On Why We Need God, Part 2: A Place for Prophets to Stand

2 Samuel 11-12
One evening David got up from his bed and walked around on the roof of the palace. From the roof he saw a woman bathing. The woman was very beautiful, and David sent someone to find out about her. The man said, "Isn't this Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam and the wife of Uriah the Hittite?" Then David sent messengers to get her. She came to him, and he slept with her...Then she went back home. The woman conceived and sent word to David, saying, "I am pregnant."

...In the morning David wrote a letter to Joab and sent it with Uriah. In it he wrote, "Put Uriah in the front line where the fighting is fiercest. Then withdraw from him so he will be struck down and die."

So while Joab had the city under siege, he put Uriah at a place where he knew the strongest defenders were. When the men of the city came out and fought against Joab, some of the men in David's army fell; moreover, Uriah the Hittite died.

...When Uriah's wife heard that her husband was dead, she mourned for him. After the time of mourning was over, David had her brought to his house, and she became his wife and bore him a son. But the thing David had done displeased the LORD.

The LORD sent Nathan to David. When he came to him, he said, "There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him. Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him."

David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, "As surely as the LORD lives, the man who did this deserves to die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity."

Then Nathan said to David, "You are the man!"

In my prior post I said that my faith journey is centered around the following:


which I abbreviated as KASE. I further noted that I've found the following worldviews/belief systems most helpful in fostering KASE (in me):

Liberal Humanism

Finally, I noted that Christianity, with its belief in God, has been the most effective in shaping me into a moral person. Why?

Well, it might be best to start with the Biggest Temptation (BT).

The BT is this: A constant temptation to conflate The Good with what I want. This is, btw, the analysis the bible gives for the BT. In the bible the BT is always idolatry, the worship of "another god." And, invariably, this god is created in the image of humanity. In short, idolatry is when I dress up my selfish desires as a god and then worship, well, myself.

What happens in idolatry is that what I claim to be "god" or "good" is really just my own cravings. Idolatry is just God-talk painted over my cravings for safety, status, or comfort. The insidious nature of idolatry is that my base cravings get overt religious sanction from my "god." I gratify myself and get to feel righteous all at the same time. It's a win/win.

But let me quickly note that the BT isn't just a temptation for religious folk. Even atheistic liberal humanists try to justify their selfish choices with moral rationalizations. We all want to appear pure in our own eyes.

My big point is simply this: We are all fooling ourselves. Theist and atheist alike. The BT is always there, encouraging us to let ourselves off the hook, to offer excuses, to give the ready rationalization, and to cut moral corners. If you go back over my KASE list from my last post I think we can all agree that KASE is hard. Really hard. Really, really hard. So we tend to not go through with it.

So here's the question. Who is going to keep holding my feet to the fire? Who is going to be constantly in my face about how I treat my wife, my children, my world? Who?

See, the trouble I've had with buddhism and liberal humanism is that they did not provide me with moral critique. I could be a complete jerk and be a liberal humanist. But I can't be a complete jerk and be a Christian, at least not as I understand Christianity (i.e., KASE). You see, my moral struggle is very simple: I just don't want to be a jerk. Really. I spend most of my day obsessing about that. I don't really care about many of the moral issues swirling around Christianity (e.g., homosexuality, the War in Iraq, social justice, etc.). Those are important issues, but truthfully, I'm kind of busy working on not being a jerk. And it takes a lot of effort. Seriously. Try to make everyone around you in your home and at work or just in passing feel welcomed, embraced, respected, valued, and listened to. From the waitress, to the boss, to the co-worker, to the flight attendant, to the homeless person on your corner. It takes all my moral effort to be kind to all these people. Particularly if they are silly, shallow, prideful, or mean. And I fail all the time in my Quixotic quest not to be a jerk.

KASE is hard.

So I've found that I need prophets. I need a prophetic voice in my life. I need someone to break the tablets and shout apocalyptically at me when I'm worshiping the Golden Calf otherwise known as ME.

But prophets need a place to stand. They need to speak from a place of unimpeachable moral authority. They need, in short, to come from God. Again, I don't care much for the purposes of this post if God exists. I just have to believe in a moral location, or rather, a moral elevation that stands over me. This moral elevation creates, by its mere existence, the potential for prophecy. Without it my life becomes a level moral playing field. But I won't listen to mere humans. Trust me. Sometimes I will, if I like them. But when push comes to shove, why should I listen to you? You're just as much of a jerk as I am. Take the plank out of your own eye, you hypocrite!

You get the idea. I won't have truck with humans. I'll just debate them to death. And while I'm debating the moral fine points of my choices with you I'm not developing KASE.

So I need a moral critique that is hard to fight with. I need to feel that the moral critique just isn't another human opinion. I need to sense that the verdict is coming from a place much higher or deeper. Call that place "God."

In sum, I've remained within Christianity for a few reasons First, it paints for me the vision of KASE more clearly than all the other faiths/worldviews I've explored. And second, its notion of God creates a place for prophets to stand. Christianity builds moral critique into the system. And regardless if God exists or not, I've found the prophetic voice--which relies on God as "location/evelation/origin"--morally useful. More, I've found it morally vital and necessary. For me.

I do believe that non-theists can be good people, saints even. But for me, I can't cut God loose. Just because I need some metaphysical moral leverage working on me. I can't let go of the prophets. And I know I'll not respect the voice of another human. I'm too pig-headed and vain. So, I stay with Christianity, building into my moral life the potential for moral critique. To guarantee that I'm shook up, morally speaking, on a regular basis.

In short, I stay with Christianity because I've found there, more than anywhere else, that I have a better chance of my Nathan showing up.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

19 thoughts on “On Why We Need God, Part 2: A Place for Prophets to Stand”

  1. "But for me, I can't cut God loose."

    Is this because God provides the moral leverage or because you are stuck with your belief in God and God nicely provides the moral leverage?

  2. Personally, I think we have way too many of these "prophets" out there--people who claim to speak for God. Maybe some of them are speaking for God, but the fact that most of them are not makes me dismiss (or at least be suspicious) of all of them. Relying on individuals to deliver moral judgement seems fraught with problems... and has been responsible for much of Christianity's darker moments.

    Could it be that what you are really getting at here is the moral leverage obtained from Christian community (not individuals, per say)? And isn't this how moral judgements have historically changed over the years: upon the communal reflection of humanity based on the experience of humanity? Slavery is wrong because humanity's experience with slavery, and reflection on that experience along with other experiences (democracy, the enlightenment, etc) has exposed it as evil? Sure individuals weigh in (e.g., Uncle Tom's Cabin) and some voices have more influence than others, but at the end of the day the result is a communal judgement based on experience.

    Sure, listening to "mere human" INDIVIDUALS should be done with caution. But when all your friends are telling you to lay off the bottle, maybe you have problem. The point is, the higher moral authority doesn't (and in many cases, shouldn't) come from God, but rather your community. Your friends and neighbors. And, to a large extent, your own individual experience.

  3. Hi Connor,
    I'm not sure I understand your question. But to clarify, I don't feel "stuck" with a belief. My reason for not "cutting God loose" is because I find, in my own life, that I'm a better person with him then without him (pragmatically speaking). That may make me needy or flawed in some sense, but I really don't mind. Again, my criteria is the KASE list. That is how I evaluate myself.

    Hi Pecs,
    I agree that the prophetic process can get messy. Lots of false prophets out there. And I would note that prophets don't have to be Christian. A prophetic critique can come from anywhere. The issue is one of discernment: If I define my moral focus as KASE it is fairly easy, in my own life, to see if the prophet in front of me is calling me to KASE or something else. Like with David, the moral critique is pretty obvious to me once uttered. It kind of hits me over the head once I see how petty, self-aborded, and insensitive I've been behaving.

    And, yes, the voice is the community/human voice (my next post is about the church), but that community exists by gathering around the notion of God. There aren't, as far as I can see, a lot of non-theistic moral communities like the one I'm a part of (a Christian church). There are non-theistic calls for social justice and things like that (e.g., the Peace Corp, Amnesty International) but those are global issues. My moral interests are more personal. I need someone in my life to tell me to be a better spouse, friend, and father, as well as pushing me to do more for the world's poor. I find that community in my local church. If one could point me to a non-theisitic community of similar moral intensity then I'd check it out. But I don't see any around my town. Thus, for pragmatic reasons, I go to church. And, interestingly, those people believe in God.

  4. What about AA, rehab, or psychotherapy groups? These are all nontheistic groups whose sole purpose is self-improvement? How effective would you say Highland is in fostering better behavior in you? Is the mission statement of Highland: "we serve to make people better behaved."? Is not the benefit of that community in the sense you are describing a result of the deep relationships you have there? Is a theistic framework really necessary to reap these benefits? Would not deep friendships with atheists function similarly? Or would they just not care about your well being, or how you treat people?
    Also, I think the broader human community also serves this function, not just close friends. Have you ever been changed by a book you read or a movie you watched?
    Tied up in these questions is the important question of whether of religion is really a good thing for people. It seems from your experience, you would say generally speaking, yes. I am wondering where I stand on this. At the moment I am doubtful.

  5. Hi Pecs,
    AA, rehab, and psychotherapy as MORAL accountability groups? I know a few things about this list. And they are mental health related, they are not prophetic conduits.

    Regarding friendship and the mission of Highland, the goal of Highland is getting its members to conform to the Imago Christi (what I've called KASE). Thus, lots of the people that go there, and whom I have friendships with, partner with me in mutual moral accountability. Again, more on this in my next post.

    As to whether religion is good for people I think we have to go on a case by case basis. Speaking of kinds of people and kinds of religious configurations. Discussions get nowhere if we simply talk in generalities. "Religion" is just too unfocused. We need to talk about particular religious configurations, which is why I started with KASE. So, the question before this blog isn't if generic "religion" is good for people but if a KASE-oriented faith is good for people. In my experience, it is.

  6. Too clarify my original comment; I wasn't using "stuck" in the pejorative sense, but the idea that the pragmatism of God works only if one first believes in God. I'm sure an atheist would see no pragmatic value in God for herself and I wonder if it is possible for a Christian to give up God for some time and see if something else will work.

    Secondly, how does God provide a moral framework?

  7. Hi Connor,
    Thanks for the clarification and I see your point. But to quibble a bit, think of the Unitarians. Many of them don't believe in God. But they still use "God" as a moral shorthand and they still attend church, all for morally pragmatic reasons. Thus, I think lots of atheists see the benifit of "God" and church as a pragmatic good.

    Regarding the provision of a moral framework, Christians would point to the gospels, the life and teachings of Jesus. That was why I put Jesus examples in my KASE list from the last post.

  8. Connor,
    Oh, one more thing. Do you have a sense of where, today, a Christian would turn to get a weekly dose of moral critique if not in a church? Because I, for one, would try that "something else" to see how it was. But where do I look this place up in my Yellow Pages?

  9. "But they still use "God" as a moral shorthand and they still attend church, all for morally pragmatic reasons."

    The definition of God used here seems broader than the one used for your KASE idea. Using "God" as a moral shorthand is different than using God as an "unimpeachable moral authority." I can only assume that an agnostic or atheist UU would probably speak of moral frameworks as derived by humanity. In that case, I think a UU congregation would be something outside of church that could provide a morality shot each week.

  10. OK, I'll substitute something else for psychotherapy... since I think this pushes buttons for you that it is not pushing for me given your training. How about anger management classes/groups? Or marriage enrichment classes/groups? Parenting groups? These are proactive, secular methods for changing behavior... the goal being to make you a better friend, a better husband, generally a better person. Is this not the same role that you see the church filling, except in a more directed, specific fashion?

  11. "Regarding the provision of a moral framework, Christians would point to the gospels, the life and teachings of Jesus."

    So the life and teachings of Jesus are a source of moral guidance ... but Connor asked about *God*. And, as you mentioned in an earlier post, it seems possible that you could have an atheistic or agnostic christian community that didn't make any metaphysical claims but simply looked up to Jesus as a moral exemplar. In fact, I expect that's what many people believe who identify as UU/Christian.

    So I think you already know what's right and wrong. Somehow - through genes, or memes, or some combination of the two - you know how you ought to treat your co-workers and family. You don't really need God to ground your morality as much as you need a moral reminder or sense of obligation to a moral exemplar ... someone who would be disappointed if you didn't treat people well.

  12. Richard,

    I’m glad to hear that you try not to be a jerk. I also make this attempt but I go about it differently than you do. I’ve found that injunctions against jerk like behavior have helped very little in achieving jerk free status. Instead, I find that self knowledge rather than self control works better for me. When I was a Christian trying to be like Christ, I didn’t know how to accomplish this and I ended up being a judgmental jerk despite my best attempts. The guilt of failure made me feel like crap. I’m much happier going about it in a different way and I think a better person who feels less crappy, too.

    I discovered that I had a moral code which I assumed everyone else shared and I imposed this code on everyone. When they breached the code I would become critical and irritated. At some point, when I least expected it and for trivial reasons, the stress of my judgmental feelings would build until it exploded in jerk like behavior. I would be ashamed but also a bit confused as to what caused this chain of events.
    Now I realize that my morals are mine. Others may have differing values and I shouldn’t expect them to comport themselves to mine. I understand that other people have their own reasons for doing what they do and it helps if I reserve judgment.

    A short example will suffice. If a car is coming at you down a hill you might wonder what the idiot is doing in your lane. Is he on a cell phone, looking for something that fell on the floor boards or is he drunk or maybe just screwing with you? But if, when getting closer, you see no one at the wheel, all feelings pertaining to your first few explanations would pass and you would simply move out of the way realizing that gravity and momentum have no morals. There is no one on which to pass judgment.

    My method expresses KASE in this way.

    Kenosis: The kingdom of God/little child metaphor means to me that one needs to be free of judgment of ourselves and others and to express ourselves freely with no fear.

    Ahimsa: I “turn the other cheek” because I realize that what you do to me is because of your issues and not about me. I can have compassion for you knowing that I need not burden myself with revenge, judgment, or anger for actions that have nothing to do with me.

    Solidarity/Embrace: We are all an expression of life and so we are one. I will help someone not because I am told to but because it is in my nature to do so. Since we all face similar issues, the less judgmental I am the more I am inclined to let my true nature express itself.

    This is my way, but I don’t expect it to resonate with everyone. I’m glad you find Jesus to be an inspiring example for you.


    Rick T.

  13. Connor, Pecs, Matthew, and Roxanne,

    But seriously, I appreciate you all pushing back on all this. I knew, as I signaled in my last post, that I'd fail to convince anyone

    But by way of continued conversation (and I don't think I'll post about church as this discussion is working through all this):

    Connor: I agree that my definition of God is broader than one that might be used for a UU member. But I've not interviewed all their membership so I don't rule out that a few of them might fully endorse the view I espouse here. But all I wanted to say is that an atheist might find a certain idea of God to be morally useful. Which seems to be a modest and accurate claim.

    Pecs and Roxanne: Smoking isn't really what I'm after when I speak of moral development. Regarding anger management or parent training or marriage enrichment classes these too fall well short of what I'm talking about in the development of KASE. Further, have you noticed where most of these classes are held? At churches or para-church organizations. And the non-church related outlets for these interventions won't place KASE as the motive for change. They will appeal to self-interest, further cultivating the narcissism rooted in a great deal of modern psychotherapy. The point being that, of course, there are secular outlets that do, in a marginal or narrow way, address moral behaviors. But at the end of the day, these secular outlets are generally sought out because of dysfunction, not the pursuit of something like kenosis. In short, the straining in your examples fully confirm my hunch: You just can't find a better moral intervention than a KASE-focused church. (And pointing out that most churches are not KASE-focused is very depressing but misses the point.)

    Matthew: But why listen to Jesus? Why grant him moral authority over my life? Why care if he is disappointed in me? If Jesus is just a moral philosopher on par with Kant then a lot of the moral force of a Jesus-oriented critique is dissipated. Again, you don't have to believe that Jesus is the Son of God, but you do, in this scheme of mine, have to "elevate" his teaching above the merely human. To, pragmatically, give more weight to his voice. In the language of the bible, to treat Jesus as Lord. And metaphysics don't have to be involved, but some privileging must occur which, pragmatically, amounts to the same thing.

  14. Rick,
    I appreciate you comments about judgment. I wouldn't want to reduce the idea of moral critique and prophecy to being made to feel guilty and ashamed.

    But will say I value guilt. To lack it totally is a symptom of people with antisocial personality disorder. The issue, for me, is one of context. If guilt is focused on my person-hood then it is a bad thing, leading to self-loathing. But if guilt is focused on actions then it is very healthy, indeed, important as a critical feature of our moral psychology.

    Regarding my admiration of Jesus, as Bob Dylan said: "You gotta serve somebody."

  15. Having gone to Highland for a spell, and not experienced the kind of moral development you are talking about, I suspect that what you are really pointing to is the benefit of having close relationships with people that care deeply about you. These are the people that are most likely to speak honestly about bad behaviors they observe (and love you in spite of them). My wife fills this role to a large degree with me (and gets some perverse pleasure out of it), but I don't think she would have to be Christian to still "encourage" me in that fashion. Perhaps your deepest and most meaningful relationships are at church. Perhaps if you had these relationships outside of church (and perhaps you do; I'm only speculating) you might not see church as this locus for moral improvement.

  16. Pecs,
    I suspect you are right. I bet we can both agree about this: Regardless about whether church helps me, it tends to not work for most people. And perhaps makes people worse.

    Agreed? :-)

    If so agreed, we can return to my post about religionless Christianity and ask if church has lost its relevance. Surely, we can find common ground on that topic....

  17. Hi All,

    I'm surprised that the comments have not centered on (1) Richard's definition of the biggest temptation (BT)as "A constant temptation to conflate The Good with what I want" and (2) whether following Jesus--authentically--counters BT with leverage not available to those who do not seek to follow him.

    If his positions on these two points are strong, his moral pragmatism as a rationale for his faith is strong.

    So, is egoistic moral and value posturing humanity's besetting sin, and does following Jesus provide a uniquely effective counter to it?

    I think a more focused discussion of those questions would be really helpful and interesting--at least to me!



Leave a Reply