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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.

Dobson: More Pathetic by the Day

Via Pharyngula and US News Blog.

I am not sure that I’ll give Dr. James Dobson much more press.  As Nerjal reader Tina from Hillsideslide  has pointed out in previous comments, the man is becoming irrelevant in the political world, even if his ministry remains a force in the conservative Evangelical world.   What is sad is that his in the process of recognizing this fate, he cannot help but sound like a the very sort of whining child that he councils parents to discipline with corporal punishment in books like “The Strong-Willed Child.” Most recently, he is lashing out because, horror of horrors, congress thinks maybe people should not be able to assault homosexuals because they are homosexuals.   Whether hate crimes legislation makes any sense (is not assault already a crime) is a matter for another day.  For now, we’ll focus on Dobson’s reaction:

I want to tell you up front that we’re not going to ask you to do anything, to make a phone call or to write a letter or anything.There is nothing you can do at this time about what is taking place because there is simply no limit to what the left can do at this time. Anything they want, they get and so we can’t stop them.

I’ve been on the air for 32 years and I’ve never seen a time quite like this. It just illustrates what happens when we don’t have what the Founding Fathers referred to as checks and balances, where the excesses of one party or one branch of government limit the reach of power hungry and self-serving people and keeps them form doing things that are harmful to the country. That’s the way the system was designed. We have 2 major political parties in this country, not one. . . .the radical left controls the executive branch through the president, and the Congress… and the Judiciary through the courts… now they control it all, including every department of government. As a result, the legislation that should shock the nation, if people were paying attention, is being rushed into law.

The first and obvious point is that he is right about the letter writing and call-in campaigns when it comes to some of the issues he holds dear.  You see, many in Congress right now won landslide elections campaigning on issues that Dobson does not support.  As elected representatives, they are wise to go with what their constituents expect and support.  It is not as if Democrats could expect to accomplish much by writing to conservative Republicans after the 1994 landslide in their favor. As the saying goes, you gotta dance with the one who brung ya.

Dobson is wrong to state that there is nothing his side can do but sit back and pray.  Not that I’m particularly interested in helping him or his pals, but there are these things called elections and we have them with astonishing frequency.  In fact, there will be one next year.   You can win a majority in the House of Representatives simply by convincing Americans to embrace your ideals over those of the Democrats currently in office–a form of political evangelism, if you will.  Just get out and “save” those poor “lost souls” that are unknowingly serving the devil through the sin committed at the ballot box.  I do not think it is lost on many that you are clearly favoring a political party, not just an ideology, which puts your ministry in severe danger of losing its tax-exempt status.  However, since the party you favor is in decline, your efforts are better spent building up that party than tearing down the one in power.

As for the latter part of the rant about Founding Fathers this, two parties that–well, let’s examine the facts.  By my reckoning, nearly 78% of the current Supreme Court Justices were appointed by Republicans.  I am having a harder time tracking down the stats on all federal judges, but with Republican presidents having been in office for 20 of the last 28 years, it is safe to assume that the majority are also Republican appointees.  So unless the definition of “liberal” is stretched to mean “anyone with whom Dobson has ever disagreed on any issue,” the courts can be ruled out as a bastion of liberal power.

It is hard to imagine that Dobson cannot think of a time in the last 32 years when one party had control of the executive, legislative and judicial branches or was full of powerful, self-serving people.   I do not recall any outrage when self-serving people tried to use the so-called “nuclear option” so to clear procedural hurdles for judges that Dobson liked.  I do not recall any opposition to the charade that was the Schiavo case, when all the “sanctitiy of marriage” defenders chose to abuse state and federal powers to stop a husband from carrying out his wife’s wishes.  I do not recall a need for bipartisanship when promising stem-cell research (using embryos already slated for destruction) was cut-off from federal funding for no logical reason.  Heck, I still haven’t heard a peep opposing the torture from an organization that is supposed to be promoting a “culture of life.”

I’m all for bi-partisanship so long as it is proportional to the opinions and interests of the general population, but one wonders how much influence the social Conservative wing of the party expects to have when they lack the support of the nation at large.   Conservative Evangelicals do not constitute a majority in this country.  They do not even constitute a major of Christians.   Their candidates did not make it out of the Primaries.  Even a Republican landslide would not give them the power they held for most of this decade.      You see, it is ultimately impossible to win a “culture war” when culture itself is collective. You can either choose to become a part of the culture and steer it in a direction you believe is beneficial, or you rail from outside and throw these childish fits about how the other kids don’t want to play with you any more.  I would hope a child psychologist could demonstrate a little more maturity.

Torture is ALWAYS Wrong!

On the whole, I would say that I generally admire conservatives for  applying values consistently, damn the consequences–even when  the consequences undermine the very principle being applied.  Take the so-called “abstinence-only”  view of sex education.  Many conservatives genuinely believe that it is best to teach abstinence until marriage as the only safe or viable solution, and they continue to do so even if statistics show that states that favor abstinence have higher rates of teen pregnancy and STDs than those with comprehensive sex education.  To an outside observer this, is of course, absurd.  Should there not be some kind of moral hierarchy wherein the prevention of a lifetime of disease outstrips the moral ideal?  If you want to reduce or eliminate abortion, would not eliminating teen pregnancy by any means necessary be the preferred method?  But I can find no internal inconsistency in the logic; barring extraordinarily unusual circumstances,  if everyone actually follows their plan, no disease will befall them and pregnancies, whether planned or not, will at least occur within the bounds of marriage.

Of course, few things in this world are as black and white as some people like to make them.  I think the uneasiness toward the “lifeboat” game was not that the game taught situation ethics so much as that it revealed how pliable our morals really are.  The adamant Pro-Lifer will find herself making an exception for the life of the mother.  Most everyone is against stealing, but who can fault in those who, finding themselves stranded in a desolate New Orleans, took some food from damaged convenience stores when no one was there to accept payment?  Many opposed to gambling will still buy a raffle ticket from a local school or charity, considering it more of a donation than a chance at a prize.  Nonetheless, conservatives have an excellent track record of standing up for what they believe to be right.

So while ethics are pliable and often so is the law, so-called moral relativism in generally a dirty word to them.  This is why I am simultaneously baffled and outraged at the glee of the afternoon talk show hosts today in finding out that Nancy Pelosi probably gave tacit endorsement–if only through inaction–of what are now known by the artless euphemism “enhanced interrogation techniques.”  Why is this cause for celebration?  Why would champions of patriotism and morals find cause to rejoice when their own party members are still out there on the air day and night defending the indefensible?  Is God suddenly more pleased?   It’s okay now because the other party did it too?  Mommy, why are you punishing me? Johnny and Josh also cheated on the test–it wasn’t just me!  Everyone is bad–so logically no one is!  That is not what I expect from conservatives and they should not tolerate it among themselves.

Some claim the techniques saved lives.  I tend to believe that information obtained by these means is almost certainly unreliable, but let’s concede that it did.  Some claim the enemy combatants have done worse.  I’m sure they have!  But is any information, regardless of value really worth giving up our soul?  Do we really want to judge ourselves by the standards of the worst (alleged) criminals on the planet? Does this mean I value the life of a terrorist over the life of a solider, sailor or marine? Of course not–I serve those brave souls for a living and I could not be prouder of our military.  But I do value the ideals for which those men and women are fighting over any and every life, including my own and that of my family.  On this there can be no compromise.  Even if the bomb were ticking under my own house, I would sooner harm the interrogator than subject the prisoner to such debasing treatment.

The goal of terrorism is to install fear change the behavior of those being terrorized. With every new policy or law that threatens the humanity of another, we give away more of our own.   Deep down, every reflexive justification of such behavior is an admission of collective guilt.  Once a person is taken off the battle field, there are no longer a personal threat to any of us in any physical sense, but torture plays right into an enemies hand, threatening us on a deeper level.  Maybe the issue has in fact become politicized, with hypocritical liberals attempting to bring down conservatives for behavior they themselves participated in.  If so, shame on the liberals!  By all means, call them on it. Charge them for it if need be.

The legal waters are becoming more murky by the day.  It seems some have found ways to make domestic law pliable enough that possibly no one is guilty, but being legally guilty and being wrong morally are two very different concepts.  If you are not going to allow “I didn’t inhale” or “it depends on what the definition of ‘is’ is” (and you shouldn’t), then you can’t turn around and say this is okay because your party happened to be in the majority when it went everything ran off the rails.  Let’s not forget that the people that actually attacked us on September 11th, 2001 suffered the death penalty in the course of their attack. That makes anyone else we capture from their organization a conspirator, but not necessarily a murderer.

Let us admit that nearly all of us got carried away there for a minute. And let us resolve now to never let it happen again. A physical nine eleven is bad enough without a moral one to boot.

Comments are open.  As a reminder, rule # 5 is in effect.  No part of any site under my control will ever be used to condone, endorse or justify torture.  Any comments not carrying with this policy will be summarily deleted.