The Bible: Humanity in Relation to God
(This is my summary of a chapter in a book I often used in university classes: Thirteen Theories of Human Nature, Oxford Univ. Press.)
The Old Testament is recognized as the word of god by both Jews and Christians; the New Testament is only recognized as such by Christians. Islam also recognizes the patriarchs and prophets of these books, but asserts that Muhammad is “the last and greatest of the prophets and that the Koran is the uniquely authoritative message of God.” Needless to say, there are so many varieties of belief that there is no way to say “the Jews say this” or “the Christians say that.” We begin with a theory of the universe common to both Jews and Christians (and to Islam too.) The author begins by telling us that he is a Christian in case you want to know where he’s coming from.
Metaphysical Background: The Judaic-Christian Conception of God – It is not clear from the opening verses of the Bible whether God is one (monotheism) or god is many (polytheism.) [There are other well-known conundrums. For example, there are two creation accounts corresponding to the first two chapters of the book. In the first multiple humans were created after the animals and man and woman were then created simultaneously; in the second humans were created before animals, with man created first, then the animals and then a woman from man’s rib.] But this god(s) creates evidently by commanding, gives things names after bringing them into existence, and all created is good. Soon the first two humans disobey God, then one of their children kills the other, and god resolves to kill all humans. Finally, Noah is allowed to save his family and all the animals. There are also stories of sons of God having sex with woman and races of giants. [This is all in the first book of the Bible.] No doubt the text “is a compilation of several ancient stories containing different conceptions of the divine.”
This god speaks to people throughout the book, instructs them, and is represented variously as having a face and voice, being a shield, having nostrils, being a shepherd, and more. In later books, he generally speaks through intermediaries and later on, still there is less talk of god. All of this causes the author to ask “Where should we draw the line between symbolic or metaphorical talk of God and realistic, literal talk of Him?” He is not sure of the answer. But traditionally (classical theism) holds that God is non-spatial, non-temporal, immaterial and yet a personal being who creates, loves, guides, judges, and cares for us. He is endowed with intelligence, desires, knowledge and other traits of personality. He intervenes in the world, performs miracles, and tells us how to live. In short, he is a disembodied person. But what does this mean if we cannot confirm or falsify it? The author suggests that we understand this talk of god as a metaphor. [But of what?]
The Hebrew Theory of Human Nature – Humans exists “primarily in a relation to God, who has created us to occupy a special position in the universe … The question immediately arises whether we should read this story literally as narrating historical events … or as mythology…” The author, as I did previously, notes the main problem with a literal account—there are multiple and contradictory creation stories. Another problem is the stories inconsistency with modern science, including but not limited to cosmology, geology, and biology. Science provides entirely different accounts of our past. Furthermore, these stories contradict common sense. How did Adam and Eve’s sons find wives if all humans were descended from the first couple? The author, a Christian, says “I propose that only symbolic readings of the creation stories can be taken seriously. It is now widely … accepted that they are myths …”
Humans are supposedly made in the image of God [if true then looking around the world one might conclude God is a monster]. Of course, we can turn this around and say humans made god in their image. In other words, we don’t partake in the perfect intelligence, moral perfection and personhood of the creator but imagine our own imperfections don’t exist in a godhead. [Both Nietzsche and Feuerbach said that God didn’t make us in his image but we made god in our image.] Humans are thus special yet also continuous with nature made from dust to which they return. And humans are not made up of body and soul. The Hebrew word ruach means wind or breath, it is not a separate soul. This idea is not found anywhere in the Hebrew Bible. [In all my years of teaching I think this is the most common misunderstanding of orthodox Christianity by Christians.] In fact there is no expectation of the afterlife in the Old Testament, the Jews developed the idea of the afterlife only slightly before the time of Jesus.
As for woman, the one biblical account has them appearing second to man and a woman is represented as the temptress who brought about man’s fall and tempts him to sin, especially sexually. For their disobedience woman will suffer in childbirth and must accept men as their masters. And of course, god is a man! [I’m guessing all of this was written by men.]
Humans are supposed to be free [there is a tension here because women are supposed to submit to men] to love and obey God or not. God commanded humans not to learn about good and evil, and humans must choose whether to know about good and evil (to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil), and their eternal salvation depends on it. But why is it bad to learn this? Is not the mark of the mature to put childhood behind and search for one’s own answers? Here we confront the emphasis on faith and the heart characteristic of the Hebraic mind in contrast to the emphasis on reason and intelligence characteristic of the Hellenistic (Greek) mind.
The emphasis on the heart implies a concern with human goodness, with the personal characteristics, and with good actions. But faith in the Godhead is of primary importance, for God created us “so that we fulfill the purpose of our life only when we love and serve our Creator.” Thus the ultimate requirement is obedience to God “rather than the use of the intellect to reason things out and make one’s own judgments about truth and morality.” Thus god rewards Abraham because he is willing to kill his own son Isaac in order to submit to god.” [Kierkegaard famously called Abraham the “knight of faith” for doing this. Might we instead call Abraham … insane and god malicious?] As the author puts is “… such a command could not really come from a loving God … Even if it was only given as a “test of faith,” what sort of God would play such a trick?” Another example of the emphasis on faith vs. reason is in the story of Job. Satan persuades God to torment Job for no reason. God asserts his authority and Job submits. The point seems to be that one should be humble before God [or he will mess you up], rather than there being any intellectual insight as to why this has all happened to Job.
Diagnosis: Human Disobedience – We misuse our freedom and choose evil over good and therefore mess up our relationship with God. God punishes our disobedience by sending pain, suffering, and death. [Did god know all this was going to happen beforehand?] There is thus a tension between our inclinations and our duties, but why do our (biological tendencies) imply moral failure?
God’s Covenants and Regeneration – God made us to be in a relationship with him, we broke that relationship, so god must fix it—hence the idea of salvation initiated by the mercy of God. In the Old Testament, this is described as the idea of a covenant between God and his chosen people—the Jews, especially Noah, Abraham, and Moses. Still, problems persisted, sin did not disappear from the earth, the Jews commit genocide that god orders, and more. God uses history to punish both friends and foes alike, but the idea arises that God’s mercy can also intervene in history to rectify all these problems. “Thus the hope arose among Judaism for the coming of a God-appointed savior, “the Messiah,” which Christians identify with Jesus.”
The New Testament – The Jewish rabbi Jesus didn’t leave any writing but the new religion of Christianity developed with the letters of St. Paul and the gospel narratives about his life written between 40 to 70 years after his death. [His existence as a historical figure has also been called into question.] Christians soon recognized god the father, god the son, and god the holy spirit who inspired Christian believers—thus 3 persons in 1 god. What is a Christian? This is a complex question, but at a minimum, it requires believing that Jesus was at least a special, historical, revelation of God and that God was uniquely present in Jesus. This is usually expressed as the doctrine of the incarnation—Jesus is both human and divine. What this doctrine means is a matter of theological dispute. [The issue was settled historically for Christians at the Council of Nicaea in 325 which settled the issue of the relationship between God the father and god the son in a debate among council members.]
The New Testament Theory of Human Nature – St. Paul talks of (the level of) spirit and (the level of old nature) flesh. This distinction is one “between regenerate and unregenerate humanity, redeemed and unredeemed human nature.” The idea, as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount, seems to be that the best of human nature rejects power, fame, wealth, and sex for moral righteousness. Sex is a particularly vexing issue, as both St. Paul and St. Augustine deride it. As for women, Jesus evidently didn’t choose any as disciples and St. Paul and Christianity ever since “… has found females theologically problematic …” [Should woman cover their heads in church? Should women be ordained? etc.] Again none of this assumes an afterlife, although some have obviously interpreted the Kingdom of God in this way.
However, eternal life implies loving God and one’s neighbors certainly, and the New Testament does discuss the resurrection, the last judgment, and eternal punishment. The idea that Jesus was resurrected has traditionally been taken to imply that we can life forever too, at least if we are saved by God. The Christian expectation of resurrection of the saved appears in Corinthians.
The New Testament Diagnosis of Sin – We are all imperfect in God’s eyes, as is the entire creation after the Fall—since human beings rejected God by eating the forbidden fruit.
God’s Salvation in Christ – It is unclear what Jesus thought of himself, as it was Paul who first formalized the doctrines of salvation and the incarnation. Paul thought that God was uniquely present in Jesus and his life and death somehow restored our relationship with God. Paul believed that one misdeed condemned all humanity and one righteous act—Jesus dying—saves everyone. But it is counter-intuitive to believe that one bad act and one good act could do this. And how does Jesus atone for our sins anyway? Today most theologians don’t accept the idea that this was a blood sacrifice like in the Old Testament. So again, how does this supposed event 2000 years ago redeem the world of sin? How can one be saved by Jesus? Traditionally then we are saved by God’s grace, not our own works. On the other hand, Christianity assumes we are free to choose to accept God’s salvation. This creates a tension.
Spiritual or Supernatural Versions of Christianity? – But how are we to rationally understand perplexing Christian doctrines, like the resurrection and virgin birth? Must we just accept them on faith? What of the outlandish material in the book of Revelation? How can resurrected bodies not exist in space and time? One might respond by partaking in the spiritual life of the church, regardless of the truth of its theological claims, but surely this can be achieved without accepting all the supernatural and metaphysical claims.