Biologist Richard Dawkins was on a British talk show in 2012 as part of a panel discussing whether or not the Bible was still relevant in our modern age. Not surprisingly Dawkins had a low view of the judeochristian Scriptures and placed them alongside other myths of old such as Norse and Greek mythology. Dawkins was incredulous as to why we still elevated “biblical myths” higher than those myths of other cultures, such as that of the roman god Jupiter. How could we stick with old books about morality when we would never think of doing so with, let’s say, medical science? Do we not want constant upgrades in our lives? Including our morality about life and sex and alcohol? To this the audience approved with definite applause.
As much as I disagree with Dawkins on most things, he brought up a good point. How do we, as Christians, defend the notion that we have now closed our ears to modern scholars who study ethics and still feel comfortable we are not somehow missing out on better information?
Now, the answer to this is actually quite simple. But the main obstacle is that most people in our secular society have a dim view of religions and holy books. When we speak of “what the bible says” most non-believers in the West roll their eyes and envision us bent over old books and reciting ancient customs that have long been exposed as false or evil. Much like most Christians are disinterested in what the Book of Mormon or the Qur’an say, secular humanists are tone deaf to our pleading directly from Scripture. For this reason I advocate taking a sideways approach. One which C.S. Lewis brilliantly used in one of his essays (“Dogma and the Universe,” which can be found in the book, “God in the Dock”).
In it Lewis recalls that morality, if it truly is an absolute Law, is not something which — once discovered — can change. Or else it would not be what we call Morality. For example, do we think that we can evolve as a society to the point where stealing is okay? Would you want the accountant in charge of your inheritance to be “too sophisticated” for the old adage of “thou shalt not steal?” Or would you prefer he or she cleverly devise ways in which to bilk you out of your money? Further, if you stood on trial for a murder you had not committed, would you be happy to learn that the judge overseeing your court proceedings was “very progressive” and had evolved passed the old, out dated tradition of “thou shalt not bear false witness?”
The point Lewis was making was that, like the law of gravity, once the Laws of Morality are discovered — or revealed — if they are true they cannot change. Now, in order to abide by this type of capital “M” Morality, we need to believe in Absolute — or real — morality. Much like the laws of physics are real and unchangeable. Funny thing is, the old school atheists did not believe in morality at all. All they saw on earth were rules made up by tribes of homo sapiens. And us fancy apes then used our private list of rules to help scrub down the rough edges of life. But make no mistake, these 19th and 20th century atheists believed in nothing akin to real rules of human behaviour. Rules as real as those that make rocks heavy and fire hot. Curiously, modern day “new atheists” like Sam Harris have shucked off the old shackles of materialism’s bleakness and chaos, and now claim that morality is indeed real and can be detected through reasoning and experimentation (as Dawkins suggested).
The good news of Harris’ position is that we Christians also believe morality can be discovered — like mathematic principles — precisely because Morality is very real. And unlike Dawkins’ assumption that Christians are dull witted, blind followers, we can test our morality every day to see if it is true and good. The Ten Commandments can be explained as being like the “A, B, C’s” of morality. Or as the multiplication table and basic addition and subtraction in math. In “God in the Dock,” Lewis reminds us that we all learn these basics of writing, reading and arithmetic in elementary school. Yet as we grow up and learn to write novels and perform calculus, although our writing and math gets highly complex, we never, ever violate the first principles we learned as children. We simply build with them. True moral principles then are just like these. And we can wrestle with them and test them vigorously.
Is not the history of our planet one big testing ground for moral rules? Does Dawkins wish he had been born in Papua New Guinea where he may have become the victim of a warring tribe? I doubt it. He had the luck of being born in the most stable and advanced society in history and in it we believe in the Christian ethos of “love your neighbour” instead of the guinean edict of “eat your neighbour.” The judeochristian influences on the Roman Empire helped morph it into the Christianized Europe that led to the free and flourishing society that is the Western world. No need to stick our collective Christian heads in the sand and clutch hard to our ignoramus status. We get up every day and try out our biblical morals to see what the result are. And I would say the results of this experiment — on personal and national levels — have proven surprisingly attractive.
Okay, Morality exists, but is the judeochristian version the right one?
Now, the million dollar question is, are biblical morals the right ones? Or do we need to look elsewhere for the rules of good living? This series will explore some of the more basic — and not so basic — rules laid out in the Old Testament to see if they are provably morally just. Or is the Torah just as nefarious as Sharia Law to the progressive and ethically fine tuned nostrils of modern, enlightened Westerners?
Where else could we start then the famous Ten Commandments?…
Commandments 1 through 5
1. “I Am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before Me.”
Whoa! Isn’t authority of this magnitude oppressive? Surely no one wants to live under a dictator, right? Well, God was not addressing the whole world with an iron fist. He was addressing a group of people that had willingly followed His lead into the desert and out of back breaking slavery. The Jews had also been praying for God to come take them away from the slave driving Egyptians for 400 years! So God was making an agreement with them: if they were to continue willingly being His people, He would be their God. That’s how it works. You have one God like you have one spouse. This was no dry, bureaucratic relationship, but one of tender and passionate love. On my wedding day I pledged myself to my wife and vice versa. If I come home to her with another man, that’s a deal breaker. Same with God. He actually loves His creation and is binding Himself to them. He is ever present and tenderly involved. The God-to-human relationship.
This First Commandment is at the top of the list gets right to business. Is there a God? Yes, He’s speaking to the Jews audibly in the midst of thunder and storm. He has just decimated the most powerful nation on earth and held up sea walls to usher about 2 million Israelis into the Sinai peninsula. The Jews themselves are the descendants of a family line that has willingly followed God for centuries. Abraham’s progeny has now grown into a nation and their God has come to rescue them because they have been crying out for Him to do so for 4 centuries.
We can only have one god at a time anyways. So pick one. If you pick God, focus on Him. When humans begin playing by other rules than those of the One who invented the whole board game, things go wrong. Same thing happens when we walk on the wrong side of physics or biology. If I chose to make up my own rules and drive my car into a brick wall, well, there are consequences. Same with smoking. Like it or not, we live in a world that has objective rules. Either we follow them or we suffer. The degree to which God is not your God is the degree to which you violate natural law. If we held to this First Commandment perfectly, there would be no need for any other commandments to come afterwards.
2. “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”
As the Jews would have seen the Egyptians do, people of the ancient world fashioned statues and other items into the gods they worshiped. Before us moderns turn our nose up at these primitives, take a look at a teenagers’ room. Or your screen saver. Whether it’s bikini posters, pictures of lamborghinis or famous athletes, youths carry images of what they live for. What they want. What they worship. And adults browse magazine advertisements and dream of owning high end cars, clothes and couches. We love to wash over images of what we desire most. Same game, different format. In short, we all worship, just different things.
None of the things humans are prone to desire are bad in and of themselves. Sex, food, high craftsmanship are all ideas that originated in God’s Mind. So in the right time and in the right dosage we are to have access to them. But it is the carrying of images for the express purpose of dethroning God from our lives that turns an image from an object into a bonafide lower case god. This does not threaten the real God but it threatens to cut us off from Him. We are the only victims of the consequence while He remains untouched and unscathed. A man obsessing over pornography is filling himself with images in order to worship sex. Continued immersion in this “carved image” will obscure God from his mind and risks alienating him from his Creator. This Second Commandment consists of removing images of objects or people that tempt us to break God’s rule over our hearts and is necessary in order to follow the First Commandment.
Many often point to the last half of the Second Commandment in which God states He is a jealous God and will visit the sins of those who hate Him for 3 or 4 generations of their children. At first sight this seems vindictive yet the jealous part is misunderstood. God is not petty, He is passionate. Do you prefer a cold-hearted bureaucratic God that could take us or leave us? It would be like a romantic partner that couldn’t care less if we were in the room or… in Siberia. Make no mistake, God is not lonely without us. But He didn’t create us to be His silly toys. He made something extremely serious when He created humanity. Me and you. Without Him, WE would be lonely and lost. If, as a teenage boy I discovered that my female celebrity crush was in love with me and was upset that I was dating a local girl, I would feel flattered. God’s interest in us is a sign that we are created to receive close attention from the most important Being. It flies in the face of fears of being inconsequential, purposeless lost children in a cold universe. Believe me, God being emotionally involved in our relationship to Him is a good thing.
And the part about 3 to 4 generations being punished can we not argue that this is at least in part the natural and nurture-based consequences of life? Can God truly give us freedom and then bubble our close ones to the negative impacts of our sin? And is it not also a deterrent that can serve as a warning to others? Notice also that he blesses for “a thousand” generations the lineage of those who willfully follow Him. He certainly is disproportional. But in the direction of blessing, not cursing.
3. “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain.”
Again, not hard to see how a modern mindset could see this as an overbearing command from a celestial power hog. And many churchmen (and churchwomen) also misunderstand this verse. The verb nasa’ is the Hebrew we translate as “take” but it actually means to “carry, bear up.” Implying that if someone “carries” the banner of God, he or she has identified publicly as a follower of that God. That person is now an official representative of the judeochristian God. If someone does this “in vain,” they are “falsely” pretending to follow the God of the Jews and Christians. And just like impersonating a surgeon could have deadly consequences to a trusting public, spoiling God’s reputation can be very serious. Jesus, the gentle shepherd, had only one type of person He was visibly angry at: religious phonies. He called these Jewish officials “sons of the Devil,” He hit them with a home-made weapon while turning their sales tables upside down and He also said it would be better “to have never been born” than to damage the trust that innocent children have in God. So on the surface — to some — it seems like it’s a petty command, but in practicality it is understandable.
4. “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work”
Here we go, a bonafide silly religious rule, right? Just like Jehovah’s Witnesses and their fear of blood transfusions, the Jews had a magical holiday that was special and holy. Well, that type of reasoning is a little too simplistic and obviously influenced by the secular fog we live and breathe in. Let’s take a closer look first.
Although Babylonian culture from the 2,000’s B.C. had seven day festivals, it is our records of the Jewish calendar that are currently the longest running evidence of a culture in which the seven day week runs throughout the calendar year. This was, in part, meant to mirror the 6 days (or “ages”) of creation and the 7th day of rest recorded in Genesis chapter 1. This was God’s creation “rhythm” which prepared His creation for the arrival of humanity. Other cultures also have days of rest and special holidays, yet it is hard to establish whether anyone other than the Jews had instituted a systematic weekly (or shortly spaced) day of rest. And with the Western Christians transferring the Sabbath to being Sunday (due to Christ’s Resurrection on that day) and them continuing to honor the Jewish Saturday, we have the two day weekend in the Western world. Thus is most likely due to an attempt to accomodate both Jewish and Christian customs into the judeochristian Western world.
But why such a big deal about taking a day off? Why not relegate this to the minor league rules such as the other festivals listed in Exodus? The answer may be in considering that the trend of history has been to enslave workers on behalf of the powerful. For God to ensure a cycle of rest should not offend anyone. Especially not labour-averse modern Westerners who constantly try to shorten work requirements. In 2010, the French government had to extend the retirement age for its public employees by 2 years. In response there were nation-wide protests. Watching and listening to protesters one would think the government of France had abolished retirement itself. Yet the question remains, why make this one of the Big Rules? Perhaps looking at the negative consequences of workaholism is a clue? Whether forced to work by a tyrannical boss or obsessively addicted to financial security, over-work has devastating effects on personal physical and mental health. As well as ruinous to marriages and child rearing. Further, productivity itself is poorly affected by over working. Maybe the God of the human body knew that just as the ecosystem cycles, the human need for rest does as well. And does it not make sense for God to know that we need to regularly focus on Him each week in order to make sure we don’t wander too far away from the battery-charging effects of His Presence? A strong case can be made that as we galavant further into secularism as a society, our depression and anxiety rates are sky rocketing. We over work and under worship. So maybe, as it seems to be His tendency, these rules are for our protection and benefit…
5. “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the Lord your God is giving you.”
Phillipe Aries in “Centuries of Childhood” points out that in the Middle Ages children were considered adults-in-training and as early as seven years old were learning trades and helping with the family business. This was a natural outflow of parents birthing children and then having the primary decision making role over every aspect of their children’s development. With the advent of the Common School Movement in the 1800’s children began being placed in compulsory public schooling and taken out of the adult world. Fast forward to the Baby Boomer generation and the concept of “the teenage years” was first introduced to our planet. This was a period between childhood and adulthood which allowed for an even further delay of an individual’s entrance into their adult responsibilities. Many “teenagers” in past generations had started families and businesses before the age of 20 but in our modern world this would seem absurd. By the time Gen X-ers and Millennials were done with teenage-hood it had stretched to just short of 30 years of age. The new average age for first time parents is in the late twenties. And due to lengthy years spent in university it is also the new average for permanently entering the work force on a long term career track. Not every aspect of this development has been wrong or harmful, but there is a common underpinnings to the constant elongation of modern pre-adulthood: intrusion of the State into family life.
Historically it was natural and organic for families to teach their young how to fend for themselves. If the father had a farm or black-smithing shop, he taught his children his arts. If a family was well-to-do, they would have their child tutored into a “higher career.” When mandatory public schooling was introduced, it was the good intention of the prevailing governments to create a level playing field by assuring a common access for all — rich and poor — to higher education. Yet it stands to reason that one consequence of this “intrusion” has been to grow the role of the State in a child’s life. By consequence, the role of the parents took more of a back seat. You had no right to refuse the government’s hand in your child education. Then and now. Over time, the role of government has only increased. And over time, a slow alienation of the parents has seeped into our culture. With the advent of double income families, children now spend less time during their childhood years being exposed primarily to their parents then ever before. And the older generations of today are far more likely to end up in care homes as they age. The modern phenomenon of “retirement homes” is fairly new. It used to be that grandma and grandpa moved in with their children and helped educate and care for the grandchildren. Continuing the spectrum of family life all the way to their deaths. Right there in the home. Yet now, according to a Forbes magazine article, nearly half of people die in hospice care. Away from their home and often their family.
“What does this have to do with the 5th Commandment?”
Well, the Big 10 Rules start off by connecting our daily lives close to God with the first 4 commandments. The rules that come after these focus on our relationship to other human beings. Jesus likewise reduced the “art of living” to two categories, loving God and loving others. In the Big 10 we have the same split. Notice that the first rule in the “other people” list are the parents. Not the government or society at large. By introducing the State early in family life we are replacing both God and parents as the primary shapers of individuals in our society. As a result we end up abandoning our parents to die in sanitized prison cells attended to by cool-hearted professionals instead of their own flesh and blood. This type of artificial family is also accompanied by an increased disenfranchisement with society at large. A generation of children who are weened off their parents too early and themselves let their children be cleaved from the psychological and spiritual womb of the nuclear family will be subconsciously tied more to the State and neither God or the humans closest to them.
And an increasing tendency to view parents as unable to shape their children’s lives also undermines their authority in the lives of their children. It is our modern generations that allows teachers to teach any and all sexual norms to children as young as those in the kindergarten years. It is also our society which will allow a teenage girl to get an abortion without the parents even being notified. It is also easier than ever for government workers to remove children from their parents for a growing list of reasons other than neglect or abuse. Sometimes — as one family recently discovered — it is for simply bucking the trend of “helicopter parenting” and allowing them to walk to a local park unattended. The trend towards replacing parents with the State is only growing and has split us down the middle. Right through the heart of the family.
This does not mean every family should be a homeschooling household or live in a commune on farm land, far away from “the State.” But it does mean parents should be careful of letting the State replace their influence as moral and spiritual mentors. It is possible to have children attend public school and to successfully counteract the negative influences of this system. But this begins by being aware of the problem. And this problem is not just to protect you from your adult children’s neglect, but to protect them from becoming a society which God says will experience a downfall as a result of a dishonoring of the parents.
Another casualty of the “modern family” has been whittling away at the age old natural right of parental discipline. It is more and more common for Western countries to outlaw physical discipline such as spanking. Child development specialists are increasingly likely to claim that letting the parent use corporal punishment is abusive and should be legally prevented. Yet newer studies such as that by Marjorie Gunnoe, professor of psychology at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, show that children who are spanked are more likely to volunteer in the community and finish college. Yet most Westerners would scoff at this and claim spanking is oppressive. Remember that it is our society which is slowly turning the family away from one in which parents are the authority to one in which parents are their children’s friends in a democracy — without a constitution. As a result, children have higher anxiety levels and disruptive behavriour as they subconsciously lash out to see if someone — anyone — will give them firm direction. This they desire whether they — or we — realize it or not.
Also, the notion of “father knows best” is taking a shellacking in our media and culture. Sitcoms, movies and T.V. commercials are constantly portraying male figures in families as idiotic buffoons. Further stripping away the veneration previously given the family and its head, the father. Thankfully many non-Western societies decidedly do not follow us in this trend. For example, Asian families are fare more patriarchal and reverential of their parents and are far less likely to place their parents in nursing homes or take away the father’s role as head of the tribe. As a result, the divorce rates in average Asian families are lower than the 50% median for Western couples. In some Asian countries the rates are so low as to be negligible:
It appears the Engineer of civilization holds the family unit as having primacy in our lives. And it seems very logical for Him to do so.
As you can hopefully appreciate, there may be some very good reasons for God to have Big Rules for the human machine. And before you roll your secular eyes remember that non-religious folks have plenty of rules themselves. Try and tell a modern, secular “liberal” that there are only two genders. Or that abortion is a murderous evil. Or the environment is not in danger. Try telling your fellow non-religious friends that there are good reasons to be skeptical of the Darwinian explanations for the origin of biological life. Or that microagressions don’t really exist. That the free market is better at taking care of the poor than the State. You will quickly find that everyone has very passionately held rules that they believe are universally necessary. We are all moralists. We just have different lists to refer to. Question is, whose list breeds better results?…
See you soon… in PART TWO…