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.