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The Damage Done by Civil Religion in America

Jacob P. Ellens recently reviewed Christine Hayes’ book, What’s Divine About Divine Law? Early Perspectives for L&L. It is a fascinating review of a fascinating book. Both the book and the review touch on significant questions about law, politics, religion, and their intersection in the modern day United States, and in the West more generally.

A few thoughts.

First, the well-known but still underappreciated translation problem that the ear of most English speakers hears the word “law” narrowly relative to the meaning of the Hebrew word “torah.” Better would be something like “instruction” or “teaching.” The problem is the English word, “law,” carries with it primary connotations of submission and obedience. To be sure, that’s part of “torah,” but it’s too narrow. It misses the teleological connotations of “instruction” that orient the reader (and listener) also to edification, growth and, ultimately, maturity.

“Law” leads us to hear, as Hayes puts it, “solely . . . the will of a commanding sovereign.” It cuts off even piously asking the question, “why?” To be sure, “instruction” or “teaching” includes obedience, especially for children, but it also invites us to ask the question, “why.” But it’s not impious to ask “why”; indeed, the Scriptures describe it as a regal activity. As the Proverbalist puts it, “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, but the glory of kings is to search out a matter” (Proverbs 25:2)

This is no less true for Christian believers than it is for Jewish believers. Contrary to the implicit Marcionism infecting so much of modern popular Christianity, as Duke University theologian Richard Hays observes in his recent book, Reading Backwards (which I discuss here and here), the Gospel of Luke has Jesus rebuking the disciples on the road to Emmaus not for failing to believe him, but for not believing Moses and the prophets. Luke writes that Jesus later tells the disciples, “all the things which are written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (24:44).

Is the Old Testament law, and New Testament law for that matter, no more than command, or is there a story that provides sense and meaning? Is it naked law, or is it parental instruction?

This narrowing process occurs in others ways as well. Take for example the Ten Commandments. Per the legalistic turn of the English, the Ten Commandments are not called the Ten Commandments in the Scriptures. They are called the Ten Words. Even the fancier, Greek-derived title for the Ten Commandments, the Decalogue, simply means ten (deca) words (logoi). As above, pointing this out does not aim to deny they command. It instead aims to underscore the connotative direction of the English, one that points the reader away from understanding them as instruction and toward understanding them as (mere) command.

This treatment of the Decalogue dovetails with the prevalent modern inclination think that religion, and religious revelation, basically boil down merely to presenting “timeless ethical truths” (in N.T. Wright’s phrase) or “timeless moral principles” (in Richard B. Hays phrase). While popular, this reductionistic inclination leaves behind far too much.

First, we might note the political function served by narrowing our understanding of the Ten Commandments to a deracinated system of timeless moral truths. Conservatives seemingly provide a nod to ecumenicity in referring to “Judeo-Christian ethics.” And undoubtedly many mean it that way. At the same time, the phrase serves a practical function as well, providing a convenient means of avoiding the creation of a practical problem for conservatives. If reference were made simply to “Christian morality” rather than “Judeo-Christian morality,” people might think first of, say, moral truths in the Sermon on the Mount rather than the Ten Commandments. And, rightly or wrongly, Christians tend to regard the lessons of the Sermon on the Mount as more problematic, both personally and socially, than the lessons of the Ten Commandments. Referring to “Judeo-Christian morality” makes it pretty clear we’re talking about the Ten Commandments, and not those pesky commands in the Sermon on the Mount.

But there’s a bigger problem with wresting the Ten Commandments out of the book of Exodus (and Deuteronomy) and treating them as stand-alone moral requirements. Doing so misses the point of Exodus. That is, the huge pivot in how God interacts with humanity.

The popular view of Exodus shares pretty much the view in the classic film, The Ten Commandments. The eponymous telos in the film is the Ten Commandments given to Moses. Events then wrap up with the incident of the golden calf, and then skips to the very end of Deuteronomy, with Moses heading off to die within sight of the Promised Land, but not allowed to enter.

The film skips thirteen chapters in Exodus relating to the design and construction of the tabernacle, as well as all of Leviticus and Numbers, which relate to the sacramental environment around Israel given the presence of the tabernacle in Israel’s midst, all the way to the end of Deuteronomy.

To be sure, one can’t put everything in a single movie. And it just skips all the rigmarole about food, and sacrifices, and cleansing oneself from this and that.

The problem is that all that stuff isn’t just so much rigmarole. The film deflects attention from the real teleology of the Exodus event to the Ten Commandments. To wit, Exodus 29 has Yahweh specifically identifying the purpose of the Exodus: “I am Yahweh their God who brought them out of the land of Egypt, that I might dwell among them.”

As reported in Exodus, the purpose of the Exodus is that God would dwell in the midst of Israel in the tabernacle (and later in the temple).

The overarching point of the Exodus is not the giving of the law, but God’s very presence. The Exodus represents a signal turn toward the restoration of the fellowship humanity had with God in Eden. Again, this is not to dismiss the Ten Commandments as somehow unimportant. Indeed, the tablets go in the inner house of the tabernacle, in the ark of the covenant in the holiest of holies.

The point rather is that, in the narrative of Exodus, the giving of the Ten Commandments is necessarily woven in with the tapestry of God’s presence. As with the sacrificial laws, the food laws, the cleanliness and other laws in Leviticus and Numbers, they’re not so much rigmarole. They all relate to the issue of God’s presence in the midst of a group of humans (even if an elect group). Consider simply the change in the way Exodus reports God interacting with Israel in a few short chapters. In Exodus 19, if the people even touched God’s mountain they would perish. By the end of Exodus the same people would have God dwelling in their very midst.

Whether one wants to believe the story or disbelieve it, the point is that the book of Exodus provides a very different focus to the Exodus story than does the film and popular religion. The film and popular religion in the U.S. sunders divine ethics from divine ontology. The book of Exodus itself presents the Ten Commandments as issuing from the character of God rather than from his (arbitrary) will. Ontology and ethics are coextensive.

The book of Exodus actually solves the conflict at the center of Christine Hayes’ book by positing a both/and rather than an either/or.

But popular American culture pulls out and isolates the Ten Commandments, then skips over the last half of the book of Exodus. And then skips over Leviticus and Numbers, all of which connects the Ten Commandments with the grand pivot in God’s relationship with humanity, once again dwelling in close proximity not seen since Paradise.

But in the context of Hayes’ book, this means the Greeks won the argument in popular culture in the modern United States. Moses and Jesus, and religion in general, are identified with deracinated moral law. This civil religion – Christian ethics without the person of Christ; Judaic ethics without the person of Yahweh – has distorted the religions it purports to express. In doing so, it has hindered, rather than helped, both religion, and religious engagement with the public square.

Reader Discussion

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on May 09, 2018 at 07:43:08 am

Good piece; despite the cheap and unnecessary shot at "Conservatives" - need we have gone there? Need the issue of murder, the willful, unjustified taking of human life, all, any human life, womb to tomb, be raised to remind the author that neither are "Progressives" out-side the reach of those "pesky commands in the Sermon on the Mount"?

The piece would have been better had the author resisted and relented. And, more in keeping to the apparent point of the essay.

It may just as likely be, the desire to sever association of Judeo from Christian ethics and morality has origins more nefarious than those who seek to connect them as a means to avoid some discomforting truth.

I would submit there is nothing new contained in the Sermon on the Mount that is not also included , by implication, in the Ten Commandments. Jesus Christ merely elucidates on these implications of the Commandments.

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Paul Binotto
on May 09, 2018 at 08:34:58 am

I never thought about the why of the law, they seem reasonable as they stand. But I see your point they should be examined, but not for justification but for "edification, growth and, ultimately, maturity.". Thanks very much for opening my mind just a little bit more into the "word".

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al morgan
on May 09, 2018 at 11:27:19 am

James Rogers evokes, without mentioning, the old debate within the natural-law tradition regarding voluntarism (law proceeds from the will of God) versus intellectualism (law emanates from God's reason).

This is standard philosophical fare; see for example http://www.iep.utm.edu/voluntar/

and https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/voluntarism-theological/

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John Schmeeckle
on May 09, 2018 at 14:14:54 pm

I would submit there is nothing new contained in the Sermon on the Mount that is not also included , by implication, in the Ten Commandments.

I think that this is in general true. I also perceive that the Sermon on the Mount focused more on interpersonal ethics rather than law as it is interpreted by civil authority. There is a good reason for this.

Once the Hebrews had fled Egypt, who was their civil authority? Conversely, when Jesus preached, the civil authority was the Roman Empire and its satraps. The Sermon on the Mount contains ethical prescriptions within the context of an established civil authority, and those prescriptions are largely independent of that authority. This was not the case for the recently emancipated Hebrews.

This distinction creates practical problems for those who wish to enlist the Gospels into campaigns for political change. As I previously remarked in discussion with Gabe, there are three words missing form the Gospels that confound attempts to use them as economic or political treatises: "the government should." While the dos and don'ts of Exodus, and Leviticus may serve as personal guidance in personal affairs, they are also rules for the polity; i.e. they have the nature of what we commonly think of as "law," while the teachings in Matthew are more personal, having more the character of "instruction, to borrow from Professor Roger's structure.

This is why it seems that the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount are "pesky." It is much easier to say "there out to be a law" to be enforced by the civil authority, than to say "I need to do better" to be enforced only by the strength of one's character.

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z9z99
on May 09, 2018 at 14:31:20 pm

[T]here are three words missing form the Gospels that confound attempts to use them as economic or political treatises: “the government should.”

I confess, my ancient Hebrew is quite rusty. Which part of the Ten Commandments includes the phrase "the government should"?

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nobody.really
on May 09, 2018 at 14:34:53 pm

None that I know of. Why do you ask?

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z9z99
on May 09, 2018 at 14:45:56 pm

z9z99: [T]here are three words missing form the Gospels that confound attempts to use them as economic or political treatises: “the government should.” While the dos and don’ts of Exodus, and Leviticus may serve as personal guidance in personal affairs, they are also rules for the polity; i.e. they have the nature of what we commonly think of as “law"....

nobody.really: I confess, my ancient Hebrew is quite rusty. Which part of the Ten Commandments includes the phrase “the government should”?

z9z99: None that I know of. Why do you ask?

I thought you were distinguishing between the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount based on the phrase "the government should." If this phrase (or its absence) has any relevance, it would appear to have the same relevance to the Ten Commandments as it has to the Sermon on the Mount.

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nobody.really
on May 09, 2018 at 15:03:43 pm

I thought you were distinguishing between the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount based on the phrase

I wasn't. I was suggesting the theory that the lack of political language in the New Testament derives from Jesus's emphasis on personal conduct and individual salvation, whereas in Exodus, the "Law" also provided rules for the polity, and therefore the "rules" had a different character.

Consider this: Jesus says that if someone sues you for your shirt, give him your cloak as well. Now if the law instructed a judge, "if you find that a plaintiff has a claim for a shirt, you should award a cloak as well," one doubts that law would have sustained credibility. Likewise, if someone complained that you punched him in the face, it would seem rather pointless to object if the law required the judge to rule "I find that you did smack him in the face. Smack him again on the other side, because justice."

One of the differences between Old Testament Law and New Testament teaching is that Jesus spoke about individual transformation for the purpose of salvation and what he termed "The Kingdom of Heaven." The Old Testament law also had to be concerned with providing practical rules for a temporal society.

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z9z99
on May 09, 2018 at 15:08:14 pm

Interesting points. I understand what you are saying, and you are quite right that Christ's sermon was given in the context and setting of an established civil authority; However, would you agree, even so, the validity of its precepts and their applicability are not dependent or limited to a condition of established civil authority?

In the same way, the Ten Commandment's do not become, nor do they ever under temporal and natural conditions, (as a opposed to a supernatural "Kingdom to come", outside of time & space, held by many as a matter of faith), obsolete upon or after civil authority is well established and becomes complex. Christ Himself was adamant in stating that He did not come to change the law, but to fulfill it (which is to say, express it in its fullest, perfect its revelation), which may be in itself a prescription for limited government (intrusion), but I won't advance that here, now.

Interesting discussion & commentary!

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Paul Binotto
on May 09, 2018 at 15:14:57 pm

I think maybe the confusion may lie in the use of Gospels vs. Scriptures, in the sentence referencing "the gov't ought", Gospels connoting New Testament, Scriptures, Old or New. I can see how you would think Z9 was alluding solely to the New Testament Sermon. I was confused myself at the usage.

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Paul Binotto
on May 09, 2018 at 16:01:04 pm

Perhaps it is worth mentioning that, back in the day, the "law of God" (including the body of canon law, based on divine will as reorded in the scriptures) was part of the laws of England, regarded as congruent with but subordinate to natural law (divine will as revealed through reason applied to human nature).

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John Schmeeckle
on May 09, 2018 at 16:14:05 pm

Paul,

would you agree, even so, the validity of its precepts and their applicability are not dependent or limited to a condition of established civil authority?

Yes, but they would not be adequate to establish a civil authority. As I replied to nobody.really, it would not be practical to enshrine the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount into law; if someone strikes you on the right cheek unprovoked, the law would be pretty weird if it required you to also be struck on the left. Jesus's comments on civil authority seem rather anodyne, "render unto Caesar," and so on. Other teachings would just yield confusing results. How would one draft a law that enacted the parable of the talents, or the vineyard owner who pays everyone the same, regardless of how long they worked? The teachings of Jesus have the most relevance to describing the relationship of man to God, and thus are largely independent of any civil authority. Consider for instance Matthew 18:18. Jesus is telling the apostles they can forgive sins, not grant criminal pardons.

In the same way, the Ten Commandment’s do not become, nor do they ever under temporal and natural conditions, (as a opposed to a supernatural “Kingdom to come”, outside of time & space, held by many as a matter of faith), obsolete upon or after civil authority is well established and becomes complex.

I am sympathetic to this view and I agree that it is consistent within a religious tradition. However, one not need not concede that the precepts of the Ten Commandments, for example (except those that explicitly reference God) are necessarily religious. Christopher Hitchens regularly claimed that the ethical tenets in the Ten Commandments are innate, and while I don't necessarily agree with him, nor do I dismiss him. The claim would be not that civil authority makes the Ten Commandments obsolete, but that it makes them redundant. (Of course, a Thomist might respond that the reason these tenets are innate is the same reason that they are recorded in the Ten Commandments, and does not negate a divine origin.)

As for your and nobody's confusion regarding a reference to the Gospels and not the Old Testament, I see no requirement for clarification. I limited the comment to the New Testament specifically to highlight that the teachings there are for the most part independent of temporal authority. One can follow the teachings of Jesus in North Korea or Mexico or Benin; the prescription in Leviticus 20 to stone blasphemers, not so much.

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z9z99
on May 09, 2018 at 16:25:34 pm

Z:

Yep - and if one recognizes that one of the defining contributions of Christianity is the "emancipation" of the *individual* FROM the TRIBE, it should be apparent that Christ sought to "teach" the individual NOT to instruct the State.

"One can follow the teachings of Jesus in North Korea or Mexico or Benin; the prescription in Leviticus 20 to stone blasphemers, not so much [except maybe in Iran and other Mohammedan precincts].
Gee, what does that say about that cultures historical development?

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gabe
on May 09, 2018 at 16:40:22 pm

Interesting. I would take the Thomist view, they are innate because they were divinely written in the hearts of men by their Creator, God, so that even someone like Hitchens could obstinately reject the existence of a God, but not God's law, call it whatever he would...I do dismiss him as more shtick than substance, but this is getting off topic.

To say established civil authority makes the Ten Commandments redundant, in my view, is like saying the positive law makes the U.S. Constitution redundant. Still, I get your point regarding stoning's.

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Paul Binotto

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