Saturday, July 14, 2012

Jesus' Accidental Moral Teachings


I'm preparing a talk for an upcoming Skepticamp on being morally skeptical of the Biblical character Jesus as a good moral teacher and I'm trying to sort out a few issues before doing so.  This post is mostly about just one of those topics.  Did Jesus really recommend self mutilation in order to inhibit sin?


The vast majority of Christians have decided that Jesus isn't being literal in Matthew 5:29 when he says it is better to pluck out an eye or cut off an arm if it happens to be the linchpin to your sin leading you to hell (aside from some mentally ill people and monks who choose to castrate themselves), but the problem is it makes complete sense in light of Jesus' other teachings on investing completely in heaven and avoiding eternal damnation.  Is this news story about a teen who decides to sacrifice his right arm to an alligator "non-literal" because obviously no one would ever expect you to do such a thing?  Or does it make perfect sense in that context to save your life?

Obviously being killed by an alligator is infinitely worse than spending an eternity in hell. [/sarcasm]

A common excuse amongst Christians is that "obviously" it really isn't the body part that's the problem.  It's your desires.  True, but that doesn't mean your desire-scape doesn't change if you change your physical circumstances.  If there are not Doritos in the house, I won't eat any and I'll be too lazy to go get them from the store.  However if we have them already, I will eat them.  Pretty simple.  Physical changes impact my desires.  And there's no reason body parts are magically exempt from that type of equation.  Just think if Jesus spoke out about biting your nails!  Since Jesus made lust a thought crime you could get rid of your porn (in modern times anyway), but you can always get more which would always be a liability in Jesus' moral paradigm.  You can't always get more eyes if you pluck them out instead which would be a permanent solution to an addiction.  There's a reason religious people have castrated themselves rather than say, merely trying to think of something else other than sex.  

One may be encouraged by verses like Matthew 5:29 to try everything else first before going so extreme, but Jesus' moral paradigm would seem to dictate that, like the teen and the alligator, it can be better to rip off a limb of yours rather than suffer something even more horrible.  The logic is flawless.  And Jesus seems to expect prompt action about everything else, so he probably doesn't appreciate beating around the bush about it.  He says, "Go and sin no more," not, "just try harder next time and keep at it."  To my knowledge, you'll never find Jesus promoting a "works in progress" morality.  He seems to expect you to just stop sinning and be able to attain perfection (albeit with god magic) whether that is a reality based expectation or not.

Another common excuse is that other teachings in the Bible seem to be against damaging your body.  Even Old Testament prescriptions against self mutilation are not blanket statements of principle.  They are actually about not participating in the superstitions of their neighbors.  Castration and circumcision are self mutilation that obviously the Bible condones so mutilating your "holy temple" for a good cause (or rather fixing it up) is just fine with Jesus.

I noticed someone else online said that Jesus couldn't have meant to be taken seriously because merely plucking out your right eye or cutting off your right arm would still allow you to do the same sin with your left body parts.  But is this true?  People are often right eye and hand dominated.  Say you have a tendency to get in fights and murder people with a knife and you wouldn't be able to do the same thing without your good hand.  You might not be able to shoot a bow and arrow either if you have a particular eye dominance.  People aren't generally so ambidextrous so Jesus could be completely serious here.

Admittedly this entire issue may be a case of inadvertent moral coherence.  I'm reminded of what the Archmage in the cartoon Gargoyles sarcastically exclaimed when he realized he could not enter Avalon with his book of magic spells.  He said, "You mean we went to all that trouble to get the Grimorum and now I can't even take it in with me? What am I supposed to do? EAT IT? "  And his future self tells him, "You *are* learning!"  Obviously the Archmage didn't mean for his statement about eating a book to be taken literally, and yet it made perfect sense in the Gargoyles universe.   And he did eat the book.

Another example of accidental moral coherence of a different sort in the Bible is the evil of evangelism.  I do not think Jesus meant to teach that evangelism would be morally wrong, but it is difficult to come to a different conclusion based on his worldview.  Obviously Christians are commanded to evangelize (Matthew 28:19), but they are also commanded to love their neighbor (Matthew 22:39) and Paul even says in Romans 13:10 this means to do no harm to your neighbor.  Since Jesus tells us in Matthew 7:14 that most people will end up in hell, and he tells us that people will be punished less or even be innocent if they are ignorant and have excuses for not knowing any better (John 15:22), it logically follows that spreading the good news will ultimately hurt more people than it helps.  So why would you do it?  Any Christian that notices that the overwhelming majority of people they talk to about Jesus reject their message would have to be worried about this.  I know I was when I was as a Christian.  I know my Christian mother has expressed the same misgivings because the argument logically follows from what Jesus presents, but she remains a Christian nonetheless.  Of course the typical Christian response to this comes from the mouth of the murderer Cain: "Am I my brother's keeper?"  If you've been commanded to love your neighbor then yes, yes, you are.  They would still be responsible for what they do, but you are responsible for what you do or don't do.  Knowingly doing more harm than good in the world has to be evil.


So I'm thinking that it's a lose, lose situation for Jesus in my evaluation since I can dock him points in either event.  If he meant that you should chop off your limbs, then pretty much everyone is going to see a problem with that extremism.  And, if he didn't mean it, he'd have to have to explain why taking the hyperbole seriously just so happens to fit so perfectly in his worldview.

Any thoughts?


The Nerd said...

AIGBusted said...

One other thing you might want to bring up is that Jesus advocates, as Nietzche put it, a slave morality. That is to say that he advocates a morality that seems geared to benefit the weak. Yet sometimes pity only serves to preserve what is right for destruction (as Nietzche put it). Regardless of what position you take, it is worth discussing the pro's and cons of Jesus' morality of the weak and Nietzche's morality of the strong, and whether we ought to advocate something in the middle, in which case the Christian position is wrong.

Ben Schuldt said...

If a slave morality benefits the weak, does a master morality benefit the strong? And you're saying an equalitarian morality would be the likely correct middle position.

Is the rationale for this where Jesus continually refers to the "last shall be first"?