Religion Today

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Commanding Morality

It is a tenant of Christian belief that the moral values which God commanded are "good." By this I do not mean to say that they are a "good job" or that they were "done well" or that God should receive a gold star for creating them. No, I mean that according to Christian belief, God's ethics represent the highest form of good possible. They are the epitome of moral values; it is impossible for a better moral system to exist.

Of course, in the modern world we disagree with specific moral rules and no longer practice some of them, such as the rules about slavery and divorce. Indeed, fewer than half of the Ten Commandments are encoded in United States law. But as a theological claim, if God is good, then the moral rules He proclaimed must be good. And, since God is by definition perfect, then the morality He proclaimed must also be perfectly good.

From this viewpoint, it is interesting to ask this question: Is God's morality good because He commanded it, or did He command it because it was good? This is a difficult question, and different forms of Christianity have answered in different ways. It is so difficult that many forms of Christianity have refused to address it. It is a conundrum for all monotheistic religions, including Judaism and Islam.

The conundrum is this: while all Christian and monotheistic believers happily affirm that God and his ethics are good, the possible answers to the question require the affirmation of a second point, and that point is less willingly accepted. There are two possible points, one for each answer to the question, and both are uncomfortable for monotheists.

If God's morality is good because He commanded it, then that means that whatever He commanded would have been equally good. He could have commanded anything and it would have been just as good. God could have decreed that Wednesday, instead of the Sabbath, was the holy day. And that would be good. He could have decreed that murder or theft were good.

Our ethical and moral sense, therefore, comes from God's commands. If he had commanded something else, then Christian moral sensibilities would be different. It is rather uncomfortable to think that Christian morality was open to all possibilities before God uttered His commands, and that He arbitrarily chose to declare some actions good and some actions evil.

The alternative answer to our question resolves this problem, but only by creating another one. If God commanded Christian morality because it was good, that means that each rule in it has an essence of goodness. Due to its inherent nature, then, and not because God said it, each command is good in and of itself. When all moral rules are taken together, that means there is a standard of goodness that is independent of God. The standard did not come from God, because then it would evidence the problem of arbitrariness and actually be the answer discussed above. Instead, this moral standard exists apart from God, and existed before God commanded the Jewish and Christian moral rules.

The problem this causes for Christianity, indeed for any monotheism, is that it creates something ultimate that is not God. It also implies that God is not omnipotent in the area of morality, but consults the standard to ensure the goodness of his moral rules. To be sure, the goodness standard is not a second god, and so does not require the conclusion of polytheism. But it does mean that God is not alone and that He did not create goodness, but instead followed a pre-existing standard of inherent good.

Of course, this theological conundrum has no impact on the specific character of Christianity's moral rules. Its ethical demands remain the same whichever answer one takes, and even if one chooses not to address the question. For in the end, Christianity believes, God's morality requires obedience, not understanding.

Thanks to James Rachel's _The Elements of Moral Philosophy_ (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986). For information, see the section on Divine Command Theory.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Creating the Holy Land

Where did the Christian Holy Land came from? An initial reaction might be that it came from the Christians of Galilee and Jerusalem who knew Jesus and were present at the events of Jesus’ life and ministry. It seems logical, does it not? When we read the gospels, we learn about Jesus and his interactions with the people around him in specific places. Jesus’ teachings changed people at the locations where they heard him, would they not then revere and commemorate those places?

Logical, yes. Correct? No. It turns out that the Christian Holy Land was created by people who did not live in Palestine/Israel. Furthermore, the Holy Land idea was developed for people who lived outside the land, not those who lived there. This was true not only when the Holy Land was first created but later as well.

When Constantine the Great became emperor of the entire Roman Empire in 324, after more than twelve years of war, he organized the Christian Church. He sponsored the first empire-wide church council at Nicea, in which basic matters of Christian theology were first decided. Building a new imperial capital at Constantinople (now Istanbul in Turkey), he made patriarchs, bishops, and other church leaders key members of his court.

Constantine’s mother Helena, a devout Christian, determined that she would travel to Palestine, as it was called then, to identify the sites of events in Jesus’ ministry. In Galilee, she located Nazareth, Jesus’ childhood home, Cana, where Jesus turned water into wine, and Capernaum, the headquarters of Jesus’ ministry. In Bethlehem, she identified the stable where Jesus was born, and in Jerusalem she identified the sites of the events of Jesus’ last week of life, including the location of his trial, crucifixion and burial. In following decades, churches were built on these sites, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. As other sites were identified, including ones from the Old Testament, and they too received churches, or even monasteries.

Few of the priests and monks who served these sites were local; they came from countries around the Mediterranean Sea. Although a few congregation members came from the local population, the churches served large numbers of pilgrims who came on journeys of weeks or even months. So the Christian Holy Land was created by an outsider, Helena, maintained by the Church outside Palestine, for the benefit of pilgrims who traveled to the Holy Land.

Over the centuries, the church lost control of Palestine, and the church itself splintered, first into Catholic and Orthodox, then into many Protestant denominations. The importance of the geographical Holy Land as a pilgrimage destination was lost. Palestine became a backwater.

In the nineteenth century, Protestants turned their attention to the Holy Land. The USA established an embassy with the Ottoman Empire in 1830, which arranged access for Americans interested in traveling to the sites of the Bible. Despite the hardships of desert heat, sand, and dirt, of camping for weeks on end, and even of bandits, an increasing number of Americans, English, and other Europeans came to the Holy Land. They brought their Bibles and traveled to sites where they believed biblical events had taken place. Before the end of the decade, Edward Robinson, Professor of Scripture at Union Seminary, used Arabic town names to identify lost sites such as Eshtemoa and Gibbon, while the artist David Roberts painted scenes of sites well-known from biblical stories, many of which were commemorated by churches or chapels centuries old. Robinson published his research, Roberts his paintings, and other travelers wrote travelogues (including Mark Twain). All these served to excite Protestants and draw more to the region.

One thing eluded Protestants in their rediscovery of the Holy Land; they controlled no site related to Jesus’ Passion and resurrection. Centuries earlier, these sites had become worship centers of eastern churches of Christianity, worship quite foreign to Protestant sensibilities.

In 1882, the British General Charles Gordon created a new location for Jesus’ crucifixion, Golgotha, by looking out his hotel window and deciding a particular hill looked like a skull (the meaning of Golgotha in Aramaic). Nearby stood an ancient tomb, which Gordon declared was the “Garden Tomb” in which Jesus had been buried. The Anglican Church acquired the property and established it as a Protestant worship site. Although the site has no historical validity, which its own literature recognizes, the site has since become a favorite of Protestant Christians touring Jerusalem because of its western character.

The nineteenth-century Protestant rediscovery of the Holy Land followed the pattern established by Helena more than a millennium earlier. Christian outsiders came into Palestine/Israel to identify the sites for even more religious travelers from outside the land to visit. The Holy Land of Orthodox and Catholic pilgrims had become a holy tourist destination for Protestant travelers of all stripes.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Great Mutiny of 1857: Rifles, Religion, and Grease

The year 2007 marks the 150th anniversary of the Great Mutiny of 1857 in India. This rebellion, sometime called the First Indian War of Independence, was an attempt by the Indians to rid themselves of British control. Instead, defeat brought upon them direct rule by London and incorporation into the British Empire—from which India did not win its freedom until after World War II.

The Mutiny was set off by the introduction of a new rifle, the Pattern 1853 Enfield, to the native troops serving the British in India. If this weapon was the spark, then the tinder that flamed into the Rebellion were the religious sensibilities of the Hindu and Muslim soldiers, who disliked not the weapon, but the negative impact on their religious status that using it would bring.

Prior to 1857, much of India had been taken over by the aggressive tactics of the British East India Trading Company. The British government had sent a few British troops to India, ostensibly to protect the Company, but in reality to assist in subjugating India. These troops served primarily as officers for an army consisting of native Hindus and Muslims. The Hindu soldiers were almost exclusively high-caste Brahmins, whose religious status required them to maintain strict rules of ritual purity. The Muslim soldiers were rajputs, an elite warrior class who had over the centuries served the Islamic Delhi Sultanates, the Mughal Empire, and finally the British. The religious status of these two groups served the British well, for it provided strong unit cohesion and made them a coordinated fighting force. But when friction appeared between them and their officers, that cohesion worked against their commanders.

By the 1850s, that friction was mounting. Pay increases were falling well behind inflation, and bonus pay had dried up. While in previous decades the British had encouraged the soldier’s religious identity as a means of securing the troops’ loyalty, now many Christian officers were preaching Christianity to them and calling for conversion. This was seen as insulting and disrespectful, and caused the troops to distrust their officers’ motives.

The introduction of the Enfield 1853 Rifled Musket tipped the soldiers into open rebellion. Like its predecessor, the Baker Rifle, the Enfield was loaded through the gun’s muzzle. But it was fired by a percussion cap, which enabled it to be fired in all weather, even India’s monsoon rains.

The problem lay in the cartridges used to load it. The Enfield still used paper cartridges containing powder and the shot ball. To load it, the rifleman would bite off the cartridge top, poor the powder down the muzzle, put in the paper, and then the shot, tamping it all down to the bottom.

In 1857, the barracks were rife with rumors. Among the Muslims, the rumor was that the cartridge was sealed with pig grease. Since Muslims were forbidden to consume pork of any kind, the act of loading the weapon would cause these elite troops, serious Muslims all, to transgress this important religious law. Among the Hindu Brahmins, the rumor was that the cartridges were sealed with tallow, grease made from the fat of cattle. Not only were cattle sacred to Hindus, but consuming their meat products would render the Brahmin soldiers ritually impure.

The British repeatedly denied the rumors, even suggesting that the soldiers remake the cartridges with a neutral sealant such as beeswax. In the soldiers’ mind, this proposal simply confirmed the rumors. They were certain that the greased cartridges were a British plot to render them impure and thus separate them from their families and communities. This would, the reasoning went, make them more vulnerable to Christian missionizing.

In the end, the officers had little patience with their soldiers’ concerns. All they could see was a refusal to use the new weapons technology. When they forced the matter, troops at several forts rebelled, firing on the officers and refusing to take orders. As the mutiny spread, it became a general rebellion. When it was finally put down a year later, the British Raj had come to stay.

While the Great Mutiny had several causes, British insensitivity to and disrespect of the religions practiced in India, both Hinduism and Islam, provided the spark that began the rebellion. The soldiers objected not to the new gun itself, but to the religious transgression that biting its paper cartridges would cause. Ironically, less than ten years later the Pattern Enfields were converted to Snider-Enfields, the Army’s first metal-cartridge rifle. Cartridge biting was no longer required.

Note: Examples of all three rifles mentioned in this essay can be viewed at the Cody Firearms Museum in the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming.