I recently finished reading A.C.Grayling’s latest book The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism which is a pretty good read and an excellent primer on the standard apologetics of religion and the Humanist alternatives. However it is one, almost throw away, observation that he makes about the New Testament that I want to focus on here. He points out that because early Christianity was actually an apocalyptic and eschatological movement there is very little practical depth to the morality espoused within it.
Even I raised an eyebrow at this, because I’ve read a fair bit of the Bible (The cover to cover project is still a work in progress, finished the O.T and into the new as far as Paul’s Epistles) and I’m as likely as anyone to admit there is some real moral content. But actually, giving it some thought, I suspected I may have become a victim of the cultural hype surrounding Christianity and seeing something that isn’t there. So I did a little Bible dipping to refresh my memory and now I see his point.
Although the Gospels are strong on narrative, the specific exhortations to living a good life are sparse and in reality impractical for most people to follow. In effect they boil down to; give all your possessions to the poor, abandon your family to follow Jesus and love everybody. Paul in various epistles, but mainly to the Romans, adds “stoppit with the gay already” (that might not be a direct quotation) as like modern evangelicals it seems to be the only bit of Leviticus he still cared about post conversion. But he offered very little extra in the way of moral guidance.
The Pauline epistles are clear in the expectation that Christ is expected to return imminently, and it’s worth bearing in mind that all of Paul’s writing was done without the benefit of the synoptic gospels which all postdate him by various degrees, and say the same. Consequently his advice to his churches that members should only marry if they really really couldn’t keep it in their togas makes sense if you think that celibacy is going to be fairly short term and a brownie point come doomsday.
However, in the event that your messiah is going to be at least two millennia late (like that would happen?) celibacy seems less attractive and likely to supress the number of new Christians in the future. Similarly the thought of all Christians giving away their possessions and leaving their loved ones for a life of sandal shod evangelising today seems ridiculous, which is why they don’t do it for the most part.
Given that Paul also said that obeying the O.T laws was not a requisite for salvation (except the ‘don’t be gay’ one of course, what is it with that?) as it was all down to grace and faith in Jesus he seemed to rely on the same assumptions that some do today, that to be a Christian was to be intrinsically good, without any other moral input. This means that, as any Humanist would point out, Christians have to get their true morals from somewhere external to the Bible, in fact the same place we all do; from our common humanity and evolved pro-sociality. But if the early Church and indeed Jesus had really intended Christianity to be around for two thousand years we would expect the Bible to be much richer in moral guidance and be more relevant to the complex lives that we live today.
"Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it's just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses...and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it's mistaken. It's persuasion. It's the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride"