So I was sitting and listening to Richard Swinburne, the Oxford professor who is perhaps the leading voice in philosophy of religion among Christians worldwide, and I was getting knots in my stomach. I didn’t want to stand up and ask questions, because I felt like a kindergartner who had wandered into a class on nuclear physics. But something just wasn’t sitting right with me.
Swinburne believes that morals exist, regardless of the existence of God. God clarifies morality, and sometimes makes obligatory things that are only neutral otherwise, but morality is just a real thing that everyone knows about.
So when the nice man stood there waiting for questions, and the glazed-over undergraduates with limited experience in philosophy had nothing to say, I felt worse for him than I did about myself, and I went to the microphone.
“If there are logically necessary moral principles,” I began, “then how do you respond to the sweepingly popular atheism in the West that uses those morals to critique the canonical God, who does things like telling Abraham to kill Isaac?” To be honest, there were probably a lot of “ums” and “uhs” in there too.
What Swinburne did next was dumfounding. He said that the early church used an analogical reading of Scripture to make the difficult texts jibe with Christian morality. For instance, he said, citing Psalm 137, the early church took the “children of Babylon” to be our evil desires, and the “rock” against which they were to be bashed was of course Jesus. So some texts don’t have to be interpreted literally.
So there was my answer – difficult passages of Scripture can be written off with flowery and virtually nonsensical interpretations.
That interaction brought me back for his second lecture the next night. I wasn’t disappointed. He talked about how it’s beneficial to be governed by Christian moral principles, like the fact that men should be the decision-makers in their marriages and homosexuals shouldn’t marry.
So I hopped up to the microphone again. “If we believe that passages that don’t jibe with Christian morality can be interpreted analogically,” he nodded as I spoke, “and you’ve said that humanity seems to be progressing morally over time through a process of reflective equilibrium, why can’t we analogically interpret the passages that now run counter to increasingly widespread thinking in the modern Church?”
His answer was a long one, which wove its way through the correct way to analogically read Scripture to the process of canonization to Augustine to the nature of modern ethical thinking. I’m not quite sure what the conclusion was.
But here’s the deal – on those places where I agree with Swinburne, I come to my views based on a literal reading of Scripture. Analogically divorcing the God of the Scripture from moral principles that seem more intuitively appealing is just going to create a false, albeit nice, God. It’s an idol of intuition. And it’s going to be impossible to hold onto rigid, literal biblical principles on human sexuality while writing off a God who doesn’t behave the way we want him to.
Morality is determined and dictated by the God who can command Abraham to sacrifice his son. He can tell us who to marry and who not to. Morals cannot fundamentally exist without God, because morality is, and only is, what God makes it. The minute we try to soften that God with flowery interpretations of Scripture, we lose God all together. Without God, we are highly evolved puddles of primordial ooze, and morality is a joke.
Then again, admittedly, I’m not qualified to challenge a mind like Swinburne, and an hour’s lecture with brief Q&A isn’t sufficient to plumb a man’s thoughts.