Sunday, April 29, 2012

Why Does Old Testament God Seem so Mean?

One of the most popular level objections to Christianity is that the God in the Old Testament appears to be just so mean.  Many of the "New" (though what is new about them is unclear) Atheists take this view.  Sam Harris calls God diabolical, while Dawkin's gives a particularly stirring critique when he says:

"The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully."-- Dawkin's.

The objection has more rhetorical than intellectual force.  It is no argument against the existence of the Christian God to claim that he seems so mean in the Old Testament.  At most this would require the Christian to hold that perhaps the Israelites were mistaken in some aspects of their image of God and in attributing some commands to God.  This would involve modifying one's doctrine of Biblical inspiration to hold that the Bible, though inspired, maybe not be inerrant in every respect.  This would require some adjustment, but hardly be a reason to give up the doctrine of biblical inspiration, let alone the existence of the Christian God.

But would we be required to do even that?  I rather think not.

Let us suppose a boy of age 12 or 13.  He has no father or mother, has been raised among bad companions and brought up in depraved company.  He steals, drinks, vandalizes, engages in gang activity, and generally thinks that might makes right.  At the age of 12 or 13, nearly thoroughly depraved, he is adopted by a loving family whose own moral behavior is leagues above his own.  He realizes how far above his previous company this family is and tries his best to bring his behavior into line with theirs.  Realizing this, the family is patient with him.  They even tolerate less than ideal behavior at first with the knowledge that this boy must gradually be brought to improve his behavior.  They know that if they demand too much of him too soon, he might give up, or else run away, back to his old companions.

The ancient Israelites were that boy.  They were surrounded by other cultures with laws far harsher than their own and with far worse behavior.  They believed in many gods, thinking Yahweh to be one of many tribal gods.  Now suppose that God wants this people to come to know Him.  He promises to adopt them and gradually introduces the idea that they are called to a more moral life than their neighbors.  Vengeance is not to be excessive, but limited to an eye for an eye.  (Later, even this limit would replaced with the command to turn the other cheek.)  Over time God brings this people to a greater and greater awareness of his moral commands, culminating in His revelation of Himself in Jesus of Nazareth.

God could not give his whole law at once for the same reason that the family does not demand too much from the depraved boy at once.  The Israelites might simply have given up.  They might have switched to other gods (as they had a propensity to do  anyway).  Yet, in this case, God's plan to bring this people to know Him would have been frustrated.  To demand too much too soon of the ancient Israelites would not have helped and might even have hurt.

Some of Israel's laws in the Old Testament strike the modern reader as troubling, but that reader is looking at those laws from the successful end of the spectrum.  God has finally made the fullest revelation of Himself in Jesus, whose action, teaching, and death and Resurrection give meaning to the entire Old Testament.  And it was in part God's patience to a troubled nation that made it possible.  The modern reader owes gratitude both to that troubled nation for the courage to try, and to God for showing them the patience they needed.  It was the patience that has let us celebrate the Resurrection Easter Sunday and every Sunday.

Further Reading:
Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster (2011).

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Look for the Church

When I wrote my previous post, I removed a quotation from the end, for fear of making it too long. (In fact, I added it, and then removed it, and forgot to remove that third footnote.) The reason for removing it was not that I had found it to be irrelevant, but that since it is one of my favorite passages by Fulton Sheen, I decided to save it for later so as to give it more attention in a post of its own.

It has been almost a month since that post on having faith in God and the Church (which I wrote for the topic of counseling the doubtful, part of a Lenten series about spiritual works of mercy). Lent is almost over. Today is Holy Thursday. It seems like an appropriate time to go back to thinking about that post, and connecting my additional thoughts to it.

Recently, Marc at "Bad Catholic" was discussing failed attempts to sabotage the Catholic Church. His clever response to the anti-Catholic New York Times advertisement pulls from a message of insensitivity and bigotry an admonition to "repent, and believe in the Gospel," a call for an examination of conscience, and a need to increase faith in the Church. Explaining why such attempts to dishearten the faithful ought not to discourage us, he concludes, "But the reasons our enemies are foaming at the mouth over the Church are the very reasons we embrace Her. . . . they remind us of how good, how true, and how beautiful the Bride of Christ is." His statement brings me to the same excerpt of an essay by Fulton Sheen that I had originally planned to post because I like it so much. 

Here is my continuation of my last post:

It is sometimes difficult to be outwardly Catholic, especially in the face of mainstream culture.  We are confronted by a culture that is not only secular, but often outright anti-Catholic.  Perhaps it may be said that the Church does not "get along well with the world," or that it may be "the Church the world hates" (1).  Fulton Sheen tells us, though, that these are not characteristics of the Church that should cause us to fear it. On the contrary, they tell us why we ought to courageously seek it:

My reason for doing this would be, that if Christ is in any one of the churches of the world today, He must still be hated as He was when He was on earth in the flesh. If you would find Christ today, then find the Church that does not get along with the world. Look for the Church that is hated by the world, as Christ was hated by the world. Look for the Church which is accused of being behind the times, as Our Lord was accused of being ignorant and never having learned. Look for the Church which men sneer at as socially inferior, as they sneered at Our Lord because He came from Nazareth. Look for the Church which is accused of having a devil, as Our Lord was accused of being possessed by Beelzebub, the Prince of Devils. Look for the Church which, in seasons of bigotry, men say must be destroyed in the name of God as men crucified Christ and thought they had done a service to God. Look for the Church which the world rejects because it claims it is infallible, as Pilate rejected Christ because He called Himself the Truth. Look for the Church which is rejected by the world as Our Lord was rejected by men. Look for the Church which amid the confusion of conflicting opinions, its members love as they love Christ, and respect its Voice as the very voice of its Founder, and the suspicion will grow, that if the Church is unpopular with the spirit of the world, then it is unworldly, and if it is unworldly, it is other-worldly. Since it is other-worldly it is infinitely loved and infinitely hated as was Christ Himself. But only that which is Divine can be infinitely hated and infinitely loved. Therefore the Church is Divine.

(1)Fulton Sheen, Preface to Radio Replies Volume 1, Catholic Apologetics Online: Radio Replies.  (accessed March 9, 2012).
[I encourage you to follow the link and read the whole preface. There are too many things that I would love to quote, especially the last paragraph of it.]

See also:
I also like this blog post by Alexander Pruss, in which he applies C.S. Lewis's "Lord/liar/lunatic" argument about Jesus's divinity to the divinity of the Church. Found here: