July 25, 2010

Today's First Reading and an Early Revelation

Justin Katz

Today's first reading for Roman Catholic Masses was the passage in which Abraham implores God to spare the city of Sodom for the sake of the innocents whom God might "sweep away... with the guilty." The typical reading of this passage — and the point most often emphasized during homilies — is that Abraham is daring to negotiate with God — and winning. The point often drawn from the scene is that prayer and intercessions can have an effect.

I can't recall the specifics, but I know that I've heard non-believers cite this interaction as evidence that the Bible can't be an accurate representation of the God whom believers profess it to describe, because an omniscient, omnipotent, benevolent God couldn't possibly bend to the requests of mere mortals. There's a capriciousness evident in a Supreme Being who would slaughter innocents with the guilty and then change His mind upon the request of a human being who is more charitable than Him.

Expanding the quotation, though, a few lines before those presented in the lectionary suggests a different interpretation:

The men set out from there and looked down toward Sodom; Abraham was walking with them, to see them on their way.

The Lord reflected: "Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, now that he is to become a great and populous nation, and all the nations of the earth are to find blessing in him? Indeed, I have singled him out that he may direct his sons and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just, so that the Lord may carry into effect for Abraham the promises he made about him."

With this interior dialogue included, the exchange between God and Abraham reads less as a negotiation than as a revelation, for Abraham, about the nature of God. It's clear that Abraham thinks he's presuming to debate with the Lord, but nothing in the responses is inconsistent with the interpretation that God is merely answering questions about His previous intentions (in the knowledge, of course, that there were no such innocents to be found).

Two points follow from this reading. First, what Abraham accomplished wasn't to persuade God of a higher morality, but to affirm for his descendants that such a morality coincided with their God — in keeping with God's stated intention of directing Abraham's "posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just." Had Abraham not explicitly pursued his line of questioning, the mercy of God would have been an open question after He'd destroyed Sodom.

Second, we can take Sodom as representing a promise, in this biblical story, that God will spare all of human society as long as there are those among us through whom He can work. Owing to free will, we can go well astray from our purpose and from the path of "what is right and just," but the existence of just a few points of human light are sufficient for the long, slow process of broad salvation.

After all, God did not destroy Jerusalem in the New Testament, and the process of salvation continues, these millennia later. We're living in Sodom, in other words, and we must strive to be those few innocents on whose behalf God will spare the city.

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"in keeping with God's stated intention of directing Abraham's "posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just." "

Then how does this square with Abraham's nephew Lot being seduced by his daughters and impregnating them, just after leaving Sodom? Lot is later described in the New Testament as "rightous" (2nd Peter), but I don't recall his daughters being mentioned again. Since Lot was drunk, it seems regarded as foregiveable. But, those daughters!

I suppose a nephew isn't "posterity".

Posted by: Warrington Faust at July 25, 2010 4:38 PM

Yeah. Nephews aren't really "posterity," and in context, the passages with Lot immediately follow God's telling Abraham that he'll conceive children. I'd say it's clear what He meant.

It's also made clear that Lot was not aware of having slept with his daughters. The biology of that paragraph is certainly worthy of being questioned, but I don't see how it affects the theology. Lot was led from Sodom, but his wife couldn't leave without looking back and being turned to salt. It's not surprising that his daughters would bring the stain of Sodom with them, and it's also perfectly in keeping with the point of my post that the stain of Sodom would follow mankind throughout it's history.

Posted by: Justin Katz at July 25, 2010 4:54 PM

Interesting how all of these miracles, divine interventions, and mass smitings dropped off the radar as soon as human beings discovered the scientific method and began recording history even somewhat reliably. I've heard it said that the "7 days" God took to create the world could have spanned millions of human years. He must be taking a light cat nap for the last 1000 or so. Maybe he'll wake up soon and give us all another magic show.

You'd be more likely to get a response petitioning our new God, the federal government. I wouldn't count on it though.

Posted by: Dan at July 25, 2010 6:10 PM


One of the reasons that I'm persuaded that the Catholic Church is the most correct is that it doesn't insist on a literalist reading of the Bible, as if it were written by a divine historian. There's a more profound type of truth involved, and it's taken me quite a bit of thought, reading, and prayer to appreciate it. I gather you haven't thought very much effort worthwhile, in that regard, which leaves me wondering on what basis you express such confidence.

I needn't wonder long, though, because your general presentation of your views is evidence of nothing so much as your libertarian belief that the main offense of the government is its apostasy against your true God: yourself.

Posted by: Justin Katz at July 25, 2010 6:28 PM

I'm actually not hostile toward the Bible as a collection of parables, common wisdom, and a mixture of historical fact and fiction. Nor am I hostile toward religion in general, as long as people use it for good (emotional support and charity) instead of for evil (control and coercion). 8 years of religious day school gave me a thorough exposure to the amount of rich culture contained within the Bible, as well as how frequently it is abused by all manner of hypocrites and holier-than-thou control freaks (my "teachers" and "religious leaders"). My line in the sand for religion is the same line as for everything else, its territory ends exactly where my individual liberty begins.

My name is Biblical and comes from the Hebrew, "God is my judge." I always thought of it as ironic, since I have been an atheist for as long as I can remember. But I think about it differently now. I take it to mean that no other person has the right to judge me and lord over me, unless I consent to it or forfeit that right by harming others. Only God has the right to lord over me, just like only God knows what the lottery numbers will be next week, i.e. nobody does.

Posted by: Dan at July 25, 2010 6:57 PM


You've merely restated my suggestion, thereby agreeing with it: Nobody can judge you or "lord over you" except God, and by your worldview, there is no God, so you, therefore, have made a god of yourself, as the lone judge of your own behavior by standards that you lay out.

The political difficulty arises in the degree to which you insist that your dogma should bind others when it comes to such things as self-governance. You believe there to be some transcendent moral right for you to define what you may do in the public square, and those who differ are not just wrong, by your lights, but evil.

The philosophical difficulty arises in that your talk about harming others must be entirely arbitrary. You've no grounds, in other words, to stop "nobody can judge me but God, and He doesn't exist" at the door of interpersonal violence. Kill and be killed... who's to judge?

Posted by: Justin Katz at July 25, 2010 7:30 PM

I am my own god in that only I can know what is best for me, so that is a somewhat accurate metaphor. Obviously it doesn't hold up very well if the god in comparison is the Judeo-Christian all-knowing and all-powerful god, since I do not possess those qualities.

The assertion that libertarianism "forces" people to live in a world in which they cannot initiate force against others has always struck me as a bizarre and Orwellian manipulation of thought and language. War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, etc. If voluntaryism is coercion then none of these concepts have any meaning.

No arbitrariness about it. There is a sound moral and rational basis for the line I draw - if somebody else's rights overlap another person's rights and vice versa, then they are really no rights at all. The only view that makes sense is therefore one in which people's rights end where other people's rights begin, the libertarian view.

Posted by: Dan at July 25, 2010 8:09 PM

But clearly, you would like to force people to live in a society in which (e.g.) drugs, prostitution, pornography, and so on are legal. Some libertarians find ways of imposing restrictions, such as the place and manner of sale and presentation, but those are essentially political accommodations. Your cheap leveraging of Orwell notwithstanding, what that imposes is a particular civic philosophy, thereby negating the right to self-governance.

You say nobody has a right to "use violence" in order to keep porn out of the marketplace. Somebody else, insisting that the prominence of porn does indeed harm them, says that they do have such a right. By your political philosophy, you would remove that other person's much-more-basic civil right to implement the policy that better accords with their understanding. (Two important notes: 1) I'm not taking the anti-porn stance, here, and 2) arguments about practicality are irrelevant, because to reach them, you must cede that others can and should have the right to implement the ban.)

My view is that voluntaryism ultimately must come down to the voluntary participation in a society, with the United States striving to allow states to coexist to the greatest extent possible with the greatest variation allowable.

The arbitrariness isn't in your description of rights, but in your philosophical basis for them. If your theological premise is that nobody has a right to judge you, then no rights logically follow from that position, because nobody has the right to judge your wrong for killing (to pick the extreme). Because you do not intend to kill, you allow that society would have a right to hunt you down and exact some sort of justice were you to do so, but that means only that you are wrong when you are caught.

of course, contemporary libertarians are still riding on the momentum of Judeo-Christian morality, which made modern society possible. That momentum cannot last forever, though, without moral, social, and legal affirmation.

Posted by: Justin Katz at July 25, 2010 8:37 PM

"Somebody else, insisting that the prominence of porn does indeed harm them, says that they do have such a right."

That view is mistaken because there is no meaningful harm there. Is an assertion that 2+2=5 an equally valid counter-view to your assertion that 2+2=4? I'm not a complete relativist, and if that is your charge then simple majoritarian voting or elected representation does nothing whatsoever to solve the arbitrariness problem, it just cloaks it in layers of meaningless procedure.

"of course, contemporary libertarians are still riding on the momentum of Judeo-Christian morality, which made modern society possible."

And contemporary United States political philosophy is riding on the momentum of the English monarchies and parliament, Roman and Greek empires, Ancient Hebrew/Arabic morality and law, etc. So what? I don't believe in intellectual property, but if there was such a thing then the early American founders would be liable for the biggest intellectual heist in history.

This is all consistent with our point anyway. Voluntaryists see history as an evolution toward greater autonomy and individual liberty as human political philosophy matures away from violent coercion and rule by decree. We think we're ready for the next step forward while others disagree, the same basic disagreement as was present at the time of the American Revolution. I don't know if we're right or not, but I'd like to try, at least on a small scale.

Posted by: Dan at July 25, 2010 9:24 PM

"She looked back and was turned into salt"
Do people really believe these stories ???
If they do, thats sad, funny, but sad,
No wonder Glenn Beck has no problem
selling Gold-Line
Religion easily has the greatest bullsh*t story ever told. Think about it, religion has actually convinced people that there's an INVISIBLE MAN...LIVING IN THE SKY...who watches every thing you do, every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a list of ten special things that he does not want you to do. And if you do any of these ten things, he has a special place full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish where he will send you to live and suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry for ever and ever 'til the end of time...but he loves you. And he needs money! He's all powerful, but he can't handle money!" - George Carlin

Posted by: Sammy at July 25, 2010 9:53 PM

There is at least as much "meaningful harm" to the prominence of porn as there is "meaningful benefit" to having it available.

Which brings us back to the difficulty that you refuse to recognize: you have no basis for your delineation of "rights." (Your disbelief in intellectual property is a fantastic example.) Atheistic libertarian is the flip side of atheistic communism, in that respect. You say my rights end where yours begin; the communist says your rights begin where the state's end. And where is that?

You'll perhaps note that libertarians would give everybody an equal scope of "rights," but that's an arguable proposition. We all have a right to our money, but perhaps I see no reason that you should be wealthy while I'm destitute. Why don't I have a right to a comfortable living?

On the other point: The United States has manifestly advanced the evolution that you suggest. My accusation against libertarianism is that it lacks the foundation in order to continue that process. In keeping with your assumption of "rights," you're merely assuming that libertarians are the Chosen Ones to continue the fated progress of history.

But if there is no God, then there's no reason to assume that humanity has been moving toward some cosmic ideal of individual autonomy. I'd observe that humanity moves back and forth, in wider arcs, perhaps, given its population, geographic reach, and advancement. My concern about libertarianism is that, lacking any grounding in a larger principle than the individual's preferences, it will allow the pendulum to swing as extremely in the opposite direction as the modern West has brought human society toward freedom — whether wealthy libertarians are the ones to hoard the worlds wealth and reduce the rest to effective slavery or, instead, they so weaken the will to cultural and civic defense that they make the West even more vulnerable to authoritarian attack and takeover.

Posted by: Justin Katz at July 25, 2010 9:55 PM

"Religion easily has the greatest bullsh*t story ever told."

I thought that was progressiveism. Tried everywhere on the planet since 1789 and universally a blood soaked failure in every manner.

Posted by: Tommy Cranston at July 25, 2010 10:04 PM

I don't think Justin's piece requires, or leads to, a discussion of whether or not God exists. There may be some reason to question Catholic doctrine.

Dan does make the interesting point that "serious" miracles seem in short supply today. There are lots of possible reasons for this. Similarly, UFO sightings seemed to disappear from about 1960 until the emergence of the digital camera.

Justin's statement "One of the reasons that I'm persuaded that the Catholic Church is the most correct is that it doesn't insist on a literalist reading of the Bible, as if it were written by a divine historian." seems a comment on very recent history in the Catholic Church. Witness the "disputations" common in the period of the Inquisition, the "meaning" of scripture was still very much at issue. This may seem like "ancient history", but at the time the Church had reached about 80% of its current age. One would think it was fully formed. Since then the Church has gone through a rough and tumble, having to relinquish its secular power over governments, a sometimes bloody affair. To the best of my knowledge, they still believe they retain the power of excommunication and consequent damnation. This has been little used for centuries, I suspect that is because belief in this power has waned. Certainly Hitler and Stalin were likely candidates (some would say Patrick Buchanan). I am not sure where Pol Pot fits in this because he was probably not Christian to begin with.

Among other Christians, I think the criticism of the Church of Rome falls chiefly into two categories. One is its medieval trappings and authoritarian structure, I will leave that one. The other is the seeming desire to avoid contact of its adherents with scripture. This was once inviolate doctrine, but seems to have reduced itself to a desire on the part of the Church. This restriction on scripture seems to suggest that there should be little connection between the faithful and their God. To make peace with their God they must go through the sacrament of Confession, a procedure which requires the intercession of the Church. I can see where this provides opportunity for guidance, and perhaps some psychiatry, but it does reduce the idea of a "personal God'. In Protestant churches, ministers are available for such discussions and guidance; but it is still possible to make your peace with God in their absence. There seems little point to continuing that one as the Church now discourages Confession, it seems they were getting too many oldsters confessing childlike sins by rote.

For all of that, I think there is little to dispute between the beliefs of the major Christian faiths. There may be "fine points" of interest to theologians, but I think few of these have a major effect on the faithful. There is no longer a call for "Crusade".

Posted by: Warrington Faust at July 25, 2010 10:06 PM

WF --

Where did you get the idea that the "Church discourages now Confession?"

Posted by: brassband at July 26, 2010 2:36 PM

WF --

Where did you get the idea that the "Church discourages now Confession?"

Posted by brassband at July 26, 2010 2:36 PM

I am not a reader of religious tracts or magazines, so it must have been Time, The Economist or Newsweek. It seems to be an outgrowth of too few priests and the time constraints that creates. The complaint inside the priesthood seemed to be that their time was being wasted with people confessing sins by rote, basically repeating those confessions that they had learned as a child. I can understand this. My former mother in law was a truly saintly woman who would never speak, or harbor, an unkind thought. She went to confession daily. One of her daughters was a nun, until she cracked and they set her free.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at July 26, 2010 5:18 PM

WF --

Sorry, but I think that Time, Newsweek, or the Economist have misled you.

Although it is true that the faithful are far less diligent penitents than those of earlier generations, the Church has not, in any way, decided to "discourage" confession.

On the contrary, some parishes have undertaken great efforts to get parishioners to return to the sacrament.

Posted by: brassband at July 26, 2010 9:08 PM


I may in fact be mistaken, that has happened before.

Perhaps "discourage" was a poor choice of word. I understood that hours for confession were being reduced. Part of this was a lack of manpower, but there was also a thought that only the truly burdened would find the time.

If the church is not behaving as reported, that is honorable. It is a sacrament of the church, it can not be abandoned without calling into question all the sacraments.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at July 27, 2010 12:00 AM

There is really no such thing as "hours for confession." If one desires to make a confession, one need only contact the nearest Catholic rectory and a priest will be made available as immediately as possible. Of course parishes schedule hours when a priest will be in Church for those who wish to come during those hours, but those hours are a license, not a limitation, on the availability of the sacrament.

Posted by: brassband at July 27, 2010 6:57 AM
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