September 28, 2006

Cafeteria Christianity

I was recently asked to review a commentary titled, "Thus Saith the Lord. No Exceptions." It was written by Leonard Pitts Jr., Pulitzer Prize winning syndicated columnist for the Miami Herald. He is also a member of the United Church of Christ, a self-consciously liberal denomination, and that fact strongly colors this particular commentary. What follows is the text of Pitts' commentary in full accompanied by my own responses.

First Baptist Church of Watertown, N.Y., fired Mary Lambert for being a woman. They say the Bible told them to do it.

Nothing against women, says the Rev. Timothy LaBouf. The church is just trying to obey 1 Timothy 2:11-14, which says in part, “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.”

So, after 54 years as a Sunday school teacher at First Baptist, Lambert was given the heave-ho a couple of weeks ago. She and others have said the firing probably had as much to do with church politics as with scriptural injunctions, but let’s stick with the stated reason as given in her letter of dismissal: the Bible forbids women taking positions of authority. There is, for the record, a similar injunction in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, which warns that it is “disgraceful” for a woman to speak in the church.

So Pitts readily admits that there is biblical justification. Unless he wants to argue that a private, voluntary organization should not have the right to set its own standards, then the most he can rightly say against this church is that it was hypocritical in letting Mary Lambert begin teaching in the first place. I could go in to the "politics" of the situation, or the theological issues, but these do not beg a response here; Pitts has chosen to entirely bypass these points and seems willing to lean on the unstated assumption that any limitation on the role of women in the church is just "disgraceful."

So the church is scripturally right. It’s just not right right.

Pitts seems to have his theology all nailed down here. I wonder what canon he's using to derive his doctrines about spiritual leadership and church politics. It is certainly not the Bible; he admits right here (rightly or wrongly) what it has to say and that he rejects that. For this reason, any further appeal he makes to the Scriptures must be suspect.

So what grounds does he have for being dogmatic about how Christians ought to believe and practice? If it is merely his own spiritual feelings, then I will have to wonder what he does with the feelings of the rest of the spiritual people of the world, many of whom have very different ideas from his own. Perhaps Pitts might be so humble as to consider that he has not felt his theology correctly.

The Lambert case intrigues me because it illustrates a point I’ve made on many occasions when people bring out Bibles to explain why gay folk deserve no civil rights. Maybe now, without the reflexive emotionalism that gay brings to cloud their view, a few more people will see the obvious: Bible literalism is impractical and impossible. Or maybe they won’t see.

Gay's deserve no civil rights? I've never heard a case made that they shouldn't be able to vote, hold office, own property, have legal protections, etc. I think what Pitts is really referring to is the "right" to marriage. But they have the same right there that everyone else has: The right to marry one person of the opposite sex. The difference is that they don't want to exercise that right; they want a new right: The right to marry someone of the same sex. But heterosexuals are denied that right as well. Just because someone has a desire for a thing does not mean they ought to have that thing. But that is another issue, which, by the way, we do not even need to appeal to the Bible to speak against.

As far as Bible "literalism" being impractical, I would beg to differ. It is only when you have persons in your community that do not agree with your theology that problems arise. This happens to be the state we are in here in America, as in the world at large (we are not ancient Israel, having made a covenant with God). For this reason, the theocracy that Pitts is so fearful of is not a "practical" reality, and most American Christians are satisfied to stick with the political vision of our founding fathers. But for some, even that is too much.

Allow me to share by way of example an e-mail I received last week from a gentleman named Al who took exception to a column I wrote condemning capital punishment. Said Al, “When one criticizes the death penalty one criticizes God’s judgment in the matter, as scripture ordains death for numerous crimes. It is not wise to criticize God.”

I shot back a note pointing out that among the crimes for which scripture ordains death are cursing your parents (Leviticus 20:9) or committing adultery (Leviticus 20:10). Did Al really believe those misdeeds should be treated as capital offenses?

“Only if one wishes to accomplish God’s will in the matter,” Al said.

I don’t mind telling you, people like him scare me.

Methinks Al's chief mistake was alluding to the Bible in answer to Pitts in the first place, as though it were some authoritative playbook in shaping his opinions. If Pitts actually believed the testimony of those who delivered the religion he presumes to correct, then he would remember that Jesus is scheduled for a return visit; and when He does, it will be the end of many things, including smart-mouthing and unfaithfulness.

What we humans should do about sin in this post-messianic era is another question, but if Scripture is to be believed, even broadly, then we at least know what God thinks about it; and the Levitical laws are but a foreshadowing of the fate of those who think of sin as nothing more than a little harmless shenanigans.

As it happens, one of America’s greatest churchmen recently weighed in on the question of Bible literalism. In a twilight-of-life interview with Newsweek, Billy Graham spoke of the way age and perspective led him to reject the absolutism of the left and right and to make his peace with the notion of God as a loving mystery. People of faith, he said, can “absolutely” disagree about the details of theology. “I’m not a literalist in the sense that every single jot and tittle (of the Bible) is from the Lord,” he said. “This is a little difference in my thinking through the years.”

It is a difference people like Al would do well to emulate.

It is what Graham has preached and lived that makes him credible to those whom Pitts would seek to correct, and I suspect that some of those doctrines that he has not begun to rethink in his twilight years would still give Pitts cause for heartburn. However, I'm sure that it is only as far as Graham's comments support Pitts' selective theology that he is much interested in him.

Or has no one else noticed how literally some Christians interpret those scriptures that give them license to condemn, yet how elastic and liberal their readings are when dealing with scriptures that convict their personal behaviors. Meaning that it’s always a little more difficult to catch people being literal about turn the other cheek, do not store up treasures on earth, do not turn away the borrower, love your enemy. Yet, you can’t go to the store without tripping over someone who wants you to know the Bible calls homosexuality an abomination.

Pitts is correct that it is easier to see and judge other people's sins than your own, but this does not mean that they are not, in fact, sins; and it may be but a demonstration of the fact that it is easier to be objective about others than about yourself. He's also right that we see in Scripture only what we prefer to see and filter out the rest. But I'm not sure how he imagines he has escaped the same mistake, especially since he's already admitted that Scripture is not to be taken too seriously. The very methodology of liberalism is to pick and choose from the Scriptures, whereas his only complaint against the conservatives can properly be that they have not taken it all into their view.

When someone like Pitts makes their decision on which biblical ideas they will keep and which to discard, what standard do you suppose they will use? If one were disposed toward promiscuity or homosexuality, do you think they would be more inclined to accept the verses that speak against these things, or the ones that speak of God's love and mercy? It is a far easier thing to believe that God holds no grudge against your behavior. But if we remove such a bias, yet retain the liberal, cafeteria approach to Scripture, the truth could turn out to be something far different than Pitts would be comfortable with.

Why is it that liberal Christians find the portions of Scripture that speak of love and charity to be the ones that have survived the misinterpretations and corruptions of the ages? Given that Scripture is equally filled with talk of God's righteousness and justice, it seems equally warranted, according to the liberal approach, to say that the verses regarding God's mercy and forgiveness are the ones that we have taken too literally! That is a fearsome idea, but what grounds does Pitts have for thinking it is the wrong one?

People obsess on the fine print, yet miss the big picture, the overarching themes of sacrifice, redemption, love.

Unfortunately, some seem to miss even the overarching themes! Words like "sacrifice" and "redemption" may be part of that big picture, but you can't just hang them out there without definition. Just what or who is this sacrifice, and what are we being redeemed from and to? It does not take too many such questions before we find ourselves looking at the "fine print" for clarification, and it doesn't take a magnifying glass to find things like sin and Christ's atonement all over the text.

In their selectivity, they are reminiscent of the Islamic fanatics who bomb and behead, citing some passage of the Quran as justification, yet conveniently ignoring a dozen other passages commanding mercy and love.

Ah, he wants to be provocative, eh? All right, how would it be if I pointed out that his kind of theological subjectivism has led to (or sustains) almost every one of the cults? "God is still speaking" to them too, ya know. Unfortunately, it's not always the same things that the UCC is hearing.

To address his point, though, Pitts rightly implies that there are passages in the Qur'an that advocate aggression against unbelievers, but he wrongly implies that the Bible is similar in kind and that a wise reader should then heed only the more genteel passages.

If the Qur'an teaches both violence and inclusiveness toward other religions, then we can only pray that Muslims practice Pitts' brand of liberalism and hear only the non-violent passages. Fortunately, Christians are not in this same dilemma. There are no applicable biblical mandates that teach aggression toward unbelievers. And the contrast could not be more stark between the spread of Islam by the sword from its outset and the spread of Christianity by the blood of the Apostolic Fathers, who were very much biblical literalists.

Those Old Testament passages that might be accused of condoning violence (e.g., the taking of the Promised Land and the penalties in the Mosaic Laws) nowhere give license beyond the scope and borders of pre-messianic Israel. Even if we were inclined to do so, and even if anyone has ever done so, there is nothing in Scripture, at least, that would support going after peaceful unbelievers with bombs and swords.

People are much less apt to be selective in the direction of mercy and love.

I disagree. Just like Pitts, the vast majority of those who select anything at all from Scripture (even atheists) select only those things that speak of "mercy and love." The biblical "literalists" include these things as well, but the difference is in the understanding of what these things mean and how they are exercised. The difference is on par with a parent who "loves" a child by giving and allowing everything versus a parent who offers boundaries and discipline with the goal of raising a healthy and mature adult.

I’ll close by observing that Exodus 35:2 requires death for those who work on the Sabbath. Were I a member of First Baptist, I might wonder where the church leaders stand on that one.

Of course, I’d be scared to ask.

Since it turns out that the historical church has worshipped on Sundays, in honor of the resurrection, and not on the Sabbath (Saturday), then Pitts should know that something new is in play. But since Pitts most likely rejects a literal resurrection, then he is probably not inclined to see Jesus as the fulfillment of the law (as He claimed to be) in any meaningful way.

The lens of the Messiah is the key to reconciling the whole of Scripture. I think that Pitts would prefer to see it as one big incoherent jumble containing interesting mythology and a few good moral lessons. The curious thing is that Pitts' UCC believes that God is in there somewhere. Were I a member of that denomination, I might wonder what kind of God it is that is so incompetent or impotent that He can't get a decent revelation to His creation. And if this truly is the kind of God we're talking about, then I wouldn't be scared to ask such presumptuous questions, since apparently He's all love and mercy without law and judgment anyway.

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September 14, 2006

Euthyphro's Dilemma and the Character of God

The dialog following my last post on the implied moral relativism of atheism eventually hit the topic of Euthyphro's Dilemma. This is commonly offered as a trump card by non-theists against the idea that God is a proper grounding for objective morality (i.e., Is the "good" just whatever God commands, or does God command things based on some preexisting standard of goodness).

I offered this article as a solution to this dilemma, which was summarily rejected by Dagoods. We then exchanged a round of dialog, to which I offer a more detailed response below.

Dagoods said: You are quite correct that the Euthyphro Dilemma does not eliminate the possibility of moral realism. However, it does bring into sharp focus the problems associated with it.

I don't see why. There could still be a God who merely decrees what is good and creates a universe accordingly (like Allah). Perhaps you would then take issue with the basis of that morality, but to what avail? It would still be real and binding upon you in spite of any of your philosophical reproaches.

Dagoods said: As we have no possible way to even verify why God does it, any claim as to that standard is pure speculation. We don’t know God, let alone a step further beyond God!

Well then, this debate must be unsolvable and at an end, unless, perhaps, we had some revelation from this God to constrain the discussion. But you deny that. Even so, you press on...

Dagoods said: If discussing the God of the Bible and his interactions with humanity, this possibility [of changing whims/morality] becomes probability. A creature that cannot change cannot have regrets. . . . If God’s [character] can change, it is no longer absolute. It becomes “good because God does it.” Scripture says God has regrets. Can a sentient being that is unchangeable have regrets?

If you want to exegete my Scriptures you will have to take it all into consideration — even that which speaks of God's immutable nature and demonstrates His regular use of anthropomorphic communication devices. Even so, this would not demonstrate that God has changed His moral character, only that He grieves at the results of what willful humans have managed to do. And what is it that they have managed to do? Violate His moral commands! (e.g., 1Sa 15:11)

Dagoods said: When I say “whim” with God, it is possible that God could make a moral mandate and it is the same for all time. It is still not absolute, because there is no reason God could not have chosen some other moral mandate, even the opposite. What God chose was based merely on his particular choice. He was not limited by any fashion.

This is a good point at which to address the root of the problem. The horn of the dilemma which would have goodness outside of and beyond God is certainly untenable. This may have been a solution for Plato, since he was seeking to defend "the gods," but it is not consistent with Judeo-Christian monotheism, or even our intuitive concept of what it means to be God. This means that morality is grounded in God, but there is still much opportunity for nuancing.

Perhaps the problem is that you would like to leave it at that. If it is from God in any way, you believe that the other horn of the dilemma is being maintained and any further defense is just so much double-talk. However, I believe the qualifications make a great deal of difference.

(First I must say that I hesitate to hang the veracity of theism on an answer to this question. It is one in which lurks some of the most difficult theological and philosophical questions, which are not apparent on the surface. I am not trained to speak in the kinds of categorical terms that would be required to unpack the hidden difficulties. I also believe that its complexity and the unknowns involved in speaking of something like a non-physical, atemporal, self-existent Being guarantees that important data fall through the cracks in the discussion. And deeply theoretical discussions of this kind can land us in seemingly sound states of reasoning while still being brilliantly mistaken. I'm thinking here of Zeno's Arrow, where it was suggested that motion was a fiction because an object must travel through an infinity of points in order to reach a given target. While the thought gives me pause, it has never stopped me from getting into my car in hopes of reaching my destination.

In any case, this topic is very interesting to me, and so I press on...)

If morality were merely based on God's "whim" or some arbitrary choice, then this would seem to qualify for the spirit of the second horn of this dilemma. That is to say, goodness would not be grounded, just invented; it could have been otherwise, and may be in the future. The solution that Greg is describing removes the "arbitrary" nature of the decrees of God and connects them to the character of God. God is creating and decreeing those things which are in harmony with His own nature. So, He would not, just as easily, have made some laws to be opposite of what they are.

I find this a very intuitive direction to take the solution. It is difficult to imagine God simply flipping coins when making moral imperatives. Surely He is doing things which are desirous and pleasing for Him to do — according to His own nature. I'm not sure that the Dilemma, as it is generally formulated, excludes such a solution. However, I think this "solution" may then press onward into other difficult ground, though I'm not sure where the scope of one dilemma ends and another picks up. When is Euthyphro's Dilemma resolved? Must we put all ontological conundrums under its umbrella?

Two areas of further concern I see arising are as follows: 1) Is God, then, bound by His nature (i.e., He's not "free" to do anything other than what His nature impels Him to do)? 2) How do we avoid tautologies and define attributes and essences in relation to God? It seems as though your issues (measured by volume of your text) fall more in the latter area, though I think once you concede the possibility of goodness being grounding in God's nature the former concern emerges as primary.

In any case, it is not clear to me why equating "goodness" with God's "character" is problematic. That truth may not give you a categorical listing of all that qualifies as good and bad, but I take it as a reasonable starting point for the concept of morality. It is sourced in the very nature of the Being who grounds every other thing that we might ponder, e.g., knowledge, consciousness, logic, being, will, etc. Such things I suspect you will not deny, but will you deny that a thing such as "consciousness" can be sourced in the self-conscious nature of the one who creates conscious creatures? Does Euthyphro's Dilemma extend to challenge this essential aspects of God as well? Do you also reject the possibility of a self-conscious deity? Perhaps you simply have problems with the idea that God could BE anything at all!

I said: In fact, it is not at all clear to me why anyone would suggest that God would create and decree things that were not according to His own character in the first place.

Dagoods said: Not clear to me, either. I would agree that they are one and the same. But that means that God is bound to do it by God. Which places us squarely on the horn that “it is good because God does it.”

So you agree that His decrees could be rooted in His own character, but you simply want to distill it to what "God does." If God's character is equivalent to His actions, then it is true that goodness is "what God does," but it is conversely true that goodness = God's character. In looking for a grounding for morality we have found the ground: it is an essential thing, not simply an arbitrary decree.

Perhaps you are then concerned with the question, "How do we know that God's character is actually good?" But this presupposes a standard for judging that must transcend an eternal, immutable author of all things that exist; it presupposes that the other horn of the dilemma is what must be true in any metaphysical system.

You may like to think of this solution as making morality arbitrary in some way, but I think it is a meaningless complaint. For instance, you may think it arbitrary because God's character could have been something else, but what else is there for it to have been? That is the nature of God: He defines and produces all things which exist. There is no external set of attributes from which He was randomly assembled, no other way He could have been.

Now you may complain that this is no definition of morality — goodness just happens to be whatever God is — but it's not clear what this complaint buys you. It is still the case that morality has been sourced; it is still the case that morality exists as something outside of the creation; and it is still the case that being moral is incumbent upon the creation. How is it that you will judge the goodness of the good? You have nothing with which to judge that has not been given to you by the creator of the intuitions by which you would seek to judge. You might just as well ask if logic is logical.

Dagoods said: By placing a smaller circle of “God’s character” within a “God” circle, we need to determine what is in that larger circle, but not in the smaller circle. (Why I like the Venn Diagram.) All you have done is provide even smaller circles within the “God’s Character” such as “knowledge, essence, being and power” and said, “See—these are not ‘the same’ as God’s character.” True, but that is not what we are looking for. . . . Using Venn diagrams, we can see how your example of yourself is incomplete. We draw a circle of “Paul.” We would draw a LARGER circle of “Father” around you. You are either a father (have child(ren)) or do not. There is nothing in you that is “not father” whereas other parts are. You may assume different roles, but even when talking with a customer on the phone, you still fit the descriptive term “father.”

It occurs to me that the solution lies between these two points. I am not at all inclined to advance the idea that God is simply a collection of properties, i.e., that you can make smaller circles within His being and say that He "has" these things. While it might make sense to say that I "have" goodness, it is only "some" goodness. It does not pervade my being and others have a measure of it as well.

On the other hand, the things that God "has" are pervasive and He has them in complete measure. For example, His knowledge is complete and it informs everything He does. So, if you were to draw circles labeled "knowledge," "power," and "goodness," these things might, perhaps, be a smaller circle within me, but they would not exist as a subset of God; they would more accurately fill God. And looking from the other angle, if you made a circle called "good" only God could go in it. But since He and only He is in it, then God and goodness are synonymous — just as if I were Adam, then the words "Adam," "man," and "husband" would all be redundant (for a time at least).

So, each circle that you choose to ascribe to God would find no boundary within His being. He both has those things completely and is those things simultaneously; even while you may say that they are not the same thing as each other. While His justice may be informed by His knowledge and express itself through His power, they are not identical things. For this reason you could say that God is justice, but it would be incomplete to say that justice is God. And all of the plurality of things which God is describe His nature — His moral character being but one of those things.

But even my circle analogy is not an accurate depiction, because it rests upon the idea that such attributes are things external to God which we might ascribe to Him when, in fact, God defines and grounds what these things are. So, when we talk about something like knowledge or power, we are really discussing those things which are parallels to what God manifests. Any circles we make in hopes of assigning them to another being are ultimately meaningless unless they are reflective of some divine "attribute."

For example, there is no knowledge beyond the mind of God, and humans can only hope to have some of that knowledge. Any belief that you have that does not line up with God's knowledge would be a fiction and would not hold true in any possible universe. And attempting to act according to that fictional belief would ultimately cause negative consequences in a world that proceeds from the author of truth and knowledge. Is that fair? Is that arbitrary? There is no external measure by which we might judge this fair, no other way that God's knowledge could have been, and no other possible realities in which one-ended sticks could exist.

Dagoods said: Are you saying that moral intuitions could be wrong? (Just like I say.) And that we must gauge those moral intuitions “correctness” by obtaining more knowledge? (Just like I say.) And upon learning more knowledge, use that knowledge to “trump” what our moral intuitions initially determine? (Just like I say.)

I don't think a straight yes or no answer can be given without qualification.

First, I will point out that it seems with humans that any right intuition, instinct, or commonsense notion may be violated at will. Even if our conscience were inerrant it would still be possible to "suppress the truth in unrighteousness" and to allow it to atrophy from disuse. Hunger is a proper instinct, but the anorexic feels it and handles it much differently from you and me.

Second, intuitions are complicated things which are not simply designed to work reflexively. Here I am undecided how best to characterize them. It could be that they are rudimentary building blocks that must be assembled to fit the circumstances, or it's possible that they are broader in scope and invested with nuance. So in my original example, regarding imprisoning someone, it will be the case that we need full knowledge of the situation to first apply our moral intuitions. We then might be doing one of two things: 1) We are pitting our intuition that humans ought not be subjugated and mistreated against our intuition that crime demands justice 2) We are simply employing an inherent qualifier that it is "innocent" people who deserve to be treated in certain ways.

In any case, it is reason that applies the facts to the intuitive principles. Knowledge is merely fuel for the moral engine. When you say that you believe that knowledge may "trump" or "correct" our moral intuitions I have to wonder what you think it is that knowledge is doing for you. Knowledge is neutral; you have to apply the knowledge in some way. Exactly what ethical principles are you using in order to apply your knowledge which are not informed by your moral sensibilities? When you see a man in a cage, and then come to know that he is a serial killer, what is the dispassionate methodology you use to silence your intuition that humans ought not be caged like animals? In reality, your moral intuitions pervade your reasoning from start to finish.

It strikes me that the entire history of ethical philosophy has been an exercise in mapping our moral intuitions to a systematic definition, and its failure has been largely due to the tendency toward skewing the results to grant latitude for individual passions.

Might one come to a morally wrong conclusion? There is no denying that, since people do come down on different sides of certain issues. Some situations are morally complex, knowledge is an undervalued commodity, and the will to defer to our intuitions is thin. However, this does nothing to abnegate the fact that those intuitions exist or that their Author will hold one accountable to yield to them as best as we are able.

Dagoods said: If moral intuition is not enough, and we need knowledge too, and God has not provided that knowledge (according to your concept) then we cannot determine what is good! This is my point on genocide. What knowledge has God provided that means your moral intuition has gone from “uninformed” to “informed” other than your presumption that God must have a moral reason for committing genocide?

You have no new information. Any other theistic belief that claims promulgation of its people through the use of genocide is “moral” you would deplore. But because it is your God, it becomes “good” because you suppose your God is good.

(Addition: 9/20/06 - Note that I use "Amorite," rightly or wrongly, as a general ethnic term to represent the people occupying the lands of Israel.)

I'll have to take exception with your premises. First, God has indeed provided us with knowledge to reinforce and supplement our intuitions. That is a major claim of the Christian: God has intervened in the creation to reveal Himself. But I think you specifically mean that He has not bothered to reveal His motives for the displacement of the Amorites. Again I must disagree. Scripture speaks in several places of the various reasons for the Amorites to be "driven out" (which it mentions more often than the extreme measures that you note). Several times it offers a litany of offenses — incest, adultery, child sacrifice, idolatry, homosexuality, bestiality — and even indicates that God withheld judgment until their iniquity had reached its full measure (Gen 15:16). The taking of the Promised Land was coincident with the judgment of God. It differed from the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah in that it was executed by the agency of humans and not all suffered the penalty of death.

Another thing with which I must take issue is your characterization of this judgment as "genocide." Genocide looks more like the Nazi treatment of the Jews, where they are all ferreted out and executed merely upon racial grounds. For a parallel from God we would expect to find verses saying broad things like, "I despise the Amorites. Find them wherever they hide and destroy them. Let not one Amorite remain alive upon the face of the whole earth." Instead, we see variety in the treatment of the inhabitants of a fixed area of real estate according to their individual circumstances (some destroyed, some subjugated, some driven out, some left alone, sometimes spoils allowed, sometimes not, etc.) and no blanket license for hostilities. We can't derive a general moral or theological principle that transcends the context of these people, this place, this time, and this covenanted nation of Israel. So it would be unjustified to say that God "promulgates His people through the use of genocide," as though Jews or Christians should feel warranted to show aggression toward any heathen group they meet.

In reality, it was the practices of these people, not their race, nationality, or even their culture per-se that was at issue here. We know this to be true because God tells the incoming Israelites that if they take up the practices of those who they are driving out, then they will be dealt with likewise. And this is exactly their ultimate fate (Lev 18:24-30, 2Ki 17:7-23). There is no moral inequity here; though justice may sometimes be averted by way of mercy, which none are owed.

So, we at least know the broad rationale for the treatment of the Amorites, and there is further data to explain some of the specific treatment of the various subgroups. However, I must admit that at least I do not have an explanation for all the details. But must I know every justification to have assurance that there is some justification, especially if I have other grounds for arriving at such assurances? And if I am reconciled to the idea that God has a rightful claim to someone's life, even if not guilty, then His sometimes lethal treatment of a particularly barbaric people would find certain grounds for justification.

There is much "knowledge," which you would deny, to be applied to this situation that can inform our moral intuitions about what humans alone (all things being equal) should or should not do to each other as a regular course of action. Especially the idea that if there is a God, and He has eternal purposes in mind for His creatures, then the game as we see it may have higher stakes not to the liking of one who denies eternity and measures his life in the personal glories and idle pleasures of four score and ten years.

In the end, I think your objection actually works against you. That is because if you take the Bible to be an actual record of the God who grounds morality, then you must accept its premises and the knowledge it provides to augment your moral intuitions. But if, as you do, you reject any grounding for an objective morality, then your distaste for "genocide" cannot be a true moral intuition. It would be as much of a fiction as the God you reject; it would be a belief originating from personal preference and cultural convention, which might have been as different as the ethics of Nazi Germany.

It is only because your moral intuitions stand reasonably unmolested by something like a satanic Nazi ideology that you find this to be such a visceral grievance against the Biblical deity. I have no intention of humoring any claim that this is merely an academic exercise of finding internal inconsistencies in the Christian worldview. But if you wish to judge, you must first have not only a fixed moral standard by which to judge, but a fixed rational standard as well. Otherwise, you are saying nothing more than, "I do not like your Christianity." It is the dilemma of atheism.

"My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such violent reaction against it? A man feels wet when he falls into water, because man is not a water animal: a fish would not feel wet. Of course, I could have given up my idea of justice by saying that it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too--for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my private fancies. Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist--in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless--I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality--namely my idea of justice--was full of sense. Consequently atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be without meaning." ~ C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

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September 04, 2006

Role Your Own Jesus

Jesus was a really great guy. He said a lot of things with which it's hard to take exception, and He's got a lot of clout in spiritual circles. Everyone wants Jesus playing for their team; every religion seems to find some niche for Him in its theology. For Islam, He is a great prophet. For Buddhists, he is a Bodhisattva. For Hindus, He is a great swami or avatar. For the cults, He is "a god" or a special creation of God. And for liberal Christians, He is a great spiritual teacher and moral example.

If you can employ a biblical quote from Jesus to make your point in a religious debate, then you can imagine you've scored big points — especially against someone who holds to a more traditional view of Christianity. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to work the other way around; a classical Christian can't get much leverage for their view by appeal to Scripture.

In a dialog with liberals and non-Christians you will often hear them say things like, "Jesus just wanted us all to love and accept each other" or, "I think Jesus was just an enlightened human, like Buddha." And then they will appeal to some snippet of the Bible in support of their case. But how is it that they know anything about Jesus from which to form such opinions?

Our only source of any detailed knowledge about Jesus is in the Scriptures. However, the very thing that unites liberals and those of alternative religions against historical Christianity is the rejection of the reliability of these Scriptures. In order to reject doctrines such as the bodily resurrection, the deity of Jesus, and the final judgment, they must first have convinced themselves that it is all just an allegory or that myth and error have invaded the texts. Unfortunately, this leaves them with a problem.

If you've rejected the reliability and historicity of the biblical documents, then how do you know which parts are corrupted and which parts hold the truth? What good are they to your portrait of Jesus if you can't count on them as a credible witness? But the antagonists of orthodoxy do quote certain texts to support their theology, as though such passages had escaped corruption and were to be taken literally. However, if you present clarifying or "competing" verses to them they will brush them aside as so much litter.

So, have these people with the "real" portrait of Jesus found the magic key for sorting the good verses from the bad? In a sense, yes: The "key" turns out to be their own personal opinions on the matter. They may have picked up their notions about Jesus from some imaginative books or religious leaders, but in the end it is their own thoughts and winnowing of these ideas which drives them. When approaching the biblical texts, it is those passages that support their original thesis which survive their credibility filter.

Unfortunately, short of divine revelation, there is no reasonable way of getting at what Jesus really said and thought if the primary witnesses — the Gospel writers — have made a mess of the job. At least Mormons and Muslims, with their supposed divine texts about Jesus, have some hope of playing in this field of competing claims. Most people, however, are leaning on nothing more substantial than their own feelings to justify their interpretive approach.

Could something like the Gnostic texts help us to get at the "real" Jesus? Well, I suppose they could, in theory, but how would you be able to know that? If one has issues with the canonical texts, which even many liberal scholars place in the First Century, then one has even worse problems making the Gnostic texts authoritative. That is because they didn't even begin appearing until the mid-Second Century.

But it's not as though those who appeal to such documents are seeking to be orthodox Gnostics; they don't really believe that this is "authentic" Christianity. If you were to start ascribing specific Gnostic beliefs to someone appealing to the Gnostic texts for their alternative Jesus, they would most probably be insulted by your presumption. In practice, such persons do nothing more than add these additional writings to the buffet from which they fill their spiritual plates. There is no divine and authoritative canon to which someone like a New Ager or liberal Christian may look in order to set boundaries upon their wild speculations.

So, the next time you hear someone making a claim like, "Jesus was all about loving people, not judging them," you could respond with something like the following.

How do you know what Jesus was like? You can have no clue, since you reject the reliability of the Bible and you have no authoritative and accurate revelation about Him to which you may appeal. Your view is simply based upon your own imagination and desire for what you want Him to be like. By that measure, my imagination is as good as your own. And since the earliest writings of the Christian community and the consensus of the historical church is on my side, then I feel quite comfortable sticking with my own "opinion," thank you.

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Westminster Presbyterian Church Columbia, TN