My last post discussed the proof of God’s existence from the existence of morality. This led to a discussion regarding whether Christianity can actually provide “objective” morals. The challenger quoted Exodus 21, regarding the treatment of slaves and slave-owners to indict the God of the Bible for referring to slaves as the owner’s “property.”
He then went on:
there is no mention whatsoever why Christians should not hold slaves today, as long as it’s done according to the rules laid down in Scripture. On a plain reading of the Bible, and a plain view of history, I would say the only honest answer a Christian can give is that we should not hold slaves, not because of anything the Bible says, but because it’s inhumane. And I hope that satisfies your desire that I answer al’s original question about “timeless” morality. Morality is not “timeless”- it has a history, from bacterium to chimp to couch potato, and as admirable as much of the morality in the Bible was for the ancient world, and as admirable as much of it still is (it’s hard to improve upon the Golden Rule), in some areas most of us have evolved further, and slavery is one of those areas. Treating women as equals is another.
I’m all for “subjective” morality over “objective” morality as long as it leads to these obvious improvements. What about you?
This response is a good example of what many people think when it comes to the Bible, and especially the Old Testament. How does it come off as being a book of moral rules when it has so many confusing – if not outright immoral – passages? I can do a better job of deciding what’s right and wrong just by thinking about it, can’t I?
We live in a sound bite culture and it’s difficult to change the minds of people who think this way. The reason for this is that they have certain unexamined assumptions that are leading them to the conclusions they have reached. As modern people, if we want to know how something should work, we look it up. It takes a fraction of a second on the internet to find countless “how to” articles or youtube videos on pretty much any topic imaginable. If I need to replace the headlamp on my car, I don’t need to engage in guesswork; I simply flip to the right page in the owner’s manual, carefully indexed alphabetically at the back, and I can follow the specific directions. If I want to know what type or weight of fluid to put into the engine, that information is unambiguously provided to me.
Isn’t that what the Bible is supposed to be? A book of rules that tells us how our “manufacturer” expects us to operate? So, if I flip to Leviticus and read about slaves, doesn’t that mean that God actually expects me to own one? Or at least is okay with me doing so? That conclusion is easy enough to reach, however mistaken it is in fact. And explaining why that view is mistaken can sometimes make the believer sound defensive, or sound like he simply wants to cherry pick the passages upon which he will rely.
But it’s not about being defensive; it’s about putting the message in its proper context. And that requires an understanding of what God is working with. Most people would say that part of God’s omnipotence is that he can “do anything.” But that’s not really true. It’s more precise to say that he has the power to do all things that power is capable of doing. Power can’t make an illogical statement logical; it can’t create, for example, a square circle. And while an omnipotent Creator can make beings who possess free will, he can’t do that while at the same time controlling their behavior. This would be a contradiction that “power” cannot overcome. In other words, God could prevent all wrongdoing from occurring, or even most of it, but he couldn’t do so without blocking or limiting or overriding our free will. If God’s plan was simply for us to do things, or to do things a certain way, than free will would not have been necessary. No, the purpose for which we were created is not to do things, although there are things that we do; it is instead for us to be in relationship with him, in the manner – roughly at least -– of spouses (in some analogies) or, more likely, of parent and child.
Anyone who has raised children knows that there is a value in giving specific rules. Simple compliance with external rules is good, of course, but what a parent really wants to achieve with their child is a good heart – an understanding of right and wrong and a disposition of the heart to do right. While often what’s “right”is easy to discern, there are times when the strict rule has to give way to the law of love in the heart – we don’t want our children to lie, but lying to the evildoer to thwart their evil plans is better than always speaking the truth.
The Bible was never meant to be an owner’s manual which would provide step by step instructions on how to handle every situation that might arise. Yes, parts of the Old Testament do include specific instructions to the Israelites. But that was part of an evolving plan that God set in motion to redeem the world from the clutches of sin. He needed to first set them apart as a nation and make them different from all other tribes and people with whom they were in contact. But those rules ended when the Old Covenant was replaced by the New. Jesus’ message of universal love and brotherhood gives us the disposition of the heart that we, as children of God, should seek to cultivate and nourish. Jesus answered the question, “who is our brother?” in a way that shocked his people; he elevated the status of children through words and actions that no doubt confounded those that were used to putting children in a much lesser role; he taught us that lusting or hating in our heart was really no different, in God’s eyes, than actually committing the act. He set his world on its heels, and the repercussions of his words still send ripple effects through us some twenty centuries later.
Does the Bible provide “objective” morality? It certainly does. No one reading Jesus’ words can possibly conclude that owning another human being is consistent with his love of Love. No one reading the Sermon on the Mount could conclude that God wished to institute suffering and slavery among his people. No one considering Jesus’ lowly birth and tragic death on a cross could conclude that God wanted those of exalted means to lord it over the impoverished classes. Quite the contrary: we are to be measured by what we do for the least of our brothers – the hungry, the naked, the imprisoned – by the extent to which we lived out the meaning of our faith.
One final thought is worth noting: the challenger concludes his comments with the idea that he is okay with “subjective” morality as long as it leads to improvements. He does not seem to realize the contradiction. “Better” is a question of degree; we automatically think of “good, better, best,” and when we do, we are thinking of function or purpose. A “better” knife fulfills the function of “cutting” in a superior fashion than does the merely “good” knife. To make sense of such comparisons, one must first know what the function or purpose of the thing is, and have some idea of how to measure the performance against the standard. If morality truly were subjective, then on what basis does one claim that modern morality is any better than ancient morality? It would simply be a matter of opinion. To know that a “subjective” moral view is “better” is to state a contradiction; better on what objective scale?
So, even for the challenger, morality cannot be subjective, even though he thinks this takes him to a better place. And finding “flaws” in the Bible does not defeat its true role and purpose. It simply means the skeptic has yet to understand it.
Posted by Al Serrato