November 2, 2002
JERUSALEM AND ATHENS (continued):
Can We Be Good Without God?: On the political meaning of Christianity
(Glenn Tinder, December 1989, Atlantic Monthly)
We are so used to thinking of spirituality as withdrawal from the world and human affairs that it is hard to think of it as political. Spirituality is personal and private, we assume, while politics is public. But such a dichotomy drastically diminishes spirituality construing it as a relationship to God without implications for one's relationship to the surrounding world. The God of Christian faith (I shall focus on Christianity although the God of the New Testament is also the God of the Old Testament) created the world and is deeply engaged in the affairs of the world. The notion that we can be related to God and not to the world--that we can practice a spirituality that is not political--is in conflict with the Christian understanding of God.
And if spirituality is properly political, the converse also is true, however distant it may be from prevailing assumptions: politics is properly spiritual. The spirituality of politics was affirmed by Plato at the very beginnings of Western political philosophy and was a commonplace of medieval political thought. Only in modern times has it come to be taken for granted that politics is entirely secular. The inevitable result is the demoralization of politics. Politics loses its moral structure and purpose, and turns into an affair of group interest and personal ambition. Government comes to the aid of only the well organized and influential, and it is limited only where it is checked by countervailing forces. Politics ceases to be understood as a pre-eminently human activity and is left to those who find it profitable, pleasurable, or in some other way useful to themselves. Political action thus comes to be carried out purely for the sake of power and privilege.
It will be my purpose in this essay to try to connect the severed realms of the spiritual and the political. In view of the fervent secularism of many Americans today, some will assume this to be the opening salvo of a fundamentalist attack on "pluralism." Ironically, as I will argue, many of the undoubted virtues of pluralism--respect for the individual and a belief in the essential equality of all human beings, to cite just two--have strong roots in the union of the spiritual and the political achieved in the vision of Christianity. The question that secularists have to answer is whether these values can survive without these particular roots. In short, can we be good without God? Can we affirm the dignity and equality of individual persons--values we ordinarily regard as secular--without giving them transcendental backing?
This essay relates back to a couple of discussions we were having earlier in the week, about the atheist Boy Scout
, Father Ernest Fortin
, the Clash of Civilizations
, and "freeloading atheism" generally. It's long, but very good.
Posted by Orrin Judd at November 2, 2002 11:35 AM
And for the second time in a week, you have
referenced someone (the other was a rabbi)
who claims that the Bible stands for "equality."
Do you guys know what's in there? What
about the chosen people? Who chose them?
God created Man in His image, thus we all start with equal dignity.
Harry: God chose the Jews. Read the Bible and you'll discern that this role wasn't exactly a primrose path of ease. In fact, I'm not sure if I'd want to be a Jew even if I could become one.
The Bible is unique among religious and secular law in the ancient world in that it applies the same ethical law to all persons, irrespective of rank or role. There is no aristocracy in the Bible. So, Harry, yes, the Bible stands for equality -- equality of rights, equality under the law.
This doesn't mean that everyone is treated identically by God, any more than it means that you, Harry, have to treat every other person identically, your wife no differently than a stranger.
Yeah, but my wife chose me. With a Canaanite
and god, the position is reversed.
As Lileks said of the OT, "whole lot of
smiting goin' on."
Some of the concepts in the bible were a
real advance on previous practice. When the
Christians got to Hawaii, they were, after
some trouble, able to persuade the Hawaiians
to adopt their first laws -- 5 of the 10
Including the Fifth, although the Hawaiians
were utterly puzzled by this.
But to find equality in the OT is absurd. Even
in the NT, where it does appear, it's a highly
And practice was notably short of even that.
I think you're confusing moral equality and socioeconomic equality. The Commandments apply equally to the King and the serf, though the Bible suggests that we their differing social status is ok.
The OT and NT are full of socio economically leveling prescriptions. About a third of the OT concerns a bunch of nomads roaming around the periferies of the Fertile Crescent or getting snookered into serfdom in Egypt for a few centuries. Unquestionably Abraham was wealthier than his shepherds, but from our viewpoint there wasn't much of a quality difference in their lives. The rest of the OT has various injunctions about fair interest rates, land ownership and rent policies, judicial regulations, and requirements for charity to the poor. Deuteronomy 17 (esp 17:20) has specific injunctions about how the government is to be established, and it does not presume that an executive function is a necessary part of that government.
The NT largely consists of Jesus's rather egalitarian teachings. The NT's thrust that the whole of the law can be summed up in "love thy God with all thy heart and ... love thy neighbor as thyself" speaks towards either a dismissal of earthly gain or towards an active charity which precludes disproportionate economic outcomes.
All these features of what a "chosen people" are supposed to do are then contrasted in both NT and OT to what actually happened. Moses's prophesy in Deut 28 is fully predictive of what obedience or disobedience to God's Law entails, as well as the economic and political implications of those.
The issue of the Canaanites, as well as Amelekites, Amorites, Perruzzites, et al often reminds one of the American relation with the Indians, or the English subjugation of the Welsh, Irish, and Scots. There seems not a jot of justice in Joshua's, Gideon's, Saul's, or David's instructions to destroy whole nations and all their assets. But this is taken from the viewpoint of interpretation of events millenia old, and ignores the fact that if the shoe was on the other foot, the Canaanites et al would have done exactly the same to the Jews. See
What this ethnic conflict teaches us about the issues inherent between good and evil is that there is no compromise position, as Solomon and his degenerate successors found out.
Judaism was and is not a universalizing creed,
so talk of equality (in land tenure, forsooth!)
Christianity is universalizing and considerably
more egalitarian than Judaism. Anybody is
welcome to become a Christian.
Islam is universalizing and anybody is obliged
to become a Muslim or have his head chopped
Of the three, Christianity comes closest in
intent to notions of individual worth, human
dignity and freedom. In practice, not so hot.
Priests, for example, are more equal than the
rest of us, and if you don't believe me, ask
Harry: If you actually expect people to respond to you when you call them "inane", good luck. Not only was your post insulting, but it lacked coherent specificity.