What About Philosophical Christianity With Progressive Values? A Debate With Marta Layton

My next conversation partner describes herself thusly: “I am a doctoral student at Fordham University and also hold degrees from Cleveland State University (M.A., philosophy) and the University of North Carolina-Greensboro (B.S., mathematics). Currently I’m researching Anselm’s ontological argument and whether the alleged ineffability of God defeats the argument. More generally, I’m interested in the problem of religious language (whether human language can describe God well enough to be true) and whether theists need some sort of proof for God’s existence in order to (rationally) believe He exists. As a practicing Methodist, I try to live out the Wesleyan teaching that reason should clarify and confirm what we learn through revelation and tradition – essentially meaning that a good theology requires we try to understand what science and philosophy teaches.”

The interview below was done as part of a blogathon to support the Secular Student Alliance. Please donate to this worthy organization! And see more links to the many diverse conversations from the blogathon, updated throughout the day, at the blogathon conversation table of contents.

Daniel Fincke: So Marta—you’re a Christian who enthusiastically supports the Secular Student Alliance. Why is that?

Marta Layton: Hi Dan. That’s a really good question. I had always thought clubs for secular students were really important, ever since I learned my own high school didn’t offer them. But this was almost on an instinctual level; I only thought about *why* I supported them when I learned about this Blogathon.

I have two real reasons, I think. First, this is a group of high school and college students that could use some social support. In many areas of the country, so much of the youth groups, sports teams, and other social activities – they’re all run through the church. And I can only assume coming out as an atheist ostracizes many people from their friends and families, at least at first. So I see secular students as a high-risk niche who need a social network. It’s the same reason I supported gay/straight alliances even when I thought my religion condemned homosexuality. Clubs like those supported by the SSA really help with that.

But I also have a more self-serving reason. I think that atheists and religious people of all stripes understand each other better, the more each of us think about our beliefs. I mean, I certainly find I can talk about atheism with you more than less philosophical atheists. It’s the value of philosophy – we understand our own beliefs more thoroughly and can see where we disagree with others, with more precision. I just have a better dialogue with an atheist who has really thought about his position, than with someone who is turned off by religion but hasn’t really explored atheism (or secular humanism, or whatever) all that thoroughly. And I find that helps me understand *my* beliefs better, and maybe refine them where necessary. That helps society in general as well – we’re *all* better off when people think about their beliefs, and groups like the secular student clubs are a good place to do that.

Daniel Fincke: Why do you no longer think your religion thinks homosexuality is wrong? What is your argument for that?

Marta Layton: I could have perhaps been clearer there. I don’t believe the Bible – I’ll just use that as shorthand for the Christian scriptures throughout – condemns homosexuality. I’m sure there are lots of individual Christians and Christian groups who do condemn it. Is it the majority? Are these groups vocal enough that they define the message? I can’t answer that, from a sociological perspective.

But from a theological perspective, things become a bit clearer. First, I should probably say that many Christians are stuck in a false dichotomy here. The way these arguments often play out, you have the Biblical literalist who reads Leviticus 20:13 and sees that any man who has sex with another man must be breaking that commandment. On the other side you have more liberal Christians saying that Jesus never mentioned homosexuality, or that God created homosexuals with that orientation so God wouldn’t turn around and make it a sin, or some such thing. The second group always strikes me as so vague as to be useless. But the first group can be pretty naïve in my opinion. They read the Bible verse in a very literal way without taking into account historical context or the precise meaning of the words being used.

Take Leviticus 20:13, for example. That’s the famous “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with woman, both of them have committed an abomination. But if you read Leviticus 20 in context, it’s all about practices common among the Canaanites. Many modern commentaries interpret this passage as talking about a type of temple prostitution. Certainly other practices forbidden in that chapter (like child-sacrifice to the specific pagan god Molek) are the kind of things that were really only an issue for that time. Similarly, with the churches Paul calls out in the New Testament you have specific cultural practices like adult/child sex which are repulsive for reasons other than the fact that the participants were both men. Those verses used to condemn homosexuality simply aren’t discussing the consensual, monogamous relationships us moderns have in mind.

So I think a Christian can make a good case for why the Bible doesn’t actually condemn homosexuality as it’s practiced today – certainly not homosexuality per se. (There may still be problems with promiscuous homosexuals, but a Christian should have that same problem with promiscuous heterosexuals.) It’s certainly not the case that you have to choose between following the Bible and denying homosexuals goods that any human would want, like social support for a long-lasting relationship, legal protections in the case of divorce, etc.

Daniel Fincke: If you were an omniscient and omnibenevolent God would you leave the issue of your endorsement of the full moral and legal dignity of gay people this hard to figure out if you wrote a book? Would you not make clear when you’re just referring to the Canaanite practices? (And, by the way, would you order a genocide against them just for not worshipping you when they have no chance to do so even. Or, even if they did have a chance!) If you were Jesus and the Son of God wouldn’t you have come down to tell us to stop being sexist, homophobic, and racist? Rather than threaten people with hell and tell people (with no exception for spousal abuse) that they cannot get divorced? Would you if you were the Son of God tell women that if they are divorced by their husbands they can never marry again? Would you establish a theocracy in the Old Testament and teach that only through your Son can you go to heaven in the New Testament?

I could go on and on here. Apply your values and tell me, are these alleged actions proof of a genuinely omnipotent, omnibenevolent, and omniscient God who writes books? Or “inspires” them so incompetently that people wind up with the exact opposite ideas about good and evil from what you know to be true?

Marta Layton: First, I think you and I are expecting the Bible to do rather different things. If I am reading you correctly (and please correct me if I’m not!), you seem to expect the Bible to provide a checklist of correct moral positions. It does offer moral guidelines, but even within the Bible itself we see that these principles are not treated as eternal rules. Rather, as a Christian I think they point us to principles we “grow into” throughout human history. (Incidentally, this is not a uniquely Christian position; see for instance the Jewish idea of PaRDeS)

I think Aristotle’s concept of virtue is helpful here. He could have very easily laid out a series of moral imperatives – don’t horde your wealth, don’t assault people unnecessarily, etc. And he did give us some of those points. But he seems much more interested in explaining what virtue is and laying out a process by which *we* can acquire virtue. The Bible is doing something rather similar, I think. The point of commandments like “treat immigrants fairly” isn’t just to set up social institutions that would make it really difficult to cheat immigrants; it’s to give people an opportunity to develop their characters so they will *want* to treat the immigrant fairly. And one good way to do this is to require humans to think through what the moral laws mean and how they might apply in different circumstances. Giving a laundry-list covering every situation makes that impossible.

I can think of several reasons why Jesus (or God generally, through other parts of the Bible) would not explicitly say that homosexuality wasn’t particularly immoral. For one thing, just because homophobia is a problem for us today doesn’t mean that it was a problem in first-century Palestine. For another, an omniscient God could have thought (reasonably, in my opinion) that commandments applying to all humans would cover things like the homophobia. If you are truly treating everyone, enemies included, like you would want to be treated yourself, that includes not denying homosexuals the kinds of goods you’d want for yourself. There’s also the fact that the original language is much clearer than the translation we have today. In Paul’s letters in particular, the Greek words were associated with particular sexual practices, not the general “sodomy” we get in our modern Biblical translation. That means things would have been much clearer for the original audience than it is to later readers.

I can talk about the genocide issue as well, but I thought I’d stop here since this reply has gotten a bit long. I’m not sure whether you want to talk about homosexuality more or want to move on to that point.

Daniel Fincke:  Yeah, go on to the genocides and then we’ll talk.

Marta Layton:  The genocide one is a tricky question, one I wish Christians would struggle with more than they do. Certainly if someone told me today that God had commanded them to kill anyone (let alone a whole population) I wouldn’t accept it for a minute. I can only see two ways to make sense of the genocide of the Canaanites.

The first is again to consider the historical context. As I understand it, it was pretty common in that period to commit genocide when you defeated someone in war. It may have even served a historical period, because it was the only way wars could ever end; leave your enemy’s heir and you’ll probably be back at war a generation later. So as harsh as this complete war may sound to our modern ears, I’ve often wondered whether you couldn’t make a historical case that *at that time* this was the only way to avoid multi-generational war, which would have been even worse.

Within that context, you could look at the typical way war was carried out, and take one of two approaches. If the Israelites’ genocide was more limited than was common at the time, then you have God working to limit the way Israel carried out its war. If it was more severe, this could be read as a way at getting at moral progress by shock value. The Israelites had seen all the miracles in Egypt and they started worshiping Egyptian gods again as quickly as they did (not even two months after escaping Egypt, if the Exodus account is to be trusted). The Canaanite genocide could perhaps be read as a very bloody lesson in how the ways other nations carried things out really wasn’t the way Israelites should be asking. God already gave at least one command that I think was meant to be disobeyed (the command for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac).

I don’t know enough of the history to know whether either of those approaches would actually work. I actually think it’s more likely that there was some miscommunication going on here. We have at least one examples where God’s commands weren’t accurately reported to others: God tells Adam not to eat from the tree of evil, but then Eve tells the Serpent that she’s not even allowed to touch the tree. I think there are differences between the Ten Commandments given by God to Moses, and by Moses to the Israelites. Given that, one explanation is that God saw a need to emphasize the importance of thinking about any divine commands as specifically and carefully as possible. If for example God commanded Moses to completely remove the Canaanites from the land and Moses elaborated on this, I can *maybe* see God letting the Israelites feel the full consequences of this course of action.

From my perspective, it seems a needlessly bloody lesson. But I don’t have the benefit of knowing whether the Israelites could have learned this lesson any other way, and what the consequences of their not learning it might be.

Daniel Fincke:  I see, so, Hitler had to go all out and try to commit genocide because otherwise conflict with the Jews would just go on  forever. So, extreme as it might have seemed at the time, he was actually just eradicating anti-Semitism by getting rid of the Jews so no one could hate them anymore. (Quote miners please note, this is sarcasm illustrating the utter moral bankruptcy of what Marta just said in order to excuse genocide as sometimes permissible rather than abandoned her wholly unjustified belief that the Bible is a book revealed by an omnibenevolent God who cannot hire good translators or bother to spell out the specifics of how to treat people well but thinks “love one another” should cover it. Even when he sees it clearly does not.)

And since when was Abraham not supposed to obey God’s command? He was just about to go through with it when God stopped him. And Jephthah was not stopped from killing his daughter as he promised God he would. So, God favored child sacrifice too. How was that moral “back then”?

Marta Layton:  There’s one other approach that I like quite a bit: that God Himself grew in wisdom as history progressed. This is the approach favored by Alan Derschowitz in The Genesis of Justice, actually: the God seen in the early Bible is still maturing. Christian theologians have a major problem with this verse because God is supposed to be changeless, but I actually think it is a promising approach to this problem.

Daniel Fincke: So God is “evolving” like President Obama only He still hasn’t caught up on gays? Is he waiting for the 2016 election? Is he waiting for 51% approval from the American people to come out with the endorsement?

Marta Layton: Dan, there is a *huge* difference between the Holocaust and the genocide of the Canaanites. It has to do with the place in history that those things occurred in, for one. Hitler had the benefit of the Enlightenment and would have known better. For the Israelites, I’m not so sure *any* people living at that time would have acted differently. So whatever reason God had for giving the commands He gave – if He had *any* – wouldn’t come close to excusing the Holocaust.

But I think you’re misunderstanding me here. I’m not saying any of these tacks *successfully* explain the Canaanite genocide. What I was trying to say is that *if* you think the account given in the Bible is accurate, these are the possibilities available to Christians, who insist God doesn’t change.

Personally, I find the best explanation is Derschowitz’s. Basically, that God was wrong to command this genocide. That requires that God not be omniscient from the very beginning (or at least not all-wise), since according to Derschowitz this has to be the kind of thing a mature God wouldn’t do. These are the possibilities open after the genocide account: either that account isn’t accurate, or God could *rightly* command genocide, or God was wrong to command genocide. That’s what I meant when I said Christians should struggle with this story a lot more than they do. Many Christians are so committed to the idea that God is unchangeable, and to the idea that the Bible must be correct, that they’re willing to say the genocide must have been right.

But as I was trying to say (and I did a bad job of it, I agree!), I can’t bring myself to agree with that option. I think the best approach is to say that the standard idea of God as all-knowing from the moment of creation needs revision. That’s challenging, to be sure, but not impossible. One take-away message from the genocide story is not to make idols of our ideas about God – if the only choice is between a God who rightfully commands genocide and a God who did something a fully mature God wouldn’t do, I’d say go for the second choice.

Daniel Fincke:  So having the Enlightenment is a bigger advantage than having God’s direct and special revelation and commands? We finally agree!

What would it take for you to simply abandon the God hypothesis altogether as just completely at odds with moral reality (and completely improbably epistemologically and metaphysically)? Do you have criteria that these beliefs have to meet? If so, what are they?

Marta Layton: That question reminds me of a concept Brian Davies introduced in his book on Aquinas. He asks whether Aquinas was a rationalist when it came to God – basically, whether Aquinas thought we had to have proofs for our beliefs about God, in order to believe them. (As opposed to rationalist in the not-empiricist sense.) I think that in order to convince me to give up the God hypothesis you would have to convince me that rationalism is *true*.

That’s the crux of the matter, I think. Many theists today recognize that God isn’t the kind of thing we can fully understand. (If we could understand something, that thing wouldn’t be God.) And if we can’t have a good idea of what God is, that seems to make logical analysis pretty much impossible. Any argument I can come up with would at best prove that some understandable concept existed (or had certain properties). But that raises the question of whether the concept in the argument’s conclusion represents God – if I understand it well enough to use it in an argument, it doesn’t seem like it could possibly be sufficient to truly represent God.

What are we left with, then? Say that we agreed any argument proving God existed would be incomprehensible to humans. Does that mean we should reject the God hypothesis? Only if you think we should only believe things on the basis of good evidence. But there is a big difference between knowing something and correctly believing it. I suppose the first step toward convincing me to give up the God Hypothesis would be convincing me that all beliefs need good arguments to support them.

I’m perfectly happy to say we can’t *know* God exists, by the way, at least in the way epistemologists use that term. But most Christian philosophers (or other Christian scholars who understand the philosophical concept) wouldn’t say we know anything about God.

Daniel Fincke: You are a philosopher and you don’t think that all beliefs need good arguments to support them? Actually follow out this principle beyond this one selective case where it is a matter of bending over backwards to preserve your religions identity, and you are basically endorsing epistemological chaos in which there is simply no difference at all between correct believing and incorrect believing.

Marta Layton: It’s not so radical as you make it seem. Many philosophers appeal to basic beliefs that are accepted without further proof. Otherwise you get into a kind of infinite regress, because any belief you give requires arguments to support it, which of course consist of other beliefs. In epistemology, the foundationalist school of thought solves this problem by appealing to basic beliefs – first principles accepted as true without specific arguments on their behalf.

Even Hume, who you mentioned on your blog earlier this week, said there are some things we accept without being able to prove it, like the principle of necessity or the idea that the world goes on existing when we aren’t observing it (like between the blinks of the eye). In *most* contexts we have first principles that are accepted without proof.

Daniel Fincke: But metaphysical principles like God are not like direct awareness of our perceptions. It is purely smuggling in a prejudice to posit such a being as “foundational”.

Marta Layton:  It depends on what you mean by “God.” If you mean the complex set of characteristics most religious believers mean by God – someone who hears and answers prayers, for example, or that sets a moral order – then that’s hardly a first principle, I agree. It’s entirely too complicated, for one thing. But there’s also a more basic idea of God, something along the lines of Aristotle’s prime mover for example, that could be a first principle.

I think there are two distinct questions to be asked here: is there a first thing or a greatest thing or however you want to define it, and is this first thing at all like the God most religious people believe in? The second question *obviously* requires argument, but the first question is more basic than that.

At its most basic the theist’s statement that God exists boils down to the claim that something exists that is greater, more foundational, than all the things I can know. From that point theists try to firm up what must be true of this thing, even if we can’t explain it completely. That’s a difficult project, and I think your average religious person probably thinks they have a better handle on what God is and isn’t than they really ever could. But as I said, I believe that’s step two.

Daniel Fincke:  We know nothing about what the foundational being would be. Except the odds that it has a personality like ours is about as arbitrary to me as saying it would taste like a tomato or make honey like a bee. It’s pure, baseless anthropomorphism. And if the people in the pew really believed in the bare concept of a ground of all being theologians and philosophers “technically” mean, then the pews would empty pretty quickly.

It’s a bait and switch. You personify an abstract metaphysical (or maybe scientific principle or particle or who knows what that might be eternal) and people project their humanity onto it. That’s not a way to discover truth.

Marta Layton: Here’s a basic point that I think keeps me from becoming an atheist: atheism, at least as I understand it, requires that the world we can know (or at least that we can imagine) is exactly the same as the world that actually exists. That strikes me as incredibly improbable, because we know that there are many other things (non-human animals, for example) who cannot conceive of a world anywhere near as rich as the one that actually exists.

Even the way you frame the question, talking about a God hypothesis, suggests that it’s an idea I can conceive of as opposed to a reality I can’t.

Daniel Fincke:  The world must to a great extent be as we think it is or else we would be dead. We have a remarkably high degree of navigation ability. Do we get at everything? No, not nearly, but we are in the right direction. Everything “extra” that religious fantasies offer is not MORE real, not more an approximation towards what is ineffably beyond our categorization but imaginative recombinations of what is limited to our minds.

I mean, Marta, look at the Old Testament. The great inexplicable being beyond us is sheer anthropomorphic of barbaric genocidal hatreds, phobias, and feuds. This is not the key to unlocking something undreamed of in our philosophies. It’s the very heart of man at his stupidest and cruelest and most leveling writ large as the ultimate that there could ever be.

If you want humility, become an atheist, Marta. We don’t fill in the parts we can’t know with human projections.

Marta Layton:  You claim that we would be dead if our understanding of the world didn’t closely match reality. But look at human history and how much better we understand the world now than humans did a thousand years ago. The world didn’t change; we understood it less well. Yet we are still alive. That suggests that even if reality went far beyond what we could understand, we would still survive. Perhaps not as well as we would if we understood it better, but it’s hardly the case that “we would be dead.”

As for the anthropomorphizing of God – of course this has been done badly at various points in human history, and still is done badly in many ways. But the fact is that not everyone is a philosopher who can learn things through abstract analysis. Narrative can be a useful tool to helping people understand those general principles. It makes them real to people who for whatever reason are less comfortable thinking about things abstractly. Religion actually has become less anthropomorphized over its history, I think, both from the Old Testament to the New Testament and even moreso in the later history of Christianity.

But I do take your point that many religious people project themselves onto their idea of God more than they should. It’s to some degree a natural consequence of having a certain religion being the default choice in many societies rather than one where most people are a member of the group because they’ve made a conscious choice after careful thought. Religious people could certainly do better in this regard, to separate our humanization of God from what we can actually know about any God that exists.

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