- Believers wish to see their sacred texts as authorities capable of sustaining their trust, but this is an epistemological impossibility unless the texts are as fully discursive as codes of law.
- Belief and authority differ as to the source of axiomatic commitment: belief relies on future hopes, authority on past reliability.
- Belief and authority’s claims also affect adherents differently: because belief is tinged with desire, it is invariably privately compelling whereas authority’s reliance on past performance allows it to claim public trust.
- Beliefs must be stated as hypothetically responsive to desire, and so they are properly stated as if/then sentences in which the “if” statement posits the desire the “then” statement seeks to satisfy.
- Religious authority’s claims are invariably stated as categoricals: imperative sentences that make no appeal to an agency the adherent has already surrendered in trust.
- Because religious texts expect divine commands to be obeyed categorically, their imperatives must be clearly and discursively communicated to congregants, but given the limitations of our understanding of divine will, this clarity is invariably replaced by analogical language and uncertain declarations that require interpretation using rational agency foreclosing trust.
- This interpretative effort is guaranteed to activate belief as readers attempt to discern divine will by the combination of their sincerity and their uncertainty unless believers surrender trust to some interpreter-as-authority and transform themselves thereby from believers to congregants.
- If believers employ their own reasoning, the sacred text is possibly reduced from categoricality to hypotheticality, from imperative and transcendent correspondence command to personalized immanence and coherence-driven opportunity as directed by the believer.
- This result is ensured by the predominantly narrative structure of sacred texts and by the wide variance in interpretation of their meanings.
- In the case of the Bible, this is unfortunate since Bible stories invariably warn against just this sort of hypothetical interpretation as usurping God’s authority and disobeying God’s commands.
- The conversion of trust to belief is particularly damaging because believers insist that they are still acting in trust of an absolutist moral system instead of a “priesthood of all believers” in which every reader is his own pope.
- Three examples of moral imperatives that fail as categorical commands and invite the employment of belief are the inevitable recourse to hypotheticality in Scriptural narratives, the existence of explicit contradictions of numerous categoricals in the New Testament, and the gross ambiguity of the Great Commandment.
- Two millennia of exegesis have failed to resolve this categorical/hypothetical problem and have only multiplied the options available to believers.
- This difficulty affords Christians the illusion of thinking their personalized and private religious commitments ought to inspire the trust of others who believe differently; this error results in fanaticism, authoritarianism, or agnosticism.
- Though contemporary cultures admire private belief and conviction, they react with hostility to any imposition of others’ beliefs; they react even more negatively (and with good reason) to the claims of universality that often accompany others’ beliefs; and they react most negatively of all to religious authorities presuming to prescribe categorical imperatives if only because any one authority is incapable of resolving conflict with competing authority, and the very presence of such conflict, once entertained, must dissolve trust.
As a lifelong resident of the U.S. Bible Belt, I have long struggled with my own difficulties in believing the Christian testaments. Over the last few years, I have brought a new seriousness to my effort, seeking to respect both the faith of believers and the necessity for a permissible commitment to belief (see “Knowledge, Trust and Belief”). This effort at reconciliation has only partially succeeded, and I wish to explain why in the hope that I might be mistaken. If I am correct in the judgment that religious texts are impossibly compromised as moral ends, they must fail in the public square and be regarded with serious suspicion in private pursuits as well (see “Belief in the Public Square”).
Allow me to frame the definitional limits of my analysis. I make no judgments here on the truth claims of religious authorities whose doctrines require quite a different kind of commitment, so I wish to distinguish the natures of belief and authority. A pope or an ayatollah who presumes to speak on behalf of a divinity and who makes sense of dogma for his congregants presents them with a neatly wrapped and interlocked package of truth and goodness claims whose common warrant must discourage doubt. Their trust in his authority warrants the validity of the package for them while providing the mechanism by which he may quell dissension before it becomes disruptive (see “Authority, Trust and Knowledge”). Should doubt persist, congregants will find their trust challenged and eroded as they re-appropriate the capacity to resolve the dispute by their own moral compass. This is a process problem, for “submitting trust” definitionally involves a surrender of rational and moral agency to the authority whom the congregant has found more worthy of interpreting some problem in experience than she is. “Losing trust” is the act of resuming the capacity to decide. Such a forfeiture must prove damaging to trust whether it is converted into private religious belief or transferred to some other authority declaring different truths with the same kind of warrant. Implicit in any understanding of trust is an acknowledgement that submitting it requires the moral agent to admit she will abstain from judgment, and that is a balm to doubt.
But it is paid for by authority’s inability to resolve doubt for its own congregants once doubt rises to consciousness. And this is such a crippling deficiency that it might lead us to question why authority remained so dominant in public morality for so long. The answer is twofold. First, theological declarations are peculiarly ordered. Whereas ordinary experience requires us to process the truth of an experience before mining it for the goods it offers, religious claims are always composited: their truth is underwritten by the goodness of the deity and vice versa, which makes them particularly resistant to investigation and to challenge. This alloyed character marks all religious conviction, but a second strength applies particularly to religious authority.. It concerns the initial suppression of agency that a surrender to trust induces. The relationship of human to divine is clearly one arena that is ripe for such a submission, which explains why religious authority has proved history’s most stable source of power.
Believers think their holy texts eliminate the middleman, conveying God’s truth to their own hearts. So to their minds, their holy texts are the best and clearest articulation of divine authority. I wish to argue this to be an impossible substitution.
To see why, I must more clearly disentangle trust from belief in epistemological terms. Allow me to explain the difference. First, while the surrender to authority occurs because of some past demonstration of reliability, something we have all experienced as children, the commitment to belief involves a hope for some future perceived good. This distinction points to a second difference central to issues of public morality. Because the reasons for extension of trust are demonstrable (e.g. trustees in prison have demonstrated their reliability), authority may exercise some public legitimacy, at least until a considered doubt erodes it by restoring power to the moral agent. This reversal can arise from the appeal of competing authority (e.g. the squabbling of divorcing parents) or some inconsistency in the claims of the authority that is blatant enough to arouse doubt in the trusting mind of the congregant (e.g. the Ninety-Five Theses of Luther). In the suppression of doubt, belief and authority rub shoulders, for it takes quite a strong disruption to cause mistrust to rise to consciousness, as Martin Luther discovered in his quarrel with Catholic authority (see “The Fragility of Religious Authority”). His “priesthood of all believers” attempted to replace clerical authority with divine inspiration, “God’s truth” replacing papal decree. But that effort was stillborn from the start by the desire inherent in any commitment to belief, introducing the third and most decisive difference between trust and belief. Trust is inherently categorical because it lacks the agency to question, interpret, or modify the imperatives of the authority that engenders it while the desire that moves belief must be inherently hypothetical, meaning grounded in private utility, in its approach to sacred texts. This distinction is exclusive and cannot be compromised. Rather than the surrender of preferential freedom that trust requires, belief requires its activation, for it is moved by the moral agent’s desire to understand and to achieve some future good that she values. No alloy of this distinction is possible, meaning one cannot say she both believes and trusts or that she trusts because she believes. The key to their opposition lies in who wields the power to judge the truth and goodness claims in question. This is a demarcation that cannot be shared or bridged.
The difference is apparent in the grammatical structures of trust and belief. Because a categorical command will not engage reasons, it is structured as an imperative sentence. The Ten Commandments are examples of simple imperatives that assume the assent that they command. Because hypotheticality requires more reasoning, its grammar must be more complex. These kinds of statements are usually structured as if/then clauses, with the dependent clause stating the desire the independent clause is thought to satisfy. Such sentences are therefore necessarily hypothetical because both the preference and its means of satisfaction are open to appraisals of reason and value.
Allow me to exemplify the difference. “You ought to play the piano” is an example of a categorical sentence (so is “play the piano” in which case the preferential imperative [“ought”] is not made explicit). The response to any such directive must be phrased as a “yes” or “no.” If yes, the piano is played on trust, presumably produced by some past reason for surrendering rational agency, for the player acquiesces to the desires of another. If the player refuses, she has resumed her own agency (and likely will be asked to explain why her will ought to triumph once she has). But if the thought is made hypothetical, it opens itself to contingency with a different phrasing. “If you wish to be a cultured adult, you ought to play the piano.” Now this sentence offers three openings into which the respondent can insert the lever of her own considerations of truth and goodness. First, she must decide if the truth content of the hypothetical is valid, comparing it to her understanding of her situation. If she is a child or deaf or destitute, the issue is not “alive” as William James describes it: it does not describe the reality she understands. Its truth fails to energize her preferences, so its future goods remain unavailable to her. But if she decides the situation offers possibilities, she then must exercise a second decision, this one based upon her own active preference. Does she wish to be a cultured adult? If she does, then she faces a third judgment: the claimed utility of the hypothetical imperative to fulfill that preference: will learning to play the piano make her a cultured adult? All of this must be arbitrated by her own reasoning (see “The Tyranny of Rationality“).
Categorical statements cannot appeal to rational agency because they do not trouble themselves with any of these three considerations. They do not define context, offer options, or specify good reasons for obedience. They are closed to reasons beyond either an assent that maintains trust or a refusal, which signals a return to agency, which in turn may be surrendered to another authority or exercised hypothetically. The difference can be observed easily in secular operations, for instance, the divine right notion of government in which kings in theory explicated the categorical commands of God for their subjects, relying on their trust as a putative reflection of the deeper trust given to God. So long as authority retains trust, its commands are not questioned by subjects. But either challenge or dissonance is sufficient to begin the decay of trust. For secular rulers, this meant the claims of contestants credibly appealing either to the same authority (e.g. competing bloodlines) or, once trust had been eroded, surrendering to citizens’ hypothetical capacity to choose their own goods, as in contractarianism (see “Why Invent a Social Contract?”). When either occurs, persons are thrown back upon their own agency, their own preferences, and their own active sanction.
Thinking in such political terms will ground a further exploration of the disconnect between categoricality and hypotheticality in regard to sacred texts. If the Bible, for instance, could be accepted categorically, it might provide capable moral guidance and be trusted by its readers just as they trusted their monarchs in the age of kings. But to direct their preferences categorically, the Bible would have to phrase its statutes discursively and clearly or designate an arbiter to settle its readers’ confusions. Consider the complexity of legal codes or claims of papal infallibility as the means to these ends. This categorical obedience dominated Jewish life according to the apostle Paul, who drew repeated contrasts between the contractual and legalistic covenant of temple Judaism and the “change of heart” that he thought marked the Christian conversion. But the language of his distinction left out something central to Jewish law: the necessity for a Pharisaic interpreter, a position Paul says he held before his conversion. And as his own frequent and exasperated communiques with Christian communities reveals — and the tragic history of heresy, schism, and sectarianism in Christian history confirms — the change of heart that marks a conversion is touched by hypothetical desire at least as powerfully as by the Paraclete (see “Christianity is a Crooked Path”). Despite plentiful textual and historical evidence that scripture is unable to provide clear injunctions, believers still act as though its moral code is capable of clearly commanding their preferences in the absence of their understanding. It cannot, and in the space between its stated intention and believers’ good-faith efforts to complete it, a vast epistemological expanse opens for the sirens of desire to enter into their thinking, borne on the wings of their hope.
It is crucial to note that categorical commands entirely discount desire, as any parent of a two-year-old must be fully aware. Extending trust removes the agent entirely from considering the goods involved. It omits the burden of identifying ends and means to achieve whatever the authority has prescribed, which is fortunate since trust suppresses that very capacity to decide. This surrender is captured by Jesus’ command to trust God as little children do. But what discursive command can be trusted in sacred texts that seek to mark the interface between God and man? Imagine it is wartime and a commanding officer is communicating necessary battlefield analysis and instruction over a radio signal that fades in and out, that is frequently interrupted by other transmissions in other languages. To add to the difficulty, imagine this is all structured in a coded language that subordinates must decipher to obey. And as the capper, now imagine that the content of these orders involves life-and-death choices upon which the fate of nations depends. Can trust operate in such an environment of partial understanding? Can orders poorly understood be followed properly in the face of rapidly changing experience? And when subordinates attempt to carry out orders they only half-understand, can they still be considered under their superiors’ command?
This analogy to believers’ responses to the texts they revere captures the sense of duty that calling a text “sacred” imposes on their moral lives, but it also fails in two important ways. FIrst, believers open their text with a preexisting desire that it be both true and good, which must continue to permeate their efforts as they struggle to obey what they cannot comprehend, especially in regard to the experiential limitations of what they take to be God’s commands. Believers will recognize the language of “surrender to God’s will” and “humble receptivity” in their struggles for comprehension. Their efforts to extend trust will permeate their reading, so they are already eager to surrender their rational and moral agency. But in contemporary life, this confirmation bias is likely to be more than offset by a second failure that directs what they consider acceptable. In a society that scorns authority as a parasite upon persons’ autonomy, the same desire to submit to the sacredness of texts must reinforce the power of their own preferences, which must direct their understanding in the absence of clear commands. Given the wall that separates trust and belief, what can they do but allow their own desires to mold their hypothetical understandings of what they still take to be a God-ordained text? How can they still justify their response as a surrender to divine authority? They will say, of course, that God speaks to them through scripture, guiding their understanding as it directs their response. And they will consider that response divinely ordained and publicly defensible, despite obvious disagreements with other believers reaching the same conclusion about very different divinities revealing very different moral prescriptions. Sadly, the issue of how private revelation can guide public moral direction has never been fully faced, and its only resolution has been to remove religious belief from the public square. The question persists for those who seek the divine in holy texts: how can they disentangle divine guidance and direction from their own hypothetical interests? In whose voice does their holy text speak?
They ought not dismiss this question for a good reason: we are all programmed to interpret reality so as to open options to our preferences. Our natural freedom presents each moment of experience as a stage upon which to choose the goods we value (see “Our Freedom Fetish“). That presentation begins with the truths the mind has identified. We then move intuitively toward identifying the possible goods the experience offers. This process is so natural, speedy, and habitual that we have to make an effort to identify the processes we engage in each act of preference. We only become aware of this sorting process as we think through our catalogue of desires in terms of what is achievable in some moment that we have mined for its potential goods. Should we bring the process to consciousness, an ordinary act of preference can be phrased as a hypothetical sentence. “Given the reality I now face (judgment one), if I desire this (judgment two), I ought to choose that (judgment three).” But with sacred texts, readers assuredly do not understand the reality they face, so they cannot arbitrate how they ought to respond faithfully. And, as I will show, the moral duty that this “changed heart” prescribes is so broad that only an active will can direct it. Even the most prayerful effort at discernment of God’s will must end in a an equally broad avenue for the activation of believers’ own desires.
They will defend their beliefs as trust at this point, complying with a theme that saturates Biblical narratives of reluctant converts eventually submitting to explicit divine commands. This is the way children obey their parents. It is also the way believers wish to approach their sacred texts as they invite divine judgment of their behavior. Indeed, it is the way the sacred texts themselves demand to be approached: with unquestioning obedience. And it is explicitly endorsed by admonitions to “trust the Lord.” But this is not possible for believers in the Bible because they, themselves, must specify the specific means of responding in the absence of their comprehension (see “Divine Justice“).
Their obedience could only succeed if the divine command specifies context, the ends to be pursued, and the permissible means to reach them. It is no coincidence that this is the invariable format of Biblical narratives that model obedience to God’s commands. How many generations of believers have sought to emulate the great heroes of Christian narratives who unquestioningly obey even the most inscrutable of divine instructions? But what believers face in obedience to their duty is nothing like what Abraham, Noah, or Moses face in all those Sunday school classes. It is a matter of historical record that the effort to model belief on that level of directive duty has failed most spectacularly when tried by Martin Luther, who defied the authority of Catholicism in favor of his own critical faculties in 1517. When Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses, he defended his rebellion by an appeal to his own reason as more reliable than papal authority. Yet in the midst of the conflagration of “changed hearts” that he had begun, Luther reversed himself, calling the very reasoning that had launched his revolt “a whore.” He initially expressed an alarmingly naive trust in the categorical directives of the Bible, which thanks to the printing press and his own translation efforts was widely available for public scrutiny. His initial view was that “a simple layman armed with scripture is to be believed above a pope or a council without it.” Why? Because “faith does not require information, knowledge, and certainty, but a free surrender and a joyful bet on unfelt, untried, and unknown goodness.” This language still resonates forcefully with the Christian faithful who would surely profit from studying its effects on Luther’s reformation. As his revolt spread, his appeal to Biblical authority was taken up by other rebels. Huldrych Zwingli endorsed Luther’s appeal to trust in 1522. “The word of God, as soon as it shines upon an individual’s understanding, illuminates it in such a way that he comprehends it. It is certain and may not fail. It is clear and will not leave us to err in darkness.” But even this early in the generational nightmare he had launched, Luther began to employ his own hypothetical desires, warning, “Beware of Zwingli and avoid his books as the hellish poison of Satan, for the man is completely perverted and has completely lost Christ.” When freemen in German principalities began arguing that the New Testament authorized sharing goods in common, Luther found fault with their belief and urged their princes to disabuse peasants of their error. “Let everyone who can, smite, slay, and stab, secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisoned, hurtful, or devilish than a rebel. It is just as when one must kill a mad dog: if you do not strike him, he will strike you and the whole land with you.” One hundred thousand were slaughtered in this peasant revolt, but it was only the beginning of the wars of religion that cost twenty million lives by 1660. In reading his writing, the reader can follow the deconstructions that Luther slowly began to apply to his scriptural exegesis, but it is clear too that by the end of his life, Luther had barely begun to recognize the damage he had done.
By elevating agency and the beliefs that a willing submission to God’s will had fertilized among his priesthood of all believers, Luther ushered in the modern reliance on individual sanction as the foundation of moral life, but by replacing clerical authority with private revelation, he attempted an impossible alloy of trust and belief, an error of such importance that it not only perpetuated the epistemic errors that fostered it but also doomed any trust in authority that might rectify it (see “Modernism’s Midwives”). We know this today by the wide range of moral commitments persons wish to profess as authorized by God and the means by which they claim to come to understand them.
While preferential freedom is clearly permitted to the rational agency of believers — after all, they use it continually in every other moment of their existence in search of securing the goods they value — the very appropriation of the power to determine ends and means must open a wide array of options to believers’ preferences. Nothing about this operation is nefarious or exercised in bad faith. Believers clearly see themselves as acting within the narrow range of hypotheticality that binds servants to their masters, a severely limited set of means to divine ends as evidenced by their use of terms like “submission” or “surrender” to Biblical authority. But they cannot avoid employing their own judgment, not only to implement means of achieving Biblical goals but more fundamentally to define the ends they think are prescribed. Some of this autonomy is a result of the erosion of all institutional authority in contemporary life. When today’s believers read Paul’s references to the law as counterposed against a personal conversion, the distinction is fudged by their understanding of civil law as purely contractual. Believers cannot see civil or ecclesial law as divinely commanded because they expect a voice in establishing it. They see legality merely as another exercise of their own agency, a compact they actively consent to.. They expect to have a say in their own compliance, so they do not see even law as categorically commanded but rather hypothetically engaged as a conventional expedient (see “Foundations of the Law: an Appetizer“). Given this reality, it seems fair to question if they understand fully what true submission to divine authority must require of them.
Their habitual reversion to hypotheticality exacerbates this problem because scripture repeatedly warns against precisely this act of hypotheticality as a usurpation of divine authority. Its premodernist framing of categorical obedience saw such rebellion as an abomination, comparable to having a subject attempt to rule in place of his king. But this sacred sense is foreign to modern experience. When we examine the Bible’s sense of its own authority, we find a clarion call to strict categoricality requiring a surrender far beyond what believers can commit to because what they are commanded to obey is too expansive and too ambiguous to be comprehended, and those comprehending are too jealous of their own agency to refrain from their own interpretations of what is commanded. As a result, these fuzzy imperatives require that believers employ the hypothetical reasoning they use in every other moment of their consciousness even as they are explicitly ordered to avoid that alternative. This is not their fault. What is their fault is that they continue to think the goods they have chosen are divinely ordained and infallible, thereby imbuing their private beliefs with a stamp of moral absolutism.
This is a disturbing accusation that must be subjected to serious questioning and warranted by a preponderance of evidence. It requires we answer clearly four contingent questions. First, is categoricality the consistent moral imperative of Scripture? Second, if it is, are the categorical commands clear and consistent enough to be obeyed by worshipers? A negative response to either question will tempt them to employ their own values to identify and pursue ends and means, and would thus lead to a third question with epistemic importance: can believers forced to determine their own religious ends avoid the snares of their private desires and personal utility in framing moral hypotheticals? If they cannot, a fourth and final question then arises: why is that a problem for the entire edifice of their moral commitments?
To understand Biblical categoricality, we must examine its exhortations from within the frame of faith. Believers think the Bible the holy word of God, divinely inspired at least, at most divinely authored. The Good Book is good because it conveys the word of God. Its dominant command is obedience to that word. In its wisdom, it also recognizes that readers might wish to do otherwise, to follow their own desires either in willful pursuit of their version of divine will or in explicit rejection of it. Other than the initial act of commitment that is portrayed as a surrender of agency, the Bible generally rejects believers’ moral autonomy and champions divine absolutism.
The rejection of ” the knowledge of good and evil,” and the concomitant necessity of trust in God are as old as Adam and Eve in the Garden. What is forbidden is the operation of persons’ own judgment superseding God’s. As the Bible portrays it, the first sin consisted of our unhappy parents choosing their desire over God’s clear and categorical command, an order that leaves them no space for moral agency. “Genesis” is the story of humankind’s first betrayal of divine beneficence. God gives Adam and Eve dominion over all the earthly sphere for their own hypothetical uses, establishing His sphere of authority over only a single tree whose purpose they are not given knowledge of and whose use is absolutely forbidden. The way the narrative is constructed, it is clear to the reader that obedience is possible because the command is so clearly stated. Our unhappy parents’ sin, we are told, is to seek rational agency in the use of the fruit of this tree as all the rest of the Garden based upon the devil’s hypothetical appeal to their own judgment: “if you wish to be as gods, you will eat it.” Scripture makes clear that this presumption of moral agency is the true sin for which their descendants would be forever punished. The story is recycled again and again in scripture. The stern command to build an ark, slaughter a son, confront a pharaoh, die by torture, or preach to all nations. The bewildered listener who cannot fathom the divine order decides to obey as Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Saul do. That response may be summarized by Jesus’ aphorism: “not my will, but thine.” But scripture shows us the possibility of a different response. These are the characters who surrender as Adam and Eve do to their own hypothetical calculus, to seek intelligibility and the satisfaction of their own desires. This is the option chosen by the Bible’s losers: Lot’s wife, Job’s chorus, Solomon, Judas, and doubting Thomas. The Biblical injunction to categorical obedience, to divine will, and a concomitant rejection of hypothetical utility could hardly be made clearer.
So why can believers not more clearly obey it? Why can they not treat scripture as a categorical authority and trust that it infallibly warrants truth and goodness claims just as the Creator did in the Garden? Why do they not simply obey divine instruction? Scripture tells us it is willful disobedience, the stain of sin. But even in the Biblical accounting, it is not that simple.
First, scripture confusingly combines its narrative, aesthetic, and allegorical text into a collage, a composite of different eras’ conceptions of divine nature and will. This patchwork opens to questions that concern not only the truth about the divine realm but also the goodness it promises. Could Jacob really wrestle with God? Did an omniscient God really change his mind after Noah’s flood? Can Jesus be all man and all God? How did his death expiate original sin? What is divine justice? Devout readers will find plenty to challenge their understanding, which one would expect from a guide to relationships between human and divine. They are instructed to defer to mystery and employ a categorical obedience to an obscure divine will as the Bible stalwarts do. But their moral sense will not easily submit to a childlike faith, for they are not children and everywhere in sacred texts they find ambiguity and dissonance framing both metaphysical reality and the divine commands it produces. The resultant uncertainty will be familiar to any adult, for it marks everyday life and the judgments of utility it continually demands. It seems even believers cannot escape their own autonomy, their own efforts to identify truth and the potential for goodness it offers in each moment of life. For every word of scripture, a thousand words of exegesis struggle to settle the fluttering confusion of those who seek to follow God’s will. Those who try to obey will enter a conceptual frontier that defies their understanding while it piques their desires (“What Is the Christian’s Moral Duty?“)..
At the deepest levels, a blankness shrouds the stage upon which believers are told to obey. It is a place of ontological mysteries. Is God eternal or beyond time? What happens after death? What is the nature of heaven and hell? These unknowns will lead to goodness issues that rely on their answers and can’t be resolved without them. Why does innocence suffer and evil prosper? How do I live a godly life in a fallen world? For these kinds of questions, scripture offers not too few answers but too many and too various. So is Biblical truth the composited answer or the one I respond to most strongly? How can I make sense of its commands when “making sense” is just what I am commanded not to do?
We can therefore answer the question of whether the Bible is intended to be taken categorically with a strong affirmative. We can say with great confidence that the profoundly categorical nature of Old Testament narratives, the centrality of the Ten Commandments, and the Judaic covenant, which was dictated rather than negotiated by Yahweh, are all proof that we must open the Bible with the understanding that we are also opening ourselves to its divine will. And, of course, this is just what believers wish it to do. But does scripture provide the means to satisfy that wish?
The answer to this second question must be a resounding no. My argument so far has been too generalized to convince believers that the Bible cannot satisfy their desire for submission and surrender to God’s will. Yes, we surely find categoricality there in both narrative exemplar and direct divine command. But even for contemporaries of the authors, the commands are accompanied by such a bewildering fog of poetry, allegory, antinomies, and examples that a unity must be constructed rather than extracted. Any work that has inspired ten thousand variants of religious practice and millions of words of exegesis cannot be considered discursive despite its categorical commands. Because the implications of this truth claim are so disturbing, I wish to warrant it fully by examining its most clearly categorical guidance and showing that even at its most obviously commanding, scripture still must be engaged hypothetically. I will analyze three such sections of the Bible. The first is the inevitable appeal to hypotheticality contained within categorical commands. These simultaneously forbid and demand that believers employ their own judgment, thereby asking readers to evaluate an issue while forbidding them to do so. The second is the existence of explicit contradictions of numerous categorical commands in scripture. The third is the gross ambiguity surrounding the cornerstone of Christian moral duty: the Great Commandment in Matthew’s Gospel.
I have examined in a previous essay the buried appeal to hypothetical agency that accompanies every Biblical story prescribing categorical obedience (see “Religious Knowledge as Mobius Strip”). The exemplar of this kind of thing is the “Book of Job,” wherein God makes abundantly clear His dominion over His people and claims absolute agency, demanding total obedience to his will. What could be more nakedly put than the terrifying peroration in which God confronts the temerity of Job’s chorus who dare seek to make sense of God’s behavior by their own reason? His final, thundering condemnation of human agency is scripture’s clearest exposition of categoricality. God condemns Job’s chorus for their hubris, their effort to make sense of Job’s torture by their hypothetical reasoning. That appeal is familiar, for their plight is our own, and it is soundly condemned, just as God condemns Adam and Eve for the same offense. Yet here as everywhere in scripture, what follows is an appeal to just that forbidden capacity not in the story but in the reader. Job is rewarded for his fidelity to God’s command. His goods are increased as, we are to infer, will ours be if we choose to follow divine law. To further sweeten the pot, Job escapes the experiment that any sane reader would not wish upon her worst enemy. Despite the discursive command to suspend their own judgment, believers are promised goods they value if they choose to obey and threatened with vicious terrors if they choose not to. They are told to act in blind obedience. But the denouement of the Job narrative gives them sight. Reading God’s peroration in “The Book of Job” is a jolt, for we are instructed with absolute clarity to reject our own moral sense, for God is mighty and hard-hearted enough to allow his faithful servant to be tortured as a test. He seems to have created evil itself. But notice the hypothetical implicit in this very command, one aimed not at the protagonist but at the audience who observes him. It may be summarized thus: If we desire to avoid pain and be rewarded, we ought to obey. And this hypothetical appeal to our own reasoning is reflected in every Bible story. Each gives God’s categorical command, which is invariably followed almost immediately by some hypothetical phrasing that shows the consequences in an obvious appeal to readers’ judgment. This mingling of the categorical with the hypothetical is rarely made explicit, but it is a constant source of dissonance that begs for some clarifying response. But what is it: to obey blindly regardless of consequence or obey in a hypothetical effort to avoid pain and double joys? And if the latter is chosen, how is God not reduced to a means to believers’ own soteriological desires? But this question may not arise to readers’ awareness when obeying what the stories call God’s will invariably leads straight to reward and disobeying to punishment. Odd that God’s thinking mirrors precisely what Luther condemned as the “merely human sense of justice,” thereby leading the reader to think that God’s sense of things is not so mysterious after all despite all evidence to the contrary. This consideration, which follows hard upon any understanding of Biblical narratives, encourages readers to apply their reasoning sense to the stories whose themes seem to command them to abandon it in trust to God. Perhaps Biblical authors knew that even a momentary challenge to trust would unleash the rattling chains of doubt that might destroy it. What would we think if God had failed to stay Abraham’s knife hand? Just deserts soothe our own agency and seek our sanction. But surely the explicit command to surrender sanction composited with an implicit one to employ it must also challenge trust in the thoughtful reader. Subtext thus sabotages text repeatedly in the Bible even when the divine command is clearly stated and its consequences clearly related.
This contradiction may be too subtle to rise to full consciousness for many readers who think it only fitting that God’s will accords with their own view of things. But they cannot avoid a second problem: the many explicit contradictions that any sustained reading of scripture reveals. We are told to judge not, lest we be judged and also to hunger and thirst for righteousness sake, a thirst that cannot be slaked without judging. To forsake this world and also to render to Caesar. To pursue justice and yet turn the other cheek while adding mercy by some formula no one can calculate. And in obeying God’s authority, Jesus makes clear that “unless you become as little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Yet Paul disagrees when he says, “When I became a man, I put away the things of a child.” Yet one of those put-away things was a childlike trust in authority. The moral standards on offer in Scripture must reconcile these contradictions, which can only be accomplished by the active desire of the believer to make sense of them by a standard of value she brings to her reading. But on what grounds ought she decide when decision itself has been forbidden to her? The upshot of this moral confusion must produce convictions so flexible and aphoristic that believers can find backing for nearly any preference they choose in the moment while still using scriptural “authority” to justify their choice. As they seek to find their way, they will find plenty of space for their active preference, their resumption of the power to decide by means they use constantly in ordinary preference. So whose will is being done?
Perhaps the most important command that Christians are commanded to obey will answer that question. The Gospel of Matthew says that the Great Commandment is the completion of the Law, the essence of Christian duty that grounds all moral commitments. We are commanded to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves. This gives us three categorical commands to obey: to love God with our whole heart, to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, and — though this is not fully articulated but may be inferred — to love ourselves as we love our neighbors.
What preferences can satisfy the first and most central of Christian obligations? What is meant and what is required by the first injunction: to love God with our whole heart and mind? Even on its face, this categorical presents obstacles to obedience, for we cannot love what we do not know, leading to challenges in our effort to love a divine Something whose hiddenness in itself must tempt our invention. And even with the most profound commitment to that summons, what does it mean to love all other persons as we love ourselves? So we simply cannot see the Great Commandment as a clearly categorical duty that we can trust to guide our moral lives, an imperative to which we can surrender. We must frame our obedience to it even in the ideal by interpreting the parables, narratives, and commentary in other sections of scripture with assistance from its most capable apologists so as to find some hope of obeying it.
Now this could be accomplished very easily by a trusted religious authority who decides for congregants what the Great Commandment’s meaning must be. If “loving God” means making a pilgrimage or attending daily devotionals, if it means living a life of a mendicant or a monastic, if it requires chastity or polygamy or self-mutilation, then the faithful can know their moral duty. Unsurprisingly, all of these have been decreed by Christian authorities over the centuries to satisfy the duty to love God. These extreme demonstrations will likely strike us as archaic or bizarre or excessive, but that conclusion emerges not from scripture but from our own judgment, which would not be consulted if we trusted the sacred authority that congregants think must prescribe their duties. Choosing one or none of these possible reactions requires us to embrace our own preferential freedom while simultaneously withdrawing obedience from the authority that dictates them. That is the very meaning of interpreting the injunction to love God. But that only opens the issue, for how do we interpret the command except by reading the same words the authorities who commanded these duties read? We may claim divine revelation or a less elevated intuition as the source of our understanding, but we can be sure that our personal route to loving God will differ from other Christians using the same scripture for the same purpose. Perhaps we find avoiding blasphemy as one of our most sacred signs of devotion, or perhaps we curse like a sailor but tithe faithfully, or worship regularly or fast. There may well be many routes to the Divine, but if we feel free to find our own, how can scripture be thought a categorical guide? And if we acknowledge that others fill in those missing pieces based upon their own desires, how can we tell them they are wrong and by what means other than our own desire have we gotten it right? If we humbly abstain from deciding to arbitrate what we claim as the command to love God, how can we call ourselves Christians, but if submit to some exegetical authority, which shall we submit to when they disagree so obviously in their interpretations?
To demonstrate their disputes and the moral implications that follow, let us trace some of their thinking. We cannot love God directly in this life, say the theologians, for we cannot know what reason cannot grasp or perception reveal. Theologically, God is portrayed as both transcendent and immanent, meaning beyond knowledge and available to intuition. This seems a recipe for hypotheticality, for our inability to grasp the categorical nature of a Being who cannot even be limited by the class of “beings,” the absolute ineffability of the Divine, is a bedrock principle of apologetics. This apophatic contention lies at the heart of fideism and mysticism in western Christianity and is a generalized axiom of Orthodox churches. What is this God that we devote ourselves to? And what does this God command? Roman Catholics in the West resolve that difficulty by granting the Fathers of the Church and the popes in particular the power to explicate some cataphatic truths concerning the deity’s nature and will. Protestants obviously reject that capacity in favor of a total reliance on God’s immanence, particularly in the revelatory power of the Bible to transform hearts in response to its message. But imagine the space such a conception of divine will makes for hypotheticality in their beliefs and the impossibility of universalizing any one of those beliefs for public commitment! This was the Reformation’s lesson, one that began with a rejection of authority that by our own day has become so complete that it has for most become an axiom of their own moral commitment. But that rejection only throws them back upon their own resources as they struggle with their varying and limited understanding of how to obey what they cannot understand. We are reminded of C.S. Lewis’s warnings of the limitations of this capacity in fulfilling the first half of the Great Commandment.
We are then compelled to try to believe, what we cannot yet feel, that God is our true Beloved. The humblest of us, in a state of Grace, has some ‘knowledge-by-acquaintance (connaitre),’ some ‘tasting’ of love Himself, but man even at his highest sanctity and intelligence has no direct ‘knowledge about’ (savoir) the ultimate Being — only analogies. I labour these deprecations because in … my efforts to be clear… I may suggest a confidence which I by no means feel. I should be mad if I did. Take it as one man’s reverie, almost one man’s myth. All the Scriptural imagery is, of course, a merely symbolical attempt to express the inexpressible.
So in the light of that incapacity, why trust any authority? What else can we cling to than our own imperfect translations of the whispers of the divine? In the horrors of the wars of belief he had unleashed by his challenge to authority in defense of revelation, Martin Luther also questioned our own phrasings of immanence, challenging reason’s right to judge God’s will while using his own reason to make his own sense of it. And he was right to do both of these things, for scripture itself warns against the temptations of hypotheticality while requiring it by its vagueness. As they seek to sense the God they cannot know, how can believers know that the deity they worship is not that dreaded Biblical anathema, an idol, whom they have set up by the operation of their own desire in their own attempt to “express the inexpressible”? When they worship this internalized Immanence, what confirmation can they seek in the face of such profound conflict with other persons’ conceptions and duties that the God they worship is the true Biblical Lord of Hosts? How can they know that it is He (but not a male, something else) who (but not a person, something else) is (but not in time, in something else) their Lord of all Creation (of all space and time) who commands their love (but without either being changed by it or needing it, for God is ultimately simple and absolutely perfect)? The Old Testament God was so awe-inspiring that His people could only prostrate themselves in Yahweh’s presence. The most common metaphors concern being struck blind by God’s brilliance. In a book drenched in figurative suggestion, surely this blindness is an unambiguous lesson. Christian mystics who practice a lifetime of meditative prayer in search of the immanent God find their revelation so ineffable that words fail them. Concepts and categories fall to the One All. The brief flickers of awe that carry the fragrance of the divine into our lives are, for all their power, only a preface, a whiff of the unknowable (see “Awe“). As believers fervently thumb through their Bibles, seeking to scratch that most persistent of itches, what categorical route can they find to love God with their whole heart, mind, and strength that involves nothing of their own creation? How can they avoid worshiping what they, themselves, can make out or up as they “see through a glass darkly” peering into the transcendent?
They may seek clarity by examining the other half of the Great Commandment. They are also told to love their neighbor as themselves. First, they must ask how they are to relate this command to their love of God. Thomas Aquinas attempts to draw some discursive connection between the two.
Now the aspect under which our neighbor is to be loved is God since what we ought to love in our neighbor is that he may be in God. Hence it is clear that it is specifically the same act whereby we love God and whereby we love our neighbor. Consequently we love all our neighbors with the same love of charity in so far as they are referred to one good common to them all, which is God.
Aquinas makes no distinction here between ends and means. He observes a moral injunction, a commandment, as indicated by his use of “ought.” The independent clause in the first sentence seems to lay out our motive for loving our neighbor: “that he may be in God.” Perhaps other readers find “aspect” and “be in God” easier to understand than I. The universality of that duty is made clear in the second sentence, though what “in so far as they are referred” to God’s goodness is unclear. Were I to attempt a precis of Aquinas’s meaning here, I might say that we ought to love all persons in the same way that we love God (in which case, see the problem above), or perhaps that we ought to love all persons because we love God, or perhaps our love consists of our leading them to God. These categorical duties obviously differ even before we decide if the “love” we ought to feel is synonymous with “charity” and if so, what charity requires. This most analytic of Christian thinkers continues to multiply possibilities in Book Two of the Summa Theologica as he teases out the definition and duty of charity.
For, since our neighbor is more visible to us, he is the first lovable object we meet with, because ‘the soul learns, from those things it knows to love what it knows not,’ as [Saint] Gregory says. Hence it can be argued that, if any man loves not his neighbor, neither does he love God. For His very substance is His goodness, which is itself the exemplar of all other good things; nor again does goodness accrue to Him from aught else, but from Him to all other things.
This relationship then seems to be a gloss on Augustine’s maxim: “Our love of our neighbor is a sort of cradle of our love to God.” Augustine agrees that human love might be our template for loving God.
Since to love God is something greater than to know Him, especially in this state of life, it follows that love of God presupposes knowledge of God. And because this knowledge does not rest in creatures, but, through them, tends to something else, love begins there, and thence goes on to other things by a circular movement so to speak; for knowledge begins from creatures, tends to God and love begins with God as the last end and passes on to creatures.
I am convinced that this “circular movement” is a crucial connection of the two imperatives of the Great Commandment, but I have only a vague notion of what that cycle might be. So we can add to the connective possibilities of Augustine’s interpretation that loving our neighbor is the means by which to discover God, whom we may begin to see in our neighbor. This may not seem controversial to us until we try to distinguish “God” from “good” in our own minds. On the one hand, theologians seem to conflate the two, calling God “the sum of all goods” and as above, declaring that God’s “very substance is His goodness.” This identity relationship thus eliminates the Euthyphro problem first clarified by Plato: is God’s omnipotence limited by God’s goodness? (The distasteful alternative is the one suggested by the Book of Job: that God creates evil too). Aquinas denies both Augustine’s and Plato’s positions, but his attempt to put just a bit of space between a personal God and the goodness that God represents suggests some difficulties for the Great Commandment, for it establishes a difference between those good acts moved by a love of God and those motivated by some other benign motive. Aquinas recognizes this problem, and he insists that the former satisfies the demands of charity while the other is “unworthy” of God’s approval. Some indeterminate distance seems to exist between goodness and godliness. When two of the greatest apologists of Christianity can thus disagree on an issue so fundamental to fulfillment of the Great Commandment, how can the faithful not decide for themselves? As they pray for guidance, how can they abstain from tapping their own desire to find direction in these very desires?
In gross terms, it is clear that some connection between the imperatives of the Great Commandment exists, so Christians must examine the way in which their love for others perfects (or proves or initiates) their love for God. Therefore, the nature of our categorical duty to charity seems of crucial importance to loving God and fulfilling the Great Commandment and thereby to living as a Christian. So yet again we must return to scripture to search for our categorical duties to charity.
That duty is explicitly laid out in three places: in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, in Jesus’ words on the night before his crucifixion, and in the commentaries by the Apostles. It is also implicitly modeled in a fourth place: in the life of Christ.
It seems clear by both the example of Jesus and the discursive intent of those who knew him that the Parable of the Good Samaritan is meant as the allegorical parallel to the far more total example of self-sacrifice exemplified in Christ’s own life. But those who revere scripture need not engage in hypothetical speculation, for their categorical duty to obedience and a correlative duty to abstain from hypothetical desire are articulated by Jesus himself in that moment when duty calls for the most lurid mortification of his own interests: in the Garden of Gethsemane. “He prayed that, if it were possible, the awful hour awaiting him might pass him by. ‘Abba, Father,’ he cried out, ‘everything is possible for you. Please take this cup of suffering away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine.’” Here we see the apotheosis of categorical duty, of obedience to God’s will first ordered in that other Garden and sustained throughout the Old Testament. That it also occurs at the literal climax of Christ’s own life, in the genesis of the action that underwrites all Christian faith, ought to be proof enough that a categorical duty to charity — defined as self-sacrifice in his parable, his life, and his own discursive speech in his moment of deepest crisis — is the Christian’s path to God in fulfillment of the Great Commandment.
But that seems not to be the lessons Christians choose to draw from Scripture because that duty is a hard one. In fairness to their desire to attenuate it, they are abetted both by the confused history of the early Church and theologians’ reflection on scripture, opening the door for wide hypothetical invention that almost always produces a lesser commitment.
At one extreme we may see the comprehensive duty defined by John. “He that hath the substance of this world, and shall see his brother in need, and shall shut up his compassion from him: how doth the charity of God abide in him?” Perhaps this categorical command to active assistance was related to the millennialism that was so prevalent in the first century, for the early Christian Church was founded upon a promise of Jesus’ imminent return that had to be reconciled to events. Perhaps the clearest example of how that millennialism changed early Christians’ understanding of their moral duty was Paul’s epistle to the Galatians (6:10), that exhorts, “Whilst we have time, let us practice good to all men.” It was this sense of a looming second coming that moved early Christians to share their goods in common and extend a very active compassion to all. Interestingly, “whilst” was changed in later translations to “when,” or even “as,” subjecting the categorical command of active duty to all to the hypothetical judgment of believers whose choice to ration their charity seems hardly consonant with Christ on the cross.
The limitation begins with the apostle Matthew, whose impatience with the recalcitrant Christian seems something less than charitable. “If he refuses to listen even to the Church, let him be to you as a Gentile and tax collector.” Even in the face of that limited mandate, Matthew reminds reluctant believers that caring for their troublesome brethren will pay off in an unusually clear appeal to a hypothetical self-interest that potentially elevates salvation above adoration.. “Then your father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” Paul replaces this rather mercenary calculus with a purer motive to a lesser notion of charity. “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” But at other times, he echoes Matthew’s exhortation to self-interest. “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time, we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” If you want to be saved, you will practice charity. This is a classically phrased hypothetical option. He is seemingly unaware of the moral hash he is concocting, for he often reverts to the categorical just as the Old Testament does to frame a far more inclusive duty: “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” Echoing through these considerations over how much to sacrifice must always be the words of Jesus: “Greater love than this no one has that he lays down his life for his friends.” His life story as the central Christian narrative always moves the needle to the broadest understanding of the Christian duty to charity, and surely Jesus’ last prayers underscore that unambiguous command to “love one another as I have loved you.” Lesser and more prudential calculations of charity seem positively pallid in the shadow of Calvary.
But just what are believers told to give to others: their time, their attention, their goods? Are they to infer that Christian love resembles ordinary love, the kind they feel toward family that shares travail and lightens all burdens? Are they really commanded to broaden that kind of love and to whom? To repeat the Pharisee’s question, “Lord, who is my neighbor?” The Acts of the Apostles tells us that “no one claimed any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had…there were no needy persons among them.” Are we to see the command to Christian charity to include this level of sharing our possessions with strangers? Or is even this appeal to our own judgment a blasphemy, a denial of “not my will, but thine”?
The greatest early apologist of Christianity, Augustine, seems to recognize the challenge. On the one hand, he catalogues Christians’ obligations to all other persons as a total duty to their spiritual and physical health despite the costs to their own interests. But that categorical responsibility is clearly an impossible one to fulfill for the whole world despite its clarity. Recognizing its rigor, Augustine quickly modifies it. As to persons, he offers a perfectly reasonable limitation. “But since you cannot do good to all, you are to pay special regard to those who, by the accidents of time, or place, or circumstance, are brought into closer connection with you.” I say it is reasonable because this is precisely what a classical definition of friendship includes, and if Christianity adds something to that description, I can’t see what it is. And it has the secondary advantages of echoing Jesus’ last words to his apostles when he said they were no longer his disciples but were now his friends. We can be sure that most Christians will not find this mild duty to fellowship overly demanding since it seems implied by the nature of love and demands no grace to strengthen their native inclinations. If Christians don’t notice this, they have a ready defense: their source of categorical moral duty taken as a whole doesn’t make it clear either, opening possibilities to their own preferences so broad that almost anything short of a punch to the face may be defended as an act of Christian love.
This natural calculation of moral duty is explicitly, if inconsistently, sanctioned by Augustine. He thinks Christians do have some duty to charity, but he interprets it so variously as to neuter any clear categorical duty. In “de Moribus,” he defines the duty in terms of negation: “But the first thing to aim at is, that we should be benevolent, that is, that we cherish no malice and no evil design against another.” To be explicit, benevolence requires only a passive good will, which is all that “no malice” implies. But surely this is an appeal to justice, not to love, and the two are clearly not synonymous . As if aware of the deficiencies of this extreme, Augustine tries the other, the one so clearly mandated by the words and life of Jesus. It is an active duty to beneficence.
Therefore, he who loves his neighbor does good partly to the man’s body, and partly to his soul. What benefits the body is called medicine; what benefits the soul, discipline. Medicine here includes everything that either preserves or restores bodily health. It includes, therefore, not only what belongs to the art of medical men, properly so called, but also food and drink, clothing and shelter, and every means of covering and protection to guard our bodies against injuries and mishaps from without as well as from within. For hunger and thirst, and cold and heat, and all violence from without, produce loss of that health which is the point to be considered.
It must be obvious that a duty to beneficence imparts a far heavier burden than one to benevolence, and if the Good Samaritan and the example of Christ do not make clear which path Christians ought to follow, I can only assume that they don’t wish to make it clear. But then they have a good reason for fudging it, for the duty it commands is onerous to their own interests.
Eight hundred years later, Aquinas, aware of the ambiguities at the heart of the Great Commandment, attempted to make sense of Augustine’s equivocation.
…or we may reply that we have unequal love for certain persons in two ways: first, through our loving some and not loving others. As regards beneficence we are bound to observe this inequality, because we cannot do good to all: but as regards benevolence, love ought not to be thus unequal. Our nature decrees that we naturally love some more and Augustine does not mean to exclude the latter inequality, but the former, as is evident from what he says of beneficence.
Again, a towering Christian apologist chooses to walk back the power of grace and the Christian’s duty to rely on it in imitation of Christ. And yet again, the fallback interpretation is less an appeal to our obedience to supernatural authority than to an active judgment founded upon our own sense of “our nature.” It seems the unambiguous authority of Christ must bow to the judgment of what the believer sees as the natural preference for some more than others, a judgment that can only be arbitrated by active agency and is likely to be granted the largest degree of latitude so as to permit one to follow her own desires. So long as a passive benevolence can be summoned, what other duty could be required?
But even this shrunken husk of Christian love seems to be too much for Aquinas, for elsewhere in the Summa, he shrinks it still further. “Absolutely speaking it is impossible to do good to every single one: yet it is true of each individual that one may be bound to do good to him in some particular case. Hence charity binds us, though not actually doing good to someone, to be prepared in mind to do good to anyone if we have time to spare. (italics mine).” The surrender to hypotheticality has now become complete. Consider the space for self-interest this flaccid duty opens and contrast that with the injunctions so clearly expressed in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, in Gethsemane, and in Jesus’ life!
Lest any believer think this moral vacuum merely a hostile interpretation of the New Testament’s categorical command, consider that this understanding of scripture is the work of some of its most profound apologists and most capable arbiters. How open it must be to hypothetical choosing is frankly acknowledged by Augustine, but he speaks for all who rely on its wisdom for guidance. “These things … can be done only by a high degree of thoughtfulness and prudence.” Augustine’s final word on the subject is that it is a “topic of great difficulty.” But bear in mind that this is at least the second-most important Christian duty and possibly the means to satisfy its sine qua non. Faced with its vacuity and openness to moral autonomy, what need can there be for surrender or submission? How are we to abstain from composing our own theology when even the barest attempt to extract a clear duty from the Great Commandment leaves us at the mercy of our own desires? It seems we all are tasked with the temptation of Adam in the Garden: we all are tempted to be as gods in judging good and evil. C.S. Lewis reminds us that whatever our judgment produces, what comes of the effort has the highest of stakes.
It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.
This is not airy hyperbole. It is the weightiest of considerations suggested by the Great Commandment that lies at the center of all of Christian faith. Yet living what it suggests seems even weightier, not only because its command must lie beyond our knowledge but because obedience cannot succeed without it. So in the face of the hypothetical possibilities its ambiguity permits, how do believers in the authority of Scripture manage to convince themselves of their own submission and surrender?
The prevailing approach seems to be to broaden the categoricals involved so as to open the widest of scopes to their own interpretations. This is most commonly done by denying that a discursive intent is present in Scripture while inexplicably defending its categorical moral power. This is made not only easy but inevitable by religion’s favorite vehicle for entering the metaphysical realm: the use of figurative language. Evidently, readers are to see the parables and innumerable metaphors in the Bible as illuminating rather than enlightening. But how can we fail to complete the dim picture we can never clearly comprehend (see “The Problem of Metaphor in Religion“)? Contemporary thought only adds to the confusion. What clarity, not to mention what categoricality, can be found by its defenders conceding the Bible to be a collage that spans two thousand years of “evolving” understandings of the relationship between man and God? Is it simply due to the pride of the present that today’s clergy say that its message cannot be stated discursively, its moral code stated categorically? Believers may flirt with postmodernism’s notion of “text” as a package of varying disguises and self-sabotaging themes when discussing the prevailing narrative structure of both Testaments. They may think the grandeur of God’s plan irreducible to simple moral imperatives even as they draw certitude from the contradictory notion that they are following God’s laws. They may sincerely think God’s will in scripture is too fine for the glare of analysis. We can grant them the sincerity of these composited Romantic and ineffable intuitions without letting them off the hook for reconciling this degree of mushiness with their own moral absolutism, especially if declared in public spaces. If believers rely on scripture for something more than hope, let them state what that something is and why others ought to find it true and good. If the answer believers provide is a categorical one, their first task must be to explain why other believers find conflicting moral obligations in the same text. This must produce an appeal to a higher standard by which to decide — the inevitable cost that accompanies the gift of surrender of agency — which must lead either to a public moral stance open to others’ judgment, a private surrender to mystery and awe, or a reflexive reversion to particular religious traditions, meaning bankrupted authority. The first must reduce scripture to irreconcilable dispute, for what higher standard could exist beyond divine command? The second must produce fideism, a frank acknowledgement that categoricality cannot be the intent or the effect of Biblical instruction, producing a private and silent religious commitment without doctrinal content. And the third must replace — or more likely confuse — trust in the divine with nostalgia, a reverence for tradition for its own sake.
So we seem forced to face the unwelcome conclusion that this sacred text and any text so ambiguously and variably framed cannot be the clarion call to duty that believers have desired. When even its own categorical commands are shadowed by an appeal to the agency of readers, when its injunctions are a smorgasbord of variable maxims and its central moral commitment opens to the broadest range of interpretations, and when even its most ardent defenders find in its narrative structure a stage upon which to erect their own moral scenery, why is it invested with such gravity?
To be fair, these inconsistent exhortations to a vaguely-defined duty to active universal charity are shadowed by a continuing appeal to a grace that allows that duty to be met, thereby in theory highlighting the duty and lightening the burden of believers. But even this possibility of assisted charity is also attenuated. From Paul to Calvin, the imparting of saving grace seems inconsistently and mysteriously granted to some and not others, so the energy that must power “knowledge” of duties to charity may not be available. Aquinas explains the reception of divine grace as beyond human efforts. “The virtue in accordance with which God gives His gifts to each one is a disposition or previous preparation or effort of the one who receives grace. But the Holy Ghost forestalls even this disposition or effort, by moving man’s mind either more or less, according as He will.” This conception of unearned grace culminating in salvation or damnation is most fully developed in John Calvin’s theory of the elect, by which an all-loving God predestines souls from creation to heaven or hell. Who can blame believers for thinking their varying hypothetical interests to be the imprint of unearned grace culminating in salvation or unearned “justice” ending in eternal fire? Thus their belief resolves an impossible moral conundrum into divine immanence and revelation that coincidentally most reflects their own desires and interests. From their perspective, this is the very definition of faith. But it is nothing like a truth warranted by the authority of sacred Scripture, and when inspected, ought to ring alarm bells in believers who find God’s will so plainly aligned with their own. When we put this kind of operation into ordinary experience, we can easily see the problem. What would the subjects of a ruler do if his laws decreed rewards or punishments by some private and publicly obscure set of standards they could not fathom? How corrosive would that seeming arbitrariness be to trust, and even with the best intentions, what other choice would his subjects have but to theorize on the best way to obey a standard they could not comprehend and so could not meet? And who could blame them for slanting it to their own desires?
If this conclusion seems implicit in the definition of faith as “the substance of things hoped for,” its self-serving quality is blessed by scripture. When Jesus told doubting Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe,” he was establishing the requirement for a blind reliance on God’s clarification in the face of mystery. He was preemptively condemning the efforts of historicists and literalists to prove the truth of the Bible so as to remove the necessity for that kind of hypotheticality, the error of trying to make belief a kind of knowledge (see “Can Religious Belief Be Knowledge?). But because Jesus established no boundary for that blind reliance in the face of innumerable apparent paradoxes, contradictions, and ambiguities, he also opened the door to the flood of desire that believers bring to their faith as well, making space for them to see their moral duty as they please and to fulfill it as they wish.
We can see its extremes by searching history: trivialized in the Gospel of Wealth of television evangelists and dramatized in the Reformation wars that killed twenty million over often obscure questions of revelation and redemption. When believers seek to minimize their differences, even a casual study of history repudiates them. The Great Awakenings of evangelism and the hundreds of utopian communities believers established according to a huge range of religious convictions are the Christian expression of a wider history of disputing sacred texts. And this is just within their own traditions and without regard to the other Abrahamic and doctrinal faiths offering similar ambiguity. We are currently suffering yet another revival of such passions, this time in the public square, as believers, appalled by the moral vacuum that postmodernism has sanctioned, bring their case for Christian commitment to the larger society without clarifying the essence of that commitment (see “Tao and the Myth of Religious Return”).
Perhaps the most obvious problem with championing private beliefs as the foundations of a public morality can be seen in the moral opprobrium some Christians apply to the issue of homosexuality versus the breezy dismissal of that same command by other believers. In this debate, both sides employ all the temptations of belief-as-proof-of-categoricality. Fundamentalists choose a few passages of Scripture to make their moral stand, citing them as categorical injunctions as clear as the Decalogue. They see those Christians who sanction gay marriage and invest gay clergy as violating the clear commands of Scripture. And they are right on that score. But their opponents point out with equal fervor that literalists blithely ignore scores of equally clear injunctions: of mixing cloth of different kinds, of stoning disbelieving children, or of blessing slavery in the Old Testament, not to mention the profound duties to active beneficence in the New. Liberal Christians proudly proclaim their hypothetical agency as the capacity to ignore the ambiguity and contradictions they see in Scripture in favor of their own constructions of its intent. It is their own rational agency they appeal to when they find sanction to ignore those commands that do not fit their moral schema. Their conservative opponents do precisely the same thing as they literalize their own favorite commands and poeticize or ignore others. So both sides bring their own reasoning to the interpretation of a document that simply refuses to be discursively understood. Can both sides still be confident of their righteousness when the same process of hypothetical interpretation produces contradicting conclusions? What powers their absolute conviction that their beliefs are true and that all those who use the same source to power other beliefs must be wrong?
It is this the same misplaced confidence in their own capacity to extrapolate God’s commands that believers use to make sense of their own less extreme views. Confront a moderate Protestant (or a contemporary Roman Catholic) with what she would call the extreme positions of fundamentalists, and she will surely dismiss them out of hand as an overzealous reading, perhaps even citing issues of theological evolution and Biblical ambiguity. Yet she will almost certainly not apply these same critiques to her own more moderate view, which she sees as a reasonable approach to the same source. But neither the quality of the text nor of her reasoning upon it can be shown to be superior in any way to the extremist she so easily dismisses. The only rational explanation for her moderation is that she doesn’t take certain passages as seriously as the fundamentalist, but on what grounds ought she dismiss those she doesn’t embrace and on what grounds can she claim that flawed particulars can produce a flawless entirety? Why is she not more disturbed by her own criticism? I hope the answer is clear. Regardless of how one reads scripture, her reasoning on its truth and goodness will be far more informed by her own desires than by the text, and one consequence of that conclusion is certain: her own desires will seem entirely reasonable to the same degree that a differing one seems unreasonable. This is true of all sorts of preferences, of course, but one quality of religious belief in sacred texts worsens the problem dramatically.
It is the emulsified nature of religious truth claims that make them particularly susceptible to the temptations of desire. In normal experience, our mind presents its analysis of the truth of a situation as the setting from which we may choose those possible goods that the experience offers (see “Truth and Goodness Do a Dance”). This is prudent, for we must know the situation before we even consider the options for preference it offers. Because it would be foolish for us to commit to some potential preference in a situation before we know its particulars, we are wise to isolate truths in experience from goods. The act of severance intentionally delays choices to preferential freedom until the true situation is understood (see “The Act of Severance”). Only then can we mine it for the goods we desire. But that two-part process is short-circuited by religious texts in two distinct ways. First, we can never achieve an act of severance, for we can never know the metaphysical truth of the situation we face, as I have tried to show. Secondly, we cannot open a putatively sacred text with a dispassionate mind, for we are likely to be already committed to both its truth and its goodness before reading a single word, so we can hardly evaluate it dispassionately. Desire dominates all and determines all. We engage the text already accepting its truth and already embracing its goodness as we seek to understand it. We are already predisposed to whatever we can glean, no matter how partial or contradictory. No act of severance is possible. The degree to which we literalize what we find there, the extent to which we mine the text for whatever we already think relevant to our own moral views, and the passion with which we pursue the conclusions we draw: all of these things must be independent of the text itself, must be more the product of our yearning to align it with our own interests, with all its temptations to ego, than of the divinity it purports to reveal. Some will seek the nuggets of divine command, using their hypothetical freedom to pick and choose. These are the fundamentalists. Others will smooth out the wrinkles before taking anything seriously, engaging in a holistic interpretation that in the end must highlight one part so as to dismiss another. What is crucial to appreciate is that both readers, the literalist and the liberal, are acting in just the same way and that neither is acting in trust to scriptural authority.
But if we ignore their conclusions in favor of a tolerant acceptance of their views or perhaps of their sincerity, we face an equally insoluble problem. A broad syncretism seems as much an effort to dispose of faith as to generalize it. Whatever the position of liberal Christianity, Bible-based believers are right to dispute some generic Jungian typology of religion, for the slightest acquaintance with history will uncover the blood-drenched catalogue of religious war against other moral standards, fought repeatedly over the supposedly categorical commands of the world’s religions. It insults the sincerity of those martyrs to think their struggles so easily resolved by a generalizing distance. The millions who have died for their faith or those who now live by it certainly do not think all religions equally true or good. Alternatively, universal religious syncretism might argue that all of the world’s religions contain one nugget of divine truth that when aggregated accumulate to knowledge of the divine command. But this claim must also fail, for as in scripture itself, the trick in finding the gold lies in rejecting the dross. But though they deny a broad and unifying syncretism, fundamentalist Christians must fall into that same trap when confronted with the hypotheticality required of any personal reading of the Bible, for how is the range of acceptable Biblical behavior among all Christians any different? If one takes the thirty-thousand-foot view of its moral commands, a fuzzy generalizing that permits the bestowal of benevolence over beneficence and the employment of one’s own desires to order the very nature of her beliefs, all while proclaiming a categorical surrender to the Lord, how is this not equally arbitrary? This hypothetical freedom expresses itself in believers’ characterizing their own judgments of utility to be a divine calling, a vocation. Even while doing as they think best, they think themselves obedient to God’s command.
This is a delicate matter, for it must be sited squarely in the hallowed tradition of a transformed will that supersedes the law. Believers see themselves as changed by Christ and therefore freed from the moral law by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. It is this “second birth” that is both the means and the proof of their sanctification. In the ideal sense, this revelation opens them to the divine truths of scripture. But since it contains such a rich mix of truth claims — some discursive, and some figurative but in toto either ineffable or contradictory — its readers will find themselves always pulled by their desire toward reading it in terms most favorable to their own interests. And their sense of their own sanctification must discourage any modesty or self-doubt. It is a sign of its variable interpretations that the Bible is called both “the ultimate self-help guide” and “God’s own truth.” Despite its elastic potential for exegesis, believers consider it a moral arbiter, nearly always a categorical one, and so think it a unique means to moral health. That must exaggerate its superiority and its opposition to more secular wisdom, even when it counsels the same preferences that believers might appeal to without it (see “Theocracy and the Commandments“). With this mindset, it is perhaps natural that believers view secular humanism as ungodly, and even evil, not because it is immoral but because it is by their lights amoral, meaning not categorical. But if they are forced by their holy text to employ their own interpretations of its meanings, and if their beliefs necessarily involve hypothetical judgments of utility moved by their own will, how can their guidance be thought to be different from even the most secular thinkers they condemn?
I have thus far addressed the problem of Biblical authority as a personal one, but believers must admit that they are hardly free of the cultural influences that the more generalized failures of authority and elevations of belief have introduced. These axiomatic societal forces have also reacted to the crises of institutional authority that began in the Protestant Reformation and reached a crisis point in the twentieth century (see “The Axioms of Moral Systems”). The trend lines have shown the downward arc of authority’s influence in the face of modernist claims to individual autonomy culminating in a crash after World War I (see “Postmodernism Is Its Discontents”). The utter collapse of institutional authority’s appeal to trust opened opportunities for belief while spotlighting the moral vacuum that authority’s failures made manifest (see “The Victorian Rift”). Biblical apologists exploited this search for moral clarity in the last decades of the last century by doubling down on their defense of scriptural inerrancy while tapping a generalized moral anxiety that permeates Western cultures to lobby for a return to trust in sacred authority. What they fail to see is that the power of private belief that powers postmodernists’ sense of moral autonomy opens seemingly unlimited applications of the ambiguities and contradictions to nourish believers’ own hypothetical interpretations. While this may open private conviction, it forecloses public authority. This is why believers’ moral vision seems so heterodox and why their sense of their own moral autonomy seems indistinguishable from that of secularists, excepting only their intense certainty, which reveals the public harm their public advocacy of Biblical authority must produce while it exacerbates their distrust of secular cultures.
Postmodernists see their own beliefs as a sign of their own agency, a private and even idiosyncratic expression of their personality, an explicit rejection of categoricality and a defiant expression of their autonomy. Religionists see theirs as categorical, universally-binding, and divinely ordained and so are implacably opposed to the flaccidity of secular culture. Because they fail to see the hypotheticality of their moral stance, they think it to be superior, ordained by God. Fundamentalist Christians are intractably opposed to secular humanism. They see their moral stance as more rigorous, yet in exercising hypotheticality in interpreting Biblical imperatives, they dilute and personalize its commands, reducing it to merely one more factor in their calculations of the good, another input to be ranked and calculated according to whatever utility they choose to employ in the moment. In this dilution and transformation to the hypothetical, they differ not at all from those they most oppose.
But this exercise of agency is entirely obscured by their Manichean demonization of secularism. They are so steeped in discipleship that they see the present moment in the same millennial terms that first century Christians did, and like them, today’s evangelicals see the culture of Christ threatened by those who would dismantle it. It is a common fallacy among Christian evangelicals that a lack of Biblical principles is synonymous with depravity, that secularism is tantamount to atheism and thus to evil. This view is demonstrably false. Deeply secular cultures are no less moral than deeply religious ones. They show no higher rates of murder or covetousness as evinced in statistics on theft, burglary, or robbery than cultures professing a strong Christian commitment. Nor do they seem more deficient in commitment to justice, charity, or compassion. In many instances, they seem more devoted to these causes. But there is one commandment they clearly do not obey, the one that is ostensibly first in importance in both Testaments. They do not claim to value categorical obedience to divine will. Yet as I have tried to show in this analysis, the same can be said of Christian believers, whose hypothetical agency seems indistinguishable as warrant from the secularists they condemn.
So if they do not receive reliable categorical direction, what do they gain from their putative commitment? It must be acknowledged that they have hope. They believe they are doing God’s will and that their efforts will please Him regardless of the theological impossibility of that effort. They see a divine justice in the next life repairing all the injustices so plainly seen in this one. They hope to be rewarded with heaven and to avoid being punished with hell, to see their lost loved ones in the next life, to be heard when they cry out in pain or fear. And if all of this is transactional and hypothetical, if it all appeals to psychological utility or transference, if it reduces their adoration to just one more means to one more end, it is behavior explicitly endorsed in the scripture which is the repository of their beliefs and their hopes.
Seen in this light, the premodernist exercise of belief is indistinguishable from the postmodern, and this championing of subjective value would be clear to the evangelicals and fundamentalists who think it to be the solution to the moral vacuum that afflicts the public square if they actually achieved their goal of a theocracy. Only their common hatred of the amorality of secular culture unites them in the illusion that their hypothetical readings of Scripture are in common with all other believers. Should they admit the utility of their commitments and disavow the categoricality that Scripture demands, they might engage in a constructive dialogue with the modernist and postmodernist preferential agency they think they have forsaken in the Lord’s name ( see “The Utility of Furthest Ends“). For all sides implicitly recognize the radical respect required of human dignity even if one finds its origin in the soul and the other in the power of preferential freedom, if one sees persons as unique fragments of God and the other as unique exemplars of felt autonomy (see “The Essential Transcendental Argument“). But this synthesis is unlikely to occur because the categorical/hypothetical divide cannot be bridged. Persons who see themselves obeying a categorical commitment to a higher cause cannot endure it being treated as merely one more hypothetical appeal to reason. Accepting that truth would fragment the virtual circle of coherence that powers believers’ most cherished convictions (see “What Is the Virtual Circle?“). But what would happen if their New Covenant could succeed? Should they overthrow the secular culture they condemn, their beliefs would surely usher in a conflict of wills, a war of private beliefs, that would offer competing and irreconcilable visions just as the sorry history of religious strife has historically confirmed. While we desperately need moral direction, can anyone think it could be provided by a second Reformation?
That awful history ought to end any consideration of using religious texts as authoritative guides to public morality, but what’s wrong with utilizing them for our private pursuits, those within the inner ring of our moral bullseye (see “The Moral Bullseye”)? Given the hope they provide believers, their generalized compassion, their power to inspire awe in the faithful, and their ongoing work to build supportive communities, objections to sacred texts could seem priggish or abstruse in comparison to their obvious utility. I happily concede the point if believers are willing to make it consistently. Will they acknowledge this argument is made hypotheticality, accepting that other believers’ other sacred texts might prove equally useful guidance to other hypothetical pursuits, that other persons might find equally efficient structures for their moral lives in secular sources? And if they wish to argue for the superior utility of their chosen holy book, are they willing to warrant that claim by using reasons external to the text they are defending? Answering “yes” will confirm the hypotheticality of their reliance on sacred texts and will grant equity to other hypothetical moral judgments but will necessarily challenge a categorical reliance on those texts. Believers can respond affirmatively and continue to reap the rewards of faith, but they will be thrown back upon their own agency, their own selective commitment. Nothing in the exercise of their faith would change except their certainty that they are right and those who disagree are wrong. They will still worship in prayerful reverence, act in service to others as judgment moves them, express hope in the comforting arms of their own religious community, and work in the larger community for justice. They will doubtless find these hypothetical moral duties to be permissible in their religious texts and sanctioned in their civil lives as they join their fellow citizens in seeking out the goods that all persons need.