Wednesday, July 15, 2015

How do you respond when your moral compass leads you away from faith?

by Abby
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Is good good because god wills it?
Or does god will it because it is good?
--Plato’s Socrates in the Euthyphro dialogue

I first encountered this dilemma in the writings of C.S. Lewis—one of the few “safe” authors from my Adventist days, who nevertheless wrestled with bigger questions than I was allowed to have in Sabbath School. Socrates asks whether god bows to a higher standard of righteousness, which he must obey in order to be considered good, or whether anything god chooses immediately becomes good even if it might otherwise be evil. If the former, then there is a standard of righteousness higher than god himself—an idea that makes Christians very uncomfortable. If the latter, then god could order us to begin randomly killing each other, and that would be good and righteous, because god said so.

Lewis’s answer was emphatically the former. “If good is to be defined as what God commands, then the goodness of God Himself is emptied of meaning and the commands of an omnipotent fiend would have the same claim on us as those of the ‘righteous Lord’” (Christian Reflections).

While I was sympathetic to Lewis’s position, I developed a sneaking suspicion that it was not biblical. The god of the Old Testament is constantly engaged in mass killings and orders his people to participate in ethnic cleansing. In the Bible, it is righteous to kill someone because they don’t agree with you, because they have a different religion, because living near them might change your mind. That did not seem good to me by any yardstick I could imagine…except that god said so, and whatever god said must be righteous…which brings us back to the “omnipotent fiend.”

As I neared my 30th birthday (the age at which C.S. Lewis became a Christian), I found myself increasingly plagued by the idea that my faith and church were unethical. I had been taught unethical things about race, about homosexuality, about women. Wrong things. Evil things. Except maybe they weren’t evil if god said they were good. It felt as though my church required me to put away my own moral compass.

The story of Abraham and Isaac embodies this dilemma. In Genesis 22, Abraham hears a voice telling him to sacrifice his child as a burnt offering. If Abraham knows god, surely he knows that god does not approve of human sacrifice. So perhaps Abraham does not know god! Otherwise he would be able to say, “I know the nature of my creator, he would never ask this of me, ergo the voice I hear is not god’s.”

But that’s not how the story goes. The voice tells Abraham to do a morally reprehensible thing. And he does it. He prepares to sacrifice his child.

God stops him! Hurray!

I wish that the rest of the story went like this: “Abraham, how could you have thought I would ever approve of human sacrifice? You don’t know me as well as you think you do. Next time you hear voices telling you to kill your kid, please know that those voices do not come from me!”

Unfortunately, that is not how the story goes. Instead, god pats Abraham on the head and tells him he’s a good boy. Abraham is willing to commit any atrocity in the name of god. That’s the kind of believer that the god of the Bible desires.

I hated this conclusion and for a while, I privately called god “my abusive father.” He was the only heavenly father I had, but he was also abusive. He was better than the alternative (Satan)…but not much.

It came as a strange (though scary) relief when I began to suspect that, in fact, there is no god—no silent, invisible person trying to communicate with me via an ancient text and random acts of chance, no capricious murderer, no omnipotent fiend. I still have a soft spot for C. S. Lewis. But, at 30 years of age, he embraced Christianity and I left it.