Thursday, March 8, 2018

"Do unto others" is a behest that, if acted on, can have very tangible real-world consequences.

Continuing where I left off yesterday,  Marilynne Robinson sets out an argument for the liberality of Mosaic Law:

Like old Israel, the United States is often said to be legalistic.  And for some reason this is taken to be a criticism and to identify a failing.  It might better be thought of as an acknowledgement of the human propensity to sin or error, in tension with an active solicitude for human vulnerability to the effects of sin and error, the two embraced by an unusual awareness, as self-created and intentional societies, of a calling to be "good" societies.   When Americans launched on the project of national formation, there was still plenty of old wine in those new bottles.

In Old Testament monotheism uniquely it is humankind who introduce evil in the created order, that same human-kind who are made in the image of God and whom God loves.   This great paradox has the effect of centering the problem of evil in human nature and human choice.  More precisely, the concept appears to arise not from any desire to escape or contain the complexities of the problem of veil but from a sense of the literally cosmic significance of humankind as a central actor in creation who is, in some important sense, free to depart from, even to defy, the will of God.  Again paradoxically, the very magnitude of the problem of evil is the reflex of human centrality, because of the weight it gives to our presence in the world and because only we among creatures are capable of the concept.  This vision of human nature and divine nature raises more question than it answers, in part because it does not localize or personify evil.  By the standards of another ancient myth, it yields a kind of realism, an attention to mingled lives and erring generations that grounds sacred meaning very solidly in this human world. 

It was writing the piece about moral relativism/nihilism on the weekend that made me think of this passage one of the more subtle and powerful points I've ever seen about the "problem of evil" not as an explanation but of setting out the range of the utter seriousness that a religious, monotheistic view of the problems of evil entail.   It is to cut through the moral relativistic nonsense which is an intellectual pose that even those who make it don't really believe in.   No one has the slightest difficulty identifying moral wrongs done to them unless they have been psychologically damaged in a very serious way.  Those who readily inflict evil and wrong on other people also have no trouble whining at the top of their lungs when the same is inflicted on them.  There is no one more eloquent in claiming terrible wrongs which must be addressed than an atheist who is reminded of some offensive slogan on their money.   As I pointed out, even Lenny Bruce had no problem with identifying the terrible wrongs done to him by being arrested for obscenity or for such things as the "leper colony" swindle he pulled and bragged about as part of his act. 

Israel's extraordinarily high valuation of life in the world and in community led naturally to the centrality of law.  "Law" is a word that has a special place in Christian thought on the basis of certain understandings of Paul's use of it.  For Harnack, at least in his interpretation of Marcion [*], it means the opposite of grace.  That is, it runs contrary to the will of God, incurring misapprehension of the kind that is not only erring but damnable.  Like most Christian commentators,  Harnack, never pauses to sort through the varieties of teaching or instruction that are called "law," though for him they are for all purposes of one kind with the most precisian of the Levitical laws  

Many of the laws attributed to Moses pertaining to social order and social ethics have theological force because he, unlike Hammurabi, Lycurgus, and Solon, was a religious founder as well as a lawgiver in the usual sense.  The eighteenth-century Englishman Thomas morgan objects to the laws on the grounds that they pertain only to social order, which in his view precludes their having any higher meaning.  In The Moral Philosopher, quoted above, he says "[T]he reasons of this weakness and insufficiency of the moral law, as delivered by Moses, are very obvious.  For, as this law was barely civil, political or national, so all its sanctions were merely temporal, relating only to men's outward practice and behaviour in society" and therefore "could not relate to the inward principles or motives of action, whether good or bad, and therefore could not purify the conscience, regulate the affections, or correct and restrain the virtuous desires, inclinations and dispositions of the mind"

Only the tradition of Moses integrated civil law into the religious mythos, the sacred narrative.  For this reason it has the singular inflection of an attentie, passionate - and singular - divine voice.  In what other body of law could compliance be urged with the phrase "for you know the heart of the stranger"?  This is not to minimize the ethical achievements of great pagans like Plato and Cicero, achievements revered by Christians as long as the classics were read and there were still Christians of a mind to revere.  But the extreme tension these pagans felt between the traditions  of Hesiod and Homer and their own ethical systems is well known and very much to the point. 

Some fragments of the Twelve Tablets of Roman Law survive.  They are part of a social code, and might suggest something of the character of civil law in an earlier period, nearer to the time of Moses.  Two laws respecting the treatment of debtors are of particular interest in light of the attention paid to this question in the Pentateuch.  One says,  "If they (creditor and debtor) do not come to another agreement, debtors are held in bonds for sixty days.  During that time they are brought before court on three successive market days, and the amount for which they are liable shall be publicly announced."  And the next says: "On the third market day [any multiple] creditors shall cut [the debtors] into pieces.  If they shall cut more or less than their due, it shall be with impunity."

As with any ancient law, including those attributed to Moses,  it is possible to say that this doesn't mean what it seems to mean, or it wasn't really enforced.  And to make this kind of argument is perfectly respectable so long as it is made even handedly.  That said, over against this language, it is striking to not how protective, even tender,  comparable Old Testament laws are toward debtors.   This is Deuteronomy 24:10-13: "When you make your neighbor a loan of any sort, you shall not go into his house to fetch his pledge  You shall stand outside, and the man to whom you make the loan shall bring the pledge out to you.  And if he is a poor man, you shall not sleep in his pledge;  when the sun goes down, you shall restore the pledge that he may sleep in hi cloak and bless you;  and it shall be righteousness to you before the Lord your God."  The Geneva Bible has a note that makes the law gentler yet.   It says,  "As though ye wouldst apppoint what to have, but shalt receive what he may spare."  No one can read the books of Moses with any care without understanding that law can be a means of grace.  Certainly this law is one spirit with the Son of Man who says, "I was hungry and you fed me.  I was naked and you clothed me."  This kind of worldliness entials the conferring of material benefit over and above mere equity.  It means a recognition of and respect for both the intimacy of God's compassion and the very tangible forms in which it finds expression.  Cranky old Leviticus gave us - gave Christ - not only  "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself" but also the rather forgotten "Thou shalt love the stranger as thyself," two verses which appear to be merged in the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  Still, startlingly gentle law like these fall under the general condemnation of Old Testament severity, and Calvin's refinements with them.  

The tendency to hold certain practices in ancient Israel up to idealized modern Western norms is pervasive in much that passes for scholarship, though a glance at the treatment of the great class of debtors now being evicted from their homes in America and elsewhere should make it clear that, from the point of view of graciousness or severity, an honest comparison is not always in our favor.  Morgan is right about the this-worldliness of the Torah, and wrong in suggesting that this must mean its teachings are therefore without transcendent meaning.  "Do unto others" is a behest that, if acted on, can have very tangible real-world consequences.  The emperor Julian note that no Jew was ever forced to beg.  So this-worldly are God's interests that he cares whether some beleaguered soul can find comfort in his sleep.  He cares even to the point of overriding what are called by us, though never by Moses or Jesus, the rights of property. 

A number of theologians have pointed out that The Law, considered to be so unspeakably harsh with all of those cherry picked and, granted, severe passages about stoning people or inflicting death, is, actually, a means of setting up an economic and political order to prevent the kind of horrendous and domineering wealth that was typical of both ancient and classical paganism.  And it established a degree of egalitarianism, as more than just an entirely unachieved ideal, which we have so rejected that it seems unnatural or impossible to achieve.   Marxism certainly neither proposed anything as radical nor did it even come near to achieving what ever feeble attempts in that direction were asserted.  Neither does capitalism - by which I mean what capitalism became, which doesn't even achieve the far less brutal form that Adam Smith advocated.   Our American quasi-democratic system didn't start out to achieve anything nearly as human or just - compare the fugitive slave laws of the United States as to those of Deuteronomy or the actions of the ICEstapo as compared to the Mosaic Law as to how "the stranger" is to be treated.

Yet it is the common received wisdom of many, perhaps almost all college credentialed people that the Law of Moses is brutally harsh and barbaric whereas the "enlightenment" law which oversaw the hanging and execution of huge numbers of even children for stealing trifles and such events as the Reign of Terror as some great advance over them. 

I look at the period that is held up to discredit religion, such things as the Thirty Years War and the Inquisition and then I look at the enlightenment order with its wars, its ideological and scientifically based terror and genocide campaigns and can point out that the excesses of Christianity are violations of The Law, the Prophets and the Gospel but can't point to anything in the age when science was alleged to be a replacement for it and can find nothing in science that was violated by the mass murders of the modern period.   I don't think you can even make a good case that American law has proved to be any kind of real success as an advancement, though we have had our moments of greatness which is always, and inevitably when we've violated the norms of "rational self interest".

In 2006 when the movie Amazing Grace,** about the struggle of Wilberforce and some others to get Britain to abolish de jure slavery was made,  there was a hue and cry on the secularist-atheist internet about the terrible wrong of associating abolition with Christian religion, though that is, in fact, what history proves was the case.  The Abolitionist movement was a religious movement and it succeeded through appeals to religious belief.   So was most of what was achieved in other struggles for economic justice.

The fact is you have to make hard change out of something, it doesn't just happen and the "skepticism" and materialism of secularism is totally impotent to make that change or to sustain it.  I think the past fifty years have provided American liberals with a real life test of that in which the gains made with such hard sacrifice in the Civil Rights and other movements have been eroded under a program of secularism.  You have to really, really believe to make change.   Really, really believing in atheist-materialist ideologies might provide some excitingly violent stuff that manages to gain power as it imposes a despotism as bad or worse than what it replaced,  to do good takes something entirely different, it takes the kind of belief that is provided by a specific kind of religion, the kind that in the West is found in its most promising and potent form in monotheistic religion.

*  You need to read the first section of the essay that I haven't copied out to understand this or to be familiar with Marcionism and its condemnation of the Jewish Scriptures, something considered heretical by the developing consensus of Christianity which considered The Law and the Prophets to be divinely inspired.

** Didn't see it so I'm not expressing an opinion about the movie, only the reaction to it that I remember online.  

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