An Arbitrary Arbiter

I found this article on religious fundamentalism and moral relativism to be quite interesting.

It’s a topic I’ve seen mentioned before, particularly when a skeptic points out an objectionable passage in the Bible and gets a reply basically saying, “It was a different time!” They’re not entirely wrong; we DO have to evaluate people in the context of their time to a certain extent. That isn’t to say, however, that some things were ever okay, even if they were normal for their time and place. Yes, there are certain things that are relative. People could express racist ideas while still generally promoting tolerance. I remember learning in high school about how Voltaire was very liberal and accepting in his society, yet he was still severely antisemitic. And if you look at something like slavery, not all slavery throughout history was equally cruel, but owning another person was still never right. It just becomes even weirder and more hypocritical when dealing with religion, because God isn’t supposed to ever be wrong. If the Bible is just as applicable as a guide to life and morality today as it was when it was written, why does it say slavery is acceptable and stoning people to death was a necessity in some cases? The people of that time might not have known better on their own, but it seems like they would have if they’d been in direct contact with God. Why would the all-knowing arbiter of morality change the rules, if his law is perfect in the first place? Yet that’s pretty much exactly what we see in the New Testament. Jesus tells his disciples that Moses allowed the Jews to get divorced because of the hardness of their hearts, but really nobody should divorce at all. And it’s pretty common to interpret Peter’s vision as an indication that Christians don’t have to keep kosher. Why would these laws originally be presented a covenant forever, but later no longer apply? You’d think God would have gotten it right the first time.

The other issue with religion and moral relativism is that, as I’ve addressed before, God doesn’t appear to be subject to his own law, and he can also make exceptions when he feels like it. If God’s law is absolute, how can either of those be true?

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5 Responses to An Arbitrary Arbiter

  1. Excellent questions, Nathan!

    God deals with people as they are. Mankind is very, very fallen, and in ancient times the ruling nations were very, very corrupt, which led to the people being very corrupt, violent and hard. God’s standards were higher for Israel than the surrounding nations, and, in truth, unattainable, but not to the point where the people couldn’t approach them.

    The Law Code couldn’t be so high that people would abandon it altogether. God was wise enough to recognize that mankind wasn’t yet ready for certain standards that Jesus would later bring out (pacifism, for example). Jesus himself held back on certain things that later prophecies indicated would exist in future times (true egalitarianism between man and beast).

    So, God doesn’t deal in absolutes. His laws are perfect for the time period in which they’re laid out, but even then, the prophecies show that they would change, much of which was centered around how the Messiah would bring change, and how a whole new system would emerge (see, for example, Isaiah, Micah and Jeremiah).

    So, although one was expected to obey God as he revealed himself at that time, the idea of moral absolutism can’t be found in Hebrew Scriptures. That sounds like a Puritanical concept that emerged millennia later.

    The ancient Law Code was high enough that IF followed, it would elevate the nation and bring them closer to the next level that would come. And yet the Law could never be mastered because of the nature of law itself, which goes against the nature of love. The “law” of Love is the only law that brings salvation. This is a point that Paul gets into in great detail in Romans and Galatians. Laws, however, are easier to follow (even if they can’t be truly adhered to) than love, which is why you see faux-Christians still clinging to them, despite that Christ fulfilled and replaced the Law Code with the Law of Love– love of neighbor and God (and the latter can’t be accomplished without the former).

    • Nathan says:

      It does seem like the idea of moral absolutism comes more from Puritanism and the like than from the actual Bible. Then again, so did a lot of things that many high-profile Christians today take for granted.

      I’m sure it’s true that society was less civilized back in Bible times, and pacifism might not have worked for a nation constantly being invaded. Still, it seems like God could have at least told people not to set fire to or throw stones at each other. Even if they didn’t listen, they could have at least had it in writing as an ideal. Instead, it’s reported in the Bible that some of the laws about stoning come directly FROM God.

      • Stoning is a difficult one to understand now, but as far as capital punishment goes, it’s a far quicker death. So, in that sense, when compared to what the Egyptians, Babylonians, Canaanites and Assyrians did to their law-breakers, it’s a far more humane way to go.

        As to the issue of fire, all instances are post-mortem. God never advocates setting a living person on fire — which is one of the things he detests about the Canaanites: Jeremiah 19:5: “They have built the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as offerings to Baal – something I did not command or mention, nor did it enter my mind.”

        But stoning is bad enough. So, WHY have capital punishment at all? I’d venture to say that it’s because the people were going to do that anyway. They not only bought into the concept, but demanded it. So, rather than have them take matters into their own hands, and imitate the nations surrounding them in cruelty, God provides them with the least cruel method.

        I think there’s the issue of getting a violently-inclined people to elevate unto a better path, a people who will not listen to soft words, and who can’t be motivated by the carrot. The carrot was provided, nonetheless, but without the other motivating factor — punishment — the Israelites would have become like the surrounding nations even quicker than they did. The blessing and the malediction. There are many still today (and not just the religious) who believe in the efficaciousness of punishment as a suitable consequence of crime, and as a deterrent.

        Christ’s radical proscription points to what I think is a far better way. But it’s one that demands going beyond punishment to reconciliation (inherent in which is the idea of rehabilitation): looking at a person who commits an evil act not as an evil person, but as someone who is damaged, way out of balance, and in dire need of help. That’s the hardest kind of love to have. It’s being implemented in some circles to success, e.g., recognizing that many who’ve physically or sexually abused others have often themselves been physically or sexually abused.

        Society is still centered on, and based around a punishment-based system, which is why it’s ridiculous when people say the U.S. is a “Christian nation.” (Or the new thing: the U.S. used to be a Christian nation). Silly rabbits. They think that calling themselves something makes it so. The U.S. was NEVER Christian by any stretch of the imagination, unless one thinks that slavery, lynching, mob violence, genocide and the slaughter of countless innocents is Christian. The U.S. continues to turn a blind eye to the most egregious crimes of the government and corporate powers (war, violence, destruction, lies, greed), and harshly punish the petty crimes (theft, soft-drug possession/sale) of the poor and disenfranchised (who are kept that way by the governments and corporate powers).

      • Nathan says:

        I don’t know. Stoning still sounds pretty bad to me, and the fact that the community was encouraged to participate kind of makes it worse. Not exactly vigilante justice, but sort of along the same lines. They didn’t have hanging back then? That seems less cruel to me.

        Heretics being burned alive in Europe, as mentioned in the post I linked to, is indeed not something proscribed by the Bible, and could be viewed as antithetical to it. Greta was responding to someone who argued that it was actually the state rather than the Church that made immolation a punishment, but it’s not like Europe in that time had anything resembling separation of church and state. If the Church had opposed burning people, they could have done more to protest it.

      • Very true, and it’s incidents like the one you cited that prompted Tolstoy to say: “Strange as it may seem, the churches as churches have always been, and cannot but be, institutions not only alien in spirit to Christ’s teaching, but even directly antagonistic to it… One represents pride, violence, self-assertion, stagnation, and death; the other meekness, penitence, humility, progress, and life.”

        Stoning is still horrible, regardless of the quickness of death, but keep in mind that premeditated murder is the only crime for which capital punishment was always required. Aside from that, death COULD be the maximum sentence for various crimes, but wasn’t the required one. Ancient Israel had a system of judges in place who were to impartially examine each and every case, with a view towards mercy, in consideration of the offender’s repentance (or hard-heartedness): “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6) and “Whoever shuts their ears to the cry of the poor will also cry out and not be answered.” (Proverbs 21:13). In fact, the wrath of God came upon the rulers and prophets of Israel because they failed to show mercy and justice to a downtrodden people:

        “Hear this, you leaders of Jacob,
        you rulers of Israel,
        who despise justice
        and distort all that is right;
        who build Zion with bloodshed,
        and Jerusalem with wickedness.
        Her leaders judge for a bribe,
        her priests teach for a price,
        and her prophets tell fortunes for money.
        Yet they look for the Lord’s support and say,
        “Is not the Lord among us?
        No disaster will come upon us.”
        Therefore because of you,
        Zion will be plowed like a field,
        Jerusalem will become a heap of rubble,
        the temple hill a mound overgrown with thickets.” (Micah 3; compare with Isaiah 1)

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