Dear Dayton Church of the Brethren,
Hello, I am your neighbor. I live not far from your church, which sits on the main road in to our small town. I drive by your building multiple times a day. I see your billboards (both of them; one in front of the church, and this one which sits behind the church along the main highway that borders our town).
Usually I am inclined to read these kinds of billboards, smirk or chuckle, and move on. But I have to drive by this and sometimes these little messages are more provocative than others. I am also your neighbor after all and wouldn’t expect to address my neighbors quite as confrontationally as this. I am inclined to answer.
No, my life certainly does not reflect God’s standards! And in fact there are many ways in which my life doesn’t reflect God’s standards. I think I can also safely say that your lives do not reflect God’s standards either. So I have some thoughts and questions. First, I’m going to assume that since you are a Church of the Brethren and this is Virginia that you are referring to the median mainstream Christian God.
What do you think are His standards? How do you define this? Is it the Judaic law? I understand most Christians distance themselves from the morally indefensible Old Testament by claiming that Jesus freed them from having to follow the law. Voila! But not so fast! Wasn’t the OT the law and word of God for millennia, and was it not followed to the letter by the devout? Did these commandments not reflect God’s standards, even if you are somehow untethered from them now (another dubious claim given Matthew 5:18 and the idea that during Jesus’ days there was only the OT and when they spoke of scripture and the Word of God, that’s what they were referring to)? So no, despite many people and U.S. legislators tragically claiming that our country, laws and morality are based on the Ten Commandments, this can’t be right.
But perhaps by some leap of logic or faith, theological sleight of hand or exegesis you think God’s standards are represented mainly in the New Testament instead! Even there I can tell you that my life does not reflect God’s standards if that’s what you mean. The NT requires women to be silent in church, orders them to submit to their husbands, endorses or at best tolerates slavery, does nothing to refute the wicked practices of the Old Testament, and even in the words of Jesus introduces Hell (in its very many different and mutually exclusive theologies) and human sacrifice to mollify the deity. These are just a few of the obvious failures. A more in-depth discussion of New Testament moral problems can be found here, in this fine paper by Professor Elizabeth Anderson, but in any case no, my life does not reflect but exceeds these standards of God as set forth in the New Testament.
Dr. Anderson also addresses the idea that putting these obviously archaic teachings aside, the Bible does have some moral teachings and that these somehow represent God’s standards. Perhaps we should loosen our literal understandings of the bible because they are simply indefensible on the face and go with the good parts and somehow rationalize, justify or claim some other kind of context that would somehow make these verses palatable. She writes:
Consider first the use of Scripture as a source of evidence for moral claims. We have seen that the Bible is morally inconsistent. If we try to draw moral lessons from a contradictory source, we must pick and choose which ones to accept. This requires that we use our own independent moral judgment, founded on some source other than revelation or the supposed authority of God, to decide which biblical passages to accept. In fact, once we recognize the moral inconsistencies in the Bible, it’s clear that the hardcore fundamentalists who today preach hatred toward gay people and the subordination of women, and who at other times and places have, with biblical support, claimed God’s authority for slavery, apartheid, and ethnic cleansing, have been picking and choosing all along. What distinguishes them from other believers is precisely their attraction to the cruel and despotic passages in the Bible. Far from being a truly independent guide to moral conduct, the Bible is more like a Rorschach test: which passages people choose to emphasize reflects as much as it shapes their moral character and interests.*
So in what sense can any of this be considered “God’s standards” either, when we must use “our own independent moral judgment?” Without going into a long discussion of moral ethics it becomes pretty clear that the standard we use today, the one I use, has nothing to do with religion, your theology or what you think God’s standards might be, dear Church of the Brethren, and I would press you pretty hard on exactly what you think those standards are and how they are defined.
So no, my life does not reflect God’s standards in any way. I think it exceeds them. That is unless finally by “God’s standards” you are somehow claiming that God, by some unknown mechanism is the source of what we know is good and right and true by secular means completely separate from religion. How would you support such a claim?
On the other hand, although I don’t believe in a literal Satan any more than I do any other supernatural beings, the Satanic Temple has offered a list of seven tenets that while oversimplified, exceeds God’s standards too. Anderson and others (here, here, here, and specifically concerning whether God is necessary for morality, here, for just a few quick references) more accurately reflect my moral thinking at a high level and these are the standards that I strive for my life to reflect.
Not only does my life thankfully not reflect God’s standards, whatever those might be, I’d also without hesitation suggest that your lives do not either. Anyone attempting to follow Old Testament teachings would be arrested and imprisoned quickly and would gain little or no sympathy from most people, even the deeply religious. The New Testament teachings, while tempered don’t fare much better as theocratic legislators are finding out in Indiana and North Carolina. And if you have to go outside the bible then in what sense and by what logic can anything be considered “God’s standards?”
Your friendly neighbor,
Seventh: […] The distinction between the sacred and the secular can no longer be maintained.
* Anderson, Elizabeth S. “If God is Dead, is Everything Permitted?,” in Louise Antony, ed., Philosophers without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life (Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 215-230.
- Reprinted in Christopher Hitchens, ed., The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever (Philadelphia: DaCapo Press/Perseus Books, 2007), pp. 333-348