Monday, March 9, 2009

Love Thy Neighbor

Earlier this week, a reader made an interesting comment on my God of Stone post. Bryan analyzed the logic in the post and pointed out that it seemed to argue both in favor of and against revisionism in religion. My argument is actually progressive in nature. I favor revision religion when it's an improvement for humanity and I'm against revisions that are not. For example, removing the moral restrictions on eating pork is a good revision. Praying to a statue of the infant Jesus is not.

As a reminder to newer readers, I am not a Christian anymore, although I was a highly devout one for thirty years. For an explanation of why I left my religion behind, you can read the posts In The Cleft of the Rock, The Man Behind The Curtain, and The Emperor's New God. I am now a humanitarian agnostic. In other words, I'm not sure if God exists, but I believe morality and ethics have meaning even outside the context of God.

While I don't agree with everything the Bible says, I certainly understand the perspective of those that do. Having studied the Bible for decades, I'm convinced that the biblical authors had a similar perspective-- that the true measure of morality and immorality is whether an action helps or hurts humanity. Furthermore, religious authorities in the Bible had no problems revising laws when the new law provided a greater benefit to humanity.

The clearest statement of this philosophy comes from Jeremiah 7. Jeremiah has received a message from God for the people is Israel and soundly chastised them for their idolatry and other immoralities. Then in verse 19, it says:
"But am I the one they are provoking?" declares the Lord. "Are they not rather harming themselves, to their own shame?"
In other words, no amount of immorality can possibly harm God. The whole reason things like idolatry are sinful is that they harm the sinner, by pushing them away from a God that loves them and will bless them with his presence.

This is a crucial argument. Given the premises of the Christian religion, it is absolutely impossible to harm God. Because God loves humanity, he wants them to prosper. Therefore, the only things that God considers sin are those things that work against the humans he loves. So if something doesn't harm any portion of humanity, it cannot be a sin.

Things are only sinful if they harm humanity.

I encourage Christians to stop thinking about God as a random set of likes and dislikes. "God liked Jews and hated pigs. Then later he decided pigs were alright, but homosexuality was still bad." That's just irrational. If you believe in intelligent design as most Christians do, then you need to accept that your God is rational and work from there. God likes stuff that helps humanity and hates stuff that hurts humanity. He might have a better understanding of what "help" and "hurt" mean, but that's as simple as it gets.

When you view the evolution of religion as a gradual improvement on rules that benefit humanity, many stories in the Bible make more sense. For example, in Genesis 9:3-4, Noah has just survived the Ark, and God changes the law of what food humans are allowed to eat. Before the flood, humanity was supposed to be strictly vegetarian, but now God says it's okay to eat animals. Why did God revise his law? Animals were no different than they were before the flood, and now there are fewer of them. Either you think this story is factually true, in which case God must have changed his mind. Or you think this is just a story, so at least the Bible's author has revised the religious law. In either case though, the reason for the revision is clear-- the new law benefits humanity more than the old law did.

God isn't the only important religious figure who revised the Judaeo-Christian religion. Jesus did too, in his Sermon on the Mount. Starting at Matthew 5:17, Jesus says:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.
He then proceeds to give nearly a dozen different examples of things people should do different from what the Torah (the law from Moses) instructs or permits. Here are some of these:
  • Insulting people is sinful
  • Looking at a woman lustfully is as bad as adultery
  • Divorcing a woman who has not been unfaithful is sinful
  • You should not seek retribution on people who have offended you
  • Love your enemies
The entire Sermon on the Mount was a revision of the Torah, or at least a reinterpretation. If Jesus said he didn't come to abolish the law and then proceeded to contradict the Torah, then the Torah must not be the law he was talking about. The simplest explanation is that the Torah is merely one interpretation of the laws "Love your God" and "Love your neighbor as yourself". This interpretation can be improved, and that's exactly what Jesus set out to do in his Sermon on the Mount.

If God was willing to revise his own law and Jesus could revise the law God gave to Moses, then everyone who believes the stories in the Bible must logically conclude that revising religious laws can be a good thing, as long as the new law does a better job of loving your God and neighbor. Sometimes the Bible got it wrong and needs to be improved with a good dose of common sense. If Jesus did it and Christians are supposed to act like Jesus, they should not be afraid to apply common sense to their religious text either.

And while I'm not a Christian anymore, this is the reason I believe that every Christian should be pro-gay. There is nothing about homosexuality that is inherently harmful to any human. It makes the couple happy, so logically there's no reason it should offend God. If there are rules against it in the Bible, then maybe those authors just didn't hear from God correctly and people should reconsider whether a ban on homosexuality actually embodies "love your neighbor". It's not at all loving to telling two consenting adults that they cannot marry each other just because they are of the same gender.


Bryan said...

After reading your previous posts, I think I have a better idea of where you are coming from. In particular, I disagree with your concept of sin.

In Matthew 22, when the Pharisees asked Jesus what the greatest commandment is, he answered that they should love God above all. He then followed up with the second greatest commandment, to love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus made it clear here that the morality he taught is focused on God first, and then on man and his relationships with other people. This is reinforced by the first 4 of the 10 commandments, which all focused on Man's relationship with God.

I agree that Jesus abolished the law of the Old Testament by providing salvation as a free gift through his death. This left the Old Testament as a set of moral guidelines to be obeyed voluntarily. Following them or not following them will not change one's salvation, though following them in spirit is encouraged for many of them, including the 10 commandments.

From there, Jesus corrected the people's interpretation of the law during the Sermon on the Mount, his confrontations with the Pharisee's and the Sadducees, and other sermons. The question of revision vs. correction is a little thin here though, and I agree with your conclusions.

I do disagree with your conclusion about homosexuality. I also have my own answers for some of your earlier questions, if you are interested. Its getting late though.

Thank you very much for taking the time to do this! You obviously care.

Bryan said...

Then God's real standard for sin is his glory. This is the reason man was created.

1 Corinthians 10:31 says: "So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God."
Also, Ephesians 1:12 says:
"in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory."

In other words, if we are not fulfilling this purpose, or if we are working against it, then we are sinning.

Elsewhere, the sermon on the mount in Matthew 6:24 Jesus says: Matthew 6:24 "No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money."
This means that God and Jesus do not accept halfway commitments. Maintaining good relationships with men but a poor relationship with God will have the same result as if he had done neither.

Where then is homosexuality?
Ephesians 5:23 says that "For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior." God's creation of marriage was intended as an image alternately of God and Israel (the entire book of Hosea) and of the relationship between Jesus and the Church. To practice any sort of romantic or sexual intimacy besides that described in the Bible, such as in Ephesians 5:31 "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh." is then sexual immorality, a defamation against the image of Jesus' marriage to the Church and God's glory. This includes heterosexual sex before marriage which is now much less of a political issue but spiritually equivalent.

Ted Vessenes said...

I haven't forgotten about your first comment; I've just been thinking some about how to best express my thoughts.

Keep in mind though:

If you want to change someone's mind, you must argue on their terms.

Christian thought all derives from the premise that the Bible contains the infallible truth of God. I'm trying to convince Christians that the Bible is at best an approximate record of spiritual truth, something to be improved upon. But to argue that point, I have to argue it starting from their premise: that the Bible is correct.

That's why I used Bible examples of God and Jesus changing divine laws. My point was that what's written in the Bible can be imperfect, and can be corrected and improved upon-- that's exactly what Jesus did.

If I were making this argument to a group of atheists though, I wouldn't use Bible passages to do it. Atheists take it for granted that ancient religious texts contain moral imperfections. The scientific method of make theory / test theory / improve theory is sufficient to convince an atheist the Bible can be improved.

You are trying to use examples from the Bible to argue your point, but the Bible has no meaning to me. If you want to convince me, you have to argue on my terms-- everything needs to make rational sense.

In other words, it's not enough to quote the conclusions of Paul simply because they are in the Bible. You also have to back up his argument as logically consistent, and I don't think his argument is.

The same is true of the 1 Corinthians quote. I firmly believe that if God exists, then everything should be done for his glory. But I believe the highest glory of God is the betterment of humanity. This is the turning of one talent into ten that makes the master say, "Well done my good and faithful servant." What greater glory can we give God than making the most of what God has given us? From this perspective, the only things that are sins are those that weaken humanity.

In the case of Ephesians 5:23, Paul isn't even talking about homosexuality. He's talking about marriage structure and why husbands should hold more authority than wives in a marriage. That is another thing I disagree with, but it's not really the topic at hand.

At any rate, if you want to contend that homosexuality is a sin using arguments made by Biblical authors, at least use a passage like Romans 1:21-32 that directly references that. Of course, even the Romans passage treats homosexuality as signet proof that church members had engaged in other immoralities. In other words, it assumes homosexuality is immoral and builds other conclusions from that.

Bryan said...

Despite my efforts to focus on "acceptable passages," you did make a claim at the end that Christians should follow your reasoning and encourage homosexuality as another form of love between man. This addresses your article to Christians as an attempt to show them the inadequacy of their beliefs based on assumptions about God. Unfortunately, your argument is flawed in that it requires that human relationships are first in God's standard for morality. Even focusing just on Christ, he himself sets love of God first and then human relationships.

If a man was alone as the only human on earth, would anything he did be acceptable, if human relationships were the only standard? Worshiping false gods, engaging in sexual immorality, abstaining from the worship of the true God are all still clearly sinful. In the Garden of Eden, it was not a harmful relationship between Adam and Eve that was their sin, but breaking the command of God, a command which made little sense to them other than that it was a command.

If homosexuality did not defame God's glory and was not clearly defined as sin in the Bible, I would not care. Similarly, I also do not care about the foods people eat, how they dance, or anything else, so long as it does not defame God's glory. Homosexuality is an unusual problem in that people are trying to have it legally defined as acceptable and a definition of marriage, even though God is the author of marriage and his standard is already clearly defined.

Heterosexual sex before marriage is also a problem, but no one is trying to define it as marriage. Largely, they do not care what I think.

Ted Vessenes said...

I disagree that homosexuality is "clearly sinful", as the proof depends on the premise of Biblical infallibility. Unfortunately, both God and Jesus revised the laws written in the Bible, so we cannot take it as a guarantee that just because the Bible sanctions or prohibits something that this reflects God's true intentions.

For example, you believe that slavery is immoral (I hope). Yet both the Old and New testaments sanction it, and Paul even gives instructions on how to be a godly slave owner! Yet no one in modern times claims that slavery should be permitted. Why do people who believe in Biblical infallibility not support legalization of slavery?

To be rationally consistent, if you claim homosexuality must be a sin because the Bible calls it a sin, then you must also claim that slavery is not sinful, as the Bible permits it.

Put another way, if you want to claim that homosexuality is wrong (in accordance with the Bible) and slavery is immoral (in contradiction to the Bible), then you cannot use the argument "because the Bible is right" to support your view on homosexuality. You need to present a different line of argument. I'm not saying there isn't another reason, but I haven't heard you express it, and I'm curious what that reason might be.

On the subject of heterosexual sex outside of marriage, the Bible is actually far more lenient than modern Christianity is. The only sex that was outlawed was sex with an unmarried virgin and sex with another man's wife. It was perfectly legal to have sex with an unmarried non-virgin, even a prostitute.

On that note, prostitution was not an illegal profession, except among daughters of the priests. That is because in historical Israel, many men died in the wars and left their wives as widows. Prostitution was one of the few sources of income for unmarried non-virgin women. It also allowed them to get pregnant and have sons who would take care of them in their old age.

Remember that in that time period, women were considered property. Having sex with a virgin was akin to stealing the dowry from her father, and you can see the penalties in Leviticus reflect this viewpoint. Having sex with a married woman was stealing from her husband. But an unmarried, non-virgin was not owned by any man. She owned herself, and as a result, it was not illegal for men to have sex with her.

Read the full Torah if you don't believe me. I was shocked to find out, but I read it cover to cover and I promise, there are no laws restricting premarital sex with non-virgins.

If you want a simpler proof that prostitution was legal, however, just read the story of Solomon and the baby. The text clearly states that the two women who came to Solomon were prostitutes, and that Solomon gave a righteous judgment by restoring the baby to its rightful mother. If prostitution were immoral, a righteous judgment would have involved imposing a penalty on the prostitutes, which Solomon did not do.

Bryan said...

When I said sexual immorality was still clearly sinful, I was including lusting and participating in sex with animals, objects, and pictures. If you were alone, there wouldn't be any other people to have a homosexual relationship with.

My point is that any moral system consisting solely of relationships between people is incomplete, because it ignores personal spiritual growth. With no one else around, you could ruin the earth with no moral problems, because you have no one to share it with. A Christian could not do this, because we are to be stewards of God's creation.

By the way, how are you to know what true morals are without the Bible or another aid? By experimentation? How do you calculate whether man's relationships have improved? Do you pick and choose your favorite parts from the Bible?

When Jesus revised the law, he did so not by removing it, but by taking the consequences of disobedience on himself. From Hebrews 9 (Almost all of the rest of Hebrews as well), Christ is the mediator of a new covenant. This cannot be revised without a new mediator, and as Jesus is already the greatest mediator, that would make no sense.

Alternatively, the Old Covenant of the Old Testament, salvation by living a perfect life, is still available, and was never invalidated.

There are two issues here about slavery. First of all, regardless of Paul's personal beliefs about the effects of slavery, he was obedient to the authorities and supported their law as a whole. God commands us to do the same in Romans 13, except in cases where the Bible and that authority clearly disagree, such as Daniel continuing to pray despite the government edict not to.

Secondly, the Bible outlined several protections for slaves which make it drastically different than the slavery practiced back in Israel and today. Slaves were to be released all at once on the year of Jubilee, which takes place every 49 or 50 years, or after 6 years of labor, whichever comes first (Leviticus 25) More importantly, slaves would be freed after serious injuries, such as losing a tooth or an eye from a beating. Therefore, as long as the master is acting in accord with the two greatest commandments, Love of God and Love of man, I have no problem with slavery.

On the matter of prostitution, I think Deuteronomy 23:17 covers God's position well enough for the Old Testament law:
"No Israelite man or woman is to become a shrine prostitute. You must not bring the earnings of a female prostitute or of a male prostitutea into the house of the Lord your God to pay any vow, because the Lord your God detests them both."

In the New Testament, God forgave prostitutes on the basis of faith and repentance. This did not make prostitution ok, but had the women turn from their sin and follow God instead.

As for sex outside of prostitution, see how God speaks of Israel in Ezekiel 16. He describes her as worse than the prostitutes.
In addition, as you mentioned in the Love Thy Neighbor post, "Looking at a woman lustfully is as bad as adultery."

Ted Vessenes said...

I want to stress that my core argument is:

The Bible contains many instances where a law is later revised for pragmatic reasons. Therefore all laws must pass the basic test of pragmatism.

Claiming that Jesus was only allowed to revise the Torah because of self-sacrifice doesn't explain every such issue in the Bible. Why did God command humans to be vegetarian when he made Adam? Yet after the flood destroyed most animals, God then allowed humans to eat meat. That's a clear revision and it has nothing to do with Jesus' crucifixion.

It also doesn't explain Paul's writings which invalidate the custom of circumcision, a revision that occurred after Jesus left the Earth, and by someone who was not the messiah.

Jesus didn't revise the Torah because a future death on a cross would permit him to. He revised the Torah because it was an improvement for humanity. And if Jesus never died on the cross, the world would still be a better place if people turned the other cheek and walked the second mile.

Sexuality in the Bible

I have a clearer understanding of your rationale against homosexuality. As I understand it, your argument is:

A) All sex outside of marriage is immoral.
B) Marriage is defined as being one man and one woman.

If both of those statements are true, then it follows homosexuality is immoral. I happen to disagree with both of those, but let me address the first, as I made the bold claim that the Bible doesn't outlaw all extra-marital sex.

The section you quote in Deuteronomy specifically refers to shrine prostitutes. These were prostitutes who engaged in their trade as part of worship to idolatrous gods, such as Baal. Obviously Israelites were prohibited from becoming shrine prostitutes-- because of the idolatry.

If all prostitution was outlawed, the Torah wouldn't need a second law prohibiting the daughters of priests from engaging in any kind of prostitution. Therefore some kinds of prostitution were permitted, as shown by the story of Solomon and the baby, who gave a righteous judgment to two prostitutes.

You did a good job of pointing out other verses where prostitution is condemned, but that's different from being outlawed. Furthermore, this discognition only adds more evidence to the claim that the Bible contains contradictions in its moral laws.

Also recall that of the twelve sons of Jacob, eight were borne by his two wives and four were borne by slaves of his wives. Yet Jacob was called righteous by God himself and nowhere in the Bible is Jacob chastised for fathering sons by women other than his wives. If the Bible is against all non-marital sex, why was Jacob praised rather than condemned?

Christians might not like to hear it, but the Bible absolutely does not support the view that sex is only moral within the confines of marriage. (Note that this might still be true; just that the Bible doesn't support it. Maybe the Bible is wrong on this issue.)

On the subject of whether the Bible defines marriage as between one man and one woman, the story of Jacob also invalidates that. In Biblical times, a moral marriage was between one man and any number of women, all of whom shared similar ethnic backgrounds.

It's also worth noting that marriage was not consensual in some circumstances. If you are unmarried and your older brother marries a woman, but dies before she bears a son, then you were legally bound to marry that wife. Furthermore, any sons she had would be considered the legal heir of your dead brother, not your own. This custom explains the story of Onan, incidentally.

The Biblical view of marriage isn't at all "one man, one woman". But as long as Christians have redefined marriage throughout the ages, they might as well end at this logical conclusion:

"Marriage is a long term commitment between two consenting adults."

How are you to know what true morals are without the Bible or another aid?

As I stated in the original post, I determine moral correctness by evaluating the benefit a choice has on society and humanity. The "other aide" I use is the aide of my rational mind.

So yes, I do pick and choose from the Bible, just like I do from every other information source. You don't believe everything you hear on the news or read on the internet without doing additional background research, do you? As an information source, why should the Bible be any different.

In fact, Christians claim the Bible contains the word of truth and life, and is the ultimate document of God's love and plan for the world. Those are very bold claims, and all the more reason the Bible should be held to the very highest scrutiny we apply to any source of information. That scrutiny is the scientific process of testing whether theories are actually true.

There is no higher honor you can bestow a document than applying the scientific method to it. Being unwilling to pick apart the Bible to see which parts are true just dishonors it. If you are so sure it's 100% correct, there should be no risk in putting the text to rigorous tests of logic and experiment.

By the way, that's how I have such a broad knowledge base surrounding the Bible. For three decades, I was convinced that the Bible held the keys of eternal life, and I was not ashamed or afraid of testing the text to prove it. I was certain the Bible would be reliable. Jesus could still be the Messiah even if prostitution is legal, for example.

In the end, however, it was weighed on the scales and found wanting.

Bryan said...

The Bible does not revise itself endlessly and should not be revised to suit today's needs
God did allow man to eat meat after the flood, while before that, he didn't.
God did create several new covenants with Israel, adding new promises each time. These covenants did not change God's standard of morality.
Jesus, as the mediator of a new covenant, did remove completely the requirements of cleanliness and restrictions on food. (See Matthew 15) This would have included circumcision, because circumcision symbolized the covenant with God to follow the law completely. Jesus' Sermon on the Mount and other commands did not change God's standard of morality. They were all within the scope of the two greatest commands, love of God and love of man.
Paul did not change Jesus' message at all. He was clarifying it, in the same way that Jesus clarified the two greatest commands in the Old Testament. This is the same with all the writers of the Bible who followed Jesus.

The Bible's commands
Your point on what the Bible "outlaws" has the wrong focus.

For example, in Matthew 19, the Pharisees asked Jesus about divorce. Jesus responded that God permitted divorce because their hearts were hard. Thus, while God permitted divorce, he still didn't want the people to do it. Our focus as Christians should be to do what God wants.

Much of the Old Testament talked about rules for cleanliness in addition to morality. Jesus separated these rules from morality in Matthew 15 when he said "What goes into a man's mouth does not make him 'unclean,' but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him 'unclean.'" Later in the chapter, he continues, explaining the parable to the disciples, "Don't you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man 'unclean.' For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what make a man 'unclean'; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him 'unclean.'"

Like the sermon on the mount, Jesus is making it clear that sin comes from the heart, like lust and anger. Whether he outlaws something or not is not an issue then, because the lust is the sin. I do not know why God did not explicitly outlaw prostitution and sex before marriage in the Old Testament despite considering it a sin, but I assume it has a similar reason to his allowing divorce. I assume he allowed it "because their hearts were hard."

On the subject of inconsistency in the Bible, The example you cite is ambiguous, meaning that God did not give his judgment on whether Jacob's actions were right or wrong. When you say that God called Jacob righteous, He did not do so on the basis of Jacob's actions. He called Jacob righteous because Jacob placed his faith in God. God did something similar with Abraham. From Galations 3:6, "Consider Abraham: 'He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.'" Again, there is a list in Hebrews 11, several of whom were clearly confronted by God for sinning, yet are commended here for their faith. Samson and David both clearly sinned and were punished by God, yet are listed here. Just because God names a man righteous, does not mean that he was without sin. Just because God does not explicitly point out each sin does not mean that they are condoned or accepted.

I don't really care about the specifics of "consenting" on the definition of marriage. The possibility of polygamy is more interesting. The Bible never outlaws it, and, unlike prostitution, it's much harder to tell whether God approves of it. God does set a number of standards for how multiple wives should be treated, and specifies that kings (rulers in general?) and elders should only have one wife. I don't really care about the answer here, because I only plan on having one wife.

A Standard of Morality Without the Bible
Do you still have a standard of morality if you are the only person alive?

I think that there is plenty of evidence that sex before marriage is "immoral" if we were to use its effect on society as a standard. Babies are either aborted, which has horrible emotional effects on both parents, or grow up in a broken home. What matters here, the usual case, or the best possible case? I would much rather rely on God's word than analysis like this, because God gives us the Bible and prayer.
How do you consider alcoholism or suicide? What about divorce?

Bryan said...

After talking to some friends, I realized that my position on God's removal of the Old Testament laws of cleanliness was wrong.

I originally stated that we were covered by God's forgiveness and that the original laws were removed on that basis.

The real reason is that the laws of cleanliness were required because the Old Testament mediator was the high priest. The Israelites needed to make sacrifices and practice rigid standards of cleanliness because in order to maintain a relationship with God, because God abhorred their sin.

By Jesus coming down as a man, sacrificing himself, and becoming the new mediator, he removed the need for the old, rigid standards of cleanliness, because he covered our sins. With Christ as the mediator, we are no longer abhorrent before God, allowing all people to worship him, not just the Jews.

As it is written in John 4:
19"Sir," the woman said, "I can see that you are a prophet. 20Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem."

21Jesus declared, "Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth."

25The woman said, "I know that Messiah" (called Christ) "is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us."

26Then Jesus declared, "I who speak to you am he."

Jesus removed these old laws because they were no longer needed, and so that everyone could worship God directly.