Why love and grace supercede morality
Regular Network Norfolk columnist James Knight takes up a challenge issued by vociferous atheist Christopher Hitchens.
A well-known challenge was once set by atheist Christopher Hitchens when he was alive. He said:
'Name a moral action taken or a moral statement uttered by a religious person that could not have been made with equal effect by a non-religious person'.
Christopher Hitchens set this challenge throughout America on his book tours - a challenge to which he claimed no one had provided a satisfactory answer. This was supposed to be a rebuttal against the Christians that think atheists cannot be moral without knowing God, and to hint that nobody has a monopoly on morality.
To me it's the sort of pliable question that sounds intelligent but isn't really. I think Hitchens' question shows a lack of understanding of what religious belief entails, and also the overlooking of something that should be trivially obvious. The short answer is, the question is as meaningless as asking whether quenching thirst is better than feeding oneself. It is true in most cases that there is no ‘statement’ or 'action' that a theist can make or do that others cannot, but that tells us nothing, because a proper analysis involves much more than just the statement or action - it involves analysing the beliefs, intentions, humility, motive, and other psychological factors that do not come out in a mere action. Naturally we could name good moral actions taken by both religious and non-religious people that have produced the same results, but that does not tell us anything about what is directing the action, or whether the person is living a Godly life.
I think the mistake made with this kind of moral probing is that sceptics confuse what the gospel is with ordinary human mortality, which according to scripture is something different. Look what Jesus has to say about what is most important, in Matthew:
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself..”
But then look what He says - "All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments". You see, law has always been ratified to work alongside the conscience for the purpose of engendering better moral behaviour. But according to Jesus, the whole law hangs on love - that is the message! This places all legalistic preaching as subservient to the demands of love, and on compassion for one's fellow human. Clearly what we are being asked to reflect in Christ is not primarily moral considerations – it is God’s love and grace, from which excellent morality ought to naturally flow.
To demonstrate this, I have a fascinating point to consider, which very much compounds the idea of God’s love and grace being greater than man’s concepts of right and wrong. Because God’s goodness is timeless and unbounded by earthly temporality, I can conceive of a type of goodness that lays a challenge even to the fundamental tenets of the Bible – and this only goes to show that the true essence of love and grace is not only unbounded by cultural times, it is also unconstrained by individual historical events and written text. In other words, even the cardinal historical recordings and written Biblical texts are themselves only representations of the overall love and grace that God expresses to creation. To see why, I have two thought experiments.
A fascinating thought experiment (number 1)
We have all read about figures in history way ahead of their time, and with a prodigiously creative intellect, that have had a sudden burst of foresight or prescience and thought up something epoch-changing and revolutionary. Consider this thought experiment; imagine a man in Old Testament times who, after observing the effect of the Torah on the warring citizens of Israel, has a sudden burst of conscience, and through an epoch-changing moment of innovation declares that all this killing and tribalism is barbaric. Upon realising this he constructs in his own mind, and then proceeds to write, a much better moral system – a system with such wisdom and foresight that it reflects a set of morals hundreds of years ahead of time, and enables a whole tribe of people to see that they must treat people more mindfully and respectfully.
Suddenly the Jews have a set of moral edicts that are more like the 21st century Christian ethics – and those edicts were all thought up by one innovative man. After a public enunciation from the innovative author, the Hebrews now realise that homosexuality is not a sin but a product of physiology; they now realise that worshipping a deity other than Yahweh is at worst a common mistake that is not worthy of being punishable by death; they now see that going near a menstruating woman is not wicked; they now see that cattle breeding, or eating seafood, or women attending church with their heads uncovered, or being born in the wrong tribe, are not acts that should engender death; and they now realise that burning people or stoning them to death is not to be endorsed.
Our moral innovator is a genius ahead of his time – and upon realising these ethical epiphanies he finds the current religious texts shocking and ignorant. Consequently, though, he makes one mistake - he cannot believe the God of the Hebrews would not know better, so he renounces his faith and becomes an atheist – making him an ancient Babylonian equivalent of a secular humanist. Remember this is only a thought experiment – but were that to happen there would be a serious issue at stake. You see, let’s picture Jesus in Heaven looking down in full knowledge that in a few centuries time He was going to be born as a man and save us from our sins. Upon observing this moral innovator’s sudden burst of ethical inspiration, I presume what Jesus would be witnessing would be a perceived improvement to the then status quo (albeit a premature one for which the Jews were not yet culturally ready) – after all, such views would appear to closely resemble the views Jesus Himself was about to espouse in a few centuries henceforward. So in the sense of this moral genius amongst the Hebrews tapping into something better than the status quo, what he has actually done is both virtuous and logical – because with the then knowledge, had he have conceived of these better morals by himself, he would presumably be rationally justified in proclaiming his ideas as being better than much of those in the Torah. Hence, it would be hard to impeach his rationale.
Let us try to picture a practical situation in which the above thought experiment could apply. Suppose that our moral genius one day has an issue over which to preside in the local town. Under the strictures of Leviticus 21 he has a case to deal with when the local priest’s daughter is caught selling her body for money. According to the Torah such profanity brings enough shame on the father to warrant her being burned to death. Imagine our man is called to help restrain this girl and carry her over to the fire and throw her into the flames, as per the Levitical instruction. Take a brief digress for a moment, and fast forward in your heads to the incident with Jesus and the woman caught in adultery, and His wonderful instruction to only cast the first stone if you are without sin. Now imagine our moral genius has a sudden burst of Jesus-esque tenderness and empathy – he calls for a halt, and demands that tenderness and mercy is shown to the priest’s daughter, and that the Levitical law is countermanded. Of course, once again, this would be an action taken in times before people became aware of their sins being paid for on the cross, but one couldn’t deny that his demand to show love and compassion to a girl who was most obviously a victim too would be years ahead of its time. Yet in doing so, I presume that through an Old Testament lens this man would be seen to be breaking God’s law – a contravention long before Jesus came to address the place of the law – which seems to demonstrate quite strongly that genuine Godly love and grace is unbounded by cultural times – compounding further the maxim by Christ that the Old Testament was only a temporary measure until the Jews were ready for the Incarnation.
This is a great way of seeing how much of the law consists of our human efforts in developing a relationship with God. The person who takes the law as being unalterably God’s with no human inspiration has to argue that the law directly attributable to God could have been improved upon by a moral genius with some intuitive feelings of empathy. It seems much more sensible to say that God helped the Hebrews’ understanding with formal indicators that would help pave the way for the Incarnation. Any other theory doesn’t put God in a good light, because in keeping with scripture we are told that putting this newly inspired practice into place would qualify us for punishment under the charges of breaking the law. I can’t really conceive of a situation where an act of love and tenderness and sympathy towards a priest’s daughter who clearly needs it would be worthy of incurring the wrath of God. I can’t imagine God saying “Well, nice try, and what you did was a great thing, much in line with what my Son Jesus would have you do – but you’re just a bit ahead of yourself there – you supposed to be much harsher, because that sort of improvement isn’t going to happen for a few centuries yet”. That, I presume, would be absurd.
We are told that Jesus didn’t negate the law – He instead told us that in love and grace our hearts are ready to take on more. A moral innovator that anticipated this before his time could not justifiably be punished or impeached for being too close to grace too soon – that would be incongruous to the unbounded qualities of grace itself. But if we contend that the laws are a mixture of Divine inspiration, and Hebrew men’s efforts in creating systems as though they have God on their side, then it makes sense. And anyway, we are told that most of the ceremonial laws were symbolic of the redemption that Christ would bring. In other words, the laws symbolise the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ by putting in place the gradual unfolding of the grace anticipated and foretold in the Old Testament. (Romans 10:14 even declares that Christ was the focus and aim of the Mosaic Law). This shows good reasons to believe that Divine goodness is something altogether more wonderful than scriptural wisdom – because by being ahead of his time our moral genius could be seen to tap into something more Divine than the supposed Divine teachings of the Old Testament time.
An even more fascinating thought experiment (number 2)
To compound this point, we can even take it further – for I can conceive of an act of goodness that is actually 'inconsistent' with God's plan but not contrary to His will at the level of individualistic human consideration and intrinsic goodness. This second thought experiment is even more compelling than the first. Consider a Good Samaritan type who lived in first century Palestine. This man has never heard of Jesus and has no idea that He is our saviour, but he happens to walk past as Jesus is being tortured and humiliated just prior to the crucifixion. Being a good citizen with a strong moral duty for solicitude, and intent on helping his fellow man, the Samaritan intervenes to stop this horrific act of Jesus being tortured. The Samaritan comes to the aid of Jesus, as any moral citizen should if he or she observes such barbarism in full swing. This man has done what is morally right with all the virtuous intentions that would serve his conscience and character well at an individualistic level, but unbeknown to him he has interfered with God's plan for the salvation of the world. The result:
No crucifixion = no resurrection = no Divine price paid for us on the cross.
Here we see how God’s plan and God’s will are both consistent and yet distinct. God’s will is for the salvation of mankind, so He carries out the plan of Divine sacrifice on the cross. Now of course, in real life we know that in historical time God's will was done on the cross and no man could be allowed to interfere in God's plan like that. But it does demonstrate the distinction of the two branches of the same root - moral rectitude and assent to the Divine will - and that it can be conceived that the former must be suspended (that's 'suspended', not 'breached') for the latter.
With all this we see the strange paradox that shows the Bible only expresses the goodness that represents what God is. In the thought experiments, both our moral genius and our Good Samaritan were able to transcend the texts and history of the Bible by appealing to the same kind of goodness that stands above isolated moments in history. The true paradox is that even the greatest act of grace the world has ever seen – the crucifixion – becomes subjected to nature’s considerations of right and wrong when a bystander is hypothetically faced with the chance of being a Good Samaritan and intervening. That the Samaritan could have stopped it and been considered virtuous for doing so indicates that the goodness found in God’s acts in nature is only a part of the overall goodness He is expressing in His supernatural personality. And that is why those moral challenges set up to undermine Christian love and grace will always be inadequate to the task.
James Knight is a long term contributor to the Network Norwich & Norfolk website and a local government officer based in Norwich.
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