I was arguing … er … discussing scripture and morality with a friend the other day. The topic turned to slavery and I mentioned how the ancient Jews maintained the institution of slavery, but had placed significant restrictions on its practice so as to render it more benign that the slavery we typically think of as practiced in the US Southern States in the 1800s.
I added a comment that slavery is barbaric and that any culture that practices it suffers from a profound moral blindness.
My friend commented, “it would be unfair to judge ancient cultures by today’s moral standards.”
I understood what my friend was getting at – we today have the advantage of advanced communications, the benefit of modern learning, and the cumulative wisdom of many centuries.
Still, I didn’t hesitate to turn the question back on him, especially since he believes that many of the ancient moral insights of scripture are authoritative today and are morally true.
If it’s unfair to judge Iron Age cultures by modern standards, why is it fair to use Iron Age standards to judge modern cultures?
My friend isn’t a strict literalist. But, my friend does believe that scripture should guide our moral behavior and serve as a source of moral truth. I strongly disagree.
I acknowledge that the scriptures contain many powerful moral truths – love your neighbor, welcome the stranger, be generous with the poor, and stone the unruly child, the person who wears mixed cloths, and require any woman raped by a man to marry him.
Obviously, the scriptures are not moral textbooks. They contain some outrageous commandments, including multiple commands to commit genocide.
The same God who commands mercy and kindness also commands killing innocent women and children on multiple occasions.
My friend argued that God and scripture are the arbiters of moral truth. Again, I strongly disagreed.
The scriptures are the result of our ancient ancestors’ wrestling with God, meaning, and morality. The texts are their words, not God’s – this is the view of Modern Liberal Judaism.
Modern Jews accept that it would be absurd to try to use the Bible as a moral text or guide. First, the texts contain no self-imposed hermeneutic. No text can be self-interpreting. Second, the texts are clearly fallible on many issues, no less moral ones.
How then should a person of faith engage with the Bible morally?
First, we must recognize that morality is a natural discipline that does not require any appeal to the supernatural. A person can be good without God, moral truth can be known without God, and human reason properly (although not perfectly) intuits right and wrong.
Second, we must recognize that our responsibility is to engage the texts, not submit to them. The text does not trump modern moral thinking nor does modern moral thinking trump the text.
What is needed is ongoing dialog. Earnest engagement. A serious effort to try and understand the context and meaning of what the ancient authors were wrestling with.
Moral truth is reached externally from the scriptures. The scriptures are not the arbiters of moral truth.
We are free to, in fact, we are required to, dismiss, reject, and put aside any scriptural commandment we deem untrue, unfitting, or inappropriate.
We read the scriptures selectively all the time, applying external criteria and standards to the texts. That’s the right way to read the Bible.
The bible is fallible on all sorts of issues, why should we not expect it to be fallible on moral issues as well?
What then is the possible value of reading the Bible with an eye toward morality? I would argue that the poetry, powerful prose, and decisive wording of many moral insights in the scripture are worth engaging. Second, I would argue that our ancient ancestors possessed a moral genius worth engaging – albeit, not an inerrant moral wisdom.
We today are within our spiritual rights and proper thinking when we reject the patriarchal structures, family models, gender roles, misogyny, notions of sacrifice, war, blood redemption, sexuality, and other issues mentioned in the scriptures.
How then should we read the texts?
Let’s consider the example of the moral prohibition against wearing mixed cloths. What is the context of this teaching? The full context is likely lost on us. Much of it likely has to do with reinforcing cultural and religious identity. Our moral thinking today quickly realizes that there is no inherent moral issue with mixed cloths. We are right to therefore ignore these teachings.
What about women teaching or assuming religious leadership roles? Again, what’s the context? I would argue that the context is ancient culture that is not that friendly to women and awash in philosophical notions of female inferiority. The gender roles that flowed from such flawed thinking are equally as flawed. We are again free to ignore the teachings, and should.
What about love your neighbor as yourself? We today would agree that such a teaching and commandment is true. Why? Not because the scriptures said so, but rather because we recognize the truth of the teaching through reason, experience, and insight. We honor the teaching because we understand, apart from the scriptures, its truth.
To use the scriptures as a mythic, religious reinforcement of our better moral thinking is a powerful practice for spiritual growth. To engage the scriptures earnestly on moral issues is a good way to build moral insights. To allow the texts to challenge our own moral thinking is healthy.
To use the scriptures as a moral textbook or as the arbiter of moral truth leads to spiritual insanity, mental gymnastics, abuse, moral absurdity, and dishonesty.