Jesus and the Holy Throng: Sam Harris on Christian Particularity

This is a continuation of my series on Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation.

Referring to the Old Testament laws that Harris finds troubling, he says “Many Christians believe that Jesus did away with all this barbarism in the clearest terms imaginable and delivered a doctrine of pure love and toleration. He didn’t. In fact, at several points in the New Testament, Jesus can be read to endorse the entirety of the Old Testament law.”[i]  He then gives us one example, which is Matthew 5:18-19. He appeals to “several points” but only gives us one example. Here Jesus says that not a “jot or tittle” will pass from the law until all is accomplished. First off, please read my previous post on why these Old Testament laws are not barbaric and immoral. It is true that this scripture does not fit well with New Testament teaching in general on Old Testament ceremonial laws. Contrary to what Harris asserts, there is a clear theme in the New Testament to abolish some Old Testament prescriptions ( though not all) and not from Jesus only, but also from the other New Testament writers. For example, Jesus does away with the “eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth” regulation ( Matthew 5:38). He also does away with the dietary laws in fairly clear terms (Matthew 5:11, Mark 7:1-23).

You also have to understand why some of the Old Testament laws are no longer regarded as valid, which Harris does not address here. The Old Testament ritual and ceremonial laws are no longer regarded as valid, because Jesus was the final sacrifice and so did away for the need for laws about ritual “uncleanness”, and rules about sacrifices. Jesus is regarded to have been the perfect human being who fulfilled the Old Testament law. This might explain Matthew 5:18, because Jesus said that the law would not pass away until it is accomplished, and he accomplished it. Also, God’s elect is no longer a nation with it’s own government, set apart from other nations by various dietary and ceremonial laws, like circumcision. God’s elect is now a diverse group of people from “every nation, tribe and tongue” who is set apart from others by their faith in Jesus, not by their citizenship of a nation.This is why the capital punishments and governmental rules are no longer regarded as valid.

In the rest of the New Testament, we read frequently about the fact that the Apostles want to do away with the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament. This includes Acts 15 and Peter’s vision ( Acts 10:11). This also includes Galatians, where almost the entire letter is about the circumcision controversy and ceremonial laws. It includes some of Colossians. Harris also appeals to 2 Timothy 3:16-17 to support his claim that “the apostles regularly echo this theme.”[ii] “This theme” refers to Jesus’s statements in Matthew 5:18-19. But all we find in 2 Timothy 3 is an affirmation of biblical inspiration (“all scripture is God-breathed”), nothing close to what we find in Matthew 5:18. Biblical inspiration does not imply that the Old Testament ceremonial laws and capital punishments continue to apply. There is no reason why God cannot inspire time-bound rules. Again, Harris only presents one verse for his assertion that the “Apostles regularly echo this theme.” One verse from one apostle is definitely not “regularly” by “apostles” plural. This being said, there are moral laws in the Old Testament, which are reaffirmed and which continue to apply to us today.

Harris then admits that Jesus “said some profound things about love and charity and forgiveness. The Golden Rule really is a wonderful moral precept. But numerous teachers offered the same instruction centuries before Jesus ( Zoroaster, Buddha, Confucius, Epictetus).” Is this a race? Is it the case that whoever says it first must be more holy? Not necessarily. That is only the case if you think that moral originality is a requirement on exceptional holiness, although I don’t know why it should be and Harris provides no argument for supposing it to be. Also, there is no need to claim that Jesus was the originator of the Golden Rule, as he probably got the Golden Rule from the book of Leviticus ( Leviticus 9:18). That’s right. The Golden Rule is found in the book of Leviticus almost verbatim how Jesus repeats it in the gospels. What Jesus did differently is to contend that this principle is central to serving God well.  Also, there is no reason why Jesus should be spectacularly original in everything he says, especially because Christians believe God has revealed himself before Jesus in revelation, and reveals himself to a lesser degree in nature and conscience. This means that if God does reveal himself specifically, he is not going to say everything else is false and say things we have never heard before in any form. And this means there is also no reason why there cannot be moral wisdom in other religions, if Christianity is true. There are many hidden assumptions in Harris’s argument which are very implausible. Does a moral teacher need to say things first in order to be the true moral teacher? Does Jesus need to be absolutely original in everything he says in order for him to truly be the Son of God? No and no. If Jesus needed to be absolutely original in everything he says, that would mean that we got absolutely nothing right whatsoever before he came. This is not an admission that those other moral teachers are on par with Jesus in terms of moral wisdom. It is only to show that if Christianity is true, this does not mean that other religious teachers will not have moral wisdom. Harris also assumes that the Golden Rule is the only piece of moral wisdom that Jesus has to offer the world.

(By the way, Epictetus did not present the Golden Rule centuries before Jesus, because he didn’t say anything at all before AD 50, when he was born. This would be 20 years after Jesus’s death and resurrection). Because of all this, we don’t need to get into who exactly got it first: Leviticus, or Buddha, or Zarathustra, or Confucius, because it is irrelevant to the truth of Christianity and the divinity of Jesus’s identity. Harris claims that “countless scriptures discuss the importance of self-transcending love more articulately than the Bible does, while being unblemished by the obscene celebrations of violence that we find throughout Old and New Testament.”[iii] He doesn’t give us any specific examples here, so should we take him at his word? Harris simply asserts that these teachers give a better expression of love and forgiveness than the Bible, without backing this up with any examples from the teachings of these teachers and showing how these examples are better than the teachings of Jesus. This is simply assertion. He offers no argument. No case is made.

Buddhism prohibits all attachments, which means that it must prohibit love, because love is, in a significant sense, an attachment. Also, the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism focus entirely on how to keep oneself in a state of equanimity. In other words, it is focused on the happiness of the self. Contrast this with what Jesus says are the two greatest commandments: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:30-31) In other words, it is about loving God and loving other people, and only implicitly the self as well. (If you are to love others as yourself this presupposes that you have self-love). The central truths of Buddhism are all about how to avoid suffering for yourself. And forgiveness is advocated then as a way to keep oneself in a state of equanimity. It is not advocated, as it is in Christianity, as a positive love and goodwill for one’s enemies (Matthew 5:43-48) (because this will no doubt result in suffering sometimes, and the overarching goal in Buddhism is simply to avoid suffering). So what is superior? To love as way to avoid suffering for yourself, or to love even if it leads to suffering for yourself? Which is true selflessness? I have only brought up Buddhism here, because it is very popular in the West today as an alternative spirituality. It is a system of thought that Harris himself admires, and he would probably include the Buddha among the teachers who more “articulately” advocate love and forgiveness than the Bible.

Moreover, it is also important here to point out that Harris is measuring these teachings of love and compassion of different religious teachers against some standard and definition of what love and compassion are supposed to be. This is his own ideas of love and compassion. But who says that this standard, his own ideas, is the best instantiation of love and compassion? Why does he think his standard or his idea of these things is better than that presented in Christianity? What evidence does he have for thinking that his ideas of love and compassion are better? Moral intuition? Take a look at this post for a few reasons why moral intuitions are completely inadequate to ground a robust and accurate morality.

In the next post, we will get to the supposed “obscene celebrations of violence” that Harris thinks are in the New Testament as well as the Old Testament.

[i] Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, (New York: Knopf, 2006) p. 9

[ii] Ibid., p. 9

[iii] Ibid., p. 11

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