Friday, December 17, 2010

The Unethical God . . .

I was in the car listening to a radio show earlier this summer and the host was interviewing a man and a woman who had been working on a book about how God is not a good God.  I was intrigued, so I turned up the radio and tried to really hear where they were coming from.  I think it takes more guts to disagree with God than it does to blindly follow without any reflection.

Their take on God was kind of weak at first - they had zeroed in on the manner in which Jesus spoke - asserting that Jesus was actually very cold and judgmental in the way that He spoke with people in the Gospels.  It didn't get interesting until they started to ask questions about how God could approve warfare in the Old Testament.  Thats when the board lit up and people were calling in registering their displeasure with a God who condones war.

I would say that the biggest problem that skeptics have with the God of the Bible is how bloodthirsty he can appear to be at times.  Just how does the Jesus of the New Testament square with the God of the Old Testament in passage like:

1. Deuteronomy 20:16-17   "However, in the cities of the nations the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes.  Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the LORD your God has commanded you."

2. I Samuel 15:2-3  "This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’”

3.  Exodus 12:29 - "At midnight the LORD struck down all the firstborn in Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh, who sat on the throne, to the firstborn of the prisoner, who was in the dungeon, and the firstborn of all the livestock as well."

So what do we do with passages like this?  How do we worship a God  that seems at times to act so inconsistent with the rest of scripture?

I think it boils down to three options . . .

1. The first option consists of answers that we have traditionally heard on the subject that try to hold true to the text as well as our sense of what right and wrong are.  This has traditionally been the answer which states that the nations that the LORD sought to displace through force were evil nations that practiced infant sacrifice or were sexually deviant.  The Bible itself tells of God's wrath being poured out on these nations and it being time to judge these nations through such acts.  This takes the responsibility off of God and places it on the shoulders of the sinfulness of mankind.  

This has not been especially persuasive for people (and not just skeptics).  Did every man, woman and child practice child sacrifice?  Isn't it possible that some were innocent?  

To be fair to the Bible, though, the scriptures were not written from the perspective of someone justifying the act.  There was no need to.  So we find description of the act and a reporting of the intention behind it, but not a whole lot of supporting material.  Perhaps if it sensed an audience that would take issue with it, the scriptures would have more rationale describing such drastic measures but it simply states a fact that God commands obliteration of a people.  

2. The second option includes a series of arguments that make the assertion - "maybe its you!"  

For example, Brian McLaren gives a clear argument for the proximal matter of ethics in his book A Generous Orthodoxy.  In it, he compares the seeming barbaric act of warfare with the ruthless way that we treat the environment.   McLaren muses that it may well be possible that people 2,000 years from now will look back on us and wonder how God could have ever blessed a Pastor who rides in a jet that polluted the atmosphere or drove in a car that burned fossil fuels.  McLaren's point is that ethics are always environmental and that God's holy wars are a product of a certain people and a certain time in history.  Perhaps God's involvement with war is a context that He was working through.

Others go on to point out how subjective human ethics are.  What are ethics other than what we think should be.  There are ethics that are grounded in something outside of ourselves (like religious codes) or there are ethics that float within us, tied to nothing.  The problem with ethics that come from within is that they are subject to our drives and desires.  You may agree that it is noble to make sure a starving baby has enough to eat . . . but what if you are starving as well?   Ethics - the art of knowing and being able to choose the right - always suffers from the weightlessness of subjectivity.  We get what we think is right and wrong from our own perspectives.  

So looking at the scriptures with a pre-figured idea of what is right and wrong and how God should act is to invert the relationship between ground and subject.  When we start with subject as the center of meaning, the ground seems out of place.  When we begin with the ground first, the subject then relates to it.

This has traditionally helped those with the Old Testament problem by the simple idea of extension.  If God is good in every other sense (the ground) then even in this instance that is disorienting, I will arrange myself (the subject) around what He claims is true (the ground).  Some day it will all make sense, but for now I know I can trust him in 99% of the situations that I encounter, in this 1% of the time, I will choose to trust Him rather than myself.

This is helpful for us in a logical way because it reveals that I (the subject) am an agent that is biased.  All ethics that originate with people have certain limitations to them by nature of the will of mankind.  We are predisposed to preserving life in certain instances and taking life in others.  For example we would say that it is ethical to apply the Heimlich maneuver to someone who is choking (saving life) while in the same breath we would say it is ethical to strangle the person who is trying to strangle us (taking life).  These ethics aren't written in the stars somewhere or delivered to us by an angel - they are rooted in the sense of self-preservation.  We are wired to stay alive - it is a predisposition.  How many other predispositions are out there that shape the way we look at the world?  In the least, it changes the way that we look at ethics - we can't assume to think that we know more than the Bible just because our conclusions are different.

There are two other conclusions in this somewhat unsatisfying group:

a.  These are not nations as we would think of it.  By the time that most battles were fought, many had fled and those that stayed behind were mostly soldiers.  Sometimes we think of Word Wars that tallied millions of dead.  Remember, Israel is the size of New Jersey.  Battlefields were small and cities were not huge metropolitan areas that we imagine today.  
b.  In the least, the difficulty of the passages remind us that, contrary to some scholarly opinion, the Hebrew scriptures were not tampered with.  These passages could easily have been redacted and the hard parts eliminated or at least smoothed over.  But they weren't.

3. Then there is the third option.  This is my personal contribution, so you may not like it.  However, I think this has some merit to it that most don't want to consider.

Remember that the idea of right and wrong is just the surface of something deeper.  I like how C.S. Lewis put it  in Mere Christianity - essentially ethics are the white and black keys that can be played by humans but it is the music that they play which is what is good.  Whether you believe that God being involved in a war is right or wrong is not an evidence of an ethic, it is the force that compels us to evaluate the act in the first place that is the actual good.  What drives us to seek whether something is ethical or not is the greatest evidence of the existence of good (and by extension, God).  In the end it is the question that makes us ethical and not the answer.  

If that is the case,  then we have to admit that if there is a God, His ethics must be beyond human reason because the conditions from which He is observing all of this human drama constitutes an entirely different set of ethics for Himself.  

So imagine, God is eternal, all-knowing and all-present.  Life emanates from Him and if we take the Bible seriously, He is anxious to put an end to sin and usher in an age in which we all return to good standing with Him, as in the garden of Eden.  From this perspective, what is death?  Death is nothing more than the transference from one life form to another.  It no longer has the sting of permanence.  Not even the idea of hell has permanence because of the saving work of the cross.  Add to that the fact that "it is appointed a man once to die" - meaning that everyone dies.  That and taxes are constants.

With that perspective, death does not carry the same weight as it does from this side of the grave.  Death has to happen.  Whether it happens from an accident or the sword, the result is still the same.  If God's ultimate aim is redemption, how are His ethics out of place if they are achieved by the sword or circumstance?

An illustration of this comes from dealing with my children.  A few years ago, a great argument broke out between my two sons.  It was epic . . . to them.  One son had stolen the other son's Easter candy.  It was a simple matter of just trying to find out what happened.  From our perspective, it was ridiculous - just give it back if you have it.  But Tyler was livid - a great wrong was perpetrated and the more he screamed "he has my purple ducky!" the more it became almost comical.  

Now of course I am not equating stealing candy with extermination, but I am saying that human perspectives are not the end of discussion when it comes to what is real.  We knew that there are dozens of purple duckies that we could easily get our hands on to settle the matter.  More than that, we had the foresight and maturity to know that this is a light and momentary affliction that will one day be a faded memory told with laughter.

Is it possible that God has the same perspective?  Perhaps.

I realize this is not a popular conclusion, I will get hate mail.  I am probably wrong to some degree.

However, this is the most compelling answer for how God conducts business - it takes it out of my hands and my need to make my ethos be God's ethos.

And of course we know that "He isn't safe . . . but He is good."

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