Israel’s Basic Conflict

Marbury vs. Madison is probably the most important ruling the Supreme Court ever made. It was the first time the court exercised “judicial review”, the ability of a federal court to declare a law unconstitutional. It’s odd in a way, since the court’s 1802 decision amounted to one branch of government unilaterally deciding it had control over the actions of another branch, i.e. Congress, even though there’s nothing in the Constitution that gives the judiciary that power.

Israel’s Supreme Court decided its own version of Marbury vs. Madison in 1995. The country has never had a written constitution, but it does have what are called “Basic Laws”. One of these laws declares that every Israeli citizen (whether Jewish or Arab) has certain fundamental rights. After the passage of the Basic Laws, the Supreme Court ruled that it could annul laws or parts of laws that violated those rights. In other words, the court gave itself the power of judicial review. Not everybody in Israel agrees with that decision.

Earlier this year, Prime Minister Netanyahu proposed legislation that would give Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, control over the appointment of judges, limit the Supreme Court’s ability to void legislation through judicial review, and override the court’s decisions. Opposition to this legislation led to massive protests all around the country.

This is from an interesting article in The New York Review of Books by Joshua Leifer:

Together, the … Basic Laws defined Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state.” This phrase appears nowhere in Israel’s 1948 Declaration of Independence…. The adoption of the “Jewish and democratic” formulation was part of an effort by Israeli leaders to shore up the ethnically exclusive character of the state as Israel entered the negotiation process that would culminate in the signing of the Oslo Accords. But for [the president of the Supreme Court], these Basic Laws also inaugurated the process of trying to harmonize Israel’s Jewish character and its putatively liberal-democratic commitments…. 

The 1995 Supreme Court decision in United Mizrahi Bank v. Migdal Cooperative Village …  created a legal means by which human rights could trump prerogatives of Jewish supremacy and state security. While this decision did not spark widespread outrage right away, with each ruling that struck down government policies in the name of democracy or human rights, right-wing hostility to the court increased….

For instance, the court provoked objections from the right when it ruled that Israel’s security services could not use physical torture—a decision that was substantively reversed in two cases in 2017 and 2018—or when it required that the Israeli military governor in the occupied territories change the location of the West Bank separation barrier to protect Palestinian private property rights. For Palestinian and human rights advocates, such interventions by the court have themselves been inadequate, because they left the infrastructure of the occupation intact and preserved laws that privileged Jews over non-Jews. In the right-wing imagination, however, the court … now appeared as a threat both to Israel’s security and to its Jewish character.

… The right insists that [the court’s] actions were their own judicial “coup”—a usurpation of the sovereign will of the people as expressed in legislation passed by the Knesset—and rejects the notion that the values of human dignity and democracy should ever win out over Jewish supremacy and state security. In fact, for much of the Israeli right, it has become anathema to suggest that the power and position of the Jewish majority have any limits at all….

Yair Lapid [a more centrist Israeli leader] has declared that it would not be sufficient simply to stop the right-wing coalition’s judicial takeover. “We don’t need to put a bandage on the wounds but rather properly treat them,” he said in an address after Netanyahu announced that he would pause the judicial overhaul legislation to allow for negotiations. “We must sit together and write a constitution based on the values of the Declaration of Independence.”

In the days since the legislative pause went into effect, a large segment of protesters has continued to return to the streets weekly, many chanting, “No constitution, no compromise.” Their argument is that without a constitution that formally establishes the relationship between the judicial and legislative branches and explicitly guarantees the civil liberties they fear the right aims to extinguish, Israel will remain vulnerable to future efforts to consolidate power over the political system and transform it into something like Viktor Orbán’s “illiberal democracy” in Hungary.

But because the renewed calls for a constitution contain no reference to the occupation and barely acknowledge discrimination against Israel’s Palestinian citizens, they have taken on an absurd cast. Lapid himself has insisted that he rejects a “state of all its citizens”—in other words, one that would guarantee equality to its inhabitants. He [and others] have consistently refused to treat Palestinian citizens as political partners…

Were a constitution along Lapidian lines to be written, it would need to be explicitly undemocratic and inegalitarian; it would enshrine as a constitutional value the discrimination against non-Jews that, according to the NGO Adalah, already appears in more than sixty-five Israeli laws—as well as in the now-infamous Nation-State Law, which was passed with the status of a Basic Law in 2018. The potential constitution might well begin [with the preamble to a proposed constitution in 1948] “WE, THE JEWISH PEOPLE.

Writing any kind of constitution will, in other words, be no easier now than it was in 1948. The divisions between secular liberals and Orthodox traditionalists on matters of synagogue and state are perhaps felt even more intensely today than during the early years of Israel’s history. Then, secular Jews constituted an overwhelming majority, but rapidly shifting demographics mean that traditionalist and Orthodox Jews are now set to supplant them.

The protests draw some of their sense of desperation from the fear that the secular Israel of old is disappearing. More significantly, though, writing a constitution that does more than simply consecrate the current situation will still mean making the choice that confronted the state’s founding generation: between a genuinely democratic state and one that constitutionally upholds Jewish supremacy.

To start, any serious constitution must ask what the borders of the State of Israel are. Defining its territorial boundaries would require either formally annexing the West Bank or officially designating the settlements as outside Israeli sovereignty. A constitution would also need to define the status of all the Palestinians living under Israeli control. Either the constitution would grant them full equality—and therefore set in motion the dismantling of a vast apparatus of discrimination and unequal land distribution laws—or it would make Israel a de jure apartheid state, not just a de facto one.

Today no centrist or center-left Israeli Jewish leader is prepared to entertain such choices. Yet the right has its own vision for making them. After dismantling the judiciary and eliminating any checks on Jewish majority rule, it aims to annex the West Bank, legally formalize the apartheid regime over the Palestinians living there, and expel those who resist their permanent subjugation.

Some American observers have compared the situation in Israel to the ongoing debate among left-liberal legal scholars in the United States about the drawbacks of judicial politics, especially after the Dobbs decision: Has relying on the Supreme Court instead of the democratic process hampered the implementation of progressive policies? But if there is any parallel it is not to contemporary America but to the US in the years preceding the Civil War. Then in the United States as in Israel now, the country was divided over who was entitled to fundamental rights and what its founding documents meant—or in Israel’s case, what it means to lack them.

There the parallel stops. While the settler right seeks (as the proslavery camp sought) to solidify a constitutional order premised on the supremacy of the ethno-racial majority, the prodemocracy camp has embraced no call for equality comparable to that made by the American abolitionists. The protesters are largely content with Jewish supremacy as long as it protects liberal freedoms for Jews. What they seem to want is to maintain both the material benefits of that inequality and the self-comforting illusion of democracy.

They’re Trying To Make Us a Christian Nation — Part 2

Here’s the conclusion to Linda Greenhouse’s “Victimhood and Vengeance” for the NY Review of Books that I shared some of in this morning’s post. She offers a warning we should all heed.

David Sehat, in This Earthly Frame: The Making of American Secularism, points to one moment with profound implications for the place of religion in public life.

In early 1959, John F. Kennedy needed to allay Protestant suspicions about his Catholicism. He gave an interview to Look magazine. [Asked] what influence his religion would have on him if he were elected. Kennedy answered:

Whatever one’s religion in his private life may be, for the officeholder, nothing takes precedence over his oath to uphold the Constitution and all its parts—including the First Amendment and the strict separation of church and state.

[The author of the Look article] described Kennedy’s theme as “religion is personal, politics are public, and the twain need never meet and conflict”….

Religion is personal: that was not the Catholic view by any measure. Kennedy, evidently to his surprise, was widely denounced by the church hierarchy for his failure to recognize that an officeholder was “answerable to God for actions whether public or private,” as one Catholic publication put it. And it is not the view held by evangelicals today. The recourse that Kennedy sought in the privatization of religion not only no longer satisfies; it is seen as a provocation by those who insist that faith is meant to be lived out loud.

That private religion will not suffice was the argument behind the Supreme Court’s startling decision last summer in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, which upheld the right of a football coach at a public high school to thank God from the fifty-yard line, in full view of the stands. It was also the explicit theme of Justice Samuel Alito’s speech to a conference in Rome…. Alito drew a distinction between mere “freedom of worship” and real “religious liberty.” Freedom of worship, he explained, means only

freedom to do these things that you like to do in the privacy of your home, or in your church or your synagogue or your mosque or your temple. But when you step outside into the public square, in the light of day, you had better behave yourself like a good secular citizen.

Evangelicals are no more satisfied than Alito with simply being good secular citizens. Sehat examines the Court’s valorization of “privacy” and offers a fresh analysis of the fallout from grounding the reproductive rights rulings, [in] Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) ]and Roe v. Wade (1973) on a right to privacy…. Sehat’s valuable insight is that these privacy decisions were about something deeper than birth control and abortion, or even about the ability of women to control their reproductive destiny. They amounted to “a repudiation of the social significance of religion in determining moral norms at the hands of the state.” In Roe, as evangelicals instinctively understood, “American secularism reached its apotheosis.” And so began secularism’s decline.

[These decisions helped create] a “secular order” that “decentered the dominant place of Christianity and relegated religion to the private realm along with other moral issues that an individual might confront.” Yet what it really meant to recognize and respect religion as a private realm was far from obvious. What had appeared as a settlement of a sort unraveled in a mind-bending series of changes in the meaning of privacy.

For liberals, privacy became double-edged as conservatives deployed it as a shield for discrimination. Didn’t the owner of a lunch counter have the right to refuse service to anyone he didn’t care to serve? The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was aimed in large measure at removing this supposed privacy shield from public accommodations….

And then the idea of privacy shifted yet again. Starting in the 1960s, conservatives seized on it to support private schools, as a refuge from desegregation or from secular society. For religious conservatives, the ultimate privacy claim became a claim of individual conscience, deployed to justify exemption from a legal or civic duty. Pluralism, once deemed a threat to Christian dominance, became useful when joined with privacy. “Now, pluralism could be used to demand the public recognition of private religious belief via the language of religious freedom,” Sehat smartly observes.

The constitutional scholar Reva Siegel argues that the notion of religious freedom has become … “institutionalized in such a way that a gesture to religious conscience granted nearly automatic exemption from law”…

The Christian” banners that members of the mob carried on January 6, 2021, is indelible, but also misleading.

It’s not that Christian nationalism presents no real threat to American democracy—it does. It’s not that such violence won’t recur—it might. [Focusing] on that shocking event diverts us from recognizing Christian nationalism in its less violent manifestations and calling it out when we see it: public funding of religious schools in the name of equality; social policy turned to serve Christian doctrine; nondiscrimination principles abandoned in deference to religious objectors, whether individual or institutional. These threats to long-held assumptions about how the country works are not theoretical. They are happening now, in partnership with the Supreme Court.

One example: In November 2022, celebrating his reelection, Oklahoma’s Republican governor, Kevin Stitt, offered up his state to Christianity. “Father, we just claim Oklahoma for you,” he intoned.

Every square inch, we claim it for you in the name of Jesus. Father, we can do nothing apart from you…. We just thank you, we claim Oklahoma for you, as the authority that I have as governor, and the spiritual authority and the physical authority that you give me. I claim Oklahoma for you, that we will be a light to our country and to the world right here in our state.

Why wasn’t that astonishing statement headline news from coast to coast? It was barely noticed….

In Christianity’s American Fate, David Hollinger observes:

One might suppose that we live in a world of either/or: either religious ideas are relevant to public policy and thus subject to critical discussion, or they are not relevant and thus not a topic for debate. But instead, we live in a world of both/and: religious ideas are both relevant to public policy and excluded from critical evaluation.

Each of these books offers a path to greater understanding of how a transformation occurring in full view over decades escaped the notice of many who watched in bafflement and horror as the events of January 6 unfolded. Rather than another January 6, the greater threat that Christian nationalism poses to American society may be, as these books warn us, its normalization.

They’re Trying to Make Us a Christian Nation — Part 1

In the 2020 election, 15% of white evangelical voters supported Joe Biden and 84%  supported the loser. To understand why, we need to understand white Christian nationalism.

Linda Greenhouse covered the Supreme Court for the New York Times for 30 years. She is the author of “Victimhood and Vengeance”, a long article for the New York Review of Books. You could say the first part of the article deals with victimhood. Later she deals with vengeance. I’ll share some of the vengeance part in my next post.

We tend to think of Christian nationalism, the political ideology based on the belief that the country’s authentic identity lies in its Christian roots and in the perpetuation of Christian privilege, as having burst upon the scene to accompany and facilitate the rise of [the former president]. But as Philip Gorski and Samuel Perry explain in The Flag and the Cross, Christian nationalism—white Christian nationalism, to be more accurate, since the ideology has no place for nonwhites—is “one of the oldest and most powerful currents in American politics.” They trace it back to the New England Puritans’ wars against the indigenous groups who dared to stand in the way of the claim by self-described chosen people to their new Promised Land, and follow it through the Lost Cause of a post–Civil War South destined to “rise again”—a Christological narrative of crucifixion and redemption “crucial to understanding contemporary claims of Christian victimhood and vengeance among white Christian nationalists.” The drive for western expansion, aptly known as Manifest Destiny, was widely understood as part of a divine plan handed to those who would “civilize” an entire continent.

According to a recent Pew Research poll, 60 percent of Americans believe the country was founded to be a Christian nation, and nearly half (including 81 percent of white evangelicals) think it should be one today. Whether that has changed over the course of US history is beside the point: what’s new is the contemporary political and social salience of Christian nationalism. As mainline Protestantism has faded, David Hollinger observes in Christianity’s American Fate,

Christianity has become an instrument for the most politically, culturally, and theologically reactionary Americans. White evangelical Protestants were an indispensable foundation for [the previous] presidency and have become the core of the Republican Party’s electoral strength. They are the most conspicuous advocates of “Christian nationalism.”…Most of Christianity’s symbolic capital has been seized by a segment of the population committed to ideas about the Bible, the family, and civics that most other Americans reject.

How did this happen? [The authors] agree that the answer lies in white evangelicals’ response to the profound cultural changes the country experienced during the second half of the twentieth century. That may sound obvious, but with varied approaches, these … books offer insights that are both illuminating and alarming.

The Flag and the Cross deals most directly with white Christian nationalism as a political force. The authors are sociologists…. Their conclusions are based largely on data from surveys they devised and conducted from 2019 through 2021. At the heart of their analysis is a “Christian nationalism scale” based on respondents’ level of agreement with seven statements that include “The success of the United States is part of God’s plan” and “The federal government should advocate Christian values.”

This scale is one axis on a series of charts showing how Christian nationalist beliefs correlate with attitudes about life in today’s United States. For example, Gorski and Perry asked people to estimate “how much discrimination” whites and Blacks would experience in the coming year. Black respondents, no matter where they fell on the Christian nationalism scale, offered similar predictions: low for whites and high for Blacks. For white respondents, the results were dramatically different: the higher on the Christian nationalist scale they were, the greater their expectation of antiwhite discrimination and a correspondingly lower expectation of discrimination against Blacks. “White Christian nationalists sincerely believe that whites and Christians are the most persecuted groups in America,” the authors conclude. This is a belief, they emphasize, with political consequences: “White Christian nationalism is a ‘deep story’ about America’s past and a vision of its future. It includes cherished assumptions about what America was and is, but also what it should be.”

The data also demonstrate the sometimes surprising results of the merging of religious and political identities. To take one example: nearly 80 percent of white evangelicals adhere to an “originalist” interpretation of the Constitution—the belief that the Constitution must be interpreted according to how its framers’ words would have been understood in their time, which David Cole in these pages recently called a “charade.”

Why nonlawyers should have any fixed notion of how to interpret the Constitution might seem puzzling, but the data explain it. Seventy percent of white evangelicals believe the Constitution to be divinely inspired; constitutional and biblical literalism thus go hand in hand. This finding helps illuminate why obeisance to “originalism” has been demanded of Republican judicial nominees ever since this distinctly unoriginal doctrine was invented during the Reagan era. The current Supreme Court majority used it (inconsistently) to justify its reasoning in last year’s abortion and Second Amendment decisions.

Gorski and Perry offer a portrait of the Tea Party movement—which dominated Republican politics during the early Obama years with a platform of tax cuts, “liberty,” and opposition to the Affordable Care Act—to show that when religious and political identities merge, politics takes precedence. Of those who identified with the Tea Party, which reached its peak in 2011–2012 and has now been largely subsumed into [the] MAGA movement, more than half believe that America “is currently and has always been a Christian nation.” Yet on measures of individual religious behavior such as church attendance, this group scored notably lower than other elements of the religious right. “In other words, the myth of a Christian nation was far more important to them than Christianity itself,” the authors observe. “‘Christian’ instead functions as a cultural identity marker, one that separates ‘us’ from ‘them.’”

And who are “them”? They are “outsiders who wish to take what’s rightfully ours,” whether by asserting rights to equal citizenship, arriving from a foreign country, impugning the country’s history, or just voting. “Christian nationalism is the strongest predictor that white Americans believe we already make it too easy to vote in this country,” Gorski and Perry find. It may seem simplistic to interpret Republican hysteria over voter “fraud” as a dog whistle about too many of the wrong people voting, yet it’s nearly impossible to interpret it any other way.

The Flag and the Cross deciphers other white Christian nationalist beliefs in which race is deeply embedded in a way that is thoroughly obscure to outsiders. With echoes of the Tea Party movement, half the members of which identified as evangelical, these include a fervent belief in free market capitalism and a deep suspicion of anything that might lead to “collectivism.” As Gorski and Perry explain it, this economic view “presumes that one’s lot in life is a result of one’s personal choices—and only those choices. Historical and social contexts are irrelevant,” meaning among other things that the legacy of slavery has no claim on the privileges of whites, and that anyone who thinks otherwise is a danger to the country’s authentic identity. In a 2021 survey, the authors asked people to identify the groups or ideas they found most threatening. The response given by those who scored highest on the white Christian nationalism scale was unexpected: they saw the greatest threat as coming not from atheists or Muslims but from “socialists.”

[The previous president] understands the dog-whistle power of “socialism.” At [a rally for evangelicals] in January 2020, he warned that “the extreme left in America is trying to replace religion with government and replace God with socialism.” He promised the crowd that “America will never be a socialist country, ever,” because “America was not built by religion-hating socialists.” The union of politics and religion was complete. Almost exactly a year later, insurrectionists festooned with Christian nationalist symbols stormed the Capitol.

Becoming a God: An Exercise in Public Relations

Accidental Gods: On Men Unwittingly Turned Divine is a new book by Anna Della Subin that deals with men — and a few women — being considered gods, unwittingly or not. This excerpt concerns Rome and Jesus:

In ancient Rome, the borders between heaven and earth fell under Senate control, as deification by official decree became a way to legitimize political power. Building upon Greek traditions of apotheosis [or deification], the Romans added a new preoccupation with protocol, the rites and rituals that could effect a divine status change. For his conquests, Julius Caesar was divinized, while still alive, by a series of Senate measures that bestowed upon him rights as a living god, including a state temple and license to wear Jupiter’s purple cloak.

Yet if it seemed like a gift of absolute power, it was also a way of checking it, as Caesar knew. One could constrain a powerful man by turning him into a god: in divinizing Julius, the Senate also laid down what the virtues and characteristics of a god should be. In their speeches, senators downplayed domination and exalted magnanimity and mercy as the divine qualities that defined Caesar’s godhood. As a new deity, Julius would have to live up to his god self, to pardon his political enemies and respect the republican institutions of Rome. On the Capitoline Hill, the Senate installed an idol of Julius with the globe at his feet, but ‘he erased from the inscription the term “demigod”,’ the statesman Cassius Dio related. Caesar sensed that state-sanctioned godhood could be at once a blessing and a curse.

When, not long after his deification, Julius was stabbed to death twenty-three times, Octavian rose to power as Augustus, the first Emperor of Rome, yet he and subsequent emperors would demur from being turned into living gods. Divinity had become ominously tinged with death, whether through the threat of provoking human jealousy, or a connection more existential. Augustus blocked the construction of a sacred ‘Augusteum’ [and] Claudius forbade sacrificial rituals to himself… Vespasian resisted claims of his divinity, though even the animal kingdom seemed to acknowledge it – it was said that an ox once broke free from its yoke, charged into the emperor’s dining room, and prostrated itself at his feet.

After an emperor’s demise, his successor would lead the state ritual to turn the deceased into a deity. As his wax effigy burned on a funeral pyre, an eagle was released from the flames, a winged transport to the heavens. The fact of death in no way compromised the politician’s claim to immortality. Death was simply a shedding of the body, like a snake sheds its skin.

As a tool of statecraft, apotheosis consolidated political dynasties, and it was also an expression of love and devastation, often for those who perished in unexpected, tragic ways. The emperor Hadrian deified both his wife and mother-in-law, but the highest heavens were reserved for Antinous, his young lover who drowned in the Nile under clouded circumstances. When Julia Drusilla was stricken by a virus at twenty-two, she was divinized by her maximalist brother Caligula as Panthea, or ‘all the gods.’

In February of 45 BCE, when Cicero’s daughter Tullia died a month after giving birth, the bereaved statesman became determined to turn her into a god, and set his keen intellect to the task of how best to achieve apotheosis. To raise public awareness of the new deity, Cicero decided to build her a shrine, and had an architect draw up plans. Yet the senator became fixated on the question of what location would be optimal, indoors or outside, and worried about how the land in the future could change ownership. He fretted over how best to introduce Tullia to Rome, to win the approval of both the immortal gods and mortal public opinion. ‘Please forgive me, whatever you think of my project . . .’ Cicero wrote in a letter to a friend, and wondered aloud if his strange endeavor would make him feel even worse. But to the statesman, supernatural in his grief, the urge was irrepressible. Deification was a kind of consolation.

The century that reset time began with a man perhaps inadvertently turned divine. It is hard to see him, for the earliest gospels were composed decades after his death at Golgotha, and the light only reaches so far into the dark tombs of the past. The scholars who search for the man-in-history find him embedded in the politics of his day: a Jewish dissident preacher who posed a radical challenge to the gods and governors of Rome. They find him by the banks of the Jordan with John the Baptist. He practices the rite of baptism as liberation, from sin and from the bondage of the empire that occupied Jerusalem. Jesus, like many in his age, warns that the apocalypse is near: the current world order, in its oppressions and injustices, will soon come to an end and the kingdom of the Israelites will be restored, the message for which he will be arrested for high treason.

In what scholars generally agree was the first written testimony, that of Mark, Jesus never claims to be divine, nor speaks of himself as God or God’s Son. In the early scriptures, when asked if he is the messiah, ‘the anointed one’, at every turn he appears to eschew, deflect, or distance himself from the title, or refers to the messiah as someone else, yet to come. He performs miracles under a halo of reluctance, the narrative ever threatening to slip from his grasp. When he cures a deaf man, he instructs bystanders not to tell anyone, but the more He ordered them, the more widely they proclaimed it, Mark relates.

In the decades after the crucifixion, just as the gospels were being composed and circulated, the apotheosis of Roman emperors had become so routine that Vespasian, as he lay on his deathbed in 79 CE, could quip, ‘Oh dear, I think I’m becoming a god.’ Refusing homage to the deified dictators of Rome, early Christians wrested the titles bestowed upon them – ‘God’, ‘Son of God’, ‘the Lord’, ‘Divine Savior’, ‘Redeemer’, ‘Liberator’ – and gave them to the man Rome had executed as a criminal.

In the writings of the apostle Paul, aglow with a vision of the resurrected Christ, Jesus appears as a new species of cosmic being, God’s eternal Son. While pagan politicians ascended to heaven, transported on the steep journey by eagle, Jesus simply lowered himself; he emptied himself, in Paul’s words, into the form of a peasant.

Although Paul was horrified when he found himself mistaken for a pagan god, the apostle preached the mystical possibility that all humankind might join in Christ’s divinity. Transcending earthly politics, the dissident turned into a deity to surpass the godlings of Rome. As the Almighty made flesh, Jesus became a power that could conquer the empire – and eventually, He did.

According to the Gospel of John, among the last to be written, on the eve of his crucifixion, Jesus compared himself to a serpent, the one Moses had set upon a pole at God’s command to save his people from the plague. Like the reptile, Christ would point the way toward the divinity ever coiled within each man. In the second century, the sect of the Ophites worshipped Jesus in his form as serpent, invoking the fact that human entrails resemble a snake. It was recorded they celebrated the Eucharist by inviting a snake onto the table to wind itself around the loaf of bread. By the third century, the Greek convert Clement of Alexandria could declare that divinity now ‘pervades all humankind equally’. All who followed the teachings of Christ ‘will be formed perfectly in the likeness of the teacher – made a god going about in flesh.’

Theologians avidly debated the possibility of theosis – ‘becoming god’ – a word coined to distinguish Christian doctrine from the pagan ‘apotheosis’. Among Christians in the second and third centuries, the notion was commonplace that each person had a deified counterpart or divine twin, whom they might one day encounter.

In 325 CE, the emperor Constantine gathered together two thousand bishops at the Council of Nicaea to officially define the nature of Jesus’s divinity for the first time. Against those who maintained he had been created by God as a son, perfect but still to some extent human, the bishops pronounced Jesus as Word Incarnate on earth, equal to and made of the same substance as God the Father, whatever it may be. Other notions of Jesus’s essence were branded as heresies and suppressed, and gospels deemed unorthodox were destroyed. Through the mandates of the Nicene Creed, the idea of divinity itself became severed from its old proximities to ordinary mortal life. In the work of theologians such as Augustine, who shaped Christian orthodoxy for centuries to come, the chasm between humankind and divinity grew ever more impassable.

Though mystics might strive for union with the godhead, veiled in metaphors, the idea that a man could transform into an actual deity became absurd. God is absolutely different from us, the theologians maintained; the line between Creator and His creation clearly drawn. Away from its pagan closeness, away from the dust and turmoil of terrestrial life, Christian doctrine pushed the heavens from the earth. ‘I asked the sea and the chasms of the deep and the living things that creep in them,’ Augustine writes in the Confessions. ‘I spoke to all the things that are about me, all that can be admitted by the door of the senses,’ but they said in their myriad voices, I am not God. ‘And I said, “Since you are not my God, tell me about him.”’

Ethics as a Serious Game Again

Monday’s offerings at Three Quarks Daily included “Is Moral Equality a Christian Ideal?” by Tim Sommers. Mr. Sommers concluded that equality has a widespread, longstanding status as an ethical ideal not reserved to Christianity. Here’s part of his conclusion:

Moral equality is not based on the obviously false claim that we are all alike – or equal in every way. Nor is it based on the claim that all humans possess some ineffable, transcendent something that we got from God. It’s based on the idea that there is at least one morally relevant way in which we are alike that qualifies us for equal treatment (or treatment as equals) in certain ways.

…. Here’s why I think this is worth writing about. I think people, even smart people (maybe, especially smart people), give in to an easy cynicism about moral notions in general, and equality in particular. For example, I received an otherwise smart and insightful comment on a prior article that began, “Rights are clearly imagined.” Well, I don’t think that’s clear. I don’t believe that the hard-headed, realistic thing to think is that moral concepts are imaginary or wishful thinking or a hangover from religion that we are still recovering from. I think cynicism about right and wrong and equality is the last thing we need right now. So, keep in mind, that morality and moral equality are not somehow less realistic concerns simply because they are more abstract and complicated. Maybe, it will help to recall that Hobbes says that the basis of human equality is our ability to murder each other in our sleep. That seems like a realistic concern.

Reading this made me think about what I wrote a few days ago: “Ethics as a Very Serious Game”. Here’s a much shorter (and possibly clearer) version of what I wrote, now in response to Mr. Sommers:

Would it be helpful to think of morality as a set of rules, so that instead of saying things like “breaking a promise is wrong” we’d say “don’t break a promise”? The question whether moral rules are imaginary or wishful thinking wouldn’t arise. We don’t worry about the rules of chess or baseball being imaginary or wishful thinking. They’re the rules. The origin of the moral rules would still be an interesting question (religion was certainly involved), as would whether the rules should be changed. Since morality isn’t as organized as chess or baseball — there’s no official rule book — we could still argue about what the rules are and whether we should obey them.

The metaethical question whether moral judgments are true or false would kind of fade away. The statement “three strikes and you’re out” is true in baseball. The statement “breaking a promise is wrong” isn’t true simpliciter. It is, however, true in morality.

He responded to what I wrote, mainly wondering why we should be moral if what I wrote is true. All I’ll say about that now is that whatever reasons we have for paying attention to morality can’t themselves be moral reasons. Giving a moral reason for paying attention to morality would be going around in circles. Some other justification would be needed, like “God wants us to behave that way”, “society benefits from people being ethical”, “you’ll be a happier person” or “it’s just obvious that we should be ethical”. The answer might also be the one Ring Lardner once expressed: “Shut up, he explained”.