Wednesday, June 8, 2011

God As Father, Not As Lord

The traditional view of the Torah, the Bible and the Qur’an has been to believe that they are sets of heavenly laws, handed down by God to man to show us the proper way to behave. This corresponds to the Old Testament-style God of rewards and punishments, and accords with God’s revealed word in the Qur’an. God is the Lord, and we are His subjects. It is because of this mindset that religious fundamentalists (of whatever stripe) seek to follow every command of their respective religious texts with as much narrow-minded zeal as they can muster, and to convince others to do the same.

But there are many names that we ascribe to the Judeo-Christian God. One of those names is Father. A stern Father, at times, yes; perhaps God is a former drill sergeant, who expects his offspring to snap to and salute before saying grace at the family dinner table. But a father nonetheless. If we start to think of God in this way, and take His commands as “more like guidelines than actual rules” (to quote Pirates of the Caribbean) we come up with some interesting ideas.

When a child is young, his father or her father does not tell the child everything about the adult world. How could he? The child is not ready; he is too young for certain topics. He is too young to know how babies are made, or about the smoky mysteries of drugs and alcohol. On a more social level, the child does not yet know how to act around other human beings. He is not ready. So the father does not tell his child everything, but he tells the child what not to do, to keep him safe. Do not play in the street. Don’t touch hot objects, don’t do this, that or the other action that might hurt you. He doesn’t always tell the child why it should avoid these things, only the prohibitions. Of course, the child will sometimes do these things anyway, and come away with bruises and scars. But with those injuries will come lessons. And when it is time for the child to become an adult, the father will begin to tell him—as he has been doing, by example, for years—what it means to be an adult. The child will begin to understand why the father told him not to do things, and learn to avoid them or to make them safer on his own.

"Do not touch!"
Why, for example, did God tell us to abstain from premarital sex? Someone who believes in the Lord might answer, “Who cares why? It is forbidden, and that is enough!” But someone who believes in the Father might say, “God told us not to have sex before marriage because, in the time and place when He gave that command, unwed mothers were scorned and looked down upon. Worse, in God’s view, it was bad for the community as a whole. So God warned us against premarital sex, not because it is intrinsically bad, but because it can have a bad result. But now we have condoms, we have IUDs, we have the pill and we have vasectomies. We are old enough to understand how we work, and we’ve figured out how to avoid getting pregnant. Because it is not wrong in and of itself, it is not a sin.”  In other words, God isn’t concerned with some higher right or wrong. God is not Law. God wants what is best for His children, and in that particular place at that particular time, that command was what was best. Now, we’re old enough—in a species- and technological sense—to know and avert some of the risks.

Lest this note begin to sound like I’m merely defending teenage licentiousness, you can apply this sort of thinking to dozens of commands. Why shouldn’t you lie with a man as you would with a woman? God might say, “If you do not procreate, your community will die out and that will be the end of you.” This is another danger we are no longer in. Why shouldn’t we drink alcohol? God might say, “In a desert environment, can you really afford to dehydrate yourself?” Why should we go forth and preach the gospel to nonbelievers? “To spread the word of our religion,” God might say, “for the more ears you reach, the less chance you will die out.” Why did God give us all these laws anyway? “To unite your people under one set of rules and help bind your community together.”

If we assign pragmatic motivations to each individual command, if we assume that his commands are paternally intended for the good of the community, we find that many still apply-the Ten Commandments, for example-and many are no longer necessary.

I know that assigning motivations to God is the height of arrogance. But in my view, the choice is between believing that God gave His commands just because, and we should follow them just because… or that God gave His commands to protect us, and we should follow the ones we need to follow and discard the ones we no longer need. Not because something is intrinsically right or intrinsically wrong, but because it’s a good idea or a terrible idea, like adultery. God gave us brains with which to think, and He gave us maturity so that we may think critically about the world. I believe that He wanted us to decide, in time, which of His commands we should follow… just as a parent eventually allows their child to see the world for themselves, and decide for themselves what to make of it.*

*I’m a pragmatist, and this is generally how I see the world. Instead of judging, I ask “Does it work?”

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