Saturday, 30 May 2015

The Epistle of Thomas to the Creationists

Note: I've noticed that my old web page has finally been taken down by my old ISP, so I'm going to be reposting some of the stuff I had there. I wrote this thing probably around 20 years ago, and I still stand by most of what I said, with only very minor amendments, most of which I've made in editing this here. In particular, I now might have said a little more directly that I am an atheist, though I still don't consciously consider myself a non-Christian. Reconciling this apparent contradiction is a topic for another day, however.

     In view of the theological perspective of this article, it would be disingenuous for me not to state up front that I do not consciously consider myself a Christian. Over the centuries, that term has been used in so many ways that it has almost been stripped of any particular meaning, and some of the meanings it has acquired I should very much like to distance myself from. On the other hand, I do not consciously consider myself a non-Christian, either. In any case, it is not my intention to discredit or disparage religious faith. Nor do I intend to argue that evolutionists are in any way morally better off than creationists. Rather, I wish to discuss a particular moral failing which is held in abundance by most people (myself included, no doubt) and to which creationists are at a special kind of risk.

     Specifically, I refer to the sin variously referred to as pride, hubris, or vanity, and of which idolatry is a special case. Now, the arguments of the creationists against the secular humanists in this regard are well-known. They argue, rightly in many cases, that to deny God is to run the risk of assuming too much moral authority for oneself. Specifically, if there is no God, if the sole arbiter of morally upright conduct is the individual, then what stands between us and complete moral anarchy? To a certain extent, however, the few atheists who are rightly accused of taking this stance are actually closet theists; they are buying into the belief that there is no morality without God. It is almost as if they believe that there once was a God who used to boss us around, but now He's dead so anything goes. I do not believe that serious and thoughtful atheists need come to this conclusion, however. Morality, most broadly conceived, is nothing if not the business of making choices and acting on them, and for that reason is (whether we recognize it or not) of the most profound concern to all of us, regardless of whether or not we believe in God, and the source of that morality need not be metaphysically rooted in theist notions of divinity. A great many ethical theories of great importance have been devised that make no mention of any deity, and there is no shortage of morally conscientious and upright atheists to demonstrate that atheism need not lead to moral disaster. Indeed, history is overflowing with atrocities committed in the name of religion, so it is also clear that a claim to religious faith is in itself no guarantee of righteousness, either.
     Less extreme than the amoral zealotry of the born-again atheist (whose beliefs we need not take too seriously), the secular humanist who believes that morality is ultimately dependent not on God but on humanity can also fall prey to a creeping moral relativism which ends up almost as a denial of any real morality at all. If morality is a product of human invention, what is to stop us from defining our own morality in any way we wish, up to and including ruthless egoism? But if this is a danger, I argue that it is an inherent danger of any human morality whatsoever, and if anything, the advantage of relativism is that it makes starkly clear just who is ultimately answerable for the choices we make: we are.
     Another common criticism of atheism is that by denying God one can lose the sense of humility that finite mortal creatures ought to have, and which is inescapable when one compares oneself to an infinite and supreme being, and thus one becomes guilty of idolatry in placing humans at the pinnacle not just of Creation but of Being. Curiously, this argument seems to contradict another objection, that by denying a divine genesis mankind is cheapened. In fairness, though, they are compatible positions if one takes the view that the big fish in a small pond can still be too proud, and that just being the most advanced naturalistically evolved piece of sludge in a drab godless universe is no cause for rejoicing. While it is true, of course, that many atheists are guilty of either or both of these sins (idolizing and/or devaluing humans), it is also true that neither is an inevitable result of atheism; it is possible to apprehend human consciousness and experience as miraculous and wonderful in itself, while maintaining a greater awe at the magnificence of a spectacular universe which is vast and mysterious beyond any mortal comprehension, without invoking any special concept of God to achieve this perception.

     I need not elaborate on these and other moral dangers of atheism, except to say that while they are real they are in no way inevitable. In any case, my intention here is to point out the somewhat more subtle dangers of pride and idolatry to which theists, and creationists in particular, are especially vulnerable. This is not, of course, to say that persons of such faith are any more inevitably guilty of these sins than anyone else, but rather that there are unique moral hazards against which they are peculiarly obliged to guard. Christianity is, after all, no more a shelter from moral responsibility than is atheism; indeed, Christians must take it upon themselves to be doubly vigilant to avoid doing evil.
     Herein lies the most obvious moral danger of religious faith. In taking themselves to be guided by divinely ordained commandments, theists may be tempted to relax the rigor with which they scrutinize their actions, and are thus capable of the most unspeakable atrocities. That is, secure in the faith that God wills a certain course of action, they may be prepared to disregard any suggestion (even from their own consciences) that this may not in fact be the morally correct thing to do. This is not to say that God may on occasion will us to do immoral things, but rather that we, as fallible humans, may sometimes be misled about exactly what it is that God expects of us. Unfortunately, it is also often a tenet of faith that to question God is itself an immoral act, and so it can become especially difficult to correct a moral error once it has been made on these grounds. This is because the difference between questioning a command of God and questioning one's own understanding of that command is a subtle one, not at all easily recognized, and harder yet when any doubt is seen as weakness of faith and therefore sinful in itself.
     So, on the one hand, we see how a blind acceptance of putatively divine commands can lead one to commit acts of unthinkable evil, for the assurance of divine sanction may even provide the strength of will to suppress one's natural sense of revulsion and horror. There is a more subtle sin of pride, however, which is independent of the moral character of the acts performed. The duty of morality is the duty to make one's own choices and accept responsibility for them, not to pass off that responsibility to another decision maker (real or imagined). Christians, perhaps more than anyone, must not take comfort in the belief that their faith will preserve them from moral duty (and its attendant and inescapable possibilities of failure), but rather are to be confronted with the difficulties of moral responsibility, most difficult of which is trying to figure out what really is the right thing to do.
     Some may say that knowing what to do is a simple matter of reading Scripture, and that finding the strength to carry it out is where we are put to the moral test. I would argue, however, that they have an overly naive view of moral life. Even if we accept that Scripture is the basis of all morality (a highly contentious claim), there is still the extraordinarily difficult matter of interpretation, which ultimately must fall to the individual confronted with moral choice. "Thou shalt not murder," is fairly straightforward, but the same commandment is very often translated as "Thou shalt not kill," which can raise problems even for the strictest vegetarian. And how exactly does "Thou shalt not steal" apply today in a world of software piracy and satellite dishes? Even if there is universal agreement that stealing is wrong (and in general, there is), there remains real confusion as to what really constitutes stealing.
     Further, consider the virtues that we strive to develop through moral exercise, and their dependence upon adversity. Courage, for example, is utterly meaningless without fear. It is the person who knowingly faces danger and acts in spite of fear whose courage we praise; without fear, the same act is indistinguishable from stupidity. Likewise, where is the generosity in a gift that represents no sacrifice on the part of the giver? What is patience to someone who is in no hurry anyway? And why praise the temperance of one who can't abide drink? Similarly, the virtue of moral courage is dependent upon the fear of sin or error for its meaning. It is one thing to act, knowing that one is right, but it is quite another to act with imperfect knowledge, hoping that one does good but recognizing one's fallibility and accepting responsibility for one's action right or wrong. The former is suitable for angels; the latter is the best we mortals can hope for. This is what is meant by acknowledging that we are sinners.
     This is important for two reasons. First, as we have seen throughout history, there are few people more dangerous than the fanatic who is convinced he acts with divine approval. The abdication of moral responsibility is nearly always a recipe for disaster, from the functionaries of Nazi Germany who were "just following orders" to the terrorist zealots who slaughter indiscriminately in the name of a warped sense of righteousness. But regardless of the harm such persons may or may not inflict upon others, the spiritual sin of pride may lie under even the most righteous and benevolent of acts.
This pride is uniquely difficult to identify, for it is well cloaked in the garb of pious humility. What makes it so elusive is that it appears as a faith in God, when in reality it is a misplaced faith in one's own judgement. It may well be that God is just and perfect and incapable of error, but we most certainly are none of these things, and to act with the firm belief that one is in perfect harmony with God's perfectly just wishes is to lose sight of that truth. Indeed, the person who acts in this way is guilty of the greatest pride, for she puts her moral judgement on a level with God's. She claims to know with absolute certainty that which can be known only to God. The faith here, then, is not in God at all, but in the individual's own reliability in knowing God, and if we understand idolatry as the sin of ascribing divine significance to a human artifact, the pride involved is idolatrous when the individual believes her own knowledge to be perfect in this regard.
     In this way, then, creationists are vulnerable to a sort of pride which is every bit as sinful as the pride of the atheist. It is important to stress at this point, however, that this is in no way an argument against being a Christian. Any particular belief one may adopt, Christianity included, carries its own unique variation of this moral trap, for responsibility is something we simply cannot avoid. Once one has eaten from the tree of knowledge, there is no going back; we are stuck with having to face up to these difficult choices. To seek refuge from responsibility in Christianity, or indeed in any other faith, is only to fool oneself and miss the central message. Christianity, like any truly moral lifestyle, is a challenge and not a shelter.

     There is another way in which I see creationism, or at least literal biblical creationism, as idolatrous. In the sense that all things are created by God, it is entirely true that everything, including human artifacts, has divine significance, but in the case of idolatry a particular object or set of objects becomes uniquely elevated and worshipped disproportionately, with the assumption that the rest of Creation is somehow less directly connected to God than the worshipped idol.
     Now, it is difficult to deny that the Bible, divinely inspired or not, is at least in large part a human artifact. Setting aside for now the question of original authorship, it must at least be acknowledged that modern human beings take responsibility for retranslating, typesetting, printing, binding, reading and interpreting this text. To the extent that various translations have differed significantly (compare the meanings of "Thou shalt not kill," and "Thou shalt not commit murder," for example), we must recognize that the message of scripture bears some human influence.
     One might argue that the Holy Spirit intervenes in order to preserve the integrity of the Word. This, however, is the very essence of idolatry, for it differs little if at all from maintaining that a golden calf made by human hands is somehow imbued with divinity and a suitable object for worship. The printed word is no less a human artifact, and no more holy. Those who claim it is are guilty of Having Other Gods Before [Me], and perhaps of making Graven Images (if words can be pictures). If the translators themselves claim to be divinely guided, they are guilty of the pride I discussed above, as well as Taking the Lord's Name in Vain by claiming to speak for God. (My reading of that commandment is not that the occasional utterance of "God damn it!" is a mortal sin, but rather that claiming to speak in God's name is. The spoken desire that God damn something or someone is no doubt unChristian, but it is scarcely more than a breach of etiquette in comparison to the pretense to divine authority.) The worship of Scripture, for that is what an unquestioning literal faith in the Bible is, is therefore a most impious form of idolatry.
     This is not to deny the spiritual importance of the Bible, but to affirm the spiritual importance of everything else. If God is the author of all Creation (and even if He is not), then there is and must be Truth in all things. Knowing this to be so is almost trivially easy. The challenge for us is to understand that Truth. Significant though scripture may be, the testimony of fossils, sediments, and DNA is no less the Word of God (and no less subject to careful interpretation). It has even been suggested by some creationists that the evidence of the natural world is deliberately misleading in order to test the faith of the believer, a position indistinguishable from calling God a liar. By what right do we take the humanly printed word to tell a truer story than Nature?

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