A phrase every bit as disliked as the film of the same moniker, ‘because I said so’ makes a decent case to be the most-hated phrase in US American culture (and some variant probably extends to many other cultures as well). Considering the two pinnacles of American values–independence and empirical reason–this is not surprising. Yet, we Christians often use this strategy when explaining Christian ethics:
Challenger: “So, can you explain to me why Christians do/don’t do ______?”
Christian: “Because God says so.”
Christian: [characterization] “Are you questioning God!? How dare you! God tells us do/don’t do ______, and we should never challenge God! Quick, repent of your sins before he strikes you down! [crosses index fingers] Get behind me Satan!!”
I have seen less severe shades of this reaction many times. Christians are so afraid of questioning God that we blindly accept the Christian ethic we have been taught. Subsequently, when we try to explain why we follow God, and practice our ethic, the only ammunition we have is “because God said so.” When America’s empirical reason then puts us to the test, we fail. In this era where Christianity is Losing Its Homefield Advantage, “Christians” cannot act like they have hegemonic control over the public opinion of the US. We cannot rely on “because God said so” and expect individuals to be persuaded any longer.
So, should Christians continue to use the argumentation “because God said so”? Should we reconsider our ethic based solely on God’s word? Do we even need to go so far as to re-visit the root of our faith to determine if our faith should rest on something more than, well, faith?
For most Christians who consider God to be the omniscient, omnipotent Creator, God’s word is to be universally, and without question, accepted as ethical. But before you jump on this bandwagon you should know that it still has to run over one of the oldest potholes in philosophy: Does God give commands because they are ethical, or are they ethical because God commands them? This question goes all the way back to–everyone’s favorite–Socrates’ dialogue with Euthyphro (pronounced like a person trying to get the attention of someone with big hair: Hey, you!…YOU wi’ THE-FRO!!)
In this dialogue Socrates and You-The-Fro discuss how one can define an action as pious (fulfilling the ethics desired by the Greek gods):
Soc. “…[Piety] is loved because it is holy, not holy because it is loved?”
[Pretty much all anyone says in Socratic dialogues besides Socrates]
Soc. “And that which is dear to the gods is loved by them, and is in a state to be loved of them because it is loved of them?”
Soc. “Then that which is dear to the gods, Euthyphro, is not holy, nor is that which is holy loved of God, as you affirm; but they are two different things. …I mean to say that the holy has been acknowledged by us to be loved of God because it is holy, not to be holy because it is loved. …But that which is dear to the gods is dear to them because it is loved by them, not loved by them because it is dear to them. …For one (theophiles) is of a kind to be loved because it is loved, and the other (osion) is loved because it is of a kind to be loved. Thus you appear to me, Euthyphro, when I ask you what is the essence of holiness, to offer an attribute only, and not the essence-the attribute of being loved by all the gods.”
Once you get over the “Mmmmmmkay, what just happened?” reaction to Socrates–just breath deeply and try to avoid anyone who asks lots of questions for a few hours–you might surmise that there are two important things going on here:
1) The question: Is something pious (ethical, if we are testing if God’s commands are the parameters of ethics) because God said so, or does God say so because it is ethical?
2) A desire for a definition of the essence of the piety/the ethical
If one believes in a Creator God then it is natural to assume that ethical laws were determined by Him, or that something is holy because it was loved by God as He created, one is firmly strapped into the “because God said so” bandwagon. Now it is time to drive over the pothole (we’ve just been looking at it up until now).
Let’s start with a thought experiment: Let’s say you are the Head Gamemaker in The Hunger Games (aka, you design a mini-world for people to kill each other). You make the game, you make the rules. And you can change the rules if you want to, you’re the boss after all. You want a muttation that eats anyone not doing the hokey-pokey, you got it!
Okay, back to reality, but now the thought experiment is flipped. You’re not the Gamemaker, God is. And if God is the omni-everything Creator than He can presumably change the rules like a Gamemaker. Sooo, if ethics are determined by God’s commands, then wouldn’t it be possible for God to change, or “suspend”, the ethical? Unlike a parent, who might not know what they are doing , an omniscient God would know precisely what He is doing.
Thought Experiment #2: TOTALLY hypothetically, God commands you, and elderly father, *cough, Abraham, cough* to sacrifice the hope of your people, your beloved son *atchoo, Isaac, sniffle.* As far as you know, God has changed the rules. He wants you to do something unethical, and His only reason is “Because I said so.” So, do you do it? Abraham did, or at least he tried.
Mhmm, that’s right, we are talking about a “suspension of the ethical”. Abraham’s example is what Søren Kierkegaard uses in his argument that suspensions happen (this quote is long simply because it is sooo good), and should still be followed:
“With Abraham the situation was different. By his act he overstepped the ethical entirely and possessed a higher telos outside of it, in relation to which he suspended the former. For I should very much like to know how one would bring Abraham’s act into relation with the universal, and whether it is possible to discover any connection whatever between what Abraham did and the universal …except the fact that he transgressed it. It was not for the sake of saving a people, not to maintain the idea of the state, that Abraham did this, and not in order to reconcile angry deities. If there could be a question of the deity being angry, he was angry only with Abraham, and Abraham’s whole action stands in no relation to the universal, is a purely private undertaking. Therefore, whereas the tragic hero is great by reason of his moral virtue, Abraham is great by reason of a purely personal virtue. In Abraham’s life there is no higher expression for the ethical than this, that the father shall love his son. Of the ethical in the sense of morality there can be no question in this instance. In so far as the universal was present, it was indeed cryptically present in Isaac, hidden as it were in Isaac’s loins, and must therefore cry out with Isaac’s mouth, ‘Do it not! Thou art bringing everything to naught.’
Why then did Abraham do it? For God’s sake, and (in complete identity with this) for his own sake. He did it for God’s sake because God required this proof of his faith; for his own sake he did it in order that he might furnish the proof. The unity of these two points of view is perfectly expressed by the word which has always been used to characterize this situation: it is a trial, a temptation. A temptation–but what does that mean? What ordinarily tempts a man is that which would keep him from doing his duty, but in this case the temptation is itself the ethical … which would keep him from doing God’s will. But what then is duty? Duty is precisely the expression for God’s will.”
-Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling
Thus, if the ethical is what is in congruence with God’s will, then there may be cases where doing God’s will would require one to do something that would typically be unethical. This is what Abraham did when he attempted to murder his son. You could make a case this is what the King Saul of the Old Testament did when he perpetrated genocide against the Amalekites. This is what Christians today practice every time they bite into a bacon cheeseburger (we definitely don’t follow kosher anymore). Suspensions, or even changes, of the ethical do happen. Yet, they can be as “unethical” as genocide or the murder of a child. How can we have faith in a God who would ask us to do those things? Are you still on the bandwagon?
When the rubber hits the road, God can be characterized either as this omniscient, omnipotent Creator whose word is ethical, regardless of what we think of it, or as the fairy Godfather who commands in reaction to something, such as metaphysical laws (In this case, it would be much more important that the Ten Commandments include something like: “Thou shalt weareth thine seatbelt whensoever thy rideth in thine automobile, for this bringeth long life, even unto the fourth and fifth generations…”). These two roles (the ethical tone-setter and the ethical reactant) are not completely exclusive, but one is necessarily primary, and in view of the fact that God was willing to change the laws of ethics, instead of them originating from some external universal law, I believe the former.
This is the point where it becomes readily apparent why ‘because I said so’ is so important for faith. My faith requires me to believe that something is ethical simply because God commands. Granted, a ‘leap of faith’ is required to accept any premise: do you really know the chair you are sitting on is there? Do you really know what is in pink slime? Yet, the Christian faith requires something more: a belief that the most important thing in life is not oneself, or anyone else, but God. This is what one must accept to believe in the Christian ethic. Can we accept God, and take Him at His word?
For Socrates, You-The-Fro, and for Americans today, the answer is, “No.” They desire some deeper essence of the ethical to be brought forth. Americans want the ethical to uphold their ideal of independence by being centered around self instead of around God. Thus, the ethical must make sense to them. They demand that a God who would order the murder of a child and an entire people be tried in their court of reason. And Christians, knowing that our faith was based on faith, tried to avoid the charges. But the court of reason is now the Supreme Court, and Christians will be lucky if we get a plea bargain. We cannot use “because God said so” in extra-faith encounters anymore, for this only worsens our situation.
However, hope for America is not all lost. Even if we Christians ground our faith completely on faith, there is still an appeal to reason to be made: Hermaneutics. Just because we think that we should not question God, does not mean that we should not take the time to figure out what God says. Hermaneutics is how we do this. The purpose is not to twist what God says for selfish purposes, but to take the time to truly listen to His thoughts. We can more clearly articulate why we believe what we believe. We must use reason, if we have any hope of speaking to Americans. It is only then that America will recognize the difference lies in premises of faith, rather than Christians’ lack of reason.
But Christians also cannot fall into the cultural trap of thinking that one can practice one’s faith using reason alone. Speculations about the essence of the Christian ethic can be made: Love, perhaps? But Faith is the uncomfortable bedrock we must live and die on. Hopefully, none of us will ever have to face a suspension of the ethical, or a choice to sacrifice one of our children, but by faith we must be willing. Our ethic must be entirely at the mercy of he commands of the Creator of the universe. And, “because He said so,” we must accept it. Maybe that’s herethical, but that may be a good thing.