Jesus the Secular Humanist?

Keith Parsons

Atheism, Morality, and the Kingdom of God, by David K. Clark (Newcastle-Upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2019, ISBN 978-1-5275-1963-3). 177 pp. Hardcover, £58.99.

 


How should an atheist read the Judaic/Christian scriptures, the Old and New Testaments? Some atheists see no other use for the Bible than to mine it for passages to discomfort believers. There is, of course, much that is horrible, cruel, absurd, and just plain false in these documents, as Tom Paine showed in his brilliant polemic The Age of Reason. These passages need to be deplored because, as Paine noted, those who believe in a cruel god become cruel people.

However, not everything in the Bible is horrible or ridiculous. For the thoughtful unbeliever, the frustrating thing about the Bible is not that it is all bad but that the bad and the good are mixed together in a sort of maddening mélange. How do you appreciate the good while deploring the bad? You could try the cut-and-paste approach that Thomas Jefferson used to produce his version of the Gospels, which removed the objectionable supernatural and miraculous elements, leaving only the passages of elevated ethical teachings that Jefferson endorsed. Jefferson, a deist imbued with Enlightenment values, seemed to think the real Jesus was a lot like him.

The cherry-picking method is not really satisfactory if you want to understand what the biblical writers meant. For the authors of the Gospels, the supernatural/miraculous assumptions were not a disposable wrapping but provided the necessary context to make sense of the ethical content. For instance, you cannot really understand the ethics of Jesus unless you see them in the context of his radical reinterpretation of the Kingdom of God. The Gospel writers could therefore understandably object that cutting and pasting dismembers a seamless whole and thereby fundamentally distorts their meaning. You cannot understand them if you ignore their guiding assumptions.

On the other hand, we not only want to understand the biblical writers but to learn what we can from them, and learning from other traditions is an act of appropriation. Unless we can appropriate, we cannot learn from any other worldviews and are trapped in a forlorn relativism, hermetically sealed in with our own inviolable assumptions. This would be an unfortunate consequence in an intellectual milieu that is already badly balkanized.

Atheists will, of course, read the Bible differently than believers. Atheists will reject the supernatural beliefs of the authors but will ask whether those authors succeeded in pointing to a reality—a human reality—that secular people can recognize and appropriate. After all, all writers, whatever their religious or philosophical orientation, are human beings with human brains, living in human societies and in a physical world that is common to all. Therefore, wisdom that arises within a given tradition might be assimilated into very different conceptual contexts. Further, authors cannot dictate how their writings will be interpreted. The mistake made by religious fundamentalists (or “strict constructionist” readers of the U.S. Constitution) is to hold that these texts have a sacrosanct “original meaning” that precludes all later interpretations.

What atheists need, then, is a way of approaching the Bible that allows us to understand, insofar as possible, how the authors understood it, but will also give us a principled way to appropriate any wisdom we find there. Some atheists have no interest in understanding; they merely want to debunk. However, even debunkers should debunk the real article and not a straw man. Atheists should not be afraid to let themselves be challenged by the Bible, and they will insulate themselves from challenge if they represent its ideas as a silly caricature.

Does David K. Clark’s Atheism, Morality, and the Kingdom of God meet these expectations and provide atheists with a way of reading the Bible that disagrees with the biblical authors without caricaturing them, and provide an interpretation that appropriates genuine wisdom for secular people? The book is short at less than 200 pages, but it covers a lot of ground. It is divided into three parts. The first part argues that faith and virtue are incompatible and instead recommends the inherent dignity of human and nonhuman animals as a basis for morality. The second part argues against the historicity of the resurrection and the reliability of the Gospel narratives. This is rather well-trodden ground that has been argued out at great length, and, though it makes good points, the treatment here is inevitably somewhat cursory. The final and most interesting section is a study of scripture, focused largely on the parables of Jesus, which interprets scripture in the light of Clark’s secularized interpretation of the Kingdom of God. Here I will focus on the first and third sections.

According to Clark, genuine virtue should meet four conditions:

… the virtuous person can be defined as one who 1) knows what is morally right, 2) does the morally right, 3) does it for the right reasons (without undue struggle or overriding ulterior motives) and 4) authentically pursues the continuing development of the morally good life—is fundamentally committed to extending knowledge of moral truth and to living in accordance with conditions 1–3. (1–2)

These conditions seem unexceptionable.

Clark argues that the practice of genuine virtue is incompatible with “the life of faith.” What is it to live faithfully?

… the “faithful life” is the life of absolute dedication—of total surrender—to a deity. … The paradigm of such faith can be located within fundamentalist Christian and Islamic traditions, and here we can say that the faithful life is that life of absolute dedication to God. (5)

Virtue, so defined, and faith, so defined, are incompatible:

Virtue requires knowledge of what is right. But the life of faith settles for, no, demands something far less—viz., faith. Here it is not necessary to know anything about a “justification” of God’s proclamations, let alone actually evaluate these on our own … faith solicits moral incompetence. (6; emphasis in original)

Further, faith undercuts the motivation to be virtuous for the right reasons:

If we have surrendered to a moral God simply because we believe that doing so will cause Him to be merciful to us, virtue has escaped us. So what is our motivation? Is it virtue? Or is it virgins, the Promised Land, victory over our enemies, the obliteration of our strife, the love of our spouses, streets of gold, the escape from Hell?

“Virtue” motivated by fear or an expectation of reward is not virtue. Yet we can at least be assured that we are acting in accordance with virtue in obeying God so long as we can be sure that all that God commands is morally good, right? But how can we know that God will command only the good? As scripture abundantly testifies, God has often commanded morally objectionable and even atrocious things. If God commands genocide, the faithful must commit genocide. (7)

Clark is aware of the objection that what God commands of us is precisely to be virtuous. There is scriptural support for such a claim:

He hath shown thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God? (Micah 6:8, KJV)

He replies with a version of the dilemma from Plato’s Euthyphro:

For if it [that God commands right action] is true, it is true either because “right action” is defined as “following God’s will,” or “God” is defined as a “necessarily moral being.” But each disjunct is equally disastrous. (11)

The first disjunct entails that whatever God wills is ipso facto “moral” consequently:

If an act is moral because God wills it, then the very opposite act would also be moral, should God have willed it. Whence, it makes no sense on this definition to suppose that God wills something because it is right. (11)

If God commands justice, mercy, and humility, then they are right; if he commands injustice, cruelty, and arrogance, then they are right. As Clark notes, this empties the ideas of “right” or “moral” of any meaning.

The second disjunct is no better:

For then the claim that God is necessarily moral is the claim that God always, indeed necessarily, follows the dictates of morality. But then the “moral law” is independent of God, and so the claim that to follow God is to follow the law is false. (11)

The reply might be that nonetheless, the will of God is an inerrant guide to what is, in fact, morally right. That is, while the will of God is not what makes moral rightness, God wills all and only the morally right, so the will of God and the morally right are extensionally equivalent. Therefore, we cannot go wrong if we follow the will of God. Clark replies that this claim is self-refuting, because we cannot know that God’s will is good unless we judge his will in terms of our perceptions of what is right. Therefore, we judge God’s will in terms of rightness, not rightness in terms of God’s will (11). Clark concludes that “… the appeal to God is irrelevant to the attainment of moral knowledge” (11).

Clark says the dilemma shows that the “moral law” is “independent” of God. Independence here means logical independence, that is, the standard of moral goodness cannot make any essential reference to God’s will or nature. If the standard of moral goodness is defined in terms of God’s will or nature, then to say that God’s will or nature is good—which, of course, theists want to say—can mean only that God’s will is his will or his nature is his nature. Therefore, if claims about God’s goodness are not to reduce to a tautologies, there must be some logically independent standard of goodness to which even God must conform.

However, it does not follow that “the appeal to God is irrelevant to the attainment of moral knowledge.” God could still be the paradigm of moral goodness, that is, just as a human being might be a paragon of virtue, so might God, to a vastly greater degree, represent the highest manifestation—the paradigm—of moral goodness. We recognize paragons by their exemplary conformity to a standard of goodness, but then, once they are recognized, we can be guided by them to a deeper, richer, and more subtle understanding of goodness. We might, for instance, see in the lives and teachings of Jesus, Confucius, Muhammad, or the Buddha the perfect conformity with what antecedently seems right to us, and as revealing deeper insights into the good than we have had by ourselves. We then commit to following them and being instructed by them.

Is Clark wrong, then, to say that the life of faith is incompatible with true virtue? Cannot the faithful, inspired by their paragons of virtue, be motivated to acts of true virtue? I think Clark would reply that faith is absolute commitment and total surrender (5). Paragons, on the other hand, remain paragons only so long as they live up to the moral standard, and so our commitments to them must be conditional and not absolute. I think Clark’s real and deep insight here is that our primary commitment must always be to goodness, and that any other primary commitment has thereby departed from the way of goodness. Hence, if God commands genocide, we should obey goodness and disobey God.

So, does Clark provide atheists with a way to read the scriptures that meets the above-stated desiderata? These were (1) a means of reading these texts that allows us to grasp, insofar as possible, what they meant in their original context; and (2) a way of appropriating these texts by removing them from their original conceptual context and construing them as edifying for unbelievers. Clark succeeds with (2) but fails at (1). Actually, he is not really interested in a historically sensitive reading of these texts but merely wants to debunk as incoherent what he calls a “theological” interpretation of them. Such an interpretation construes the parables in the light of the doctrine of the resurrection and sees salvation as pertaining chiefly to one’s status in the afterlife.

As I said earlier, though, even a debunker should strive to critique the real meaning and not a straw man. If we want to understand the parables, it is essential to keep in mind the points made by Robert H. Stein in his entry “Parables” in The Oxford Companion to the Bible.

Jesus did not address his parable to modern readers but to a first-century Jewish audience. The parables take new life and vitality when one tries to understand them as Jesus’ original audience would have. In this regard, the following questions prove helpful: (1) What is the general theological framework of Jesus’ teachings? … (2) To what possible audience did Jesus address this parable? 1

It will hardly be surprising if elements of the parables appear objectionable to a modern, secular reader, but this need not mean that the parables, as understood by Jesus and his audience, were absurd or morally obtuse.

Consider, for instance, Clark’s treatment of perhaps the best-known parable, the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11–24). Is this parable, as it is normally understood, an illustration of God’s great love and willingness to forgive the penitent and welcome him back into the fold, restoring his place in the Kingdom of God? Clark objects:

To construe the allegory theologically, the son’s inheritance can only be his salvation—his eternal place within the Kingdom. Yet, paradoxically, we are informed that the son is a malcontent; life with the Father is not enough; the Kingdom of God fails to satisfy. … But portraying the Kingdom in this way simply does not square with the theology. Rather than a place of bliss and a sanctuary, the Kingdom is instead depicted as a tired scene of youthful irresponsibility, extravagance, and familial jealousy. Thus, the theological approach, when applied to the parable, again terminates in incoherence. (75)

Clark performs such a reductio on other parables, aiming to show that they are incoherent if construed in terms of a resurrection-based theology. He concludes that Jesus therefore could not have intended such a reading of his parables, and that, contrary to the resurrection theology contrived by Paul and the Gospel writers, Jesus’s original, authentic meaning was purely secular and this-worldly:

Any parable or saying of Jesus that can only be understood theologically—i.e. the task of which is to clearly and unambiguously underwrite a resurrection-based account of human salvation—must be culled as apocryphal. … Jesus is actually saying something about the kingdom of god [sic]—something non-theological or secular … the sayings [of Jesus] must not espouse or underwrite a resurrection-based view of human salvation; and the sayings must deliver their own message of human salvation, or of what comprises the good-life for humans, in real time. (78–79; emphasis in original)

Clark wants to expunge the resurrection-based, other-worldly theology that he thinks was invented by the New Testament writers and construe Jesus as a secular sage and his message as worldly wisdom acceptable to modern, secular people.

The problem with all such interpretations is that they fail to do justice to the true strangeness and otherness of Jesus. As Stein emphasized above, Jesus was a first-century Jew, and he simply cannot be understood if shoe-horned into any other conceptual framework. Jesus was not a Greek, not an Enlightenment deist, not an existentialist, and not a secular humanist. To understand what Jesus meant, you have to ask how he understood his central concept, the Kingdom of God. As atheists, of course, we might reject the whole idea as nonsensical, but at least we ought to make a serious effort to know what it is. I think that Clark, in his commendable effort to make Jesus relevant to secular people, has not really understood Jesus in his historical milieu.

Biblical scholars point out that there are passages that indicate that for Jesus the Kingdom of God was an eminent eschatological event whereby God will intervene in history to destroy earthly powers and institute his direct rule. Other passages indicate that the Kingdom is something already at hand and, indeed, already being realized. How do we reconcile these divergent claims? John H. Hayes suggests the following:

It would seem reasonable to conclude that Jesus thought of the Kingdom of God as still in the future, but so near that its impending advent should become the decisive factor in man’s present attitudes decisions and conduct. Jesus may have interpreted his own career as a manifestation of the Kingdom’s imminence. Jesus’ teaching, and especially the parables argued that the decisions, attitudes, and acts of a man must be made and done in the light of the imminent Kingdom.2 (emphasis added)

If Hayes is right, and a long tradition of New Testament scholarship says that he is, then the apocalyptic elements of Jesus’s teaching, far from indicating inauthenticity, as Clark claims, are primordial and essential aspects of Jesus’s own view of the Kingdom.

Clark’s understanding of the parables, therefore, may be a useful appropriation of their wisdom for secular people, but he cannot claim to be conveying Jesus’s original message. Why, indeed, is it important to do so? Atheists certainly do not have to cite the authority to Jesus to justify their reading of his message. We can take those teachings as seems best to us and do not need any scriptural sanction or authority for doing so. We can see Jesus—like Muhammed, Confucius, or the Buddha—as a man of his time, yet as having insights that transcend his times and speak to universal human concerns.

Notes

  1. Stein, Robert H., “Parables” in Bruce M. Metzger and Michael d. Coogan, eds., The Oxford Companion to the Bible. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993, p. 569.
  2. Hayes, John H. Introduction to the Bible. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1971, p. 350.

Keith Parsons

Keith Parsons, author of God and the Burden of Proof.


Atheism, Morality, and the Kingdom of God, by David K. Clark (Newcastle-Upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2019, ISBN 978-1-5275-1963-3). 177 pp. Hardcover, £58.99.   How should an atheist read the Judaic/Christian scriptures, the Old and New Testaments? Some atheists see no other use for the Bible than to mine it for passages to discomfort believers. There …

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