Saturday, April 15, 2006

Faith and Reason

A recent editiorial in the London(Ontario) Free Press says that I have gotten it wrong regarding the Bible and morality. (see Christianity melds reason with faith) In response I sent the following letter to the editor:


I read Rory Leishman’s editorial, “Christianity melds reason with faith” with great interest. Leishman quotes from my website ( and announces that I have “got it wrong.” Well I don’t know, but maybe I must take a closer look to see if I indeed have gotten it wrong.

Leishman criticizes a recent Supreme Court decision, and complains that many Canadians fall into grievous error because they “rely on reason alone as a guide for moral judgment.” But reason has long been the standard by which democratic governments strive to govern. Shall we turn away from reason?

Leishman says that, for many, “Holy Scripture is the ultimate authority on all questions of faith and morality.” But what of Deut. 22:11 which forbids wearing clothes of mixed fabrics? Is this verse the ultimate answer to that question? Leishman mentions that verse, and infers that it is an obsolete ceremonial law. But how would one know this is an obsolete law? The New Testament is not at all clear on that.

But even if we judge this law obsolete, that does not clear up the problem. For that law is in the early scripture. At one time, this was the only scripture people knew. And the same scripture allowed slavery. That is the problem. Are we really to believe there was a time in which slavery was right but wearing mixed fabrics was wrong? Those who followed the books of Moses at that time would have thought so. But reason would disagree. Would not a literal following of scriptures in those days have yielded a wrong morality? We cannot ignore this problem by saying the commands are now obsolete. What about the time in which they were taken as relevant? If scripture was wrong back then, how can one be sure that following the updated scriptures is the best way to morality now?

Leishman declares that “The moral law summarized in the Ten Commandments is universally binding and true.” But what about the fourth commandment, which says to keep the Sabbath holy? In its original context, this command meant no work was allowed from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday, with the death penalty for violators. Many now interpret this commandment to mean Sunday worship. But that is not what the original commandment meant. If we are allowed to change the meaning of the original word “Sabbath”, can we also change the meanings of “kill”, “steal”, and “adultery’? How can the Ten Commandments be said to be universally binding if Christians are free to change the meaning of the fourth commandment?

Leishman turns not only to scripture, but also to church traditions, which we are told “essentially concur on the substance of the moral law.” But I have found that church traditions differ widely. There are huge differences on the perceived morality on issues such as alcohol, gambling, divorce, and military service. The Amish even declare electricity immoral. How can one possibly say that all these traditions agree on the substance of morality? When we encounter the differences, should we not turn to reason to resolve the conflicts?

Leishman chooses the example of condemning “unchaste thoughts” of adultery as an example of unity in Christian tradition. But I know many Christians who do not think such sexual thoughts are immoral. Such “unchaste” thoughts come naturally to males. Sometimes men think and feel in certain ways. It just happens. And many Christians will tell me it is not immoral to experience such thoughts, provided one maintains a rational view of the other priorities in life, and does not act in an immoral way. So where is the unity that condemns these thoughts? Unless we exclude these Christians that differ, the claimed unity disappears. And if we must exclude some so we can claim unity, who gets to decide whom is excluded?

What we share, both Christians and non-Christians alike, is a common set of values and principles, such as the value of respecting the property of others, and the value of not killing. From these values, we can use reason to establish laws and moral decisions that best help us all reach our goals.

So I find that neither scripture nor church tradition is a good alternative to making moral decisions based on shared principles and sound reason.

All of this brings us to the decision of the Supreme Court of Canada. Many see this decision as unreasonable. The answer is not in condemning reason, or in demanding blind obedience to church tradition. The answer is to show why reason might lead to a different decision. The answer is in open democracy, not in theocracy


Colin J said...

Eloquent and to the point as usual, Merle. I've seldom read any skeptical writing that is as diplomatic, clear and accessible as your work. Do let us know if the editors see fit to publish your letter. (And what a strange article to appear in the newspaper in the first place.)

Merle Hertzler said...

As far as I know, my response to Leishman was never published, but that could be because it was much longer than the maximum allowed by the paper.

Leishman also published that article on his blog at I submitted the above response to his site, but it was not published there.

I also sent him an email informing him of this response on my blog. If he chooses, his reponse is certainly welcome here.

jae ann said...

May I know what was the case or the ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada? I am sorta lost here..

LorMar said...

I agree. There are too many christians who pick and decide which biblical passages are morally relevant and while not addressing other passages.