- Religion and Philosophy
God's Absolute Morality?
A recent exchange with a newcomer to hubpages has raised an interesting and often unanswered question regarding the supposed moral nature that the Christian God exhibits in the Bible and how it contrasts with what we are told about God's morality by many modern Christians. The issue at hand relates primarily to the Mosaic law, the collection of over 600 commands that God supposedly gave to Moses that helped establish and regulate ancient Israelites society.
At the heart of the issue is this question: Does the Mosaic Law still apply from a moral standpoint – from any standpoint? That is to say is ANY violation of God's direct commands to Moses still a sin? The answer to this will affect how Christians should view God's moral nature.
Relative, Subjective, Objective, Absolute
First it might be important to establish the terms we will be dealing with here. The first term I want to outline is the term absolute. Now many Christians argue that God is not only a source of objective morality but a source of ABSOLUTE morality. Absolute morality does not bend across cultures or change or progress with time.
It's the factors of time and culture which is what makes me draw the distinction between objective morality and absolute morality. Many atheists now believe that an objective understanding of morality is possible, I am still very much on the fence about this, however it is clear that this objective morality needs refinement, constant updating, better data and thus is not objective in the ABSOLUTE sense of the word. I don't like this usage of the word objective that folks like Sam Harris like to use, I see that morality as reliant upon objective facts about well-being but ultimately still subjective on some level.
The next terms to be established are relative and subjective. Relative morality, in this discussion, holds that there is no behavior which is absolutely or objectively wrong in all contexts for all beings and similarly no behavior which is absolutely or objectively right either. Subjective morality does not make any such statements but simply holds that because we are subjective beings in a specific society at a specific moment in time establishing truly objective or absolute morals is impossible. In other words even if morality can be improved it can never be perfect because there will always be, at its core, some level of subjectivity.
Sin is Sin?
The hub that inspired this attempted to make the argument that sin is sin, plain and simple, and that Christians shouldn't draw attention merely to the sins that offend them personalty or seem to be out in the open but to all sin equally. This attitude seems to be sparked by verses such as Romans 6:23 which holds that the wage of any sin is death, an attitude that is repeated quite often in the Bible coming first from the mouth of God to Adam and Eve telling them they will surely die if they disobey and eat the fruit.
The issue this raises, however, is one that goes back to the very beginnings of Christianity, the question of whether new converts were meant to follow the Jewish Law in order to follow Jesus or whether Jesus had done away with all that. This is a debate which has gone on for nearly two thousand years and, to my knowledge, no Christian has ever offered a satisfactory excuse for why they are not also Jewish in their practices.
Of course the Apostle Paul does have a few things to say about the issue, basically amounting to the notion that God's grace through Christ means Christians, and all of mankind, are out from under the law of Moses. However Paul seems to suggest that the Law still counts even if it is no longer held over humanity as it once was. Jesus himself says that the Law will not pass away.
The Changing Mind of an Unchanging God?
The authors of the Bible likely had no idea that debates about subjective or objective morality would ever break out and could likely never have predicted the odd way in which modern Christians often view God. God's morality, we are told time and time again by modern apologists, is absolute good, omnibenevolence – however often in the same debate they will play their “Get out of the Old Testament Free” Card and claim that Jesus changed the law to only two commandments – love God and love thy neighbor.
Did God change his mind and change the rules post-Jesus or is breaking the Mosaic Law still a sin? This is the question I leveled at the author of the hub in question and it is the question I level at Christians now. If God's morality is absolute than his morality, as reflected in the Biblical Mosaic law, hasn't changed. This means the Sabbath is still to be honored, witches are to be put to death, and adulterers are to be stoned to death. Even if you argue that post-Jesus God changes the way he punishes people who break his laws or the way in which he administers his morality these rules, if absolute, still reflect God's moral nature. Are these the sort of restrictions, laws and edicts that suggest omnibenevolence?
If sin is sin, and any disobedience of God's command is sin, than breaking the Mosaic Law is still sinful. And this is regardless of what KIND of law we're talking about. Those quick to point out that some of the laws regarded ritual, some clothing, some personal hygiene and some legal and moral issues aren't doing themselves any favors. If its a rule that came from God himself than disobeying it is IMMORAL by the very definition of what sin means Biblically speaking. For example, the sin of Adam is disobedience – if God hadn't warned him about the fruit and he'd eaten it God could not have held him accountable.
The Apostle Paul admits this, claiming that Christians must become slaves to righteousness and therefore, thanks to Jesus, they can be obedient to the law without actually being under the law.
Three and a Half Possibilities
It seems to me that Christians have three main possibilities none of which put them in very good positions.
First is the idea that God changed his mind, that breaking the Mosaic law is no longer disobedient or immoral. This makes morality subjective because it depends on the whim of a God who can change his mind and update his morality, even if that change means an improvement of moral standards.
Second is the idea that the Mosaic Law is only meant for the ancient Hebrews, that God never intended it to ever be for all human beings and that it applies to that culture and that time. This means that God's moral teachings are relative, that they depend on culture and time period and could get better or worse depending.
The third is that breaking the Mosaic law is still considered a sin. This is in keeping with the idea of absolute morality, that God's commands stand for all time for all human beings and, as Jesus said, not a line will pass away until the law is not needed at the end of the world.
The half I mentioned is the idea that God's morality is objective but not absolute, that is to say it changes contexts in regards to situations and can see improvement as better understanding is reached but does not change in relation to culture.
Objective morality of this type looks at objective reality, such as health and well being, as a measure of whether a behavior is good or bad and as such is dependent upon our understanding of the natural world. The reason this is only a half is because I don't think Christians would admit that God's morality can improve as God learns to understand human beings better because God is meant to be omniscient. Also, I have issues with this definition of objective to begin with.
Which Possibility Best Explains God's Morality?
It may seem as if the first and second are the best options for Christians to take, particularly the first one, but in my conversations with Christians they are extremely reluctant to admit that God's morality is subjective. Some Christians like to quote passages from Leviticus to talk about homosexuality as a sin but this presumes that the Mosaic law is still in effect. You can't have it both ways and you can't merely pick and choose, or cherry-pick, what parts of the Mosaic Law still sound like they should be sins to you – especially when consensual gay relationships do not violate the love thy neighbor and love god commandments that Jesus gives. There are gay Christians who are just as sincere as the straight ones in their love of God and who seek out monogamous consensual relationships with other people of the same sex that do nothing to hurt anyone.
The second option, I think, is the more Biblically consistent one, as the Bible is a collection of mythology, morality tales, fables, and pseudo-histories translated over and over, edited over and over and finally cobbled together by Constantine and his cronies it makes sense that the morality it depicts is highly subjective and presents God's morality as highly relative. In some contexts, for example, God thinks its okay to have children killed by conquest, have them eaten by their parents or have them taken as prisoners, slaves or spoils of war (1 Samuel 15, Jeremiah 19, Numbers 31, Deuteronomy 20, etc) yet we understand that these things are wrong and most Christians would think they were horrific if a human being did them.
So what do you call it when its right for God to do it but wrong for us to do it? - that's morality being RELATIVE. The same can be said about the slavery issue. God has no problem with slavery in Exodus 21 but Christians assure us today that God doesn't want people to be enslaved (at least to other people) so if it was okay in Israelite days but isn't okay now that makes it relative.
The third option is the most problematic for Christians because there are so few sects of Christianity that give even the slightest shit about the Mosaic law anymore. Everyone is hasty to throw around verses like the Ten Commandments that appear in Exodus 20 but no one looks beyond it to the rules about slavery that exist in the very next chapter. Christians readily bring up Leviticus in regards to homosexuality but I have not heard calls for adulterers to be stoned or for eating bacon and pork to be considered forbidden.
What we have here are people propping up their dislike of homosexuality with Biblical laws when they do not understand the implications of what they are arguing. There is nothing in the teachings of Christ which would make homosexuality a sin and if one wants to bring in the Mosaic law they must open the floodgates and bring them all in. If God's morality is absolute than disobeying the Law IS SIN. Jesus said the whole of the law can be reduced to two commandments, this wasn't said to erase the Law of Moses but to simplify it for the common people that Jesus spoke to. Yet Christians often make it out as if Jesus was arguing that the Mosaic Law be done away with.
If you feel there is a possibility I missed feel free to post it, but in my discussions with Christians and explorations of these issues I have not found a satisfying answer. This can be quite the conundrum for hardcore believers but for folks like me who see the Bible as a very human book, one filled with varying versions of God that depend upon the intent and belief of the various authors, it makes perfect sense. Of course a God conceived of by dozens of different authors across centuries of time would exhibit these inconsistencies and become even more varied as the common citizen gained literacy, gained access to the scripture and became capable of reinterpreting things without the need for dominant orthodoxy.
To me it seems obvious that God's moral nature can only as good as the human beings that created him. Thanks for reading!