Monday, July 05, 2010

Ethics and Justice. Part 9: The Nature of the God Who Demands Moral and Ethical Behavior

The Jewish people taught the world two significant things:

1. There is only one God, and morality stems from the nature of the one and only God.

This is why God revealing Himself to Moses and calling Israel and delivering them is of great importance for all humanity, because when God delivered the 10 Commandments on Sinai, for the first time in human history a people said, “There is only one God, and this is the type of behaviour He demands of us.” The implication of ethical monotheism is that morality is not a cultural variant. When God said, “Don’t murder,” that became true for all people, at all times, in every culture. There is no competing God to offer an alternative morality.

2. God’s primary demand is that we act with decency towards each other.

This statement doesn’t have the revolutionary impact on us that it should, because we live in a world heavily influenced by 3000 years of first Jewish and then Christian thinking. But consider the impact of this kind of thinking in the ancient world. In the ancient world, one could be devoutly religious and immoral at the same time. One could be a devoutly religious Greek or Roman and not be “good.” These people went to prostitutes as an act of religious worship.

So people ask with confusion sometimes, “How could a people as advanced as the Romans murder, and adulterate, and leave their unwanted babies out with the trash?” The answer is because that’s how the gods they worshipped behaved. Humans always become like the object of their worship. Christians insisted that religion impacts morality. One’s relationship with God is lived out in terms of relationships with other people.

So, if humans become like the object of their worship, what does scripture teach us about God’s nature in terms of our moral and ethical obligations?

1. God is Supernatural
God is above the natural world; He is not a part of it. The Bible begins with the words, “In the beginning, God created.”

The point of Genesis is not to provide a scientific account of the origins of the Earth; it is to provide people with an account of the nature and character of God. He is transcendent, He creates, He rules, He is self-sufficient. In a world in which nearly all people worshipped nature, God wanted Israel to know that nature was subservient to Him.

Why is this important? Because nature knows nothing of good or evil. Nature is amoral. In nature there is no right, only might. Into the ancient world where human sacrifice was a means of placating disease and disaster, God said, contrary to the laws of nature, “If something is weak don’t kill it, protect it.” The worship of Baal was a form of nature worship. They believed that in the winter Baal died, and went into the underworld, so the plants died also, in the spring Baal would be resurrected and the plants would be revived. The Canaanite practice of sacred prostitution was meant to help Baal revive and ensure the fertility of flocks and plants and people.

Nature cannot teach us right and wrong, only God can, and He is above nature.

2. God is Personal
God is not an unnamed, unknown force. He has a name, He has revealed Himself to us, and He cares about His creation.

When God revealed His name to Moses in Exodus 3 He also revealed His personality, His character, and His nature. God is not an “unmoved mover,” who has set forces in motion and moved on. We are created in His Image, He knows us, He loves us, He cares for us, He has numbered the hairs on our head, and out of His personhood, God cares how we treat each other.

Disrespecting a human being is dishonouring the God in whose Image they have been created. The ultimate demonstration of God’s personhood is that He became a man. In the incarnation of Jesus, God taught us what it is like to be truly human, and to be truly human is to be like God.

3. God is Good
A God who is not good cannot demand goodness from His creation. The ancient Babylonians and Canaanites and Greeks and Romans were not good because their gods were not good. God rules the universe by a code of moral standards.

Despite the temporary victories of evil people and the suffering of good people, a moral and just God rules the universe, and ultimately, if not in this life, then in the next, good and evil will get what’s coming to them. God is not neutral in the battle between good and evil, and neither can we be.

4. God is Holy
To be holy is to be set apart, to be different, distinctive. You don’t have to be like the world to have an impact on the world. You don’t have to be like the crowd to change the crowd. You don’t have to lower yourself to other people’s level to lift them up.  

Holiness isn’t being odd or a misfit - holiness is simply being like God, and the result of having a relationship with God is that you become like Him. To be holy is to elevate ourselves above our animal nature, and act like beings created in the image of God. No matter how meaningful, or beautiful, or well intentioned something may be, if it is separated from the goodness of God it can easily lead to evil. This is why the same culture that produced Wagner and Beethoven and Mozart also produced Hitler. 

Everything we do must be grounded in the goodness and holiness of the one God – art, education, law, love, compassion, reason, patriotism, life, ritual, business, profits, psychology, economics, sports - everything that we are involved in must be guided by the goodness and holiness of God.

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