Beyond Mere Christianity


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  • Beyond Mere Christianity





  • Three:

    ‘Natural Law’

     

    ‘So, whosoever accepts guidance, it is
    only for his own self, and whosoever goes astray, he goes astray only to his
    (own) loss.’
    (Qur’an 39:41)

    ‘And whomsoever God
    wills to guide, He opens his breast to submission, and whomsoever He wills to
    send astray, He makes his breast closed and constricted, as if he is climbing
    up to the sky. Thus God puts the wrath on those who believe not.’
    (Qur’an, 6:125)

    How do human beings determine
    for themselves what is right and what is wrong? What is that process and how
    does it operate?

    There are
    Christian scholars and theologians who teach as Christian doctrine the
    principle that humanity itself instills
    a basic, enduring, and predictable moral sense in human communities. This moral
    sense, we are told, is God’s consistent, impossible-to-ignore standard of behavior,
    a standard that is always clear to the human community. For instance, C.S.
    Lewis, the author of Mere Christianity, and
    the most celebrated modern Christian writer in English, insists on this view.

    Ó
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    Even a tyrant, we are told, consistently
    ‘knows right from wrong’ (regardless of whether he chooses to acknowledge the
    distinction to himself). We know this; the argument goes, because the tyrant
    will attempt to present at least the appearance of virtue to the outside world.
    This understanding of right and wrong action may be something a person employs
    selectively, but, we are told, it is reliable.

    Even a
    hypocrite, the theory holds, has a fundamental sense of propriety. Hypocrites
    claim to act by one set of standards (because they know these standards are
    right, or regarded as such), but actually act by a different set of standards
    (which they know to be wrong).

    Even a sadistic
    person, we hear, will, after having crushed a helpless victim to steal away
    some advantage, claim that the action was justified, or ‘fair’, given the
    situation he or she faced.

    If there are
    exceptions to this notion of an enduring, fundamentally human moral sense, we
    are told, it is only because of the rare individual who lacks any ability to perceive
    right or wrong, or any ability to ‘fake’ that perception. Such a person, the
    theory goes, is nothing more than an anomaly, a chance result like that which
    shows up on the far end of a bell curve. Just as the occasional person may be
    color-blind or may have trouble singing in the proper key, there may be a statistically
    insignificant number of people born who lack this fundamental, consistent human
    ability to distinguish right from wrong. Such ‘amoral’ people are, supposedly,
    something like genetic aberrations
    freaks of nature. Yet
    human beings as a group, we are assured, have a distinct, enduring, and
    consistent capacity to distinguish right from wrong.

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    This inherent ability to tell right from
    wrong is sometimes referred to as ‘Natural Law’, or the ‘Law of Human Nature’.
    The phrase suggests a static, predictable moral standard (or law) that is, though often ignored, consistent
    and predictable (or natural) for the
    overwhelming majority of real human beings like you and me.

    This doctrine has become an important pillar
    of what we now call mainstream Christian theology. God has set a clear,
    consistent standard of right and wrong that humanity, if it does not always
    obey, definitely understands without any problem.

    Islam regards this notion as incomplete.
    Jesus Christ regards it as incomplete too, and you will see why in a moment.

    Ó
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    Islam envisions each human being as
    possessing a) free will, and b) a soul that knows what is good for it and what
    is bad for it, a soul that God has inspired to advise us to choose the good.
    Some people, however, use free will in such a way as to make themselves
    increasingly deaf to the soul’s advice. And this is the part, a Muslim might
    argue, that Lewis leaves out.

    Lewis ignores the possibility that when
    human beings make choices, those choices will either degrade the soul or purify
    it.

    Islam holds that people who consciously
    make choices that support the soul’s
    inherent longing for righteousness are dynamically brought toward the moral
    clarity God intended for them, becoming more and more certain about what is
    right and what is wrong.

    Ó
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    On the other hand, people who consciously
    make choices that oppose their own
    souls’ inherent longing for righteousness do
    violence to their own souls.
    They
    imagine themselves safe from God’s plan, immune from accountability to Him.
    And this is folly.

    So. God knows all
    and understands all; God has also granted humankind free will. We are left, as
    the result of our own choices, with a steadily
    improving or steadily deteriorating ability to distinguish right from wrong.

    Submission to the Will of the One God,
    Islam holds, improves the ability to
    distinguish good choices from bad ones. Resistance to the Will of the One God degrades this ability. A firm, obstinate,
    long-term policy of resistance to the Will of the One God leads one to worship
    one’s own desires first and foremost, and to abandon even the charade of moral
    authority. This is true catastrophe.

    Our ability to
    distinguish right from wrong, Islam holds, is not consistent and predictable, but variable. This ability to distinguish
    right from wrong is part of God’s Plan, of course, but from our point of view
    it depends upon our own choices and thoughts.

    Ó
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    If we persist in the delusion of
    self-sufficiency and independence from God, Islam tells us, we will eventually
    be engulfed by our own delusion, and those delusions will eventually take over
    our lives and our very ability to reason.

    If we persist in worshipping our own desires
    as though they were god
    thereby
    ignoring God
    a truly horrifying thing happens. Those desires
    become the rulers of our lives.

    Ó
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    This whole process,
    Islam insists, is dynamic. We are

    constantly in motion. The question is, in which direction?

    A tyrant, an
    alcoholic, a drug addict, a serial killer, or anyone else in an advanced stage
    of self-absorption and self-worship will eventually
    cease even to pretend that he or she is under any obligation to distinguish
    right from wrong. Such a person will eventually
    cease to believe that such distinctions are important. These people,
    Muslims believe, advance themselves toward their own doom.

    Once again: the
    question is one of movement.

    It is as if someone were asking us, ‘Where are you going?’ and then
    helping us to travel in what-ever
    direction we
    ourselves identified. There is a destination of darkness, darkness that
    accumulates as the direct result of a personal choice to embrace it. Think of
    Adolf Hitler, who was not merely unstable, but increasingly unstable as the Second World War ground on. In his
    final days, Hitler railed even against the German people he once claimed to
    have been the Master Race. What greater perversion of his own ‘standards’ can
    we imagine? Or think of the late-stage John Belushi, whose beastly behavior
    near the end of his life shocked even the Hollywood of the early 1980s (a
    community not easily shocked). Belushi, in his final months, terrified some
    very jaded people, some of whom had known him for many years.

    People with
    such ‘moral standards’ do not inherit them at birth; they earn them, usually through years of patient, persistent, soul-destroying
    effort. People who reach this bleak and horrifying point reach it, not because
    they have a genetic flaw akin to that which imparts color-blindness or a bad
    ear for pitch, but because they choose, over and over again, to go astray. And
    the choosing becomes easier with each choice.

    Aleister
    Crowley, the self-proclaimed Satanist, embraced a world-view in which ‘do what
    thou wilt shall be the law of the land’. Surely he was not born with such beliefs.
    Surely he had to strive to attain them.

    Ó
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    This idea of striving
    is quite important. Some kind of striving is seen, in Islam, as a constant feature of human nature. One is
    either striving toward the purification of
    one’s own soul, or striving toward its degradation.

    To persist in
    the former is true victory; to persist in the latter is the ultimate defeat.

    And this, the oldest Gospel verses
    suggest, is the understanding of human moral vision that Jesus wishes us to
    have.

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    ‘And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he
    that shall humble himself shall be exalted.’
    (Matthew
    23:12
    )

    Ó
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    If we are honest with ourselves, we will
    admit the challenging nature of a verse such as this one. The Bible tells us
    that we are reading the words of Jesus … but somehow the words do not seem to
    match up easily with what we may have been taught about Jesus.

    In fact, this
    is the kind of verse we may have read dozens, hundreds of times without really
    ‘getting’ what it is trying to say. There are many Gospel passages like this,
    passages we are likely to rush past or ‘file’ for future study if we can’t
    instantly apply them to our lives.

    What if we were to linger over a verse
    like this for a while?

    Is it possible Jesus is saying to us that
    a moral view that relies on the
    promotion of selfish, narrow interests will lead, in predictable measure, to spiritual loss?

    Is it possible
    Jesus wants us to understand that a moral
    view that rejects selfish obsession will lead, just as predictably, to spiritual gain?

    Perhaps Jesus
    is warning us to beware of the kind of striving that is based on
    self-absorption, on self-promotion, on self-obsession.

    Ó
    Ó Ó

    Elsewhere, Jesus tells us to keep our
    eyes open to the light, that we may gain more light. This is another ‘difficult’
    saying. Please take a moment to read the words below closely and prayerfully …
    even if you have read them many times in the past. It’s possible that, like me,
    you read them dozens of times without quite grasping what they meant.

    Ó
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    ‘The
    light of the body is the eye: therefore when thine eye is single, thy whole
    body also is full of light; but when thine eye is evil, thy body also is full
    of darkness. Take heed therefore that the light which is in thee be not
    darkness.’ (Luke 11:34-35)

    Ó
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    Again, we must be willing to sit quietly for a while with passages
    like this one. We cannot speed-read such words. We have to come to them on
    their own terms and be willing to take our time in considering them. Some
    teachings are meant to be contemplated for a while.

    Once we have slowed down enough to sit
    with these words, once we have asked God for guidance, we may feel them entering
    us at a depth.

    Having stopped to listen carefully to
    these words, we may conclude that they have something to do with moral perception, with determining what
    is right in our lives and what is wrong in our lives.

    Aren’t these words really
    telling us that moral

    vision, like moral blindness, perpetuates and strengthens itself?

    Notice the
    words: ‘flooded with light.’ In these sayings, Jesus seems to be telling us
    that those who strive hard for righteousness will have not just a reward, but a
    cumulative reward. By the same token,
    he tells us that those who strive in the other direction will have not just a
    penalty, but a cumulative penalty
    that pushes them into a ‘negative zone.’ He is talking about a dynamic process,
    about a soul in motion.

    We may eventually conclude that these
    words are all about our ability to listen
    to the promptings of our own soul.

    Againyou may find that you
    agree with this interpretation; you may find that you disagree with it. The
    only mistake, I think, lies in letting empty
    force of habit
    cheat us out of the chance for a direct encounter with the
    teachings of Jesus Christ.

    Consider yet another ‘difficult’ passage
    from the Gospels.

    Ó
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    ‘For
    I say unto you, That unto every one which hath shall be given; and from him
    that hath not, even that he hath shall be taken away from him.’
    (Luke 19:26)

    Ó
    Ó Ó

    As a matter of practical experience, this passage makes no
    sense. I have no apples
    two apples must be taken from me. How can
    one take something away from a person who has nothing?

    Yet when we
    consider the idea of the soul that knows what is good for it and what is bad
    for it, the soul that we listen to ever more closely or deafen ourselves to
    ever more obstinately, is the saying really that puzzling? These words may well
    make the only possible sense … the ultimate sense.

    This important verse, when we compare it
    to those we have examined already, may become a little clearer to us. If we sit
    with it for a time, it may begin to speak to us. And what it says could sound
    something like this: Our choices magnify
    themselves. When we listen to our souls and strive to acquire favor with God,
    we are granted more of His favor. When we
    strive in the other di
    rection, we dig ourselves into a hole.

    Ó
    Ó Ó

    Jesus tells us in
    other sayings that it is what we sustain
    in our heart,
    ultimately, that makes true success possible for human beings. Consider these
    words.

    Ó
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    ‘For
    where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.’
    (Matthew 6:21)

    Ó
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    ‘A good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth
    forth that which is good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart
    bringeth forth that which is evil: for of the abundance of the heart his mouth
    speaketh.’
    (Luke 6:45)

    Ó
    Ó Ó

    It is as though Jesus were asking us: What are you doing with your heart? How are you investing it? Are you
    using it to build up a surplus, or to bring about a deficit in your life? Where
    are you going?

    He also tells us, as though with a nod
    and a wink, of the woman who conceals leaven in fifty measures of flour. How it
    grows for her!

    May I ask you to take just a moment right
    now to pray to God for guidance in discerning the real meaning of the important
    verses you have read in this chapter? Perhaps you should do so before you
    continue with the next chapter of this book.

    If the words in question were my words, I
    would understand and respect your decision to decline this request of mine to
    pray for guidance. But if Jesus said
    these words, as the Bible tells us is the case, then it is surely fitting for
    us to ask our Creator for His help in understanding these teachings.

    After all: Why would Jesus have said
    these things if we were not meant to understand them and apply them in our
    lives?

     

     

    I can so clearly remember reading the account in the 22nd chapter of Luke
    where Jesus withdrew from the disciples, prayed, and returned to find them fast
    asleep.

    Who, I wondered, could have possibly observed him praying ... and
    then related the incident so that it eventually could be included in the Gospel
    of Luke? There’s another passage in the Gospels where Jesus supposedly includes
    the words ‘let him who reads understand’ in one of his spoken discourses, which
    seemed odd to me. And there was yet another spot where the New Testament author
    assured first-century Christians that their generation would see the second
    coming of the Messiah
    a passage I found difficult to
    square with modern Christian doctrine. These and other queries about the New Testament
    arose while I was still quite young, certainly before I was fifteen. Had
    someone manipulated the Gospels?
    If so, who? And why?

    I ‘filed’ my questions for later, and decided that
    the real problem was that I was not part of a
    vigorous Christian faith community.

     

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