Thursday, March 11, 2010

Jesus and the foundation of ethics

Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, "Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles." Then the disciples approached and said to him, "Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?" He answered, "Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit." But Peter said to him, "Explain this parable to us." Then he said, "Are you also still without understanding? Do you know see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but do eat with unwashed hands does not defile.
Matthew 15:10-20

My post yesterday got me thinking again about the basis of ethics. This is a hot-button issue between Christianity and atheism. Indeed, the modern atheist apologist probably has to spend more time on this issue than any other issue to try to convince Christians that morality makes sense with no God.

Christians, in turn, often defend the existence of God on the grounds that there is morality in the universe. If there were no transcendent morality, there would be no basis for acting to fight injustice. And there can be no transcendent morality without a transcendent God.

Atheists have a plethora of counterarguments to choose from. Among the more popular these days is the argument I highlighted yesterday, namely that if there is a transcendent God, he is clearly very immoral, since the universe makes no sense.

Another popular argument is to point out the apparently horrible things one reads in the Bible. Indeed, it is quite common for the modern atheist to argue against Christianity directly from scripture, a provocative inversion of the modern evangelical's strategy.

This puts Christians in a pretty awkward position. Traditional orthodoxy wants to argue that our ethics for all of life come from the Word of God handed down to us through scripture (it's not so different for Jews and Muslims). Thus the only response to atheists that traditional orthodoxy can give is to stubbornly assert that our human moral intuition is hopelessly flawed, and in fact the things we find reprehensible in scripture are good and right.

Another possible response would be to say that we may not understand the meaning of all these strange passages of scripture, but what we do understand, we adhere to. But already this is creating a canon outside the canon. We get to decide what we understand and are able to apply; thus we are no longer strict adherents to scripture as our ultimate moral authority.

What puzzles me about this tangled mess in which traditional orthodoxy leaves itself is that Jesus himself does not seem to approach ethics in this manner. In the passage from Matthew's gospel quoted above, we see Jesus very decisively breaking with tradition and scripture.

Doubtless Protestants will eagerly raise their hands to spout off all the theological reasons why Jesus is allowed to do this and still be consistent with scripture (they probably read them in Romans). But such reactions are merely a sign of great anxiety over this issue. Why is Jesus so counter-traditional, even counter-scriptural?

There is one last insistence that comes across as quite orthodox from a Christian perspective, which is that Jesus has authority to declare a shift in the law. After all, he is God incarnate; the law came through him, and his authority precedes the law. So we can take it on bare authority that what Jesus says is right.

But how does Jesus himself reason in this passage? "Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?"

"Do you not see?" These words ring powerfully for me in this passage. Open your eyes, friend, Jesus seems to be saying. Put down the scripture and the tradition with which you've been raised. Just look, for heaven's sake!

I would admit that I might be inferring too much from such a small detail, except that Jesus really does radically alter the Jewish understanding of the law in this passage. Even his own disciples don't get it. How can Jesus be going against everything they've been taught?

The answer Jesus himself gives is very human. It is not based on lofty theological concepts, nor on scripture-proofs, nor on tradition. It is an argument that any modern atheist would most likely agree with--it makes no sense to judge a person based on whether they've washed their hands in a ceremonial way. Rather, it is what comes out of the heart that matters.

Not that Jesus breaks totally from his tradition. His list of sins in verse 20 certainly hearken back to the Ten Commandments. But frankly, I fail to see how this is anything close to holding scripture as the absolute final authority on moral questions. It's not an all-or-nothing question. Just as Jesus tosses aside certain restrictions from the Old Testament, he makes other restrictions even more severe (e.g. his teaching on divorce).

From my point of view, the only way we can make sense of Jesus is by trusting that God has given us other means by which to make critical moral decisions, other than by clinging tightly to a written set of propositions. "Listen and understand," he says.

Perhaps by the grace of his Spirit, we will understand.

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