A Short (but longer than orignally intended) Reply

Jim Anderson at Decorabilia replied to my criticism of his earlier post, which itself criticized Benedict’s lecture. I started writing this as a comment over “there” but it outgrew that format. The remainder is “below the fold”.

On the “blood/sacrifice” point. Your skills at rhetoric and its terminology exceed mine. I’m unclear on what you are saying by pointing out your statement was an irony observed not a defeater, as I think it is an irony missed in that I’d have to agree with Peleologus and continue to insist God is not pleased by human sacrifice.

Your next point (which is I guess an echo of your Pascal quote) in which you ask, “Can Christianity claim to be all carrot and no stick”. Well, there is at least one (and there may be others) major strands of Christian theology that might make that claim. Orthodox soteriology makes no claims to the fate of unbelievers just that by following Orthodox tradition is the best and surest way to salvation. Orthodoxy claims to be holding fast to Chrsitianity which was held prior to the division (engendered by the recover/rise of the West and the filioque controversy), hence it might be appropriate to think that for Paleologos and a (small but) significant fraction of today’s Christian believers this Pascalian outlook is not appropriate.

I won’t go so far as to say you were wrong in your interpretation of Romans, just that I’m skeptical because Romans is a unified work and somewhat difficult. I’ll attempt the rashness perhaps this weekend as per your request. I’ve bounced off Moo’s commentary on Romans a few times this may give me impetus to try again. :) (to be fair to Mr Moo I’ve mostly tried to read it on business trips and airplanes)

On Hosea. From the ESV Reformed Study Bible’s introduction to Hosea.

The question of how to interpret the personal events of Hosea’s life that symbolically parallel his prophetic message has long perplexed readers of the book of Hosea. Are the details given in chs. 1 and 3 about Hosea’s family life to be understood literally or allegorically?

[...]

Although these debates continue the profound meaning of the prophet’s marraige(s) as a picture of the Lord’s relationship with Israel is clear

Ok, it’s clear to you it’s not figurative … but scholars debate so I think my question is not unwarranted, although as well given that there is debate your point may be taken as a possibility. Even if it is to be taken literally, one might ask, if God might rightly ask of a man as a result of theophany/prophetic experience to live his life and preaching as a strong living symbol for others to take his message more strongly even if those actions taken are sinful? If sin is doing that which takes us away from God, is it sin to do anything when instructed directly by God?

On Abraham/Isaac Mr Anderson wrote:

I’d be willing to grant Abraham a pass for his extreme faith in God’s crazy-sounding order to sacrifice Isaac, yet it still proves that a good God might ask something we’d expect from a devil-God.

In the previous I merely alluded to Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. This little book is a meditation on exactly this event. A taste

There lived a man who, when a child, had heard the beautiful Bible story of how God tempted Abraham and how he stood the test, how he maintained his faith and, against his expectations, received his son back again. As this man grew older he read this same story with ever greater admiration; for now life had separated what had been united in the reverent simplicity of the child. And the older he grew, the more frequently his thoughts reverted to that story. His enthusiasm waxed stronger and stronger, and yet the story grew less and less clear to him. Finally he forgot everything else in thinking about it, and his soul contained but one wish, which was, to behold Abraham; and but one longing, which was, to have been witness to that event. His desire was, not to see [ ... various facets of the story ... ] His wish was, to have been present at the moment when Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw Mount Moriah afar off; to have been present at the moment when he left his asses behind and wended his way up to the mountain alone with Isaac. For the mind of this man was busy, not with the delicate conceits of the imagination, but rather with his shuddering thought.

The man we speak of was no thinker, he felt no desire to go beyond his faith: it seemed to him the most glorious fate to be remembered as the Father of Faith, and a most enviable lot to be possessed of that faith, even if no one knew it.

There was a question asked of the Gods in one telling of the Ring cycle in which it is asked why they did such things to Men. The answer was something akin so that Heroes can be Heroic. Abraham got to show his greatness by God asking of him such a terrible thing. This would have been a “devil-god” if indeed it had crushed Abraham’s faith or had he been forced to immolate his son. But it didn’t and he wasn’t.

You quote of Joshua you point as the most problematic (and as you point out there are others). I’ll instead jump to an earlier (perhaps even more “damning” passage, in your light), Sodom and Gomorrah, which God himself destroys instead of via proxy. However, prior to its destruction there was a short conversation Abraham has with the Lord. This passage (Genesis 18) is part of a series of events which are sort of a “political education” of Abraham. In this one, wherein Abraham sort of bids the Lord down on “how may innocents” might be spared in order to stay God’s wrath. He is wise enough to not try to talk God down to zero. From this we might learn that insistence on “no collateral” casualties in enacting political solutions is not desired. In a theory of Just War, if one insists on killing no non-combatants there would be no war (or more precisely you lose all wars). Personal Justice and the Just actions of a State are measured differently. On this last point Mr Anderson complains

Olson’s last rhetorical questions are haunting: “Was Carthage wrong? Was God?” If we are to answer the question in the affirmative or negative, we must judge His character, His motivation, His reasonableness. If we are unable to answer, we have no grounds for assuming He is reasonable.

From Wiki on Aphophatic Theology

Likewise, God is not evil. (To say that He can be described by the human word ‘good’ limits Him to what good means to humans.)

Part of this disagreement comes from one’s perception of God as an moral agent. Is God more like a State or a Person in His judging his actions (if judging His actions is even apt). It may have been just, right and good for Rome to seek the annihilation of Carthage. It would not have been just or good for Cato to go on a homicidal rampage while visiting the city of Dido as a private citizen.

If one looks to my earlier (naive) semi-axiomatic statements about God, wherein God is taken as an ansatze in which the Platonic ideal of Good/Beauty and the Creator are identified as being one and the same. That identified thing (the Ideal and Creator) is called God. In this framework, “judging” God by Humans becomes somewhat confusing. On the other hand … identifying that formulation of God with the God of the Bible is the likely objection Mr Anderson would raise. However … I would expect that Mr Anderson and most Christians would decide differently when granting the merits of unrevealed details of the reasons why such commands or actions were necessary or commanded.

One might even ask the question of when those actions of God’s call men from the mortal plane, is that a bad thing? Perhaps life on this mortal coil is worse than being called home earlier. What if it was a blessing to those infants to be called back to Him without having to suffer through three score and ten (or less) years of pain and suffering (with just a dollop of joy)?

16 Responses to A Short (but longer than orignally intended) Reply

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  3. I’m flabbergasted that, in a debate about the reasonableness of God, you’d quote Kierkegaard, for whom faith is a “leap,” a triumph of the subjective over the objective.

  4. “One might even ask the question of when those actions of God’s call men from the mortal plane, is that a bad thing? Perhaps life on this mortal coil is worse than being called home earlier. What if it was a blessing to those infants to be called back to Him without having to suffer through three score and ten (or less) years of pain and suffering (with just a dollop of joy)?”

    Ah, yes. The old “Kill them all, God will sort it out” philosophy. How is this perspective any different from jihad?

    From a “just war” perspective, “collateral damage” is one thing. Intentional, thorough slaughter of uninvolved parties–women, children, livestock–is entirely another. Any “just war” theory that rationalizes the latter is morally bankrupt.

    Finally your individual-state example still presumes that we can judge the state’s action as moral. If God is beyond our judgment, it is impossible for us to declare him evil, not-evil, or anything else.

  5. Jim,
    On the first, I quote Keikegaard to demonstrate the “non devil-ness” of God in his actions toward Abraham, not as an exmple of the reasonableness of faith.

    The difference between jihad and my question of God calling us home, is that in the once case God is the direct actor and not men. In the case of Jihad, men are killing. That does not specifically speak to Joshua case you mention but more to the Genesis S&G destruction (or perhaps ideas that God willingly allowed/intended say the recent tsunami or Katrina devastation).

    Actually, it just occurred to me that the individual/state example has more relevance than I first suspected. We judge a state’s actions differently than a persons. Also, if we would presume to judge God’s actions possibly neither a state nor individual’s calculus for determining righteousness is to be used. And by some definitions of what God is the act of judging the morality of God’s actions are impossible by definition.

    I’m curious though, if God (propositionally) cannot be judged why then is also impossible to declare him as either good or not-evil (depending on your definitions)? A second is defined as:

    The unit of time is the duration of exactly 9 192 631 770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the caesium-133 atom at a temperature of 0 K. Defined by: 13th CGPM (1967-1968) Resolution 1, CR 103

    Thus you cannot for example in truth measure the frequency of that radation from that transition but you can declare it to be 9,192,631,770 Hz.

  6. Mark,

    I think an extended comment got lost in transit, but here goes again.

    This entire discussion is all about whether God is reasonable, and if it is reasonable to believe in God–or, morally speaking, to believe God, especially when He orders something abominable.

    My arguments were written in response to the Pope’s claim (following Paleologus) that forced conversion is unreasonable because it would be contrary to the reasonable nature of God. However, this presumes that “reasonable” is not an empty term, defined in a way that no human can understand–which is why Paleologus shrinks back from (some) Muslim views that God is morally transcendent, and if He commanded immoral acts, they would therefore be moral.

    By quoting Kierkegaard, you only underline the unreason at the core of Kierkegaard’s idea of faith. For him, faith is not about rationality. It is about subjectivity, and an irrational leap of faith. That’s why he admires Abraham, who is “no thinker,” and feels “no desire to go beyond his faith.”

    In one case, God rewards faith by rescinding the command, and replacing the victim of sacrifice. But in Joshua, when he commands humans to commit genocide, there is no going back, no way out. In fact, those who ease off are punished.

  7. Jim,
    Exactly how does Kierkegaard’s argument, which stresses the leap of faith, support an idea that violence to spread the faith might be reasonable?As for Kierkegaard and Abraham. then have you conceded the point that God’s action in this story is not the act of a “devil-god” and instead are stressing the reasonableness (or not) of God’s acts and commands?

    I think you’re confusing ethical reasonableness with the leap of faith required by all non-positivist traditions (and the positivist is too self-limiting to be of use).

    In the case of the particulars of the Jericho/Joshua matter, exactly in which verse do you find a statement made by God (and not Joshua for example) that all the men, children and infants are to be put to death? In the recounting, the Lord brings down the walls and delivers the city, but it is the choice of Joshua and the Israelites to put all the inhabitants to the sword.

    And while the leap of faith at the core ala Kierkegaard emphasises the non-rational elements of of faith, depending on where you stand on “election”, one might hold that your will/reason are integral in the act of seeing the necessity of taking that leap.

  8. Am I that obtuse? Look–the issue of Kierkegaard and the issue of violent conversion are separate, but each related to my core concerns, whether

    1. God is reasonable,
    2. It is possible for us to judge God’s commands or actions as moral, and
    3. If God commands us to do something immoral, do we trust reason, or declare that kind of God morally bankrupt–as Pope Benedict does concerning Allah.

    My point about Kierkegaard is that he sees Abraham’s decision as fundamentally denying reason. You can disagree with Kierkegaard’s dichotomy, but it’s unfair to him to misrepresent his theology. William McDonald explains,

    Christian dogma, according to Kierkegaard, embodies paradoxes which are offensive to reason. The central paradox is the assertion that the eternal, infinite, transcendent God simultaneously became incarnated as a temporal, finite, human being (Jesus). There are two possible attitudes we can adopt to this assertion, viz. we can have faith, or we can take offense. What we cannot do, according to Kierkegaard, is believe by virtue of reason. If we choose faith we must suspend our reason in order to believe in something higher than reason. In fact we must believe by virtue of the absurd.

    The crucial point here is not ontological–whether God is a devil–but whether we can be sure He isn’t. In Abraham’s case, God pulls back the curtain to reveal the faith-testing hoax. In Joshua’s case, God demands obedience even unto genocide.

    The passage in Joshua: Joshua 6:17-19, the injunction to utterly destroy every living thing.

  9. Jim,
    I wouldn’t blame you for being obtuse, more likely blame me for being dense.

    There are three things being discussed and mixed up.

    1. The core mystery of Christianity is not reasonable, i.e., the Trinity, Incarnation and Resurrection. Whether that is “reasonable”. It is not.
    2. The ethical demands of the 2nd Covenant, i.e., Jesus and the apostle’s ethical teaching which it seems can very well be subjected to reason.
    3. And finally, theodicy questions. I’m half done with my Romans 9 essay as per your request. It seems there are a few ways approach theodicy, i.e., God’s righteousness. It seems to me the choices are that, God is by fiat (definition) righteous, or God can be judged by human (individual), state, or in God’s own light (judging God’s actions as being judged by his standards as revealed in Scripture). Paul, as argued by Moo, takes the final choice.

    What I don’t follow is how (or why) you connect the first with the second two items?

    Finally on Jericho, is it not significant that God commanded (vs 2)

    Then the LORD said to Joshua, “See, I have delivered Jericho into your hands, along with its king and its fighting men. 3 March around the city once with all the armed men. Do this for six days. 4 Have seven priests carry trumpets of rams’ horns in front of the ark. On the seventh day, march around the city seven times, with the priests blowing the trumpets. 5 When you hear them sound a long blast on the trumpets, have all the people give a loud shout; then the wall of the city will collapse and the people will go up, every man straight in.

    But the phrase you attribute (vv 17-19) is not attributed to God but Joshua. So if you don’t attribute cultural/period sensitivities to just war theory and decide that this was not in accordance with Just War theory … is that blame to be laid at Joshua’s feet not God’s?

    On the minor issue (Abraham) you write:

    God pulls back the curtain to reveal the faith-testing hoax

    Hoax! That is exactly why I quoted Kierkegaard. I haven’t (I’ll admit) finished Fear and Trembling but what I have read is an impassioned and deep meditation on the nature of faith as demonstrated by Abraham’s heroic response to God’s instruction. And the key word is instruction not hoax. If, by comparison, in the Armed services if an alert is called and then at the last minute it is revealed to be a drill, is that a hoax? Is the occasionally (athletic) heroism displayed during a Sunday NFL game a hoax because it might be revealed that … it’s all just a game? When one asks Wotan in the Ring Cycle … why did he setup this horrible tragedy to unfold … it wasn’t inferred that the tragedy there was a hoax, but that the opportunity afforded for Heroism was a singular Good. In the Abraham/Isaac story … only a Ram was destroyed in the telling of the tale, unlike in the Siegfried tale.

    Calling it a hoax reveals more about your antagonistic attitude (anger?) toward the revealed Christian God than about Abraham’s God himself, I think. On that parenthetical note, I’m just guessing and I apologize if offense is taken.

  10. The word “hoax” was chosen to lighten the mood. Guess that backfired.

    I’m surprised by your unfamiliarity with the herem passages. The injunction to destroy every living thing is specific to Canaanite cities, first commanded by God, and most famously made in Deuteronomy 20, particularly verses 16-18, where Moses orders,

    16 However, in the cities of the nations the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. 17 Completely destroy them–the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites–as the LORD your God has commanded you. 18 Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the LORD your God.

    You continually assume that Joshua–or, in this case, Moses–is acting on his own initiative. A question would immediately come to mind: if God can topple the walls of a city, why would He not be able to prevent Joshua from–or punish him for–killing everyone and everything?

    But when you recognize the hard fact that God orders the slaughter, appeals to historical moral relativism or Just War theory are rather fruitless.

    I know, you’re still not convinced. Go to 1st Samuel 15

    7 Then Saul attacked the Amalekites all the way from Havilah to Shur, to the east of Egypt. 8 He took Agag king of the Amalekites alive, and all his people he totally destroyed with the sword. 9 But Saul and the army spared Agag and the best of the sheep and cattle, the fat calves and lambs–everything that was good. These they were unwilling to destroy completely, but everything that was despised and weak they totally destroyed.

    10 Then the word of the LORD came to Samuel: 11 “I am grieved that I have made Saul king, because he has turned away from me and has not carried out my instructions.” Samuel was troubled, and he cried out to the LORD all that night.

    Saul excuses his failure by saying he was saving the best for God, who instead tells Saul that he will be stripped of his kingdom, because “To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams.”

    Go back through the Old Testament and (re?)read the herem narratives for yourself. The strategy is the same, whether it comes from Joshua, Moses, Samuel, or God’s own lips. If we can’t trust prophets to speak for God… well, maybe that’s my point.

  11. Incidentally, I’m not the only one “mixing up” the issues of God’s reasonableness and the mysteries of the faith. McDonald, again, on Kierkegaard:

    Much of Kierkegaard’s authorship explores the notion of the absurd: Job gets everything back again by virtue of the absurd (Repetition); Abraham gets a reprieve from having to sacrifice Isaac, by virtue of the absurd (Fear and Trembling); Kierkegaard hoped to get Regine back again after breaking off their engagement, by virtue of the absurd (Journals); Climacus hopes to deceive readers into the truth of Christianity by virtue of an absurd representation of Christianity’s ineffability; the Christian God is represented as absolutely transcendent of human categories yet is absurdly presented as a personal God with the human capacities to love, judge, forgive, teach, etc. Kierkegaard’s notion of the absurd subsequently became an important category for twentieth century existentialists, though usually devoid of its religious associations.

  12. Jim,
    I’m not intimately familiar with all of this largely because … well … I’m not as well read as I might be. Recall I only became Christian as an adult some 2 1/2 years ago (after a little more than 2 decades away), and while I’ve been reading assiduously … I’ve got some years to go before I have the familiarity with Scripture, patristic teaching, and theology that I might like. I did however, read Samuel 1&2 in a little more detail than Joshua some time ago, although not with theodicy in mind.

    My guess is however, you’re mostly playing with my ignorance. That is I’d bet that for example, Hillel, who stated on Torah that it all boiled down to “Love thy neighbor, the rest is commentary” was quite familiar with herem and theodicy and had a reasoned reply (Paleologos as well).

    I’m not historian, but I wonder if the idea at the time was that the practice of wholesale slaughter and not taking slaves and so on had not the ethical import that it does today but instead sent a message foreign to us today.

    In general I’d guess that your apprehension that we cannot trust the prophets is not exactly right, but perhaps not completely untrue. A theophany when experienced is a visitation by a man planted firmly in his ethnic historical moment. When then, any message imparted is communicated it is necessarily translated through the worldview and experiential apparatus of the person gifted with that experience. I think you err in judging prophecy 2500-3000 years later by today’s standards.

  13. Jim,
    Oh btw, my Romans 9 essay is now posted.

  14. My guess is however, you’re mostly playing with my ignorance. That is I’d bet that for example, Hillel, who stated on Torah that it all boiled down to “Love thy neighbor, the rest is commentary” was quite familiar with herem and theodicy and had a reasoned reply (Paleologos as well).

    Three responses here.

    First, Hillel’s comment is punchy rhetoric, but rather poor exegesis. Second, Hillel may have never been troubled by genocide (also being a creature of his times), and third, just because Hillel might have an answer wouldn’t automatically make it a good one.

    You might think that I’m “playing” with your ignorance, but I don’t see it that way. I’ve read the Old Testament and commentaries and tried to sympathize with the various rationalizations offered, but haven’t been convinced. Most of them rely on your form of historical moral relativism, either intentionally or unintentionally mum about the slippery slope it presents.

    I would like to think that purposefully, methodically killing infants is always gratuitous, no matter who’s doing it, no matter the reason offered, and that I can safely judge anyone who would give such an order to be insane.

    I’m not historian, but I wonder if the idea at the time was that the practice of wholesale slaughter and not taking slaves and so on had not the ethical import that it does today but instead sent a message foreign to us today.

    Here is where a massive irony comes in. According to Leviticus, one of the sins of the Canaanites was child sacrifice. The punishment: universal slaughter in the name of purifying the land. (God, apparently, is not a cultural relativist.)

    In general I’d guess that your apprehension that we cannot trust the prophets is not exactly right, but perhaps not completely untrue. A theophany when experienced is a visitation by a man planted firmly in his ethnic historical moment. When then, any message imparted is communicated it is necessarily translated through the worldview and experiential apparatus of the person gifted with that experience. I think you err in judging prophecy 2500-3000 years later by today’s standards.

    This cuts both ways. I could just as easily say you err in trying to apply ancient morality to current contexts when discussing abortion, gay marriage, the death penalty, just war, slavery, or any other moral matter.

    Not only that, but the example that sparked this whole discussion, brought forth by Pope Benedict, was violent conversion through jihad. If we’re allowed to be historico-cultural relativists, we could argue that jihad is just fine because hey, it’s their culture, their time, and who are we to judge them by our own standards?

  15. Jim,
    Don’t pin me down on historical relativism as yet. At this point I’m considering alternatives, as you note, you’ve spend some (i.e., more) time thinking about this but have been unsatisfied. I’m not unconvinced that you’re requirements on what makes a satisfactory theodicy are such that it insures failure in all cases.

    I’ll reply in more depth tonight, I’m a little busy this morning.

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