Why does the Old Testament include all those ritual purity rules? Are they just arbitrary taboos? There is nothing intrinsically wrong with consuming the blood of an animal, or wearing a garment woven of two different kinds of fiber, is there?
The assumption behind these questions is that nothing should be forbidden unless it is intrinsically wrong. A moment’s thought shows that this assumption is incorrect. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with driving on the left; in some countries they do drive on the left. But it would be harmful for vehicles to drive both on the right and on the left, so in each country the law chooses designates one side of the road for vehicles and prohibits driving on the other. The fact that the law could have chosen a different possibility doesn’t make its decision arbitrary.
In the language of the natural law tradition, there is a term for this sort of thing. The requirement of driving only on the right is said to be a determination of the more general requirement to drive safely. We could say that it pins down the particular way in which safe driving is to be achieved among a particular people.
In much the same way, the Old Testament ritual purity rules are determinations of the more general rules which direct man to God. They pin down the particular way in which that was to be achieved among the chosen nation.
One could think of these rules as a divine educational program. For example, the prohibition of consuming blood separated the Hebrew people from the surrounding pagan nations who drank the blood of their victims, and taught them to abhor the shedding of human blood. In turn, the pouring out of blood in animal sacrifice dramatized the fact that they owed God their very life, and foreshadowed the sacrifice of Messiah.
A more puzzling case is the trio of prohibitions in Leviticus 19:19, which prohibits allowing different kinds of animal to mate (for example a horse with an ass), sowing a field with more than two kinds of seed (for example wheat and barley), or wearing cloth made from two kinds of fiber (for example linen and wool). What purpose do these three determinations serve? Many have been suggested. But considering what the trio have in common, couldn’t one of the purposes of the divine pedagogy in their case have been to nurture respect for the order of creation, and to militate against contempt or disregard for natural boundaries?
No doubt such wholesome attitudes could have been inculcated in other ways – but it would be dreadful to neglect them. Or is such a fear unnecessary and overwrought?
Not in the least. Consider what is already happening in our repaganized world. The attempt to develop so-called chimaeras -- creatures brought about by crossing humans with other creatures -- is already well underway. Several biotech companies have transplanted the nuclei of fertilized human eggs into the eggs of sows that have had their nuclei removed, and then let them begin to divide. Other scientists have proposed blending the genetic material of humans and chimpanzees to make “humanzees” which could be used as slaves. Such obscenities are treated as though they were all but inevitable. Law journals carry articles about the chimaera law of the future.
I don’t propose reinstating Old Testament ritual purity rules, but the fact that Christians are released from them does not imply that the lessons the rules meant to teach are no longer true. In fact, through the grace of the sacraments, the divine pedagogy continues.
The Jews were not free to live like pagans, disreverence life, spurn God, trespass natural boundaries, or befoul the sweet order of creation -- and neither are we.
Since I’ve lost time recovering from surgery this week, I’m not composing a “proper” blog post. But since I do hate to let readers down, I’m offering a few words about lost time itself -- and about blogging.
About lost time. When I grouch about time being “lost” or “wasted,” what I usually mean is that I had to use the time differently than I might have chosen. But if God is the master of our days, as I claim to believe, then isn’t this attitude of mine graceless? Why should I assume that how I would have chosen to use my time would have been better than what He has in mind for it? If He sees fit to slow me down this week and interrupt what I fondly call my projects, presumably there is a reason. Perhaps there is something else that I need to be doing more than what I think I should be doing -- something that I wouldn’t have taken time to do unless He had thrown a little sand in my gears. Such as learning to be more patient. Or more still.
About blogging. If my website statistics are to be believed, I’ve gained a bunch of new readers lately. (And lost some old ones! Must be a story here.) If you’re new, and you’ve tuned in just for the blog, I invite you to look around the rest of the website to see what else you may find interesting. Maybe nothing, but maybe something. If you do find something you like, I hope you’ll tell other folks about it. Link, tweet, chirp, or whatever folks do. Much obliged to you.
Now excuse me, please. I’m going to take a nap.
For the past two years I have been writing a book on Thomas Aquinas’s theory of happiness and ultimate purpose. One of the topics he considers is whether we can attain happiness just through our own natural powers. Wondering how others might answer, while writing the chapter about it I did a quick web search using the question, “What can we do to be happy?”
The first time I ran the search, the query yielded 627 million hits. Ironically, the first one after the advertisements was a suicide hotline. After that bleak note, the results became buoyantly optimistic: “10 Simple Things You Can Do Today That Will Make You Happy,” “45 Things You Can Do to Get Happy No Matter Where You Are,” and the cockiest, “10 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Incredibly Happy.”
The happiness gurus who write these items almost never suggest becoming a virtuous person. From a Thomistic point of view, this is worse than an oversight, since what might be called the happiness of this life lies chiefly in the exercise of the virtues. How else can we even enjoy the other good things? For example, how else can we properly practice friendship, delight in our families, and contemplate the objects of knowledge?
A good deal of the advice the gurus do give is either wrong (some of them attribute magical powers to money) or fatuous (my favorite was “Happiness is maximized at 13.9° C”). Some of their advice is not really about the attainment of happiness, but about the banishing of sorrow – a topic St. Thomas treats separately, making practical suggestions like enjoying innocent pleasures (go read a novel of P.G. Wodehouse), sleep, baths, weeping, the sympathy of friends, and fixing the gaze of one’s mind upon Divine truth.
Not all of the “simple things” the gurus suggest are bad ideas. And St. Thomas certainly agrees that to attain what passes for happiness in this life, human powers -- plus a certain amount of good fortune -- suffice.
Of course one might not have good fortune. Besides, even if one does, what is called happiness in this life inevitably leaves us asking “Is this all there is?”
His answer is that the happiness of this life is not all there is. But for supreme and perfect happiness – not just more of the same old happiness, but a higher kind of happiness -- we need Divine help.
Curious how conversion works.
One may think the only difference is that one’s beliefs have changed. Or that one’s moral standards have changed.
It is more like rising from the dead.
Perhaps without having realized that you were dead.
Imagine having a family photograph and noticing one day that someone you hadn’t thought present in the photograph had been there all along.
It was like that with the memory of God.
Imagine waking up and discovering someone in the house whom you hadn’t remembered that you lived with.
It was like that with His presence.
Imagine becoming aware that your motives for various actions had not been at all like what you had taken them to be.
It was like that with the knowledge of self.
Imagine realizing that you knew all sorts of things that you had told yourself you didn’t know and even couldn’t know.
It was like that with knowledge of a host of other things.
Imagine having sat in a dark place for years, not knowing that the shutters were nailed closed. Now they are being flung back. Beams of light are flowing in as solid as columns of ivory. You had forgotten what light looked like.
It was like that.
Aspiration is better than self-esteem. Many of us were serenaded in childhood with lyrics like this:
Would you like to swing on a star
Carry moonbeams home in a jar
And be better off than you are
Or would you rather be ...
Each stanza presented something one might rather be – a mule, a pig, a fish, or a monkey. But why be one of those, when by learning and honesty, you could be swinging on stars? The images of swinging on a star and carrying moonbeams in jars cast a spell on my imagination. The catchiness of the tune didn’t hurt either; from time to time I still find myself humming it.
Though it’s more sonorous, the fine motto inscribed over the West Entrance of Norlin Library at the University of Colorado, Boulder, conveys much the same encouraging spirit: "Who Knows Only His Own Generation Remains Always a Child." Should we retain the innocence of childhood? Yes! But its ignorance? No!
Not everyone considers the motto so fine. At a website for millennials, one University of Colorado student writes that “It promotes knowledge beyond one's self and one's immediate surroundings, and that's totally cool.” But it “feels like I'm constantly being scolded and berated by my library, which keeps calling me a child.” The slogan “turns the library from a sanctuary of study into a bully ... who keeps heckling me across the Quad. Come on, library, don't be like that. This is what I see when I look at my library.”
Here is the good news: The aspiration expressed by the Norlin Library motto is not dead. When I read it to my own undergraduates, they thought it was great. When I asked them what they thought of the young man’s reaction, they pleaded “Don’t judge millennials by him.”
One of them expressed the very thought with which I had planned to end this post: It is hard to see why anyone would resent a gentle exhortation to rise beyond childhood, unless he had no intention of doing so.
I am an attorney considering running for office. This consideration raises new questions for me and I am curious about your thoughts. How would you go about choosing a political party?
Interesting question. It can be difficult to decide whether a party is worthy of endorsement. I would begin by ruling out any party which is unconditionally unworthy of it. No party which is programmatically committed to deeds which are intrinsically evil can be supported.
Case in point: To its credit, the U.S. House of Representatives recently passed H.R. 4712, which seeks to add ensure compliance with previous legislation which forbade killing infants already born. This it does by requiring abortionists to ensure that any infant who is born alive despite their efforts must be immediately transported to a hospital for admission, and in the meantime be given them the same standard of care that any other infant born alive would receive. This bill should have passed unanimously.
Yet of the 193 Democrats in the House, 187 voted against it. The number would have been 188, but one of those who voted for it thought he was voting against it.
Please understand me. I would not use the Democratic Party’s own tactics against it. I would not blindly oppose even reasonable suggestions it might make about matters of common concern. I would not call for the impeachment of its duly elected officeholders if they had committed no impeachable offenses. I would not seek to weaponize the police, justice, and intelligence services against it. In short, I would hope for its genuine reform, and in the meantime I would not seek to undermine the processes of a constitutional republic in order to oppose it. But until it abandoned its various fiendish commitments, I could never vote for one of its candidates.
The other major party is dreadfully disappointing, often hypocritical, and may be wrong in many of its goals and views. I am no cheerleader for it. But a party which seeks to keep the road clear for infanticide is not even worthy of consideration. It long ago lost any shred of a claim to the respect of decent people.
Motives aren’t reasons. Someone might find it congenial to believe that sexual morality is all relative because he is sleeping with his girlfriend. Or that the morality of abortion is all relative because she’s pregnant and he doesn’t want her to be. Or that the morality of killing is all relative because he talked her into having one. But these are not reasons for thinking relativism true. They are only motives, or temptations. A reason is grounds for the reasonable judgment that something is true. A motive is merely a feeling that makes someone want to believe it is true.
Are there any reasons for thinking relativism is true? Yes, there are some. But they don’t hold water.
For example, one common reason is the Argument from Variation: Some norms really do vary according to circumstances. In the United States, it is wrong to drive on the left; in England, it is wrong to drive on the right. But notice: The only way there can even be a valid difference in norms at the level of application is that the same universal rule is being applied in both cases. It is a universal moral principle that we ought to take care for the safety of others. So this doesn’t justify relativism.
A second common reason some people embrace relativism might be called the Argument from Difficulty: Some moral questions are rather hard to answer. For example, is all warfare murder? Some respond to the difficulty of the question by saying that murder is in the eye of the beholder. But would you say that the species of my pet is in the eye of the beholder, so that for me it’s a cat, but for you it’s a goldfish? Of course not. The right thing to do about difficult questions is not to be lazy and dodge them, but to carry out the difficult work of answering them.
Next is the Argument from Disagreement. People give different answers to some moral questions. Consider warfare again. Some say all war is wrong. Others say only unjust war is wrong. Still others say that in war, everything is permissible. But this is a question of fact. When we are speaking of physical facts, such as whether the earth revolves around the sun or the sun revolves around the earth, we unhesitatingly say that our task is to investigate and find out which opinion about the fact is correct. We ought to take the same view of moral facts.
Then there is the Argument from Emotion. A moment ago I spoke of moral facts, but according to this argument, there are no moral facts, and propositions that seem to assert moral facts are really only expressing the emotions of the speaker. For example, if I say it is wrong to deliberately run over children with automobiles, I seem to be saying something about the moral status of running over children with automobiles, but on the critic’s view, I am really only saying something about me: That hearing of such an act makes me angry, disgusted, or indignant. But wait a moment. If the act does make me angry, disgusted, or indignant – and it does -- then why does it? The reason it makes me feel that way is that I judge it to be wrong, and it would still be wrong even if it didn’t make me feel angry, disgusted, or indignant. Besides, the Argument from Emotion doesn’t actually give anyone a reason to disbelieve in moral facts. It merely assumes that there are no moral facts, and then tries to explain moral statements on the basis of this assumption. You might find the Argument from Emotion attractive if you are already a relativist, but it doesn’t give you a reasonable warrant for being one.
Still another reason for relativism might be called the Argument from Tautology. A certain U.S. judge has claimed that although there may be a few universal moral principles, they don’t really say anything, because they are tautologies, or circular statements. For instance, he claimed that to say “Thou shalt not murder” is nothing more than to say “Never commit the kinds of killing that you ought not commit” – which tells us nothing. But this Argument from Tautology is even lazier than the previous argument. For the classical definition of murder doesn’t just tell us “Don’t do what is not to be done.” Rather it tells us what, specifically, is not to be done. We must not deliberately take innocent human life, and an act which fits this definition must never be done. No circularity there.
Next comes what I call the Argument from Progress. A former chairman of the Senate judiciary committee, who later became a vice president of the United States, complained about someone who had been nominated for the Supreme Court by saying that the nominee seemed to believe in “a static set of unchanging [moral] principles,” rather than an “evolving body of ideals.” The senator’s statement was relativistic, because it denied that there are any universal moral principles, unchanging over place and over time. But it was also paradoxical, because at the same time it insisted that there are universal moral principles, unchanging over place in time. For what did the senator mean by suggesting that moral ideals “evolve” or develop? I don’t think he meant that they undergo meaningless and arbitrary change. After all, he approved of this development; in other words, he passed moral judgment upon it. So what he really meant was that our moral ideals are getting better. But to suggest that they are changing for the better presupposes a fixed standard of moral comparison, a yardstick of “better” which doesn’t change. So even in order to say that our moral ideals have no fixed content, he needed a moral standard which does have fixed content. So this argument for relativism shoots itself down.
Last but not least, we might consider the Argument from False Humility. This reason for relativism suggests that to make a moral judgment is to commit the vice of pride. But there is a problem here. If no one may judge others, then how is it that we may deliver an unfavorable judgment upon those who do judge others? Obviously, we can’t. So this argument is also self-defeating.
The Argument from False Humility is the one most likely to snag Christians. For didn’t Christ command, “Judge not, that you may not be judged”? Yes, but don’t forget what He said next: “For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get .... You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye.” Plainly, this statement expresses a moral judgment. It does not condemn all moral judgment, but as condemns proud and hypocritical moral judgment.
Lest there be any doubt, we might remember another place in the Gospels, where He said, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment." At the same time that He forbids one kind of judgment (“do not judge by appearances”), He commands another kind (“judge with right judgment”). Humility really is a virtue, but true humility does not mean, cannot mean, suspending all moral judgment.