is morality timeless?


you are reading the bible like a layman, you can extract meaning but not scholarship

I had a dead-end comment chat with a Christian recently.  Not that big a surprise, I guess, as I’ve had a few since starting on this blogging adventure.  This one died a death when his trump card consisted of telling me I wasn’t interpreting the Bible correctly, as I’m not a Bible scholar.  For instance, this extract from the 10 Commandments:

I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.

Apparently, ‘jealous’ is the wrong word, even though it’s found in most translations.  And also, if I understand correctly, the threat given here isn’t horrendously cruel and immoral if you view it in it’s correct historical and cultural context.

The Christian I was discussing this with was clearly on a different intellectual plane from me, as I couldn’t quite follow his logic.  But I understood he was attempting to defend a point that morality is subjective and has evolved differently in different societies.  I’m not sure how this relates to a benevolent deity that knows everything, but it did raise an interesting point for me: can morality be viewed as timeless?

How I’m seeing it, is that morality is a tool that humanity is shaping down through history.  As life, for some of us at least, is less brutal and more contemplative, and as the exchange of information and ideas accelerates with technology, people have the luxury of reconsidering and evaluating things they took for granted in their culture or society.   People are doing studies into every aspect of life that give us evidence to support claims that might otherwise have been written off as fringe opinion.

I think I’m right in saying that down through history, every standard belief or act that was traditionally accepted, was unsupported by others or challenged along the way.  That’s clearly how things eventually change.  At the height of the slave trade, I’m sure there were many people who found the idea morally repugnant.  When witches were being executed in medieval Europe I am convinced there were many in the crowd mumbling, this is ridiculous!  I’m also quite sure that the majority of humans will eventually reject the consumption of sentient animal flesh, and opt for less painful protein sources.

Perhaps morality is a misleading term.  Perhaps it’s just this: what is logically the best way to treat other people?  It comes down to what sort of society you want to live in.  Most people want to be respected and treated well by others, and it’s so obvious this can only happen if this is how you treat others.  Common sense and a few studies will tell you this.  Or Jesus, if you prefer.

So, I guess in the days of the Moses, power was what was respected – the power to discipline, the power to threaten, the power to punish.  Countless studies (and common sense) have undoubtedly now shown that revenge and punishment don’t lead to a better functioning society, and that punishing people for the ‘misdeeds’ of their ancestors is really rather weird and unproductive.  As such, these notions are kind of out of fashion.  I’m not entirely clear how a very clever god living a timeless existence wouldn’t have reached that conclusion earlier.  But then I’m no Bible scholar.