Sunday, April 15, 2007

On Christian Morality

Some years ago while reading through Genesis, I had a thought about Christian morality which I am not sure is correct. I want to throw it out there to see what you think about it, and to help me understand if I am right or if I am wrong.

I was struggling with trying to understand how the same eternal being could on the one hand tell us through Jesus that we should love each other as he has loved us, and on the other tell us in the Old Testament to dash the skulls of babies against the rocks. The Bible is full of horrifying instances like this, God explicitly ordering His people to commit acts that today we would consider unutterably evil. From slavery to infanticide to rape to genocide, were the God of the Old Testament a human, we would consider Him the most evil being that ever lived, violating virtually every moral commandment He would later give us.

But how could that be? How can you reconcile what we're told God did and what God tells us we should do to be good? It made no sense to me, and I struggled with it long after I'd turned away from Christianity on other grounds. I hate not understanding things, and this I just couldn't get my head around.

Then one day it hit me -- the morality of the Bible is perfectly clear if you assume there are not multiple moral codes, but rather only one. And that one single consistent moral code is "Obey God." That's it. If God says to do something, that is by definition a moral act, an act of Good. If God says not to do it, and you do it anyway, that's an act of moral evil. Acts have no inherent moral weight except for how they relate to whether or not you're obeying God's orders.

Murder is not evil in Christian morality because killing people is wrong; after all, God orders people slaughtered time and again in the Old Testament. No, murder is wrong because God commanded us not to murder people. If He should appear to you and say "I need you to go kill that guy," and you do it, not only have you not committed a sin, you've actually performed an act of moral good.

If that's the case, that the only test for whether or not something is moral is whether or not it conforms to or diverts from God's commands, then the Old Testament makes sense. Dashing those babies' skulls against the stones was a moral act, because the Jews were doing what God ordered them to do. Anyone who sat out that attack, who failed to kill the babies, was committing a sin by disobeying God.

All of the behaviors that trouble the modern sensibility in the Bible make sense in this light. Take slavery, for instance, something modern civilizations view as inherently evil. Slavery was wrong for the Jews in Egypt because God ordered Pharoah to free them. Slavery was right for the enemies of the Jews because God told the Jews they could take slaves.

Slaughtering every male of the Midianites, raping their women, and taking their virgins as brides was not evil because the Jews were simply doing what God told them to do.

At its root, this is a very unambiguous moral code. What it is not, however, is eternal and unchanging in application. This view of Christian morality is just as morally relative as any Unitarian or freethinker or atheist code disparaged by the religious right. When I see a Christian ask an atheist "How do I know you won't just shoot me in the face, then?", I have to ask in return "Well how do I know God's not going to order you to shoot me in the face, then?" In neither case would either person be doing anything "wrong", the atheist (supposedly) because there is no moral code at all, and the Christian because as we've seen, obeying God's commands is the only moral act possible.

Obviously, things are more complicated than that in the real world. The challenge for a Christian in this kind of scenario is figuring out what God's commands really are versus their own mistaken human will, and in deciding what to do when it appears that two mutually contradictory commands are in force.

But I do think viewing Christian morality this way makes sense out of what was formerly (at least to me) the nonsensical Old Testament.


Anonymous said...

"...Obviously, things are more complicated than that in the real world. The challenge for a Christian in this kind of scenario is figuring out what God's commands really are versus their own mistaken human will, and in deciding what to do when it appears that two mutually contradictory commands are in force."

Separating human will from God's true voice is exactly the root of what you're saying here. I wish I were more scholarly about the Bible, its history, scriptural meanings, etc., but I'm not. What I do believe is that humans often want to hear what we want to hear and credit that voice with being God. I'm sure Jim Jones thought he was doing God's Will down in Jonesboro. How wrong and how tragic that he could command so many murders and suicides in the name of God. Separating out what is right and good from that which is what we selfishly want and desire to do is really tough. That separation isn't just limited to Christians -- all those who believe in a diety, I would theorize, struggle with the same dilemma -- what is God's voice and what is mine? What I've found is that only in silence and in trying to listen with an open mind can I really hear what I need to hear. It's very difficult to keep out what I want to hear. Again, I don't have any of the answers -- far from it. One of the things that you've brought to this discussion is examining these basic beliefs. We've talked about the Old Testament God versus the New Testament God, a chasm that might not be resolved. But filtering out the noise to hear the true voice is an on-going part of a believer's quest for salvation. Usually when there's two contradictory forces, what we humans want is the louder of the two voices. For me, God's voice is a whisper I have to really pay attention to hear. The louder, more insistent voice, is always mine. -- Denise

Geopoet said...

Great topic and contributions by you and Denise.

Jimmy and I have been taking an Old Testament course this year at the diocese and have picked up some things that may shed some light on how one may view the Old Testament and how Israel struggled with finding God's will. I offer these thoughts in a progressive way through history. (Jimmy, feel free to chime in to clarify or correct me.)

1. In the ancient world (not just Palestine), strange as it may seem, it was actually considered honorable and ethical to slay an entire enemy to show to everyone, especially your god, that the victor wanted nothing for itself, only to survive or to show total trust in God. This horrible custom (herem, in Hebrew, or "the ban") placed national survival above any personal goods.

2. Scholars indicate that this custom was actually quite rare in practice, was heavily exagerrated in Israel's case to make a point (that they trusted solely in God, wanting nothing for themselves), and at times etiological (e.g., a name or place represents a nation or a clan or explains an inner meaning).

3. In the case of the Old Testament, you are exactly right Jeff - the authors of the events, writing sometimes hundreds of years after the events, were trying to make a point that all their success and prosperity came from Yahweh alone. Early on, they saw God as a warrior, fighting for His people and this success was dependent on total obedience to Him. Much of the battle writings were during the time of King David, when the kingdom was at its peak glory and extent, and the nation marvelled at how such a tiny people could have conquered so many peoples and so many lands; obviously God was fulfilling His promise and at that time they equated this promise with the holy land itself. Some went so far as to believe God had unconditionally promised eternal glory to Jerusalem, no matter what they did.

4. Later, the authors of the Old Testament, in looking back during their total defeat and exile by Babylon, tried to make sense of their downfall and realized it was due to adoption of foreign gods and idols, which was contrary to the first commandment given to them and that they had broken the Sanai covenant. They thus saw a historic trend that they prospered when they cleared out the pagan cults and influences and fell to defeat when their kings or judges adopted them. The edits to the OT books following the exile reflects this theme.

5. The OT continues as a sort of evolution in national thought or understanding of a very special relationship between God and Israel. What is evident is that what God wanted from them never really changed; it just took a very very long time for them to "get it". He wanted them to worship Him alone, wanted personal loyalty, interior holiness, justice for the poor and disadvantaged ones in society, and to live out His commandments in their everyday life (to love God with your whole heart, mind and strength, and to love your neighbor). It took the prophets to keep reminding them of what God told Abraham, Moses, Joshua, and Samuel, all the way up to their calamity.

6. When you look then at exactly what God was asking (faithfulness to what is called "the covenant promise"), there are many parallels to Jesus' teachings. Note the opening scene of Jesus being tempted by Satan and Jesus repeats the Deuteronomic Code given to Moses (worship only God, don't test God, live by His word, culminating in love of God with entire heart/mind/strength), sort of rewalking the entire ordeal across the desert, but Jesus prevails where his people failed. Jesus thus embodies this "theology of the covenant" in His flesh.

7. Once the idea that the entire OT is a "history of the covenant" becomes clear, the themes and connections in Jesus's life to the OT concepts of this covenant promise, of sacrifice and of the law become quite pervasive, to the point that the transition is much smoother than first glance and the disparities fade. You can thus carry your idea to Christ - His ultimate triumph, similar to the temptations - was that he was perfectly obedient to His Father's will all the way to the cross.

8. What also becomes very evident is that the Christ constitutes the next evolutionary "jump" in understanding of just how serious God is about His love for us in this covenant. The progress in thought is not static then; we continue to unravel the depth of what this "new covenant" means. You can probably tell by now how my geologic background is being used here.

9. The moral and ethical code of the Jewish covenant and as presented by Jesus, according to our studies, is thus very consistent and nonarbitrary. Jesus summed it all up so well (Love the Lord God with your whole heart, your whole mind and your whole strength, and love your neighbor as yourself). Now that Jimmy and I have been through the entire OT, this is strikingly clear and amazingly simple. It is still, nontheless, not easy to always discern as you and Denise point out so well. What it is not.. is negotiable, relative or subjective.

10. All that being said, to be fair, there are still some words put into God's mouth in primevil history that are difficult to get past, despite knowing what the bigger cause was or where the author was coming from. I'm not learned enough to explain it all at this point however.

This is a very brief and probably poor attempt to summarize what the OT scholar we're reading has said, at least as far as I've interpreted it. Like any technical idea, it certainly might even seem contrived, as one would expect from any academic reading.

Yet I also infer from my study that the OT is really more of a love story, a mixture of "true" myth and history and fact that shows a God who is faithful to His promises, that never deserts us despite disobedience and sin, who honors our choices and overcomes any obstacle to keep His invitation in front of us.

In this light, the OT makes sense and is relevant to us today. At least, that's how people of faith see all of salvation history. On my part, I think the OT would not make nearly as much sense without the coming of Christ and I'm looking forward to learning even more in the years ahead.


Wonders for Oyarsa said...

Geopoet -

Your response is excellent, and much of what I would have wanted to say and more. I'd really love to have you swing by my place sometime and probe these mysteries in more depth.