Confessions of the Antichrist: A Reply to Bob Murphy

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I
agree with Bob
Murphy
that many libertarians are too quick to dismiss religion
in general, and Christianity in particular, as irrational and absurd.
Hence I was surprised to find him counting me among their number.

I recently criticised the orthodox Christian interpretation of the
crucifixion in several blog posts: see

a)
God So Loved
the World that He Did What?
,
b) Why Jesus
Is Not God
, and
c) Sinners
in the Hands of an Angry Jesus?

Dr. Murphy infers
(on the basis of reading just the first one, I think) that I am
therefore “anti-Christian” and indeed “anti-religious.”

I cannot agree with Dr. Murphy’s apparent assumption that the particular
version of theology he accepts enjoys a monopoly on the term “Christian”
(let alone on the term “religious”!). The mainstream interpretations
of the incarnation and atonement did not become orthodoxy until
the fourth and twelfth centuries respectively, and there have always
been dissenters who rejected those doctrines precisely because they
found them not only philosophically but theologically and
scripturally unsound.

Dr. Murphy rightly charges many of Christianity’s critics with being
careless in their attacks; but I fear I must chide him for a similar
error. Dr. Murphy has, I suspect, a certain image of what a critic
of orthodox christology is likely to believe, and so he automatically
views my remarks through the lens of that image. For example, he
takes me to task for asserting that “Jesus never claimed to be the
Son of God,” and even cites some scriptural passages designed to
convince me otherwise. But I never made the assertion he complains
of.

No doubt his stereotypical secularist opponent makes such an assertion,
but what has that got to do with me? I reckon Dr. Murphy saw the
phrase “nowhere to be found in the Bible” and made an associative
leap, without due attention to the context; but the doctrine I was
referring to was the orthodox understanding of the incarnation and
atonement, not the status of Jesus as son of God.

My purpose in my blog posts was to criticise, not Christianity per
se, but a particular doctrine which has acquired great popularity
among Christians but which in my judgment has no place in Christianity.
(I wasn’t raising the question of whether Christianity itself is
right or wrong; though for the record, I think the answer is “some
of each.”) My chief purpose in the present essay is not to
continue that criticism (I can do that on my
own blog
) but to rebut Dr. Murphy’s charge of being one of those
“libertarians who ridicule those who believe in Christ.”
I suppose I do think orthodox christology is crazy, but I certainly
don’t think everyone who believes it is crazy (analogy: the theory
that minimum wage laws benefit workers is crazy, but most people
who believe it aren’t crazy); nor, of course, do I think that “those
who believe in Christ” must thereby accept orthodox christology.
Athena forfend!

Feuding Clans and Spitballs

I do want to respond, however, to the two analogies that Dr. Murphy
offers. First he asks us to consider a clan patriarch who cares
“not only for his own children, but also for you and the members
of your family, notwithstanding the unending stream of crimes and
insults committed against him” by your own vicious clan, and so
decides to send his son as an emissary “to live amongst the filth,
disease, hopelessness, and misery that you and your clan called
home”; the patriarch instructs his son to “give wise instruction,”
“point out the error of your ways,” and “lead by example.” Although
the emissary is abused and finally murdered, many of your clan’s
members are impressed enough by the emissary’s example to repent
and change their ways.

I think this is actually a pretty decent analogy to Jesus’ mission
as the Gospels present it (though the absence of anything corresponding
to the resurrection both weakens the analogy – as I read the New
Testament, the meaning of the crucifixion depends crucially
on the resurrection – and makes the patriarch’s treatment of his
son look rather shabby). But it doesn’t rescue the aspects of orthodox
christology that I was criticising. In the feuding-clans case as
Dr. Murphy presents it, the patriarch is not omnipotent and so has
no more efficient way to deal with the problem; the emissary is
not himself the patriarch in disguise; the emissary comes to save
the clan from earthly conflicts they’ve been bringing upon themselves,
not from post-mortem tortures the patriarch himself is threatening
them with, protection-racket-style; and although the emissary does
get executed, the chief point of the emissary’s mission is not his
death but his life and teachings while he lives with the
clan; allowing himself to be executed may be part of leading by
example, but it is not the chief point. Hence Dr. Murphy’s story
makes the orthodox view look reasonable by leaving out all the aspects
I criticised.

A question, by the way, for those who favour the orthodox view:
suppose that Jesus hadn’t been able to find anyone willing to execute
him? I’m not asking you to imagine a world in which everyone is
too virtuous to need Jesus’ redemptive example in the first place;
suppose, rather, that there had been plenty of vicious folks who
were happy to have Jesus insulted, imprisoned, flogged – but they
never actually had the nerve to kill him. (Maybe they were French.)
Would this have ruined Jesus’ whole mission? It seems that on the
orthodox view the answer has to be yes; the crucifixion is the crucial
event on which redemption turns. But on the story Dr. Murphy gives,
the execution of the emissary doesn’t seem to have anything like
the same central importance. (Incidentally, given that on the orthodox
view being crucified was not just part of God’s plan but the centerpiece
of that plan, I’m not sure why Dr. Murphy objects to the phrase
“got himself nailed to a cross.”)

Dr. Murphy’s second example is a philosophy professor who “spends
countless hours preparing supplemental notes” to help students who
mock his efforts and “throw spitballs at him.” When the professor
complains “I’m really trying to help you all get a passing grade
in this class,” the students respond that “after all it was the
professor himself who made the class so tough,” and if he
“really wanted everyone to pass, he should just give them all an
‘A.'”

How should we evaluate this example? It depends, first, on whether
one accepts theological voluntarism or theological intellectualism.
According to theological voluntarism (also known as “theological
subjectivism” or “divine command theory”), the rules of morality
are the product of God’s free choice, and he can alter them as he
pleases; God’s decrees are what make actions right or wrong.
According to theological intellectualism (also called “theological
objectivism”), by contrast, the rules of morality are logical truths
that even God cannot change; in the Thomistic version of theological
intellectualism, this is because to be God is to be objective goodness
personified, and so God cannot alter the requirements of goodness
without ceasing to be God, i.e., without destroying himself.
(Many Christians try to combine the voluntarist and intellectualist
positions by saying “Of course God could command murder,
since he’s all-powerful, but he wouldn’t, because he’s all-good.”
But this compromise position won’t work – since if God did
command murder, then on the voluntarist thesis murder would then
be good, and so God’s goodness can be no bar to his commanding it.)

Suppose we accept theological voluntarism. Then all analogy between
God and the philosophy professor vanishes. Although the professor
made the rules for the course, those rules are not arbitrary; they
reflect the objective requirements for what success in learning
philosophy requires, and the professor lacks the power to change
those objective requirements. But for voluntarists God’s rules do
not and cannot reflect any deeper requirements to which God’s decisions
are answerable. (If the professor could alter at will not just the
rules for his class but the objective requirements for learning
philosophy – making the latter easier, for example – then the
students’ complaints would be perfectly justified.)

Does the example work if we accept theological intellectualism instead?
I don’t think so, for reasons I’ve already discussed on
my blog
and so won’t belabour here – except to say that while
students who refuse to study deserve to flunk, I find it hard to
believe that any plausible account of an objective moral law is
going to yield the result that people who refuse to accept Christ
deserve to be tortured in hell for all eternity.

March
3, 2004

Roderick
T. Long [send him mail]
is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Auburn
University
; author of Reason
and Value: Aristotle versus Rand
; Editor of the Libertarian
Nation Foundation periodical Formulations;
and an Adjunct Scholar of the Ludwig
von Mises Institute
. He received his Ph.D. from Cornell in 1992,
and maintains the website Praxeology.net,
as well as the web journal In
a Blog’s Stead
.


        
        

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