Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Reply to Chris Smith's "Why Christians Must Steal from Secular Morality"

(Note: this version may be slightly different from the one posted at that site, but not much so.)

In his essay, Chris Smith says that
The Bible does nothing and can do nothing towards inculcating moral behavior on its own. Christians must steal from secular moral systems, and then merely graft their 'God threats' on top of this moral system. This is necessary. And the reason for this is simple: there is no morality in the Bible and there can be no morality in the Bible, because the Bible holds that 1) ALL 'sins' are equivalent (destroying any moral sense) AND 2) all moral behavior is immaterial, because works cannot save a person, AND finally all people are damned from birth.
In reality, Christians realize that some actions are more moral than others. They realize that moral actions exist in a hierarchy, and that rape is far worse than stealing a pencil. Yet the Bible holds that all 'sins' are equal, as all deserve the same punishment.
From this we see that the premises of Smith's argument are that
the Bible holds that 1) ALL 'sins' are equivalent (destroying any moral sense) AND 2) all moral behavior is immaterial, because works cannot save a person, AND finally all people are damned from birth.
So if any of these premises are shown to be false, his argument fails.
That (1) is false is evident to anyone who is even passingly familiar with Dante's Divine Comedy, and from his own words. In general, Christianity throughout time have never held all sins to be morally equivalent, although sometimes some are confused by Jesus' words on the subject, as Smith apparently is. Dante's work reflects the normative Christian understanding that there are differing levels of reward in heaven and punishment in hell, because of God's dispensing of true justice. Smith recognizes this: "In reality, Christians realize that some actions are more moral than others." If Christians believe this, perhaps Smith should have wondered if it is because that's what Christianity actually teaches, and has done so for hundreds of years. One should also wonder how Smith could have missed this, if he had bothered to find out what Christianity actually teaches rather than what he thinks it teaches.

Some are confused by Jesus' teaching about murder and adultery, taking it to mean that hate is equivalent to murder, and lust is equivalent to adultery. However, all he is saying is that even what we are tempted to regard as harmless or lesser or tiny or private, "I'm not hurting anyone" sins are far more serious than we think. He never equates their moral weight.

So, nowhere does the Bible teach that all sins are equivalent and therefore deserve the same punishment.

Now on to (2), which is really a mini-argument. He argues that (a) we cannot be saved by works, (b) therefore all moral behavior is immaterial. But (b) does not follow from (a) at all. Just because works are ineffectual, we cannot conclude that they are meaningless.
It is true that the Bible describes our vain attempts to save ourselves on our own terms are "as filthy rags." But this is a warning that something else of a different magnitude is needed, and our dire need for that something. The price that God himself paid on the cross - the terrible suffering Christ endured - underscores this warning, and has become a timeless, concrete demonstration of God's love for us. It is also a condemnation, for it reveals the hardness of heart that must be willed to reject such a hard-won salvation.

Are our works before salvation meaningless? In many of C.S. Lewis's stories and thoughts, he suggests how salvation may even work backward in time to our earlier deeds. In one story in particular, he suggests that even good works done in service of another "god" might be counted as service to the true God. The overarching theme is that God is more generous than we think. Is this true? Seen in the light of the Cross, it's easy for me to believe.

Food for thought: If you believe in "TULIP predestination", perhaps our good works may be symptoms of God's saving power already at work in our lives.

The claim that "all people are damned from birth" needs more serious consideration. There are several interpretations of this. Certainly most Christians would not believe that stillborn or aborted babies are sent to hell. But are they?

Instead of insisting that they are, we must approach this question (and indeed all others) from the starting point of God's nature: perfectly holy, just, righteous, loving, and merciful. If you believe perfect justice and love somehow demands these babies should be in hell, then you would believe that is their eternal destiny. But I would wager that most of us recognize that this is somehow fundamentally unjust. In that case, we would be reassured that this is not their destiny.

What, then of us? Could we not apply the same reasoning to ourselves? In light of the above, if we did so, our conclusion would be different, because we have actually (and not just potentially) sinned, and are subject to the real moral laws and consequences of doing so. Just what these consequences might be are another topic, but I would recommend Lewis's The Great Divorce to any serious seeker who wishes to stride beyond the puerile conceptions of hell. (Not meaning that the concept of hell is puerile, but that our concepts of what hell is like may be puerile.)
At this point, some might agree that all Smith's premises for this argument have been shown to be flawed or false. Some will not. But I would like to point out some other ... points. :-P

Smith claims that "the Bible holds that man is worthless." However, the message of creation in Genesis and salvation through Christ has historically told us the opposite: that man, being made in God's image, has intrinsic worth. (Some argue that it is this worth that necessitates moral punishment for his choices ... but that's another can of worms.) In addition, Christ's suffering and death tell us that we are far from worthless; or that, even if we were, we are now imputed tremendous worth, even if it is undeserved. That's why, as one famous ex-agnostic once observed, it is Christians that run leprosariums, not atheists or humanists, despite all their professions of superior moralities.

As for his list of supposed moral teachings of the Bible, he is confused about what the Bible prescribes and what it describes. This distinction should rule out many in the list. Others, such as God's commands to wipe out some peoples, deserve more serious thought and should be discussed in a separate thread. But as a starting point I would recommend viewing "Dogville", starring Nicole Kidman. I would not recommend that any aspiring atheist try to grapple with this issue until they have watched this film. (Of course it would be better to take the time to actually study one of many accessible books on Christian theology so that one may understand what one criticizes, but our generation is famously lazy and would rather watch TV. Thankfully there are some things worth watching. Note: watching this film was an ordeal for me, but it raised some very interesting questions.)

Smith complains that the Bible teaches that "One is forced to obey, or be destroyed." But what if that is indeed the way morality works? What if the real moral consequence of sin is something terrible that God would rather you'd avoid? One might as well complain that "it's cruel that we are told not to play on the freeway, else we would be destroyed." In that case, the person telling you the rule to be obeyed is doing you a great service. Someone who told you that truth, knowing you would mock them, might even be doing it out of love.

Relatedly, Smith says, "Christianity can only undermine matural [sic.] morality....through it's infantile use of external threats." Again, the above applies - you can hardly fault someone for warning you about real dangers. What is infantile is ignoring real threats because we don't like them.

Kohlberg's system is cute, but like all other purely secular systems, it falls flat on its face in the face of (no pun intended) the Serial Killer Challenge, as I have described elsewhere. The killer has logically decided that Darwinism implies that we (or at least those in the know, wink wink) compete to extend our gene pool at the expense of others. He has captured and securely immobilized you, and has given you two days to convince him not to kill you. You present Kohlberg's system. The killer has seen its ilk before, and recognized that these frameworks are purely artificial with no more imperative force than someone saying "I don't like broccoli", and are just someone else's imaginary obstacles to his logical, Darwinist goal to be top dog - and slits your throat. He eats some fava beans and continues with his plans for his forced impregnation of as many females as he can.
Sometimes belief in hell has produced these terrible effects, but this is due to bad teaching. The doctrine has been abused. But abusus non tollit usus: the abuse does not annul the proper use.
When the doctrine of hell is abused, that abuse serves the very purposes of hell (fear, despair and hatred) instead of the purposes of heaven (faith, hope and love).
On the other hand, fear is sometimes good and necessary. "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (Prov 1:7), though it is not the end. (Love is that.) George MacDonald said, "When there are wild beasts about, it is better to feel afraid than to feel secure." Fear is reasonable and useful even in little things; what is more reasonably feared than hell, if it exists? (Handbook of Christian Apologetics, 1994 by Peter Kreeft and Ronald K. Tacelli)

Smith says that "True morality is internal." Many of us would agree, at first blush. But the problem is, whose insides are the standard? Who decides which rules are fair or unfair? Who decides what price is to be paid for social order? Who decides what counts as order? Does the Animal Farm system of the former Soviet Union count as order? Does majority rule? Who dictates that a valid morality should include such sentimental things as "inclusiveness and responsibility to others"? Who demands that a better morality includes "concern for all nature"? If my internal morality is different from yours, then what? In the end, it degenerates into rule by threats and force.

However, Kohlberg does us a service in suggesting why the Bible tells us about punishment and reward - we may need it to get started. Most Christians start out with wanting to avoid hell. Some then want to do good for rewards' sake; some skip this and go on to the last stage, doing good for its own sake. This has also been the historic Christian teaching. (By "historic" I of course do not mean simply that it was taught at one time or another by some Christian or other, but that this has been the Christian view throughout the history of the church.)

Finally, some thoughts on hell for those who have never dared open a book on Christian theology (from Kreeft).
Hell seems contrary to justice as well as love. For the punishment does not seem to fit the crime here, either in quantity or quality. What is the relation or proportion between hell's unthinkable, infinite, eternal torments and earth's thinkable, finite, temporal sins? The same sort of relationship as fifty years of torture to a three-year-old's theft of a cookie. How can finite sin justly merit infinite punishment? How can temporal sin merit eternal punishment?

Reply: There are three charges here:

(a) Temporal crimes do not merit eternal punishments,

(b) Finite crimes do not merit infinite punishments, and

(c) Mild crimes do not merit such intense punishments.
a. Eternity is not quantitative. It is not more time, or even endless time. It is another dimension than time, just as time is another dimension than space. Whatever we make of ourselves in time is destined to be "fleshed out" into the dimension of eternity. To use a crude image, if we make squares of ourselves in time, we are cubes eternally; temporally blueprinted triangles go to the sculptor to become eternal pyramids. The relation between earthly choices and eternal rewards or punishments is not like the relation between crimes and prison sentences, but like the relation between a foundation and a building. It is not external but internal. In a sense, heaven or hell is the same thing as earth; the same life, the same person, only with another dimension—somewhat as life after birth is the same life, the same person, but with more dimensions. Souls in time are like boats on a river, all destined for the ocean of eternity. It is a structural internal necessity, not an imposed external reward or punishment.

b. Hell's punishments are eternal, but not infinite. Only God is infinite. Souls, sin and punishment are all finite. Just as one saint is more saintly, more great-hearted, more loving, and therefore more able to contain God's joy in heaven than another, and in this sense is naturally "higher" in heaven than another, so one sinner is "lower" in hell than another (i.e., more deep-set in despair and pride and hate). There are limits.

c. The intense images of physical torture are meant to suggest something beyond themselves: the privation of God, source of all joy and meaning. The unimaginable thing suggested by the imaginative images of fire is more awful, not less, than the literal misinterpretation of the images. Physical pain comes in degrees of intensity; the privation of God is total.

Hell's punishment fits sin's crime because sin is divorce from God. The punishment fits the crime because the punishment is the crime.

No comments: