Thursday, October 26, 2006

Christian morality

There is a presumption amongst many Christians that morality should be based upon the Bible. In the absence of such Scriptural teachings, they say, we would all be cast adrift morally.

This is a na├»ve presumption, for a number of reasons. Firstly, there is the rather conspicuous incidence of pre-Christian societies (such as the Greeks) who had rather well developed systems of ethics and morals. We may not agree with all of their teachings, but then the Christian ones leave something to be desired too – as we shall see.

Secondly, there is the matter of the Bible itself. If it really were the work of a perfect and loving God, it would be surely be perfect in every regard. It would be accurate, clear, concise, and consistent throughout. However, the Bible is hardly that. Many of its passages describe God-ordained atrocities, which would seem to be at odds with the concept of the omnibenevolent Christian God. Further, some biblical teachings are both unreasonable and unlikely since they are in obvious disagreement with common sense, as well as with God’s supposed characteristics. Other biblical accounts are absurd in that they represent very primitive beliefs, which are in clear disagreement with modern scientific and other knowledge.

Some Christians, of course, say that they don’t really follow the Old Testament anymore – finding it rather too violent and eccentric for their tastes. However, we might note the following passage in the New Testament, where Jesus makes it clear that the laws of the Old Testament are still binding, and are not subject to human interpretation:

Matthew 5:18-19 Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or tittle shall nowise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven.

Of course, liberals still choose to ignore many of parts of the Bible, and to reinterpret other parts, but either it is the inerrant word of God or it isn't. If we are going to pick and choose the bits we like, and place our own interpretation on other parts, then we are potentially placing our judgment above that of God’s. If God very clearly and unambiguously stated that people should be executed for blasphemy (or picking up sticks on the Sabbath, or whatever), then to not do that suggests that we have moral goodness, knowledge, or powers of judgement that God doesn't have. However, in the Christian worldview this surely cannot be so. Either God is omniscient and omnibenevolent, or He isn't. If God says that we should do these things, then who are we to question this?Most liberal Christians prefer to go by Jesus’ (more moderate) teachings, and to largely ignore the Old Testament. However, Jesus did not say that his teachings were to replace the teachings of the Old Testament. In fact, he said the exact opposite - as per the verse quoted earlier.

There is no Bible version 2, in which universal love, compassion, tolerance, reason, and honesty are unambiguously preached. The New Testament may be an improvement upon the Old, but in my opinion, it is far from the great moral textbook that Christians would have us believe. So, even if one allows for God changing his moral message from that espoused in the Bible, there is no later bible in which this supposed new message is recorded. If God thought it important to get this revised message across, then one would expect it to be done in a clear and unambiguous manner, not just left to fallible humans to make this interpretation. Of course, I'm happy that Christianity has been forced in general to become more liberal and tolerant, but I'm just highlighting the apparent hypocrisy of this position.

Further, If one is going to use some of the Bible's moral teaching, and choose to ignore or reinterpret other bits, by what means is one making this choice? In order to decide what to include in one’s 'Christian moral framework', and what to leave out, one is necessarily appealing to some other ethical system - a sort of Meta ethics. One can't decide purely by reading the Bible what to include or not (since you should include everything, unless you make some sort of arbitrary choice), so it must be the case that you are making this choice based upon some other moral yardstick. In other words, there is some other framework - existing outside of the Bible - that is determining your morals. So, that gives the lie to the concept that a moral framework must necessarily derive from the Bible alone (and God's word).

If there is a kind of meta ethics to which people appeal in order to ultimately determine what is acceptable or not, and which is not based upon the Bible at all, why not just use this and ignore the Bible totally? Liberal Christians choose to ignore the biblical exhortations to stone people to death for all sorts of real and imagined crimes, and do not condone slavery, even though Jesus apparently saw no problem with it – which is good news! However, when they choose to follow those biblical teaching that are good, they always refer back to the Bible as their source.

Why can’t Christians just admit that the moral code espoused in the Bible is often a very primitive one, and is deficient and unenlightened in many ways? Subsequent, more enlightened thinkers have improved upon its moral teachings dramatically, which is to be expected, as the Bible is nothing more than a book written hundreds of years ago by fallible humans.

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