What Is “Biblical Morality”?

What Is “Biblical Morality”? November 25, 2014


Over at the Patheos Atheist Channel, the blog “Rational Doubt” has a post titled “The Futility of Biblical Morality“.

The post argues that people should not look to the Bible as a moral guide, for two reasons:

a. The Bible is not a divinely inspired document;
b. The Bible can sometimes be hard to interpret.

Of course, this is all a bit vacuous. Obviously, there are people who believe that the Bible is a divinely-inspired document, so one wonders what one thinks one is trying to accomplish by simply stating the opposite. As to point (b), it seems that the editor of the blog Rational Doubt has a degree from the Catholic University of America and so probably should be aware that Roman Catholics–who are by far the largest group of people who claim divine inspiration for the Bible–believe that God gave the world not only an infallible book but an infallible interpreter of that book.

(One might also query whether there is any book worth anyone’s interest where everything is always straightforward to everyone. Was Hamlet insane or just pretending to be insane, or both? Is Plato’s Republic a utopic scheme or a reductio ad absurdum of utopia?)

That being said, the title of the post nonetheless made quite an impression on me, because it reflects an increasingly widespread view of “Biblical morality” as a set of arbitrary and capricious commands, fundamentally outdated, irrelevant, and, indeed, “futile.”

I think that, at the very least, a prudent way to respond is to say that a fair number of very serious thinkers had a very different view of “Biblical morality” and took it very seriously. So I hope here to touch on a few of them, none of them Christians, at least when they began their work on the Bible.

So, then, apart from question-begging discussions of divine inspirations, why is it that many important thinkers in our history believe that Biblical morality is anything but futile?


One important scholar in this vein is the French literary theorist and anthropologist René Girard. In his study of modern literature, Girard found a common theme, which he called “mimetic desire”, or imitative desire: the tendency for men to desire something through the imitation of someone else; we desire a thing not because of the thing itself, but because someone else desires the thing (all advertising is based on this phenomenon). Think of the love triangle: when one man loses interest in the girl, very often the second man will also lose interest or, if he therefore does get the girl, will feel very unsatisfied–because the girl wasn’t what he really was after. Because we desire by imitation, we desire the same things; because we desire the same things, conflict arises.

Girard then moved to the study of ancient mythology and anthropology. And there, too, he found the dynamic of mimetic desire and mimetic conflict at work, but with a new element thrown into relief: the scapegoating phenomenon. Remember, because we imitate, we desire the same things; because we desire the same things, conflict arises. Soon, this conflict threatens to destroy the entire society. To avoid this, the society focuses its anger and conflict on an innocent victim, the scapegoat, and lynches him. The death of the scapegoat restores social peace–at least until the mimetic cycle starts all over again. Because the death of the scapegoat suddenly, almost magically, restores social peace, the scapegoat becomes mythologized, and divinized. To maintain social peace, we have to kill the scapegoat. Hence human sacrifice, which, through myth, evolves into animal sacrifice. Most pagan creation myths revolve around a founding act of violence: a struggle among the gods or other supreme beings; very often, it is the limbs of the dead god which form the heavens, and the earth, and so on. The world is based on violence. But the myth is nothing other than the cover-up of an abject, aboriginal crime.

René_GirardThe then-atheist Girard then moved on to the study of the Bible, expecting to find the same mimetic, scapegoating dynamic. Instead, what he found was the exact opposite: a deconstruction and denunciation of the scapegoating phenomenon. In Rome, the city is founded on murder: Romulus kills Remus; Remus broke Rome’s founding charter, just symbolically, and so his brother had to slay him; to protect the order of the city, you have to kill even your brother; Rome’s charter is written in the blood of the scapegoat. In the myth, Remus is guilty; whatever historical incident this myth is based on, one thing you can be sure of is that in reality “Remus” was not guilty. In the Bible, we also find the myth of the founding murder: Cain kills Abel. But the Bible, unlike every other mythology, is adamant in its insistence on the innocence of “Abel the Just.” The Bible tells us Abel was scapegoated, even though the scapegoat phenomenon, which founds society and religion, cannot work without the lie that covers it up. What is more, even though Cain is guilty, he must not be scapegoated either: the Bible’s God protects him against the mob vengeance that is sure to follow him.

Another Biblical myth that Girard was struck by was the myth of Joseph. Joseph, an Israelite, becomes a senior civil servant (essentially) to Egypt’s Pharaoh. Pharaoh’s wife attempts to seduce him and, when she is rebuffed, accuses him of attempting to rape her, and Joseph is thrown in jail. Pharaoh then has dreams which only Joseph is able to interpret, dreams which forecast a famine for Egypt, which leads to Joseph being elevated to Vizier. The contrast with other ancient myths is striking. For example, the myth of Oedipus also involves a link between an alleged sexual crime and a cosmic catastrophe befalling the social order. Oedipus, King of Thebes, killed his father and had sex with his mother; because of his transgressions, the gods afflict Thebes with a plague; once the misdeed is discovered, Oedipus blinds himself and goes into exile; order is restored. From this propaganda scheme, it’s very easy to piece together what almost certainly happened in the historical incident that probably gave rise to the myth: a plague struck Thebes; driven by fear, the city’s populace lynched their king; once the plague abated, it was deduced that the source of the plague must have been some sacrilege, preferably sexual, committed by the king. The contrast with the myth of Joseph astonished Girard: in Sophocles’ story, Oedipus is guilty: he really did kill his father, he really did have sex with his mother; on the other hand, the Bible insists at every turn upon Joseph’s innocence. In the Oedipus story, it is the exile and eventual death of Oedipus which protects Thebes from the plague; in the Biblical story, it is the vindication and restoration of Joseph which protects Egypt from famine. This Biblical narrative is a forceful polemic against, essentially, all the lies that each society tells itself to protect itself from the reality of its aboriginal violence, which is the violence in the heart of every man.

This Biblical unraveling of the scapegoating phenomenon continues, Girard saw, with the Atonement sacrifice in the Temple cult of Israel. The people symbolically “put their sins” on a literal scape-goat–this is where we get the word–which is driven away. To understand how radical this is, one has to remember that the scapegoat mechanism only functions through a lie. No lynch mob ever says “Hey, let’s take a totally innocent person and project our sins on them and murder them.” Instead, the lynch mob says “This person is factually guilty of transgression [X] and must therefore be punished so that justice is served.” The only way to defeat the scapegoating phenomenon is to expose it, to expose the lie that it is built on. The Oedipus myth doesn’t “work” if you know Oedipus was framed; if Oedipus was framed, you have to confront the fact that your social order is founded on murder and lies; if Oedipus was framed, you have to confront your sin instead of projecting it on someone else. By not only learning about, but enacting, the Atonement liturgy, the people Israel were meant to learn about the scapegoat mechanism, which is the only way to defeat it. The Israelites know that the goat did not actually commit any sins. One goat–free of blemish–is released into the wild, but another animal is sacrificed, and its blood is sprinkled onto the crowd. Oedipus did not commit incest; the guilty party is the Thebans, who lynched an innocent man.

Christ of saint john of the crossTo his continued astonishment, Girard saw all of this pedagogy, all of this dense thematic content, culminating in the four Gospels of the New Testament. It is a testament to the cultural impact of Christianity that it might be very hard for even a totally secular, post-Christian person to see the story of Jesus’ crucifixion the way a member of the Ancient world would have. Today even atheists would generally agree that, whatever else is or is not true about Jesus, it was morally wrong for Pilate to execute an essentially non-violent preacher for a crime he didn’t commit. In the Pagan world, religion was the continuation of social policy by other means; almost all holders of political and religious office, Pilate included, were also priests. The gods were essentially cosmic mobsters: if you feed them with sacrifice, they will protect you; if you do not, bad things will happen. Because the cosmos had been created through aboriginal violence, its order was essentially chaotic, and religio was essentially a conservative force, in the crudest sense of those words: its mandate was to keep the inexorable forces of chaos at bay as much as possible through sacrificial violence. Recall that the Oedipus myth doesn’t work if its lie is exposed: this is exactly the meaning, Girard saw, of the story of Jesus and the woman taken in adultery, which still resonates so deeply today. Whatever it is that the woman “taken in adultery” did or didn’t do, the story brings to light with terrible precision the reason why the mob wanted to lynch her: not because of anything she did, but because the men were mimetically projecting their sins on her. Jesus’ “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” is not just a brief against hypocrisy, it is the exposure of the scapegoating mechanism, which is thereby defeated: once the members of the mob realize that they are about to lynch her, not for her sins, but for theirs, they realize the absurdity of what they are doing, and give up. But recall, also, that the lie of scapegoating is the foundation of the social order; if it is exposed, religio dies, and chaos takes over. For a Pilate to execute a Jesus, then, is not a tragedy, not even an unfortunate necessity, but a positive good. To the contemporary pagan reader, Pilate would embody everything that is good and worth cherishing: the religious, military and aristocratic authority that protects the highly refined Roman civilization from the elemental chaos that always threatens to engulf it, and Jesus, the pathetic Galilean peasant, the fanatic with his impossible and destructive ideas about sex and money and power, would embody precisely the sort of hubris that ancient mythology tells us is the root of all evil. If the Gospel stories had ended on Friday night, it would have been a happy ending. But the Gospels do not end on Friday night. In the Gospels, the Resurrection of Jesus, then, is not some superhero-like event, but rather God’s judgement on the entire social, religious, political order of the known world. The world needs the scapegoat to be guilty; but God himself informs the world in no uncertain terms that the scapegoat is innocent; that He is the scapegoat. If Jesus is the scapegoat, the entire world wakes up to discover that, like Coyote in a Roadrunner cartoon, it is standing over the gaping void. And what could be more terrifying?

To Girard, then, the Bible and its morality represented the only “true myth,” not so much in the sense that they faithfully depict, or not, events in a historically-accurate manner, but in the sense that those “myths”, unlike all the other myths which are lies, expose the truth about the social order and the human heart, about the danger and folly of mimetic desire, about the terrible scam of scapegoating.

All of which is a very long-winded way of saying: it should only take a few moments’ introspection (and looking at the day’s news) to realize that it is very conceivable and reasonable to think that this message of “Biblical morality”, far from being “futile”, is extremely relevant today, perhaps more than ever.


The second thinker I would like to touch on briefly is another Frenchman (yep!), Emmanuel Lévinas.

It is always risky to personalize or “biographize” a person’s thought, but in the case of Lévinas it seems unavoidable. Lévinas was a French Jew whose entire family was murdered in the Holocaust, and whose entire work, like all post-War continental philosophy, takes place in the shadow of Auschwitz. The goal of Lévinas’s philosophy was essentially (I am being brutally simplistic, here, of course) to find a non-religious, yet metaphysically grounded and solid, philosophical ground for altruism and ethics, so as to prevent the West from slipping into the barbarism of totalitarianism yet again.

Synagogue_Ettlingen-_Fragment_of_Torah_scroll,_burned_during_Kristal_NachtI think Lévinas is one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century, but here I will say just a few, hopelessly inadequate, things. Lévinas’s system was founded on the idea that the fundamental and most important human experience is the encounter with the other. Because the other is irreducibly other, can never be fully understood or apprehended, the encounter with the other gives birth to the idea of the infinite, and therefore metaphysics: we think the other, but cannot completely think the other; we desire the other, but this desire is never fully satisfied; in this encounter with the other, an infinite chasm opens up, into which we are drawn.

And because we encounter the other through a face, we understand the other as both irreducibly different and yet irreducibly alike. And it is this encounter, which is an invitation into the infinite other, which grounds altruism. Human freedom finds its realization precisely in this recognition of the other as other, who nonetheless has a claim on us, and therefore in altruism.

But what is fascinating, for our purposes, is how, almost in spite of itself, apparently at least, Lévinas’s thought almost always circles back to Biblical themes. To Lévinas, the “others” who deserve particular recognition and attention, the ultimate “others”, are “the widow, the orphan, the stranger”–the eminently Biblical categories. Despite the ostensibly secular character of his philosophical project, Lévinas, who was also a skilled Jewish scholar, can only find in Biblical morality a suitable response to the Shoah.

So, again, we find that in this search for a post-Enlightenment, post-Holocaust ground for a secular morality, a search which I would argue is ongoing and should keep very alert all atheists of good will, Biblical morality finds a way of inserting itself as deeply relevant, and not futile at all, at least if some of our greatest minds are to be trusted.

Nietzsche187cThe last thinker I would like to mention is Friedrich Nietzsche. This might seem like a strange choice, but I think Nietzsche cannot be escaped in these conversations, because he is perhaps the post-Enlightenment thinker who, in some ways, understood the most about “Biblical morality” and, especially, what would be entailed by its “futility.”

The key thing to understand about Nietzsche is that he was originally a classical philologist–a scholar of Ancient Greek and Roman literature–and so understood very well the moral and cultural universe of the pre-Christian world, and therefore understood very well what I touched upon in my discussion of Girard: the total cultural revolution that was Christianity, and its total inversion of the values of the Pagan world.

To Nietzsche, then, the “death of God” was, appropriately, a moment of cosmic significance: it portends not only a change in private spiritual experience or belief, but rather a total moral and cultural revolution. And though Nietzsche despised Christianity and Biblical morality and welcomed the death of God, he did not do so without fear since, like the pagans in the light of Easter, he saw the gaping void that had just opened up.

Biblical morality was contemptible because it had introduced into the world the categories of “good and evil”, rather than “good and bad.” Pagan morality was fundamentally aristocratic, therefore aesthetic and civilized, and aimed at the self-realization of those who embodied them, the virtus, which is a “virtue” in the sense of a skill or capacity towards self-realization, but which also literally means “manhood”, as in, the quality of being a “man”, a fully-realized man. Christianity was fundamentally a slave revolt in morality: its emphasis on otherworldliness, compassion, loving-kindness, is a balm for those pathetic souls who lack the strength to realize themselves in the world; by succeeding in its slave revolt, Christianity killed the life-affirming, aristocratic, civilized spirit of Paganism, replacing them with a pathetic, joyless self-righteousness.

Since God was dead, but humanity could no longer retreat to Paganism-as-such, the only desirable answer was to conjure up a myth of great vital and aesthetic power that would replace Christianity as the cultural backbone of the West, and this myth had to be the myth of the Superman. Against slave morality which prevents the supermen from realizing themselves, we must detach ourselves from transcendent notions of good and evil, necessarily illusory (since God is dead) and instead let ourselves be guided by the only remaining impetus to action: the will-to-power.

The reason why this is relevant is that, for example, Lévinas’s philosophy is in many ways a response to Nietzsche. To Nietzsche, the “futility” of Biblical morality necessarily meant moving beyond good and evil, beyond a compassion-based ethic, towards an aristocracy of master-supermen. Of course, many people have drawn a straight line from the elements of Nietzsche’s thought, the will-to-power, man’s self-creation as superman, the rejection of absolute morality, contempt for Biblical morality and the pathetic “slaves” who hold to it, and the Third Reich. Heidegger certainly thought so, and approvingly.

And whatever Nietzsche would have made of Hitler, it is undoubtable that he expected the death of God to lead to a wholly-new regime, one with a very different “morality” and culture, with a strong aesthetic sense, anti-egalitarian, anti-Biblical, and that this is what the fascists thought they were doing. It also stands to reason that if the scapegoat mechanism is always at work, or at least being impregnated, in our social structures, and Biblical morality represents the denunciation of scapegoating, then a society that moves “beyond” Biblical morality will turn to scapegoating with increasing abandon–perhaps starting with those who represent the Biblical morality that must first be scapegoated so it can be transcended.

So, again, we find that the question of Biblical morality presents itself with great insistence and gravity, and that the answers to its futility, or lack thereof, can be very different, and perhaps even troubling.

Nietzsche certainly would have thought so. In fact, while Nietzsche powerfully despised Christians, there was one of group of people whom he despised perhaps even more. He describes them in The Gay Science as the people who worship the shadow of the Buddha. After the Buddha died, his followers displayed his shadow in a cave, Nietzsche writes, and people worshipped the shadow. The people he is referring to are not, as it might seem at first blish, the petit-bourgeois religious believers who are too deluded to realize there is no God; the people in question are the majority of secular atheists, who believe that they can have the death of God, and still hold onto the compassion-based, altruistic ethic that Christianity introduced to the world and that its metaphysical claims sustain; that they can, like Jefferson, cut out the miraculous bits of the New Testament and keep the moral teaching. These people, the people who worship the shadow of the Buddha, who believe in a compassion-based ethic and in the futility of Biblical morality at the same time, are even more pathetic and deluded than the Sunday-morning worshipers with their cheap pieties, Nietzsche wrote.

Reportedly, Bertrand Russell once admitted that even though he had to, or wanted to believe that morality was based on more than just personal feelings, as a materialist atheist he could not ground it on anything else–and that this conundrum occasionally kept him up at night. At least he had the decency to be up at night on occasion. As should we all.

(EDIT: When I wrote the post, I wanted to include something about this work in sociology on the (revolutionary) social structure encouraged by the Bible, but, well, I forgot. And given that this post is already 3500 words long, I’ll just leave you with the link and encourage you to read it.)

(EDIT 2: Also forgot! I wanted to mention this great speech by Jonathan Sacks, former Great Rabbi of Britain, on gender complementarity, since what prompted the post that prompted this one is LGBT issues. Turns out Biblical morality is pretty rich, huh!)


Photo of Emmanuel Lévinas by Bracha L. Ettinger, CC-BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons.

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