Saturday, April 12, 2014
I can understand the motivation: There is a perceived attack from the New Atheists who accuse the God of the Old Testament of being a moral monster. However I would like to propose that the focus is completely in the wrong place here. That is, the focus is on defending the faith, rather than actually considering where there may be legitimate problems we should address. In other words, our response should be one of listening and where appropriate repentance, not one of seeking to justify things that we would in any other context condemn as being profoundly immoral. This is where I think Christian Apologetics has lost its way. Rather than being about articulating the faith in a thoughtful way, it instead echoes our culture's tendency to set up an us versus them situation where the result is to "win" the argument rather than the person.
More specifically, the assumption behind this all is that the Old Testament contains one single view of God that we can then deem to be good and seek to justify (as the apologists do) or bad and reject (as the New Atheists do), rather than recognizing the rather hard to miss fact that the Old Testament contains many conflicting perspectives of who God is. It is a record of dispute, and when we instead try to harmonize it into a single view, we completely misread it. Yet that misreading seems to be quite common, even among people with a PhD.
I'm all for a nuanced reading of the Bible, and getting away from pedestrian critiques that reflect a Sunday school biblical education (Bill Maher comes to mind here). The answer here however is to face the multi-vocal nature of the OT rather than to try and defend things that are clearly indefensible from a moral and ethical standpoint. The irony that Christians who are supposed to be champions of morality (helping to develop character and compassion) find themselves defending moral atrocity in the Bible reveals something very broken about our faith. We need to shine light on that brokenness.
So much for the preamble. Let's get down to addressing Copan's arguments in the book specifically: Dr. Copan offers a cornucopia of explanations which all seek to either minimize or make sense of the violence described in Scripture. The array of arguments he presents in defense of the Canaanite genocide can be summarized as follows:
“We live in a time when we are very alert to racial discrimination and intolerance, but we aren’t as sensitized to sexual sin as past generations were. We live in a time that sees death as the ultimate evil. Perhaps we need to be more attuned to the fact that our moral intuitions are not as fine tuned as they ought to be.” (Is God a Moral Monster?, 192)
Perhaps, Copan argues, because ancient people did not value life as much as we do, they would not be psychologically traumatized by mass slaughtering women and infants (189). Perhaps there were not any women or children present, and so they were not actually slaughtered as the commands declared (175–177). Even if they were, however, this too, Copan argues, would have been justified because “God is the author of life and has a rightful claim on it as its creator … If infants are killed by God’s command, they aren’t wronged, for they will be compensated in the next life.” (189, 194)
Copan, in fact, sees God’s commands to slaughter the Canaanites as the primary criteria legitimizing what he refers to as “a corporate capital punishment that could be carried out only with the guidance of special, divine revelation” (188) acknowledging that, “without God’s explicit command (and thus his morally sufficient reasons), attacking the Canaanites would not have been justified” (169).
Particularly alarming in this regard is Copan’s statement that “we should ask, what if there were some task that we would shrink from that could even psychologically harm us but that still needed to be done?” (190). This is said directly in the context of discussing the potential psychological damage done to those who were commanded to slaughter noncombatant women and children. So the implication is that even if it would traumatize you to participate in a massacre (he mentions the My Lai Massacre as an example), if God said to do it you still should. Wow.
To his credit, Copan stresses elsewhere that violence cannot legitimately be carried out in God’s name today with appeal to these commands, insisting that they were specific to a particular time and people and thus cannot be generalized (194). However, because Copan bases this on the criteria of God’s explicit command, the possibility is left open that if God were to command us to commit genocide today, we would be obliged to obey. Copan offers here no criteria for evaluating how one knows what God’s authentic voice is—whether today or in biblical times.
In the ancient Near East, however, warfare was a way of life and a means of survival. Fighting was a much less grim reality back then. In the ancient Near East, combatants and noncombatants weren’t always easily distinguished. We’ve also observed that the hardness of the human hearts (Matt. 19:8), in conjunction with the existence of fallen, morally blunted social structures in the ancient Near East likely means that such actions would have been considerably less psychologically damaging for the ancient Israelites than for a citizen of Wester culture. There is no evidence that Israelite soldiers were internally damaged by killing Canaanites. (Is God a Moral Monster?, 189)
In the end, Copan's arguments, from a scholarly and scientific perspective, are filled with holes. If you are at all familiar with biblical scholarship this is very apparent, and I frankly find it a bit shocking that more people have not called him on this. He regularly misapplies evidence in a way that relies on his audience not themselves being familiar with what scholarship is actually saying. Maybe I'll return to this point in more detail later. However, I would say the larger point is the moral and ethical implications of his arguments which I have focused on here.
What if instead of "defending the Bible" we learned how to read it in a way that focused on looking at our selves introspectively, in a way that was focused on cultivating compassion for the other and the enemy? What if we believed that asking hard quesutions motivated by compassion was an essential part of a healthy faith?