Monday, 23 December 2013

What is Biblical morality? This is an important question, because if we can figure out exactly what it is (or as close as is humanly possible), then we can better adapt to new situations, as well as being able to better show why it should be followed.

In one sense, Biblical morality can be summed up as "that which God commands us to do (or not do)". This may seem like an overly simplistic answer, but it's actually quite literally true. Right and wrong is determined entirely by God's decree. We can see this stated in Romans 5, where Paul says "Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned— for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come." In particular, look at verse 13, where he says that "sin is not counted where there is no law." What he's saying here is that, without the law to specify what is right and wrong, then nothing would be right or wrong! This perspective on morality is known as objectivism: the belief that right and wrong are determined by a power beyond human control or preference.

I said earlier that that is Biblical morality "in one sense." It's entirely true, but there is more to it. You see, God is logical. He doesn't give commands arbitrarily, for the sake of having commands. To see this, you only need to look at the rest of His creation. Everything has a purpose and a function. Humans are composed of many parts, each of which serves a purpose as part of the whole. (Even some parts that used to be thought of as "junk.") This is seen in every intricate working of the universe, and it must be the same for morality. So, knowing that right and wrong are determined because God decrees it, the next question is: why does He decree these particular commands? Or, to put it another way: why is Biblical morality?

At this point, it helps to look at the classic categories theologians have set the law into (note that these are defined by humans, and thus fallible - not necessarily mistaken, though!) The law is generally divided into Civil, Ceremonial, and Moral.

The civil law was basically the law of Israel used in the common sense of the word. It was equivalent to the laws given by a government, and it was given because Israel had no government of their own. Most people will agree that we don't have to hold to the civil law today, though it, like every other part of the Bible, is worth studying and considering.

The ceremonial law served an incredibly important purpose, and yet is also not necessary to follow today, for a very different reason. What it did was foreshadow the coming of Jesus. An excellent book on this can be found in John Sittema's Meeting Jesus at the Feast, which talks about how the feasts and festivals which were ordained in the Old Testament showed Jesus' coming. Since the meaning of this law has been fulfilled, we are no longer required to follow it. This is especially important to know, because people attacking Biblical morality will often use ceremonial laws as examples of how Christians will "cherry-pick" the commands that suit them, by demonstrating our failure to follow seemingly arbitrary or ridiculous commands such as not eating certain foods, or not wearing clothes containing more than one type of fabric. Acts 10 is one of the clearest illustrations of the meaning behind these sorts of commandments being fulfilled.

Finally, there is the moral law. This, too, must have a purpose, but that may be a more difficult question to answer. There are two things which must be considered here: why have a moral law at all, and why these particular commandments?

The first question may seem odd. Why ask why we should have a moral law? To answer this, we need to go back to the previous passage from Romans 5. Looking again at verse 13, we see something interesting. If "sin is not counted where there is no law," then why have a law at all? Without a moral law to break, wouldn't humans be perfect, and all deserving of heaven?

The previous verse, however, seems to disagree. Paul tells us that even without a law, there was still sin in the world. However, it was "not counted." This tells us that sin is something more than disobeying commands, something less tangible. But doesn't this completely change our definition of Biblical morality, if sin is not simply disobeying God's commands? Well, no. But it does necessitate some refinement. Instead of our previous definition, we can say that right and wrong are "obedience to or rebellion against God."

To get an idea of what I mean by this, we should look at Romans 6 (the whole chapter). In this chapter, Paul talks about being slaves to God or sin, right or wrong. He connects sinful acts with slavery to sin, and vice versa, with slavery to God being connected to following His commands. From this, we can see that one leads to another: a sinful nature causes us to sin.

As an example of the distinction between sinful nature and sinful acts, think of a child who has been told to do the dishes by his mother. Though he may do as he has been told, he may still deeply resent his job, and even hate his mother for it. Though his actions do not go against the "law" laid down be his mother, his nature is still rebellious, and if it shows through he may even be punished for it. So there can clearly be a distinction between the nature and the actions, though they are still tied together: because of his rebellious nature, he may refuse to do the dishes, but without it, he would happily comply.

So while the law may make active rebellion possible, passive rebellion can exist either way. Even if God gave no commands for us to disobey, we would still be slaves to our sinful nature. And it is our sinful nature that condemns us: it is clear throughout the Bible that sins themselves can be forgiven, but salvation is only attained through embracing Jesus as our savior, and putting behind our "old selves." Disobedience to the law is an outward manifestation of our corruption, yet it is not our corruption itself.

Rather than explaining why we should have a law at all, I have explained why having a law is not a negative thing - which it may seem to be, from that verse in Romans 5. The question of why it is a good thing to have a law, then, can be answered in the next question: why this law? To understand why we are commanded, we must understand the commands.

This question is much simpler to answer: because these commands are good. By "good," in this case, I mean "beneficial." I noted before that God is logical, and so it makes sense that the things He tells us to do are those which are best for us. Consider a few of the 10 Commandments: "do not steal," "do not murder," "do not bear false witness" - these are not just morally right, they are practical guidelines for society. Jesus said it best when he summed up the commandments as "love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself." What better basis for morality could we have?

So in summary, Biblical morality is that what God decrees of us, and He decrees it because it is best for us. Sometimes that may seem difficult to remember, because the temptation to sin is strong. But when you think about His law for us, it only goes to further show His grace.

(Many thanks to my friend Cassie for helping me edit this post! By which I mean completely rewrite it.)

Saturday, 7 December 2013

I want to revisit an old post today for elaboration and clarification, since in its current form I'm not really happy with it. I am referring to this one:

I did not mean by this that, for example, if you are a slave you should remain as such because freedom isn't really all that great. I support freedom in virtually any situation because I believe it to be demonstrably preferable to oppression. I believe it to be an ideal worth striving for, because it is better than the alternative.

A classic argument for Austrian economics is that people are better suited to make choices for themselves than the government is to do so for them. The vast amount of variables and individual preferences and needs in any economy is too much for any human centralized power to control. By leaving choices to the individual, and allowing a self-regulating market, people are able to live their lives as seems best to them. While mistakes will inevitably be made, they are almost certainly not as common or as damaging as a mistake made by a controlling power that has to attempt to regulate everything at once. And there's another aspect, too: people are more likely to learn from their own mistakes and the mistakes of those close to them then they are to learn from the government's mistakes, or even more likely than the government is to learn from its mistakes. There are a lot more details and arguments in favour of this system, but for now, there is just one fundamental principle to remember: it works better than the alternative for maximum benefit to all concerned.

There is also, of course, the very probable outcome of the ruling power not even trying to work for the benefit of those within. Slavery causes far much more damage on a whole than any good it might conceivably do for the ruling class. Governments may make policies based on popularity rather than practicality, in an attempt to stay in power - or they may just outright force their will onto everyone under them.

On the other hand, there are certain specific situations where freedom is not the best ideal. One is the matter of children. When they are very young, they simply can't handle making all of their own decisions. Their parents have to stop them from shoving whatever the find into their mouths, because hey, that can kill you. Their lives need to be regulated until they learn how to make proper, beneficial decisions.

I'm going to use myself as an example for this. About a week ago, I failed my driving test before I even got out of the parking lot. I got too close to another vehicle while attempting to turn out, the examiner had to tell me to stop, and that's an automatic failure. Obviously, I wasn't very happy about that. At the time, I probably thought that was a bit extreme, to fail me on such a small thing. But it actually makes perfect sense. The point of that test is to see if I can drive without someone supervising me. If the examiner has to tell me when to stop, then I obviously don't meet that qualification. So I failed based on "judgement". Until I have better judgement of when to stop my vehicle, I can't have the freedom to drive on my own. While I'm not legally a child, I still can't drive on my own until I can make better choices in that matter.

The other main case in which "freedom" is not inherently preferable is that of God and humans. In this case, we have a centralized power that is omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient. He knows exactly what is going on in any given moment, and exactly what is best for that situation. A common objection to divine authority, particularly in novels, is the idea of an aloof god, who can't truly understand humanity, with all of their flaws and imperfections, and so is not qualified to judge. This is simply not the case. Omniscience means, by definition, that He does know everything about us. He does truly understand all of our imperfections. Not only that, but He sent Jesus to live as a human, to actively experience the world exactly as we do. In this case, there's no justification for claiming that God couldn't possibly understand your situation well enough to justify obeying His commands. He really does know best.

As a final note, a friend of mine left a pertinent comment on the original post: "Freedom exists only where submission is made. The modern man is free to be a slave to his own desires." One can question whether true moral freedom even exists, or if those who do not follow God are only slaves to their base instincts.

There is more to be said, especially on the nature of morality. But I think that would be better left to another post. For now, I hope I have shown that freedom is valuable beyond an abstract ideal, but not to the extent that it is grounds for rejection of God's authority.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

What's in a name?

Perhaps the most fundamental precept of logic is the rule that "A is A". This is what is known as the Law of Identity, and it's a pretty simple concept - even simplistic. It's saying exactly what it looks like it's saying: that something is itself, and not "not itself". (The phrase "I'm not myself today" could be more accurately stated as "my self today is altered beyond the range of my general conception of myself" - everyone is their own self at any given time.) I'm not here to discuss the truth of this rule, though. The vast majority of people will probably agree with its truth. Rather, I want to discuss a question I find far more interesting: What is A?

Simply put, A is an identifier. It's shorthand for absolutely anything, in this case, just as "X" can mean any positive number in the equation X > 0. You could replace A with a whale, humanity, the concept of brotherly love, a chair. You could replace it with anything. So I'm going to replace it with a chair.

A chair is a chair, right? At its fundamental level, it is an objective arrangement of atoms that together make the thing described as a chair. But, while the arrangement of atoms is objective and definite (the chair IS that arrangement, it isn't a whale), its chairness is not. You see, a chair is a chair because we say so. Nothing we say about it can change its physical structure, but it is us who have decided that that particular physical structure is a chair.

The physical world doesn't actually care what we say about it. Biological classifications don't really affect the lives of the animals within. Why should they care? They have survival to worry about. Whether we call a stone a rock, a carraig, a sten, or a 岩, doesn't matter to the atoms that make it up. Let me put it this way: language is the subjective assertion of consciousness onto an objective world. How we identify things doesn't change them, but it does identify them. The universe couldn't care less if we call a specific arrangement of atoms a "chair", but it matters to us, because now we have something to classify that general shape into. There are all sorts of variables: size, decoration, back, accessories, whether it has massage capabilities, but for the most part, we can point at something and identify whether it's a chair or not.

This may all seem rather boring and dull, but it actually has huge consequences: it shows us that consciousness exists. Information (specifically language, in this case) is non-existent without an intelligence to create and interpret it. Writing isn't just funny squiggles on paper, because a mind can look at that and learn from it. It doesn't change the fundamental structure of the ink and the paper, and neither of those things care that you're writing with them, but the information is real, and so the consciousness is too. We detect with our senses, we store in our brains, but we think with our minds. Information is meaningless without sentience.

Another interesting thing about consciousness is that it is the only place where contradictions can exist. They're completely impossible in the physical world (A is A, it is not "not A"), but they are free to exist in information. Two people can tell opposing stories, and though only one can be true in the real world, the fact remains that a contradiction exists in the information. I can say "this sentence is false", and that is self-contradictory. It is completely useless and unrelated to the real world, but the contradiction still exists. In fact, because of this, it's reasonable to assume that the concept of contradictions was created because of false or incorrect information. It's information designed to relate only to information, since the concept is impossible outside of information. On another note, it is possible for someone to genuinely believe in contradicting things. Both of those things cannot be true, but a person is free to choose to believe in both, assuming they are OK with hypocrisy.

This is all to show that information and consciousness exist apart from physical matter. Perhaps not independently - at least not within this universe - but there is certainly a distinction. I personally believe it points to the existence of a soul, though I guess you're free to draw your own conclusions.

(Incidentally, this is why I dislike it when people say they reject labels. To reject labels is almost rejecting consciousness in a way. Language exists for a reason. Use it.)