Carrying on the vaguely moral/ethical theme touched upon in the last post, I noticed another long and tedious thread on BioLogos about the New Atheist meme concerning the inexcusable immorality of the Bible in endorsing slavery and genocide. You can view all the old arguments there, but I want to take a slightly different approach.
Broadly, critics of the biblical text of whatever degree have one thing in common – a rigidly absolutist standard of morality. These include the atheists and apostates, the liberally-orientated Christians bending over themselves to show the fallibility of the Bible, and more nuanced Christians who, nevertheless, don’t want to be caught making excuses for the unacceptable.
Denouncing “the unacceptable” in this case takes the form of statements like, “slavery in any shape or form can never be justified”, or “killing based on ethnicity is simply evil under any circumstance.” It’s noticeable that these arguments cut across the utilitarian ethics usually thrown at Christians by skeptics in other discussions. For example, in a recent thread on Uncommon Descent, some Christian’s claim about the absolute sanctity of human life was met with one of those ratchet-type scenarios in which unless you agree to kill one person, an evil genius will unleash an all-out nuclear attack on population centres, thus showing that absolute morality is untenable… unless it’s in contrast to biblical morality, that is.
Somehow, you don’t seem to find such utilitarians arguing against those who can find not even theoretical excuse for the Bible’s control of indentured labour. Instead, such discussions revolve around the position that “some things are just wrong, and that’s that.”
Now, as a Christian I can’t say I’m averse to moral absolutes, but the whole history of revelation is about the law of God being applied to very varied circumstances in a world that is tainted by sin, and therefore merits judgement. That makes for inevitable complexity. Even some non-Christians are refreshingly aware of this, as Noah White mentioned to me in correspondence: agnostic philosopher Sean Kelly, discussing the matter with Tom Wright, apparently had no problem with the “difficult” Old Testament passages because “life is messy”, and the Bible takes that into account.
Most critics of the Bible in this kind of discussion take their stand quite openly on Western progressive ethics, though their avowal of it as an absolute morality tends to go via the indirect route that such liberalism is rational and therefore the only way that reasonable people can think. The Christians tend to have recourse to the alleged overturning of Old Testament ethics by Jesus, ending up largely in much the same place, via “love”, that the atheists reach via “reason”.
But this seems to me to ignore the fact that some of Jesus’s teaching is pretty challenging to progressive ethics. Even on a throughly contextual reading of his teaching on divorce (as set out, for example, in David Instone-Brewer’s excellent work) Jesus takes a much harder line that any of the other Jewish teachers of his time, and teaches what is totally incompatible with modern thinking about divorce. And it’s seldom remarked that in the Lord’s condemnation of the Pharisees for preferring the traditions of men above the law of God, he quotes the latter in saying “Whoever curses his father or mother shall be put to death”. Though this does not mean that Jesus would have simply had errant offspring killed if he had his way, it does mean that the kind of “It can never be right…” statements about the Old Testament are dangerous. Jesus, after all, taught that not one jot or tittle of the law would pass away – and in contradiction of the Sadducees he affirmed affirmed that the whole world would be subject to divine judgement, as the Canaanites had been in Joshua’s time.
Perhaps people are confusing “What the New Testament teaches” with “What we read into the New Testament with modernist eyes”. Some would make even Jesus a “man of his time” with its ethical limitations, but that is nothing but to revert to modern progressive morality as an absolute greater than Jesus himself.
My aim here is not to repeat nuanced defences of apparent failures of the Bible to live up to the absolutes taught in, say, the Ten Commandments and inherent in the very idea of an unchanging moral God. Instead it’s to take note of the absolutism taken up by the progressive position without recourse to a God of Truth, an infallible revealed text, or even to the general traditions of mankind. For the characteristic feature of progressive morality is its entirely and narrowly culture-bound nature, under the guise of “reason”, and its cultural imperialism.
In the case under discussion, what is held to be binding for society today is, at heart, also insisted upon as strictly normative for societies of the late bronze and early iron ages in the Bible, even though the most liberal Western society of all, the USA, is still struggling with the aftermath of its own quite recent industrialised slavery, and usually quietly ignores the ongoing social problems of the nearly-eradicated native populations it displaced to reservations in order to achieve its current freedom and prosperity.
But once progressive thought invents a new evil, it is never enough for it to change the laws and customs of its own people: the rest of the world must submit as well. For example, voting rights were only given to women a century ago here in Britain. When push comes to shove, that was due to a protest movement amongst educated women (thrusting against what was partly a fairly recent set of social circumstances that had marginalised women far more than had previous ages, despite their very different roles for the sexes). But that new right or privilege led by degrees to formulating a new progressive sin of “sexism”, which is now seen as in need of eradication in nations far away and with very different views on politics and gender equality, even amongst their women themseleves.
We see a backlash against it in the number of Muslim women both in the West and in Muslim countries choosing to cover their faces above and beyond the call of their religion, which leads feminists here into intellectual contortions to explain the phenomenon in terms compatible with progressivism, rather than as a revolt against it.
The same imperialism is seen in the question of LGBTQI rights, still innovatory enough here to have quietly alienated a significant proportion of the population, who overnight were changed (together with their churches, mosques and synagogues) from being decent moral citizens to being bigoted homophobes, another novel crime in the history of the world.
But it is not enough that the laws should change in the West. Sanctions and economic pressures must be brought to bear on the rest of the world, for being ten years behind the liberal moral times. These primitive nations have failed to understand that when Bob Dylan sang “The Times They Are a’Changin'” he was actually being regressively gender oppressive by speaking of “sons and daughters” being beyond the command of “mothers and fathers”, as if those were the only valid options. Foreigners are simply not keeping up with the plot. African bishops of the Church of England, Westerners are quite sure, need to be weaned (forcibly, if necessary) from their belief that Christianity regards homsosexual acts as sinful, just as a couple of centuries ago they had to be brought to understand that they were intellectually mere children compared to the more highly-evolved white man.
Western liberalism, though, is pretty much unique in exerting its absolutist hegemony not only across all nations, but across all time as well. Just last month, the British legal system pronounced mass pardons for those convicted of now-repealed laws against homosexual acts. These dated back many decades, if not centuries (and if not the latter, why not?), so that for the most part they were posthumous. Now just consider what this means: it is not just that morality is considered to have taken a great leap forward in our times, but that we now believe that former legislatures were not qualified to formulate laws even for their own times, and need to have their deficiencies corrected by “us”.
This is self-confidence indeed! The nearest equivalent appears to be acts like that of the government of the British Restoration, which dug up the bodies of deceased regicides and executed the penalty for treason upon them. But even they were simply emphasising the change of regime, not retrospectively inventing (or abolishing) a crime and judging those long dead by it.
I’ll finish by an observation about the “us” who so confidently prescribe our moral code for our own nations, for those across the world which have yet to see the light, and for those of all times from Joshua’s to the recent past, which are well past any hope of seeing the light, being dust. Those who condemn the Old Testament with such assurance on discussions like the recent BioLogos one, confidently damning the judgement of historically major legislators such as Moses (with or without the inspiration of the Holy Spirit) and his billions of followers down the millennia, are not, it turns out, the greatest moral philosophers of our own age.
Instead, they are a collection of biologists, computer engineers and those of no clear academic background. By this it appears that the level of reason and education in our own culture is so astonishingly advanced that even the least of us is a greater moral authority than the greatest thinkers of, say, a generation ago, who held no such ideas about morality, at least without having to defend them against the majority of their peers.
To me, it seems there is some reason to doubt this utopian view of the omicompetence of the progressive West.