President Obama has built a reputation as an incrementalist. Before he was elected in 2008, liberals had high hopes that he would turn the ship of state 180 degrees and sail in their direction. But as Howard Kurtz put it in the Washington Post as early as 2009, “Anyone who’s spent two weeks in Washington would know that Obama’s yes-we-can idealism would run smack into the capital’s no-we-won’t culture.”
As we reach the end of president Obama’s second term, he has become more assertive with the liberal aspects of his agenda, using the powers of the executive branch to bypass congress and get things done.
Did the God of the Bible follow a similar course as he brought his people from ignorance to salvation? Did he start by meeting them where they were — in the moral harshness of the Bronze Age — and bring them along incrementally until, finally, he made a full revelation in Jesus Christ?
In his book, Is God a Moral Monster?, Dr. Paul Copan proposes this idea as a way of answering his title question with a resounding “No!” As he puts it on page 61,
Sinai legislation makes a number of moral improvements without completely overhauling ancient Near Eastern social structures and assumptions. God “works with” Israel as he finds her. … As one writer puts it, “If human beings are to be treated as real human beings who possess the power of choice, then the “better way” must come gradually. Otherwise, they will exercise their freedom of choice and turn away from what they do not understand.
Abstractly, that makes perfect sense. Concretely as found in the Bible, the idea presents at least four difficulties: God’s priorities; what Dr. Copan calls “the Bible’s ubiquitous weirdness”; people’s surprisingly strong moral sense; and God’s seeming lack of confidence in himself.
So that I can keep this somewhat brief, I’ll use just one example where God’s supposed incrementalism is a big problem, namely the institution of slavery. What I’ll say could equally apply to other difficulties for which incrementalism might be an excuse such as genocide, misogyny, harsh punishments for minor offenses, and a lack of what we today consider fundamental human rights, such as freedom of religion.
Dr. Copan treats slavery at length in his book, and I have written at length about it on this blog. Slavery was, of course, widespread in biblical times and God not only tolerated it, but in some cases commanded that Israel enslave her neighbors. Does God’s incrementalism partially justify the Bible’s approach to this issue?
Does it make sense that God would start by making it a capital offense to gather firewood on the sabbath? Was this somehow a higher priority than refraining from enslaving each other?
Is it not more likely that the Bible is a purely human book that reflects human priorities and human inability to see beyond cultural norms such as slavery?
Laws about hairstyles and fabric are part of what Dr. Copan charmingly calls “the Bible’s ubiquitous weirdness.” One rationale he offers for such ritualistic laws is that God wanted to form a strong sense of identity in his people. And he has a point. Today, even some atheistic Jews keep kosher. Their sense of Jewish identity is even more important than God himself. Apparently God’s strategy worked too well!
But ritualistic observance of weird laws was not God’s only choice. We Americans also have a strong sense of identity based on what I suggest is a more moral foundation: our constitution, our Bill of Rights, and our self-conception as a “melting pot” of cultures. Couldn’t God have forged his people’s identity as “those who demonstrate God’s love to the world” which would include, for example, sending missionaries offering enlightenment rather than soldiers demanding slavery as a condition of peace?
Or were people not ready for that?
People’s Surprisingly Strong Moral Sense
I think they were ready from day one. I mean this almost literally: Scientific American has reported that even babies have a moral sense:
Once they’re capable of coordinated movement, babies will often try to soothe others who are suffering, by patting and stroking. …[W]e have found that even 3-month-olds respond differently to a character who helps another than to a character who hinders another person. This finding hints that moral judgment might have very early developmental origins.
I heard a story on NPR recently about a program in a developing country — I think it was India — that taught boys to have less domineering attitudes toward women and girls. Before instruction, the boy featured in the story expected his sister to stay at home doing housework while he enjoyed life in the marketplace, and to do whatever he said. His teacher assigned him to do housework for one day. That’s all it took for him to have more empathy toward his sister, who now describes him as “a changed person” who continues to help with housework and now regards his sister and mother as equals.
If infants are capable of empathy, if three-month-olds have a sense of fairness, and if a boy in a developing country only needs one day to overcome centuries of cultural prejudice, why would Israel be unable to get its collective head around the idea that slavery is wrong?
God’s Lack of Confidence
After all, Israel had God as her direct ruler. He was able to lead even the wicked and untutored to repentance, as the entire book of Jonah demonstrates.
Are we to believe that the creator of the universe, the one who can soften or harden men’s hearts at will, is not able to make people understand that slavery is wrong without laying thousands of years of groundwork?
The early laws of the Bible do not show a supernatural quality of morality. Slavery is only one example of where the Bible is quite simply wrong. If we wish to justify this by appealing to God’s incrementalism, we must say that he prioritized the trivial over the important, and the weird over the substantive. We must say that he was unaware of the innate moral sense that he himself supposedly gave all men, and that he lacked confidence even in himself.
An alternative view is that morality improves over time in the Bible because people’s circle of empathy gradually widens for purely naturalistic reasons. (See Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined or read the summary on Wikipedia.) To me, this view makes more sense.