Adding Insult to Injury: Faith and the Contemporary Moral Crisis (#6)

In the previous installment of this series (#5) we learned that human beings discover what is good for them through experience. Each new generation must be taught the knowledge of the good acquired and tested by billions of individuals over thousands of years. The knowledge of what is good for us is communal and traditional. It should be obvious to any thoughtful person that no individual can acquire this knowledge from private experience alone.

Allow me to anticipate my final diagnosis of the contemporary moral crisis: the crisis was precipitated when modern culture abandoned the notion that human beings acquire experiential knowledge of the good as a community and transmit it through tradition. Simultaneously, modern culture adopted a romantic notion of the good as a feeling of well-being and an individualist view of how we come to know the good. Only by gross inconsistency, sheer arbitrariness and threats of coercion can modern culture assert a moral order that limits the behavior of individuals.

Not surprisingly, when Christian moralists appeal to the Bible to determine what is good and right they are met with incredulity and hostility from the dominant culture. Appealing to the Bible strikes modern people as strange for two reasons. First, the Bible preserves a view of the good learned by a community over many thousands of years and passed on in a tradition. Since our contemporaries don’t understand that communal experience and tradition are the only ways human beings can learn about the good, they reject our appeals to the Bible for this reason alone. They would reject the authority of any other community and tradition.

Second, Christian moralists don’t just appeal to the long-term experience of a community. They also equate the view of the good presented in the Bible with divinely revealed moral law. The rules and laws of the Bible present themselves not only as discoveries of what is good for human beings but also as divine commands. The consequence of not adhering to the good is experiencing something bad as a natural result. But the consequence of disobeying a divine command is divine wrath and punishment.

Perhaps this second aspect of the Christian moralist’s message is the primary reason for the hostility of the culture. It’s one thing to warn people of the natural negative consequences of their actions. It is another to invoke divine disapproval and threat of punishment in addition to the natural consequences of the bad act. The first may cause people to smile at our naiveté, but the second will be taken as an insult and will evoke anger. It adds insult to injury.

But it’s not just outsiders who experience difficulty reconciling the good with the right and comprehending the relationship between learning about the good in communal experience and learning about it from a divine command. Believers, too, are often disturbed by the thought of God punishing bad behavior with pain in addition the act’s natural consequences. Or, perhaps they are troubled even more by the thought that God might command something unrelated to any obvious good and punish transgressors even when natural negative consequences are wholly absent. The moral crisis touches the church more than we would like to admit.

I want to begin to address these difficulties by considering the issue of why a divinely commanded moral law may be needed above and beyond humanly discovered good. I am assuming for the moment that we at least understand the reasonableness of looking to the moral tradition contained in the Bible for instruction about the good. As I argued above, it is most wise for an individual to accept the moral authority of a long, continuous community and tradition above private feelings and experience or abstract theory. But why divine commands?

(1) In view of human wickedness and the human tendency to degenerate into sensuality and violence, we can see the value of divine guidance and inspirations to help lawgivers, prophets, religious and moral reformers formulate the truly good for the community. This is certainly how the Bible sees it. After the fall in Genesis, chapter 3, humanity keeps on its downward moral trajectory until there is only one good human being, Noah. From the biblical point of view the customs of the peoples surrounding Israel are evil and inhumane. The laws given by God through Moses, however, are good and wise (See Psalm 119!).

Even though most of the moral laws in the Bible could have been learned—and in some cases were learned—from communal experience, human beings are inclined to follow their immediate desires rather than reason. And this inclination can even poison the moral traditions of whole cultures, for example, Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18 and 19). Hence, from the biblical perspective, God’s decision to educate his people about the truly good by giving laws is a gracious and kind act.

Next week we will consider a second reason divine commands are necessary: God has good things in mind for human beings that extend beyond individual and even communal well being, and only God knows this good.

To be continued…

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