Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Religion and morality

Some people think morality comes from religion.  What their religion tells them to do, that is what is moral.  Others think religion can be proved from morality – conscience is innate, and its universal existence proves the existence of God.

The first one for certain I don't believe.  If my morals came from my religion, why do I periodically get morally offended by God's actions in the Bible?  Shouldn't I instead base my view of morality on those actions?  If we really derived morality from religion, there wouldn't be so many explanations for why God was justified in doing this or that, by showing how he didn't really violate this or that law.  A person's belief in the law must be prior to their attempt to fit God inside it; otherwise the attempt is not really necessary.

The second, I spent a long time attempting to disprove on somebody else's blog.  Not because I wouldn't like to believe it, but because there is plenty of evidence that people's morality does have a naturalistic explanation – from pro-social instincts which favored the survival of the tribal unit, to early conditioning in childhood to fit a certain culture's standards.

And the trouble is that conscience is not so universal as all that.  Psychopaths, for instance, don't appear to have any.  Ours today is quite different from what seemed right to, say, Vikings.  And apparently I myself am missing one thing that I recently read is near-universal – the desire to see evildoers punished.  I simply don't have any strong emotion about it.  I am utterly repelled by cruelty, for instance, harm to the innocent, and so forth, and yet the idea of letting a murderer off the hook only raises an intellectual question, “How shall we keep society safe?”  If you could throw all the murderers onto a rocket and send them to a lunar colony, where they would live quite happily far from all the innocent people they might harm, I'd really be fine with that.  And yet most people I meet seem to disagree strongly with me.

I think this difference is innate because I have had an upbringing that should have taught me the opposite, and in addition most of my influences have been conservative and religious.  It first became clear to me when I found out about the utter depravity of Father Maciel.  I learned that he had abused dozens of boys, that he'd cheated donors (including my own parents) out of millions, and that the psychological damage I myself suffered was only to fuel his own megalomania.  I was repelled to think that I had been taught to see him as a hero, that I had kissed his hand.  But when I heard that he had died refusing the sacraments, I thought, “Oh dear, I hope he doesn't end up in hell.”  I don't mean I forced myself to say that.  I mean it was my first, reflexive thought.

However, I can see why we would, in general, have that instinct.  Morality is always just a bit tenuous; there will always people with too weak of a grasp on it, or too strong a motive to disobey.  We need anyone who is tempted to act immorally to realize that the risk is too great, that something bad will happen to them if they transgress.  And for that to happen, we need to have people want to punish them.  Is that where people's strong belief comes from that the whole world functions in some sort of cosmic math, x suffering for y sin?  Rationally I can't see any necessity that suffering pays for sin or that sin deserves suffering – though, of course, I can see that sin causes suffering, that's a rather different question.  But if the vast majority of humans have an instinct that sin does deserve suffering, no wonder they have taken it as an axiom.  From there you can postulate that perhaps this is why human cultures have come up with symbolic ways to expiate guilt with sacrifices of various kinds.  It is possible that religion comes from morality.

If I assume, as I do, that my moral intuition doesn't come from my religion, then it follows that I would struggle morally with religion.  I think this is what people don't understand about my struggle.  They say, “Well, it doesn't hurt you to do the harder thing, so why not assume the faith is true?  It doesn't hurt anything.”  In fact, I myself said that a few months ago!  But it carries the assumption that Catholicism is morally more demanding than reason or instinct alone, which in my case is not necessarily so.  There are some things that the Catholic Church expects which demand a moral struggle of me.  Gay marriage, for instance.  I have never heard a nonreligious argument against it that convinced me, despite a great deal of study on the topic.  What if the Catholic Church's beliefs about homosexuality are wrong?  Are we denying people something that could make them happy while not actually harming anyone or anything?  If the Catholic Church is true, I am morally obligated to oppose gay marriage; if not, the moral obligation runs the other way.

The Catholic Church's history is not very pretty to the modern eye: you all know the stuff I could dredge up, and if you're Catholic you probably have some answers to those.  (For instance, the other week I had the pleasure of informing someone that no, the Inquisition did NOT actually cut off Galileo's finger!  The things they think of!)  But I'm thinking more of its philosophical condoning of slavery, for instance, or the teaching on the marriage debt which seems to condone (and surely throughout history was often used to condone) marital rape.  How can God have been guiding the Church so carefully that he made sure we got the word “homoousion” right but he couldn't be bothered to tell us to free all the slaves?  If he really inspired Scripture, why all the “bad bits”?  I used to think these were a few isolated passages, but I tried to read parts of the Bible that didn't have them, only to find they were everywhere!

Did God actually command that innocent boys should all have part of their genitals severed, without anesthesia, at eight days old?  If he didn't, he clearly has no control over what we say about him, because that's kind of a big thing to get wrong; but if he did, he's directly responsible for the suffering of millions of innocent infants.  I can't really get around this.  Did God command the slaughter of the Canaanites, or the Amalekites?  Did he say we should stone our own family members if they suggest worshipping strange gods?  Did he make his prophets lie and send people delusions?  Does he send people to hell???

And at that point my moral sense rebels, and I find myself saying, “If God is really like this, it would be immoral for me to worship him.”

True, God is infinite and I am very finite.  I know my moral feelings aren't shared by everyone.  I have read Job and I know I have no right to even ask why.  I know that my feeling of what is good is not the standard; that what is good for humans to do may not be the same as what is good for God to do, and that I ought to be grateful he cares for humans at all.  I mean, where was the rule that ever said that universe couldn't be ruled by an arbitrary, possibly evil being?

And yet, my moral intuition is something I cannot explain away. Should not explain away.  It's my prime directive; if God created me with this programming, he can hardly object to my following it.  And so in my heart of hearts, I had to declare: those things are wrong.  And if God will damn me for pointing out that those things are wrong, let him do so.  I don't want to spend an eternity with a being who does what God is said to do.

What I want is to spend an eternity with the sort of being I thought and hoped God was.  One I don't have to make excuses for.  One whose actions can easily be seen to be good, and don't have to be reinterpreted for every age to make them okay.  You see, I do have a God-shaped hole in my heart.  It just does not appear to be the shape and size of the God of Abraham.

I suppose everyone has a God-shaped hole in their heart; and the wildly varying shapes of these holes can be taken as proof that they are self-created and not any evidence of God at all.  Or they can be taken to show that we can never possibly understand what God is, that perhaps all the contradictions between different books of the Bible and even different religious are just humans' clumsy attempt to capture him in words.

I don't really believe in the God I want to exist.  That is, I don't have any reason to believe he is out there.  But I want there to be.  Perhaps in God's eyes I am a child having a tantrum, stamping my foot because I want him to be better than he is.  But perhaps even that makes him smile – the way I smile when Marko says, “I will NEVER go sit in my room, NEVER EVER.”  Because I know that in his childish way he is being brave.  He's the stuff of which heroes and martyrs are made.  And maybe God knows that in being true to my conscience and demanding he be true to it too, I am being exactly what he created me to be.

Well, that's the hope anyway.


Belfry Bat said...

I just want to mention that your instinct to hope that Fr. Maciel didn't go to hell is a perfectly Christian reaction. It would be a grave sin to wish, or scheme, for the damnation of anyone.

Sheila said...

Oh, I know that. I just think it seems to be unusual for people to feel that way automatically. Most people seem to have an urge to see bad people punished, as evidenced by those who insisted on this blog a few months ago that God would be unfair if he didn't send people to hell. I feel there is no end of perfectly fair other things God could do.

This week the Boston Bomber has been sentenced to death . . . . I feel very sad about this.

Enbrethiliel said...


Well, I guess there's nothing else to say . . . I hope I don't sound as if I'm writing you off. But you've clearly reached a conclusion and even I wouldn't be so rude as to keep trying to argue. =)

Sarah said...

I still struggle greatly with the fact that there are many Catholic moral teachings I just can't explain to someone who doesn't share that faith. I try, but my own attempts sound feeble even to me, and when I try to research answers I can't find anything that would be remotely convincing to someone who doesn't share the same Faith to begin with. In my own life, God says don't is enough to inform my actions, because I care about my relationship with Him, but it's definitely harder when it feels like He demands things that are unreasonable or unnatural or even unfair. My boyfriend asks me frequently about the story of Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac and how could a good God demand such a thing, and how terrible is that to "test" someone in that way? Hopefully I can still name my firstborn son Isaac... Praying for you and if you're still some for me!

Sheila said...

I think that sometimes the Catholic Church puts too much emphasis on verifying moral teachings with reason and not enough on "just do it because you love God." Because really, wasn't the whole point of the tree in the garden of Eden that it WAS good to eat, but God said no?

I imagine that before Original Sin, that one command was the only one God gave us that we couldn't understand. But since that time we are more confused and need more rules, and so we can't make sense of them.

On the other hand one of the big faith-shaking things in my life the past few years has been watching many families who follow the Church's teaching on family planning have their obedience turn out horribly. I know there's no guarantee that doing right will have good results, but you would think it would happen a little more often.

A month or two ago Enbrethiliel explained her take on Abraham and Isaac in the comments ... basically she was saying that Abraham knew it was a symbolic action and that God would provide another sacrifice. (E, chime in if I'm getting it wrong.)

If nothing else, you can tell your boyfriend that it can be for Isaac Newton too. ;)

I prayed for you just the other day ... not in any real expectation that it would do anything but because it makes me happy to call my loved ones to mind. But if it results in blessing for you, all to the good. :)

Sheila said...

Enbrethiliel, I didn't mean to be "decisive" here ... I was just describing my attitude toward God lately. Certainly would be happy to be talked into the idea that the God of the Catholic Church IS in fact, the really good one I want to believe in.

Not that you haven't tried before. So has everybody. Unfortunately every way I come up with to resolve the problem results in getting told I'm a heretic. I'd rather be a heretic than an apostate, you know?!

Enbrethiliel said...


If you don't mind some shameless linking, I actually just expounded on my understanding of Abraham and Isaac's story in my combox:

It's one of those TL;DR text monsters, but I don't have a bite-sized version yet.

To clarify what I said in your combox, I'm actually not sure what Abraham guessed beforehand. Since God had promised that he would be the father of many nations, perhaps Abraham hoped for a surprise . . . like Isaac rising from the dead. But their story seems so much like one of those "Oh, so THAT'S what it meant" moments that he can't have known much at the beginning. I also can't be sure how much insight he and Isaac had at the end into just what they were prefiguring; but I'd like to think that God revealed everything to them then, and they kept the secret.

PS -- I find it so interesting that Abraham and Isaac's story is bothering a lot of people! I never had a problem with it. =P The Old Testament story that tests my faith is David and Bathsheba's.

Sheila said...

No, thanks for linking that. I contemplated going back and finding what you had said, but didn't have the time.

Abraham and Isaac isn't my least favorite OT story. I would say my least favorite is when Moses' wife circumcises their son with a piece of flint so God won't strike him dead. But it's only first of about a dozen competitors -- the flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, stoning adulterers and idolators, killing Canaanite children, killing Amalekite children, slavery, Gideon (it was him, right?) offering his daughter up as a sacrifice, God sending a lying spirit into the prophets to prophesy falsely, God commanding David to do a census of the Israelites and then punishing him for doing so . . .

Let's just say there's a LOT of the bible that bothers me. Abraham and Isaac is a story that's much more easily explained than some of those others.

Enbrethiliel said...


The Flood, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and other large-scale deaths are things I file under "God will sort everyone out in the end."

Compared to those, David and Bathsheba's story seems incredibly petty, and yet I think my difficulty with it is kin to the objections to the former. All the examples that you mention (save, perhaps, the punishment for the census) are signs that point to the New Covenant--which leads a reasonable person to ask why God would use the sufferings of innocent people, sometimes in the thousands, for the sake of a sign.

I confess that Joseph Stalin was talking about me when he said that one death is a tragedy, while a million deaths are a statistic: I'm truly more horrified about what David and Bathsheba did to Uriah than about what the Israelites did to the Canaanites, Amalekites, et. al. And it seems like adding insult to injury to tell Uriah, "Well, it's not so bad that your wife and your king took turns stabbing you in the back, because they both get to be ancestors of the Messiah and serve as a sign that God loves sinners so much that He will forgive anything." And the worst part is that it would be an insult coming straight from God.

It's the same thing on a much larger scale when entire nations are involved--but in their case, at least it's not so intimately personal. (I do see, of course, that for every individual who was a bit player in salvation history, it was very personal.)

What I tried to explain on my own blog (and probably totally failed to) is that EVERY MOMENT OF SUFFERING is a connection to Jesus on the Cross--whether it is a child with bone cancer or a nation being wiped out through genocide. Thanks to the way we have been saved, suffering has changed from something that just happens to us to an action that we can do to save souls. It took me years, but when I finally stopped covering my ears and going "La-la-la-la" at the story of David and Bathsheba, it was because I had realised that its Christ figure was Uriah. His betrayal and death weren't meaningless--or worse, a sign that God found him as disposable as David did. In the light of salvation, we see what he went through as a sign that he was the one closest to God through it all. And I think--though now it's just my own hope talking--that Uriah was given the grace to do what Abraham and Isaac did before him, which is to save souls by being united to Jesus. Perhaps David's and Bathsheba's souls were the very first ones that God allowed on his "tally."

From there, I see how all the other millions who suffered in the Old Testament could have been saved and even given a greater dignity than those who caused them to suffer--even if the latter did happen to be God's chosen people. All this is assuming, of course, that they did not reject that grace before they died. But in this, I think they got the same chances we do today.

Sheila said...

Stalin was onto something -- psychologists have found that people are MORE likely to donate money to save one starving child than to save two starving children. The amount they are willing to give goes down the more children they would save. The reason being that we can easily empathize with one person but large numbers of people just seem a faceless mass.

I never got too upset about David and Bathsheba because, after all, God DID say that was bad. Of course his way of punishing them was to kill *their innocent child.* So, less okay.

What upsets me is not all the people dying -- I mean, they would have to die sooner or later and God could make it up to them. But just God's involvement in things that are unfair or make no sense. Especially when we are told "truth is absolute, the moral law is universal," and then there God is, not only disobeying it himself (which we could excuse by saying "God's nature is different so different things are permitted for him) but by ordering humans to disobey it. Is it universal or not? How can anything be objectively wrong if God can make exceptions?

That is even more concerning when God deceives people, since of course we are told that he can neither deceive, nor be deceived.

Enbrethiliel said...


First of all, I get your main problem: the idea that God would do things that seem to contradict His own rules. But before I get to that, I want to ask about this line:

Of course his way of punishing them was to kill *their innocent child.* So, less okay.

I'm genuinely puzzled why you'd hold that against God. Sure, it would be wrong for a human judge to punish a couple by executing their baby; but inasmuch as God is the giver of both earthly life and eternal life, we can't really say that he murders anyone. If we don't say that God "kills" people who died of old age after long, fulfilling lives, how can we say that He "kills" anybody? (And well, I think the baby got the best deal out of everyone in the story: only a short time in our vale of tears; a virtually-guaranteed stay in limbo until the Crucifixion; and finally, Heaven after the Ascension.) How I make sense of your comment is that you think it is wrong to give someone a baby with the intention of taking him away later in order to break their hearts. As if the child existed only to be a punishment to his parents. Now, if that is what you mean, ignore the first part of this paragraph. LOL! It's closer to your main point, anyway, which I'm sort of going to address now.

I say "sort of" because this seems to be where your and my opinions just don't overlap. I don't think God lied to Abraham for the same reason I don't think playing the Santa Claus game is lying to children. Not that I'm trying to make this about Santa again; but it seems that everything I have to say about him, I could say about Abraham and Isaac as well.

While there is definitely a standard by which God's command to Abraham leaves something to be desired, I think it's on the level of a director "winking" at the audience during a movie. Think the Scream franchise--or (as much as it pains me to use a Woody Allen movie as an example) Marshall McLuhan appearing as himself in Annie Hall so that Allen's character could turn into Allen for a few seconds and say to the audience, "Don't you wish real life could be like this?" Or to use the metaphor in my combox, putting the awards show in the middle of a movie, so that actors can break character in order to receive their awards. Doing something like that would seem to expose one of the two as a lie--but even as it does, both the movie and the awards show remain real. They're just on two different levels.

Even as I take pains to explain this, I'm not trying to argue with you or to persuade you! The way I see it, we might as well be arguing about whether or not Twilight is romantic. LOL!

And to tie it all back to David and Bathsheba's dead baby: while it doesn't sound too cool that God made a baby bear the sins of his parents, it is actually very cool that God gave the baby the special vocation of being a "holy innocent" for his parents--the second Christ figure to suffer for their sins and to save their souls.

Sheila said...

The story started to horrify me around the first time a former-RC friend said to me, "I wonder if the reason my baby was born dead was to punish me for leaving Regnum Christi."

At the time all I said was, "No way, a good and loving God would NEVER do a thing like that!" And then, nope, there it is in the Bible.

You keep going back to Abraham -- or is that bit meant for Sarah? Here are the verses where God deceives people that bother me: Particularly the Thessalonians one, mostly because I expect better of the New Testament.

Unfortunately the link to the Christian response to these verses is broken. :P But I'd love to hear a good one.

Belfry Bat said...

Working on it; back in a moment.

Belfry Bat said...

First of all, they've got a horrendous translation there. Secondly, that's not even a sentence without more context.

Lectio beati Pauli Apostoli secundum ad Thessalonicences
8 And then that wicked one shall be revealed whom the Lord Jesus shall kill with the spirit of his mouth; and shall destroy with the brightness of his coming, him, 9 Whose coming is according to the working of Satan, in all power, and signs, and lying wonders, 10 And in all seduction of iniquity to them that perish; because they receive not the love of the truth, that they might be saved. 11 Therefore God shall send them the operation of error, to believe lying: 12 That all may be judged who have not believed the truth, but have consented to iniquity.

What does God send? God sends the "operation of error", in the Vulgate operationem erroris; nothing about spirits. In Greek, "καὶ διὰ τοῦτο πέμπει αὐτοῖς ὁ θεὸς ἐνέργειαν πλάνης εἰς τὸ πιστεῦσαι αὐτοὺς τῷ ψεύδει." Nothing about pneum-.

To whom does God "send" this operation of error? To "them that perish; because they receive not the love of the truth, that they might be saved." Them that love not the truth, but still have minds sufficient to be culpable, what need God send them that they work in error? He need send them nothing but themselves. It is not a "sending" of creation or new commission, but God keeping the ordinary working of the world God has already created.

Belfry Bat said...

Whence I lifted the Greek the English is Ronald Knox's... hadn't seen his take on the verse 'till just now. Nifty.

Enbrethiliel said...


I stuck with Abraham and Isaac because it's what we started with, I didn't want to be too "all over the place," and it actually grabbed my imagination. =) But now we seem to have switched our focus to David and Bathsheba's baby and your own friend's baby.

Now, I personally don't think that God would will someone's baby to die just because that person left a religious order--if only because it doesn't make sense. Especially if the order is RC. There's correlation, yes, but that's it. (Think of your other friend's miracle when she regained perfect vision. Yes, it was a miracle, but we can't be sure it had anything to do with the papal blessing--and even the Solemnity of the Ascension seems like a total coincidence.) I think that people who feel guilty, whether or not they deserve to be, tend to be a bit paranoid about punishment.

BUT I can think of another case in which children really did seem to bear the punishment for the sins of their parents. I know a woman who fell in love with a man who was still legally married to his first wife. But no matter how hard they tried, they couldn't track down the first wife in order to get either a divorce or a declaration of nullity. So they decided to bribe some people to get the paperwork they needed to get married in a Catholic church. All seemed well, they didn't feel guilty at all, and they had two sons. When the eldest boy was in kindergarten, he was diagnosed with cancer. It took over two years of treatment for him to get better. A decade later, their other son was diagnosed with the same kind of cancer. Even doctors remarked how rare it was for that to happen to siblings. Unfortunately, he didn't respond to the treatment and died a little over a year after the diagnosis.

I don't think that God punished the parents, in the sense of intervening so that both boys would get a disease that they otherwise would not have had. But neither did He prevent a natural consequence of their illicit union, which was bad genes for their children. But this natural consequence was, by design, something that the children would bear more than the parents. Any unfairness here belongs to nature. So what God did was improve on nature.

I don't know your friend, but I was very close to the people in my own story. And I would say that the younger son lived out, even before he got cancer, the same Christ figure role that I think was given to David and Bathsheba's baby. He had started suffering because his parents were fighting and he offered it all up beautifully in ways we only heard about from others later on.

What I'm getting at is that the idea that God punishes parents through their children is an incomplete idea--and incomplete to the point of being a total misrepresentation. What I'd say actually happens is that God allows children to bear the punishment that their parents deserve as a mercy to both the parents and the children: a mercy to the parents, because someone holier than they is atoning for their sins; and a mercy to the children, because they are brought so close to Jesus on the Cross. And in case it needs to be said, I don't think the children are unwilling victims in this; I think they get the grace to be full partners with God, making the atonement in love.

SeekingOmniscience said...

I find the ending of the immediately prior comment ineluctably creepy.

Energia could be, as far as I know, translated as operation, or as action, or activity--"effectual working" is a paraphrase. Thayer claims ( that it always refers to divine or devilish energy in the NT--in the context, it seems like one of these is a little more likely, given that we're talking about God sending it.

So I'm not sure it's clear that this is merely God's normal sustaining of the world in its natural order. The word doesn't seem a naturalish word. God's apparent willingness to deceive people here perhaps accords with the ambiguity of God's universal salvific will in Paul.

Then again, maybe it is all about nature. I don't know, and don't have much riding on it. God telling people to stone your brother or sister or son or daughter, and ignore everything they say, if they ask you to convert to another religion, seems a bit more problematic.

Belfry Bat said...

Let me clarify that "nifty" refered only to the strange convergence of Knox's chosen translation and my (independently-arrived-at) reading of "send", nothing to do with "energein": Knox writes it as "let loose". I really don't see why, textually speaking, Knox considers it a translation rather than an exegesis, but that does seem to be his style.

If I had to sum up what my principle is for discerning between extraordinary vs. ordinary divine working in the world as described in scripture: if the ordinary is sufficient, then the extraordinary is unnecessary. This happens to be the same principle employed in examining patients prior to exorcism, and for the authentication of miracles cited in Canonization cases.

So: the feeding of the five thousand is a genuine miracle because the only ordinary mechanism proposed is excluded by the textual context; the errors of who love not the truth is not miraculous because the ordinary working of a rational being from wrong principles is sufficient to understand it.

It is, of course, metaphysically-tricky to sort out what God proposes vs. what he permits, supposing He is indeed omnipotent; which is why I've been using the ordinary/extraordinary distinction instead.

Sheila said...

Picking apart "operation" seems to miss the point -- my problem was the purpose clause, "so that they should believe a lie." It's clear in that case that God wills that they should believe a lie. To will someone to believe a lie is to deceive. I don't really know how to get around this. (Though it does not surprise me at all that people have tried -- every tricky verse has had some fancy footwork done to it sometime by somebody, but not all of it is convincing.)

E, I am moved by your story, especially having heard bits of it from you before. Though your explanation strikes me as worse, not better, than a natural explanation. The boy's holiness is inspiring -- the idea that if you don't get your annulment first, your kids get cancer, by an act of God, is dreadful to me.

My mother knows a beautiful, very holy couple who really seem a "match made in heaven" -- and each is a carrier for cystic fibrosis. If either of them had married anyone else, their children would have been fine, but together they had I think three or four children with CF.

I mean, at what point does Jesus' words come in, "Not for this man's sin, nor his parents, but that God should be glorified"? How could you ever know?

Real life is unfair and seems pretty meaningless. So taking things completely practically, parents' sins affect their kids all the time. I yelled at my kids today, that was my sin, but they suffered. Kids are abused by their parents, neglected, mistreated. It's utterly unfair but can be put down to "just the way the world works." Sometimes, too, parents do horrible things and they and their kids end up just fine. You never can tell.

Make God *responsible* for all that, and you have just taken out any of the goodness or beauty that could have been added to the world by the existence of God in the first place. God is then no kinder, less unfair, or less arbitrary than nature. So what's the point?

Belfry Bat said...

As I tried to say before, metaphysically-speaking, everything that happens is somehow willed by God, and I think you're close to the point when you highlight Adams' commission to "subdue the Earth and everything in it", that God usually restrains himself to act within certain rules, even when that seems to enable the frustration of the Divine Plan. And this is why we have to distinguish between permitting will and ordaining/proposing will, which I'm trying to parallel with ordinary and extraordinary operation respectively.

I'm sure you can think of good didactic reasons why you might want someone already in error to work carefully from their error to a particular error, just because then it'll be obvious at last that something has gone wrong. Derek Wise of youtube's "Veritasium" wrote an interesting doctorate and started his career on essentially this idea. In fact, I'm sure you've even written about having done something similar with Marko, maybe when he was pretending to be a dog, and he didn't want to eat somethingorother.


My point in pointing out the translation troubles is: the collection of verses in the sceptics' site are all pulled out of even sufficient context to parse them, they have been quoted and even translated in a careless manner. The collection is made with a particular bias, and it shows up here, indicating an ignorance of who is speaking to whom in each selection, and in what voice or register. It's important to remember that the bible was not written in verses. Versification was invented by a monastic scholar for the purposes of consistent reference, and not for exegesis. Quoting by verses often enough doesn't make even grammatical sense, to the point that versification cannot be preserved in translation. I have to believe that there are sceptics out there better-informed!


If you want to know, the most difficult book for me so far is Ezekiel; and you can bet now that I won't recommend analysis of anything shorter than a chapter at a time.


S.O., thank you for the link to Strong's concordance, and how fascinating! There's an interesting note in there, that "operation" almost always explicitly "God's"; they miscount the exceptions by at least one, because the verse in question (two later than their note) either makes the operation "of error" or of nothing at all. Yes, there is a pattern; here, it seems partly broken.

Sheila said...

Yes, I'm aware these verses are taken out of context, so I clicked over and read the whole context. It doesn't get any better when I do that, though.

See, here's what gets me: I can find a verse where God does something objectionable (hardening Pharaoh's heart, making people believe lies) and I am told, "well, that's God's permissive will." How do you know? Well, because God couldn't actively will evil. So it is not possible to say God ever did anything bad, by definition, because whenever he does, we just assume that it means God's permissive will.

But if that's true, we can't actually know ANYTHING about God from scripture, because everything he does passes through the lens of what we already know is okay. I often feel that Christianity, especially Catholicism, has its roots in Greek philosophy, not Judaism at all, and our scriptures are just the embarrassing backstory we try to explain away to fit with our platonic idea of God.

And I'm fine with that, but this is apparently heretical. I'm supposed to believe it all happened in just this way, but also that none of it says anything about God's nature, because that we have worked out philosophically.

I got in an argument with someone once about the contradictions in the Bible. After bringing up half a dozen and being told each time that it wasn't really a contradiction because of some technicality, I asked, "What would count as a contradiction to you? Is there anything God could say or do in the Bible that you would agree is against his nature and contradictory with any other part of the Bible?" The answer is, no. They could explain anything away. And in that case, scripture is sort of irrelevant. It doesn't matter what it said; you could and would explain anything.

It's rather like doing an experiment to see if a medication works, and then both working and not working are taken as an equally positive result. You haven't proven anything, because there is no conceivable result which would *disprove* anything.

SeekingOmniscience said...

I was in a class on the philosophy of belief, once, at CUA. The whole class was about when one is "justified" in believing something, what kind of standards one needs to try to believe things, and so on and so forth. It was an interesting class--Plantinga, Aquinas, Swinburne, foundationalism, etc. Everyone in the class, I think, was a Christian.

Anyhow, we were talking about circumstances when you were justified in thinking that a given statement was from God. And the teacher was talking about when this was the case, and finished the statement something like " then you're justified in believing that the speaker is God, even without conclusive evidence, so long as the speaker doesn't tell you to do something manifestly wrong, like kill innocent people."

Then there was this long, really awkward pause. And then there was some nervous laughter.

Belfry Bat said...

No, the reason I'm proposing "I will harden pharaoh's heart" should be read as permissive will, or ordinary operation, isn't that it would be wrong for God to set Ramses up expressly for to knock him down again, (though no, I don't like that idea any more than you do) but rather that the ordinary operation of Pharaoh's will is sufficient to understand what happens. The filter doesn't mention moral categories at all. In this case, what would God really need to do for Pharaoh's heart to harden?

Enbrethiliel said...


Actually, even if the parents had obtained a declaration of nullity, the boys might still have got cancer. It was really a bad genetic combination. God did not give the boys cancer that they would not otherwise have had, but since the cancer was inevitable, He made sure that some good came out of it. (It's worth adding that an annulment would have also been illicit; the first marriage was as valid as valid can be.)

The main reason I think my story is worth studying is that it comes with an answer to the question, "Well, why didn't God try to prevent it?" The answer is: He did. In the sense that everything is somehow willed by Him, we can say that He put a significant legal impediment in the way of the marriage. He got the friends and family members of both the man and the woman to counsel them against going through with the wedding. He made it very troublesome to find someone to bribe and to raise the money that that person wanted. And of course, the man and woman both knew very well that what they wanted to do was shady. That they pushed through with it anyway is no longer something that we can pin on God . . . unless we want Him to start overriding people's free will. What He did here was let them choose freely and just make sure that the best possible outcome came of it.

What I'm saying is that while suffering is simply "just how the world works," God can take that suffering and make something glorious out of it. Instead of being a sign of weakness, it becomes a sharing in His own strength.

Sheila said...

BB and E, you both raise the same exact question: if God can't be to blame for the bad that happens because it is all imputable to the ordinary operation of nature/free will, how can he be responsible for any of the good that happens either?

He didn't *force* one spouse to have a previous marriage. He didn't force the friends to advice against them getting together. Neither is he responsible either for the cancer treatments that saved the first son, nor their ineffectiveness on the second son. He isn't responsible for ANY of it, so far as I can see!

And if you want to absolve God of responsibility for all non-miraculous events, not only did he not harden Pharaoh's heart or send deceit to unbelievers, but he also didn't create the earth, sea, sky and so forth. He didn't make sure Israel won all its battles (that is plausibly natural), didn't cause the Babylonian captivity, didn't appoint Cyrus to end it, and so forth. All of those seem purely ordinary operation, so God only allowed them.

But he *did* crush the Egyptian armies in the sea for following orders, did firebomb Sodom from heaven, did send a lying spirit into the prophets in 1 Kings 22, and many other not-so-nice things.

You see what I mean? Any rubric besides "God does the good and only permits the bad," is going to draw the line elsewhere and therefore God is not doing all the good things and is doing some of the bad things.

Sheila said...

SO, it sounds like the basic premise that we should test the spirits. If an angel out of heaven commands you to do something you know is wrong, you should assume it's not from God.

According to that rubric, I would have made a very bad Israelite.

Belfry Bat said...

"If God can't be to blame for the bad that happens because it is all imputable to the ordinary operation of nature/free will, how can he be responsible for any of the good that happens either?"

This seems to be a very good question! But, again, I must repeat that: the scheme I'm proposing for reading scripture is not about morals: It is about the natural order. I'm not saying: God does no evil, because it is not necessary for God to do anything to understand evil; (this is true, but for other reasons). I'm saying: this scripture or that scripture cited already do not impute evil to God because they do not impute any act to God at all.

Now, I've mentioned already that there are scripture passages that I still have trouble with, and they have not been cited here; but I think for the purpose of focus, we should keep it that way.

Sheila said...

But the thing is, they do impute an act to God. The intention of the inspired author clearly seems to be to say that God DID to these things. Sure, there's no particular concern for whether he did them miraculously or according to the normal laws of nature, but they definitely are attributed to God -- very specifically, because it seems quite important to the writer to give God the credit for them.

Isn't it unreasonable to say that the Bible does not attribute an act to God when in fact it's written "God did X"? It seems to me that even suggesting such a thing is to say that the Bible cannot be trusted to give us reliable information about what actions God did and which he did not will but only allowed.

Enbrethiliel said...


It's late and I'm not as lucid as I could be, so I have no idea how Bat and I are talking about the same thing! In fact, I'm kind of horrified to hear that Bat and I are talking about the same thing, because, as usual, I don't understand what he's saying! =P (No offense, dear Batty!)

Sheila, what I understand of your objection is that if we say a bad outcome is only natural, we have to say that all the non-miraculous good outcomes are only natural, too. And we can't really say that good=God while bad=/=God because there are stories of God doing "bad" stuff in the Bible.

The first is actually a great point. Nothing in that story except the extraordinary grace given to the second son seems to be anything beyond natural operation. Perhaps there was more grace at work in some things, like the objections of the friends, but since we can never know that in this life, we have to give them full marks instead of asking them to share the credit with God.

Which brings us to the miraculous "not-so-nice things." And this is where we seem to be on "Twilight territory" again--or if you prefer, Hunger Games territory. The exact same thing rubs me one way and you the other way. Indeed, everything you've mentioned from Scripture so far (save the one I'm unfamiliar with and haven't looked up yet) seems pretty reasonable to me! With respect to the deaths, we did seem to reach a consensus that everyone dies eventually anyway, and God can make it up to those who may have died too soon. The problem is His seeming to be deceptive.

Which brings us to the "lying spirit" that led to war. Again, not an issue for me. It reminds me of Our Lady of Fatima revealing that war is a punishment for sin. (Don't worry. Marian apparitions still aren't dogmatically binding. ;-)) And that has stuck with me since I first read it because it makes so much sense. If we can share in the graces of our saintly members, we can also share in the castigation of our more dramatically sinful members (who in turn share in the atonement of those with the grace to make that sacrifice). And there are few things we share the way we share a war.

Belfry Bat said...

As a matter of fact, there may be a very good reason that the Old Testament uses this active language, having little to do with the literal meaning of the particular stories they tell. It's another longish story.

If I had to pick out three (say) over-arching themes of the Old Testament, pretending ignorance of the New, certainly among them must be "and they shall know that I am the Lord". (Another will certainly be "My Beloved is Mine, and I am Hers". I haven't decided what the third one is, yet, but there will be one, for sure...)

And this is because the cultural context of all the authors of the Old Testament is to be surrounded by a pandaemonium of stubborn pagan cults, to which many of the Children of Israel were often seduced — and the result is a frequent error supposing that the One Creator God be just one among the many little local gods, the only one who emphatically doesn't look like anything. And it is against this recurring infidelity and superstition that God's prophets repeat their variations on "Know ye that the Lord is God". The point of it is that He cannot be defeated, that rather He will defeat all the other creatures calling themselves gods. And maybe, just maybe, this finds expression in the emphatic "the Lord did", whose purpose would be to assert that God has a Plan for the World, and while you can thwart His plan for you, you cannot thwart His plan for the World, nor escape His lordship.

In Other Words, the questions we are trying to work through here are quite remote from the problems the prophets are sent against, and so their language is tuned to a different need, and the errors we might fall into in mis-reading them are far from the errors their first hearers might fall into.


From another side of things, consider how a person's conscience can pain him, when he knows fault in himself, or comfort him when he does well; yet pain is not the purpose of conscience! It isn't that part of him wants to hurt him, it's just that to twist against conscience is painful.


The thought has been nudging me, on and off for a long time, that essentially this kind of conversation is how the Talmud was assembled.

And so it's not a bad thing to be doing, yet I really wish someone wiser even than Enbrethiliel would extend a wing over us and shine a light on things. Are the metaphors sufficiently alloyed?

Secular Humanist said...

"True, God is infinite and I am very finite. I know my moral feelings aren't shared by everyone."

That is one possible explanation. Another is that all gods are made up by us and that includes the god of Abraham. Made up. No doubt about it. So people say he is infinite and we can never expect to fully understand him. No. Made up.

Sheila said...

E, it seems to me that in your story any link between the parents' sin and the son's cancer are not God's doing -- it is the *son's*! He can choose to make it about reparation for his parents' sins if he wants to. That's one of the things that's nicest about Catholicism; it allows you to connect things that practically speaking aren't related, but which feel related to you, by attaching your suffering to others' sins.

And of course, *practically* speaking, sin often does result in suffering. If anyone thinks war is not the result of sin, literally and obviously speaking, I wonder what they think war is a result of? At the same time, the self-propagating repercussions of sin -- you know, x kills y's son, y kills x in revenge, z loved x and so kills y, and so on forever -- can only be cured by acts of sacrifice. Like Jesus choosing not to resist when the Sanhedrin and the Romans caught up with him. He could have resisted, perhaps had the right to, but he could see that though the sin belonged to someone else, the suffering was either going to land on him or other innocents (his disciples and probably innocent bystanders) and so he chose to let it land on himself. That's heroism, apart from any supernatural meaning of sacrifice.

BB, there's enough in the Bible that I object to which seems clearly willed by God that I can't be too convinced by the idea that sometimes the author attributed it to God for some other reason. What about the Law? How can it be "good" to command circumcision, stoning of adulterers, that sort of thing? It makes perfect sense if you think it's the law of some bronze age nomads, which they attributed to their deity, but it makes very little sense that a God who actually understands what real goodness is would ever make a law like that.

Belfry Bat said...

The character, or weight, of the Laws you mention can be judged by how they are enforced — which is to say, comparatively little; for example Bathsheba, by the Law, should have been stoned. It so happens that one of David's unjust actions in that story was that he sent away one of the required witnesses for assissination-by-enemy. That doesn't change the Law that Bathsheba herself should have been stoned, and both B. and D. knew it. God could have told Nathan to get it done, but didn't.

In the same grade of Law as prescribes stoning for so many things is the specification that Aaron's sons are the priesthood, and the rest of Levi are their helpers in the temple --- and specifically that Levites can't promote themselves to priesthood; and yet Samuel the last Judge is in fact a simple Levite by birth and not descended from Aaron, but he acts as a priest with full authority, according to God's own instruction to him.

And then we can count up how many generations of Israelites straight-up forgot the Passover; but there they were still, to remember it eventually.

And of course the figures of the Law are still in force! We are supposed to restrain concupiscence as soon as we learn the law, and to help our children in the same even before they are in danger, and if it hurts on the surface that is still better than transgressing; if we stumble, even in our private thoughts, we are supposed to chastise ourselves as if stoning what is adulterous within our souls; we cannot by our own authority usurp the priesthood or any other sacred vocation.

Sheila said...

You just said two completely opposite things, did you notice?

First you say that the Law was not followed by people we are supposed to consider as good. (Though that isn't proof, necessarily, the Bible is full of supposedly-good-guys doing bad things. And it seems very likely to me that *most* of Israel was actually attempting to follow the law. For sure, we know they were circumcising their children. And we know from the Gospels that stoning of adulterous women (what happened to the man??) was still taking place at that time.)

And then after that you say that we actually *should* follow it in some sense! Bathsheba got away with adultery without punishment, but if *you* have the wrong thought, you should not escape punishment! What's with that? Doesn't it seem contradictory to say on the one hand that God did not take these laws seriously and on the other that you should?

That's like the Church saying that the death penalty is a murderer's just due and then later saying it is better not to give it to anyone.

Belfry Bat said...

I'm not quite sure that's what happened with my comment, but it's more than possible I was trying to do too many things at once... whether the contrast is an opposition or not depends on whether they're implied in the same context,... <memory not working; what was I thinking?>...

Perhaps I shall abandon the "enforcement" description. I'm ok with that. The first important distinction is that "stone adulterers" is a different kind of Law from "thou shalt not commit adultery": one is a precept, the other is a sentencing guide (and I rather suspect is meant to limit what may be done to an adulterer).

Now, what I mean about the law still holding "in figures" is not to describe anything to do with secular human authority, or just punishments, but interior dispositions and self-discipline. I'm not remotely suggesting that the bible mandates or insinuates thought police, which seems to be the general idea you've drawn from whatever-it-was I wrote. And, as better thinkers before me have written, self-discipline in thinking isn't about preventing certain things from even occuring to our imagination, but about whether or not we assent with our will to whatever it is we imagine.

But now I'm curious: is there in fact a contradition in saying that "death is a murderer's just due" AND "it is better not to kill anyone"? Whatever strictest justice may be, is it in fact good to always apply the heaviest just punishment?

Sheila said...

The understanding of the statement "death is a murderer's just due" is that a murderer has the RIGHT to be killed, in justice. That it would be refusing him something he is owed. Since failing to give someone their just due is wrong, it's unjust, then foregoing the death penalty isn't merciful, it's unfair.

Now obviously I don't think this, but there are Catholics who do, and the reason they do is because the Church actually did believe this before Evangelium Vitae.

My understanding of justice and mercy is to say that justice is to give each person their due (wages for work, for instance) and mercy is to give them MORE than that (extra pay, eternal life). So in the case of the death penalty, you could say a person's due is their right to life, provided they have respected the lives of others, but if they murder someone, the right to life is no longer their due. It is not unjust to deprive them of it, and you may for a proportionately serious reason. But it is more merciful to give them more than their due -- their life, though they are no longer owed it in justice. So when we can, that's what we should do.

That jives perfectly well with what JP2 said and not at all with what the Church believed before, so it's gotten me praised or condemned as a heretic, depending on what sort of Catholic I was talking to. But there it is.

If the Law was intended as a curb to what people would have done without it, why is it interspersed with lines like "have no pity"? Doesn't that assume that the alternative is not to do more than stoning (what would that even BE?) but to do less. Ditto for circumcision (yes, I keep harping on it, because I just can't wrap my head around it) -- the alternative of circumcision is to do nothing, and I don't see that anything at all is wrong with doing nothing.

Belfry Bat said...


Right now, I have to wonder about the way you read and understand philosophical English; expanding "death is the murderer's just due" into "the murderer has a right to be killed" is already wrong. If other people gave you to think that that's the plain meaning of those words, then they have mislead you. That isn't the plain meaning of those words. Because execution isn't a gift but a privation, to say that it is the someone's just due means that by commiting murder, a man forfeits the right to live. Whether the proposition is true or false, it doesn't suggest new rights for him.

Again, I'm thoroughly in favor of hashing out whatever as thoughtfully as possible, but we have to be using a sufficiently common philosophical language to do so, and in particular if you're going to take issue with what other people say, we have to make sure that it's because you disagree with the intended idea rather than the words they use.

Sheila said...

What you describe is exactly what I mean -- the death penalty is justified as a privation of a right, not a positive duty. But the idea of a person having the positive right to be punished is what the Church used to teach, and what is the main defense even today of people I know who defend the death penalty, even going so far as to say the JP2 abandoned Catholic dogma by introducing his new teaching. I do not know with what level of authority this was taught, but I can try to find out for you if you like.

Belfry Bat said...

I think what you're referring to is summarized among the works of mercy, "To Correct Error; to Admonish Sinners"; but there may be difference of opinion on the most prudent means of doing so in a given context with a given individual.

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