Monday, November 27, 2006

Neuhaus on the Bible and Slavery

John West, Carson Holloway, and other critics of Darwinian conservatism often criticize my claim that morality can be rooted in a natural moral sense of human biological nature, because they insist that Biblical religion is the only reliable source of moral norms. I agree that Biblical religion can often reinforce our natural moral sense. But I suggest that the Bible commonly lacks the moral clarity and reliability that we need. And consequently, we have to filter the Bible through our natural moral experience to arrive at the proper moral conclusions.

To illustrate this, I have noted that the Bible does not clearly condemn slavery as immoral. In fact, all of the specific references to slavery in the Bible seem to sanction it. So in the antebellum debate over the morality of slavery in the United States, the Christian defenders of slavery could plausibly argue that slavery was Biblically supported. The history of this debate has recently been surveyed in Mark Noll's book--The Civil War as a Theological Crisis.

Charles Darwin was a life-long opponent of slavery who saw it as a violation of the natural moral sense and the moral principle of reciprocity. Opponents of slavery like Abraham Lincoln invoked this principle of reciprocity in condemning slavery as a violation or reciprocal fairness: "As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master." "This is a world of compensation; and he who would be no slave, must consent to have no slave." Such a natural moral reasoning does not depend on the Bible. On the contrary, it is only such reasoning that allows us to correct the Bible so that we can read it as condemning slavery. (I have elaborated the Darwinian grounds for condemning slavery in Chapter 7 of Darwinian Natural Right.)

In Noll's book, he writes (p. 50): "With debate over the Bible and slavery at such a pass, and especially with the success of the proslavery biblical argument manifestly (if also uncomfortably) convincing to most Southerners and many in the North, difficulties abounded. The country had a problem because its most trusted religious authority, the Bible, was sounding an uncertain note. The evangelical Protestant churches had a problem because the mere fact of trusting implicitly in the Bible was not solving disagreements about what the Bible taught concerning slavery. The country and the churches were both in trouble because the remedy that finally sovled the question of how to interpret the Bible was recourse to arms. The supreme crisis over the Bible was that there existed no apparent biblical resolution to the crisis. As I have written elsewhere, it was left to those consummate theologians, the Reverend Doctors Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, to decide what in fact the Bible actually meant."

In the December issue of First Things (p. 70), Father Richard John Neuhaus quotes this passage and then observes: "All the answers may very well be in the Bible, if only we could agree on its interpretation. Noll's very serious point . . . is that the Civil War played a large part in shaking the confidence of a Protestant and Bible-believing nation in the capacity of religion to resolve disputes of great public moment. Catholics never believed that the Bible, unmediated by interpretative authority, could play that role. Which does not mean that there could not have been a Civil War if this had been a predominantly Catholic country. It does mean that all cultures, philosophies, and belief systems, religious or not, are subject to being taken captive by disordered passions that overwelm a necessity humility in the face of historical dynamics that we neither understand nor control."

Neuhaus's position is hard to understand. While suggesting that the Bible could be our final guide to moral judgment, he also suggests that it cannot do this without mediation by the "interpretative authority" of the Catholic Church. But then he admits that it is not clear that the authority of the Catholic Church could have avoided the Civil War by correctly interpreting the Bible as condemning slavery. Ultimately, it seems that Neuhaus is left with a historicist relativism in which we must humbly submit to "historical dynamics that we neither understand nor control."

Against such historicist relativism, Darwinian conservatism, with its rooting of morality in a natural moral sense of human biological nature, is a far more reliable ground for moral judgment.


GG said...

Is Darwinsim thesame as Darwinian conservatism? The same problems of disordered passions and interpetation would exist for Darwinism as it would for the Bible.

Larry Arnhart said...

Yes, the evils of eugenics and social Darwinism show how Darwinian science can be distored by "problems of disordered passions and interpretation."

But to solve these problems, we have to appeal to our natural moral experience. Holloway, West, and others insist that such moral experience doesn't work if it is not guided by biblical religion. But my point is that biblical religion is not reliable if it is not filtered through our natural moral sense, as illustrated by the debate over slavery. This shows that our moral judgment stands on its own, independent of religious belief.

Anders Branderud said...

The Bible does not condone slavery:

Every Orthodox Jew I've met believes the whole Jewish Bible. Yet, I've never met an Orthodox Jew who believes in slavery. The apparent conundrum is an illusion. There are five words that, with their cognates, are translated in English versions of the Jewish Bible as servant:

1.אנוש (enosh; homo sapien)

2.נער (na·ar; youth, boy)

3.עבד (eved; worker, apprenticed-employee), with its cognates

4.שרת (sharat; minister)

5.שכיר (sakhir; temp, hireling, mercenary)

There is no word in the Jewish Bible that can be properly rendered as slave!

The Jewish Bible doesn't advocate slavery. Slavery was yet another example of evil men perverting Scripture to justify their evil actions. Using supposed Biblical advocacy of slavery as justification to reject part of the Bible is based on a false premise. Even when taking enemies, rather then imply enslavement, the Biblical instruction is to treat them, and ensure their welfare, as an eved, employee.
Quote : Pishtah Keihah, Author Paqid Yirmeyahu Ben Dawid

Larry Arnhart said...

Here is Leviticus 25:39-46 (Jewish Study Bible):

"If your kinsman under you continues in straits and must give himself over to you, do not subject him to the treatment of a slave. He shall remain with you as a hired or bound laborer; he shall serve with you only until the jubilee year. Then he and his children with him shall be free of your authority; he shall go back to his family and return to his ancestral holding. For they are My servants, whom I freed from the land of Egypt; they may not give themselves over into servitude. You shall not rule over him ruthlessly; you shall fear your God. Such male and female slaves as you may have--it is from the nations round about you that you may acquire male and female slaves. You may also buy them from among the children of aliens resident among you, or from their families that are among you, whom they begot in your land. These shall become your property: you may keep them as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property for all time. Such you may treat as slaves. But as for your Israelite kinsmen, no one shall rule ruthlessly over the other."

This sure looks like slavery to me.