Christianity and Morality

“I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.” (Romans 12:102)

The above verses of Scripture show that we must strive to lay down our lives for God’s sake. It is in giving our bodies and minds over to Him that He can best use us; this entails sacrifice that must be considered our “reasonable service.” We are enjoined to struggle to increasingly lay our lives down so that God can use us; the more we give ourselves over to Him and His sovereign working in us, the more He can and will use us for His purposes.

Unfortunately, we often equate the manifestation of virtues deemed to be “moral” with Christianity itself. By equating the two we are in error and set ourselves up to be viewed as hypocrites. Many of God’s people sometimes behaved “immorally.”

For example, in our culture, incest is forbidden. Yet, Abraham, the father of the faith, the friend of god, married his half-sister. (Genesis 20:12) Lying is immoral. Yet, both Abraham and his wife, Sarah, lied to Abimelech (Genesis 20:5), as they had previously done with Pharaoh (Genesis 12:13) to ostensibly help save Abraham’s life. This role model of faith didn’t trust God enough to protect him, and was willing to let his wife be sexually used by others. Lot offered his daughters to be raped by the people of Sodom rather than let them homosexually rate the two angels sent by God. (Genesis 19:8) Rahab was a prostitute, yet considered by God to be a hero of faith. (Hebrews 11:31) David, a man after God’s own heart, committed adultery and arranged the murder of his lover’s husband.

How can we reconcile our obligation not to lie, commit incest, offer our daughters to be raped, commit adultery, or murder with the standing of those who belong to God as His anointed ones? It is because “morals” are not the major part of the Christian message; our transgression of them is seen by God from the very foundation of the world.

Clearly, God’s ways and his assessment of people are not our ways. Before we were born He knew what we would do. Before they were even born He said, “… Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.” (Romans 8:13) Frankly, I much prefer Esau to the conniving Jacob who stole his brother’s birthright and conned his blind father into giving him Esau’s inheritance. Just one more example: before Ishmael was even born God said to Hagar, given to Abram by his wife Sarai to have sexual relations so as to beget a child, “And he will be a wild man; his hand will be against every man, and every man’s hand against him …” (Genesis 16:12)

God’s people are all sinners and transgress morality. By equating morality with Christianity we do so at our peril. There are many atheists who are moral, decent people. What distinguishes the Christian from the atheist or anyone else is not only behavior that allows God’s light to shine through, but the faith we have in Him to keep His promises to us, to save and keep us, and to love and accept us, as He knew we would before we were even born. What defines a Christian is the knowledge that only God is our righteousness!

The Apostle Paul knew he was immoral. (Romans 7:15-25) Yet, he would say to the Sanhedrin, “…Men and brethren, I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day.” (Acts 23:1) He could only make this remarkable statement because he knew that he was a sinner in the very core of his being. Although he sought to present his body a living sacrifice and be transformed by the renewing of his mind, these actions were processes, not accomplishments. He knew that his faith was not defined by conventional morality, although he made it clear that we were not to use our liberty in Christ as a license to sin, hinder the Gospel, or to cause a weaker brother or sister to stumble in the faith. He was able to have a clear conscience despite his sins and sin-nature because he trusted Christ to be his only righteousness and to deliver him to God as one whose sins were covered over by the shed Blood of Christ.

One of the most compelling reasons to take the Bible seriously is that it doesn’t sanitize the failings of God’s people. They commit incest, they murder, they are prostitutes, they are adulterers, and they are liars. Sometimes they don’t trust God. Even the father of faith, Abraham, after being called by God, Who appeared to him, and given the promises that He would “…make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great….” (Genesis 12:2,10) ran to Egypt because of a famine in the land that God promised him and his descendants.

What differentiates the Christian from all others lies not particularly in the area of morality, but lies in his or her tenaciously hanging onto God as his or her fortress, enabler, defender, and deliverer! And being LGBT isn’t immoral in the first place, so all of God’s children, chosen from the foundation of the world, have no reason to feel condemned by God!

“Duck Dynasty” Phil Robertson’s Theology: Dead or Alive?

Since a recent GQ Magazine article outed his homophobic and pro-Jim-crow views, left-wing commentators have declared open season on Phil Robertson, the patriarch of A&E’s “Duck Dynasty.” Robertson, based on his reading of Christian scriptures, considers homosexuality a sin and predicts that homosexuals will be excluded from the Kingdom of God.

In Salon, Joan Walsh pronounced Robertson a “bigoted pseudo-Christian.” Another Salon author, Brittney Cooper, a self-professed “reluctant Evangelical,” took aim at Robertson’s “conservative theology,” denouncing the “violence” that it “does to gay people in the name of God.”

Cooper’s Bible and Robertson’s Bible are the same. However, Cooper’s practice of “hermeneutic [interpretive] consistency” differentiates her from Robertson who likely reads scripture literally (as if a literal reading were possible). Those of us who treasure scripture would do well to emulate a thoughtful and compelling approach like Cooper’s. Hers is a living theology.

For Cooper, the “first and foremost” truth disclosed by the Bible is that “God is love.” Intent on making scripture consistent with this fundamental truth, she rejects passages that contradict it. Cooper acknowledges that the Bible sanctions slavery. But since she is certain that a loving “God is not a racist,” she rejects racist scriptural passages. She agrees with Robertson that the Bible “declares sex between men to be an abomination.” But since she is certain that a loving “God is not a homophobe,” she rejects homophobic scriptural passages.

Robertson would find Cooper’s approach anathema. Literalist Christians consider scripture to be the verbatim transcript of God’s revealed laws, beliefs, and commandments.

Contra Robertson, a living theology, according to Jewish theologian, Michael Fishbane, treats ancient, sacred writings as more than simple and fixed storehouses of information. A living theology, Fishbane writes in Sacred Attunement, includes an intentional, ongoing effort of “adaptation and clarification” of religious texts. This effort helps us remain alert to the traces of transcendence that break through our everyday consciousness and to “sustain (and even revive)” them “in the normal course of life.”

Readers of the Bible who eschew the effort of adapting and clarifying scripture cut themselves off from traces of transcendence. Their theologies are dead.

Also, the unquestioning acceptance touted by such as Robertson is neither coherent nor honest. Though literalist Christians believe that they take scripture at face value, they necessarily, at some level, interpret it.

On some issues the Bible is inconsistent or opaque. Martin Luther, who advocated relying on scripture to decide all issues, discovered that, at times, it is silent on important questions—for example, child baptism. As a result, each of us, whether we are aware of it or not, constructs meta-Bibles out of passages we select from the actual Bible. We assemble proof-texts that make sense to us or align with our commitments and values. We downplay Biblical proscriptions that inconveniently conflict with our favored mores—for example, the indifference of many contemporary Protestants to Jesus’ prohibition on divorce. Contradictory passages are set aside (Cooper does this with admirable transparency and clarity of purpose) or hyper-interpreted until they harmonize.

Consider in this regard, Robertson’s likely view that God so loved us that he sent his only Son to die for us on the cross. This is an interpretation of the crucifixion to which St. Paul hints in the New Testament but which did not enter the arc of Christian thought as a fully rendered doctrine until Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) developed the satisfaction theory of Christ’s atonement.

Proof-texting and interpreting the Bible is unavoidable.

In addition, as Fishbane notes, the books of the Bible were spliced together. Varying worldviews and theological commitments are interwoven, sometimes within a single passage. Thus, scripture itself is an example of the work of interpretation and revision; its internal disagreements invite us—nay, prod us—to follow its lead and adapt and clarify. By doing so, we keep scripture and our theology alive.

Fishbane helpfully recommends reading events in the Bible as “theological expressions of primordial truth. The narratives of scripture thus become paradigms of perennial matters bearing on divine presence (both transcendence and immanence), as well as the human response to them.” More generally, “the old words of scripture are spaces for ever-new moments of spiritual consciousness and self-transformation.”

Christians like Robertson resist looking for such spaces and maintain their (imagined) literal grip on scripture. Joan Walsh calls Robertson a “bigoted pseudo-Christian” but she’s wrong about the “pseudo-Christian” part. Robertson is a Christian; his beliefs rest on interpretations at odds with those she prefers. There’s no doubt, though, Walsh is right about the “bigoted” part. Let’s be clear: Robertson’s dead theology is downright ugly.

References and Further Reading:

Magary, Drew. “What the Duck?” GQ, January 2014.

Cooper, Brittney. “Evangelical church’s ugly truth: ‘Duck Dynasty’ and Christian racists.”Salon, December 24, 2013.

Walsh, Joan. “2013: The year in whiteness. From Phil Robertson to Megyn Kelly, peddling white grievance became a bigger, crazier, more lucrative racket.” Salon, December 30, 2013.

Fishbane, Michael. Sacred Attunement: A Jewish Theology. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2008.

Axelrod, Jim. “A&E can’t win on ‘Duck Dynasty’ flap.” CBS News, December 28, 2013.

Fixmer, Andy. “A&E Ends ‘Duck Dynasty’ Patriarch Suspension.” Bloomberg, December 28, 2013.

Author and editor, Myriam Renaud, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She is co-organizing a conference, April 9-11, 2014: “God: Theological Accounts and Ethical Possibilities,” at the Divinity School (mainly funded by the Marty Center, free to the public). For more information, visit: http://divinity.uchicago.edu/god-theological-accounts-and-ethical-possibilities