40 Questions to Ask a Christian: An Orthodox Response (Part 3)

Continuing the short “40 Question” series, I’ll pick up where I left off at #11.  Here’s the link to the original post that inspired this reply.

11.  “Rape wasn’t always a crime in the Middle East two thousand years ago. Is that why `do not rape’ is not part of the Ten Commandments?”

Here again, I think this question is directed more towards Western Christians – particularly evangelical Protestants with a fundamentalist bent.  According to the overwhelming majority of evangelical Protestants, the Bible is the only authority for Christian life.  It is, they say, the infallible, inerrant Word of God and if the Bible says it, it must be true.  Many of the more fundamentalist congregations in North America will take it a step further and say that the Bible is the ultimate, God-given authority for all aspects of life – there isn’t one aspect of life that the Bible doesn’t cover.

Now, when someone poses a question like the one above, it can be tricky for fundamentalist Christians to handle.  Rape is a serious crime and, if the Bible is the Word of God, why wouldn’t God include a specific prohibition against this kind of despicable behavior?  Doesn’t God care about rape victims?  Indeed, as society has developed over time – especially with the tech boom in the last couple of centuries – one can think of several examples of crimes that aren’t specifically listed in the Bible.

Of course, the matter is a bit more nuanced even from an evangelical Protestant perspective.  The time where mankind was bound to the Mosaic Law is passed and we are now in a period where God’s grace reigns supreme (most evangelicals would say).  I think the basic point can be summarized by looking to a popular story of a Jewish rabbi who was asked to give a summary of the Torah (the Christian “Old Testament”) where he said: “Love God and love others.  The rest is commentary.  Now go and study.”  That is to say, we can find basic principles in the Bible that we can apply to all aspects of life.

An Orthodox would have no qualms with this principle and the great thing is that we don’t even have to be bound to the Protestant idea of sola scriptura.  We are free to see the books of the Bible for what they are – some are filled with poetry, others are history books, and others are letters of exhortation.  We understand that, as important as the Bible is, it is not the whole of Christianity.  Again, Orthodox theology is existential in its nature and we have the knowledge that the Orthodox Church created the Bible – not the other way around.  So we look to the Fathers of the Church – the men who spoke the languages of scripture and were made successors to the Apostles themselves in determining how scripture can apply to our lives, making us more like Christ each day.

12.  “Do lions need `god-given’ morality to understand how to care for their young, co-operate within a pack, or feel anguish at the loss of a companion? Why do we?”

This is another interesting question, to which the answer isn’t all that straight-forward.  First, of course lions don’t need any “God-given morality” to do what they do.  They are animals and operate on instinct.  There is no moral reflection on their part.  I think this is something that virtually all Christians can agree to.  I also think most Christians would say that God gave the lions the tools they need in order to survive.

Now, here’s where things get a bit more complicated.  The question doesn’t leave off with lions.  It brings human beings into the equation.  This leaves us to ask, “What is the nature of a human being?”  “Is man a mere animal or something more?”  While most atheists would take one side (we are basically mere animals) and evangelicals would take the other (we are something different entirely), the proper Orthodox answer would simply be “Yes.”  In other words, we are animals, but we are also something much more.  To be clear, most evangelicals and even some Orthodox would recoil at that statement, as they reject evolutionary theory outright in favor of the strictly biblical view that man was created (along with everything else) within one, literal week out of a direct act of God.

It is important to understand, however, that Orthodox do not have to take the fundamentalist view of creation and I (along with many other Orthodox) tend to think that evolutionary theory is perfectly compatible with Orthodox theological anthropology.  Along with the fact that Orthodox are not bound to sola scriptura and a literal reading of the Bible from a doctrinal perspective, it is vital to point out that humanity was created as a “perfect” being in a potential, but not realized, sense.  In other words, humanity was free to choose whether or not we would grow into our calling of God-likeness, as intercessors for creation and a link between the created universe and the noetic (or spiritual) realm.  Orthodox see humanity as a microcosm of the universe – part created matter and part spirit – but all within one, wholistic and undivided being.

So it is perfectly fine for an Orthodox to say that, yes, we are animals, as we evolved over millions of years to the point where we are now as a species (homo sapiens sapiens).  But at the same time, we have a soul that is immortal by the grace of God and we are made in God’s image and called to be like Him.  Our capacity for rational reflection, scientific inquiry, and morality – along with our (by God’s grace) immortal soul – sets us apart from the rest of the animals in creation.  This is part of the beauty of the existential nature of Orthodox theology – we can creatively deal with the latest advancements in the best scientific knowledge available to us, instead of trapping ourselves in an outdated model of reality that puts us (needlessly) at odds with non-Christians.

13.  “If organized religion requires a civilization in which to spread, how could this civilization exist without first having a moral code to make us civil?”

I think the terms here could be clarified a bit, but I tend to see the question itself as a response to the idea that morality only comes from religion.  It is true that many religious people, including many, many Christians, say that their religion is the sole basis for morality.  I think this is a huge mistake.  Obviously, we see people acting with morality all over the world across time.  I tend to think this helps negate the Western Christian idea of total depravity, which is the dominant view in evangelical Protestantism, and the idea that organized religion of one sort or the other is the source of morality.  I tend to think it actually bolsters the Orthodox view that humanity is basically good and that God Himself is the source of goodness and morality.

To be continued…

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