Monthly Archives: July 2016

Dogmatism versus Christianity

Dogmatism is not native to Christianity, although it is to other belief systems.  Whereas “Islam” means “submission”, and is especially used for “submission to the will of Allah”, “Christianity” is named after “the Anointed”, Χριστος, without any reference to submission.

That difference about submissiveness is visible in their sacred scriptures.  In the Hebrew text, the angels tell Abraham that they are going to Sodom and Gomorrah to determine the grievousness of the sins there (Gen 18:20-21).  Does Abraham meekly say, “Yes, Lord, of course, Lord, whatever you say, Lord”?  Actually, no.  Instead, his response is to ask G-d, “Will you destroy the righteous with the wicked?  If there are 50 righteous people in the city, will you not spare the place for their sake?” (23-4).  That’s pretty bold, giving that he is talking to someone powerful enough to wipe out a city.  But he does not stop there.  When the Angel of the Lord agrees that it will indeed spare the city if there are 50 righteous people there, Abraham asks about 40 people, then 30, then 20, and then 10, bargaining G-d down.  Throughout the conversation, Abraham both assumes and acts upon the right to weigh the righteousness of G-d’s actions against his own idealised image of Justice.  Does the Bible censure him for questioning G-d?  No, it does not.

The Arabic text, however, is rather different: when the angels go to Abraham and tell him that they are going to “the people of Lot” (11:70), Abraham argues insistently and imploringly (74-75) and so the angels tell Abraham to “give it up” (76), whereupon Abraham stops arguing.  The Qu’ran depicts him as meekly obedient to the Divine Will, as saying, “Yes, Lord, of course, Lord, whatever you say, Lord.”  In contrast, the Bible’s Abraham demonstrates the idea that even G-d’s actions can be measured against an external standard of righteousness.  The Bible represents Abraham as motivated by an Idealist, abstract belief in the concept of a pure Justice independent from the expressed will of G-d.

Is this an isolated incident in the Bible?  No, it’s not.  Moses, in particular, goes farther than Abraham.  When Moses is spending too long up Mt Sinai (Ex 32:1), the Israelites decide to make themselves a new god, and so G-d decides to punish them.  Does Moses meekly say, “Yes, Lord, of course, Lord, whatever you say, Lord”?  Actually, no.  Instead, he is brave enough to say to G-d, “Stop being angry and forgive these people” (12).  Does G-d then smite the mortal for his impertinence?  Actually, no.  Instead, G-d stops being angry and forgives the people (14).  Note that Moses is not reading the Bible; he is not responding to a written record of what people believe to have been G-d’s word.  He is responding to the immediate words coming from G-d then and there.  Like Abraham, Moses appeals to an ideal of Justice, and G-d complies with that appeal.  Is Moses ever censured for this?  No, he is not.

At this point, some people might imagine that Abraham and Moses are “special cases”, people who are given a “special dispensation” to question G-d.  Such a claim starts to be problematic when you consider how they both operate as role models for subsequent believers, and it becomes even worse you face the fact that “Do as I say but not as I do” is the saying of the hypocrite, not of the true leader.  Most importantly, however, the Bible never says that either of them had any such special dispensation that others should not emulate.

Okay, but this Idealist trend only shows up in a couple of isolated passages, doesn’t it?  No, it doesn’t.  The Bible also has an angel questioning G-d’s actions (Zech 1:12-13), again without any suggestion that the angel is wrong to do so.  Micah’s summary of G-d’s demand upon humanity refers not to unquestioning obedience but to compassionate action (6:8).  Isaiah has the Lord rejecting Israel’s ritual sacrifices and requiring compassionate behaviour instead (1:10-17), and the Psalmist presents very much the same idea (50:7-15): adherence to religious rules is not the point.  The chronicle of Israelite history depicts a demonstration of this in the rediscovery of the ritual Law: those who fail to meet its dictates are forgiven on the basis of their attitude rather than their obedience to rules (2 Chr 30:17-20).  In each case, love for others is valued above adherence to rules.  This pattern is consistent through all three parts of the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible): the Torah (in Genesis and Exodus); the Nevi’im (in Isaiah, Micah, and Hosea); the Ketuvim (in the Psalms and Chronicles).

Why separate Hosea from this list?  He deserves a special place because of how his comment is subsequently treated in the specifically-Christian part of the Bible.  He has G-d rejecting dogmatic legalism in saying, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings” (6:6), a passage which Jesus quotes twice in Matthew’s Gospel, both to the Pharisees who want to know why he fraternises with sinners (9:11-13) and to the Pharisees who criticize Jesus’ disciples for “breaking the Sabbath” (12:1-8).  The former is Jesus telling the Pharisees to get down off their high horses.  The latter is more significant: the Disciples are picking grain, which violates the rules of the Sabbath, making it a death-penalty offence.  When the Pharisees point this out, does Jesus say, “Of course, we can’t have my people breaking the sacred rules”?  Does he say, “The rules cannot be questioned?”  Actually, no, he does not.  Instead, he quotes Hosea at the Pharisees and tells them that, as with the priests in the temple, the rules are not as rigid as they imagine.  In Mark’s version of the same event, Jesus tells the Pharisees that the rules exist to serve the people, not the people to serve the rules.  Mark is also the one who represents a scribe questioning Jesus about which is the greatest commandment, and then agreeing that loving G-d and loving one’s neighbour are “more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices” (12:28-34).  Does that phrase sound familiar?

Obviously, what all of this demonstrates about the Bible is that it actually challenges believers not to unquestioningly accept the rules but, instead, to think critically about what is right and what is wrong, to be like Abraham, like Moses, to question, and even to question Almighty G-d.  That requires courage, certainly, but such thinking also requires more cognitive effort than mere acceptance does, and we are engineered to shy away from effort; it also obliges us to recognise that we are each 100% responsible for our own moral choices.  Even if I say, “No, I was just following orders”, I am still responsible for having chosen to follow the people who give those orders, for abnegating moral responsibility and displacing that onto someone else.  That is quite possibly why so many people do not like this idea: fear, laziness, and guilt all militate against it.

That is not to say that it is without complication, and, if this were ever a sermon, it would have to be rated ‘M’, for mature believers only.  We are fallible mortals, and fallible mortals are going to fail.  We are going to get things wrong.  But what kind of G-d would make us fallible and then condemn us for being so?  That would be a monster, not a god.  A good G-d would grant us the opportunity to choose, expect us to make good use of that, and be prepared for us to stumble.  A wise G-d would allow us to become mature by the only means which actually works: by being given guidelines and principles which we must then not only apply to but test against the complexity of the real world.


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized