III. I shall not address the section on the Moral Arguments for Deity since Russell himself obviously thought them unworthy, describing the whole mess as “one stage further in what I shall call the intellectual descent that the Theists have made in their argumentations.” (pg. 11) To follow this, the speaker then amuses himself with the final of the five arguments that he attempts to prove false and that is the belief of the Theists (why has he dropped the Christian label?) that “the existence of God is required in order to bring justice into the world.” It may be the way in which he forms the sentence but the very presence of injustice seems to run contrary to what he states as a Christian belief. To Russell, heaven and hell are strictly functional. One is to serve as reward and the other as punishment so that there can be eschatological justice. Without God and his final destinations, there can be no justice. On the face of the argument and our own experience we can see that this is incorrect. Justice and injustice certainly cohabitate this plane of existence; wrongs are righted and penalties meted out while at the same time, injustices are seen to continue to exist. Again, the free will nature of God’s creatures is not in sight, only the failure of the heavenly Jailer to instantly address wrongs is.
Russell concludes this set of arguments with two additional reasons that he concludes people believe in God. First, they are taught from infancy to do so and second, people who believe in God have an innate desire for a ‘big brother’ God who will lurk about and watch over them. If I have followed the construction of the essay thus far, Russell has attempted to knock down a handful of the standard arguments for the existence of God and, rather than show how his dismissal of these arguments supports his overall conclusions, he then offers two non sequiturs instead. How this makes his case I am at a loss to explain. To critique the essay to this point is difficult as the philosopher has given nothing in the way evidence for his belief in the correctness of his positions. Shall I propose counter arguments and provide evidence in the face of his dismissive tenor?
At the midpoint of his essay, Russell seems to have done little but affirm the assertion that he makes about people subscribing to their religious worldviews out of emotion. This certainly seems to be the case with his faith in the Atheistic worldview. The few arguments that he addressed have simply been dismissed in the most cursory fashion because he feels that they are undeserving of support. Would the Christian be allowed similar liberty? To say that one believes in God and, when asked to give a reason, to simply say that any position to the contrary is silly and beneath address would be to open oneself up to ridicule and scorn. I am led to consider what fear drives the Atheist to such argumentative tactics. Is it that something inside of them continually rehearses thoughts of doubts contrary to their ‘settled’ positions?
Is Christ the Best and the Brightest?
After this insubstantial beginning, Russell turns his attention to Christ and his second standard of Christianity, Jesus’ divinity and His status as a wise man. We must make note that the author does not address the divinity of Jesus directly. His aim is to undermine any possible consideration of this issue by focusing the discussion on the quality of Christ’s character. If Russell can successfully argue that the character of Jesus in not up to the perfect goodness of God, the divinity question need not even be brought into the dialog. Logically this conclusion makes sense. The trouble we encounter in this essay is that Russell approaches the discussion in a fallacious and deceptive manner which causes us to question any trust we might develop in his positions.
Russell presents a quartet of bible verses in which he makes an interesting argument against Christians and therefore, Christianity. It goes like this; if Christians do not live up to each jot and title of Christ’s words then there must be some defect in the character of the Christ himself. (As an aside, Russell gleefully finds himself agreeing with Christ more than Christians do. To what end he makes this statement we can only guess. If forced to come to a conclusion, I would surmise that it is for differentiation purposes.) Let us examine each of the verses in turn to determine how they reflect on the Lord’s character. It is important to note that hermeneutical principles appear to be foreign to Russell as he plucks individual verses out of their context and then expects fealty to the literal reading of the sentence(s). Any Christian that did this would be admonished by the larger community of believers but it appears that there may be a different standard for Atheist use of the scriptures.
“But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Matthew 5:39; Luke 6:29) Russell asserts that not many Christians accept this verse as demonstrated by their behavior. His example of asking whether or not the Prime Minister would allow himself to be beaten in respect of Christ’s maxim demonstrates an inferior (or purposely deceptive) interpretation of the verse in its context. I defer to D.A. Carson for an explanation of the fallacy of this approach,
“…we must agree that absolutizing any text, without due respect for the context and flow of the argument, as well as for other things Jesus says elsewhere, is bound to lead to distortion and misrepresentation of what Jesus means.” ( Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, pg 54)
Jesus is speaking in the larger passage of 5:38-42 of personal self-sacrifice. The Greek text describes a strike on the cheek commonly associate with an insult rather than grave bodily danger, something not conveyed in its English translation. Jesus is stating here that the Christian is to not retaliate for insults. He is not proposing that the Christian subject themself to injury without ever putting up an effort at self preservation. To conclude otherwise is a disingenuous utilization of Christ’s words. Russell also pulls another verse from this passage as evidence of Christian hypocrisy; “Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” (Matthew 5:42) Jesus directs our charity to poor but this would be unreasonably generalized to include all people who demand something of us. Cross referencing this verse against the whole of scripture finds no further support for Russell’s use of the verse.
In the second example, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Matthew 7:1; Luke 6:37), Russell again resorts to his literalist tendency. By his logic, a Christian who is a Judge by profession is guilty of hypocrisy. Again, we must turn back to the scriptures and the context to determine if Jesus indeed voices a prohibition against Christians sitting on the bench. Jesus is addressing the practice of being critical of others (not jurisprudence) while you yourself are guilty of the same or worse. Had Russell bothered to consider the next verse regarding the speck in the eye of another contrasting with the plank in your own he might have been clearer in his interpretation. I wonder if he would have also been favorably disposed to ramming a stick into his eye before looking to the faults of another.
Finally, Russell restrains his criticism only to note that there is little obedience to Christ’s maxim “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” (Luke 18:22) This verse comes from a longer conversation that Jesus is having at the behest of a man who has come to be known as the Rich Young Ruler. Proper reading would first lead us to the conclusion that Jesus is not making a general application of principle, contra Russell’s use of the verse. More importantly, Jesus is not commending an asceticism as the philosopher would like to propose (in order to criticize the Christ). Jesus perceives that in the case of the Ruler, his wealth would be an impediment to deeper relationship with God. In our modern world, Jesus might point that our playing of video games, possession of collector cars, or a devotion to reading might threaten to overwhelm the primacy of our relationship with God. He would recommend to us that we dispense with these activities or possessions as well.
Has Russell succeeded in commenting on the character of Christ? His interpretation of the evidence of Christian lives not being aligned to his interpretation of a selection of biblical verses certainly fails to comment on the wisdom or character of Christ. He has engaged in the worst sort of biblical abridgement, conveniently ignoring both general context and the immediate verses which serve to clarify the appropriate meaning of the verse in question. It is difficult to state Russell’s reason for doing so and to declare to know his heart would be unfair. I will say that, in no way has Russell impugned the character of Christ through the evidence he has utilized.
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