Trivial Pursuit: Pleasure in Ecclesiastes

This is a paper I wrote on Ecclesiates in 2005. The text is pasted below, but that may produce some untidy formatting errors (and removes page numbers), so here is the original PDF for download if you prefer.

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Trivial Pursuit

FINDING PLEASURE IN ECCLESIASTES

JSM Pickering, 2005

Introduction

Christians perennially struggle with a life lived either completely immersed in the things of this world, or as though enjoyment of this life means diminished desire for the life to come. The former view leads to misplaced trust in the ability of this world to provide fulfilment and meaning, whereas the latter leads to suspicion of pleasure and a tendency towards asceticism. The book of Ecclesiastes suggests a way to walk the balance of life in a corrupted, doomed world.

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Response to Tauriq Moosa on Defending Morality with Religion

A friend of mine, Tauriq Moosa, wrote recently arguing on the basis of Euthyphro’s dilemma that it is indefensible for theists to claim their theism as a basis for ethics (‘The Flaws in Defending Morality With Religion‘). There was at least one blog offering a ‘Christian response’ that did neither side any justice, so I thought I’d have a go.

The dilemma as he put it is:

 “(1) Is conduct right because the gods command it (voluntarism), or (2) do the gods command it because it is right? (objectivism)”

It is derived from one of Socrates’ dialogues, and both Tauriq and Plato favour the second option, finding that the voluntarist option fails and renders the input of the gods redundant.

Although I discovered in the middle of writing this that what I’m about to say (or something similar) was succinctly argued by Augustine 1700 years ago (‘God neither conforms to nor invents the moral order. Rather His very nature is the standard for value.’), perhaps I can put it in a novel way.

The major problem with the dilemma is that it seems only to work if you conceive of the world as Plato did.

Plato’s world versus the Christian one

In Plato’s world the gods were part of the universe, not beyond it, and the universe itself was seen as infinite and uncreated. The gods were spiritual powers within the same system that we inhabit. In his view, we either source our morality in the wishes of the gods, or we source it in an independent principle (reason, for example). In his worldview, the gods could be in disagreement about what was right, so divine commands that were binding upon people would have to be limited to what could be agreed upon. If even the gods disagree about what is right, its means that they are also subject to a principle of rightness external to them; this of course makes their opinion on the matter largely redundant. Furthermore, the fact that the universe itself was thought to be eternal and governed by absolute principles would have lent moral reasoning (which taps into those principles) considerable authority for someone like Plato.

However, if God is the Creator of the system and outside the system, it radically changes the game board. The dilemma treats God as divorced from the universe, so that the two can be conceived of separately. Plato could reasonably do so because his ‘gods’ were separate in this way, but Christian theism is not so structured, and accordingly the dilemma seems not to hold. The universe is not eternal, and God is not a resident of it. The universe is His creation and dependent upon Him.

Everything that exists has its existence (according to Christianity) because of the ongoing command of God. In other words, God’s command does not merely govern moral imperatives, but also the patterns and structures and functioning of the universe too. Any system according to which we would measure rightness (be it reason, logic, whatever) would at the same time be a function of the mind of God who set the system up in the first place. The moral commands that He has given (taken for granted that there is a set of these that are identifiably from Him) would also be a function of that same mind. If God exists in the Biblical way, He is both the author of moral command and moral reasoning, both of which are a function of His mind and character.

So conduct is not right because God commands it but because it is fittingly related to His character. Conduct is not commanded by God because it is right either, but it is commanded because it is fittingly related to His character. Whether we learn of that relatedness and that character by means of command or by good moral reasoning is  irrelevant. God doesn’t merely give His blessing to something that is ‘good in itself’; His is the mind that made the rules and framework by which it can be recognised as such.

Objection: Following commands destroys moral freedom

“Whether god or the Bible, you are not making a proper moral decision if someone else is telling you what to do: it is not a decision, it is a command being obeyed. To be able to reason morally, you must be able to engage freely… Furthermore, [voluntarism] makes ethics a useless subject since we need only consult the gods.”

The complaint that command destroys free moral decision-making would perhaps be true if God dispensed command like a sergeant major. This is not how Christianity works.

Let’s hypothetically accept that the commands/laws in scripture are indeed from God’s mouth. These laws are surprisingly few, not exhaustive, given in a context, and intended to be applied and recontextualised very broadly. Over and over, the Bible models the idea that obedience to the letter of the law is insufficient and misses the point of it.

The law conveys a snapshot of Godlike character that needs to be investigated, expanded, understood, and embodied. Clearly even obedience to God’s command requires the careful application of wisdom (which connects us again to the domain of moral reasoning).

So God’s commands require His followers to be as competent as anyone else at moral reasoning, because without it, command is bound to be misunderstood and misapplied. Biblical commands cannot function to ‘tell us what to do’ because they’re not structured in this way. So one cannot solve moral problems merely by consulting the scriptures (hence the disagreement among even followers of the Bible that Tauriq mentions). Moral reasoning, albeit of a dependent kind, is still required of Christians.

Additionally, it is certainly not the case that on moral issues one can merely ‘consult the gods’ directly. Given that the structure of God’s command is not to have a constant stream of orders from heaven, there is no expectation for Christians that God will provide fresh, specific commands for daily eventualities. His commands in scripture are expressions of underlying guiding principles, which (once laid down) are there for our study and application. This means that God’s commands are not as open to change or subjectivity or arbitrariness as you might think.

Objection: God is redundant

“…the gods are useless, since if the action is right, why do we need the gods to recognise it? We are already using another standard…”

From my earlier argument, it should be clear that God is not separable from the standard of right; God is not lending approval to ‘another standard’, He is actually foundational to morality and to the reasoning by which we attempt to gain access to it. He is the one who speaks the language of reason according to which the universe has been programmed.

But why the need to provide commands? Doesn’t moral reasoning at least make His intervention redundant?

Christians argue no, because it is basic Christian belief that humanity does not by nature have direct access to God, because sin separates us from knowing God, which means that our moral reasoning is left to its own devices. Because people have limited capacity and we’re generally unable to foresee the consequences of our moral decision-making, we do not have the faculties and the vantage point to see what is truly moral behaviour. In Christian terms, we are supposed to be aware that we are dependent creatures, not autonomous.

God does not experience such failings, and so ours can be partially overcome if God reveals His character in a more decisive way, and this makes command desirable. This is why Christians will tend to revert to the Biblical basis for morality that Tauriq’s article complains about. If God exists and if He has spoken, His words would necessarily be a primary moral resource. (Again, this assumes that we have a body of God’s revelation. I understand that this is questionable, but it is for now a separate issue than whether revelation/command would trump human reason.)

As Tauriq says: “One may appeal to reasons made by smarter people, but then you are engaging in their reasoning which any other free agent can assess and dispute”. God is the ultimate ‘smarter person’, and He does, surprisingly enough, frequently supply some of His reasons for moral commands. It is entirely reasonable to appeal to His thoughts, if we have them.

Another important reason why it is preferable to prioritise command is that Biblical religion is about restoring people to a relationship of dependence upon God, rather than autonomy. Having come to believe that God has commanded something, it is anti-relational to behave as though one knows better than Him how His creation works.

Objection: Third way makes God equivalent to goodness a priori

Tauriq’s article mentions a third way (besides the two raised by Plato), which makes rightness something internal to God. This is much the same as what I’m arguing, so I must answer the related objection. Tauriq says:

“We can’t simply be saying ‘god is good’ before the conversation on what constitutes good has even begun: because then it would render the discussions circular. Equating God with good doesn’t answer the question of what constitutes good, it just redefines God.”

I’m not sure that anyone is spared from his objection here, because everybody must eventually say what it is that constitutes good, and I don’t see how we can avoid doing so without describing a set of principal characteristics. By what criterion we say they’re ‘right’ thereafter presumably is circular for everyone.

When Christians say ‘God is good’, we do not leave God or goodness undefined, as if our idea of God could be redefined to suit any moral standard (which seems to me to be a modification of voluntarism). When we say God is good, we mean that goodness is based on His characteristics, not something external to Him (whether His commands or moral universals).

So this is why morality is ‘being fittingly related to His character’. Take for example what Jesus calls the founding principles underlying all law: love for God and love for neighbour. We are saying that love (as it is exemplified in scripture, especially the crucifixion) is not an eternal principle that God likes, it is who He is, and so it is hardwired into His command and His creation.

There are two related objections that I’ll answer far too briefly: Firstly, some would say that if God existed prior to the creation of anything, then how could he have been moral (loving, for example) before there was anything that required the exercise of morality (love is other-person-centeredness; there needs to be others for it to exist)?

Ignoring the fact that we know nothing about eternity or things before the universe came to be, this objection is answered by the evidence in scripture that God is ‘Trinity’: a pluriform being, for want of a better term. God thus eternally practices other-person-centeredness by nature within his own being. So morality can be a set of particular characteristics, without also having to be external to God.

The second related objection is that God commands things that seem to us to be evil. I have written about the problem of evil before, so I’ll merely summarise. Firstly, for the greater good God opts not to bring evil (and thus all mankind) to an end, but rather works within a corrupted system to bring about ultimate good.

Secondly, there are direct divine commands (e.g. to annihilate) that are distasteful. Yet they are in line with the otherwise-obvious fact that God takes every life. Even those that die peacefully in their old age are nevertheless put to death by God, because as He says in the third chapter of the entire Bible, those who rebel will be put to death. He’s never really hidden that part away. Meting out judgement is not actually in direct conflict with God’s love. What is in conflict with God’s love is human hatred and rebellion, and so God either cures it or removes it.

Seeing as this still makes people unhappy, I would add to the above something that I have not argued on this subject before: It is a remarkable feature of God’s work in the world that He doesn’t mind bearing the accusation that He is evil. In working for the ultimate Good, God never seems to labour too hard to clear His own name.

Take the example of Jesus. His family line includes famous ancestors born out of prostitution, incest, adultery, and non-Jewish lineage. He was conceived out of wedlock inviting the assumption that he was a bastard. He worked as a manual labourer, not a scholar or priest. He hung around with traitors and hookers. He broke cultural interpretations of God’s law. He was condemned as a blasphemer. He died like the lowest of slaves. Nothing that he did was particularly aimed at protecting his reputation, and yet his shameful birth and death is all directed towards curing the evil and rebellion in those people who killed him.

So although the rightness of God’s actions are not always apparent to us, He seems not to mind the loss of reputation, even if it turns out that He was all the while doing good.

Snake Handling Pastor Dies Of Snakebite

At the end of May, Mack Wolford, a pastor of one of the fringe pentecostal churches that handle rattlesnakes as a test of faith (in ‘obedience’ to Mark 16), died of a bite on the thigh sustained during a church meeting. Being of the opinion that the Bible commends faith as the cure for snakebite, he did not seek treatment, and died shortly afterwards. His father had met the same end about 25 years ago.

Such an event is ripe for mockery, and many internet commenters predictably obliged, but this is sad for more reasons than his death.

Firstly, the obvious complaint is that the basis for this sort of behaviour in church is absurdly flimsy. Mark 16 is a later addition to the text (one of three manuscript endings for Mark), and seems to have been a hasty conclusion tacked on later because the ending that seems to be the original is abrupt and open ended. Those of us who hold to the authority of scripture tend to believe that it is the original that has the authority, and so mistakes and additions evident in later manuscripts are not deemed binding on us. Secondly, there are no comparable scriptures elsewhere in the Bible that guarantee miraculous intervention of this sort. Thirdly, the one who wrote this hasty conclusion may have understood himself to be writing a summary of Jesus’ promises to his Apostles, not to the general public, perhaps having in mind the incident in Acts in which St Paul is bitten by an adder and suffers no harm. In short, no one should be basing their well-being exclusively on those dubious words in Mark. Most people accept this, and the rattlesnake movement is accordingly very small.

The bigger sadness is that faith healing is in general a misunderstanding of the way that God works in the world. There is an assumption that certain things are (for want of better terminology) ‘ordinary’ and certain things are ‘spiritual’. Although few would argue this if pressed, they treat the spiritual realm as God’s habitat, but the ordinary realm as if God is largely absent from it. ‘Faith’ is a spiritual substance that gains you access to God’s powerful spiritual realm, from which comes miracle and other supernatural phenomena. The ordinary realm is the place for suffering, struggle, bodily functions, the sciences and so on. It is a realm to be transcended.

This outlooks fails not least because the things that belong to the ‘spiritual’ are chosen arbitrarily. Healing is an obvious candidate, because when ailments get beyond human help, we can only seek God’s supernatural intervention. This leads some, like Wolford, to classify healing as belonging to the realm of faith, and to consign medicine to the realm of unfaith.

But eating, as far as I’m aware, is never so classified. Eating is ‘ordinary’ and I for one have never heard of faith eaters.Yet the differences between food and medicine are not so great.

Firstly, food looks like it should belong to the ordinary, because it generally comes to us by natural means. It grows in the ground, you pick it and eat it. No miracle there. Yet the more we learn about our bodies and our world, the more we discover that healing the body is also a cooperative effort between our natural bodily functions and the things we find lying around. There is no necessary reason that the world should contain substances that cure things, but it does, and this is as much a feature of God’s Creation as food is.

Secondly, healing looks like a spiritual matter because so many Biblical miracles involve healing. Yet there are a number of very significant feeding miracles in the Bible by which God provides food entirely without natural help — such as Manna from heaven, the flour and oil jars that never run out, and the feeding of the 5,000 — yet people never seem to argue that we should pursue faith eating.

In both eating and healing, we trust God by faith to provide, and we are able to receive what He provides with thanksgiving. There is no compelling reason why healing by natural means is less faithful to God than eating by natural means.

It is a fundamental misunderstanding that God is more active in the supernatural than in the natural. The Biblical book of Esther, for example, fails even to mention God in its pages, and the deliverance in the end comes about via a series of non-supernatural coincidences. A major theme in the book is that God is capable of doing His work, even bringing about incredible results, without supernatural demonstrations of power.

So maybe a better test of faith would be to trust God while nothing much is happening, or trusting Him while dealing wisely with the world He created, instead of playing spiritual brinkmanship with God to goad Him into making a miraculous display. You might as well sit down with your mouth open and demand that He feed you.

Risk and Jesus’ Revolution

People seem naturally to prefer life in high contrast: things must be black and white, goodies and baddies, easily categorised. Unfortunately, having a category for something usually ends any further thought on the subject. This happens all to often with goodies and baddies in scripture, especially the Pharisees. We know they’re the enemy, and so we usually avoid to identifying ourselves with them in any way.

Last Sunday was Palm Sunday, and our preacher helpfully sketched a clearer picture of what was actually going on when Jesus was being welcomed into Jerusalem with such optimism (the waving of palms thing). [I'm stealing all his best info, which he in turn wishes to credit to that excellent book on Jesus, The King of God's Kingdom (which you should read/buy if you haven't, and even if you're one of those skeptical types).]

In the first instance, the waving of palms was a politically charged action: a few decades later, when Jerusalem minted its own currency in defiance of Rome (shortly before being utterly obliterated by them), they chose the palm leaf as the image on the coin.

Secondly, the pilgrims arriving for the festival knew about Jesus’ miracles, and were now making a bid for him to declare himself king. They began using the acclamation, ‘Hosanna’. This isn’t a word like ‘Yay!’ or even ‘Praise God’. It means ‘Save!’ (or ‘Save now!’), and it’s from Psalm 118, a song that has to do with God (and His king) cutting off the nations that threaten them, rescuing His people against impossible odds.

So the crowd had become convinced that Jesus was the king that God would use to throw off the yoke of Roman occupation. He was supposed to lead them into a golden age, even if the task seemed impossible. The festival crowd – perhaps as much as two million strong — was being stirred up with revolution songs, and was readying to enthrone the rebel leader in the city of the King. It’s safe to say that things were a little tenser than the Sunday School version allows.

There was good reason for tension. The last time someone had tried to mount a resistance to Rome, at around the time of Jesus’ birth, things had gone very, very badly. The Romans came to meet the uprising, by some accounts flattening the town from which it originated, and selling all its inhabitants into slavery. Except, that is, for the 2,000 rebels that the Roman governor crucified as a warning to others. The people who were meant to take warning were those people now in power: the Pharisees and the Chief Priests.

We’re accustomed to treating them like whatever Darth Vader’s team is called on Star Wars — and surely some of them must have been typical power-hungry politicians who deserve our scorn — but we recognise too infrequently how much of a point they had. How many of us reasonable folk, when in a position of responsibility, would have done differently?

  • They knew that their scriptures promised a new king, but they also knew that Rome was deeply intolerant of pretenders to the throne and would not be as forgiving as the last time (marching to Palestine tended to leech all of the Pax out of the Romana). Lives depended on them backing the genuine article.
  • They knew that the Messiah that was promised was supposed to come from David’s family and David’s town. Jesus was Galilean, as far as they knew. He couldn’t be the one.
  • Jesus didn’t look like much of a king. He was an artisan, an itinerant teacher from the school of no one, hailing from the town of nowhere. He had no military credentials whatsoever. He did amazing things, but he was cavalier with some of the cherished Torah (breaking the Sabbath and so on), and he hung out with cheats and prostitutes and scum on the Roman payroll.

The people were all so impressed with his magic, but they didn’t know their theology. They didn’t know that he should be disqualified. He didn’t have the credentials, and his power might come from the Devil for all anyone knew. Supporting this guy against the Romans was too much of a risk.

This explains some of their behaviour earlier in the gospels. In John 11:47-50, the baddies say:

So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the Council and said, “What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all. Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.”

In other words, Jesus is making too many waves; the Romans are going to notice. The utilitarian equation therefore determines that it’s better to kill the one man, rather than starting a war on his account.

And then shortly after the optimistic welcome in the city, when in a game of brinkmanship, the rulers are able to prove that he’s not the Messiah (by having the Roman overlords kill him), they say:

“Away with him, away with him, crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.” (John 19:15)

It’s an ironic indictment upon them in the context of John’s Gospel, but they say such things in order to reassure the Roman governor that they are not attempting to throw off the rule of Rome. There is no need for any further Roman intervention: the revolution dies with one madman.

Risk

All of this has me thinking: what should the leaders have done? They behaved according to God’s plan, of course, in one sense, but surely the right thing to do would have been to take the risk and support Jesus. Who knows what the outcome would have been if they had?

I certainly would not want to have been in their position.

And yet in one sense, each of us does take a similar risk in believing in God and, specifically, following Jesus. There isn’t indisputable evidence in His favour; beliefs are passed on through the experience and example of flawed (sometimes idiotic) believers; following Jesus involves a degree of hardship and sacrifice (indeed it even costs many their lives each year). People today are fond of demanding proof that God exists or that Jesus is who he said he was, but not even the people who saw his miracles were satisfied that he was the one. Maybe there can simply never be enough proof for something like this. Either way, you’re required to take a risk, whether it be the ‘reasonable’ Pharisees’ move to stick with the Devil you know (in the hope that redemption of a safer type lies just over the horizon), or the more uncertain move to join ranks behind the One who says He’s your King.

The Failure of Successful Complaints

Easter is near and that seems to mean that certain Christians assume the Meerkat position, scanning the horizon for anyone who dares to give the Way a hint of disrespect during this the most holy of holy seasons. As usual, they could care less whether damage to the faith accrues as a net result of their actions, as long as no one gets the idea that it’s OK to mess with us. Or — a defence I’ve actually heard Christians make — as long as the Muslims don’t outstrip us in zeal. That’s the height of our ambitions. Sigh.

Red Bull ‘Jesus’ Ad

The ad has been removed from YouTube, so I’ve not seen it, but Gateway News gives a thorough description. The ad suggests that Jesus’ water-walking miracle was a matter of walking on stepping stones, which is not really funny, but given the usual level of humour employed by Red Bull, it’s at least recognisable as comedy.

Following this, the Jesus character stumbles and exclaims, ‘Jesus!’. I would agree that this is actually offensive and not nearly clever enough to warrant the risk. Red Bull claims they never meant to hurt any feelings and regret offence caused, but that’s hard to believe. Ads go through multiple levels of review and approval before reaching TV; there is zero doubt that its offence level was well discussed. Red Bull merely gambled on it being funny enough to outweigh any upset. I’m amazed that 90% of Red Bull ads weren’t sent back to the drawing board for being utterly rubbish, and Red Bull should apologise for that too, but they should not pretend to regret anything.

Having said all that, Christian response has been typically ridiculous, displaying utter inability to bear the slightest offence. For example:

  • Errol Naidoo of the Family Policy Institute says: “Red Bull wouldn’t dream of mocking religious figures of other religions [the 'why aren't we as scary as the Muslims?' argument again]… FPI is launching a nationwide boycott of Red Bull products in response to this blasphemous attack on the Lord Jesus Christ.” [Source]
  • Cardinal Wilfred Napier of the SA Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC) said, “While the Red Bull adverts are characterised by their cleverness [obviously he hasn't watched TV in a while]… we suggest that the marketing team and their advertising and public relations companies make a serious effort to attend sensitivity training… [After advocating that Catholics should abstain from Red Bull until Easter] Red Bull SA will understand that the idea that there is ‘no such thing as bad publicity’ is dangerous territory when it comes to mocking religious symbols.” [Source]
  • The African Christian Democratic Party says that the ad undermines the Christian faith, with Kenneth Moshoe saying that it denies “the miracle of Jesus walking on water” [although undermining the Christian faith through pettiness or stupidity seems not to count]. [Source]

All of the above also called for the immediate banning of the ad. This was duly done after the Advertising Standards Authority upheld a complaint against the ad, which included these among its reasons:

  • The commercial is offensive as it makes a mockery of Jesus Christ by portraying Him in a blasphemous manner. Peripheral arguments to the allegation of offence relate to the fact that the commercial implies that the miracle of Jesus walking on water was all a sham.
  • Christians believe that Jesus Christ is alive and sitting at the right hand of God and as such His express permission should have been obtained before being featured in the commercial.
  • The advertiser should apologise publicly and should be fined as well to indicate the level of offence caused.
  • Creates a bad example for children.
  • Its misleading as it creates an impression that the product existed during the time that Jesus Christ lived. [Source]

(Assuming that the source is reliable) seriously, advertisers need Jesus’ ‘express permission’ before he is referenced in an ad? And people might think that Red Bull was available in 1st Century Palestine (wait a minute! I thought it was a product from the time of Icarus, because of that other ad of theirs; I’m so confused)? Was this application a joke? An attempt to make Christians look like morons? My ASA application would have read:

  • Using ‘Jesus’ as an expletive is offensive to Christians. This should be cut from the ad.
  • It’s yet another unfunny entry in Red Bull’s 20-year-long one-note campaign. The account manager should be publicly executed.

You know, reasonable requests. Why was it necessary to pad out the list with other manufactured and intellectually insulting reasons?

Hot Cross Buns

Having cut ‘Joy’ magazine from its shelves, Woolworths agreed last year to restock the rag due to outcry from Christian sectors (who obviously hadn’t been buying enough for Woolies to bother stocking it, but who liked the idea of it being there). This season, Woolworths has received complaints — and even warnings that God might shut them down — because their hot cross bun packaging has Halaal certification printed on it.

Jacques Rousseau has written pointing out that this has been the case for years, and is in any case stupid because Easter and Christianity has no monopoly on cinnamon fruit buns (or even crosses, for that matter). You can read his post here.

I began writing this post because I am concerned that Christian oversensitivity is wearing out any goodwill that society has (but is under no obligation to have) towards us. My brief digging around provided instant confirmation of this. Here’s a quote from a blogger:

However, for me, it’s just another nail in the coffin as far as christian credibility is concerned. And to be honest, we’re running out of space on the lid now. When members of a religion (or any other group) display such stupid, irrational (shock) and intolerant behaviour, there comes a point when society will simply stop listening. (6000.c0.za)

As I have pointed out before, such Christians seem not to realise that society owes us nothing, and constant ridiculous bleating from our corner about how pained we all are is not going to have the outcome they they subliminally imagine (society realises how respect-worthy Christianity is and bow in hushed reverence / abandon pluralism / spontaneously convert and usher in the Kingdom). Rather there are two much more likely extremes towards which policy makers are going to be pushed.

  • They will tire of listening to the Christian voice because of how uniformly annoying it is when attention is paid to it (much as 6000.co.za suggests), which will leave us with no voice on issues that matter; or
  • They will try to minimise offence by making it illegal to display or promote religious content altogether, making religion completely private. Now if you want to approach the Day of Judgement with the defence, ‘I stopped everyone doing the Great Commission, because it was more important for me not to be offended,’ be my guest.

Axe Excite Deodorant ‘Angels’ Ad

Finally, going back a few months now, there was another case of Christians having an ad banned from TV; this time Axe Deodorant was compelled to remove its ‘Angels’ ad. You can see various versions on YouTube, so look it up if you want, but all of them have beautiful women with wings and halos dropping from the sky and eventually surrendering their angelness because of some guy wearing deodorant.

Cape Times of October 28, 2011 reports the extremely tongue-in-cheek apology rendered by Axe South Africa, who again, remarkably, were not apologising for the quality of the ad but the religious content:

We have… made sure the seriousness of the matter is understood by our angels… From now on [the angels will] try their very best to resist the seductive powers of the Axe effect. Those who are continuing to use Axe Excite in the hope of seducing angels, please note — whilst there is no individual danger of disciplinary action from the ASA, the angels have been known to come in at quite a speed, and the use of Axe Excite is completely at your own risk.

The report adds that the company apologises to offended viewers (i.e. ‘You’re idiots, but sorry’). Their statement above (to their credit, in my opinion) is not an apology, it is an exercise in polite mockery:

  • the promise to communicate with the angels, keeping up the pretence that the angels are real, is an ironic reminder that the ad is communicating on the level of fairytale
  • the reassurance that users are not liable for disciplinary action highlights the absurdity of the action that was taken

It is absolutely true that angels are not exclusively Judeo-Christian beings. They may or may not have originated there, but for some time now they have been part of mythology in general. For one, biblical angels are not female; and it is not as if every Hallmark Valentines card featuring Cupid is an attack on the Faith, or that there is an outcry every time a cartoon character dies and becomes an angel. There are no religious grounds therefore for Christians to be offended, let alone to file an official complaint. And so the over-sensitivity and thoughtlessness of the complaint justifiably meets with Axe’s sarcasm-doused ‘apology’. Score another victory for the embattled reputation of Christ.

Compassion in Torah

It’s typical these days to caricature the Old Testament as brutal and intolerant. Of course there is some reason to take offence at its violence and the harshness of some laws, especially when passages are torn from their theological context.

"Thou shalt... what?... defend the right to bear arms? Sure, OK, you got it."

Yet, I suspect that such caricatures owe just as much to the general revulsion towards modern hyper-conservatives and fundamentalists of all sorts of religions, whose attitudes get super-imposed back onto Biblical text. I wonder if people don’t perhaps assume that the Torah must be like Zionists and Taliban clerics. After all, the Old Testament is old, and conservatives like the old ways. Most religious extremists have beards, and Charlton Heston wore a beard when he was in that Ten Commandments flick.

However we’ve come to the conclusion that the Torah is backward and brutal, looking at its details frequently throws up surprising challenges to that view. The following is one that I noticed recently.

In Deuteronomy 27, as Israel prepares to enter Canaan, Moses commands that representatives of each tribe should pronounce curses upon immoral behaviour, one curse for each tribe. The intention seems to be that breaking the law in heinous ways brings curse upon society as a whole. Each member of each tribe — as member of a theocracy — has a responsibility to choose blessing and the good, rather than evil and curse.

As you’d expect, the twelve evils that bring on curse include serious cases of lawbreaking, such as incest, bestiality, and stealing land from one’s neighbour.

What strikes me as entirely unexpected is that within the collection of the top twelve sins that bring on curse, Moses includes, ‘Cursed is the man who leads the blind astray on the road’ (27:18).

If we were to construct a list of things that are to be forever associated with curse, we would presumably make it a collection of the worst things that you can do, or relate it somehow to the the most important constitutional laws. It is strange then that this list includes something that is neither especially harmful or illegal. I’d be surprised if such behaviour made it into even the top 100 curse-worthy things we could think of; it’d be somewhere near ‘dawdling while in rush-hour traffic’, I’d suspect. Nevertheless, here it is in Moses’ list of twelve.

The reason for including it is not hard to see; it’s just not as crusty and Old-Testamenty as we may have expected. Enshrined in Israel’s foundational blessing-and-cursing material is the idea that there is something fundamentally abhorrent about exploiting the helpless, even just for fun. Taking even relatively harmless advantage of the weak, just because you can, invites the curse of God. Put positively, one of the major lessons that ancient Israel were meant to learn before they entered the Holy Land was that blessed, law-abiding people ought to be characterised by compassion and kindness, otherwise they had not understood what it means to be like their God.

It’s a shame that people are quick to single out God’s acts of judgement as evidence of vengefulness of character, when there is so much evidence to the contrary. The theme of kindness to the enemy runs throughout the Biblical material. There is a tension to be felt between God’s judgement and mercy to be sure, but that’s just it: to miss that tension (by discarding either side) is to miss the point.

Don’t be a Dawk about it

Richard feeling grumpy after an embarrassing radio interview

Richard Dawkins recently published the results of a survey into the level of religious belief in Britain. Among the more shocking revelations was that only one in three Christians could correctly answer a four-option multiple choice question asking them to identify the first book of the New Testament.

Rev Giles Fraser made a risky comeback, asking Dawkins whether he could give the full title of Darwin’s Origin of Species. Dawkins went blank on it, stumbled around for a while, but eventually got it mostly right.

Fraser used this lapse to say,

‘If you ask people who believe in evolution that question, and you came back and said 2 per cent got it right, it would be terribly easy for me to say they don’t believe it after all.’ (Source: Daily Mail)

As a result, there has been a fair bit of ridicule and triumphalism bandied about on the net by Christians or other Dawkins-dislikers.

This is unfortunate for more reasons than Dawkins gives (i.e. that the question he had to answer was disproportionately difficult, compared with the Matthew multiple-choice).

Firstly, Fraser’s retort seems to suggest that Christian belief without even the most basic awareness of Christian content is somehow acceptable. Yet on the contrary, even the most rudimentary acquaintance with Jesus’ teachings makes it clear that Jesus rests everything on hearing, keeping, and obeying his teaching, and following his example, such as:

  • Lk. 14:27 “And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”
  • Jn. 8:31 “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.”
  • Jn. 15:14 “You are my friends if you do what I command.” (See also Matt. 7:26-27; John 8:47,51; 15:10)

Dawkins is probably right, therefore, that the majority of Britons who identify themselves as Christians actually have no functioning religious belief whatsoever.

Secondly, Fraser’s superficial victory has drawn Christian attention away from these rather alarming revelations from Dawkins’ research. Instead of hearing what Dawkins said, Christians have majored on his (understandable) memory lapse. Yet these are some of the conclusions of his research (taken also from AndrewCopson.net):

  • 17% of Christians have never read the Bible
  • 28% of census Christians believe in Christian teachings
  • 6% had attended a church in the last week
  • 65% said they were not religious
  • 48% believe Jesus was a real person who was the son of God, died and came back to life
  • 10% say they seek most guidance on questions of right and wrong from religious teachings or beliefs
  • 60% hadn’t read the Bible in the last year
  • 28% say that it is a belief in the teachings of Christianity that makes them tick the Christian census-box

Dawkins is surely right, therefore, that the majority of British Christians are functionally atheistic. And how can Fraser be correct that the statistics do not fairly describe belief in Christianity when the stats show that ‘Christians’ are not acquainted with Christian writings, do not concern themselves all that much with Christian morality, do not identify with Christian beliefs, and do not attend church? Is there something more basic than belief and practice that defines the Christian religion? There isn’t according to Christian texts and church history, but maybe these days the enjoyment of cake and warm handshakes is sufficient (although diabetics and the arthritic are also more than welcome).

Dawkins also wrong

Having said all that, let me not give the impression that I think Dawkins’ point stretches any further. His motivation for presenting this research is to say that even though the census reveals that almost 70% call themselves Christian, tax money should not be allocated to the benefit of Christian organisations or religious ends of any kind, because the people are not really Christian.

The object of the poll , carried out by Ipsos Mori for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, appears to have been to discredit the use of census data to justify Christian practices such as government funding for faith schools and bishops having seats in the House of Lords. (Source: The Week)

The obvious response is that Dawkins’ findings will matter for nominal Christians on Judgement Day, should there prove to be one. Where they don’t matter is in the realm of politics. Government ought to be distributing some of its funds (taken from the taxpayer) according to the will of the taxpayer. If people wish for government to spend money on environmental preservation, it doesn’t really matter how many of those people have Range Rovers and don’t recycle. It remains their will. Similarly, if census respondents identify themselves with Christian things, it is right for government to spend accordingly, irrespective of how devout those people turn out to be, or how consistent their beliefs are. Charges of hypocrisy are unfortunately not relevant, Mr Dawkins.

Prayer and Politics

Jack Bloom, the Democratic Alliance leader in the Gauteng legislature, recently published an opinion piece encouraging prayer as a means of moral regeneration that perhaps had the power to galvanise people to action in a way that politicians could not. Drawing anecdotally upon prayer-led regenerative movements in history and some of the changes that they had a role in shaping, he rounds off with the suggestion that conservative religious institutions should perhaps return to a position of greater moral and social authority. You can read his piece at http://bit.ly/wKjMmh.

A friend of mine, Jacques Rousseau, took issue with him, pointing out that anecdotal evidence of the sort presented does not actually prove any connection between prayer, religious revivals, and especially the change that has supposedly resulted from them. Any number of factors might have had a far greater role in, say, abolition of slavery, than religious movements. Jacques also gives evidence that secular countries tend to have a better ethical record than religious ones. You can read his riposte at http://bit.ly/yQ4x3E.

[Jack has since responded (http://bit.ly/Ar9BC9) arguing among other things that good secularism is still trading upon religious moral capital. This is a common retort, and one about which we'll have to wait and see, I suppose. I personally doubt it is as simple as that. Anyway, the exchange is interesting and worth following.]

I would like to add a couple of points to the debate, perhaps we’ll call it one for each side.

Firstly, as an endorsement of Jack Bloom’s sentiments, I think that prayer can play an important role. Of course, much depends on addressing the true God and in the right manner, which is by no means a guarantee, but even from a purely pragmatic (virtually secular) perspective, it can be important. The reason for this is that prayer has a good chance of promoting humility. It is perfectly possible in the hands of the worst sort of people for prayer to be one more tool in service of hubris (take for example Jesus’ caricature of that Pharisee who prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men — robbers, evildoers, adulterers…” [Luke 18:11]). Yet prayer is per definition an act of casting oneself upon what one believes to be a higher power. This ought to breed a sense of perspective.

Humility is certainly something that is needed in this country, from the top down. In fact, Jim Collins, a researcher of organisational change, has written identifying hubris as the first of five steps that successful companies take on the road to utter failure. Restoration of humility and renouncing of complacency are the only cure (http://amzn.to/UctDR). If prayer can play a role in growing humility, I say advocate it. If people end up praying earnestly to the right God who then turns out to exist and care, all the better.

Secondly, as a caution to Jack Bloom, in particular concerning his opinion that religions should wield more social and moral clout, I would be concerned that it makes all the difference who those religious are. The good sort are great, but the bad can be really bad. I would hate to be taking cues from the frequently confused type, but taking moral guidance from some of them would be hell on earth. Some confuse Sharia law for morality, or the ‘God inspired’ hatred of gays.

The Greek philosophers rated monarchy as the best system of government, if the king were good and noble, but had the potential to be the worst if the king were wicked (democracy, in their view was the least desirable because it had the least potential for going wrong, or for getting anything worthwhile done — hopefully they would like what we’ve done with it). Handing moral responsibility over to the religious could have good effect if they were wise, benevolent, principled, and selfless. But I don’t fancy the chances.

Paul Movie (the alien, not the saint)

Paul MovieSimon Pegg and Nick Frost have been responsible for some entertaining stuff. Their breakthrough series, Spaced, was excellent and their movies have been pretty good too. The video store box of Paul promised that this was not only a must-see, but also a must-own. So I took a shot.

My expectations were pretty low, and Frost and Pegg just about managed to live up to them. There were a fair number of laughs (‘No, Boomer, it is forbidden’ was a high point) and it was watchable enough from start to finish. They had also secured a very respectable supporting cast. However the film obviously developed out of a gist of an idea (“What if some sci-fi nerds actually run in to the original Roswell alien and have to help him get home?”) rather than a fully formed story, and so translating it into 90 minutes of film unfortunately led them to cut-and-paste their handful of good ideas into a cliched and predictable format. The humour relies far too often on people saying naughty words or trundling through standard situational set-pieces. If you’ve seen more than one movie in your life, you know how it’s going to end.

What irked the most, however, was the polemic against Christianity. I don’t mind atheist anti-religious commentary per se, and in a film about two good-natured Brits adrift in the American Mid-West (I think?), I suppose religious themes were an obvious choice. It’s just that the way it was done was an insult to intelligence.

The three characters on the poster arrive in a caravan park that happens to be owned by a fanatical right-wing Christian—complete with rifle, pictures of Jesus in his house, and repeated calls to Bible study—and his beautiful-but-one-eyed daughter. Through circumstance, she has to come along with them. Somehow evolution comes up, leading to the daughter babbling about the world being 4,000 years old, etc. etc (I think even the most young-earthiest Christians argue for 50% longer than that). At this point, Paul the alien comes out of hiding, downloads all of his knowledge about the universe into her head, and frees her from her religious ignorance. She discovers with relief that she can now curse (hence the reliance on swearing humour), fornicate and so on. They generously claim that Paul’s existence doesn’t disprove all notions of god, just the Judeo-Christian ideas. Paul also uses his special alien powers to take her eye deformity upon himself and conquer it, healing her and thereby showing that she has received full ‘sight’ (and probably that you, like Paul, can be good without God. Or something).

I appreciate the attempt at padding deepening the storyline with social commentary. But what’s so especially irritating about all of this is that they construct the straw-manniest of Christian opponents and then proceed to knock it over and ridicule it and draw moral conclusions from it on the basis of science-fiction. ‘My alien says your religion is stupid’.

Headscratch

*blink*

There are so many interesting and funny and true things that could be said about religion in the West, or in favour of atheism, or even just in exploration of the consequences of having found aliens. Instead they went lazy and cheap, as they did with rest of the story, and it utterly ruins whatever good ideas provoked them to start writing in the first place.

You made me wish I’d rented Captain America or Harry Potter 8, Pegg and Frost. You should be ashamed of yourselves.

Possible Worlds

Passing judgement is taboo in many circles these days, with many denying that we have the right or the ability to tell others what they ought to do or think. Two thousand year old wisdom lends some (limited) support to this view, saying ‘Judge not lest you be judged’.

The reason for this perspective is not hard to understand. Someone is only equipped to be a judge if they have sufficient knowledge and experience to know what are the relevant facts, and if they have keen enough insight / foresight to know what is the correct verdict. We allow judges to preside over courtrooms because they know the law better than anyone else, they have served with distinction for a long enough period, and because we don’t have a better alternative. Judgement requires superior knowledge and perspective, and while professional judges may do well enough in their limited field, most people do not possess these qualities about most things. So we rightly give them flak when they presume to try.

It is all the more remarkable to me, therefore, that the same species that produces Jerry Springer and MacDonald’s and automatically flushing toilets feels capable of judging God. I don’t mean that we’re always critical of God—sometimes we pass judgement with the best of intentions—I just mean that we somehow imagine that we have the brain-power to crunch the numbers involved in such a judgement, or the platform from which to gain the proper perspective.

God Should Choose Everyone
For example—and those who don’t know or care about Calvinism can skip ahead here—I was having a discussion with my wife earlier in the week about the age-old complaint that if God is the one who chooses whom He will save (rather than we being the ones who decisively choose Him), then why doesn’t He just save everyone (the implication being that God should save everyone if it’s just up Him).

Romans 9 has some answers to that objection that I’m not going to go into here, but that chapter also includes the following line, which seems at first blush to be the desperate retort of an authoritarian who doesn’t like the way that the conversation is going:

You will say to me then, ‘Why does He still find fault? For who can resist His will?’ But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? (Romans 9:19f)

However, Paul’s response is not a dismissive ‘because I said so’. He’s merely pointing out that the things under discussion require from us a capacity that we can never possess. So consider the objection that God should save everyone if He is able. This requires of us the ability to correctly imagine a world history in which everyone becomes a genuine believer. What are the implications for freedom, faith, discipleship? Would there be adversity? Would testing be experienced as genuine? Would we become the kind of creatures that we should? Would we learn to know the things about God that are most important (‘mercy’ in Romans 9 thinking)? We may guess at the answers to such questions, but we simply cannot construct a world in our minds in which we can fully grasp and correctly judge the effect of changing so crucial a variable. Even time travellers in the stories only find out the effect of their changes on history once they go back to the future; who has the power to predict such things? Who are we to answer back indeed?

Universe-sized Number-crunching
I find this sort of judgement to be especially prevalent in atheist rhetoric. I’ve heard it argued on many occasions that a world presided over by Zeus or Ra or Yahweh would look markedly different from our own. I have no quibble with the idea that ruling powers of different character would produce worlds of different kinds, but I have significant problems with the idea that people are able to imagine these worlds in any sort of helpful way. The idea that anyone is capable of fully capturing in their minds a picture of the ‘world as it is’ and another picture of ‘the world as it would be’ if there were an interventionist God (or whatever) in charge is absurd (not forgetting that these pictures also require a complete comprehension of the deity in question). Satisfying yourself that God doesn’t exist because you know how things would be if He did is a self-deceit that would be best abandoned sooner rather than later.

Show Thyself
If you do insist upon trying to reimagine the universe in this way, turning the ‘god variables’ on and off to see what happens, I would humbly suggest the following for your consideration, as I believe that this is one misunderstanding of how God (if He exists) operates / ought to operate in our world (if He does). People object that if God is there, why does He hide himself? Why not schedule coffee with me next Tuesday, God, and settle this existence thing once and for all? Perhaps make a TV appearance on Jerry Springer? [That show has to be cancelled by now, but I'm not going to check].

Of course there’s a sense in which this is a valid complaint, and must be partially true. If the Bible is in any way historical, then God has made some miraculous shows of power to people in the past, and could do so for the cameras (although would we really believe our eyes?). On the other hand, maybe He’s not so much hidden as we are blind to his presence. Or let me put it another way.

We conceive of the world as ‘natural’ and God as ‘supernatural’. The world gets on with things by itself, and God is somewhere nearby looking in, tinkering now and then, and just generally keeping out of sight to see what we’ll do. We conceive of the ‘natural world’ as an environment in which we (for the sake of argument) demand that God appears. I do not think that this is remotely correct. The world is more like a tool than an environment. The universe is not a stage on which God should appear; theologically, God is the environment in which the universe exists.

What this means practically is that the ordinary, day-to-day operation of the ‘natural world’ is the normal tool that God uses to get His work done; the miraculous is not. Miracles serve a significant purpose of their own, but God gets His work done without them. The book of Esther is dominated by this theme, that ordinary schemes and coincidences produce a remarkable deliverance—God’s bidding is done even though His name, His voice, and His supernature are never once invoked in Esther’s pages.

Likewise, today we call the conversion of an unbeliever to Christianity a ‘miracle’ and it is, but it rarely comes about through means other than ordinary people talking to each other and one of them changing his mind. In my childhood we had many occasions in which we had no food, and our prayers were answered by friends giving us some of theirs. It was an amazing answer to prayer on one hand, but as ordinary as you like on the other.

So perhaps God is disinclined to make a miraculous show of His existence to every skeptic, and His reasons for that are known to Him. But perhaps the search for God is being undertaken by people who are expecting to find Him hidden in the environment, rather than seeing His daily use of the ‘ordinary world’ as a tool. It’s not that He’s hard to see; it’s just that the blind are pretty bad at spotting much of anything.