Friday, 10 February 2012

A Problem with "Because God Says So!" as a Basis for Morality

     Atheism is often criticized by Christians on the grounds that it does not provide any basis for morality. To these Christians, morality is a matter of following God's commands, and if there's no God to give this guidance, to establish values, then how can there by any morality?
     In return, atheists often pointed out that obeying the literal commands of God (assuming that the literal commands of God are in fact recorded in the Bible) leads to some pretty horrific results, particularly if you look at the Old Testament. Are we really expected to stone adulterers to death? How can that possibly be a moral thing to do?
     One answer I've often heard is that most of that Old Testament stuff no longer applies. Most recently, a Christian friend of mind argued that Jesus fulfilled the Levitican commandments (including the commandment to stone adulterers, but also the many kosher rules still observed by Jews today), and so they no longer need to be followed.
     Okay, so that gets us off the hook for having to follow those old rules, and maybe the only obligations remaining are the ones that we all can feel nice and warm about, the ones that make moral sense to us today because they're rooted in the general principle, "love thy neighbour". And that's how I used to feel about the argument, until just after my friend brought it to my attention again, when it suddenly occurred to me that this doctrine creates greater problems than it solves.
     Consider what it means for people living before Jesus came along to fulfil the commandments. It means that in those days, God wanted us to stone adulterers, and consequently that it was not just culturally acceptable, but morally right to do so! Something which, today, we consider morally outrageous and barbaric -- partially burying a living human being and then throwing rocks at the exposed parts until the person dies -- was good and proper at some time in the past. The very nature of morality has apparently changed.
     I find this argument rather shocking, especially coming from a tradition that condemns moral relativism. I, too, have little patience with people who look at the various cultural practices going on today in other parts of the world, such as female genital mutilation and, yes, stoning adulterers to death, and say we can't judge it to be wrong because it's a different culture. Wrong is wrong, and just because something is culturally accepted somewhere doesn't make it right. I rather think it would go without saying that this is true across time as well as across space; if it's wrong to stone adulterers today, then it was wrong yesterday and wrong three thousand years ago. Conversely, if it was right three thousand years ago, it should be right today.
     It also seems to me to be far more damaging to the idea of biblical literalism than even young-earth creationism. After all, there is something to the creationist rebuttal to scientific claims about origins: "Were you there? Did you see any of this?" No, of course, I wasn't there, and didn't see what happened with my own eyes, and it is conceivable that things unfolded differently from what modern science has inferred from the evidence. But claims about moral principles are different. I may not know the circumstances of any particular act of ancient adultery, but don't need to have lived 3000 years ago to say with great confidence that it would generally be wrong to stone someone to death for adultery. Wrong is wrong, and fundamental moral principles do not change over time, although our understanding of them certainly does evolve. Slavery was always wrong; it just took us a while collectively to recognize that.
     I don't see a way out here for the theory that God's commandments are definitive of morality, or at least not one that also preserves the biblical literalism so many Christians insist upon (and which I've criticized as idolatrous (typo corrected Feb 13, 2012: I originally wrote "adulterous" by mistake) in an earlier post. You could say that the fundamental principles of morality are given by God, but encoded into the fabric of reality like the laws of physics or mathematics, rather than accurately described in the Bible, and that ethical philosophers like Kant, Mill, Jesus, Lao Tzu and Confucius have been adding to our understanding over time. Or you could just bite the bullet and insist that yes, the principles of morality really did change drastically when Jesus fulfilled the Levitican commandments, in which case it becomes rather puzzling to consider how Confucius came up with his version of the Golden Rule back in the days when the Golden rule couldn't possibly have applied because it really was morally right to stone people to death, to slaughter the Canaanites, and so on.


  1. Tom, You have been taught how to think about the Bible without really knowing the Bible for yourself. If you ever come to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and if you are ever born again by His Spirit, you will look back on your blogs with profound embarrassment. You will never escape the morass you are now in and the eternal judgment you are heaping up until you listen to the voice of Jesus who calls you to repentance and faith. Jesus Christ receives sinners. Come to Him.

  2. Is that really all you have to offer? You just tell me I don't know the Bible, and threaten dire consequences if I don't repent. Well, the threat of hellfire really only works if I already believe, so let's just not bother with that particular point for the moment.

    Your claim that I don't know the Bible is a better place to start. So, perhaps you can shed some light on the problem I talk about in the original post. DID morality change with the crucifixion, or not? What have I misunderstood?

    It occurs to me I did omit one other possibility in the original post: You could say that stoning adulterers was right and is still right today, but while it was once obligatory it's now optional, and so it's not wrong for us to decline to do so. But that too involves an actual change in morality, albeit a smaller one.

    So. Is moral law eternal and unchanging, or is it contingent?

  3. Atheists all believe in Hell. That is why they fight so hard. Your problem is not intelletual.
    You have a heart unwilling to submit to what you know is true. Check out the afterwords in Ann Rice's book on the childhood of Christ. She cme from where you came from and got out of where you are. All the best.

  4. The problem I posted, however, is intellectual, and your comments have completely ignored it, treating this blog as just an opportunity to save my poor soul. This blog is not really supposed to be about me, but about the ideas I want to share, and your audience with these comments is not just me but everyone who might come along and read it. What I personally believe is of no consequence to those readers, whether I actually believe in Hell or whether I dismiss it as a fairy tale.

    What IS of interest, in the context of this particular blog posting, is the question I posed at the outset: is morality absolute and unchanging, or is it contingent?

    You have utterly ignored this question, and, indeed, the whole issue of the original post, focussing instead on the rather uninteresting and irrelevant issue of my personal salvation. To those readers who might come here, genuinely puzzled by the problem I posted, your comments above are as irrelevant and unhelpful as a Viagra ad. Worse for your sake, you run the risk of making it look like you have no answer for the question, thus potentially leading more readers to share my doubts.

    CAN you address the issue of the original post in a way that doesn't boil down to irrelevant ad hominem attacks on my motives? Regardless of the validity of my motives, the question exists, and demands an answer.

  5. But not by you. You are not going to be stoned for adultery. God does not need your approval. Answering or not answering makes no dfference at all; whereas the issues of your own soul are crucial.

  6. The salvation of my soul is not, however, the topic of this particular blog post. THIS blog posting was about a particular problem in ethics, which you are steadfastly ignoring in favour of pursuing a topic you think more important, namely my personal salvation. If you like, I can make another post on that very topic, so you can make all your arguments in the comments thread there.

    But as for THIS thread, you are simply wrong about answering or not answering making no difference at all. At the very least, I (hopefully along with some readers of this blog) am genuinely interested in the question and any answers that can be offered, so it makes a difference to me (and hopefully to readers, if there are any). I am interested in YOUR answer, if you have one.

    Beyond that, it makes a difference to something you purportedly care about enough to comment: whether or not I ultimately am saved. If you come across as dishonest or even just evasive on this kind of question, you undermine your efforts to persuade me.

    I am trying very hard even now to resist the conclusion that my question has stumped you, and you just don't want to admit that you have no idea how to resolve it. It's not that I'm worried about being stoned for adultery; it's that I want to know how one and the same act can be evil at one point in history, and good at another, when all the circumstances are otherwise identical. My moral intuition is very uncomfortable with that conclusion, and so I posted. Do you have an answer, or don't you?

    It's okay if you don't. It wouldn't prove God not to exist, or the Bible to be false, it would just be that you didn't know how to address this particular point. In fact, that would go a long way to convincing me of your sincerity and integrity to admit that you haven't a clue how to resolve this problem.

  7. Tom,

    Not that I'm a Christian---Heaven forbid!---but let me play the apologist for a moment.

    Legal prescriptions such as stoning adulterers require a legal context. More broadly, it requires a socio-political context in which communities use the resources they have to make their way in the world. If that context changes, then our legal system may have to change as well, even if our moral values remain fixed.

    So presumably the apologist has something like this in mind. Morality hasn't changed. We still ought to love God, and love our neighbor as ourselves. However the way we best express those principles may have to adapt to the culture and the times in which we find ourselves.

    Of course this defense only goes so far. It's hard to see how it could ever have been loving to one's neighbor to bludgeon unarmed girls and women until their skulls are torn apart, regardless of their past sexual behavior. And hopefully God is not the sort of monster who would welcome it as a display of love towards himself.

    Nevertheless, it's possible (though highly implausible) that the dynamics of ancient societies were somehow better off with such horrific laws. It really may have improved the general well-being of individuals in society to have the "stone adulterers" law on the books. I don't see how, but that doesn't mean I can disprove it. So the apologist, if he likes, can cling to this unusual possibility, and avoid having to claim that the basic moral principles of love have changed.


  8. THank you for taking up the question, Ben.

    The idea of these commandments as law is possibly the most fruitful way to try and resolve this problem; although today the distinction between law and morality is very well developed, it hasn't always been so, and indeed the Old Testament traditions often seemed to equate the two. And I do often hear religious people speaking of morality as a kind of law in the sense that punishment naturally follows if one breaks these laws, just as disaster follows attempt to violate the law of gravity. (I am unsatisfied with comparing moral law to natural laws of physics, though, because you CAN'T break the law of gravity, and falling down isn't a punishment in consequence; it's just gravity continuing to work. Needless to say, I also have little patience with bogus pop self-help nonsense like the "law of attraction".)

    But it sounds to me like you are suggesting a kind of consequentialism to morality, such that somehow the consequences of adopting a rule for stoning adulterers is what made such a law morally binding. That doesn't seem compatible with the bulk of the rest of the doctrine of those who advocate for the view that Jesus fulfilled the Levitican commandments making them no longer binding upon us. I mean, they ARE consequentialists in the sense that eternal reward or punishment in the afterlife is a consequence they seem to take as conclusive, but consequences IN THIS LIFE don't seem to be of great importance to them, so I'd find it odd if the idea of an ancient society being naturally better off with such a rule was of any interest. In fact, the Old Testament often talks about punishments BY GOD being the main consequence to worry about if you break the rules, so again it comes back to a rather arbitrary and contingent "Because God said so".

    I'm uncomfortable with that, because it commits us to saying that if God commands a Holocaust, or flying planes into buildings, or keeping slaves, those acts become good by definition. Indeed, it's another way of saying there really IS no such thing as right and wrong, there's only God. Given a choice between believing God exists and believing good and evil exist, I feel compelled to accept the latter.

  9. Okay. I'm going to step in here [after attempting once before and losing the post] and put my metaphorical foot firmly into my metaphorical mouth. I have two areas I want to comment on, and I'll do separate replies to them. It will be multi-post, because I'm out of room on the reply in one post.

    The issue to take up first as to me in context of greater importance is the subject of the post, so I'm going to give it a shot.

    Ben is well on the right track, but there is rather more to it than that.

    I read through later Blog posts, and it also comes up elsewhere.

    What we indeed have is a case of the lack of delineation between legal and moral, a situation of cultural context, and yet another factor: the state of what we shall loosely call 'scientific' understanding. BUT . . . we also have an issue within the cultural context of the religious interpretations of both law and morality.

    The fact of the matter is that many of the apparently moral/ethical precepts in the Bible really arose not as moral matters at all, but as matters related to preservation of both the individual and the society.

    Elsewhere in this Blog, a comment mentioned that in the context of the prohibition on consuming pork as more related to avoiding trichonosis than truly as a worship element of the God of the Bible.

    Believe it or not, the matter of adultery [and the consequences thereof] are also somewhat rooted in similar survival concerns.

    There is also another issue that relates to preservation of the community as a whole in terms of its status as "the people of God."

    But before I even get into that, Tom, I can answer you very directly about what you are missing, here.

    You are missing the point that you are basing your morality on what is morally correct in terms of how society treats an individual . . . that is to say . . . a person.

    The Old Testament did not regard women as persons. Indeed, Jesus's "who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart" was a concept His hearers would have been completely incapable of understanding at first hearing. The societal context of the time made it impossible for a man to commit adultery.

    Unlike murder, adultery was not an interpersonal crime: adultery is [by Old Testament standards] a property crime. You can tell this by where the Commandment is in the Decalogue [in the third section, which is property crimes. The first section is sins against God, the second section sins against persons, and the third, sins against property.]

    In the Old Testament, women were the property of the father until marriage and then of the husband.

    It was no more immoral to stone a woman caught in adultery than it was to kill a chicken for supper.

    [End Part One]

    1. It warms my heart to see so thorough and thoughtful a reply! I will respond in this reply just to Part I.

      It's a bold insight, pointing out that the Old Testament treated women as property rather than persons. Of course, by our modern way of thinking, it's simply monstrous not to recognize women as equal in personhood to men. Personally, I think you're right; that is the way they looked at things those days. But it makes my original problem just that much more alarming: Would an apologist genuinely want to say that the Crucifixion also transformed women from chattels to persons? Did the ontology of the moral universe really change that drastically? Was it really the case that killing adulterous women was no worse than killing a chicken for supper? Not merely that it was considered appropriate by the culture of the time (as it is in some places even today), but that it was actually and absolutely right in the divine sense?

    2. I actually didn't see the response to my what I'll call 'points of debate' before I posted my [rather extensive again] response to the other issue that [to me if not you] is at hand.

      I would say that the Incarnation of Jesus, yes, transformed women from chattels to persons, and you can find the supporting information in that response. The Crucifixion and more so the Resurrection lent Authority to Jesus's activity while walking the Earth, but we do find that transformation evident within the Gospels, yes, as I explained in that post.

      Ultimately, though, we will all come to a point where we don't understand the ways of God. Some would say that the more surprising thing is that given the evil man has committed, it is less right for God to allow humanity to continue to exist than it would be to wipe the race off the face of the Earth. If you look at it that way around, then yes, removing a blight of a particularly egregious or dangerous sin would be actually and absolutely right.

      You can find a fictional representation of that point of view in a 1998 novel "Edge of Eternity."

  10. But, the understanding of the Judaic society evolved and there are flashes of light [such as the book of Ruth] in the New Testament. So, still, there are other underlying reasons behind the prohibitions and consequences ascribed to adultery.

    In terms of the health/hygiene kinds of considerations, the extreme consequences ascribed to adultery in the Old Testament had, in terms of the bottom line, the purpose of limiting or elimnating the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. They had no way to treat them back then: the only way to prevent the spread of the problem was to dispose of those who put them into a situation to contract them and then spread them.

    In terms of community-wide preservation, while adultery did not always occur with Gentiles who did not recognize the Biblical God, it was far more likely for a woman to have an adulterous relationship with someone from a non-Judaic culture than someone from within the Judaic community. Consequently, the serious consequences involved had at the bottom line of their existence the purpose of preserving the integrity of the Judaic community as the Chosen People of God. Associated with that, it had the purpose of preserving the integrity of the family.

    As to the individual . . . and recall that women were not regarded as a rule as a person but as property . . . insofar as the personhood of the individual was recognized, the cultural context interpreted such a fate as a kind of preverse spiritual kindness to the individual: akin to the necessity of a physician needing to inflict a lesser hurt to cure a potentially fatal condition: such as cutting the flesh to draw out the venom after snake bite.

    The severe punishment was associated with some vaguely felt sense that the severe punishment involved with the method of execution provided an enforced Penance that reduced the punishment to be meted out in the hereafter.

    This particular belief still operated as late as the Inquisition, if not later, and during the Inquisition in fact the theory of executionary Penance through torture mitigating time in Purgatory got reasoned out in very great detail. It may still operate in some remote places today, and I have used it in an experimental piece of fiction myself. Indeed, during such 'modern' times [compared to the Old Testamenet] as the Inquisition, executioners were sometimes actually accorded the alternative title of "physician to [or of] the soul."

    You can take any of those explanations: which all are factors indeed in what was going on in those days and in that culture.

    1. This is something I've been trying to get my mind around lately, the idea of purity as distinct from morality. You may have heard about the Shafia trial here in Canada a month or so ago, a particularly nasty case of honour killing. There is, of course, a lot of purity-related thinking around honour killing and stoning adulterers and so forth -- purging the community of an unclean thing before it spreads. Yet I'm not convinced that's really the core of it; Mr. Shafia's recorded conversations when he spoke of his daughters makes it very clear that he considered that they had wronged him most grievously and deserved to die, not merely that they needed to be excised for the sake of the community. Now, perhaps his thinking was partly informed and "adulterated" by our modern sense of morality, and therefore is qualitatively different from the reasoning of pre-Christian stoning advocates, but I'm inclined to doubt that, just because I don't think human nature has changed all that much.

    2. It is difficult to answer the matter of a Sharia situation, because I have no familiarity with the culture.

      In Judao-Christian culture, though, as suggested by the idea of mitigating punishment, yes, insofar as a person is accorded personhood, the 'deserve to die' premise can come into play.

      But, then, as stated in my reply to your comment on the first part: at bottom, Christianity and presumably also Judaism actually holds that man/woman, as existing in a sinful state by nature since the Fall of Adam, ALWAYS deserves to die: it is only by God's mercy that life is granted and-or preserved.

    3. That should, to clarify, have read: "mitigating punishment in the hereafter by penitentiary punishment in this world"

    4. After posting, a memory of an event came to me that illustrates that this mindset still applies in some cultures today.

      About ten or so years ago, I drew Jury Duty and was impaneled on a case involving Viet Namese nationals.

      That culture still has much the same mindset.

      What ultimately became clear to the jurors was that the Viet Namese participants, except to some degree the Plaintiff, had no understanding of any even potential for wrongdoing on the part of the Defendant, because in Viet Namese culture a woman who has allied herself with a man even by living together with him forfeits all rights. In Viet Nam [and some South American cultures] it is within the rights of the male to treat the woman as he chooses. What we call domestic abuse here is a recognized legal right of the man in the Viet Namese culture: up to an including intentional murder of the woman.

      It is regarded as a point of honor that the families support the males, and this set of nationals had carried that over with them. The Plaintiff's sister and her husband deliberately perjured themselves so as to make the husband look not guilty of what he was accused [so they thought, but the Jury sorted it out.] The sister and her husband were legally married, the Plaintiff and Defendant were not but the sister and brother-in-law regarded them as married under Viet Namese law.

      The Defendant was convicted on two of three charges in the end, and the Jury was personally convicted, unanimously, that he had indeed attempted murder but agreed we had insufficient evidence to convict on that charge.

      It was clear that neither the Defendant nor the sister and brother-in-law of the Plaintiff had any understanding whatsoever of in what way this constituted wrongdoing, since the actions of the Defendant were not wrongdoing under Viet Namese law.

      The Defendant had existing convictions, so the Judge gave a suspended sentence. The Jury Officer explained to us that was wise, because an immediate prison term had the potential for early release: whereas if he DID break the restrictions set within the suspended sentence, there was no recourse. That would mean an immediate prison sentence with no appeal and no potential for early release.

      Whether that happened in the end or not I don't know, but it was indeed clear to us that the entire family except the woman who brought the abuse charges were incapable of understanding United States law with regard to the personhood and rights of women.

      And that is contemporary, so apply the lack of 'civilized' understanding going back more than 2,000 years . . .

  11. Part Three

    But, indeed, one very important point that you, Tom, are missing in your argument is a very simple, straightforward one.

    You are applying the question of morality changing or not changing within the context of what one person, or a society of persons, does to another person [the adulterer]; whereas in the Old Testament society only women could commit adultery; and they did not have the status of persons but of property.

    Stoning an adulteress was a provision to allow the husband to dispose of damaged property and restore the integrity of his family [sans the wife] and that family within the community that the Jews viewed as "God's chosen people."

    There's also an issue, apparently of hyperbole on the part of the Almighty. For a believer, I realize why I lost the post.

    Our Pastor today spoke on the Abraham about to sacrific Isaac story that there is a context we have lost. The almost command, rescinded, was actually a kind of Divine reverse psychology: the real purpose was to underscore that human sacrifice was something that the Judaic people were not to ever adopt from the surrounding cultures who practiced it.

    We, today, do not "get" that, but those of the time of the composing of that Biblical story would have done, according to my Pastor.

    Some hyperbole may also have factored in the call to stone adulterers.

    Anyway, this particular situation is not my exegetical strong point, but at least I gave an explanation [or three or four] a shot.

    Enough for going on with?

    End Part Three

    1. Interesting, the idea that God might have employed irony in some of His commandments. I'd be interested to hear how a literalist would address that. (Incidentally, I seem to recall Spider Robinson writing that "God is an iron", on the grounds that one who commits gluttony is a glutton, and one who commits a felony is a felon.)

      Of course, I have no problem whatsoever with not taking the Bible literally. But it's the literalist viewpoint I'm trying to understand, and to give every reasonable opportunity to show itself to be sensible.

    2. Can't help you with understanding the "literal" viewpoint . . . which really isn't as literal, by and large as claimed . . . nor with it showing itself to be sensible.

      I gave up on that as a futile effort some time ago [again, commentary on your Replies to the other issue goes into some of the background of the why of that state of affairs.]

      Good luck with your quest on that, but I can't see it happening.

  12. Secondly . . .

    I wouldn't have done this if the Reply had gone through when I tried to do it on an earlier occasion . . . I think last weekend.

    But . . . for some reason, I just can't let it go today.

    "Anonymous" is to me the kind of person who gives Christians a bad name.

    Apart from the fact that "Anomymous" is a double [at least] coward, which is inconsistent with true Christianity, s(he) commits the unforgivable sin in her/his posts.

    Anonymous has [presumably unwittingly] cast himself in the part of Satan.

    How so, ask Tom and his reader.

    'There was a Master who went on a journey, entrusting into the care of three of his servants's keeping some number of talents: to one ten, to another five, and to a third only one talent. And when the master had gone on the journey, the servant to whom the Master had entrusted the ten talents went and traded with them and made ten more; likewise the servant to whom had been entrusted five talents. But the servant in charge of the single talent feared the Master and went and hid the talent in the ground. And when the Master returned, he called the servants to account. The first came and said: you entrusted to me ten talents: look I have made ten more. And the second: I have taken the five talents and made five more. But the third servant gave back the Master only the one talent, and said: 'I feared because I knew you were a hard man who reaps where you did not sew and gather where you did not scatter.' And the Master said: 'You wicked servant! You knew I gathered where I reap where I did not sew and gather where I did not scatter? Should you not have deposited my talent with the banker, that I should have it back with interest?' And, to other servants: 'Take from him the talent and give it to the servant who has ten . . . he who is faithful in small things shall also be grateful in larger matters; he who is unfaithful in small things shall also be unfaithful in greater.'

    'Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all your heart, all your soul, and all YOUR MIND.'

    It is better and far more pleasing to God, I am convicted, that Tom should apply his intellect to where it honestly leads him . . . and IF that leads him back to God, then it is of more integrity than to 1) show the lack of respect of arguing that intellect applied to the Bible in itself is wrong [it is not, nor did God ever intend it to be: we are to love God, if at all, with ALL our faculties, and 2) to make such specious arguments and those that disrespect the hearer/reader hiding behind an "Anonymous" screen name.

    As I said: double cowardice.

    It's people like that that bring shame to reasonable Christians.

    If 'Anonymous' was truly convicted in his faith, he would be willing to argue it within the context of reason [as did Paul, in fact, in his letters] and to stand up in a traceable name and be counted.

    'Anonymous' deserves no credibility on either side of the fence; or for that matter even straddling the fence come to that.

    I note, as well, that 'Anonymous' didn't even have the courage to post further in the thread opened BECAUSE of this thread, and try to obtain a conversion in the appropriate place.

    Get thee behind us, Satan!

  13. Just in case it wasn't clear in the last post before this on the matter of the nature of the sin(s):

    'Anonymous' casts himself in the role of Satan because in urging Tom to abandon his intellect, 'Anonymous' is actually urging Tom to COMMIT sin: the sin of failing to develop his particular God-given gift of intellect, which may well be Tom's God-given path to spiritual understanding.

    To try to convert another in such a way that disrespects the abilities that God gave that person is not only futile: it is sinful in itself, doubly sinful in urging another to sin, and in that such abilities are God-given and to be applied to the pursuit of knowledge [including knowledge of God] it verges on commission of the sin of blasphemy.

    Understanding being a Gift of the Spirit, to denigrate the use of intellect in attempting to understand Scripture IS a sin against the Holy Spirit, which Jesus identified as the single sin which cannot be forgiven.

    'Anonymous' has no right nor call to judge Tom [or anyone else] with his own spiritual house in such disarray.

    "Patience is a virtue, fortitude is a virtue, prudence tells us when to use which."

    My patience is exhausted with such posturing and phony Christians as 'Anonymous,' so I opted for fortitude on this occasion.

    Hope something in all the foregoing does some good for someone.

    With that, I bid you all a fond goodnight.


    1. Thank you for that. But in defence of Anonymous, I would say a couple of things.

      First, I have no problem whatsoever with anonymity. Arguments should stand or fall on their own merits or lack thereof, regardless of who it is that puts them forward, and so I don't think any of us need to know the identity of a participant to this sort of discussion. I'd not want anyone to feel shamed for posting anonymously, because I very much welcome anonymous contributions to the discussion.

      Second, while I do agree with you about the need to use our ("God given") talents, I don't think it's entirely fair to imply evil motives to Anonymous. I'm prepared to assume that he or she genuinely and sincerely believes that the only way to salvation is to just put aside all that questioning and believe believe believe. I think that if you believe something to be the truth, and of great importance to someone else's well-being, you have an obligation to share it, so kudos to Anonymous on that count.

      HOWEVER, I also believe that people have an obligation to reflective and critical examination of their beliefs, and I do suspect that Anonymous may fail on that count. But this is a sin against oneself more than anyone else, and also one that no one else may authoritatively judge. Just as Anonymous reveals an embarrassing ignorance of my mind by proclaiming that deep down I really know God exists and I'm just fooling myself, I would embarrass myself by passing judgment on his or her own internal honesty. At most, I can hope that my questions here could lead to more honest introspection if more is needed, but it's not for me to declare that more is needed (although I DO sort of suspect that if more is not needed, I'd be getting more persuasive answers to my questions).

      Finally, on the comparison to Satan: That's potentially inflammatory, but it shouldn't be. In fact, it often seems to me that a useful poetic description of prayer (at least, the way I do it) is an inner dialogue with God and Satan, but both are posting anonymously, so I have only the merits of the arguments to help me decide who's saying what. I'll listen to both, respectfully and charitably, and subject both arguments to as vigorous a good-faith scrutiny as fallible I can manage. So it doesn't matter who's posting, anonymously or with a genuine ID or a spoofed one, Satan or God; we only have the arguments themselves to reason about, stripped of any authority the author's name might claim.

  14. Ahh, but for someone who understands Christianity in the, for lack of a better word 'catholic' [small c] sense, or some would say the 'traditional' sense, to post proseletization anonymously is an oxymoron.

    Christians are called to be one way or another. Yes, the disciples hid from persecutors when the persecutions became severe enough to threaten the church's very existence.

    Yet, even then, they remained faithful enough to the spirit of 'laying down one's life' and following Jesus even to death and martyrdom that for their 'flocks' and 'converts' their identity was known.

    That is the point of calling 'Anonymous' on being anonymous.

    That very act belies the courage of the conviction s(he) ascribes to himself/herself. At least it does to Christians of the 'Old Tradition' churches, which encompasses more than Catholicism [capital C], such as encompassing Orthodoxy and as far as Methodism [as I'm sure our esteemed colleague Betsy could tell you.]

    'Anonymous,' in being anonymous and in effect sniping from the bushes is being a hypocrite.

    I rarely apply 'judgment,' however, that, too, is something all members of the church in their role as 'priestly people' are charged to do when called for in the event of someone representing the church in an adverse way: and this to me is a case that called for my response.

    It doesn't need to be a 'Tom' problem: it is a 'universal church' problem, one that needs address by a Christian who does have a more "reflective and critical examination of . . . beliefs" underlying the grasp of the faith. Too many of us have seen too much damage done by Christians who display such attitudes and conduct.

    Trust me, Christians of this stripe spend energies trying to convert other Christians . . . and most especially Catholics . . . to their particular view. Usually based on specious reasoning peppered with alleged references that are easily proven as patent lies. And, we have seen many people reject Christianity on that basis: how can Christianity be what it claims to be if Christians of different understandings are out to convert each other ['a house divided against itself cannot stand.']

    I had a Christian of this sort once give me a tract that stated that Catholicism is NOT Christian and a work of Satan. I found three inaccuracies of fact IN THE FIRST SENTENCE of the tract, and it got worse as it went on.

    I have a friend who is a historian. This tract quoted a 'famous' historian, I believe surnamed Moriarity. I asked my historian friend: she had heard of no such historian, and checked all her avaialable references.

    So far as we can tell, this 'famous' historian never existed. The tract was full of phony references like that, and other mis-statements of fact.

    That is what this kind of unexamined belief leads to: someone associated with their line of, candidly, infantile belief says something and they swallow it whole without regard to actual fact on the matter.

    End Part One


  15. Part Two

    Most Sola Scriptura believers accept only the King James translation, which to my knowledge is the only deliberately inaccurate English translation. You will, for example, here widely quoted: 'though shalt not suffer a witch to live.'

    That is King James sourced, witches being an enormous political concern of the time.. The accurate translation is 'though shalt not suffer a poisoner to live.'

    For those who do examine their faith critically, that much is clear yet people such as 'Anonymous' expect that others ignore such to-them inconvenient facts and accept their bundles of lies without regard to the fact that they ARE using lies and factual inaccuracies to back up their claim.

    Which comes full circle again: that 'Anonymous' is unwilling to put her/his faith under critical and intellectual scrutiny is a display of cowardice unbecoming a Christian.

    Generally speaking, those who have to rely on the kinds of statements 'Anonymous' has made here for their proselityzation either themselves have a faith too weak to stand up to scrutiny, or suspect themselves to have a faith that lacks the substance to stand up to such a scrutiny.

    It is clear, however, that in the ongoing march of culture and 'civilization' we have lost much of the meaning of the New Testament. This is true even in the older churches, who regard themselves as keepers of the Word, including the nuances that come from context.

    One thrust of some exegeticists and re-translators of recent decades has been to go back and look at some of the puzzling utterances of Jesus and look at the context to see if they can find some explanation. In several of the instances of problematic passages, exegeticists have come to the conclusion that the context in which the words were spoken had a twofold context of testing someone [usually a woman's] faith, and the words being spoken in humor.

    This is the now accepted conclusion of the 'old tradition' churches, for the most part, both about the woman at the well in Samaria, and the woman Jesus first told that it was wrong to give the children's [Israel/Judaic believers] food to the dogs [Gentiles, Samaritans.] It is now believed that not only did Jesus speak those words in a kind of sarcastic humorous way, but the woman fully understood and enjoyed the repartee: whereas the disciples are clueless.

    In context, also, Paul's admonition that women should maintain silence in church did not refer to legitimate preaching: indeed, Paul left some house churches in the charge of women. It was, rather, more an injunction against some who had not absorbed the new decorum and treated worship liturgies as social hours. What Paul was saying more properly translates in today's vernacular to 'don't chat during worship services' [a problem, sigh, we still have at times.]

    End Part Two


  16. Part Three

    Just as it is lost, coming full circle back to your question and my answer, to most faithful today that in nearly every encounter Jesus had with a woman, his way of conducting that encounter had an underlying message to the disciples of: 'this woman is a daughter of God, a human being. She is not 'property'.' Many people don't 'get' why the disciples were always amazed or astonished at Jesus's conversations with woman: which is commented on in the vast majority of conversations He had with women recorded in the Gospels. It is because to them, it made the same sense to speak intellectually with a woman as it did to engage in a discussion with a house plant. Women simply were not regarded as having personhood status.

    That context, and many others, are lost to us today. Some of the Old Tradition churches are making efforts to recover some of that context.

    Sola Scriptura believers do not cope well with anything but literalism, however.

    Incidentally, it is an observable characteristic of most Sola Scriptura believers that they in fact do not know the Bible comprehensively. Put most Catholics into a Scripture-based discussion with a Sola Scriptura believer, the 'debate' victory will go to the Catholic almost every time. [Likewise most Orthodox or Methodist faithful.]

    This is because Sola Scriptura communities of faithful are selective in which passages they consider appropriate guidelines for each community. They rely on their ministers to tell them which passages are of relevance to their pre-defined convictions, and it is only those passages they study.

    In post-Vatican II Catholic liturgies, a Catholic who regularly attends Mass will hear most of the Bible read at worship over the course of three years. Catholic Bible study programs, both community and self-directed, are on the rise. Catholics, as a general rule, know their Scripturaes much more comprehensively than do Sola Scritura believers: and thus argue their brand of faith from a position of strength.

    You also make a confusing statement, considering you are known as an atheist. You refer to prayer 'the way I do it.'

    If you do pray, that would seem to rule out true atheism. Which would make Anonymous even more off base than apparent at the outset.

    End Part Three


  17. Finally . . .

    It is probably the passage that gives the most glaring illustration of lost context that led to the late 20th century/21st century inclination of Biblical scholars/exegeticists towards a study with the objective of developing a cultural context.

    That passage is almost certainly the second shortest passage of the Gospels, the shortest being "Jesus wept."

    Back about the time of the undertaking of the translation of the New American Bible [re-translated where possible from Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek sources, rather than translated from the Latin Vulgate], and also partially in response to the book "A Doctor at Calvary," the attention of scholars was attracted to what became to them a curiosity of a passage concerning the Crucifixion.

    By the time the Gospels were set down in written form, the Church already existed and accepted the Divinity of Jesus.

    Modern-day exegeticists wanted to know that once the 'players', as it were, involved in the Crucifixion arrived at Calvary/Golgotha, that except for what is now known as the 'seven last words of Jesus' [actually seven sentences], the writers of all four Gospels left the description of the event to a brief statement along the lines of "there they Crucified Him."

    That is also cultural: people of the time knew the nature of Crucifixion, and would have felt holy horror that man would have been accorded the power to inflict such an abomination on the Divine: as well as have appreciated what it meant in terms of redemptive sufferings.

    The evangelists gave no detail about the nature of Crucifixion, because it was not needed by their original audience. What that brief sentence encompassed their original hearers [the Gospel originally transmitted orally] would have understood only too well.

    Whereas, as a child at Stations, I recall being entirely confused by how Crucifixion functioned to become as torturous as it did: and I did not come to a partial realization until I myself read "A Doctor at Calvary."

    To me, a faith that grasps the depth of those kinds of contexts is far richer and more profound than a literalistic faith, but there is still much context we have lost and without it we cannot understand all Scripture passages in their fullness.

    Fortunately, there is in some circles a very compelling interest in trying to rebuild as much of that lost context as possible [as evidenced by my replies to your inquiry: if that were not so, how could I reply in such detail regarding the context?]


  18. Oops. Didn't have this sink in before, so I'll add a second "finally."

    "I don't think it's entirely fair to imply evil motives to Anonymous. I'm prepared to assume that he or she genuinely and sincerely believes "

    I don't think I actually did, I note I did include in my post "[presumably unwittingly]".

    Satan, however, uses ignorance quite effectively. He did with Peter in the situation that resulted in the Gospel quote I paraphrased, and with the other Apostles and Disciples on other occasions.

    Satan still does so today and uses believers who are sincere but uninformed/ignorant: whether they are so willfully or through lack of ability for more expanded comprehension, Satan still uses that kind of ignorance for his own purposes.

  19. Hi Tom, I have a lengthy response for you here: