Saturday, July 30, 2016

The Bible is a book of war

The Bible is a book about war. Most of its stories are about a nation whose only known way of survival was to take up arms against surrounding nations, and almost every generation knew war.

The New Testament is quite different, of course. Jesus did not lead an army in a rebellion, but rather willingly handed himself over to be crucified. "My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here." (John 18:36)

War imagery reappears mainly in Revelation, where Jesus is depicted as having a sword coming out of his mouth, destroying Satan, and judging the nations. There are of course many references to judgment throughout the New Testament, but rarely are there explicit images of weapons and violence.

It seems there are many formulas for how to tie all this together. Some say that God is a God of wrath, and that both the Old Testament calls to holy war and the war imagery of Revelation are both consistent with his character. Rather than fret over these images, we need to respect them, fear God, and teach that his terrible wrath is a reality people will have to face unless they repent.

Rather than try to thoroughly critique this position, I will just state briefly why I have problems with it. To be clear, the main difficulty is not that God judges. It is rather the explicit commands in the Old Testament to (for example) kill women and children.
When you draw near to a town to fight against it, offer it terms of peace. If it accepts your terms of peace and surrenders to you, then all the people in it shall serve you at forced labor. If it does not submit to you peacefully, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it; and when the Lord your God gives it into your hand, you shall put all its males to the sword. You may, however, take as your booty the women, the children, livestock, and everything else in the town, all its spoil. You may enjoy the spoil of your enemies, which the Lord your God has given you. Thus you shall treat all the towns that are very far from you, which are not towns of the nations here. But as for the towns of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall annihilate them--the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusite--just as the Lord your God has commanded, so that they may not teach you to do all the abhorrent things that they do for their gods, and you thus sin against the Lord your God. (Deut. 20:10-18, emphasis mine)
When I take this passage literally, I simply don't know how to square it with the ethical teaching of Jesus to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. And I don't know why Jesus would have suddenly changed the strategy from war to self-sacrifice. We could argue about details all day long, but ultimately I just don't see how to form a coherent view of Scripture out of a literal reading of the Old Testament.

There is another way of reading the Bible which seems to be embedded in everything Jesus himself says. It is a spiritual allegory, a prophecy about him and his ministry, and about the ultimate destiny of those who follow his Way.

Jesus does indeed perform acts of war in the New Testament--against demons!
If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself; how then will his kingdom stand? If I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your own exorcists cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you. Or how can one enter the house of a strong man and plunder his property, without first tying up the strong man? Then indeed the house can be plundered. (Matthew 12:26-29)
But spiritual warfare is not physical warfare, and Jesus did not come to lead an armed rebellion against the Romans. How then might we read the Old Testament (and Revelation) in light of his ministry and his character?

I read it spiritually in this way. The people of Israel is the human spirit. Once we were slaves in Egypt. This is a metaphor for our slavery to sin and death. Then God called us out of Egypt with might acts of power, and he gave us a new identity. He gave us his law, so that we might be united. But as everyone who has ever put faith in God knows, it is easy to stumble, right from the very beginning. Even after we are made free in God, we must then wander through the wilderness, just as the Israelites did for forty years.

The final mission is to go into the promised land and conquer. If in the beginning God did all the acts of power himself, liberating us by his own hand, so that we had only to stand back and watch, in the last act we must take up arms ourselves--against the demons of our own hearts. We must utterly annihilate them, wiping out even women and children, which means metaphorically that we must destroy even the possibility of our sins being reborn, thus coming back to haunt us ("so that they may not teach you to do all the abhorrent things that they do for their gods"). It is still God who fights for us, but his power is infused into our own efforts.

But why should the word of God come to us as such a long history when it would have sufficed to simply teach us this brief lesson? Well, I don't agree that it would have sufficed. First of all, we should not discount the fact that the Bible's historical books do indeed record events of history, even if it they are presented in a spiritual (and often mysterious) way. There is always value in such records.

Second, there is no end to all of the subtle lessons one can learn by meditating on the details of sacred history. For instance, I am quite fond of the story of the Gibeonites in the book of Joshua. Since they fear defeat by the Israelites, the Gibeonites dress themselves up in rags and pretend to come to the Israelites from a long distance. The Israelites make peace with them before consulting the Lord, and so they disobey God. In the same way, our sins often dress up to us as outsiders; we think that such faults could never come from our own hearts, but must somehow be the influence of our environment. Or they dress up as outsiders, in the sense that they are not a threat to us, and so we make an alliance with them and permit them to go on dwelling in our souls. "Show no pity," God says. If we do not consult him, our sins will remain, and we will not live long in the promised land (that is, spiritual life) as he desires for us.

That is how I read the Bible these days. It is not that I totally discount the literal meaning of texts--indeed, I take the story of Jesus's death and resurrection quite literally. And I don't think my lens of interpretation is out of line with traditional Christian reading. But at some point, I simply can't accept that all of the words of Scripture are literally true, in the sense that the God of the universe would actually order women and children to be killed (or, alternatively, taken as property). My conviction is that Jesus himself teaches us a new way to fight our wars, one that is spiritual and not literal. This does not require less strength, but more.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Between two worlds

One of the fruits of my reflections on Stephen Weinberg's The First Three Minutes is a renewed shock at the way modern people, especially scientists, can walk around knowing how pointless and inhospitable the universe is and simultaneously lead happy and productive lives. It is not so much that I think it surprising that human beings should be so self-absorbed as to ignore anything outside their own minuscule sphere of existence. Rather, I wonder how anyone who has gazed straight at the grandeur of this vast, pitiless universe can afterward return to diligently fulfill his daily responsibilities. Is there a sort of intentional amnesia that happens? Do scientists like Weinberg simply choose to forget how pointless their lives really are? Or do they instead have doubts about the validity of their own assertions? Perhaps there is some source of hope that they missed while they were looking through telescopes and performing calculations.

Christian faith trains the imagination to hold on to two seemingly opposite realities at the same time. Front and center is Jesus Christ, who is said to be both fully human and fully divine. In the same way he is both absent--seated at the right hand of God--and fully present, for the church is his body. It is a theme woven throughout the Bible. God is too big for even heaven and earth to contain him, yet he chose Jerusalem as a dwelling place. When Moses asks God what his name is, he responds, "I Am Who I Am," but then he adds that he is in fact the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. God is always making a bridge between the utterly unknowable and the known, the transcendent and the imminent, the universal and the particular.

Even if someone were to prove to me that Christianity is not true--if someone could identify the remains of Jesus, or find some other way to wholly discredit the New Testament's witness--I would still find myself compelled to search for this bridge between two worlds, like the God of the Bible. Somehow we humans are caught between the two worlds, scrambling to find ground beneath our feet, hoping against hope that we might live comfortable with one foot on either side. We live to satisfy temporal desires, for good food and entertainment, for success and prosperity, for meaningful accomplishments within our brief lifetimes. But we also gaze up at the stars, and down through the microscope, and wonder about the big picture. We try to measure the age of the universe and guess its ultimate destiny. We try to understand the laws of physics and how to master them. We try to answer questions about life's ultimate purpose, about what is really beautiful, and about what truly lasts forever.

In my daily life I find myself regularly called away from my ordinary tasks to contemplate just how little a difference it makes whether I complete them or not. True, as concerns my own life and the lives of those around me, it can make a tremendous difference. But on a larger scale, it makes practically none. One human life does not change the ultimate fate of humanity, and even if all humanity were to pass away, the earth would keep on turning, and even if the earth itself were destroyed, the sun would continue burning, and even if the sun itself died, the galaxy would keep on spinning, and the universe would go on as it always has...

Yet it is in these very tasks which I perform daily that I become witness to this grand spectacle. I perform calculations, and I write articles for journals of mathematics. Every theorem correctly proven is a small bit of insight into an eternal truth that will never be taken away. There is ground underneath my feet. The human mind is not adrift. There is a bridge, somewhere.

I wish scientists talked about this more, but I suppose that would involve matters of faith rather than rigorous empirical evidence.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Virtue and libertarianism

Reason posted a debate on virtue libertarianism, which is more or less defined in opposition to "libertine libertarianism," an ideology which is "radically indifferent to the choices that people make with their freedom." William Ruger and Jason Sorens define it as follows:
What we call virtue libertarianism is the alternative to libertinism of the stronger and weaker varieties. Virtue libertarians recognize that we have a duty to respect our own moral nature and to promote its development in others in proportion to the responsibility we have for them. Heavy drug use that destroys one's own moral or rational faculties is inconsistent with that duty. Sexual license, gluttony, and the ancient vice of pleonexia—an excessive desire to acquire material and other goods—can overpower the virtue of self-command, which Adam Smith astutely recognized as the key to all the other virtues. To respect others, we must act beneficently and generously toward them, not just refrain from taking their freedom. 
I'm not going to comment on how well Ruger and Sorens did in making their argument for virtue libertarianism. What struck me was how libertarians around the web reacted, particularly at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, a blog I like to follow.

I know this might not be such a charitable summary, but essentially it boils down to this: other libertarians accuse Ruger and Sorens of attacking a straw man, and then immediately proceed to behave exactly like that straw man. To be specific, we have libertarians saying that of course we ought to be virtuous, but who's to say that porn, drugs, and decadent lifestyles are really all that bad?

This is where I get off the bus with libertarians. I have absolutely no interest in debating these things with people who think themselves too enlightened, too sophisticated for traditional morals. If these thinkers wish for evidence that such vices are bad, I can only point to centuries of moral tradition telling us as much. Pornography and drugs are degrading, inasmuch as they treat the human body is nothing more than a pleasure factory, and not as a sacred gift to be appreciated and maintained respectfully.

That doesn't mean libertarian policies are wrong. Just because it is wrong to use cocaine doesn't mean that the government is justified using violence to prevent its use. One can never merely ask the question, "Is it wrong to do X?" in order to derive good policy. One must also ask the subsequent question, "What is the morally appropriate response to X?"

At bottom, I suppose I am really not a libertarian at all, insofar as I do not really believe in self-ownership. I support libertarian policies because I don't believe the government owns me. But as for self-ownership, I belong to God, not to myself. Indeed, I find the very concept of self-ownership incoherent. For if I own something, this means I can dispose of it as I will. Yet if I dispose of myself (i.e. commit suicide) then I have destroyed my ability to make any future decisions. My supposed freedom to do with myself whatever I will negates my freedom. (Yes, this does have policy implications. Unlike, I suppose, the majority of libertarians, I don't support the right to assisted suicide, although end of life issues can be tricky.)

By the way, I believe Christianity is the religion of liberty, but I think that deserves a separate post. What's really essential at this point is that I have no interest in libertine libertarianism. And yes, this is real phenomenon which can easily be found, among other places, at I have no interest in defending a college woman's right to become a porn actress in order to pay for her studies. I have no interest in defending the recreational use of drugs as a fun and therefore good thing. Neither do I have any interest, for that matter, in claiming that Americans ought to own as many guns as they want, or that they should have as much money as they want. All of these things--sex, drugs, weapons, money--very quickly become vices, and I don't think society is better for rejoicing at the abundance of such vices.

Again, I offer no defense of this proposition, because my opponents share none of the foundational assumptions on which it is based. If one approaches moral questions like a rationalist, insisting on scientific evidence that such behaviors really are destructive, then one is never going to be convinced. The only thing I can point out to libertarians is how ironic it is that they should take such an approach, given that one of their intellectual leaders is one such as F. A. Hayek.