Monday, August 07, 2017

The Bible as a moral guide

The problem with the Bible as a moral guide is that the Bible is addressed to social situations which change. Just one example, given what we know about the practice of homosexuality in the ancient Roman empire, Paul had every reason to condemn it. See Sarah Ruden's outstanding Paul Among the People for this. But the practice of homosexuality has changed in our day, and so it becomes an interesting question as to whether we an continue to apply Paul's strictures in the present day.
Slavery, in the Old Testament, was the ancient Hebrew welfare system. If you were poor, or in debt, you could become someone's servant. Freeing the slaves would result in people starving as opposed to eating. In Paul's time, just an across the board freeing of slaves would have made their lives worse instead of better. In the very passage where slaves are told to obey their masters, masters are told not to threaten their slaves. That statement should be a major shock. Everyone who reads it should be going What????? What kind of slavery can it possibly be if the slaves cannot be motivated by fear? Obviously we are not talking about anything remotely similar to slavery as it was practiced in the antebellum South. Again, Ruden is good on this. See also this by Warner Wallace.
The main moral contribution of Christianity in the world is not the specific commands that come from it, it is the statement it makes about what people are. People, all of them, are created by God, who has an interest in their eternal salvation, and this interest is demonstrated by the death of Christ on the cross for everyone, black or white, male or female, gay or straight, rich or poor, Jew, Greek or Samaritan. Before this time people, in virtue of who they happened to be, were viewed as human refuse. Obviously we can treat people like crap even though we believe that Christ died for them, but this metaphysic of persons should cause cognitive dissonance if we do so.
The idea that since we can't read morality straight off the Bible, we have to use secular norms, looks like a false dilemma. Modern materialism doesn't just deny biblical commands, it also denies the idea of an objective purpose for human existence. There are things about persons we an learn from seeing them from a Christian perspective, in ways that go over and above the direct commands of the Bible. Consider this famous C. S. Lewis passage:
“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner—no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbour he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ vere latitat (truly lies hidden)—the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden.”

4 comments:

Mortal said...

I've always loved that quote from C.S. Lewis. It's the feeling I get when I'm at Mass and watching the people return to their pews after having received Communion. My thoughts always come around to something like, "There goes the Temple of God. And there's another. And he is too. And so is she." Etc., etc. They have consumed the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Our Lord, and carry Him around within them.

It's also what I tell myself when I'm tempted to get annoyed at somebody for one reason or another. I think, "If that person were the only human being to have ever lived, God would still have taken on human form, suffered and died, just to redeem him - and only him." It's hard to stay truly mad after realizing such.

oozzielionel said...

"The problem with the Bible as a moral guide is that the Bible is addressed to social situations which change." The strength of the Bible as a moral authority is that the sin problem of people remains the same.

Mortal said...

I realize that this conversation is not about materialism or the supernatural, but I just had to share this question I came across over at this website. Namely:

Would we even have a concept of the "material world" if we did not [first] have the contrast of a transcendent, incorporeal world?

The question is similar to Lewis saying we would never realize that evil existed unless we first had a concept of an unfallen world. (I cannot remember his exact words.)

Mortal said...

Yikes! I accidentally posted the following to the wrong conversation (the one below this one):

The Bible as a "moral guide" could be summed up in a single sentence: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Or, as the New Testament puts it (in two sentences): He who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him, that he who loves God should love his brother also.