The Gospel According to Jason Brennan
March 26, 2011 — 6:13

Author: Jeremy Pierce  Category: Christian Theology  Comments: 11

Philosophy TV posted several reflections on issues related to Christmas during Christmas week last year. Jason Brennan’s contribution presents the Christmas story (i.e. the gospel) as a bad story about an immoral divinity.

I chose not to post this actually near Christmas, but when I saw this I thought it would be a great exercise to identify exactly where Brennan gets the gospel message wrong (and Brennan’s final question actually invites that).

In particular, there seem to be two general kinds of responses to a criticism like Brennan’s. You might disagree with his portrayal of what the gospel message actually says, or you might think he gets the message right but applies a problematic moral framework. (And you might think he makes mistakes in both arenas). But if you’re a Christian, you ought to think he does at least one of the two. The question is exactly which elements does he get wrong in what the gospel says or in the moral theory he applies to it, and I’m curious what people would say about that. What do you think?

[cross-posted at Evangel and Parableman]

  • Robert Allen

    Where to begin? First off, one is reminded of St. Anselm’s dictum “Believe in order to understand.” Treating Genesis as fictitious makes it impossible to understand the Gospel, or any other part of sacred scripture. To wit, where does Brennan get off suggesting A&E were not “moral agents”? Commands, as St. Augustine notes, are not issued to beings lacking FW. Further, the order in question was a simple one, the obeying of which would not have entailed any hardship at all. The consequences of disobedience were also made abundantly clear. Justice, which God is, then demanded banishment as punishment for their sin. Here’s a better analogy than Brennan’s: I’m a father and a pretty easy going one at that. But obviously I have to draw the line somewhere with my kids- for their own good. Let’s suppose, then, that I have made it clear that our family does not associate with criminals, saying I don’t want you to become like them. Now, God forbid, one falls in with the wrong crowd, becoming a criminal himself. At that point, given who I am, I must order him out of my house, a la the mother in Scarface. (I loathe actual criminality, but have never met a mob movie I didn’t like.) Better, he himself would have chosen our estrangement, my punishment only making explicit that choice: ‘Look at what you have done to us’. Brennan’s mistake, if you ask me, is that he fails to realize the gravity of A&E’s transgression. It robbed them of the purity of heart without which they could no longer be with God, who, thus, did not “kill” them, as Brennan maintains: they destroyed themselves. Our redemption, then, required the perfect sacrifice, supreme obedience, to point the way back to the Father.

    March 26, 2011 — 10:12
  • eudaimon

    4 “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. 5 “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

    March 27, 2011 — 0:11
  • Robert Allen

    I figured someone would refer me to this passage. Still, it would have been nice had eudaimon made his intent just a little clearer. Anyway, that’s the father of all lies speaking there, so we shouldn’t put a whole lot of stock in what he is claiming. It is knowledge by acquaintance that he is referring to; they have already been given knowledge by description of the difference between good and evil: not of eating of the fruit- doing God’s will- eating of the fruit- violating His command. Thus, they have all the knowledge they need to be considered moral agents. (My claim re FW is completely disregarded.) What is to be added by their transgression is the ramifications of sin. As in: ‘You don’t want to know what prison is really like’, the ex-con warned the young thug, though he’d already heard many tales of life behind bars.

    March 27, 2011 — 14:31
  • Dave2

    Robert, I’m not sure if that interpretation squares with this passage: “Then the Lord God said, ‘See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever'”. For if it’s knowledge by acquaintance that is at stake, then the passage carries the blasphemous implication that Yahweh has firsthand experience with evil activity (“the man has become like one of us”).
    Also, this passage and the introduction of the tree by Yahweh as “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” mean that we need not take the serpent’s word for it: all parties agree that the fruit of the tree confers knowledge of good and evil on those who eat it.

    March 27, 2011 — 17:08
  • Robert Allen

    Right David, that passage does present a problem. Thank you for bringing it to my attention in such a friendly manner. But God did have first hand experience with evil activity at that point, having undergone the break with Lucifer. God knew what separation from God is like. Don’t both parties to a divorce, say, regardless of who caused the breach, understand by (bitter) experience what it means for a marriage to fail? However, the passage does not entail that A&E now know evil in the same way that God and the good angels have known it: it can be construed to mean that the knowledge by description they were given of it, which should have sufficed (in fact their sin can be taken to be that God’s word didn’t suffice), tragically did not. It’s as if God is saying that they didn’t know evil before, though they should have; now they ‘get it’.

    March 27, 2011 — 21:33
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    I don’t think that Jason Brennan’s analogy is a false one. Indeed I think it starkly brings into view a problem of incoherence that official/traditional Christianity suffers from, and from which lovers of God, and thus lovers of truth, can only profit by dealing with.
    Here are some potential answers:
    The conservative/traditional theist may point out that God is metaphysically so far from us, that our “common sense” morality does not apply. Even more than that: The fact that God’s actions do strike us as immoral cannot but be an implication of our fallen state.
    The liberal/freethinking theist may use a Jujitsu maneuver and argue that Jason’s argument makes only too clear that any Fall centered theodicy is intrinsically unstable, and that therefore a theodicy based on soul-building (such as the Irenaean theodicy as expounded by John Hick) works much better. The Genesis story is a primitive and rather unsuccessful first answer to the problem of evil. The correct interpretation of Christ’s salvidic life is that, as the first Adam’s life is the transition of humanity from an animal nature to a human nature (which entails moral knowledge), so the second Adam’s life is the transition of humanity from a human nature to a divine one, variously identified with “salvation” or “at-onement”.
    There is a third potential response, which, I dare say, conservative theists will like even less than the previous one, but which I think is of considerable interest. One may argue that the Genesis story of the Fall is a perversion of an older and much wiser story that goes like this:
    God creates Adam and Eve as perfect and intelligent beings living a blissful albeit animal life in the garden, and tells them that if they want to keep that blissful existence and not die from it they should not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. When asked about this matter, the angel in the form of a serpent (the symbol of wisdom in many ancient mythologies ) truthfully responds that should they eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil they will become like gods and ultimately achieve eternal life. Which, incidentally, does not contradict God’s admonition. Adam and Eve, having understood what the alternatives are, choose the path towards God for themselves and thus for all their descendents. God then respects their choice and tells them what it entails, namely a physical life of redemptive suffering (and which price God Him/Herself as the other side of the at-onement will also pay).
    I think the above story is quite close to the events described in the text. My greater point though is that the above story makes much more sense: First it removes the idea of a fundamental Fall in creation, which is kind of incompatible with the idea of God being a perfect creator. Secondly it removes a potential problem of injustice, namely how come the “original sin” (which now becomes “original choice”) should be transferable to us. Thirdly it fits pretty well with NT soteriology, which is of a positive nature – and as a bonus removes any point in the very problematic doctrine of hell. Fourthly, it fits well with Irenaean soul-building theodicies which (I think is pretty clear) works much better than Augustinian Fall-centered theodicies. Finally, it removes the weirdness of having to somehow suggest that the universe was once in a state of “original justice” with no death or decay in it. Rather, the nature of the physical universe is now understood as an implication of Adam’s and Eve’s choice.

    March 28, 2011 — 11:38
  • Joshua Rasmussen

    I just watched the video. I wasn’t sure, however, why he thought that his story was relevantly similar to the Judeo-Christian story. I didn’t see that myself from reading the Hebrew texts and NT texts. I’d have to hear examples.
    Someone brought up the passage in which Adam and Eve gain knowledge of good and evil after sinning. I assume this is cited as evidence that Adam and Eve didn’t know better (didn’t have very good moral sense). But I always thought it meant that they didn’t know about evil because they had so far only knew good situations. It seems to me that someone could know only good situations and still have a clear moral sense that one ought not do X.
    As for killing people, isn’t it part of the whole story that “death” is a transference to the next realm? Wouldn’t God know when it’s appropriate to transfer someone for their own good? It’s hard for me to see a parallel here with the story in the video. (BTW: I think it’s certainly compatible with the Genesis story that God would have eventually transferred people even if they hadn’t sinned. Also, supralapsarianism is compatible with the story, too…)
    I guess I don’t really see a puzzle here (yet). The question of the video presupposes that the stories are relevantly similar, and I don’t see why anyone should think that. Maybe they are relevantly similar, but I’d have to see the argument(s).

    March 28, 2011 — 21:04
  • 1. The Hebrew “know good and bad” could be a merism for “know all [sorts?] of things”. In these kinds of merism one cites two extremes and thereby includes everything in between. In other words, there may be less of a normative focus in the “good and bad” than people tend to think.
    2. Plus there is knowledge and there is knowledge. Many people know that Heidegger is hard to understand before they pick up Being and Time. But once they pick it up, they really know. You could read the knowledge of good and bad as a particularly vivid kind of knowledge.
    3. It’s not completely clear to me that the text endorses the claim that one comes to know good and bad simply by eating of the tree. There are three relevant textual point. First, the tree is called the “tree of knowledge of good and bad” which seems parallel to the “tree of life”. But eating of the tree of life need not have been sufficient for survival for the tree to merit that name–maybe one also had to drink, breathe and eat other food. Second, the serpent says that by eating of the tree one comes to know good and evil. That the serpent says that p is not evidence that p. Third, God says that Adam and Eve have become like them (God and angels? the Trinity?) by coming to know good and bad. However, the line may very well be deeply ironic. “They came to know good and bad–the good of what they lost and the bad of what they have gained. Much good will that knowledge be to them!”

    March 29, 2011 — 8:49
  • Claire

    I have to agree with Josh–the two stories have very little in common. As far as I can tell, the “Uncle Theo” story is a good, albeit extreme, example of why the principle of charity is so important when encountering a text.
    I have some of the same questions that have already been raised, but I also want to ask….
    -What is the parallel in the Christian story to Uncle Theo’s hunting down and killing every one of A&E’s descendants?
    -What is the parallel in the Christian story to the posh mansion that Uncle Theo _seems_ to have built for his own comfort?
    -Why don’t we see parallels of the Christian claims that sin has radical consequences for the cosmos and for human hearts? You can think these claims are nutty, but if the point is just to evaluate (morally) the man depicted in (what is assumed to be) a fictional story, you should let in the story’s own deep magic.

    March 31, 2011 — 20:59
  • Jeremy Pierce

    I think the hunting down and killing was just supposed to reflect the sentence of death upon all human beings since Adam and Eve.

    March 31, 2011 — 23:01
  • Joshua Rasmussen

    That the text even implies a sentence of death remains to be argued for. I don’t see it.

    April 1, 2011 — 17:28