Saturday, August 23, 2014

God as a Moral Exemplar in LDS Theology

A year or two ago, I read “The God Who Weeps” by Terryl and Fiona Givens, which I enjoyed. Near the beginning of the book, the Givens’ talk a bit about the possible natures of God or Gods. One point that they made that stuck with me (you will have to forgive me for paraphrasing rather than quoting here; I can’t find my wife’s copy of the book) was that there are several possibilities for God(s). They could exist or not, and they could be just beings or not. They gave a quick example of an Aztec God who required periodic bloody human sacrifices as an unjust God and state that we would be morally justified in not worshiping such a being. Then they move on to other topics.

I was surprised that they didn't stop and attempt any discussion of the morality of the God of Abraham at that point. That is where my number one concern with the religion I grew up with is centered. But before I get started, let me just say that when I imagine a just and loving God, I imagine a God who is comfortable with me examining his morality, or really the morality that is being attributed to him by living men or dead ones in scripture. I want to examine some issues that I have with the morality of God as recorded in scripture. I have many other concerns with the morality of God, but I will limit this post to scripture today:

Old Testament:

1. God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son. I can’t imagine that a just God would want his followers to be ready and willing to kill others arbitrarily with no explanation as to why.
He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Mori′ah, and offer him there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” (Genesis 22:2)
 2. Lot, the only righteous man in Sodom, offers his daughters up to a mob to be raped.
Behold, I have two daughters who have not known man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please… (Genesis 19:8)
3. Scriptural permission to stone rebellious children.
If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son…then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city…then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones… (Deuteronomy 21:18-21)
4. God sends bears to kill children who tease a prophet for being bald.
…some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, “Go up, you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead!” And he turned around, and when he saw them, he cursed them in the name of the Lord. And two she-bears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the boys. (2 Kings 2:23-24)
5. A man attempts to keep the Ark of the Covenant from falling on the ground and is struck dead by God.
…Uzzah put out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen stumbled. 7 And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah; and God smote him there because he put forth his hand to the ark; and he died there beside the ark of God. (2 Sam 6:6-7)
6. The killing of firstborns, which presumably would have included many innocent children, as one of the plagues of Egypt.
At midnight the Lord smote all the first-born in the land of Egypt, from the first-born of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the first-born of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the first-born of the cattle. (Exodus 12:29)
7. Slavery is endorsed numerous times in the book, but never is it prohibited. If God is superior to humans morally and is capable of communicating effectively with humans, then I can't understand his failure to articulate the simple fact that slavery is morally wrong in some place in scripture. More disappointing is the fact that he does the opposite and specifically endorses it many times in the Old Testament and even a couple of times in the New Testament. I agree with Robert Ingersoll who said, “If you find slavery upheld in a book said to have been written by God, what would you expect to find in a book inspired by the devil?” Here are just a couple of the many examples of the endorsement of slavery in the Old Testament:
As for your male and female slaves whom you may have: you may buy male and female slaves from among the nations that are round about you. You may also buy from among the strangers who sojourn with you and their families that are with you, who have been born in your land; and they may be your property. You may bequeath them to your sons after you, to inherit as a possession for ever; you may make slaves of them, but over your brethren the people of Israel you shall not rule, one over another, with harshness. (Leviticus 25:44-46)
When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be punished. But if the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be punished; for the slave is his money. (Exodus 21:20-21)
 8. God commands the genocide of the Canaanite people, which includes the cold-blooded killing of infants and toddlers. Here are just a few examples:
And we captured all his cities at that time and utterly destroyed every city, men, women, and children; we left none remaining; (Deuteronomy 2:34)
And we utterly destroyed them, as we did to Sihon the king of Heshbon, destroying every city, men, women, and children. (Deuteronomy 3:6) 
But in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Per′izzites, the Hivites and the Jeb′usites, as the Lord your God has commanded; (Deuteronomy 20:16-17) 
9. In one battle, virgin females are spared to be wedded to Israelites. It is hard to imagine that these women would be eager to wed a people who just murdered their families, so I have to imagine that this was also an endorsement of forced marriages and probably forced sexual encounters. I do admit that the text doesn't explicitly say this but I find it extremely hard to imagine that these women would be eager to wed a people who just killed everyone they know. 
...and commanded them, “Go and smite the inhabitants of Ja′besh-gil′ead with the edge of the sword; also the women and the little ones. This is what you shall do; every male and every woman that has lain with a male you shall utterly destroy.” And they found among the inhabitants of Ja′besh-gil′ead four hundred young virgins who had not known man by lying with him; and they brought them to the camp at Shiloh, which is in the land of Canaan...and they gave them the women whom they had saved alive of the women of Ja′besh-gil′ead; but they did not suffice for them. (Judges 21:10-14)
 New Testament:

1. Paul states that women should not speak in church.
the women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate.... (1 Corinthians 14:34)
 2. Paul endorses slavery. Slavery isn't just in the Old Testament as part of an older law that was fulfilled and is now gone, not that that would make it okay.  This is why abolitionist Christians had such a hard time making a Biblical case against slavery in the 19th century.
Slaves, be obedient to those who are your earthly masters, with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as to Christ; (Ephesians 6:5) 
Let all who are under the yoke of slavery regard their masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be defamed. Those who have believing masters must not be disrespectful on the ground that they are brethren; rather they must serve all the better since those who benefit by their service are believers and beloved. (1 Timothy 6:1-2) 
3. Jesus forbids divorce except in cases of sexual infidelity. This doesn't feel right to me. For example, I don't think that someone who divorces to escape an abusive spouse has committed any sin.
And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery. (Matthew 19:9)
 4. Jesus endorses killing those who oppose him in the parable of the talents.
But as for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slay them before me. (Luke 19:27)
Book of Mormon:

1. Decapitation of Laban. The issue I have with this is complex. Before I get into it, let me just state my opinion that if God is all-powerful and just and omniscient, I have to assume that everything he does is the best possible thing that he could have done. Okay, on to the issue: The prophet Nephi beheads a man at the command of God. God could have stopped the man’s heart or given him a brain tumor that would kill him at that exact moment, but he didn't. Think about that for a second, this implies that God wanted Nephi to have the experience of hacking a man’s head of with a sword. God thought that would be a good experience for Nephi, and that Nephi would be made a better person by doing that. I find that extremely difficult to imagine.
Therefore I did obey the voice of the Spirit, and took Laban by the hair of the head, and I smote off his head with his own sword. (1 Nephi 4:18)
2. God makes a people black so that they won’t be appealing to the white people.
And he had caused the cursing to come upon them…that they had become like unto a flint; wherefore, as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them. (2 Nephi 5:21)
3. Chastity/virtue is forcibly taken. I don’t believe that chastity or virtue can be forcibly taken. I think that is a harmful message to send to a rape victim.
…many of the daughters of the Lamanites have they taken prisoners; and after depriving them of that which was most dear and precious above all things, which is chastity and virtue— (Moroni 9:9)
4. Divorce again. This is almost a verbatim quote from a verse in the KJV New Testament. I have seen LDS theologians deal with the Bible verse by saying that the word ‘divorce’ doesn't mean someone who was legally divorced but someone who set their wife aside without granting them a legal divorce. This works within the LDS paradigm because Mormons believe in the Bible as far as it is translated correctly, or in other words they don’t consider it to be word-for-word perfect. If something from the Bible doesn't fit into LDS theology it can be ignored, because it may not be translated correctly. This cannot be done with the Book of Mormon as it was written for our day and was translated directly through the power of God and is “…the most correct of any book on earth…” as described by Joseph Smith. So one cannot simply state that ‘divorce’ means anything other than what it says without explaining why. I personally believe that morally all a man and woman need to do to get divorced is to recognize that they have a bad relationship and that there is little or no chance of repairing it. No other moral justification is needed.
Verily, verily, I say unto you, that whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery; and whoso shall marry her who is divorced committeth adultery. (3 Nephi 12:32)
5. Lack of clear condemnation of slavery.

Doctrine and Covenants:

1. Lack of clear condemnation of slavery.

You may notice that I added something that both the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants lack. That is because we are told that the Book of Mormon was written for our day, and so obviously was the Doctrine and Covenants. In the day that they first appeared, slavery was a big issue. In fact, in 1852 slavery was a big issue in Utah as the territory was allowed by the federal government to decide if they would legalize it there (the compromise of 1850). Brigham Young addressed the territorial legislature on January 23, 1852 and stated “…we must believe in slavery” and “I am a firm believer in slavery.” On February 4, 1852 the legislature, which was mostly made up of LDS church leaders, legalized slavery in Utah.

In my mind, this was a monumental moral failure that the God of Abraham didn't prevent, as was all slavery throughout human history. Since God is supposed to be perfect and presumably he is also capable of communicating effectively with humans, he must have had some reason that he wanted this to happen. I mean all he had to do to prevent slavery in Utah was replace one of the “And it came to pass[es]…”in the Book of Mormon (a meaningless phrase) with “BTW folks, slavery is immoral.” I can’t fathom what the reason for him not doing this could be. It makes no moral sense to me.

Thomas Paine sums up my feelings concerning the troubling parts of the Bible perfectly: 
The origin of every nation is buried in fabulous tradition, and that of the Jews is as much to be suspected as any other. To charge the commission of acts upon the Almighty, which, in their own nature, and by every rule of moral justice, are crimes, as all assassination is, and more especially the assassination of infants, is matter of serious concern. The Bible tells us, that those assassinations were done by the express command of God. To believe, therefore, the Bible to be true, we must unbelieve all our belief in the moral justice of God; for wherein could crying or smiling infants offend? And to read the Bible without horror, we must undo everything that is tender, sympathizing, and benevolent in the heart of man. Speaking for myself, if I had no other evidence that the Bible is fabulous than the sacrifice I must make to believe it to be true, that alone would be sufficient to determine my choice. –The Age of Reason
In closing, I just want to state here that I’m not judging those who believe in the God of Abraham. There are lots of wonderful people who do; I just think it should be understandable to others that I would have difficulty believing this myself. I don’t understand the morality of the God of Abraham and I don’t know that I ever will. I’m pretty comfortable saying that a lot of these things God did or commanded are wrong. If I somehow find myself facing the God of Abraham in the next life, I will feel comfortable expressing my moral confusion to him. If he is just, he will understand.

Note: All quotes are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible.

1 comment:

  1. The god described in the Old Testament should not be worshipped. I have decided I must worship a God of Truth and Love. I'm currently working on reconciling this with a belief in Jesus.