Monday, November 10, 2008

Why Bother? -- Part II

[Originally posted at "Down With Absolutes" on  November 10, 2008]

It has been quite an interesting discussion resulting from three separate but related posts:

  1. "As seen on cars outside Corpus Christi Church in Elsmere" by Mike Matthews
  2. "Jesus Christ" by Mat Marshall
  3. "Why Bother?" by Leo

I am impressed by the level of thought that has gone into the discussion. I am particularly blown away by Mat, whose formidable synapses keep firing with breathtaking efficiency as he states his case, though of course I disagree with him. There have been some equally thoughtful observations from Dominique, Jonathan Moseley, Steve Newton, Paul Fakowlski and others. A lot of the comments and counter-comments were interesting, but perhaps we were talking past each other because it was not clear whether the subject at hand was (1) the separation of church and state, (2) the validity and consistency of the Bible, (3) church history, (4) the moral underpinnings of our laws and government or (5) whether or not there is any real point or foundation to law and morality if there is no Supreme Lawgiver.

The latter question is what I was driving at in my post entitled "Why Bother?", and my purpose here is to restate that question and challenge with an exclamation point. But first, I would like to respond to some of the comments that were posted:

I. From Mat on the moral underpinnings of our laws and government….

….to answer your question (why do victims matter if we live in a survival-of-the-fittest society), the viewpoint that victims are irrelevant because it improves a species only truly applies in a solely biological context. While I believe strongly in Darwinism, I will point out that the strength of mankind is, in part, our ability to eliminate victimization and therefore retain the strength of a group. Now, that’s a biological answer, but it certainly applies to society. We should eliminate victimization because it improves the whole; not because we’re told to by scripture. This is the basis of humanism: we live in a world self-governed by a universal moral code. Where you (or the Christian that I debate in my post) and I differ is on two levels: first, who makes the rules. You say it’s a supernatural being, and I say we make them because they have maximum utility and agreeability for all societies, as well as being “the right thing to do” (which, to wax Jefferson, is self-evident). Secondly, we disagree on what the rules are. Assuming you live your life the way the Bible says you should, there are pages and pages that I could pull full of moral codes ranging from the indecipherably ambiguous to the unfairly strict. For me, there are a key set of rules that every society has to obey, upon which any nation can build their system of laws.
Where to begin? Mat, first of all you are not answering my question. In fact, you are making my point. You protest that the rules of natural selection apply only to a biological context, but absent a Supreme Being who holds us accountable, a biological context is all there is. You say that the strength of mankind is the ability to eliminate victimization. Why do you consider this a “strength”? I again point you to the example of Nazi Germany, whose philosophical underpinnings borrowed heavily (albeit selectively) from Friedrich Nietzsche, who challenged the foundations of Christianity and traditional morality, believing only in the realities of this world and not the next. And I must again insist that the Nazis were in effect taking the concept of natural selection to the next level. Their aim was to create a pure, Aryan race, which they obviously believed was of a higher order. The society created by the Nazis was extremely well ordered; it ran like clockwork and was probably a very pleasant place to live, provided you were not a Jew or from some other undesired group (and provided you were not a Christian who refused to be coopted). I must again ask, if there is no Supreme Lawgiver who gives us an inner sense of right and wrong and holds us accountable, who are we to say that the Nazi’s were wrong?

You haven’t thought this all the way through, Mat. You appeal to a “universal moral code” and to “natural law”, but where do these things come from? Steve Newton correctly points out that “virtually every society, either in religious or secular terms, has developed some version of the Golden Rule”. But the imperative “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is anything but “natural”. Rather, it is something we must be taught and re-taught, because our instincts point in the other direction. In the Darwinian world, which is inevitably what we are reduced to absent a Supreme Being, the natural law is “Do unto others before they do unto you.”

II. From Frieda Berryhill on Church and State

Even at the risk of losing my train of thought, I must respond here to Frieda Berryhill’s potshot in offering up the website I suppose the implication is an alliance between Nazi Germany and the Church. One of the first orders of business of any tyrannical regime is to make itself more palatable by co-opting and forging alliances with church leaders. They will even skillfully and cynically quote Scripture to support their agenda, as did the Soviets with 2 Thessalonians 3:10: “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.” But their primary objective is to preemptively counter any moral resistance to their agenda by attempting to domesticate the church, either by luring it into its power structure or by cowing it into submission, making churches register with the state and persecuting those that refuse to.

Unfortunately, the corrupt state often succeeds, but only to a certain extent. For every religious person who allowed himself to be cowed or corrupted by the Nazi’s, or who stayed quiet in hopes that the storm would pass, there was a Corrie Ten Boom or a Dietrich Bonhoeffer who either risked or lost their life in standing up to them.

As Dominique pointed out, the primary benefit of the establishment clause in the first amendment to the Constitution is to protect the church from the corrupting and controlling influence of the state and its power structures. Throughout history, Christianity actually thrived in times and places when it was under persecution; conversely, Christianity has been corrupted and lost its prophetic edge when it has been lured into government power structures. When the Emperor Constantine was converted to Christianity and issued the edict of Milan, Christians breathed a sigh of relief that they would no longer have to serve as human torches or as lion chow. That was a good thing. Christianity can also thrive when it is not being actively persecuted and is allowed to freely compete in the marketplace of ideas. The problems ensue when it starts to become fashionable to be a Christian and there is little or no risk of being persecuted for those beliefs. Worse still is when Christianity becomes the state religion (whether de facto or de jure ) and everyone is expected to be a Christian. As Jonathon Moseley pointed out, “A person forced into a religious belief does not impress God one bit. God is not fooled. God is not impressed by someone who unwillingly engages in any religion”.

III. Mat on slavery, his difficulties with certain Bible texts, and other sundry topics.

[N]either slavery nor indentured servitude is just, as both reduce human beings to property. And to act as though it’s somehow acceptable that people were effectively enslaved for 20 years (or longer, as the debt could be extended indefinitely at, essentially, the master’s whim) and passed that servitude onto their children–whose only crime was being born to financially unfortunate parents–strikes me as, frankly, inhuman. This was easily the silliest hair you could have split.

Furthermore, the cancellation of all debts upon Jubilee does not excuse anything at all. If you owe me money and I respond by making you my property for, again, about as long as I want, does it become OK if I forget about it after half a century?

Yes, abolitionists were Christians (Quakers, if I recall correctly).

There you go again! On what basis are you pontificating that neither slavery nor indentured servitude is just? I certainly agree that slavery as practiced in the U.S. during the 18th and 19th centuries is an abomination, and I base my objection on the premise of human dignity that we derive from being created in the image of God. On what are you basing your objection? As for indentured servitude, I am not a big fan of that either, but I am frankly at a loss to find any implicit or explicit moral prohibition against it, neither in Scripture nor in the “universal moral code” or “natural law” to which you appeal.

Slavery in the latter sense was indeed common in many a society prior to the advent of democratic capitalism and free markets. As Moseley pointed out, it was a means of dealing with people who could not pay their debts. Not that I am a fan of the concept, but it can be reasonably argued that indentured servitude is a more sensible way of dealing with unpaid debt than the more modern alternatives. In later centuries, people who could not pay their debts ended up going to debtors’ prison, which is truly inhumane and completely counter-productive. Our modern solution of bankruptcy laws is arguably more compassionate but of questionable morality, because declaring bankruptcy all too often results in legally sanctioned theft.

Like you, I have come across many a Bible verse in the Old Testament that has made me flinch. But that is before I consider the socio-economic and historical context that the Bible was addressing. For example, the Old Testament passages on “slavery” acknowledged that economic institution as a present day reality of every society in that era, but the Mosaic Law placed limits on what can and cannot be done with slaves, gave slaves specific rights, and gave them the hope of eventual freedom. I won’t try to answer point for point each of the Old Testament verses you have trouble with, as I don’t want to try the patience of those who cannot stomach this level of discourse. And frankly, even after careful study, there are still some portions of Scripture that leave me scratching my head. But they do not cause me to reject the authority of the Bible; rather, I just chalk them up as items that my pea-brain still does not understand. I don’t understand everything there is to know about advanced calculus, but I know enough about the whole to assume even the things I do not understand are valid and true when rightly understood.

As a historical note and FYI re: your mention of Quaker abolitionists: while there were indeed many Quaker abolitionists, the most famous Christian abolitionist was British Parliamentarian William Wilberforce (1759 -1833). I am not sure if he was an Anglican or a Methodist, but he was considered to be “evangelical”. As is the case today, evangelicals were often distrusted and looked down upon by the established power structures and high society, so much so that Wilberforce had second thoughts about continuing on in public life after his conversion, and particularly about pursuing his life’s quest of abolishing the slave trade. He sought counsel from his boyhood pastor, John Newton, a former slave trader who was powerfully converted and went on to write the immortal hymn, Amazing Grace. Both Newton and William Pitt (Wilberforce’s close friend who went on to become Prime Minister) counseled him to stay in politics. Until the day he died, Wilberforce’s politics were informed by his faith, earning him the scorn and derision of his political opponents. (The level of invective and nastiness would have been worthy of "Down with Absolutes". If Matthews had been around, he would have posted a copy of an anti-slavery flier under the title “As seen on coaches outside Westminster Abbey” with the caption “William Wilberforce is desperate!”)

Throughout his lifetime, Wilberforce’s faith informed his politics not only with regard to the slave trade but to individual morality as well. He actually founded the “Society for the Suppression of Vice” (How dare he try to impose his morality on me!) and the "Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals". Going back to your idea of our common morality being based on what is of “maximum utility and agreeability for all societies”, this concept would not have worked for Wilberforce. He was arguing against the slave trade because it was dehumanizing those who were otherwise made in the image and likeness of God. His opponents, even those who did not reject the “image of God” argument, were more concerned about “maximum utility and agreeability for all societies”. They pointed out that it would be an economic disaster if England unilaterally gave up the slave trade. Furthermore, the vacuum would be immediately filled by France, that wonderful bastion of liberté, egalité, fraternité. Thankfully, Wilberforce and company kept fighting and eventually won the day, abolishing the slave trade with the Slave Trade Act of 1807, and abolishing slavery itself with the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, just three days before his death and (ironically) three decades before the abolition of slavery in a nation that seceded from the British Empire under the concept that “all men are created equal”.

IV. On “natural law”

The term “natural law” has been used a few times in our discussion as the basis for our laws and morality, but no one has given a satisfactory answer as to where it comes from. I too believe in the concept of natural law and, believe it or not, so does the Bible.

Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them. (Romans 2:14-15)
I again submit that natural law as we understand it today could not have possibly come about in an evolutionary, Darwinian world absent a Supreme Being who wrote that law on our consciences. Our consciences, corrupted as they may be at times, are part of what it means to be created in the image and likeness of God.

In one of his first responses, Mat admitted, “I am not completely sure what substrate my moral views are bonded to….” That’s a startling admission. May I humbly suggest that he, and anyone else in this discussion thread, pull on that string a little bit more and find out.

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