Despite dramatic social changes that have taken place in the United States over the last several generations, Christianity continues to hold a position of extraordinary influence in our culture and our government. Secularists and other concerned parties have had to fight tough instance-to-instance battles to mitigate this influence, and forestall continued erosion of the viability of the 1st Amendment.
One instance: in 2014 the City of Elsinore, CA announced it was declining to appeal a Federal ruling prohibiting the exhibition on public land of a war memorial with an explicitly Christian theme. This was great news, but as the questionable design feature was undeniably Christian—a soldier bowing before a cross—one wonders how even the most devout city council members could possibly think this was not in violation of the Constitution. What were they thinking? I’d guess they were thinking that, from their perspective on religious liberty and its place in our country, it was both appropriate and something they could get away with it. If not for the lawsuit brought against them, they would have.
The impact of the dominant religion upon our lives, though, remains overwhelming. Monuments, inscriptions, advertisements, statues, hillside crosses and billboards. Roadside church reader-boards proclaiming ‘The Founding Fathers Were Christians!’ Public displays of the 10 Commandments, determined by the Supreme Court to have both religious and non-religious value (how Justice Breyer could see it this way in Van Orden v. Perry I cannot fathom. What part of the 10 Commandments is non-religious?). Religious channels proliferating across cable TV listings. Thousands of religious stations nationwide on the radio dial. Over 100,000 Christian websites and blogs. High school athletes kneeling in prayer before and after football games. Millions of children required to proclaim their allegiance each day to a nation under God.
From every possible angle believers are intent on influencing us to consider and accept the Lord, His divine precepts and moral laws, to accept a ticket to His paradise. Enough already! Let’s take a look at what they so earnestly want the rest of us to embrace. Let’s give these divine moral values some thoughtful consideration.
The first thing you notice in the Bible, once you get past everything from the Higgs-boson to mastodons being created in six days, is that God is obsessed with our always doing the right thing. 600 divine behavioral dictums in the first few books. No such rules and regs appear, however, to have been issued to the other animals. What humans do is guided and judged in the smallest degree, but it’s Katie-bar-the-door when it comes to the rest of creation.
What really goes on ‘out there’ in the natural world is a shock to our moral senses. Lions will bring down an antelope, a warthog or a baby elephant and begin tearing away and gulping down flesh before the meal has died. Female praying mantis prey upon their mates after mating, as often do the notoriously named black widow spiders. Ants keep aphids to milk them for their ‘honeydew’ and look over them as though they were cattle, to the point of herding them to shelter during rainstorms so they won’t wash away. Sounds like a benign symbiotic relationship until you learn that an ant will rip off an aphid’s wings so it can’t escape. A less satisfying aspect of ant life is a particular parasitic fungus that renders them zombies, essentially; they stagger around in a daze until the fungus shoots a spore through the top of the head.
A species of wasp will lay larvae inside ladybugs – ladybugs, for crying out loud, our most endearingly named insect – which then hatch and eat their way out of the living host(ess). I can only place my attention on that particular horror for more than a few seconds before I have to move on to a less nightmare-inducing occupation of my time, such as A Nightmare On Elm Street.
To me nature is… I don’t know, spiders and bugs and big fish eating little fish and plants eating plants and animals eating… it’s like an enormous restaurant.
— Woody Allen, Love and Death
And then, of course, there are the cats.
It may seem touching when Fluffy drops a mouse or bird on the kitchen floor for us to discover. There’s the resourceful hunter bringing the prize home for mommy and daddy to admire! But then you see that little mousy or birdie is not quite dead, and Fluffy begins to take great delight in tossing it about as it struggles pathetically to escape. When the entertainment value is exhausted Fluffy may begin nibbling away, but like as not she may walk away leaving the wretched creature to writhe in agony until death mercifully comes. Mommy or daddy then gingerly picks up the carcass by the wing or tip of the tail, takes it outside and tosses it back into the madcap natural world from whence it came.
God does not flinch from death-by-larvae of a ladybug. He knows every moment, every molecule, every means of the mechanisms of survival. Spanish researchers have determined that when a black widow does eat her mate, the resulting baby spiders are stronger than if she hadn’t, so cannibalism is undeniably part of God’s plan for the survival of this species. However revolting may be who, what and how creatures feed, breed, and labor to ensure a future for their offspring, we cannot take them to task for acting in ways natural to them. But can we take to task the Creator who made them this way?
First philosophers and theologians, then college students, next psychologists, now neurologists have joined in the debate as to whether or not we have free will. But—Calvinists aside—if you count yourself among the People of the Book, there is no debate. For God’s many commandments and associated punishments to make any sense, mankind must be free to choose to follow them or not. If we are not so free, then the moral imperative behind His will is not only hollow, it is nightmarish.
As we are created in His image, this capacity to choose appears to be the most essential characteristic we share with the Creator. Yet He commands that we exercise this defining attribute in highly prescribed ways, drilling down to great detail on things most of us would think lightly of, if we thought of them at all, were it not for His admonition: planting a field with two kinds of crops (forbidden in Leviticus), men and women wearing one another’s clothing (an abomination in Deuteronomy), a man sinning so egregiously by gathering firewood on the Sabbath that it is commanded he be stoned to death (not such a good idea in Numbers).
Woe betide we cross Him! But there is nothing, nothing at all of moral stricture in what we call Nature. Free will is the acid test; if you don’t have it, and that would be everybody out there except us, then to God it doesn’t matter a damn what you do, how and when you do it, who you do it to or whether or not it gets done to you. Living and dying is hard enough; this god has gone out of his way to multiply the misery inherent in mortality.
Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. – Genesis 1:24
If, as part of our God-given dominion, God expects us to exercise this stewardship humanely, doing so is something He doesn’t much choose to care about Himself. Whenever our sensitivity to the suffering of the creatures of innocence is greater than God’s, are we then in position to judge the divine plan? Is it morally imperative that we do so? Human beings live down to God’s standards regarding the treatment of the rest of creation in many ways: swallowing live oysters whole, drowning unwanted kittens, slaughtering pen-raised calves for veal, experimenting on rats and mice (but not against their will, since they don’t have any). Many people, though, go out of their way to treat creatures kindly, whether they are rescue pets, animals they choose not to eat or insects they choose not to fry through a magnifying glass, because it is the morally right thing to do. I know people who literally would not hurt a fly, much less mistreat a mammal.
If just one person treated the fish, the fowl, the cattle and the creepers with greater care than the Creator, it would justify questioning His absolute moral authority. But in fact, millions do. Where this kind of compassionate moral sense comes from, inseparable from empathy and aligned to a feeling for the responsibility the powerful should have to the powerless, is an interesting question, because it surely does not come from God.
Consideration made. Divine moral bar far too low. Count me out, or as the doubtful Ivan Karamazov said to his devout brother Alyosha, I respectfully decline my ticket.
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