The Christian God as Moral Commander
For my third and final post in the Moral Commander Series, I want to examine how the Christian God shapes up as the Moral Commander, but first it would be helpful to dig into what Kreeft means when he discusses Objective Morality.
Objective morality is the belief that morality is a fixed constant throughout the universal timeline. Kreeft explains it by noting that just because something was once accepted that does not therefore make it acceptable. As an example Kreeft points to slavery. It was once widely accepted, but today slavery is condemned. And even if slavery become acceptable in the future, that still does not make it a moral institution.
I think all of us in the 21st century would agree with Kreeft on this point. I know no one would ever be able to convince me that the act of owning another human being is ever acceptable no matter if we are considering the past, present, or future. But I also recognize, to use C. S. Lewis’s term, I am engaging in a form of chronological snobbery. I’m judging both the past and the future with the belief that my understanding of morality is not only correct, but complete. I understand that someone in the 25th century will likely have the same thoughts about many of the things I consider to be normal and acceptable behaviors. And that is why objective morality is so tricky. We as a nation can’t agree if it is moral or immoral to give the LGBT community equal rights. We can’t agree if it is more moral to allow a woman’s right to choose or a baby’s right to life. And that is just right now, in this country, let alone across the globe, or for any length of time. Our morality is necessarily subjective, it is based off of our culture, our experiences, and our understanding of the world around us. Of course we like to judge the world and history based off of that understanding, but we can’t know for sure. There are a few things, like slavery, that we can be pretty sure we have a pretty good grasp on, but there are other things like abortion, that our culture just can’t seem to put its finger on right now. Only time will tell how the 25th century will view the morality of those things.
Kreeft of course disagrees. He believes objective morality does exist and tries to convince the viewer that the (unproven) existence of objective morality necessarily proves the existence of a Moral Commander. That logic is like discovering a crop circle, then hypothesizing that an alien space ship might have caused that crop circle. And then claiming that the crop circle necessarily proves the existence of aliens. When really it was a bunch of bored adolescents with some rope and a 2×4 all along. But I digress.
The purpose of this video, of course, is to get people to believe in God. And while Kreeft is very careful not to mention Christianity, given that PragerU (the maker/distributor of the video) aims to further Judeo-Christian values in western society and Kreeft’s own standing as a writer of Christian philosophy, When Kreeft says “God” I’ll give you three guesses as to which god he means and the second two don’t count. From here I’m not going to argue whether or not there is a Moral Commander handing down moral commands. Instead I am going to explain why if such a Moral Commander did exist, it could not be the god depicted in the Christian Bible.
To clear up one issue, while I have strong feelings about the immorality of several actions God is depicted carrying out in the bible, as it stands, Christians believe that their god created the laws of nature and is therefore not subject to those laws. It stands to reason then, that the creator of moral laws would similarly not be subject to those moral laws. I would argue that’s bad PR on his part, but we all have to make our own decisions. So his individual actions are not on trial here. Instead I am only evaluating his actual commands.
The easiest way to approach this is to use Kreefts own example. Kreeft implies that slavery is objectively immoral, and that objective morality comes from God. An easy way to test these implications is to examine whether or not God’s commands dealing with the institution of slavery clearly indicate the immorality of slavery. If God’s commands do not indicate slavery is immoral, then one of our premises is wrong.
In Exodus we start off strong. We see God’s chosen people ruthlessly enslaved by the Egyptians. God (finally) hears the groaning of his people and decides to save them from their fate, willing to strike Egypt in any way to accomplish this goal. And in Exodus 12:29-31, we see just that.
“At midnight the Lord struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of the livestock. 30 And Pharaoh rose up in the night, he and all his servants and all the Egyptians. And there was a great cry in Egypt, for there was not a house where someone was not dead. 31 Then he summoned Moses and Aaron by night and said, ‘Up, go out from among my people, both you and the people of Israel; and go, serve the Lord, as you have said.”
Great, God despises slavery so much he is willing to kill at least one person in every household in an entire city in order to free his people from slavery. Now that his people are free and have the ruthless treatment of slavery fresh on their mind, now would be an excellent time for the Moral Commander to start jotting down some commands that demonstrate the immorality of slavery. In Exodus 12: 43-44, however, we see a very different picture.
“And the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, ‘This is the statute of the Passover: no foreigner shall eat of it, 44 but every slave that is bought for money may eat of it after you have circumcised him.”
A mere 11 verses following the Hebrew deliverance of slavery God doesn’t condemn slavery as we would expect, but instead specifically allows for the buying of slaves and then actually issues a command about which Hebrew owned slaves can participate in the observance of the Hebrew people’s deliverance from slavery. I cannot begin to describe how messed up that is.
To be thorough, there is a school of thought that argues that God created laws to govern the moral treatment of Hebrew owned slaves, and therefore it is not fair to compare the ruthless enslavement of Hebrews by the Egyptians to the moral enslavement practiced by Hebrews. I counter with two points. 1) The owning of another person is immoral no matter what kind of treatment that individual experiences. And 2) no he didn’t.
That school of thought is mostly referring to Leviticus 25: 39-42 which dictates that Hebrews could only own fellow Hebrews for a specific period of time, and they should not rule over their brothers ruthlessly. When it comes to non-Hebrew slaves, it is a whole different ball games. Verse 43 continues with non-Hebrew slaves could be owned for the life of the slave, indeed, passed down for generations as an inheritance and there is no command to avoid ruthlessness.
Leviticus 25: 39-46 “If your brother becomes poor beside you and sells himself to you, you shall not make him serve as a slave: 40 he shall be with you as a hired worker and as a sojourner. He shall serve with you until the year of the jubilee. 41 Then he shall go out from you, he and his children with him, and go back to his own clan and return to the possession of his fathers. 42 For they are my servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as slaves. 43 You shall not rule over him ruthlessly but shall fear your God. 44 As for your male and female slaves whom you may have: you may buy male and female slaves from among the nations that are around you. 45 You may also buy from among the strangers who sojourn with you and their clans that are with you, who have been born in your land, and they may be your property. 46 You may bequeath them to your sons after you to inherit as a possession forever. You may make slaves of them, but over your brothers the people of Israel you shall not rule, one over another ruthlessly.
At this point it is a fair question to ask just how ruthlessly Hebrews could treat their non-Hebrew slaves Exodus 21: 20-21 provides that answer.
“When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be avenged. 21 But if the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be avenged, for the slave is his money.”
A mere 9 chapters after the deliverance from the ruthless enslavement by the Egyptians. The only restriction God places on his people in terms of owning foreign slaves, is not to kill them, everything else is permissible seeing as how they are just another piece of property.
Exodus 21 contains other fascinating laws about slavery. For instance verses 7-11 details some of the laws should a man wish to sell his daughter into sex slavery. Which I would love to unpack, but the role of sex slavery in the bible really deserves its own post. (When I said everything else was permissible I wasn’t kidding).
What I find most interesting about Exodus 21 is that it follows the famous Ten Commandments presented in Exodus 20. God even opens Exodus 20 by bragging about delivering the Hebrews from the “land of Egypt and the house of slavery.”
If we allow that morality is objective, and that objective morality is handed to humans by the Christian God. It necessarily follows it is more immoral for me to say “God dammit,” than it is for me to rape a slave repeatedly and make her bear my children.
It necessarily follows it is more immoral for me to mow my lawn on Sunday than it is for me to beat a slave within an inch of his life.
It necessarily follows that it is more immoral for me to covet the ox my neighbor owns, than it is for me to own my neighbor.
If the Christian God is the Moral Commander it necessarily follows that all manner of things that we consider to be reprehensible in the 21st century, slavery, human sacrifice, and genocide, to name a few, are in fact permissible behaviors and our reprehension, or chronological snobbery if you will, is entirely misplaced.
The consequence of this argument is either Kreeft is fundamentally wrong about slavery being immoral or the Christian God cannot possibly be the Moral Commander (if such an entity exists). I know which camp I belong to. But maybe I’m just a snob.