JD WALTERS SAID:
I'm not so concerned about defending Sparks himself, but Jonah's comment struck me the wrong way. Granted that revulsion at God's commanding moral atrocities (ok, let me qualify: actions that in any other context we would call atrocities) is not sufficient grounds for apostasy, at the very least I think we should recognize the apparent inconsistency between the moral values and judgments which the moral argument appeals to, and the actions of the Israelites as commanded by God in the OT.
i) That depends in part on which version of the moral argument you’re using.
a) In one version, we begin with the alleged phenomenon of cultural universals. Given the (alleged) existence transcultural moral norms, we then argue for the existence of God to ground and ratify these moral norms.
That version of the argument takes for granted certain paradigm-cases of social morality, or paradigm-cases of moral atrocities, and then uses these as an ethical and theological criterion.
b) But another version doesn’t begin at that level of specificity. It doesn’t begin with concrete instances of moral norms.
Rather, it takes a transcendental approach. It’s concerned with establishing the general possibility of moral absolutes. Apart from God’s existence, there is no objective basis for personal or social morality.
That version of the argument doesn’t ratify our particular moral sensibilities. It doesn’t abstract from the specific to the general.
c) It is, of course, possible to try and combine both the top-down and the bottom-up versions of the moral argument. That’s what Lewis tries to do in his popular and influential treatment. But these are separable arguments.
d) And there’s a certain circularity in the (a) version of the argument. On the one hand, you’re using certain examples as moral and theological criteria. On the other hand, apart from God, morality has no foundations. So these can’t really function as independent criteria.
ii) There’s no prima facie problem distinguishing between behavior which, all things being equal, is impermissible, and behavior which, all things considered, is permissible–even if it’s the same behavior.
Assuming that we have higher and lower moral obligations, then if and when these come into conflict, a higher obligation overrides a lower obligation. What is generally impermissible may well be permissible or even obligatory under special circumstances.
How can we point to the Nazi death camps as a paradigm case of horrific evil, and not recognize what God was commanding Israel to do as such?
That comparison takes for granted a fundamental analogy between the two events. But are they analogous?
It’s not as if the Biblical laws of warfare are arbitrary. The Bible gives a rationale for its laws of warfare. The problem is that many modern reader simply disapprove of the stated rationale.
i) Due to their impiety and immorality, the Canaanites forfeited the right to inhabit the land (e.g. Deut 9:5).
ii) If allowed to cohabit with the Israelites, they would corrupt the Israelites (e.g. Deut 4:3-4; 9:7-24).
iii) Holy war was a preemptive war of national defense. In the wilderness, on their march to the Promised Land, Israel had already been subject to attacks by Amalek, the king of Arad, Sihon and the Amorites, as well as the king of Og. Likewise, the faithful were persecuted under the regimes of Jezebel and Athaliah. So peaceful coexistence was not a live option.
iv) Apropos (iii), how do you deal with a hostile warrior culture? You can’t simply treat them as discrete individuals, for they have a national character, and they behave accordingly. For instance, little boys will grow up to be warriors.
v) At the same time, let’s not forget the paradigm case of Rahab.
I've read in some of your other posts that it is proper to express revulsion at some of what God commands, with the understanding that God intends and will bring about a greater good as a result. I think that's fair…The only legitimate response to what God commanded in the OT, I think, is deep revulsion combined with an 'and yet' trust that God meant to bring about some greater good. Somehow, in a sense we can't fully understand, those actions qualify as just.
i) Since God isn’t human, I don’t think he expects us to feel the same way he does about certain events involving our fellow man. That’s like expecting a cat to feel the same way about a dog that it feels about another cat.
ii) Different people can feel differently about the same event, yet all those feelings may be appropriate in their place. Suppose my son commits murder. I will feel differently about my son than the judge and jury, much less the family of the victim. All the interested parties will have different feelings about my son, and all those different feelings will be appropriate. I have a different relationship to the assailant than they do, and vice versa. They have a different relationship to the victim than I do, and vice versa.
iii) It is also important to distinguish between appropriate feelings and appropriate evaluations. At a purely emotional level, it’s appropriate for me to feel ambivalent about my murderous son. On the one hand, I should feel profound disapproval. On the other hand, I’m emotionally invested in him.
But at an intellectual level, I should also acknowledge that his punishment is just. He deserves to be executed for his heinous crime.
iv) Obviously, too, we ought to make allowance for the reaction of individuals who are sick or grieving. Job is a classic example. People in that condition may make intemperate statements. Grief and illness clouds their judgment. But that’s part of being human.
v) You and I may wince at some of these injunctions, but suppose we were reading this text through the eyes of a warrior culture like the Assyrians, Aztecs, Cossacks, Huns, jihadis, Iroquois, Kshatriyas, Mongols, Plains Indians, Samurai, Vikings, or Zulus (to name a few). Would they feel revulsion?
Likewise, many readers who find these Biblical injunctions offensive also defend the right of parents to kill their children (abortion, infanticide) and euthanize their elderly parents. Some of them also support antinatalism, which is global genocide. We also have street gangs who shoot rival members without batting an eyelash. Not to mention textbooks atrocities like the Holocaust, Killing Fields, Bataan Death March, Cultural Revolution, Nanking Massacre, Stalinist purges, Rwandan Genocide, &c.
So what makes you and me different from them? Do you and I have different innate moral intuitions than they do? Does it owe something to different social conditioning? As well as the Christian subculture to which we both belong?
I don’t say this to promote radical chic cultural relativism. If, however, I didn’t already believe in God, then I’d have reason to be quite sceptical of about my sense of “revulsion.” Even if I couldn’t help feeling that way, I’d chalk it up to natural selection and social conditioning.
I think it’s good that we feel compassion. That’s a virtue. But it’s not something I take for granted. That’s not a cultural universal. If anything, it represents a form of cultural exceptionalism. And apart from Christian ethics, it can’t be justified.
But this conclusion can only be reached with the awareness that, by all appearances, these actions are contrary to the moral commands that God intends human beings to live by.
I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean. Since the Biblical laws of war comprise a subset of the moral commands that God issued, then, by all appearance, these actions are not contrary to God’s law.
At most you could try to say that there’s an apparent tension between one set of laws and another. (Not that I see it that way.)