Priorities December 15, 2009 | 04:57 pm

You want to know something that is really an abomination against the Christian way of life? Borrowing and lending money for interest.

Exodus 22:25, Leviticus 25:35-37, Deuteronomy 23:19, Psalms 15:5, Proverbs 28:8
Nehemiah 5:1-13, Pslams 37:21, Proverbs 22:7

How about we, as Christians, regroup and deal with that little issue? Seems like an easier one to handle than the whole gay thing (presuming, of course, the “gay thing” is a problem). I mean, if you’re out to convince other people not to be gay, that’s hard. But not lending or paying interest? That’s something we can fix in our own lives!

Besides, you can argue that gays are damaging our culture, but I’ve got real-world evidence that lending and borrowing money at interest (esp. in the corporate form of banks) is literally destroying our way of life. How many people have lost their homes, their livelihoods, their family farms and family shops? The loss of the “little guy’s” inheritance is a horrid tragedy according to the Bible: 1 Kings 21, Leviticus 25:23, Numbers 36:7, Ezekiel 46:18.

So, I don’t want to hear anything else out of the anti-gay Christian movement until the whole movement is done lending or borrowing money at interest. (This includes profiting from the lending/borrowing money: i.e. investing in banks.) K?

  • Jorge

    Aren’t high taxes are a bigger problem than interest?

  • Robert Fischer


    Lending money at interest is directly Biblical. I don’t know any scripture to cite against high tax rates.

  • Brian

    I believe Jesus’ admonishment to give unto God what is Gods, and give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s might apply. My advice to those who wonder who Jesus would vote for is to perform the following experiment: flip the bible open to a random page, plop your finger down at random, and start reading, asking yourself which political party best fulfills the requirements of scripture. No cherry picking, now- we’re doing a random sample. If it talks about killing homosexuals, hating your neighbor, or being pure in your religion, count that as a win for the Republicans. But if the bible speaks of feeding the hungry, helping the poor, comforting (aka curing) the sick, freeing the oppressed, etc. count that as a win for the Democrats. Do this 100 times, and keep a tally. At the end, look at the count and decide for yourself…

    Of course, Jesus was the original long-haired peace and love hippy freak. The core value of modern, fundamentalist Christianity, is the same core value of modern fundamentalist Islam, or modern fundamentalist Judaism- hate. Specifically, hatred of the Other, where the Other is anyone not like them. The real basis of their religion is no more the Bible, Koran, or Torah than the basis of my religion is, I’m just honest about it (for bonus points, run the above experiment with the Torah or Koran). Lecturing them about what actually is in that book they’re waving around will simply be ignored. Satan, after all, quotes scripture (so does Jesus, but stop confusing the issue with facts).

    More to the point, what got us into the financial problem is listening to conservatives/Republicans. From the founding of the country up until the New Deal, we had a bank run and financial panic about every 10 years or so- Wikipedia lists them as 1792, 1797, 1819, 1825, 1837, 1847, 1857 , 1866, 1873, 1884, 1890, 1893, 1896, 1901, 1907, 1910-1911, and 1929-1939. And then 2007-2008. What happened in that almost 70 year gap? Well, one of the things that the New Deal did was tightly regulate banks. It imposed draconian and onerous regulations on the banking industry that hindered innovation and, more importantly to conservatives, dampened profits.

    You see, a bank isn’t just a big stone building with 10 teller windows and 2 tellers, and pens that don’t work. In fact, a bank doesn’t have to have those decorations at all. A bank is any institution that takes theoretically liquid but statistically illiquid investments from investors (often called deposits for depositors- you say tomato), and then investments that money into illiquid investments. So you local bank takes investments in the form of deposits into checking and savings accounts. These deposits are theoretically liquid- you can (theoretically) go down to the bank at any time and demand your money back. But most people don’t- most people are content to leave the money in the bank. Your local bank then uses that money to make illiquid investments- for example, loaning people money to buy homes. These investments really are illiquid- the bank can’t just up and demand full payment of the mortgage at any time (as long as you keep up your payments, anyways). The difference between what the bank makes off of it’s investments and what it pays it’s investors is it’s profits. Bear Sterns worked in more or less the same fashion- taking technically liquid investments and investing them in turn into illiquid investments.

    Banks are important economic devices- they create long-term capital pools out of short-term liquid investments for economic investment that otherwise wouldn’t exist. Very few people would be able to buy a home, start a business, without a bank to loan them the money. And they do this without denying people access to their money. We as a society would be very much poorer without the banks.

    The problem is that there is a huge moral hazard involved in banking. And that is that bankers are basically investing with other people’s money. If they fail, if they lose their bets, it’s not their money that is lost- it’s their investors money. So there is a temptation to make bigger, riskier bets, because bigger, riskier bets pay off bigger as well. If the bet pays off, the banker makes more money. If the bet loses, the banker doesn’t lose- his depositors/investors do. Head I win, tails you lose. The only thing that changed was that instead of the individual depositors losing their life savings, the federal government stepped up and assumed the loss. It makes no difference to the bankers who loses, however, so long as it isn’t the bankers.

    What the New Deal said, in effect, was that we need banks, but we can’t let bankers invest in anything too risky, because otherwise we’ll end up footing the bill. So the New Deal imposed strict limits on what banks could, and could not, invest in. Who they could loan money to, how much, at what interest rates, and so on. Onerous restrictions that had, as their primary effect, limiting the profitability of the banks- because we didn’t want banks losing big, we also prevented the banks from winning big.

    The rise of modern conservatism (Goldwater/Reagan conservatism) brought with it a hostility to all things New Deal, but especially regulation and most especially regulation that limited profitability of corporations. And once we started rolling back the New Deal regulations on banks, we started having banking crisis again- the Savings and Loan debacle in the 80′s, Long Term Capital Management in the 90′s, and now the full-blown bank crisis of 2007-2008.

    Those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat. So too, unfortunately, are those who do remember, but are shouted down by the ignorant and corrupt.

    Unfortunately, any hope for a real re-regulation of the banking industry just died on the Senate floor. The slow motion train wreck that has been the health care debate has shown conclusively that 1) Republicans will vote as a block against anything that smells the slightest bit like reform, 2) that “moderate” (aka Republican-lite) Democrats like Lieberman and Bayh will use fact #1 and the threat of filibuster to gut any proposed reform, and 3) Both the White House and Democratic leadership will surrender. Some bill with a title declaring it financial reform may make it through this meat grinder, but it’ll be so toothless and gutted as to be worthless. If passing something with the right title counts as a victory, then the clear skies initiative and the healthy forests initiatives were both stunning victories for ecologists.

    We haven’t yet relearned the lessons our grandparents and great-grandparents learned the hard way 70 years, so we’re going to be taught a lesson again. I don’t know if it’ll be in 10 years, or 20, or tomorrow. But it will happen.

    Yippy skippy.

  • Kura

    You’re citing Old Testament covenant law, which isn’t in effect for modern people. Commands like these made sense in ancient Israel where they applied, not necessarily the same for us. Though I would agree that excessive lending is a big problem.

  • Robert Fischer


    First of all, if you’re taking that tact, then you can’t cite the Old Testament in condemning homosexuality. Second, I’ve got cites from Proverbs, Psalms, and the Prophets. Certainly they’re in play still? Finally, care to prove that these particular OT covenant laws aren’t in play anymore? While some things have changed with Jesus, most of it remained—note that divorcing the Old Testament from the New is understood as a heresy (Marcionism), and for good reason.

  • Robert Fischer


    I don’t see how rendering unto Caesar is relevant here.

    Note that it’s possible to lend money without charging interest: you just charge a flat fee for loaning the money and a payment plan to give it back. That doesn’t get you into composite interest or open-ended (read: eternal) debt, however.

  • Brian

    The Caesar comment was in response to Jorge’s comment about high taxes.

    Without interest, there basically is no lending. Lending money entails risk- risk that the borrower will not pay it back. Risk that is not entailed by the lender shoving the money under a mattress (metaphorically if not literally). And second of all, in any sort of inflationary environment (all modern economies count), a certain amount of interest is necessary just to offset the inflation.

    We’re not a bunch of desert nomads anymore. Prescriptions that were good, or at least not catastrophically bad, for desert nomads may or may not apply to large-scale industrial-informational polycultures such as ours.

  • Robert Fischer


    Yeah, the “render until Caesar” comment is interesting. If anything, that’s a mandate for a 100% tax rate. After all, anything bearing the image of empire (like the George Washingtons in your wallet) belongs to the empire and should be “rendered unto” it. That which bears the image of God (i.e.), however…

    All this said, certainly you agree that the passages on not paying interest are as applicable as the Levitical mandates against homosexuality.

  • Kura


    The Old Testament isn’t needed to show that homosexuality is a sin, since there are multiple New Testament passages (Romans 1:26-32, 1 Corinthians 6:9, 1 Timothy 1:10) which are clear on the issue. Second, none of the other passages you cited actually give a command not to loan for interest, and it’s also important to note that old covenant law was still in effect when they were written, so even if there was a clear prohibition, it would simply be enforcing the laws written in Leviticus, unless there’s good reason to presume otherwise. Third, there’s no reason to assume that any particular old covenant law is still supposed to be followed. The only ones which would still be in effect are universal moral laws, which tend to have New Testament support. A prohibition against lending with interest sounds more like a culture-specific law like the ones against eating lobster or building a roof without a parapet. Of course, it *could* be argued that the laws against loaning with interest are universal moral laws, but there’s absolutely *no* reason to assume so. Marcionism really isn’t relevant at all, since I’m not rejecting the Old Testament at all, just saying that old covenant law doesn’t apply anymore, which is made clear in the New Testament.

  • elmegil


    What a convenient way to be able to pick and choose.

  • Robert Fischer


    Would you like to give me a way to discern between a law we still need to follow and one we don’t anymore? You say it “sounds more like a culture-specific law”—how do you distinguish the laws given by God are now null and void, and which laws given by God are still in effect? I don’t see a label in the OT of “culture-specific law” and “moral law”, and it seems like making that distinction is simply projecting our own cultural-moral bias back onto the OT.

    Also, where is it made clear in the NT that the OT law doesn’t apply anymore? While certain laws are explicitly overturned (i.e. kosher in Acts 10f), I don’t see a total overturn anywhere in the New Testament. If anything, Jesus seems to emphasize the OT commandments: e.g. rich young ruler.

  • Robert Fischer


    Also, re: the cites not condemning interest. If you put out money at interest, you may “be shaken” (Psalm 15:5), you’re oppressing people who are gracious to the poor (Proverbs 28:8), it “is not good” (Nehemiah), enslaving people (Proverbs 22:7—and if you’re curious about God’s opinions of enslaving people, see Exodus), etc. So while we may not be seeing explicit laws outside of the law books (unsurprisingly), it’s not exactly like the rest of the OT is a fan.

  • Alicia

    I’m confused about where in the bible it says that we should spend time and energy debating why certain people are sinful for their actions. Can someone please point me to that place? I would *really* appreciate it. Because if so, I am WAY behind on judging others and this really concerns me. If this is a requirement for being “saved” then someone get me some stones please…I need to catch up. I call dibs on the first one!

    Secondly: @Robert, there is a reason “give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” is relevant here. Who doles out marriage certificates?…”Caesar” right? Socially and logically, it is on par with slavery and women not being able to vote when gov’t deprives a class of citizen equal treatment in gov’t services to it’s taxpaying public. It would be like saying blonds cannot be issued driver licenses: from a practical, logical standpoint to the gov’t and legal systems, there is no difference between hair color and sexual orientation.

    It is “Cesar’s” acknowledgment that these supposedly religious people so desperately desire in their demands to prevent gov’t acknowledged gay marriage, not God’s. If it was God’s judgment they cared about, they would not be so concerned about our secular gov’ts mission to provide equal services to it’s taxpaying public and leave the discernment of whether or not to marry two people “in the eyes of God” up to ministers.

  • Brian

    Robert Fischer: this is a good question for you to answer as well. You’ve stated multiple times that without a belief in God, there is no basis for morality. It’s God who defines sin and evil, not man. God has to communicate his morality to humans somehow, if he expects us to actually live by it. At which point you (or God, depending upon how you want to look at it) have three choices: God can either communicate his morality via implications of natural law, via direct revelation, and via an intermediary (generally a literary one). The normal Christian position is #3- that God at least inspired the Bible (and I’m ignoring how you know this), and that thus it is a reliable guide to God’s morality.

    But explicit in this is that we mortal humans are incapable of determining sin and evil ourselves- God has to tell us. If we are capable of determining what is evil ourselves, then God is not a necessary foundation to morality- instead, whatever algorithm we use to determine, by ourselves, what is evil is the foundation of our morality. And the Bible becomes just one source of many of potential moral guides. But if God, via the Bible, is the sole source of morality, then you dare not cherry pick from the Bible. I think we agree that the prohibitions against homosexuality and lending at interest are no longer really valid- but what’s to stop someone from deciding that the prohibitions against Adultery or Murder are culture-specific, and don’t apply anymore?

  • Brian

    Alicia: this is especially the case because it’s possible for a man and a woman to be married in the eyes of a major Christian denomination and not married in the eyes of the law, or vice versa. In Catholicism, if you get divorced (a legal proceeding), you also have to get the marriage annulled (a church proceeding). If you don’t, the church considers the first marriage to still be in force, and disallows a second marriage- so if a Catholic gets divorced but not annulled, and then remarries, the state will say they’re married to spouse #2, while the church will say they’re still married to spouse #1. There is already a difference between the religious concept of marriage and the legal/governmental concept of marriage- which is why I’m a proponent of civil unions for everyone. Give the different concepts different names, and maybe people will stop confusing them.

    The problem is that for the bulk of mankind’s existence, we didn’t live in these huge, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural societies. We lived in small bands, or at most small towns, where there was no clear distinction between the government, the church, and society as a whole. It’s not natural to draw distinctions between them- that’s an idea that was only widely adopted a few hundred years ago. It requires us to stop and think, and not just emotively respond. Which many people either don’t or can’t do.

    As for sitting in judgment of our fellow human beings, that’s the oldest pass-time in the book. In fact, the only thing more fun than passing judgment on other people ourselves, is pretending that a gaseous old man up in the sky is passing the same judgments on other people that we are passing.

  • Robert Fischer


    For the sake of this post, I’m arguing from within the context of a strict #3er (hence the presumption in the original post). So I’ve assumed a persona I’m arguing from.

    You’re conflating two issues: the philosophical basis for an idea, and the means by which we determine them. We can determine information about what is right and wrong without a requisite philosophical basis (and, keyed off of Romans 1:18-20, I argue we do) — in a similar way, we can determine information about numbers without the requisite mathematical basis (and Pythogras, for instance, did).

    My answer to your multiple choice is “all of the above”, and we can get into my particular take on homosexuality and the Christian faith at another time: among other reasons, I’m still sorting out the nuances of exactly what I think and how I express that.

    For the record, though, I really do believe that the “moral” vs. “cultural”/”eternal” vs. “temporary” Biblical law distinction is a sham—the law as a whole is life-giving and goodness and righteousness (Deuteronomy really, really wants to make this clear). When it comes to how to understand the law, the New Testament has a pretty clear statement on the matter. It’s in that light I try to understand the OT’s prescriptions.

    Ultimately, the move Kura made is the classic “canon in the canon” nonsense. We are charged with wrestling with everything within the Bible, whether we like it or not. Cherry-picking the verses we like and dismissing the others as cultural cruft is doing violence to the scripture (more on this from my Church History preceptor).

    Yet the sham of artificial distinctions and projecting our biases into idols continues, and it (along with the idolatry of doctrine) is the fundamental reason the Christian church is at an empasse on the homosexuality issue—many people fiat in that law, others fiat out that law, and never the twain shall meet.

  • Kura


    It’s easy to tell that some laws are universal and some are culture-specific. Not many people would disagree that it is wrong to murder, for example. On the other hand, the law about building parapets on a roof seems random nowadays, but in the time and place it was written, roofs were very commonly used for working and sleeping, making a roof without some sort of wall a serious hazard. It’s pretty obvious, then, that that particular law wouldn’t directly apply to our culture. To take a more extreme example, laws about how to give a particular sacrifice can’t have any real application to us, since the sacrificial system was abolished.

    I did say there’s no reason to assume (without a basis, anyway) that any particular old covenant law is still supposed to be followed. With some laws (probably including the ones regarding homosexuality and the ones about loans), it *is* hard to tell what effect they have on us using only the OT. But plenty have explicit NT support. So unless you can show that the NT clearly condemns loans at interest, making a comparison between that and homosexuality is just silly.

    About the old covenant applying today, the book of Hebrews is pretty explicit on the subject. It says that the first covenant (the one given to the Israelites after Moses took them out of Egypt) was imperfect and the new covenant, based on Christ, is given to everyone. You can read Hebrews for yourself to see, but here are a few verses about the old and new covenants: Hebrews 7:18-19 “The former regulation is set aside because it was weak and useless (for the law made nothing perfect), and a better hope is introduced, by which we draw near to God.”, 7:22 “Because of this oath, Jesus has become the guarantee of a better covenant.”, 8:8-9 (quoting Jeremiah 31:31) “But God found fault with the people and said: “The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they did not remain faithful to my covenant, nd I turned away from them, declares the Lord.”, and 8:13 “By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear.” I think these make it clear enough. :)

  • Robert Fischer


    Okay, it’s just nonsense to say that it’s easy to make the distinction between universal and cultural-specific a priori. That’s a cop-out, circular argument: “we can tell which ones are culturally-specific because we can tell”. I’m looking into how we tell, and you offered two reasons that I could see: anachronism (“seems random nowadays”) and NT re-affirmation.

    A law’s apparent inapplicability or anachronism does not render it illegitimate—we are called to be a peculiar and particular people, distinct from the cultures in which we reside, aren’t we? God has set Israel aside, and give us signs to denote our distinctiveness, did He not? Perhaps the apparently inapplicability/anachronism is precisely the reason we should follow a law: after all, even at the time they were given and in the times of the prophets, some of the laws seemed random thataday, yet they were the law. Basically, if God did not say that there was an expiration date on a particular law, who are we to provide one?

    Also, I want to be clear that you’re explicitly dismissing the conception of the Law provided in Romans and the gospels, correct? For the record, I’d assert that Hebrews is speaking about the Law of the Flesh as Paul lays out in Romans, and certainly that Law—really, an erroneous and legalist understanding of the Law which even contemporary Judaism rejects—is overthrown.

    The other angle is NT support. There are two questions here:
    * First of all, are you rejecting the evidence and support of the Writing and Prophets? Somehow Paul is a valid authority, but Solomon is not?
    * The second question is simply a point of clarification, because you argued something implicitly that I want to make explicit: you are saying that if there is an OT mandate and a NT affirmation, then that law is a law our church should be enforcing, and which should set the basis for our Christian morality?

  • Alicia

    Back to Robert’s original point: Why spend precious time focusing on one or two polarizing issues about other people’s personal choices when there are so many important things that *can* be taken action on in one’s own life?

    The question is, what can one do to make a positive change in their own life? Individuals cannot change other people. The only way one can even hope to influence others, is to genuinely care: have integrity and empathy for all and set a good example. Until those tactics have been exhausted…why spend time debating this topic? It is wasteful. The original point was good, but what this conversation has spiraled into is not enlightening anyone…

    When will we all get tired of spinning these broken records?

  • Kura


    I am not using a circular argument. You asked about how to tell about universal laws and those that only make sense in a certain cultural context, and I gave an example. Let me ask you a question, how do you think we’re supposed to follow laws about, say, how to burn a grain offering at the altar?

    God *did* put an expiration date on the law, if Jeremiah 3:16, 31:31-32, as well as various verses in the prophets mentioning a “new covenant” are to be believed.

    I’m not dismissing anything in Romans or the gospels. Are you saying that they support the idea of old law being applicable today?

    How do you support the idea that Hebrews is only dismissing “an erroneous and legalist understanding of the Law” when Hebrews 8:9 mentions the covenant given to the Israelites after leading them out of Egypt, then 8:13 calls that covenant “obsolete” and says it “will soon disappear”?

    I’m not dismissing Solomon or any other biblical author. Are you saying that they support the idea of old law being applicable today?

    Yes, I think that confirmation of a moral in both the OT and NT is excellent support of a moral.

  • Robert Fischer


    If that is the basis of a “moral law”, how do you get away from having to kill those who get re-married? Deuteronomy 22:22; Mark 10:2-12; Luke 16:18 pretty much leave you there.

    I’m not dismissing anything in Romans or the gospels. Are you saying that they support the idea of old law being applicable today?

    In a sense, although obviously in a transformed and modified way. Jesus put a fair amount of emphasis on the Law and exhorted people to pay attention to it, even in John (most notably in 7:15-24). Jesus emphasizes the commandments and speaks to them and exhorts people to pay attention to them. He is called Rabbi and he teaches in the temple. Christianity is, in short, a Jewish religion, and as such, we inherit the Law. It’s especially important to note that never once does he nor Paul nor anyone else say that culturally relative laws get to be thrown overboard while the moral laws get to be kept around. In the Passion and Resurrection, there is a revolution in the Law, but the Law still has an abiding truth. That’s why it is in our scriptures still.

    To think of this another way: when God made his covenant at Sinai/Horeb, did that invalidate the covenant he made with Abraham? No. When God made his covenant with David, did that invalidate the one at Sinai/Horeb? No. Now we have a new covenant, sealed in the blood of Christ. Does this overthrow the previous ones? No! Does it change them, and change the way we understand them? Most certainly, just as all the other covenants did! What’s the nature of this new understanding? Well, let’s ask Jesus and Paul what they think.

    What you’re missing is that Paul understands there two be two laws: the “law of sin and death”/”law of the flesh”, and the “law of spirit”/”law of promise”/”law of Christ”. The latter is the true understanding/interpretation of the Law in its entirety from “be fruitful and multiply” to the mandates in Christ. This is what Paul lays out in Romans (a few verses), and it’s the only way to make sense of Jesus exhorting the law: if He is about to abolish it, why does he advocate for it?

    This also makes sense of Acts 10f: note that when Peter identifies the unclean animals, God doesn’t respond and say, “Oh, that ol’ chestnut? I overturned that with My death and resurrection! The Law of Moses doesn’t apply to you!” God instead notes that there is an ontological change in the nature of cleanliness/holiness with impacts on the Law, which implicitly validates the Law’s importance even while noting that sections of it are newly irrelevant.

    So, when we encounter an OT law, we should ask ourselves: Has there been an ontological change which renders this law irrelevant? If not, then how does this law make us love our neighbors? The answer to that question will drive how we should live.

    To get back to the original post, though: if you’re willing to grant that some OT laws are still relevant, and you’re willing to grant that Solomon and David and the Prophets are just as valid a source of exhortation as Paul, then you still have to deal with the issue of lending money at interest. Has there been an ontological change which makes lending money at interest not a sin? No. How does the law make us love our neighbors? That’s what all the scriptures of Solomon and David and the Prophets I cited were trying to explain to you. Here’s a subset of the list with clear points: lending at interest drives people away from you instead of drawing them into community with you; lending at interest enslaves the poor; lending at interest oppresses those who are gracious to the poor; lending at interest leads to people losing their inheritance and their livelihoods.

  • Brian

    Robert: I have no idea, then, what you mean by a “philosophical basis” for an idea, or why it matters a hill of beans. I don’t see that it matters where an idea comes from- whether it was handed done from sages of old, or arrived this morning on a postcard because you sent money to a P.O. box in Schenectady, New York. What matters is how we determine that an idea is correct or true, once we have it.

    And I don’t believe that you can be do all three “decision making” processes to choose your morality, because then the question becomes how do you choose, for each ethical or moral dilemma, which decision making process you use?

    Mind you, I make a very clear distinction between the reason a person chooses something, and the rational they present to defend that choice. A sure sign that something is a rationalization, not the real reason, is a (seemingly) random choice of different “acceptable” decision making strategies. They pick the strategy that returns the answer they’ve already decided upon. This is how people can go all Biblical-literal on the matter of homosexuality, but at the same time have no problem wearing cotton-polyester blend cloths, despite clear Biblical admonitions against wearing cloths of two different threads (Leviticus 19-19).

    Arguing against these people using biblical literalism is the next best thing to pointless, because they’re not really using biblical literalism as their decision making process. And thus, pointing out all the other injunctions they’re ignoring will simply be met with a “oh, don’t be ridiculous” response.

    There is one issue I would like to address more fully, that you’ve touched on briefly- in both this comment thread and in this post (that I mean to comment on more fully when I get the time), and that is the idea that if it makes people “feel good” or “be happy”, it can’t be all bad. You know what else makes people feel good, or so I’ve heard? Heroin. And yet, I can’t recommend it, because although it does make you feel good in the short term, it makes you feel much worse in the long term. This is why I choose consequences as the fundamental basis for my morality (and I would add uncertainty, but that’s another post). But we’re hard wired to want short-term gratification. Our evolutionary programming has as a fundamental assumption that we have little to no control over our long-term fortunes, so if in doubt get it now. Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we my die. The problem kicks in when we don’t die on the morrow.

    The most destructive tendencies of religion come to the fore when we put our own words in God’s mouth- for that is the point when we abort all possible discussion over the consequences of our impulses.

  • Robert Fischer


    I have no idea, then, what you mean by a “philosophical basis” for an idea, or why it matters a hill of beans.

    What I’m getting at between the “philosophical basis” is the idea of fundamentals. I know that I can express any proof of mathematics1 starting with the Peano axioms, but when I’m writing out a proof, I start in another place. Why? Because it’s a pain in the ass, and it’s obscuring the point of the proof. Sure, my proof should be able to break down to the Peano axioms if you really push it, but we don’t bother pushing it because there’s an established understanding.

    1 For an appropriate definition of “mathematics”.

    In saying that God provides a philosophical basis for morality, I’m not saying that discussions about moral decision-making need to necessarily start the conversation with God. We should be able to trace our morals back to God if we’re pushed (the same way as we should be able to trace back to the Peano axioms), but there’s been a lot of work done ahead of time to make decision making easier.

    For instance, we know that God wrote the new covenant on the hearts of Israel, that it is evident in Creation, and that the conscience of all people carries the covenant of God within it: Jeremiah 31:31-33 (the first part of the Quaker Special), Romans 1:18-22, Romans 2:14-16. Based on those statements, we know that Scripture isn’t our only guide, and that seeking guidance from our conscience and from Creation (i.e. science) is legitimate—warranted, even. Now, God isn’t the only thing in our consciousness and science isn’t God, so we need to be sure we’re checking ourselves with our basis, but we can use different decision-making methods and different epistemologies as long as we are doing that.

    Do you get now how I understand “we mortal humans are incapable of determining sin and evil ourselves- God has to tell us” to be wrong? In a sense, it is a true statement: God’s will and revelation are the only way we know what is sin and evil. God’s will and revelation are the only reasons we know how to tie our shoes in the morning, though, so there’s nothing special about morality or ethics here. In a more practical sense, though, your statement is wrong: God graciously gives us some ability to determine sin and evil ourselves.

    God can either communicate his morality via implications of natural law, via direct revelation, and via an intermediary

    And I don’t believe that you can be do all three “decision making” processes to choose your morality, because then the question becomes how do you choose, for each ethical or moral dilemma, which decision making process you use?

    There’s a priority in the different ways of deciding. All three modes are interpretive, and therefore have their pitfalls. The good news is that you should come to the same decision in all three ways, since there is one truth that God is communicating: if there is an apparent contradiction, then our interpretation is off and needs to be duly adjusted. In this way, the three distinct modes of God’s communication that you laid out here act as checks and balances.

    Direct revelation is the highest and most sure form of moral decision making: if God tells me something, I believe it. Yes, this means that I have special revelation and claiming it it’s woefully unsatisfying for everyone else around me. Yes, this may also mean that I am going to run afoul of society. And yes, this also means that I am presuming some way of distinguishing between God, myself, and insanity-born voices in my head.

    The “implications of natural law” come next in the moral decision making process, although from previous conversations I know that I have a much more reserved conception about what those implications really are than you do. For instance, I don’t consider natural law to imply the resurrection could not happen—only that if it happened, it was weird, and we do not as of now have the capability to account for it. But, within these limited bounds of implications, if something is one way and the Bible says it is another (e.g. 1Kings 7:23 implying pi is three2), then the Bible loses.

    2 I suppose that verse could be salvaged by saying it’s 10 cubits from outer edge of the rim to outer edge of the rim rim and 30 cubits in inner circumference.

    Intermediary-based revelation comes in third when it comes to moral decision making. Coming in third should not be construed as not having significance: after all, it’s still one of the fundamental ways in which we know. And the useful thing about intermediary based revelation is that we have a lot more of it to work with.

    A sure sign that something is a rationalization, not the real reason, is a (seemingly) random choice of different “acceptable” decision making strategies. They pick the strategy that returns the answer they’ve already decided upon. This is how people can go all Biblical-literal on the matter of homosexuality, but at the same time have no problem wearing cotton-polyester blend cloths, despite clear Biblical admonitions against wearing cloths of two different threads (Leviticus 19-19).

    That’s awfully dismissive of a whole category of people. As a counter-point, read Kura’s take a little more carefully. She’s making an argument that there’s a reason for those distinctions: they’re not seemingly random at all, unless you brush aside a sophisticated sense of OT/NT interactions. Now, her reading of OT/NT interactions is off as far as I can tell, and hence I come to different conclusions about both homosexuality and lending at interest, but that’s far from declaring her decision-making process random.

    Now, onto this, which confused me:

    There is one issue I would like to address more fully, that you’ve touched on briefly- in both this comment thread and in this post (that I mean to comment on more fully when I get the time), and that is the idea that if it makes people “feel good” or “be happy”, it can’t be all bad.

    Well, I’d probably grant that it’s not all bad, in that there is some vague crumb of goodness innate within good feelings. But I certainly agree there’s lots that can be bad with things that feel good and are apparently happy-making, particularly if feeling good and being happy is pursued to the exclusion of all else. So I’m not sure entirely where you’re getting that idea from. In fact, it kinda blows my mind that you’re reading that from me, because I’m pretty ascetic (or, less generously, Puritanical) in my sensibilities about things that “feel good”, and I’m too much of a fan of Kierkegaard to understand life as anything other than balancing precariously between forms of despair (one form being sensually indulgent self-destructive nihilism).

  • Brian

    So having a philosophical basis is about it being true- because being able to be expressed in terms of Peano axioms is (more or less, hand wave) the definition of true in mathematics. And if you were to reject one or more Peano axioms, you’ve effectively rejected the entire corpus of mathematics, either directly or indirectly. So my initial characterization of your position was entirely correct- without a belief in God, you can’t have morality, anymore than you can have mathematics with the Peano axioms (or their equivalent). My position, in terms of this analogy, is that a belief in God is rather like the parallel postulate- in that in assuming it, you get one morality, but if you don’t assume it, you get another, equally valid, result.

    What I find interesting about stating “that the conscience of all people carries the covenant of God within it” is the wide variety of covenants of God people carry in their consciences. Americans don’t have a problem killing Muslims,and Muslims don’t have a problem killing Americans, for example. Not to mention wonderful reinterpretations of Christianity such as the Prosperity Gospel. Not to mention the homophobes, the abortion clinic bombers, and all the rest of the holy haters. What all of these people have is a sincere, deeply held belief that their morality derives from God speaking directly to their consciences. Just like you do. They then reconcile this direct divine communication by careful interpretation of the holy scriptures (again, just like you), and real world consequences (just like), all the while keeping the original direct revelation (aka original prejudices) as the primary source of their morality (i.e. holy scripture and real world consequences are what get adjusted to fit the outcome preordained by their original biases).

    They are, of course, self-deluded fools who are abusing religion to justify their own prejudices and biases, while the true spirit of Jesus is what moves you (I am firm in my convictions, you are somewhat obstinate in your opinions, they are pigheaded fools). In fact. where the “if it feels good, it must be true” philosophy comes from is just an honest unwillingness of the pot to call the kettle black. That if it’s OK for you to found your morality in terms of your own prejudices and biases, that it must also be OK for them to do the same- and you have no more cause to criticize them for their passionately held beliefs than they have to criticize you for yours.

    I did want to answer Alicia’s question from farther up the comment thread. The reason the bronze-age jews cared about homosexuality was that a person’s retirement depended upon having adult children to care for you. People (like homosexuals) who didn’t have children, or at least didn’t have enough children to make sure some survived to adulthood, became a burden to the whole tribe in their old age. They had good economic reasons to strongly discourage homosexuality. Of course, now we’re talking about consequences as a foundation for morality again…

  • Robert Fischer


    The point where your characterization fell apart is in the leap from “God is the basis of morality” to “explicit in this is that we mortal humans are incapable of determining sin and evil ourselves“—at least insofar as we’re able to determine anything ourselves, we can determine sin and evil ourselves. Note that Euclid did lots of mathematics without the Peano axioms, and even those without belief in God can have some conception of morality, and for the same reason: we have an innate ability to comprehend the topic within our identity.

    As for the rest of your most recent comment: three things.

    First of all, it’s unfair to conflate personal divine revelation and personal biases—although you’re right to say that it’s possible to mistake the two, particularly if someone never consciously acknowledges divine revelation in the past. This is why Quakers have clearness committees to try to sort out what’s really going on with leadings: after all, we’re all acting on leadings from the same God who is the same God that inspired the scriptures and our forbearers, so we’ve got lots to check ourselves against. In any case, it’s certainly a mischaracterization to say “if it feels good, it must be true”: it’s notable that divine revelation is rarely coddling, but often pushes against your prevailing tendencies and is often transgressive. See the call stories of Moses, Elijah, Jonah, and Paul for good examples of what a divine leading looks like: that’s not a “feels good” call.

    Second, if you look at those who most carefully hone their spiritual skills, the resulting morality/ethic revealed to them seems to be the kenotic ethic, no matter what the background belief systems. I’m fond of the argument that it’s because the kenotic ethic is built into the nature of the universe in the same way mathematical laws are (that’s this book), and therefore those who work in the space tend towards the same answer. Certainly science seems to be discovering more and more which is congruent with that theory, and while that’s not the same as proof, it is at least notable that disproof isn’t forthcoming.

    Third, it’s very notable that just because you claim/think God told you to do something doesn’t mean I have to give it the OK. If it’s out of sync with my understanding of God’s revelation (through whichever means), then I have every right to criticize the claim. In Obama’s excellent “Call to Renewal” keynote (YouTube), he notes that if we saw a contemporary American Abraham taking Isaac up the mountain, we’d expect Child Protection to take Isaac away. Certainly you and I would try to stop him from killing his son. And that’s the way things should be—a kind of common morality and common laws is not only to be expected, but is very good.

    That’s the reality of God’s call and its innately personal nature: you’re going to be striking out on your own, or possibly with those few who believe in you. And you’re opening yourself up to criticisms throughout, so you better be damn certain that this is really what God is calling you to do.

  • Brian

    You have, just now, said, and I quote:

    at least insofar as we’re able to determine anything ourselves, we can determine sin and evil ourselves.

    So, if- as you say- we humans are, by ourselves, determine what is good and what is evil (probably by a more-or-less scientific and rational investigation of the natural world), then you do not need God in order to have morality- only intelligence and a sufficient knowledge base.

    As near as I can figure, your position in this debate is, to use the Peano-axioms analogy, that you are asserting that in addition to the normal axioms, we must also add the axiom that all colorless green ideas sleep furiously. We don’t actually use the colorless green ideas axiom for anything, and we can deduce all of mathematics without it, but we have to include it. Either we can figure morality out ourselves (in which case Atheists can have morality), or we can’t (in which case we have to address the question of how God communicates the morality we can’t figure out ourselves to us).

    Here’s the thing. Morality isn’t just a private thing. Morality is also about judging others, and affecting the behaviors of others. The reason this is important to this conversation is it’s not about you convincing yourself that God has spoken to you- it’s that you need to convince me that God has spoken to you, and that God wants both of us to do whatever. You cannot affect my behavior without me accepting the validity of your claims (and vice versa, I comment). To be brutal about it, the evidence religion presents is laughably slim.

    Take the concept of divine revelation. Heck, let’s throw out all those cases where, conveniently, divine revelation tells someone to do what they already wanted to do, and just concentrate on those revelations where people are “told” to do things they really don’t want to. Like kill their children.

    Guess what? Parents kill their children all the time. Here’s a wonderful case where a mother heard voices in her head telling her to kill her baby, and eat it. So she did. Note that when we read this case, we don’t say “Gee, I guess God didn’t intervene in time, or had some cosmologically important reason to not intervene, like he did with Abraham and Isaac.” No. We immediately leap to the conclusion that the voices in her head originated there, and that she was, not to put too fine a point on it, crazy. The human brain is a marvelously complicated device, that when it short circuits all sorts of crazy things can happen.

    Riddle me this: if an Abraham, someone who really is receiving instructions from God (and those instructions included almost killing his or her child), how would we differentiate that person from the “merely crazy” Otty Sanchezes of the world?

  • Robert Fischer

    You’re conflating two pairs of two issues.

    So, if- as you say- we humans are, by ourselves, determine what is good and what is evil (probably by a more-or-less scientific and rational investigation of the natural world), then you do not need God in order to have morality- only intelligence and a sufficient knowledge base.

    In this case, you’re conflating being able to determine something and having a basis for that thing. I think the catch is: what, specifically, do you mean when you say “have morality”? People have a sense of morality without a knowledge of God. The trick is that the reason is ultimately a kind of hodge-podge, “seems to be right” kind of thing. This is akin to how early geometry (and all of mathematics) worked before the 20th century working out of the basis of mathematics. When Pythogras did geometry, he was able to derive rules effectively and accurately, but a contemporary mathematician understands his work to be ultimately baseless.

    So insofar as people are able to make moral judgements, people “have morality”. But, as we’ve hashed out at length, there’s ultimately no basis for that morality apart from God, and to that extent, people don’t “have morality”.

    Here’s the thing. Morality isn’t just a private thing. Morality is also about judging others, and affecting the behaviors of others. The reason this is important to this conversation is it’s not about you convincing yourself that God has spoken to you- it’s that you need to convince me that God has spoken to you, and that God wants both of us to do whatever. You cannot affect my behavior without me accepting the validity of your claims (and vice versa, I comment). To be brutal about it, the evidence religion presents is laughably slim.

    Now you’re conflating me determining what I should do and what rules a society should have. No set of laws is perfect, and no legalism is truly universal. Therefore, there is always a time when an individual should defect from the laws of society; when someone should dismiss Kant’s categorical imperative because of a special case.

    Special pleading because you think God told you doesn’t hold up in court, nor should it. Granted.

  • Garrett

    From Wikipedia: “Marcionists believed that the wrathful Hebrew God was a separate and lower entity than the all-forgiving God of the New Testament…. Marcionism… depicted the Hebrew God of the Old Testament as a tyrant or demiurge…. Other authors’ epistles were rejected [from the Marcionite canon] since they seemed to suggest that Jesus had simply come to found a new sect within broader Judaism.”

    Come on, nobody’s suggesting anything resembling that. It’s not heresy to believe that the Mosaic covenant was strictly between God and Israel, not God and America or God and everyone. Israel is no longer bound by those laws (Paul certainly wasn’t — the Jew of Jews), and we’re not bound by those laws either. They are not “in effect” anymore because the New covenant instituted by Christ supersedes it. However, that doesn’t mean it’s invalidated (or “abolished”), only that a newer, better covenant has fulfilled the old one completely, making it obsolete as a way of relating to God. Read the book of Hebrews for more information on that.

    if you’re taking that tact, then you can’t cite the Old Testament in condemning homosexuality

    Exactly. You can’t directly apply much, if any, from the Old Testament and still be consistent without applying all of it. Of course, that doesn’t mean the Old Testament is worthless — far from it. Without the Old Testament, we can’t come close to understanding what Christ’s sacrifice really means.

    As for Psalms, Proverbs, and the Prophets, those are “in play” just as much as any other Old Testament book. They were written with the knowledge of only the Abrahamic, the Mosaic, and (some) the Davidic covenants. You have to understand this in order to put them into the proper context.

    I appreciated this blog post; you have some interesting insights. There really is a lot of wisdom to be found in the Old Testament.

  • Robert Fischer

    1) It is heresy to suggest the OT can basically get jettisoned, or to treat it as somehow less a part of the canon as the NT. That’s why Marcion was declared a heretic, and therefore anyone who advocates for that is guilty of the Marcionite heresy (even if they’re not following all of Marcion’s approach). This kind of generalizing of the scope of heresies is simply a way to address problems through short-hand names.

    2) Christians are Israel. The Israel which received the covenant is not a country, but an election of people. This is really obvious when you consider that the Davidic covenant is fulfilled in Jesus, yet Jesus never ruled over a country called Israel. So the argument that the Mosaic and Davidic covenants are made with God and Israel is precisely why Christians should take them seriously.

    3) Reading the prophets and wisdom literature and limiting them to referencing the things accessible through “the proper context” (and by that, of course, you mean “proper historical context”) goes against a tradition of reading scripture that goes all the way back to the Gospels—when Jesus quotes Psalm 22 on the cross, do you think He was citing it based on the Psalm’s historical context?

    4) I totally agree that Christ somehow fulfilled/exhausted the covenants that came before. The challenge I’d put to you is simple: Given Christ somehow fulfilled/exhausted the covenants, how did that happen? What’s different now?

    I argue that there is an ontological difference in the universe and in people’s relationship to God in Christ: in joining ourselves to Christ, we are placed under the covenant of promise. Now, if we take seriously certain passages of scripture, it becomes clear we have to somehow account for how this new covenant relates to the old.

    Here are a few verses for you to consider:
    selection 1
    selection 2
    Peter’s vision

    There’s a few things to note in those passages. First, the idea that the OT is purely a description of how things were doesn’t play, because Paul and Jesus and the Spirit all still relate to it and use it and teach from within its context—nobody says, “Oh, that’s just the Old Testament. Forget that.” Peter’s vision is the epitome of demonstrating how things work—there’s a new ontological reality in the universe, and that means the old law’s applicability is a lot more nuanced. Does this mean we can throw out all the lessons of the Old Testament? Of course not!

    So, in that sense, the Old Testament is not “superseded”—that language usually implies a general disregard for the Old Testament, as you seemed to be advocating. And that’s just wildly bogus, bordering on heretical.

  • johnny

    wow, the level of wasted energy in this thread is the real abomination. i could write a list of things you could have done instead of this useless banter, but that would be a derivative of waste.