The inconstancy of Christian morality

In the fifties, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel released records as that most familiar American duo, Tom & Jerry. It was the sixties before their now famous Jewish names were allowed an airing. A similar thing happened with Jesus. Truth is, without Paul, Jesus may have been simultaneously too Jewish, too old fashioned, and too radical to make it big. Jesus in the Gospels is not quite the laissez faire hippie that many Christians want him to be. He is quoted as saying

Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery

(Matthew 19:9)

yet good Christians divorce for reasons other than infidelity all the time. Society’s moral values have changed, and the moral values of Christians have changed with them. Jesus says nothing against slavery whereas a modern Christian placed in his situation and time might feel compelled to speak out.

So it is all very well for Christians to talk of Christian moral values, but what are they?
Christians, just as everyone else, do not agree between themselves on key moral issues, such as abortion, birth control , stem cell research, and capital punishment. One response to this disparity is that dissenters from any given view are not True Christians. Exactly what is required to be a True Christian varies from individual to individual. From my research into the Bible, the number of True Christians is either one male or 144,000 virgins (male). The “No True Christian” defence is of course almost invariably equivalent to the No True Scotsman fallacy.

No True Christian

Biblical ethics are predicated on absolutes. The Jews’ God worshipped by Christians is assumed to be eternal and unchanging. His moral character is also eternal and unchanging. What God finds good will always be good.

Thou art near, O LORD; and all thy commandments are truth. Concerning thy testimonies, I have known of old that thou hast founded them for ever.

(Psalm 119:151-2)

Thy word is true from the beginning: and every one of thy righteous judgments endureth for ever.

(Psalm 119:160)

If Jesus did somehow “fulfill” the law (whatever that means) so that all of it no longer had to be obeyed, then God’s judgements are not unchanging. God once hated covetousness, now it is the basis of our economic system and he is more than fine with that. Once God was filled with moral repugnance whenever a man lay with a man, now he grumbles under his breath that whatever gays get up to in their own homes they shouldn’t broadcast it. Some even say that God is pro-homosexuality. Many years in the future, it is possible that all righteous Christians will be just as in favour of marriage for all as they now are opposed to slavery and segregation.

When Paul saw in Jesus a less Jewish Jew, a Jew for all, a major stumbling block was the law. All those homogenizing restrictions would never fly across diverse communities. Thanks firstly to Paul’s rebranding, and contributions from many a committee over the next 1500 years or so, the 1646 Westminster Confession of Faith suddenly came up with the idea that God gave Adam only the moral law. Additionally to the Israelites, for He loved them especially, the Lord gave even more (i.e ceremonial and civil) laws.

In reality, to the Israelites the Law was all three things: it was moral because to do what God commanded was right. It was ceremonial because observance of the law was a constant reminder of the covenant. It was civil because there was no separation of holy and civil law.

The Westminster Confession’s apologetic is popular even in the face of the following words attributed to Jesus:

For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass the law until all is accomplished. Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

(Matthew 5:18-19)

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest part or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place.

(Matthew 5:17)

Has not Moses given you the law? Yet not one of you keeps the law.

(John 7:19)

We find in modern times that, contra Leviticus, blasphemy, adultery, working on a Saturday, and dishonouring your parents are no longer punishable by death. Most Western slave owners were Christians, and found support in the Bible for slavery during the debate that led to the American Civil War, yet today you would be hard pressed to find a Christian who is in favour of the enslavement of other human beings. Many Christians are supportive of gay rights, a large number are gay themselves, and would never dream of characterising a man lying with a man as an “abomination”. Despite 1 Timothy 2:12,

I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet

we have female priests.

As a young teenager I was greatly amused by a rather uncomfortable and surprised Cliff Richard at pains on a Saturday morning kids’ breakfast show to explain that, yes, it was almost impossible for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, but it could be done, with God.

Why make it so hard for God? Or rather, why take the risk? The powerful are loathe to give up their power, and Jesus here must make room for a greater god. It is also this faithful adherence to Capitalism that negates the commandment not to covet your neighbour’s possessions. For over time, the moral values of Christians have changed due to secular influence. There are indeed Christians who resist changes, and this is a further indication that if there were a God he would have been guilty of failing to tell his flock exactly what values to hold.

Of little contention is the golden rule, which we all (except psychopaths) imperfectly follow, and social humans must have followed long before Christianity or even Judaism. The golden rule is not sufficient to negotiate social life. The rest is pretty much up for negotiation it seems, so that Christian morality is nothing other than the wide-ranging moral opinions of Christians. One apparent way out might be to assert (hope? imagine?) that God gives us instinctive knowledge of what is right and wrong in context-dependent situations. I certainly think even implicit recognition that scriptural commandments are inadequate is to be welcomed, but how do we know it is God instructing us?

A 2009 study at the University of Chicago showed that what religious subjects attributed as God’s will aligned with whatever beliefs they held at the time.

Far from being constant, “the will of God” (as perceived by the subjects) could be manipulated by the researcher. Of course, they may not have been True Christians, or testing God is bound to lead God behaving as if he did not exist, or whatever unfalsifiable defence you wish to use to preserve the divinity of your conscience.

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Reproduced from my blog, 42 Reasons Not To Believe Christianity is True.

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33 thoughts on “The inconstancy of Christian morality

  1. The golden rule is not sufficient to negotiate social life.

    Love thy neighbor as thyself doesn’t cut it?

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  2. petrushka: Continue…

    Two points.

    1) What I want out of a situation is not necessarily what my neighbour would want if xe were in the same situation.

    2) If the golden rule were sufficient for social life, there would be no soap operas, family would be only joy, and the workplace wouldn’t give people such headaches.

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  3. The golden rule is not “have empathy.”

    Besides, what you want is not necessarily what you should get.

    Moral reasoning is complex. This is not controversial.

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  4. Your accusing people of not accepting this duo singers because of Jewish names? i
    On behalf of north America and everyone I plead not guilty and its not only a absurd accusation but a prejudiced one against our character.
    It shows rather the suspicions of these people and is a reflection on thier morality and intelligence.
    By the way Simon had the line about JESUS LOVES YOU in his song which showed a mocking nasty sentiment against our identity and religion.
    No true Americans or canadians ever had a problem with Jewish sounding names of entertainers unless they had some particular complaint.
    This is as Crazzzzzzzy as evolution.
    whatever happened to them?
    lets stick to origin fighting and not nationalism fighting.

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  5. davehooke:
    The golden rule is not “have empathy.”

    Besides, what you want is not necessarily what you should get.

    Moral reasoning is complex. This is not controversial.

    I believe the oldest formulation in the Abrahmaic tradition is Leviticus:
    Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the Lord. (KJV)

    Now we see it phrased in two versions, the negative “Don’t do to others what you would not like if they did to you” and the positive “Treat others as you wish to be treated”.

    I think that needs an additional phrase, “Treat others as you would wish to be treated if you were them”. That is the true test of empathy. I want to be left alone; I want to be treated cooly so as to avoid entanglements. If I treat my grieving neighbor as I myself wish to be treated, I would be morally failing her when she wants to be comforted and treated warmly.

    But as you say, people don’t (sometimes? often?) want what they need or should have for the best chance of long-term happiness. So merely treating them as they want to be treated is not a sufficient rule for morality.

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  6. Love is not simple. Nor is empathy. Have children and you begin to know.

    The obligationis not to follow a list of rules, but to enhance the lives of others. It is a proactive activity rather than the avoidance of rule breaking.

    Understanding that morality is proactive is the beginning. Living it is the journey.

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  7. Robert Byers:
    Your accusing people of not accepting this duo singers because of Jewish names? i
    On behalf of north America and everyone I plead not guilty and its not only a absurd accusation but a prejudiced one against our character.
    It shows rather the suspicions of these people and is a reflection on thier morality and intelligence.
    By the way Simon had the line about JESUS LOVES YOU in his song which showed a mocking nasty sentiment against our identity and religion.
    No true Americans or canadians ever had a problem with Jewish sounding names of entertainers unless they had some particular complaint.
    This is as Crazzzzzzzy as evolution.
    whatever happened to them?
    lets stick to origin fighting and not nationalism fighting.

    You’re a funny guy, Robert!
    http://jstandard.com/index.php/content/item/4613/

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  8. The Law, to which Jesus refers, is the Jewish law. It was given to the Jews only as part of a special covenant God had with them, and was never meant to be universal. Jews recognize so-called Noahide laws – laws that were given to the survivors of the Flood and their descendants, i.e. all of humanity. These are the laws that are binding to everyone. After that event, God pretty much gave up on people as a whole and focused all of his attention on Jews (once they entered the scene). All of the laws that were given afterwards were given to Jews only.

    And Jesus came to preach to the Jews, only occasionally condescending to throw some scraps to an odd gentile (I am closely paraphrasing the New Testament here!)

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  9. Davehook, I can’t help feeling like you are setting up some type of a strawman. The no true christian/scotsman fallacy goes both ways. Just as individual xian denominations or individuals don’t get to exclude what they don’t like in others who also identify with the label, it seems almost less justified to define the label as you like and declare that to be the belief of everyone who accepts the label. Now, I get that you didn’t exactly do that here, but isn’t it implied pretty directly? For me to make sense of the OP, I have to assume a lot of things about Jesus’ teachings, one of which is that somehow they were edicts rather than descriptions. You really have to buy into the resurrection and God ® of the Jews business for that to make sense.

    While there are lots of people who do indeed appear to buy into all that, there are also lots of people who don’t but they still call themselves xian. In terms of the lying with another woman business, in a world where adultery could get someone executed, a world where there was almost no such thing as casual sex, that particular statement makes some sense. I tell people I know that if you are married, you can work out your problems almost no matter how bad they are. Especially if you have kids. Sure there is the abusive or pathologically narcissistic spouse who won’t even consider trying to work things out because they can’t see any other point of view but their own but that is actually not common.

    The idea that you don’t need to bend, or that you will withhold affection until demands are met, or that the threat of leaving a relationship is a valid threat to trot out when things seem difficult is unhealthy. As difficult as it may seem to make space to forgive, I know from experience that it really is the better choice. Who cares if some xians don’t manage to deal? Does that reflect on the teachings of Jesus or does it reflect on people who you want to expose as hypocritical? In terms of what Jesus said, I have only been to one actually xian church service in my life and it was horrifying, but I have been to a handful of unitarian services and they seem to make perfect sense of what jesus is purported to have said.

    Also, while i have read the King James version of the bible as well as some parts in other translations, I have read the Jefferson Bible several times and find that Jesus’ actual words, minus the additions, are pretty consistent to my perspective and resonate quite clearly with me. That may or may not be different for you but the idea that there is some objective truth in there to find that makes it misguided for everyone isn’t going to get you anywhere. I find it very clear and self-consistent. That is a simple fact which no amount of arguing would affect.

    Now, if I were a xian and wanted you to believe physical events that defy logic, you could say that those ideas were illogical and demonstrate why. But I think you might have bitten off a bit more than your warrant can chew. All I can really say is that you don’t seem to get it. Which is a matter of your own personal model and how it all fits together. I don’t get Alan Ginsberg or Cormac McCarthy. But I do get the Jefferson Bible and the Gospel of Thomas which are the bits that jesus is supposed to have said so I dunno.

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  10. BWE, Jesus said to keep the law, the Jewish law. Do you do that?

    I point out that the selective worship enabled by Paul is at odds with the reported words of Jesus (as well as the Jewish religion of course). It took until the 17 th century for the nonsense about honouring only certain laws to be decided.

    Christianity is a leech on Judaism, and the fact it feels good for you doesn’t make it any less a religion made up initially by Paul and hundreds of committees since.

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  11. Hmm. There is a large portion of the christian religion which is based on the letters of Paul, mostly because they are in the bible I suppose. But that works for xians who care about that. Not for those who don’t. I dunno. I don’t really know many honest to God religious people and those I probably do know, I don’t know they are religious. But I know a lot of people who have read the bible and they pretty universally toss everything that Jefferson tossed.

    Worship is a strange concept to me so it’s very possible that I don’t get what you are pointing out, but I do know that you are excluding pretty much everyone I know who might get something from the bible from your definition of xian. I am not confident that the inconsistencies in paul’s letters or the other books are particularly troubling to any but the more simple adherents. And, being simple, I guess those people aren’t troubled by them either.

    Are you saying that Jesus never existed? Because, well, that’s a different issue.

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  12. Of course there are inconsistencies, and not many rational adults believe the Bible is an accurate historical account.

    We see what we want to see, just as we see what we want to see in our friends and spouses. We idealize.

    There is an idealized Jesus that serves as a role model for many people. The idealized Jesus helps many people make moral and ethical decisions. There’s a long cultural history that supports this, and the core values are similar across many religions. Including secular humanism.

    One can easily find stuff to debunk the historical Jesus, but what’s the point of denying that the idealized version still has an impact?

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  13. davehooke,

    Your stance is basically that of solo scriptura fundamentalism. Either Christians ground all of their beliefs and practices in their holy scriptures, or their Christianity is deficient (and by implication, their morals as well). This is not a universally accepted view of religion, not even among Christians. For instance, this is not the position taken by the Catholic church. At most, your criticism is applicable to those who do proclaim the solo scriptura doctrine. But then you will find yourself in an argument with Protestant theologians, and you can be pretty sure that they have ready answers to any challenge that you can think of, because generations of them have spent their careers answering such challenges.

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  14. Sophisticat, I don’t care whether Christianity is “deficient” or not. The inconstancy of Christian morality is a reason not to believe it is true. The human stamp is apparent. The retrofit by Paul (and subsequent Christians) is a blatant ‘DeJewification’ for the masses. There never were the distinctions in the law that allowed people to choose what to follow and what to ignore. The Reformists made that up in the 17th Century.

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  15. The idealized Jesus helps many people make moral and ethical decisions.

    Citation needed.

    What is there except the golden rule and a vague exhortation to love each other?

    Why do you think ANY idea shouldn’t be challenged, let alone ideas about Jesus?

    You have told me not facts but how you feel. Even in the atheist and the agnostic, there are often deep emotional connections to Christianity.

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  16. BWE:

    Are you saying that Jesus never existed? Because, well, that’s a different issue.

    No.

    I am saying that the inconstancy of Christian morality is a reason not to believe it is true. I am also saying that without Paul you wouldn’t even have the option to pick and choose what of your God’s holy laws you follow.

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  17. I am saying that the inconstancy of Christian morality is a reason not to believe it is true.

    Without assuming an absolute standard of morality by which one would compare the correctness of the Christian version, this statement makes no sense. If morality is subjective (invented by individuals, groups or cultures), then Christian morality is as “true” for those that follow it as any other morality – even if it is inconsistent from one person to the next, from one generation to the next, from one sect to the next.

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  18. What does “subjective” or “objective” mean when applied to morality?

    By what definition of “truth” can any morality be described as “true”?

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  19. davehooke,

    My God’s?
    Which God is my God? And, like I wrote earlier, the fact that you don’t get anything from it doesn’t mean there is nothing to get.

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  20. davehooke: No.

    I am saying that the inconstancy of Christian morality is a reason not to believe it is true. I am also saying that without Paul you wouldn’t even have the option to pick and choose what of your God’s holy laws you follow.

    Also, truth is not an external feature of reality is it?

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  21. William J. Murray: Without assuming an absolute standard of morality by which one would compare the correctness of the Christian version, this statement makes no sense.If morality is subjective (invented by individuals, groups or cultures), then Christian morality is as “true” for those that follow it as any other morality – even if it is inconsistent from one person to the next, from one generation to the next, from one sect to the next.

    Nonsense. It is not my claim that there is an absolute standard of morality. That is a claim of the Christian religion. Paul undermined the Jewish law and that is one of the things that has led to the inability of Christians to agree on, let alone conform to, clear standards for morality.

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  22. BWE:
    davehooke,

    My God’s?
    Which God is my God? And, like I wrote earlier, the fact that you don’t get anything from it doesn’t mean there is nothing to get.

    Your God = a Christian’s God, not necessarily you. Without Paul, Christians would not be able to pick and choose their morals.

    Now, perhaps people get something out of Christianity. That doesn’t mean it is true. The truth of the Christian story is my concern here.

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  23. BWE: Also, truth is not an external feature of reality is it?

    I’m not sure how that statement is intended, nor how it is meant to connect to what I said.

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  24. petrushka:
    Jews, having no Paul, agree completely on observance.

    As Judaism is a more homogenous religion than Christianity, the inconstancy of Jewish morality, while it may still be a reason not to believe Judaism is true, would not be my number one reason not to to believe it true.

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  25. William J. Murray: Christian morality is as “true” for those that follow it as any other morality – even if it is inconsistent from one person to the next, from one generation to the next, from one sect to the next.

    Agreed, especially noting the scare quotes.. There is no such thing as objective morality. Ethics are a matter for collective agreement and compromise.

    But off-topic, you have overlooked my question to you.

    Then you produce a quote from Hawking. What page of “The Grand Design” is it on, by the way? I have the book by me and I’d like to check the context.

    I still haven’t managed to find the location of the quote so far, though I’m enjoying re-reading and am about half-way through the book.

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