Sunday, May 29, 2005

Fundamentalism's Moral Paradox:

This post was inspired by reflecting on this passage of the Bible: Deuteronomy 22:20. The context is a man questioning his betrothed's "chastity" and what to do about it.

"But if this thing be true [that she's not a virgin] and the tokens of virginity be not found for the damsel: Then they shall bring out the damsel to the door of her father's house, and the men of her city shall stone her with stones that she die: because she hath wrought folly in Is-ra-el, to play the whore in her father's house: so shalt thou put evil away from among you."

If the concept of evil does objectively exist, what God was commanding to be done to the woman certainly qualifies as unjust, wrong, and pure evil.

When we see the Islamic world doing these very things, we rightly recoil in horror. And by the way, many of the bloodthirsty and horrific things that the Islamo-fascists do to their own people -- especially their women -- come right from the pages of the Old Testament. Indeed (and ironic) that the terrible persecution directed against Christians in Islamic nations is because, Christians by worshipping a "God" named Jesus (along with two other Gods) are committing the crime of "polytheism" and Islamic fundamentalists accurately note that the Old Testament treats polytheism as the most serious of crimes and demands the immediate execution of those who would tempt the community to worship "false gods."

Now, is there a way to defend the Bible so that we don't just throw the book out entirely because certain sections of it are brutal, barbaric and flat out immoral? Yes. And here is how I would do it:

The Bible, especially the Old Testament, was written a long, long time ago. Humans came from a "state of nature" (our evolutionary state) that looked not like Locke's "hypothetical" description of it, but rather like Hobbes's "state of war" where men warred against one another and where "might made right."

Civilization brought us out of this brutal state and the Ancient Jews, as described in the Old Testament, were taking that "first step" from this sub-barbaric evolutionary state towards civilization. And as bad as some of those Old Testament verses seem, the Ancient Jews were probably no worse and indeed probably slightly more civilized than all of the other Pagan tribes (especially the enemies of the Jews: The Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, etc.).

In terms of doing wrong, you have to know something is wrong before you can rightly be held culpable for it. When we emerged from our evolutionary state, we weren't given a handbook entitled "Civilization 101" where we were informed of everything we needed to know about 20th Century humane ethics. No rather we had to learn by experience. And it literally took thousands of years of accumulated experience for us to learn and develop the ethical system that we now have that rightly makes us shriek at the thought of taking a "betrothed" woman, having the government, at the behest of her husband, pull her pants down to examine her for evidence of "virginity" and then brutally stoning her to death if she is found not to be a virgin.

Slavery is a good example: As "self-evidently" inhumane and wrong as it seems to us now, the institution was practiced universally for thousands of years without controversy because no one realized it was wrong. The Bible certainly doesn't proscribe it. Neither does the Koran. Neither did the ethical teachings of the Ancient Greeks or any other Pagan culture. We had to "learn" that it was wrong through experience. And from my understanding of history, Western Culture in the 1600s AD first began to question the morality of slavery. (At least that's when the dismantling of the institution of slavery began.)

If a proscription against slavery were written right in the pages of the Bible as clearly as the proscription on murder, theft, idolatry, worshipping false gods, or even homosexual conduct, then the West would have banned slavery right from the start instead of the middle of the 19th Century AD (when the dismantling of the institution of slavery ended in the West.)

It's clear that Alan Dershowitz is right when he says "we can do much better than the Ten Commandments." What are we to think of a code that outlaws "coveting" but doesn't even give us a hint that slavery is wrong?

The bottom line is the Ten Commandments and the rest of what's written in the Bible are defensible if and only if put into historical context. In other words, one must read the Bible through the lens of historical relativism (and "situational ethics") and context in order to see it as a "Good Book," one which guided man on the path towards civilization.

The problem for the fundamentalists is that they reject (or at least, they claim to) historical relativism and situational ethics in general and especially as applied to their Bible. To them, EVERYTHING that is written in the Bible is absolute, inerrant, and timeless, as true now as it was when written.

But, as I have demonstrated, according to our 20th Century view of ethics -- of "human rights" that views slavery as wrong, treats women as equals, demands that government respect the basic privacy and dignity rights of its citizens -- certain things written in the Bible, especially the Old Testament, but some of the New as well are morally indefensible.

It is morally indefensible for any government to not only execute, but execute by taking stones and smashing skulls of homosexuals, recalcitrant children, those who worship false Gods (like Hindus and Hare Krishnas, perhaps even Muslims if Allah is not the God of the Hebrew Scriptures) and betrothed females who aren't virgins, and many others. And it is likewise morally indefensible to allow slavery, which the Bible clearly does.

That right there is good reason, to me, to reject the inerrancy and absolutism of Scripture. This problem is easily solved for those of us who wish to laud the Bible as a piece of literature and an important historical document by accepting that it was written by men living in brutal times before we knew better, and that it is often wrong. But the fundamentalist can't do that. And therein lies his moral paradox.


David Swindle said...

Hey Jonathan, I especially liked this piece -- definitely my favorite of yours in some time. So I linked to it on my team blog and implored my friends to take a look.

Jonathan said...


Jay said...

I posted this as a response on David's blog.

Where to begin, where to begin.
Let’s start by picking Rowe’s thesis out of his essay: “Certain things written in the Bible (slavery and capital punishment cited specifically), especially the Old Testament … are morally indefensible...That right there is good reason, to me, to reject the inerrancy and absolutism of Scripture.”

It’s important to note that Rowe didn’t seem to want to discredit the Bible, but rather its inerrancy. “Ancient Jews, as described in the Old Testament, were taking that "first step" from this sub-barbaric evolutionary state towards civilization.” That’s great.
Rowe noted that the Old Testament was written for a specific people group in a specific time period. I’d be happy to discuss opinions on the meanings of some of the various laws found in the Mosaic Code at another time, but for now let’s just say this: The Mosaic Code was written so that no one could go without breaking it. What Rowe seems to be saying is that because the “Law” is unreasonable and outdated, it must certainly be proof of errancy in the text.
Instead of disproving that myself, I’ll let Paul of Tarsus handle it. Stuff I add for context is in brackets, emphasis in bold.

Galatians 3
17What I mean is this: The law, introduced 430 years later {after the covenant}, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise. 18For if the inheritance depends on the law, then it no longer depends on a promise; but God in his grace gave it to Abraham through a promise.
19What, then, was the purpose of the law? It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come. The law was put into effect through angels by a mediator. 20A mediator, however, does not represent just one party; but God is one.
21Is the law, therefore, opposed to the promises of God? Absolutely not! For if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law. 22But the Scripture declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe.
23Before this faith came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed. 24So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ[h] that we might be justified by faith. 25Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law.

Ephesians 2
11Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called "uncircumcised" by those who call themselves "the circumcision" (that done in the body by the hands of men)— 12remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. 13But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ.
14For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace,

Colossians 2
8See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.
13When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature,[b] God made you[c] alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, 14having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. 15And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.
16Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. 17These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. 18Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you for the prize. Such a person goes into great detail about what he has seen, and his unspiritual mind puffs him up with idle notions. 19He has lost connection with the Head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.
20Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: 21"Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!"? 22These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. 23Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.

So here we are.
Did the Bible err because something that was written at the beginning isn’t moral? No, the law was written to bring us closer to Christ (Gal. 3:24). And it is destined to perish with use (Col. 2:22).

Seems to me that someone is trying to take us captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy (Col. 2:8).

Note, I'm no HTML whiz, so these verses were supposed to be bold: Galatians 3:19, 21, 25; Ephesians 2:14-15; and Colossians 2:8, 13, 21-22

Jonathan said...

First off, I'm not sure how relevant all of that is to what I wrote.

You note, as I've seen noted before, that many of the norms of the OT were for the Jews only and not applicable outside of that context.

This is 1) an interpretation that has become dominant (probably because it's more compatible with a liberal, pluralistic society). However, even today some fundamentalist Christians don't hold this way (the post-mill Reconstructionist). Even though the Recons are presently not dominant among evangelicals, throughout history they were more dominant than they are today (for instance, the Puritans in Mass. could be I think properly described as "Reconstructionists" given that they attempted to write the entire Bible including those norms that you are arguing are for the "OT Jews only" into the Civil Law).

But that's more of an aside.

I'm arguing not that these laws or the way that they were applied are simply "unreasonable and outdated," but that they were fundamentally wrong, that they are unjustifiable by present standards of morality.

"Did the Bible err because something that was written at the beginning isn’t moral? No, the law was written to bring us closer to Christ (Gal. 3:24). And it is destined to perish with use (Col. 2:22)."

But can you do evil to accomplish a greater good?

My argument is that the Ancient Jews ARE excused because they weren't aware of what they were doing was wrong, just as many of the slave-practicing societies (including the Biblical ones) should be excused because notions of freedom that we presently embrace didn't exist back then.

But if God is all knowing and if many of the notions that we presently embrace are "objectively" moral and good -- for instance, things like freedom, equality for women and other religions, injunctions against inflicting cruel punishments, disproportionate to the crimes committed -- then God, being omnipotent had to know that say, slavery was wrong, or that it is wrong to take a rock and smash someone's skull in with it it -- especially for a non-violent sexual crime.

God doesn't get off the hook.

Now of course, I don't believe that if there is a "God" that he sanctioned what went on in the OT -- so I'm not "blaming God." I'm simply denying much of what is written in the Bible is rightly attributed to Him.

Jonathan said...

I can't comment on Swindle's post because I'm not a team member, but "Red Baron" wrote:

"Rowe is clearly trying to hold God to Rowe's standard, and not His own."

No I'm not! I'm holding "God" to the 20th Century view of ethics -- of "human rights" that views slavery as wrong, treats women as equals, demands that government respect the basic privacy and dignity rights of its citizens.

This is not my arbitrary standard.

"In fact, if you read the entire OT, is is doubtful that any Jew would have survived had everyone been put to death for disobeying the law of the Lord. So, if they were not put to death, why would that be? Because the Lord also provided a system whereby sins could be exonerated. It was only the unrepentant who suffered the actual punishment - a perfect reflection of God's eternal provisions for punishment vs. salvation."

Forgive me, but I missed thosed sections of the Old Testament where God states that the actors could avoid punishment -- the brutal stonings and all that -- if they "repented."

It wasn't until we got to the NT where Jesus said things like, "let He who is w/o sin cast the first stone."

Jay said...

New Rowe thesis: "I don't believe that..."God"...sanctioned what went on in the OT...I'm simply denying much of what is written in the Bible is rightly attributed to Him."

Well, I can't disprove this, but I do take solace in the fact that it can neither be proven. You also can't prove or disprove who wrote Shakespeare's plays or who actually penned "To Kill a Mockingbird." If you want to get really philosophical, you probably can't even prove that you wrote that essay, or I this one.

All I can do is point to verses such as II Timothy 3:16, which says all scripture is God-breathed. But then, if you are doubting the credibility of the Bible, you'd also doubt the credibility of that verse.

Jonathan said...

"You also can't prove or disprove who wrote Shakespeare's plays...."

You can't also prove or disprove that the Archangel Gabriel dictated the Koran to MUHAMMAD or the Angel Moroni "revealed" the book of Mormon to Joseph Smith.

So what the Hell are we supposed to believe?

Robert Madison said...

You made a comment that gave me both a laugh, and a good idea!

Exodus 20:2-3
"I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.

You shall have no other gods before me."

***** Break *****

Now, imagine a "Who's on first?" play on this!

A - "Who said that?"

B - God did. Says it right there.

A - Right, but which one? Was it the father, or was...

B - Yes!

A - Wait, I wasn't done yet. Or was it the Holy Ghost?

B - Yes!

A - Which one?

B - What?

A - Which one am I not supposed to have any gods before?

B - The father, and the Holy Ghost...

A - Exactly. Which one?

B - Well, Jesus said...

A - Wait a second...What's *he* got to do with it. Jesus wasn't god. Jesus was a man.

B - Actually, Jesus was god. He was the son of god.

A - The son of which one? God, or the Holy Ghost?

B - Yes!

***** Break *****

Anyway, the comedy potential for the violation of the "Mosaic Establishment Clause" is downright staggering!