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Undoctrination

 “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.”
  This bumper sticker slogan popularized by some conservative Christians  encapsulates a fundamental flaw in the way many Christians see their faith.  Aside from the fact that this statement does not include any distinctly Christian descriptor and could just as easily be said by any theist–Jewish, Muslim, Mormon, Baha’i, etc.–this mindset is a nonstarter in any religious conversation with a non-Christian even if it were referring specifically to the Bible.  If these Christians were really honest with themselves, then the Bible ought to say something to the effect of this statement, but it doesn’t.  It becomes apparent that the intent of this motto is not the advancement of Christianity, but instead the promulgation of a philosophy to make the religion doctrinaire:
doc·tri·naire /däktrəˈner/ adjective:  seeking to impose a doctrine in all circumstances without regard to practical considerations.
  Now in the broadest sense, any belief system can be said to be doctrinaire compared to a belief system without any distinctive doctrines (such as New Thought or Unitarian Universalism), but for the sake of clarity I will focus the meaning here to a specific methodology of doctrine formation.  Doctrines themselves are not necessarily problematic, the problem is when the doctrine itself is the starting point for a belief, rather than basing belief on reason, fact, or evidence.  A real doctrine should be the conclusion of an argument, not the origin.  The logic in the above example works just the same with the more straightforward re-phrasing: “I believe it, that settles it.”

  Doctrinaire thinking is not unique to Christianity.  Communism is an obvious example of a doctrine system that’s tried often despite all evidence demonstrating it simply doesn’t work (as is trickle-down economics).  Other religions, like Islam and Mormonism, are even more doctrinaire, demanding belief in their sacred texts first for their books’ claims to be believable.  Even the total rejection of doctrine can ironically become a doctrinaire position.  The difference with Christianity, however, is that doctrinaire thought is not essential to believing Christianity, and I would argue the religion is better without it.

  Doctrinaire faith leads people to seek support for pre-determined beliefs, as opposed to the proper method of arriving at conclusions based on supporting facts.  A doctrinaire believer is characterized by having their own set of “facts” in harmony with their faith but in conflict with reality.  These doctrinaire assumptions can eventually distract from their original intent altogether and take on a life of their own.  For example, racist doctrines devised to discourage race mixing, such as black skin being the mark of Cain or rock music coming from darkest Africa were still perpetuated by people removed from segregation who no longer saw themselves as racists.  The insistence of a literal reading of Genesis started as an attempt to defend the Bible against equally-literalist critics in light of scientific discovery, but has now become an association of so-called “ministries” that focus entirely on their interpretation of Genesis as if that were the essence of Christianity.  Ken Ham’s Ark Encounter comes to mind as a literal embodiment of doctrinaire ideology, going so far as to try to make it a physical reality in theme park form.  In this way, doctrinaire doctrines tend towards redundancy, because the end goal is just to support the original premise.

  But does Christianity actually need to be so doctrinaire?  Its basic assumptions about life are well grounded in observable reality:  men are imperfect, prone to do wrong, and die once.  In contrast, the doctrines of reincarnation or inherent divinity found in eastern religions, or pre-existence in Mormonism, require unprovable doctrinal assumptions.  The cardinal belief of Christianity in life after death is demonstrated by a man rising from the dead and supported by witnesses.  One does not have to believe in a book first to believe this is true.

  Not only does it unnecessarily affect theology, but doctrinaire beliefs can pollute the overall practice of Christianity in the most basic ways Christians treat other people.  Much of the criticism the church has earned in the last centuries have been due to indefensible policies that people would only accept if they already believed a certain version of Christianity.  Church leaders jump to the conclusion that every natural disaster, every epidemic, or every act of terror is God punishing innocent people for some unrelated sin because faith.  At a loss to explain why things are right and wrong outside of a deontological “because we say so”, they try to control people with empty threats of hell and damnation which they never have to prove.  Christians perpetuated the inequality of women, blacks, and gays based on nothing more than a prejudiced scripture reading.  I expect some of my readers might cringe at my inclusion of gays in the list of the oppressed, but when institutions like the Southern Baptist Convention have cried wolf about slavery, lynching, segregation, women’s suffrage, abortion (whichever side you’re on, they’ve been on the other side at some point) and interracial marriage, it’s hard to convince me that banning same-sex marriage is the one thing they’ve been right about.  Strangely, when I grew up in a fundamental baptist church, I was taught that Southern Baptist churches were wrong, but never for the obvious reason that they only exist because of a split over slavery.  Looking back at historical sermons from the South, it’s a marvel that the church today has so easily forgiven its past racists when those same preachers effectively condemned virtually every Christian living today as Satanic heretics.

  Some might argue that churches arrived at those horrible conclusions because of a misreading of Scripture.  That may be true, but that certainly hasn’t stopped the same churches from being repeat offenders.  The convenience of doctrinaire thinking is that you always find what you were looking for in the Biblical text, therefore the solution should not just be a commitment to better Bible reading, but a complete overhaul in how we formulate doctrines.  I don’t demand or expect that every Christian on earth could instantly convert to my way of thinking, but I will attempt to lay out some guidelines that I think everyone could consider whether they come from a literary or literalist approach to the Bible.  First, Christians should take inventory of their essential beliefs and determine, like the ones I listed above, those that are grounded in reality.  These principles, rooted in love, life, and liberty, should be the driving force of the faith that we communicate to the world.  Next, we should calculate the risk of positions that have the potential to cause more harm than good; a position that can’t stand up to objective scrutiny probably isn’t suitable for public policy, and we should avoid looking like we just want to control the behavior of unbelievers. Christians should be especially cautious when judging others, focusing less on subjective sins and more on universal, objective morality.  Note that as critical as I am of certain churches for documented moral lapses, I have still never judged them as strongly as they have judged me for imaginary reasons.  Some have accused me of trying to create a “Christianity for atheists”, but that’s not really my intent.  I’m not trying to strip Christianity of doctrines or the supernatural, I just want to promote and strengthen its best doctrines which all too often take a back seat to shameful ideologies.  Perhaps in that way it is a Christianity for atheists, I always want to present a Christianity that’s for everybody.
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Unsaved

A Sunday school song I used to sing in my childhood:

One door and only one,

And yet its sides are two,

I’m on the inside,

On which side are you?

Looking back, I have to wonder the intent behind having children recite this verse over and over.  After all, it’s not a song of praise or worship.  It doesn’t embody any distinctly Christian theology (aside from a nondescript allusion to Jesus as the “door”, which probably went over the heads of most children).  The only purpose it seems to serve is to to establish and reinforce an ingroup and outgroup mentality.

An ingroup is a social group to which a person identifies as a member, whereas an outgroup is one in which they do not identify.  I would say that the clear motive behind a song like this is indoctrinating an ingroup mentality, not a statement of faith or a belief in exclusivity as some might argue.  After all, this song is taught to children of all ages and levels of understanding, by those raised in the church and by first time visitors alike.  Far from evangelism, what it taught children even from before the time they made any personal confession of faith (let alone understood the concept), was to divide the world into two groups: those on the inside, and those on the outside.

Ingroup/outgroup psychology is prevalent in a lot of religions, but it’s noticeably pronounced in the world of Evangelicalism, particularly on the outgroup side.  It has been said that developing a belief in assurance of salvation was the defining moment that distinguished Evangelicals from their Puritan and Protestant forbears.  In fact, some Evangelicals practically make a secondary conversion out of this today.  I can recall going to Baptist youth camps as a teenager, where the attendees were mostly from church groups like me.  The fire and brimstone sermons and altar calls were directed not just to the lost, but also to the faithful, where preachers encouraged the teens to go forward to talk to a counsellor either to pray a standard “sinner’s prayer” to be saved, or receive assurance that they already were saved.  The college hosting the camp would record and report on the number of decisions made, first those who had accepted Jesus as their lord and savior, and second those who had received assurance of their salvation.  In retrospect, it seems almost absurd to me how people who sincerely believed Christianity, attended church regularly, tried to be like Christ, and had made a public confession of faith were made to feel as if they were missing something in their life.  After all, they generally weren’t struggling with any doubt about the truth of their religion, it was the sincerity of their faith that probably caused them to respond; instead what they questioned was their salvation.

You see, to Evangelicals one’s salvation isn’t just an act that occurs when one converts or believes, their salvation is a status if not a status symbol.  Indeed, questioning another’s salvation (or even just being perceived as doing that, such as by calling out an obvious heresy in their theology) can be seen as a supreme insult in Evangelical circles.  They tend to divide the world into the “saved” and the “unsaved”, but not from any reading of Scripture.  The word “saved” appears numerous times in the Bible, of course, but always as a verb, never as a noun or adjective the way Evangelicals use it.  The word “unsaved” never appears at all.  There are certainly many Biblical words that they could choose to refer to non-Christians, such as “lost” or “unbelieving”, but this distinct term persists so prominently in the Evangelical lexicon largely because it serves their outgroup mindset.  “Lost”, for instance, is a difficult word to apply in a predominately Christian society where most of the prospective converts are simply members of other denominations, not other religions.  It’s also hard to use “unbelieving” when they’re trying to seed insecurity among fellow believers.

It’s troubling on many levels how Evangelicals express their soteriology through terms entirely absent from the Christian Scriptures.  In comparison, Islam has the term “kaffir” to refer to non-Muslims, which is used repeatedly in the Qur’an by prophet Muhammad.  Often misunderstood in the West to mean “infidel”, this term more closely resembles a derogatory slur.  Outgroup hostility is undeniably written into the doctrine of Islam, but this need not be the same in Christianity.  In contrast, while Muslims freely use “kaffir” derisively to people’s faces, Evangelicals are more guarded with how they use “unsaved.”  You don’t really see them telling prospective converts that they’re “unsaved”, it seems to be a word limited to insider conversation.  In that sense, it can be borderline cultic, a secret doctrine reserved for the initiated.  And like in an Islamic state that becomes 100% homogenized, wherein the Muslims simply target other sects of Islam for outgroup hostility, similarly Evangelicals in ideological isolation may start to focus on their own co-religionists as the outgroup.

Considering how these same Evangelicals try to be Biblical in almost every other area, it would seem easy for them to avoid the potential problems of this word by simply not using it.  Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done.  Just challenging the Evangelical ingroup/outgroup complex can be seen as an attack on the essence of Christianity itself, effectively putting oneself in the outgroup.  Even if you aren’t of the outgroup mindset, suggesting that it’s wrong to Christians who are may ironically be perceived as outgroup hostility towards them.  They may not only be unable to relate to a Christianity without it, it may be so ingrained in their nature that they cannot imagine anybody else not thinking the same way too.  Evangelicalism seems to have become an obsession with classifying people into “saved” or “unsaved” groups, graduating beyond mere assurance of salvation to assurance of damnation (other people’s, that is).

Of course, there are many ways to end up on the outgroup list.  Seemingly inconsequential disagreements, like not believing a six-day, literalist interpretation of Genesis or not thinking the U.S. Constitution has any basis to ban same-sex marriage or marijuana (even if one personally doesn’t approve of either) can cause you to lose your salvation status among your friends.  Historically, it could have been for supporting integration in the Bible belt.  Once you’ve been “outgrouped” by Evangelicals, it can be hard if not impossible to recover your standing among them.  Different rules of engagement are employed when they interact with the “unsaved.”  They may hold beliefs that further alienate the outgroup, such as believing that God doesn’t hear the prayers of the unsaved, or that the unsaved can’t really understand the Bible.  The outgroup mindset has an unfair advantage (in their mind, anyway) in that they can shut you out because they believe you’re going to hell, but if you don’t really believe people are damned for petty political differences, then you can’t even honestly fake it in return, not even to level the playing field (even though they may mistakenly think the field is level anyway because they assume everybody would naturally think that).  Outgroup psychology trumps the universal languages of logic and reason, an outsiders ideas and views are rejected simply because they’re an outsider, like the Republican party’s irrational opposition to the “Muslim, Kenyan, socialist” Obama.

When the outgroup hostility isn’t even based in reality, but on imaginary criteria there’s little that can be done about it.  But if you’re an Evangelical reading this who feels threatened that I criticized a cherished children’s song or knocked the legs out from under your core theology, don’t write me off because you consider me an outsider.  You can think whatever you want about the fate of my soul (which you conveniently never have to prove), but I can still appeal to your desire to live a Biblical faith.  Just stop using the word “unsaved”.  That’s all I ask.  Limit yourself to the terms actually used by Jesus and his followers in the Bible, and you may find your theology naturally changes because of it.  You may then ask yourself whether certain songs or words are used for a theological purpose, or whether it simply serves the outgroup mentality.  Just like me, you may find your outgroup mentality eroded when the words that reinforced it are no longer available to you.  You may risk becoming less Evangelical, but you may gain becoming more Christian.

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Islam = Antichrist

a church in Mosul with the cross removed by ISIS

a church in Mosul with the cross removed by the Islamic State

Islam is antichrist.  No, this isn’t a fanatical End Times-obsessed piece trying to insert persons or organizations into John Nelson Darby’s dispensationalist eschatology, as seems to be commonplace these days.  I am not an alarmist claiming ISIS is a sign of the end of the world.  My interest in making this claim is not to advance an unprovable prophetic timetable, effectively reducing the Bible to a coded warning that only has meaning to believers already convinced that it predicts a specific eschatology.  This study of doctrinal differences is not intended to suggest Islam is wrong because it is not Christianity, which would merely be an inversion of the Islamic method of claiming Christianity is wrong simply because it is not Islam.  Instead, I’m going to present a rationally-based comparison of what each religion factually teaches to demonstrate that Islam is undeniably antichristian by design.  That is to say, this is not a biased polemic by a non-Muslim attempting to demonize Islam, this can be objectively argued regardless of whether one believes either religion or not.

Some people wondered why in a recent series devoted to the Torah I spent most of the time talking about religions other than Judaism or Christianity.  The reason is that I strongly believe interreligious studies are a highly beneficial but regrettably neglected way to better understand one’s own faith.  Christians often fail to understand how the boundaries of orthodoxy that separate other religions from Christianity differ from the divisions that separate between denominations within Christianity.  As a result, they may incorrectly engage people of other religions within the framework Judeo-Christian thought, failing to make the necessary paradigm shift to understand a completely foreign belief system.  Without realizing it, they may treat Islam as another church, the Qur’an as another Bible, and Muhammad as another prophet.  This can be troublesome because prophets, sacred texts, and theologies are not actually interchangeable like that.  The Bible makes very different claims about its authorship than does the Qur’an (although I will concede too many Christians want the Bible to be a revealed text dictated word-for-word by God similar to what the Qur’an claims, even though the Qur’an itself fails to measure up to that claim), and people tend to believe in different religious teachers for dramatically different reasons.  After all, everyone would more likely gravitate to the same figure if they were all looking for the same thing in a religious teacher, but the truth is Muslims are conditioned to seek a far different personality in Muhammad, just as they are to seek a different personality in Jesus Christ.

Christ

It’s a well-known fact that Islam’s principal theology is the complete denunciation of the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation, rejecting the deity and sonship of Christ, the fatherhood of God, and the Trinity.  Of the many examples in the Qur’an:

“O People of the Scripture, do not commit excess in your religion or say about Allah except the truth. The Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary, was but a messenger of Allah and His word which He directed to Mary and a soul [created at a command] from Him. So believe in Allah and His messengers. And do not say, “Three” (Trinity); desist – it is better for you. Indeed, Allah is but one God. Exalted is He above having a son. To Him belongs whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on the earth. And sufficient is Allah as Disposer of affairs.”  An-Nisa 4:171

In Islam, shirk, or equating “partners” beside God, is the greatest sin, and is unforgivable (I can’t resist going off course momentarily to comment on Islam’s horribly flawed moral center which prioritizes subjective theology over objective immorality, such as harming other people.  This tends to result in a tribalistic deontology in which Muslims don’t seem to care much about harming others over petty theological differences).  The explicit rejection of the deity of Christ is embodied in the shahada, the creed Muslims recite to convert to Islam:  “There is no god but God, Muhammad is the messenger of God.”  To reiterate: one absolutely cannot be a Muslim and believe in the deity of Christ in any sense, simply converting to Islam is a rejection of this distinctly Christian doctrine.

Interestingly, however, Christianity has never really been so totally strict in its adherence to Christ’s divinity or the Trinity.  For centuries this was openly debated among theologians until mostly settled at the Council of Nicea, nevertheless Arianism, Unitarianism, Modalism, and other heresies persisted throughout church history.  At the risk of sounding heretical I would say it has always been possible to be a Christian and not believe in the deity of Christ or the Trinity.  To the many supposed Trinitarians gasping that I might say such heresy is permissible, I like to point out that most of them likely confuse Modalism for Trinitarianism.  Even among professed Trinitarians, accurately understanding this doctrine has never been an absolute requirement.  So while Islamic Unitarianism and Trinitarianism may be mutually exclusive concepts, Christianity has still never been as hostile to Unitarianism to the severity that Islam is toTrinitarianism.

Crucifixion

Unlike in Islam, theology is actually secondary to Christianity.  The Qur’an had nothing else to offer from a (supposedly) singular author centuries removed from the events and eye witnesses he described.  Muhammad’s claims could not have gained traction unless followers were dogmatically required to accept it in its entirety on a theological basis.    Christianity, however, relied on compelling arguments and the testimony of witnesses to back its claims.  One didn’t have to blindly believe in a prophet or a sacred text because for the first decades of Christianity no New Testament even existed; the idea of a written record came about only later, as a form of preservation.  Rather than being driven by theology, they were driven by events, namely the life of Christ.  And the single-most important event in the life of Christ was his death and resurrection.  Christians can possibly get everything else wrong about their religion, as evidenced by the wide range of irreconcilable theology across thousands of denominations.  According to Christ’s own teachings, his followers’ identity was observable by their actions, not by knowledge of a series of creeds.  But the Passion is one definitive belief of which the absence calls into question a group’s Christian identity.  As a matter of course, Islam rejects such a disgraceful death for a prophet of God, and consequently his resurrection:

“And [for] their saying, “Indeed, we have killed the Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary, the messenger of Allah .” And they did not kill him, nor did they crucify him; but [another] was made to resemble him to them. And indeed, those who differ over it are in doubt about it. They have no knowledge of it except the following of assumption. And they did not kill him, for certain.  Rather, Allah raised him to Himself. And ever is Allah Exalted in Might and Wise.”  An-Nisa 4:157-158

Once again we see Islam uncompromisingly set itself at variance with a Christian doctrine, so that one could not be considered a Muslim and still hold that belief.  This ironically puts Islam in an awkward position, because it still holds to the belief of a general resurrection into eternal life either in heaven or hell, yet it has no rational basis for such a belief like Christianity does.  The three theories available for what happens after death are: annihilation, reincarnation, and resurrection.  Annihilation is simply the belief that one’s existence ends when one dies; while it cannot easily be proven, this is admittedly a very logical assumption, which is why it is generally the default position for atheism (it also seems to have been popular in Judaism).  Reincarnation is the belief that one’s existence continues on in another form after death; while popular among eastern religions, it is virtually impossible to prove objectively.  Resurrection is the only available theory which could possibly be proven objectively, all it would need is for somebody to die and rise again.  In fact, it doesn’t actually even need to be a historical event, a belief system that teaches resurrection on the basis of someone hypothetically dying and living again would still be more logical than another which doesn’t.  Before Christianity, Judaism had no real consensus on what happens after death, clearly Islam borrowed its appealing afterlife theory from the Christians, yet the Muslim’s hope in an afterlife rests purely on dogmatic theological claims and not on any reality.

Communion

It’s my theory that Islam was deliberately engineered as a system to suppress competing religions.  Some of these efforts may have been unintentional and only have the coincidental benefit of Islamic supremacy.  Other choices in constructing Islam were harmless and merely intended to make Islam decidedly different from its neighbors.  For instance, the adhan, or Muslim call to prayer, was obviously an innovation to differentiate itself from Christian church bells and Jewish shofars.  Friday prayers were picked because the Jews already had the Sabbath and the Christians had Sunday.  Other choices, however, seem to have an underlying sinister intent.  The Muslim requirement for a divorced woman to consummate a marriage with a new husband before being able to return to her ex-husband is clearly a deliberate albeit nonsensical, if not outright mean-spirited, negation of the Hebrew prohibition against remarrying an ex-spouse after another marriage (Deut. 24:1-4).  It’s likely that the Muslim aversion to dogs is based on little more than an attempt to suppress Zoroastrians, for whom dogs are considered sacred animals.  Similarly, I suspect the Islamic prohibition of alcohol was designed to some extent to try to ban the widespread Christian custom of the Eucharist.  Originally, the alcohol ban was specific to coming to prayer inebriated (An-Nisa 4:43), as it was believed the Christians did by incorporating wine into a religious ritual.  This total rejection of one of the primary symbols of Christianity made it clear that Christian customs, just like the distinct Christian beliefs mentioned above, were unwelcome in the mosque.  In practice, this was far different from Mormons similarly electing to substitute water in place of the sacramental wine within the confines of their own church (although I would also argue to a lesser extent that this substitution still makes Mormonism anti-Christian).  It’s one thing to have uncompromising custom variations in a pluralistic society, it was another thing entirely in the conquest days of Islam when churches were forcibly converted into mosques.  Unlike the early church who felt at home in the synagogue without forcing radical changes on the Jews already there, Islam attempted to co-opt existing religious infrastructures while simultaneously eradicating the traditions of those communities.

Conclusion

As is typical of Islam, tolerance is a one-way street on which Islam expects to receive but gives none in return.  Islam doesn’t just prohibit certain beliefs and customs among its own members, it considers such things a sin for all people, including non-Muslims.  I would venture to say that tolerance as is understood in the West is a non-existent concept in Islam.  This can be demonstrated by Westerners who think they’re having an interfaith dialogue with Muslims when they promote tolerance because “we’re all God’s children”, unaware that they’ve just committed an unpardonable sin in Islam.  Under total Muslim supremacy, not only can a Muslim not believe like a Christian, it is difficult if not impossible for a Christian to believe like a Christian.  To the Muslim mindset, a good Christian is one who doesn’t commit shirk by believing  that Jesus Christ was God or the Son of God, doesn’t believe Jesus was crucified, and doesn’t memorialize his shed blood when they drink wine.  The tolerance that Muhammad extended towards Christians as “people of the book” really applies as long as Christians don’t actually hold orthodox Christian beliefs.  This amounts to zero tolerance, otherwise any religion could say they tolerate others as long as those people believe and behave the way they want them to.  People like to think of Indonesia as a tolerant Muslim country because it allows five religions (Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, and Hinduism), whereas intolerant countries like Saudi Arabia only permit Islam.  But if you don’t have the freedom to believe any of the thousands of religions banned in Indonesia, like Mormonism, Sikhism, Judaism, Jainism, Baha’i, or just plain atheism, then really you have just as much freedom of religion as any non-Muslim in Saudi Arabia.  Freedom of religion only on Islamic terms is not actually freedom.  This is the reason why I say Islam is antichrist, because it forces Muslims and Christians alike to be less Christian.

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The Pentateuch, Part 5: Torah and the Christian Moral Compass

A hypothetical dilemma I like to present to Christians to gauge their moral compass is to insert themselves into the Pericope Aulterae–the story of Jesus and the woman taken in adultery–and see how they would have responded to the same question over stoning the adulteress.  If you were a law abiding Jew in the first century who happened to witness this incident outside the Temple between the Pharisees and a rabbi from out of town, on which side would you be?  The responses I get are often very telling.  Usually, the respondents seem to think that knowing whether this rabbi is the Messiah or not makes all the difference.  Some will say, more or less, that a faithful Jew should have observed the Law up until Jesus shows the woman mercy, essentially a doctrine of abrogation.  It’s these Christians of whom I’m most suspicious of their moral values.  Particularly disturbing is when Christians argue against this passage’s disputed status in the canon on the grounds that its absence could potentially mean adulterers would still need to be stoned to death.

I’ll admit, the question is a bit of a trap, but of course, it was always intended to be one.  A little background on First Century Israel reveals that under Roman rule the Jews had already been made to abandon the practice of stoning long before the time of Christ, so presenting him with that question was really no different than asking the same question to anyone else today.  Christians ought not to think that the actions of Jesus in this story equate to some sort of radical fiat that governs Christianity in a way similar to how the Mosaic Law governed Judaism.  Aside from the fact that this was already the direction Judaism was heading, Christians ethicists ought to be able to come to the same conclusion as Christ did even if this narrative were not authentic, or even if it were not in the Bible.

Part of the problem with Christian morality in practice today is that so many Christians hold exclusively to deontological ethics, which is basically judging the morality of an action based on its adherence to rules.  They tend to do this mostly because they erroneously assume that’s the only definite moral theory available.  In the post-modern era, Christians have been overly trained to reject moral relativism, but have largely overcompensated by reducing the Bible from a holy book to a rule book.

This is a problem first because the Bible doesn’t necessarily limit itself to a single moral theory; Jesus was probably closer to a virtue ethicist than anything else.  Second, deontological ethics fosters moral helplessness.  It would help Christians to listen to their atheistic critics when believers make audacious claims such as that there would be no morality without the Bible.  When Christians act like the only thing stopping them from running amuck murdering, raping, or stealing are the commands in a text, that actually frightens non-Christians and isn’t a very impressive statement about the morality of Christians.  Unfortunately, Christians are at times all too comfortable with this moral helplessness when it gives them a license for bad behavior.  Like a Milgram experiment, they may be led to do things that conflict with their natural, God-given moral compass simply because they’ve been told “it’s in the Bible.”  Church history is regrettably littered with such helpless defenses for killing heretics, enslaving fellow human beings, and other oppression, but fortunately virtue has been on the right side of history.

Lastly, the two testaments of scripture are not the clear-cut, absolute rulebook that Christians make it out to be.  The whole Bible is a complex–sometimes contradictory–book of morality and anyone who acts like it’s a simple handbook is either ignorant of its contents or in denial.  Right wing politicians may argue that the Bible should be the basis for US law, yet evangelicals in particular have never been able to fully agree on the application of said Biblical law.  There obviously wouldn’t be nearly so many fragmented denominations if this weren’t the case.  The New Testament doesn’t always provide a convenient abrogation point of an Old Testament law like it does for stoning adulterers, eating unclean animals, sacrifices, or specific Jewish customs.  I’ve previously demonstrated that customs like gleaning which Christians often incorrectly assume were set aside with the Old Covenant were in reality discontinued much later in history by English common law.  Hardliners often try to supply their own interpretive methods to determine which laws are still applicable and which are not, yet scripture itself doesn’t provide any easy to follow methodology, and even those who claim to follow such methods aren’t as knowledgable about the Torah as one would think they ought to be if they truly believed every law could still be binding.  It seems their conclusions are usually just to apply the grace of the New Testament to themselves and the Old Testament for everybody else.

Perhaps the greater problem at play here is that most of the Christians who hold strictly to deontological ethics aren’t really deontological ethicists themselves.  It’s similar to how so many Christians claim to be Trinitarians simply because they consider that to be an essential Christian doctrine, yet they don’t realize the beliefs they actually hold are Modalism or some other heresy.  Ironically, these hardliners will condemn all non-Trinitarians to hell oblivious to the fact that their own beliefs are in fact no closer to orthodox Trinitarianism.  In the same way, while some Christians are quick to condemn others on the basis of the Mosaic Law, these same Christians don’t really abide by it as strictly as such a reading would demand.  A prominent example of this is when fundamentalists refer to “traditional” marriage as one man and one woman, yet most of the laymen have no idea that biblical marriage also included polygamy, concubines, levirate marriage, prisoners of war, and other customs no longer considered acceptable in today’s society.  We also don’t see any Christian lobby equally concerned that wages should be paid daily according to Deuteronomy 24:15.  Despite all the claims of a morality based in the written word, clearly even conservative Christians draw their moral foundation from elsewhere.

Note that I am not referring to legalism here, as is commonly misunderstood in the ethical discussion.  The Pharisees are often confused as legalists by Christian readers, but the historical record reveals they were actually in the progressive, common sense wing of Judaism, in contrast to the literalist Sadducees who tried to hold to the strict letter of the Law.  While it was the Pharisees who presented Jesus with the test, they were ironically the sect that most closely aligned with his conclusion.  But like Jews who confused the past culture being governed in the Law for the Law itself, today’s Christians have similarly mistaken modern American evangelical culture of the last 50-or-so years as God’s eternal design for living.  As loathe as they would be to admit it, they have much in common with the relativists whom they accuse of letting culture define morality.

Instead of forcing the Bible to be read as a rulebook, I recommend Christians see it as more of a document of an ongoing ethical dialogue.  This was a process which was very active during the first century where talmudic wisdom appears in the Sermon on the Mount and other places in the Gospels, and where Paul uses halakhic reasoning in his epistles.  Though the founders of Christianity are mostly overlooked today as a part of Jewish history, the ideas and interpretive methods they shared are nevertheless the reason why Judaism has adapted to modern life despite not acknowledging Jesus as the Messiah or Paul as an Apostle.  While Christians like to think of the Jews as still under the Law, virtually every modern sect of Judaism today has descended from the Pharisees’ Rabbinic school, thus even the most orthodox Jews are not locked into archaic laws like slavery and stoning.  If Christians under grace could only be so liberated, these common sense roots of morality offer a more universal ethic than one dependent entirely on divine mandate.

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