Secular Right | Reality & Reason

Jul/09

18

Christian radio and moral decisions

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I have been listening with considerable enjoyment to Christian radio, mostly KBRT, which is preset in the car I have been driving in Los Angeles.  Despite having wasted my college education on deconstructionist literary theory, I nevertheless still believe in the value of disciplined close reading and am touched by the devotion to the words of the Bible that many radio preachers evince, even if that devotion rests on a false apprehension regarding the text’s source.  I like the generally cheerful attitude towards self-improvement and the call to self-evaluation.  To be sure, there’s plenty of whacky and contradictory supernaturalism as well.  Todd White, who purports to cure even “High Priestesses of Satan” of such illnesses as sciatica with Jesus’ power, explained why Holocaust survivors should not have lost their faith in God: “God is not in control,” he said, arriving at a perfectly logical explanation for the daily slaughter of the innocents .   The next day, Wiley Drake, the pastor of the First Southern Baptist Church in Garden Grove, Ca., asserted more conventionally:  “God’s in control of everything.”  How we’re supposed to referee such conflicting claims is left unresolved.  (Wiley Drake has been in the news recently for his unapologetic embrace of “imprecatory prayer” to call for “President Barack Hussein Obama’s” death.  Drake argues unimpeachably that if you’re going to view the Bible as the word of God, you can’t edit out, as “some panty-waist, user-friendly preachers” do, the parts that no longer conform to our moral sensibilities, including the two dozen or so Psalms that revel in God’s willingness to mercilessly slaughter Israel’s enemies.   KBRT host Rick Buhler agreed with Wiley that reciting Biblical death wishes had nothing to do with voodoo and cheerfully reminded him: “Please let me know if I end up on your imprecatory list.  Bless you, Wiley.”)

 All this is illuminating and entertaining.  But however much I applaud the regular attention to self-inspection, nothing I have heard on Christian radio changes my view that moral reasoning is independent of, and a condition precedent to, religious injunction.    (And, a fortiori, religiously-inspired moral preaching says nothing about whether God actually exists.)  

 The really hard moral challenges are not much assisted by Biblical commands, it seems to me.  The Ten Commandments are a set of no-brainers—at least those not concerned with ensuring prostration before God.  No society would regard murder as legitimate behavior (though every society sanctions killing other human beings under various circumstances which the Bible does not spell out).  But how do you decide, say, where your responsibility towards another person begins and ends and how best to fulfill it?  If a friend, family member, or soul mate persists in engaging in what you believe to be self-destructive behavior, for example, how unrelentingly should you push for change, and when do you back off and say: “It’s your choice, I will desist trying to change you.”  Embracing an ethic of love doesn’t answer the question, which requires a nuanced exploration of our actual power over other human beings and our duty towards others, as well as a context-specific evaluation of our relationship to the person we hope to persuade and his willingness to be nudged or harangued.  Such dilemmas have only provisional answers, however much we might yearn for a stable answer from outside of ourselves.  Injunctions to make no idols and “have no other God besides me” are no help at all.

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14 comments

  • Joel · July 18, 2009 at 5:58 pm

    I spend a lot of time in the car listening to Catholic Radio, for seemingly similar reasons.

  • John · July 18, 2009 at 7:04 pm

    The Ten Commandments have some good ideas, but some problems, too. The first three (I’m going to use the Catholic divisions since I think they divide them up the best) are religious only, so they are irrelevant for a nonbeliever:
    1. Don’t worship any other gods besides God.
    2. Don’t use God’s name wrongfully. (This includes swearing or doing something in God’s name when you’re actually doing it for other reasons)
    3. Keep the Sabbath holy.

    As for the others:
    4. Honor your mother and father. (Well, most parents are worthy of gratitude by their children, but what about a deadbeat dad? Also, does “honor” mean obeying them after you are an adult?)
    5. Don’t murder (Great commandment–no complaints here)
    6. Don’t commit adultery (Good advice 98% of the time, but I can think of a few circumstances where it would be justified)
    7. Don’t steal (Another great one–couldn’t have said it better myself)
    8. Don’t lie (I agree that honesty is usually the best policy–in fact I think most people aren’t honest enough, but there are some times when lying is appropriate)
    9. Don’t covet your neighbor’s wife. (What about his daughter? Is that OK?)
    10. Don’t covet your neighbor’s stuff. (I was already told not to steal, but now I can’t even want my neighbor’s Dodge Viper?

    There were also a few commandments left out:

    11. Don’t own slaves.
    12. Don’t restrict a person’s free speech.
    13. If you sign a contract, abide by it.
    14. Don’t imprison an innocent person.
    15. Don’t raise taxes during a recession.

    Maybe these were the ones Mel Brooks dropped in History of the World, Part 1.

  • Ploni Almoni · July 19, 2009 at 1:24 am

    What to make of questions like these? Example:

    How we’re supposed to referee such conflicting [theological] claims is left unresolved.

    Well, that’s because you were listening to Protestants, not Catholics. The authority question has been kind of a sore point among Christians for the last few centuries. But even outside of the Roman Catholic Church, there are ways for believers to resolve religious disputes. For instance, a Torah-observant Jew would find himself a rabbi and stick with him.

    The really hard moral challenges are not much assisted by Biblical commands, it seems to me. The Ten Commandments are a set of no-brainers…

    This is kind of astonishing. First of all, the Ten Commandments are just ten of about 600 commandments in Jewish law. Even Jesus’ two favorite Old Testament commandments don’t appear among the Ten. Second, Judaism and Christianity have spent the last few thousand years developing sophisticated legal systems to answer these kind of questions (as has Islam with the Koran). The point is that this reasoning has taken place within a framework of (supposedly) revealed truth and traditional doctrine.

    Besides, it’s not at all obvious that the Ten Commandments, even when stubbornly viewed in isolation, are “no-brainers.” Does anyone want to argue that the commandment to keep the Sabbath, perhaps the most important commandment in Jewish law, was a no-brainer? And even if the laws themselves were no-brainers, the fact is that the Ten Commandments give them the authority of God, not of some random judge somewhere. That in itself is rather significant.

    Willfully clueless questions like those asked in this post don’t get anybody anywhere. They just contribute to stereotypes of us atheists as willfully ignorant and intellectually incurious. No one but the most extreme fundamentalist would suggest that reasoning is unnecessary when applying religious doctrine to cases. As far as I can tell, your goal in this post is to imply that because moral reasoning is vitally important, it’s actually sufficient as well. But no one at this blog has ever given any indication how they could possibly arrive at their own personal favorite moral code (which is bourgeois, secularized Christian morality) as opposed to other, competing moral codes, by means of natural reason alone. Granted, that would be a major project even if it were possible, but we haven’t even seen an indication, a proof-of-concept example. All we’ve seen here are countlessly repeated assertions that such a thing can be done.

  • secular square · July 19, 2009 at 4:53 am

    “Willfully clueless questions” ???

    I am not sure I understand the point of the Almoni post, but I’ll ocmment.

    1. Does this first first question really concern authority at all? It is rather about the problem of the existence of evil in the presence of an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent deity. This is one of the most perplexing and most examined philosphical/theological problems–at least among those who believe in the God of the bible. But, in light of Christian disagreements on this question, apparently God has not given Christians the “inside scoop” in his word.

    2. The 10 commandment ARE no brainers (I take the Sabbath commandment to be among those “prostration before God” commmandments excluded by Ms. MacDonald from the “no brainers” category). And the 600 or so additional commands are really case law examples about specific application of the “Top Ten;” unfortunately a good portion of them deal with the ‘prostration before God” category.” But I guess we could be more intellectually curious to research whether or not the Talmud or Catholic church moral/legal system contributes anything to today’s moral/legal issues.

    3. And what to do about friends who engage in self-destructive behavior ia another profound question. (Except in the bible: in the OT, they get executed; in the NT they get warned three times and then separated from the congregation). This question divides conservatives at the public policy level as well. Should a state or local government permit private self-destructive behavior as a principle of allowing personal liberty? Or should it regulate prive self-destructive behavior as a principle of encouraging personal virtue?

    These are anything but willfully clueless questions.

  • Mark in Spokane · July 19, 2009 at 12:15 pm

    One important point: the classical Christian tradition has never based its moral teaching solely on the Bible. Natural law, for example, has had a huge impact on Christian moral teaching, and oftentimes serves as a vehicle for Christians to engage in moral reflection on topics that aren’t covered in the Bible. The Christian natural law tradition, I would argue, is at least as important for understanding the moral teachings of the Catholic and Orthodox churches as the Bible is.

    To give one example, virtually all of modern Catholic social teaching, developed since the pontificate of Leo XIII, is based not on the Bible for the most part, but on natural law reasoning. That reasoning may be wrong, of course, but my point here is that it isn’t simply looking at the Bible for a verse to back up a particular course of action. There is a deeper intellectual action going on — one that may be wrong or misguided, but one which is still deeper than how it is often characterized.

  • Don Kenner · July 19, 2009 at 8:27 pm

    My only comment is on “the two dozen or so Psalms that revel in God’s willingness to mercilessly slaughter Israel’s enemies.” I have to say, these are the parts of the Bible I find most enjoyable. But I come from a Catholic background, where a pacifist Jesus is (we were told) constantly admonishing us to forgive EVERYONE for ANYTHING. To even utter something rude about Osama bin Laden is considered un-Christian. Read THE SUNFLOWER if you want to see Christians falling over themselves to forgive Nazis who burned babies alive. I wanted to vomit.

    The pop-psychology, flower-child Jesus is everywhere in the Church. He dove-tails nicely with the hard-ass, pre-Vatican Jesus who still thinks we should forgive Nazis but offer no quarter to the perfidious Israelis who insist (against Christ’s commandments) on the right to kill their enemies before their enemies kill them. At least, a few Jews still believe this.

    So when I read in the Psalms where David appealed to God to “smash the teeth of the wicked” I thought “Why can’t we sing THAT psalm in Mass?” Answer: King David was a Jewish warmonger.

  • Mark in Spokane · July 19, 2009 at 9:46 pm

    Don,

    I think your analysis of the “flower-child Jesus” is pretty accurate, and amusingly put. One of the really interesting stories of the last half-century, from a purely sociological point of view, is the transformation of Catholicism in the West from a conservative bulwark to a part of the liberal establishment. I’m not talking about official Church teaching, necessarily, but how the institutions of the Church work on the ground. Look at the vast majority of the Catholic universities for example. Would any alert person describe them as conservative institutions? Maybe one or two, here or there. But the vast bulk? For the most part, very liberal.

  • Mark in Spokane · July 19, 2009 at 9:47 pm

    Ooops — one more thing I wanted to add: the dark side, again as you so wittily point out, is an anti-Semitic attitude that has survived through both the pre- and post-Vatican II zeitgeists, although in different forms.

  • Ploni Almoni · July 20, 2009 at 2:29 am

    @secular square
    1. The way Ms. Mac Donald phrased the challenge, it was about theological authority, not the existence of evil. On the latter issue I agree with her completely: the efforts at theodicy which one sees are a joke. There’s no religious answer to that question within the frame in which it’s posed by atheists. Which is not to deny that there are good religious answers in other frameworks.

    2. You’re probably right that she meant to exclude the commandment about the Sabbath. But I’m sorry, the remaining commandments in the Torah are not “applications” of the Decalogue. “Love your fellow [Israelite] as you love yourself.” “Love the sojourner as you love yourself.” You say these are “cases” of the Ten Commandments? Come on.

    Again, my main point about Ms. Mac Donald’s way of looking at the Decalogue is that it’s a small part of Jewish and Christian moral codes, and it’s been continually and extensively interpreted over the last few thousand years. To read it in isolation, completely out of context, is what I call being willfully clueless. I stand by that description. What would a good literary critic say about that way of reading?

    3. Of course it’s a profound question. It’s addressed in casuistical detail in the Jewish and Christian traditions. Again: to read one tiny fragment, the Decalogue, in isolation and then to declare that it doesn’t address the specific cases is…well, you know.

  • secular square · July 20, 2009 at 8:51 pm

    @Ploni Almoni
    You are right in that I overstated the extent of case law in the Torah. I actually just finished reading Deuteronomy. Much of my attention has been on the “if you find your neighbors ass…” and “if a man seizes a woman” etc. etc. Your original post reminded me of something obvious that I have completely overlooked. I have read assorted Protestant commentaries but have completely ignored the Jewish commentaries on the scriptures. I hope to find some on line. I am interested on its take on some of the stranger case laws, i.e., a man gets to marry the woman he rapes if her father permits or the command to devote to destruction the “native” population of Palestine and their property, homes, etc. I have not read any satisfying Christian explanations of these primitive practices.

  • Donna B. · July 20, 2009 at 10:23 pm

    @John

    I think all your additions could reasonably be sub-headings under “Don’t Lie” and Don’t Steal”.

  • OFT · July 23, 2009 at 9:01 am

    Even Jesus’ two favorite Old Testament commandments don’t appear among the Ten.>

    They sum up all ten.

  • OFT · July 23, 2009 at 9:10 am

    I hope to find some on line. I am interested on its take on some of the stranger case laws, i.e., a man gets to marry the woman he rapes if her father permits or the command to devote to destruction the “native” population of Palestine and their property, homes, etc. I have not read any satisfying Christian explanations of these primitive practices.>

    They aren’t for this dispensation, as they only pertain under the Old Covenant.

  • RLG · July 24, 2009 at 12:27 pm

    It’s not true that the Bible doesn’t deal (outside the decalogue) when it’s right to kill and not to kill. God does get into the laws of war a bit. I’m slogging my way through the blood-soaked Old Testament these days (in Ezekiel, currently). During the conquest of Canaan, God repeatedly enjoins what would today be called war crimes or genocide. In God’s laws of war, the enemies standing in the way of the Hebrew colonization of Canaan are to be killed to the last man, including their animals, with no exception. I wish I could cite chapter and verse, but at least once, and I believe more, God actually kills Israelites for not obeying his command to slaughter every inhabitant of this or that city.

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