Blog Archives

Who What Why Wednesday: Morality

Todays topic: By what standard to you judge morality if not from the God and the Bible?

This is probably the single most common question I get from Christians. I’ll be charitable today and assume that most people are asking honestly in hopes of gaining a better understanding and not as a means to spark a debate that flies headlong into either Pascal’s Wager or the C.S. Lewis Trilemma before careening into the kalam cosmological argument. I will also grant that it is one of the hardest to answer, but not for the reason that believers assume.

The problem is that it is not one question. Packed in are several assumptions and thoughts that need to be dealt with individually. First, we must define morality. The believer will assume that morality is both universal and knowable, with a should or should not answer to every hypothetical scenario. Second, we must deal with the existence of God and whether he can be defined coherently. Third, we must decide whether or not God and morality intersect and the mechanism of such intersection. The theist generally assumes that one defines the other, but it is important to separate them, for they are not necessarily the same thing. Finally, we must determine whether the Bible can be a source of knowledge of God, morality, or both.

When I was in Bible College, relativism was one of the scariest concepts. How could there be different standards of right and wrong for different people in different times and places, or for the same person in two similar, but not identical situations? In our minds, morality was treated like the answers to a sum, either 2+3=5 or it doesn’t (base 4 connoisseurs excepted). I certainly believed this was at least possible going in, but I was quickly disillusioned when I found red-faced, heated arguments nearly coming to blows over simple doctrinal points such as whether or not it is okay to baptize an infant if the parents so wish. The student body was more or less evenly split on the issue, and proponents of each side wondered whether the other were even reading the same Bible. (I didn’t take a side on infant baptism, but I sure was opposed to the pumpkin carving going on come October!) One wonders how such hot-heads could handle truly complex issues. It is a trivial matter to short-circuit the logic chip of a binary mind. Who does get the last life vest, the mother of two or the pastor of many? If human embryos really are people and the fertility clinic is on fire, do you save the thousands in the freezer before worrying about the coughing pregnant woman who is about to succumb?  What is the acceptable number of civilian casualties when dropping bombs on a leading terrorist? These are not trivial deflections. Even perfect foreknowledge fails to lead to universally acceptable answers, and these are relatively simple questions.

Point two, the existence of God, is something of a first principle. To the believer, literally everything is proof of God and to the atheist nothing is, at least not so far. So let’s just go ahead and posit that a perfect being exists and that it is absolutely and inalienably without flaw—omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, and, most importantly, omnibenevolent. This is where this initial question comes to a head. Quickly now, define omnibenevolence. I find perfect power, presence and knowledge to be conceivable, if unlikely, but I am at a loss as to define perfect goodness without resorting to tautology. I struggled with this for literally decades. Two pastors agree and say “God cannot lie.” And I say “why not?” The first says “if God said ‘your shirt is blue,’ your shirt would turn blue the instant he said it.” The second says “no, no, God cannot lie because it is contrary to His nature. God cannot say ‘your shirt is blue’ when it is plainly not so.”

Point three derives from this very paradox. In the first case, God defines what is right by virtue of his power—might makes right—and in the second, there is a standard of goodness apart from God, to which He is also beholden. The Bible seems to support the first case, though I as a believer I always tended toward the latter. It is certainly possible that God and goodness exist apart from one another. Some gnostic sects believed, for example, that the god of the Old Testament was cutoff from the perfect Aeons, existing in his own realm, believing himself to be all powerful and good for wont of evidence to the contrary, when in fact he is quite flawed. This is, of course an oversimplification of a complex and nuanced religion with many variants, but the point remains—what makes God good, and why would I follow God instead of whatever it is that makes him good? If He is merely good by default, then could not another sentient entity lay claim to goodness by other means, perhaps by laying out a more logical form of ethics? After all, God is at once jealous (the First Commandment) and against coveting (the Tenth Commandment). It is the first form of “okay for Me, but not for thee.”

All of brings us to the Bible as a source of morality. It isn’t. No doubt many future pages will delve into deeper and more specific answers, but when it comes down to it, virtually no one, anywhere, is actually getting his or her morality from the Christian Bible. Those that come closest are the hardest to deal with, living with such extreme rigidity as to be outsiders at best and hatemongers at worst. They either wind up on a hippie commune after reading Acts Chapter 3:44-45, where the first converts held all possessions in common or as hateful bigots after reading Leviticus 18:22 (and maybe Genesis 19). It is easy to say that you can’t pick and choose which parts to follow but it’s quite another to come up with a cohesive form of ethics without doing just that.  The Bible has everything from the oral traditions of Bronze-Age nomads, to matter-of-fact tellings of military conquest to poetry to letters from early church leaders that could not agree on finer points of whether or not to circumcise men, let women speak, or eat certain foods. You’ll have to excuse me if I question the perfection of a being that expects me to reach a sensible system of ethics from such varied literature.

The reality is that my source of morality is no different than those who pose the question in the first place. I picked it up through myriad sources from my upbringing to the culture at large to countless hours of self-reflection and many complex experiences that shaped me into the person I am today. I fervently opposed universal healthcare—until I was sick without insurance despite working hard full-time at one job and sometimes keeping a second on the weekends to make ends meet. I was anti-homosexual—until I made goods friend with one. I also tried to turn the other cheek no matter what—until it came down to whether or not my kids were protected from an awful situation. I always opposed torture and mistreatment of others, but nothing drives that home like actually standing at Auschwitz and taking in sheer immensity of the horrors that took place there.

There is no shame in nuance, nor is there weakness in moral agnosticism. Personally, I think “God” is the name some people give to their own imperfect understanding of morality. Funny how jihadists and religious pacifists can both claim the same inflexible inspiration, each thinking the other is truly deceived. It may feel more justified when an all-powerful deity agrees and is there to back you up, but it is no more valid. That does not mean that I’ll put up with injustice, intolerance, hatred, bigotry, inequality oppression as “to each his own.” I know some things are right and others are wrong, I just stop short of pretending to have the universe’s largest bully in my corner in case you disagree.

Who What Why Wednesday: Genesis 1-11

The Who What Why Wednesday series will answer questions I get, either online or in person. Leading off the series will be a question about the first 11 chapters of the Christian Bible. 

Question: Many Christians believe Genesis to be a literal historical account, inspired by God. What is your opinion of Genesis, particularly chapters 1-11, which deal with Creation, the Great Flood, and the Tower of Babel.

 My position is that textual analysis indicates that these chapters are not meant to be read as history.  Genesis 1-11 does not read like anything remotely resembling a literal, historical account. It is literature, encompassing varied genres such as allegory, myth and legend. It opens with a myth, which covers the origin of the world, giving way to fable, which teaches a moral lesson using elements such as talking animals and symbols from nature—trees in this case, giving way to legend, in which people with human attributes accomplish extraordinary things giving away to something much closer to the general Western notion of history in later chapters.

The text has a man called “Human,” a woman called “Mother” a talking animal specifically named as being the Devil elsewhere in the Bible, a tree that can grant everlasting life, another tree that can grant knowledge, an omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent God that walks around in bodily form and says that he is surprised and what appears to be two completely different creation stories. Then, it has Cain who upon killing Abel is already worried about being an and having his life put in danger (by who?) before going off to found an entire city of people whose origins are unexplained, and who simply “exist.” Soon afterward, there are angels sleeping with human women and creating some kind race of giants who conveniently get wiped out in a world-wide flood without leaving any evidence behind.

Few would think the accounts were historical if they encountered them for the first time in an archeological dig. If we found something like this in China or North America, everyone would agree that the work should be compared to similar literature from the same general geographic location and time period, yet some people want to exempt anything in the Christian Bible from such scrutiny.  The early chapters of Genesis have all the hallmarks of traditions that are told around the campfire from one generation to the next until differing traditions are merged into a more canonical written form.

Further, I don’t think we’re giving the ancient Israelites much credit if we take their literature as history or prophecy and any other such thing.  It would be like future generations digging up tales of Paul Bunyan and claiming that we really believed that a giant lumberjack and big blue ox roamed the upper Midwest in a bygone era. Even without contrary science, the literal view fails on textual analysis alone in my opinion. 

Finally, the historical angle is just not supported by the evidence.  Fields of study as diverse as biology, physics, chemistry, climatology, geology, astronomy, cosmology, anthropology, linguistics, archaeology and genetics have found it to be every bit as far-fetched as the Book of Mormon’s notion that Native Americans are descended from Israelites.  This is not some one-off miracle where you have to decide whether or not the eye-witness accounts concerning an empty tomb are reliable.  Everyone knows that such a thing does not generally happen, but many accept that it could have happened once.   A world in which Genesis 1-11 actually happened, however, would be fundamentally different from the one we observe. It is far more reasonable to work back from what we do know than to simply believe and stop searching.