Uncertainty is Our Only Hope

Living with uncertainty is our only hope that God will laugh with joy when we do our work as the orderers of our social world.

Recently in a little Facebook exchange a professed evangelical told me bluntly that he put his confidence in the clear teaching of scripture and the church down through the ages. And he questioned reliance on science, which as he pointed out has shifted its views on human sexuality and many other things in the last 100 years.

I get that. We all want some confidence that there is both a moral order and that we’re living within it. The problem is identifying that moral order and its rules.

For many if not most religious people scripture – some kind of divinely inspired writing – provides the guide to God’s moral order and how humans are to live within it. For Christians that scripture is the Bible. For Jews the Torah and Talmud. For Hindu’s the Laws of Manu and other writings. For Muslims the Qur’an and Hadith. Chinese traditional religions has a wide variety of Taoist and Confucian writings, strongly supplemented by Buddhist scripture.

One problem of course is that all scripture needs to be interpreted, and I think we can agree that interpretations (in every tradition) sometimes or even often disagree. Its an old problem and one that I’ll simply note.

A second problem is that in non-modern societies, and this is reflected in the sacred writings above, the seen and unseen worlds, as well as the natural and human worlds are all part of a single order. Cause and effect isn’t limited within one realm. Moral chaos can result in natural disaster. War in heaven wreaks havoc on earth, and war on earth has an inevitable spiritual dimension. The exact method of causation between realms may vary by religion, but the agreement across non-modern religious traditions  is that there is a single unbroken cosmic order.

The Enlightenment challenged this notion, not just for Christians but for all religious people who come into its orbit. The Enlightenment maintained that cause and effect in the natural order is bound within the natural order. Human moral behavior plays a role only to the extent that humans act directly on the natural order. And whatever might be happening in the unseen world, it likewise had no effect on the natural order.

Similarly the Enlightenment enclosed cause and effect within the human social order. “The devil made me do it” wasn’t an acceptable excuse. There might be war in heaven, but it didn’t spill over into earthly society, and of course the converse.

Now this dis-integration of the spiritual, natural, and moral orders has had a huge positive effect. Science becomes possible only when all cause and effect is theoretically observable and measurable. You can’t seek the sources of disease if you’re never sure its germs, genes, or gods.

Similarly decent governance is only possible when humans alone take responsibility for shaping and enforcing their moral order. The worst of all possible rulers are theocrats responsible only to their understanding of God’s will.

Yet this dis-integration of a single cosmic order has deeply troubled traditional religions. Even if they maintain that through scripture God is the orderer of the human moral world, it becomes difficult to account for how God acts providentially within it. God easily becomes a judge whose role is to make laws in the beginning and to punish wrongdoers in the end when the different orders are re-integrated. God brackets rather than being constantly engaged in human history. 

At the same time the dis-integration of a single cosmic order has actually had a substantial benefit for religious people. As it has become clear that the natural order doesn’t conform to non-modern descriptions, interpreters of scripture have been able to reinterpret those descriptions metaphorically. Thus they believe that they can leave intact the moral order taught by scripture while having the benefits of modern science. A non-modern understanding of society and social relations can be maintained. You can have your science and scripture too.

But this is now proving problematic as science itself begins to investigate and “naturalize” the moral order. And not just science. From within religious traditions there has arisen a conflict between the principles of human morality taught by scripture and the structures of human relationships that are part of the supposed moral order in scripture.

One example of this is found in Islam, where some modern interpreters are engaged in “reverse abrogation.” They maintain (against the long-held consensus) that the earliest principle-oriented revelations overturn later specific laws and structures that were of only temporal relevance.

Even earlier in the Talmud the great rabbis were able to find principled interpretations of scripture that overturned specific commands in the law of Moses that were seen as no longer relevant or even morally repugnant. When we read Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:17-20 we should remember that he stands in the tradition of the oral Torah, a tradition of contestation and discourse that fully affirmed the validity of the law while accepting that the interplay of the two Torahs delivered at Sinai were what allowed Israel to adapt to changing circumstance and grow in its understanding of right and wrong. Jesus was rabbi, not a fundamentalist.

And in Christianity the same thing is happening. For example: slavery is clearly accepted in the Bible as part of the natural moral order of human relationships. And for centuries Christians kept and traded slaves; right up to the modern era. Then emerging ideas of human equality and human rights began to interrogate the Christian moral order, leading to a reconsideration of what is morally accepted. Now almost all Christians believe that the principles of God’s reign make slavery morally unacceptable even if the Bible never speaks against slavery. But that happened only after a few centuries of conflict, and among some Christians only with great reluctance.

Similarly the Bible’s understanding of moral order is clearly hierarchical and patriarchal. I Timothy 2:8-15, and Ephesians 5:21-33 make this pretty clear. And again for most the Christian era hierarchy and patriarchy were assumed foundations of the human moral order. They only came into question in the last century when concepts of gender equality arising out of Enlightenment principles interrogated Christian moral ideals. But again, many Christians, including those who have a “high” view of scripture, have seen in the principles of God’s Reign ideas that at least modify, if they don’t overthrow any absolutizing of hierarchy and patriarchy.

But these same Christians, typically self-identified evangelicals, have been quite reluctant to interrogate Biblical moral structures related to gender and sexuality with Biblical principles of acceptance and the primacy of love as the principle of human relationships. Nor have they been willing to acknowledge the scientific “naturalizing” of the moral order by calling into question the fixed relationship between sex, gender, and sexuality found in the Bible. (For a full review of the science on these issues see Scientific American, Sept. 2017, Special Issue on Sex and Gender.)

These Christians sense, and rightly, that this path leads to uncertainty as to whether there is any moral order beyond that created by humans within human societies. Science, as my interlocutor pointed out, changes in its understanding of the natural order. Humans and their social and cultural norms change as well. Even the Enlightenment is a phase in the history of human thought, not its end. Broad principles may not, indeed they have proven they will not, sustain the traditional social order, not least the ordering of sexual relations within marriage.

But what if revealed principles rather than revealed laws are all we have to go on? Perhaps the ordering of the human social world is logically the work of the same humanity to whom God gave responsibility for naming, and thus ordering, all the creatures of the earth. Perhaps the Reign of God announced, embodied, and enacted by Jesus Christ is a reign of principles that must be applied by humans in ever changing social circumstances. Perhaps, indeed almost certainly, the kerygma that Jesus Christ is Lord redefines lordship, rather than theologically defining the person of Jesus. 

There is a payoff in this uncertainty. When we understand that the moral order isn’t created by God, but is rather created by God’s stewards (stewards with all their imperfections and short sightedness) according to God’s revealed principles then we no longer have to undertake convoluted rationalizations of injustice. It exists because we cause it. We fail to properly apply the principles with which we have been entrusted by God through scripture. Nor do we constantly need to wonder about the division of labor between humans and God in defining and maintaining the moral order. It is our job.

But these are not new ideas. There is a story from the Talmud. Bava Metzia 52b:

On that day R. Eliezer brought forward every imaginable argument but they did not accept them. Said he to them: ‘If the halachah agrees with me, let this carob-tree prove it!’ Thereupon the carob-tree was torn a hundred cubits out of its place – others affirm, four hundred cubits. ‘No proof can be brought from a carob-tree,’ they retorted. Again he said to them: ‘If the halachah agrees with me, let the stream of water prove it!’ Whereupon the stream of water flowed backwards – ‘No proof can be brought from a stream of water,’ they rejoined. Again he urged: ‘If the halachah agrees with me, let the walls of the schoolhouse prove it,’ whereupon the walls inclined to fall. But R. Joshua rebuked them, saying: ‘When scholars are engaged in a halachic dispute, what have ye to interfere?’ Hence they did not fall, in honour of R. Joshua, nor did they resume the upright, in honour of R. Eliezer; and they are still standing thus inclined. Again he said to them: ‘If the halachah agrees with me, let it be proved from Heaven!’ Whereupon a Heavenly Voice cried out: ‘Why do ye dispute with R. Eliezer, seeing that in all matters the halachah agrees with him!’But R. Joshua arose and exclaimed: ‘It is not in heaven.’4 What did he mean by this? – Said R. Jeremiah:That the Torah had already been given at Mount Sinai; we pay no attention to a Heavenly Voice, because Thou hast long since written in the Torah at Mount Sinai, After the majority must one incline.

(Just to clarify. The exact quote from the Torah is, Deuteronomy 30:11 – 14. “Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.”)

The conclusion of the rabbis was simple: they were in charge of interpreting the meaning of law in changing social circumstances. Not even a voice from heaven could alleviate them of that terrible responsibility.

Here is are the next verses from Talmud. R. Nathan met Elijah and asked him:

What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do in that hour? – He laughed [with joy], he replied, saying, ‘My sons have defeated Me, My sons have defeated Me.’

God’s laughter, God’s pleasure that his rabbis have taken on their responsibility confirms their judgment about their responsibility, not least the responsibility of the majority opinion to hold sway over even a voice from heaven.

Living with uncertainty is our only hope that God will laugh with joy when we do our work as the orderers of our social world.

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