That Settles It, I Believe It, God Said It: Unraveling Divine Command Theory
Recently, I attended a weekly discussion group at my church in which we watched and discussed Laura Bates’s TED talk on #EverydaySexism. As we discussed the social and cultural issues surrounding sexism and misogyny, my pastor asked a question that seemed to be quite challenging for everyone in the room: “Why is this a theological issue?”
For the most part, everyone seemed appalled by the rampant sexism in our culture. We expressed moral indignation when we heard about some of the obnoxious things men routinely say to and about women. We shook our heads and tsk-tsk-tsk-ed when we heard about the disparity in representation of men and women within institutions such as government, business, the arts, the media, and Hollywood. As people with a strong orientation toward social justice, we had a lot to say about these things.
But when my pastor brought God into the mix, a sudden blanket of silence fell over the room. It’s like we had forgotten that we are a church, and this question transported us jarringly back into reality. None of said anything, but we all felt it—the weight of trying to wrestle with the patriarchal legacy of our own tradition. Because here’s the truth: we hold as our sacred text one of the most sexist works of literature ever created.
The Myth of Moral Relativism
Here’s what we do in the more “progressive,” mainline churches. We witness an injustice and get riled up about it. Then, we realize that the Bible, at best, ignores the problem and, at worst, divinely sanctions it. So, we do some research and find scholars that will tell us that the texts we’re reading actually mean something different than we think they do.
Or, we shrug off the texts as being irrelevant, because they (unlike the ones we cling to) were simply part of the culture at the time. But whatever we do, we bend over backwards to try to make the Bible fit with our moral convictions. We don’t want to betray our conscience, but we also don’t want to betray our tradition. So, hermeneutical gymnastics it is…
Fundamentalist churches are the opposite, though, aren’t they? They start with the Bible. They test cultural moral norms against the scriptures, and they take up the causes that the Bible supports. “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.”
While they stand firm on a solid foundation, they accuse us loosey-goosey liberals of moral relativism—because we are less inclined to proof-text our moral claims. At least they can point to something concrete when they’re attempting to articulate their moral ideas. But, for us, it’s just “anything goes,” isn’t it?
Well, this is the narrative we’ve been told. But, I would attest, it cannot be further from the truth…
First, really? “Progressives” are “moral relativists?” Did you hear about the Women’s March following the viral spread of #metoo? What about Gay Pride parades? Black Lives Matter protests? Are you going to tell me that these people have an “anything goes” mindset—that they lack moral conviction? I don’t think so. They have a a strong sense of morality, Mr. Conservative, it just happens to be different than yours.
More to the point, there’s this idea that left-leaning Christians don’t use the Bible to support their views. Of course we do; we just use different passages. We quote Galatians 3:28: “there is neither Jew or Gentile, slave nor free, male and female.” We talk about all people being made in the image of God. We call for justice to roll on like a river. We discuss Jesus’s professed mission of setting the oppressed free and his decree of serving the “least of these.”
So, what do fundamentalist Christians do with passages such as these? The same thing we do with all the sexist passages; they find ways to reconcile them with the other passages that validate their worldview.
There is no “plain reading” of the Bible.
My pastor likes to talk about our “canon within a canon.” We might say that we believe in the Bible, but the fact of the matter is that the Bible contains a diverse work of literature that conveys a lot of often contradictory ideas. So, what we do is this: we find a particular part of the Bible that resonates with us and then we interpret the rest of the Bible through the lens of that passage. It’s our “canon within the canon.”
This reality of human cognition is how liberal Christians can explain away the sexist and homophobic passages in scripture. But it’s also how conservative Christians can rationalize their contempt for immigrants, or justify their obsession with guns in light of Jesus’s continual insistence on peace. This is how we perceive the world as moral beings: we have a perspective that we bring to the table, and we seek to reconcile everything else to that perspective. We all do this with everything. And Christians do it with the Bible.
“What Does the Bible Say?” Is the Wrong Question
If your gut reaction is to go to the Bible in order to resolve a moral quandary, then you’re doing it wrong. First of all, contrary to popular belief, the Bible is not an instruction manual—at least not all of it. It contains myth, history, biography, parable, and poetry written by different people at different times for different reasons. More importantly, though, the Bible condones (and sometimes commands) all sorts of morally repugnant behavior including slavery, rape, beating, stoning, and even outright genocide.
When we aren’t sure whether or not something is right, we shouldn’t ask ourselves, “what does the Bible say?” Instead, we should ask ourselves, “does it cause harm?” Or perhaps, “does it reduce harm?” Or even, “does it make the world a better place to live in?”
It’s really not that hard. It doesn’t take a spiritual instruction manual to arrive at basic human decency. We don’t refrain from murdering people because the Bible says, “thou shall not kill.” We refrain from murdering people, because we don’t want to live in the kind of world where people get killed for no reason.
If you’re not familiar with the term, “Divine Command Theory” refers to the idea that morality is established by divine decree. An act becomes wrong when God declares that it is wrong. If God tells you to murder your child, then it is immoral for you to refuse. Nothing is wrong in and of itself, but only if God says it is.
Here’s the problem. Christians are fond of saying, “God is good.” But how can we describe God as “good” if we don’t have some kind of concept of “goodness” prior to attributing that characteristic to God? If we know what “good” means before we describe God as “good,” then that means morality does not come from God; rather, it is imposed on God.
Building a Better God
So, if we aren’t using the Bible as our basis for morality, is it then absolutely worthless? Of course not. You can still be inspired and motivated toward good work through Biblical passages and stories. You just have to make up your mind what you think justice and virtue look like before you go to the Bible in search of texts that align with it.
Yes, in case you missed that, I am suggesting that you intentionally read the Bible with an explicit confirmation bias. Look for texts and stories that you can twist and turn to add meaning to your existing worldview and provide inspiration for continuing on in the fight for justice. Don’t read the Bible to tell you what to believe and how to live. Figure out for yourself what you believe and how you want to live. Then, go to the Bible to find encouragement as you move in that direction.
If you can’t find a way to make a passage fit within an independently moral framework, then ignore it and move. Yes, that’s right. Cherry pick all you want. Keep what’s worth keeping, and leave what’s rotten behind. You don’t have to eat the poisonous fruit just because it’s growing in the same orchard as the fruit that is giving you life.
I guess what I’m saying is that we need to build a better God. We need a God who is worthy of worship, not just one who demands it. For me, if God exists, then that God is going to be a God of the oppressed, a God of liberation, a God of social justice. Because that moral framework is what I believe gives life to the world. If God is real, that’s what God looks like to me.
Back to my pastor’s question, why is sexism and misogyny and rape culture and patriarchy a theological issue? Easy. Because it’s a social issue. To me, there is no difference. To me, the very definition of God—if God is real at all—is predicated on a movement toward a more just society.
I start with justice, and only then do I look for God. Because it simply makes no sense to me to claim that “God is just” unless I can first understand what “justice” means in order to attribute that characteristic to God
In the end, I’m all about turning the old fundamentalist standby on its head.
Out with, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.”
In with, “That settles it, I believe it, God said it.”