RESPONDblog: Terror and the Horns of a Dilemma

blog

We live in a post 9-11 world.

Religiously fuelled terrorism is a tragic staple on our news feeds. At a time where people fly planes into skyscrapers, randomly shoot holiday makers at the beach and drive trucks into crowded Christmas markets, man’s inhumanity to man seems to be in no risk of letting up.

What’s fascinating to me is the way many terrorists justify their horrific acts by appealing to God and their religious outlook. For example, “Allah told me to do it.”[1] And I’m sure this line of reasoning isn’t solely limited to Islamic terrorism.

But I feel I need to point something out here.

While this is a common radicalised religious view (referred to theistic voluntarism) …it is not and has never been the Bible’s view of God as properly understood. And despite the Christian church’s failures in living up to it over the centuries…it is not the way ethics is supposed to work in the world.

God is good. It’s his nature. Ontologically speaking, it’s his being. And his offer to all of us – is that with his help, we can be restored to the goodness that he intended for us from the beginning.

“God, God, a God of mercy and grace, endlessly patient—so much love, so deeply true—loyal in love for a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity, rebellion, and sin.”[2]

Now at this point…my philosopher friends may nod their heads…and raise their hands. Because one of the founding fathers of modern philosophy, Plato, posed an interesting dilemma that relates to this very issue. It’s become known as Euthyphro’s Dilemma.

There are two horns of this dilemma.

First – is something good because God commands it?

If I say yes…then I’m faced with the possibility of terrorist morality. “God told me to crash the plane – there’s a greater good being done here thru terror – I must obey.” And even though the average person recoils in horror at this…the terrorist feels morally justified. But that wouldn’t make God very good tho…would it? Not by our intuitive sense of right and wrong.

If I say no…then I have another problem. God no longer becomes the source of all moral goodness. And in that case…he ceases to be God. He has no moral basis with which to command anything of me. He “promptly disappears in a puff of logic.”[3]

 

What about the second horn? It goes like this.

Second – does God command something because it is good?

If I say yes…then again, something is already good before God does it. Goodness and morality must exist separately from God. God is expected to obey these moral laws like us. He’s not God any more. He’s irrelevant. Puff of logic again!

If I say no…then this opens the door again to God commanding us to do morally questionable actions.

 

If this mind bender sounds irrelevant…I understand…but actually it isn’t irrelevant. Because it challenges us to answer the question – “What is good, and where does good come from?” If there is no God after all…then good is simply a person’s point of view. And if that’s the case then we’re in BIG trouble.

Relativism might be the law of the jungle ethics for many people…but that does not make it right and good. Christianity demonstrates that this is not how ethics is supposed to work at all.

The point that the Bible makes about God is that he is good…it is his being…it is who he is.

And so the Christian perspective doesn’t respond to Euthyphro’s Dilemma. Instead the Christian understanding of God demands that we reject it altogether. On what grounds, do we reject it?

 

First – is something good BECAUSE GOD COMMANDS IT?

Scott Smith draws a distinction between two forms of goodness. Metaphysical goodness and moral goodness[4]. God is revealed to be metaphysically good. He is transcendent…he just is good. Yet people are different. We are moral beings. There is the potential within us of moral goodness. But there is also the potential that we choose actions which are the very opposite to moral goodness.

Another way to put it – is like this. People’s behaviour is arbitrary. If I have a bad day at work, I’m much more likely to snap at my family and say something I regret afterwards. Yet God’s not like that. He’s good…all the time. People are therefore essentially…ontologically (relating to our being) different to God.

How are we different? Well there’s always a question over my goodness. And for that reason, we have an “ought” hanging over us. There is a way we “ought” to behave and it is good. Yet no such “ought” exists for God. Because there is no question over how he will behave. He is predictable and reliable. God is good – all the time.

Another way to put it is like this. God doesn’t make commands for his benefit. He doesn’t choose whether to obey them or not. We do. And there’s no guarantee we will. But the command itself – by the nature of its existence – performs a governing function for us. It works to try to keep us on the straight and narrow path that God is always on anyway.

So – is something good BECAUSE GOD COMMANDS IT? The question doesn’t work for the Christian understanding of God.

“’God does not, say, keep promises because he ought to (which would imply some external moral standard). Rather, the theist claims that God will keep promises,’ since it is impossible for God not to act morally.”[5]

God simply is goodness. Whatever people choose to say or do.

 

Now the second horn – does God command it BECAUSE IT IS GOOD?

Again, the question doesn’t make sense. Because if God is good, if his nature embodies goodness in a complete way, then there is no risk of arbitrary behaviour and no goodness beyond Him.

Someone might say, “Hang on. I didn’t learn to be polite and act in a good and proper way because God taught me.” Absolutely right. It was probably your mother or a significant adult in your life. But just because there are many ways that we learn how to act in good and proper ways does not mean that there is no God underpinning it after all. Both things are true. Your mum’s moral goodness can ultimately be traced back to the very heart of God. It’s impossible for him to act any differently.

Someone else might say, “God’s redundant. I have a conscience, after all. I have a sense of right and wrong. I don’t need him telling me what to do.” Speaking personally – I respectfully disagree. If only that were true! I have many times seared my own conscience thru my own thoughtlessness and selfishness. And besides, people often disagree over the right thing to do and say. We need an objective standard and his gentle reminder.

 

Euthyphro’s Dilemma might have been relevant as Plato was musing on mankind’s interactions with the fictional, created Greek gods. But it has no place in relation to the God who is revealed through the Bible.

When a religiously motivated person hurts someone else under the banner of “the end justifies the means”, they are on their own. They do not have God in their corner at all. It’s an appalling fantasy that must be rejected…and strongly challenged.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/mar/15/canada-stabbings-allah-police.

[2] Exodus 34:6-7, The Message.

[3] Douglas Adams, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.

[4] R. Scott Smith, In Search of Moral Knowledge: Overcoming the Fact-Value Dichotomy, IVP Academic 2014, p. 32.

[5] R. Scott Smith, p. 34.

Advertisements

RESPONDblogs: It Hurts Because Each Of Them Matter So Much

washed_ashore2

The heart rending pictures of 3 year old Aylan Kurdi, washed ashore this week on a Turkish beach, have hit us hard. It is almost like the death of that little boy has brought the plight of the thousands of European migrants into sharp focus. Enough – something must be done about this!

 

Why? Why must something be done to help these suffering people? It hardly needs to be said. We intuitively sense that what is happening is wrong. It is wrong that these poor people should be hounded from their homes and native countries by violent Islamic fanatics, war and poverty. It is wrong that they are being forced to make a treacherous journey by land and sea. It is wrong…and unacceptable that hundreds of people are drowning in the Mediterranean.

 

No more.

 

There has been such an impact, that even the hearts of the politicians have been touched. David Cameron has honestly spoken out and said that Britain will do its moral duty on behalf of these suffering people. Thank goodness for that!

 

Why? Why am I relieved, why is the British Prime Minister doing an about turn on policy at the sight of little Aylan on the beach? Sure – he feels the pressure of public opinion. By what is causing that pressure? Why do so many cry – no more?

 

It’s because human beings are of incalculable value. When it comes to the safety of people, the stakes are high! Sure – saving endangered animals is an important moral issue for us. We feel it is our duty to steward the beautiful nature that we enjoy on our planet. But when it comes to protecting people – there seems to be a greater moral imperative at play. Our reaction to the suffering of human beings – somehow defines us AS human beings. We sense that…were we to continue to look away and ignore their plight…we ourselves would somehow be diminished as people.

 

Why is that? The typical atheistic worldview is scratching its head there. Life is all about survival of the fittest for so many people. If you don’t make the cut…then I’m sorry…but “them’s the breaks”. And yet…even for the Darwinist…the intuitive uncomfortable feeling continues. Why do we just know that the value of human beings is a universal law, a universal constant that presses in on us however much we choose to ignore it.

 

It’s because human beings have dignity, a dignity that is not manufactured or earned or achieved by us. The newest baby has it….so does the oldest grandparent. Our dignity is there because each human being carries around inside of them the image of God. Our dignity is God given. We are made with his imprint inside of us.

 

Is there evidence for this…beyond just an intuitive feeling that some of us agree with and others ignore? Yes – I believe there is. Consider this for a moment. There are all sorts of people inhabiting our planet. People that I personally might relate to well, others that would be very different from me. Some will be smarter than me…others not so much. Lots of people will be better looking than me! Some people are athletic, others of us are couch potatoes. Some are active social reformers, others are active social takers. Yet we all have something in common. We are all different in so many ways – but despite our differences, we are all equal. We share in our human dignity.

The equality of people and the rights of the individual have driven so many movements in our world. Dr King’s African American Civil Rights movement, the work of feminists who seek to rightly challenge engrained chauvinism in our culture…every Gay Pride March calls out for human equality whatever the sexual orientation…the list of movements underpinned by human equality goes on. Why does this argument work? Why is there truth in every human call for equal rights? Because even though we are so different from each other…we actually share a crucial common component to our humanity. We are equal…we are each given dignity by the God who created us.

 

What does that dignity point to?

Well, imagine for a moment that the worst happens – your house goes up in flames. And as you are shepherding your family out of the front door…your eye is caught be two items in the hall way. On the side table there lies a paper pad with old, crossed out telephone messages on it. And on the wall beside the door is a painting your Grandfather did years ago that has been in the family for years. If you were to save one of those two items…which one would it be? I’m guessing that most of us would choose the painting. Why? Because we assess the value of the painting as higher than the value of the paper pad. The painting and the pad are unequal in value. The painting has more value than the pad. So much so that, were someone to choose the pad over the painting, we could be justified in saying to them…why on earth did you do that?! That sounds really dumb…because the painting is worth more.

 

Here’s my point. People are different. Yet I don’t know anyone who would admit that some people are more valuable than others. Unlike the painting and the pad – choose two human beings at random from our world’s 7 billion population…and their value will be the same.  God has clothed us in that dignity.

 

“When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers— the moon and the stars you set in place— what are mere mortals that you should think about them, human beings that you should care for them? Yet you made them only a little lower than God and crowned them with glory and honor.” Psalm 8:3-5, NLT

 

Bear in mind that merit is a different thing from value. I might do no studying for a test and get an F, while you might prepare well for the test and achieve an A. Rightly so…you merit an A and I merit an F on that paper. Our level of merit is different. But if someone walks into the exam hall with a machine gun and starts shooting…moral outrage is levelled at this act. Because you and I share a common level of value…we have equal rights to be permitted to live our lives safely, even if we merit different final marks on our exam papers.

 

Philosopher J P Moreland comments that atheist lawyer Joel Fineberg, in his book Social Philosophy, argues for the moral imperative of human equality. Yet he cannot justify it. He can’t explain it[1]. How do we justify human rights? If we do not have something like the image of God baked into each and every one of us….it’s hard. So hard that many people will just stop there and say…human dignity is just the way it is…it’s the right thing to do. Well I am going further…and I agree with Fineberg. Equality rests on our common design component…we incorporate the image of God inside of us. That’s why.

 

So what?

 

Well – because we are all equal in our God given value,  that makes it morally wrong to sit back and watch children being drowned in the Med as they try to escape the horrors of ISIS in Syria. I can’t defend a decision just to sit back and watch that. I wouldn’t even try! NO – these people are as immensely valuable as I am. So I am morally obligated to do something to help. Hey – I agree with David Cameron here. Human beings deserve equal rights. However privileged…however under privileged. However rich and however poor. Whether they are comfortable in their home…or whether they are migrating their way through Europe.

 

So what can we do to help?

 

My church, Kingfisher, is planning a project to do just that. More details to come soon!

 

 

[1] J P Moreland, Arguments For the Existence of God, Biola Christian Apologetics Program, Biola University.