no excuse or compensation - the immediate priority must be to restore warmth to the heart (or to allow warmth to re-emerge, to become warmed); and the antidote for hardness is love.