Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Surprise: Jesus himself has backed my view

My remarks about the Ten Commandments, stating that atheism is compatible with them, have provoked a detailed reply by the Christian theology student Cory Tucholski at the Josiah Concept Blog, in two parts covering 1-4 and 6-10. I am going to review these replies in more detail later.

It's very interesting that even Cory, as a hard-boiled theist, agrees with me in four out of ten points. Hard-boiled means that he believes the Ten Commandments to be set up by God himself, and that violations of these Commandments are not mere offenses against humans but offenses against God: "They were designed to be absolute rules." (emphasis mine)

His reasoning is mostly consistent, as far as I can tell; the main point is that I cannot share his premises and he cannot share mine. Many arguments that he brings forward base upon theologic background and quotes of the Bible other than the Ten Commandments. I, for my part, have looked at the text of the commandments as it has been carved in stone, and nothing else. This is one major source of disagreement between us.

Jesus: "It is just the Golden Rule" (Matthew 7:12)

In my remarks about the Ten Commandments, I have come to the conclusion that their real content can be summarized as "Treat others as you would like to be treated by them", also known as the Golden Rule. Jesus, as quoted in Matthew 7:12, has put it like this: "Always treat others as you would like them to treat you, this is the law and the prophets." By the way, "law and prophets" means not only the Ten Commandments but all the holy scriptures of the Jews at that time.

Surprise, surprise. Was Jesus a freethinker? In the eyes of the Pharisees, he certainly was. Now compare his "law and prophets" statement with Cory's claim of the Ten Commandments as God's absolute rules that have to be followed word by word. He seems to contradict his own master in this respect.

Photo credit:


Kenny said...

Jesus, especially as presented by Matthew, and especially when he talks about the Law, has to be understood in the context of the early development of Rabbinic Judaism. A story is told of Hillel, a Rabbi of the generation before Jesus, that a Gentile came to him who was considering converting and said that his one hangup was that the Law was far too complicated, so if Hillel could explain the whole Law while he stood on one foot, he would convert. Hillel supposedly responded:

"That which is hateful unto thee do not do unto thy neighbor. This is the whole of the Torah. All the rest is commentary, now go and learn!"

(This story is in the Talmud but I don't have the reference handy.)

But there's this idea, for both Hillel and Jesus that this does not render anything else irrelevant.

Think of it this way: my fiancee is a physicist. She can derive classical mechanics from general relativity. I can't. Not only that, I can't derive all of classical mechanics from the axioms of classical mechanics. So a bunch of other people did it for me, and when I took classical mechanics I had a textbook with a bunch of formulas, and I plugged the numbers into the formulas to solve the problems. The Law is supposed to work like this: in principle, you could derive the whole thing from the command to love God and love your neighbor, but in practice not everyone can do that.

That said, the Christian perspective on obedience to the Law is very complicated. Most Christians see the Ten Commandments as occupying a special place of universal applicability, but others (like myself) disagree on the grounds that commands like keeping the Sabbath clearly don't seem to apply in the New Testament (see Romans 14:5). Christianity certainly teaches that in the New Covenant we are supposed to be more mature and do more of our own moral thought, applying general principles instead of narrowly applicable rules, but that doesn't mean that we are expected to be able to derive everything from the MOST basic principles of loving God and loving our neighbor without any outside help.

Christian said...

@ Kenny: Your Hillel quote is very interesting, didn't know, and very relevant to my post. Kudos! I didn't say that anything else is irrelevant, only that it is fully covered by the Golden Rule. To counter your physics example, in contrast to that, everybody knows well how he likes to be treated by others, hence he also knows how he should treat them.

Kenny said...

I don't think it's at all clear that we know how we would like to be treated in real situations, let alone imaginary ones. I often think I would like to be treated in a certain way, only to find out later that it would have been horribly detrimental to me. Children, for instance, don't want their parents to discipline them, but adults who were not disciplined as children often come to resent their parents for it. Similar examples happen in our adult lives. As I said, it's even worse with hypotheticals: how would I like to be treated if I was a woman? Would I want special help to get ahead in life because of historic discrimination, or would I resent being judged positively on account of gender just as much as I would resent being judged negatively, and want "gender-blind" policies? I really don't know. The same question could be applied to race.

So, it's certainly not like physics, but the questions of ethics are not trivial either. There are some places where the Bible (including Jesus himself) makes claims that do not obviously follow from Golden Rule ethics, and may even appear to contradict it. A good example is the absolute ban on pre-marital sex, especially when combined with lack of recognition for homosexual marriage. But there are enough odd cases out there that if you have good reason to suppose that the authors of Scripture are better than you are at figuring these things out (or better, you have good reason to suppose that it's inspired), it will make sense for you to believe that these things follow from the Golden Rule, the same way that I believe that it follows from general relativity that F=ma is a very close approximation in most familiar cases. I justifiably believe that this follows from general relativity even though I don't understand general relativity.