January 9th, 2003

A Pocket Full of Murder

(no subject)

Blogback to Jemima's post on Honor and Glory, and further to our earlier conversation in the Comments section of her post on Fictional Theology. We'll see how far I can get on an unfamiliar flat keyboard with Nicholas watching Blue's Clues in the background ("Mr. Salt! Mrs. Pepper!"), and I hope any incoherence or rambling on my part will be forgiven on the basis of my multitudinous domestic distractions.

"I mentioned [honor]," says Jemima, "...as a non-Christian value in The Lord of the Rings, with the example of Faramir holding himself bound by the statement that he wouldn't take the Ring if he found it lying in a crossroads. RJ related this to 'let your "yea" be "yea" and your "nay" be "nay"...' The biblical passage, however, is about simple honesty and in some quarters is even considered to be a prohibition against taking oaths."

Well, yes and no. The passage is indeed cautioning Christians against taking oaths, reiterating the Lord Jesus's words in Matthew 5:33-36 that His disciples ought not to swear by anything in heaven or on earth because they have no right or mastery over the things they swear by. But the injunction that the 'yea' and 'nay' of Christians should be reliable in and of themselves, and that the swearing of oaths should be considered unnecessary and indeed presumptuous, says something significant about the integrity God expects of His people.

Oaths are sworn to shore up a promise that might not otherwise be accepted or believed. It's a convenient way of saying, "I really mean business about this, and may something truly terrible happen to me if I don't follow through on it." But for the Christian, the mere act of saying "yes" or "no" in a promissory sense ought to carry as much weight as an oath and indeed make oath-swearing redundant. In order for that to be true, however -- and especially for it to be recognized by others -- the Christian must show blameless personal integrity and a reputation for absolute reliability. He must be known and proven as a person whose simple word can be trusted as much as if he had sworn an oath. What he says he will do, he does. What he says he won't do, he doesn't. (Unfortunately, the vast majority of Christians do not have anything like the kind of integrity these passages call for. But that is as a result of our own willful sin, disobedience, carelessness and/or immaturity in the faith, not a flaw in Christ's teachings or a failure on God's part.)

"Honor is not about honesty or courage or chastity or any of the other virtues which it encourages. Honor is about the actor, not the acts. ... Honor means, among other things, doing good not because it is good but because you are good. It is an entirely irreligious motive."

That true honor is "irreligious" in the sense of "not motivated by an external religious code of behaviour", I would agree with. And I would even agree that honor, like every virtue, must spring from the heart of the individual rather than being an act of outward conformity. After all, Christ spoke very harshly about those among the Pharisees who were renowned for their piety and correctness of action, but whose hearts were hypocritical -- he called them "...whitewashed tombs, full of dead men's bones and everything unclean" (Matthew 23:27). It's not enough to just follow the rules, no matter how good and noble those rules might be or how scrupulously you follow them. Obedience to God's Law is worthless without a godly heart. Without that inner reality, as Isaiah said, even "...all our righteous [emphasis mine] deeds are like filthy rags" (Isaiah 64:6) So unless your honor comes from the essence of who you are, it's not honor at all -- merely an outward show.

Finally, Jemima notes, "Here's the Asatru perspective on why honor and Christianity conflict. Asatru is a Nordic pagan revival religion, bringing us back to the (other) underlying spirit of The Lord of the Rings."

Now this is where the serious discrepancy comes in. As an exposition of the Asatru view of the nature and value of moral behaviour the article is informative enough, but where it speaks about Christianity in an effort to show how Asatru is a superior belief, the statements made are based on an anecdotal, caricatured view of the Christian faith and not on the teachings of Christ. To anyone who considers the Bible, rather than public misperception, to be the authority on Christian doctrine the result is rather baffling in its irrelevancy, as though the author of this paper had tried to debunk belief in heaven by mocking The Family Circus or last week's episode of Touched by an Angel.

The superficial "carrot-and-stick" view that Christians are motivated to good behaviour (as defined by the strictures of their church) by the fear of hell and the promise of heaven is far from the Biblical reality. Admittedly, the matter is somewhat complicated by the fact that some churches have been teaching this false doctrine for a long time, and that many earnest churchgoers believe it. But a simple question will, I think, show the most serious problem with that idea: if people could earn their way into God's favour by tithing, observing certain rituals, and generally being well-behaved, why the cross?

The essence of Christianity -- true Christianity -- is the Person and work of Jesus Christ. "Neither is there salvation in any other," said Peter to the crowds on the day of Pentecost, "for there is no other Name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved" (Acts 4:12). The Bible tells us that man's rebellion against God has corrupted him to the point that he cannot earn heaven by his own efforts, however persistent or sincere. The only hope for man is in recognizing, accepting and identifying himself with Christ's perfect sacrifice for sin. Once that has taken place in an individual's life, the result is not mere membership in a religious society, but a radical change of nature within that individual. "If any man is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!" said Paul to the Corinthians, and also "He died for all, that those who live should no longer live to themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf." Christ did not come to teach sinful people to do godly deeds in hope of reward, like a man teaches a dog to do tricks; Christ came to put away sin and death, and to make men the children of God.

The true disciple of Christ is not even remotely motivated by the fear of hell, because hell has no longer any claim on him; neither is he acting in an effort to earn heaven, because heaven is already assured him. As a result, the genuine child of God is motivated not by external strictures or threats but by an internal reality -- his new God-given nature. He serves God and does God's will not out of craven fear or selfish ambition, but out of gratitude and a sincere desire to be like his heavenly Father. As a result of the indwelling Holy Spirit it becomes natural to the Christian to do what is right; unnatural for him not to do so. As a result, any honor he shows truly does come from within.

The Asatru belief, as stated in the article, maintains that moral behaviour comes from the individual's sense of self-value. When he realizes that his soul is an aspect of divinity and that he is inherently worthy of the favor of the gods, he will be motivated to express the nobility of his inner soul through moral actions. As with every false doctrine, this one contains a grain of truth. Human beings do have enormous value and worth because of their relationship to the Divine. But as the Bible teaches it, we are precious because we were created by God in His own image, and because Christ died for us. And when we exist in a right relationship to God and a right understanding of that relationship, only then we truly become what we were meant to be and can express ourselves at the highest level, morally and otherwise.

Ultimately, the Asatru article appears to teach nothing more than the lie Satan gave man in the beginning: "Ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil." Self-determination, self-motivation, self-centredness. "You don't need to listen to God because you are a god, and your decisions about what is right and what is wrong are just as valid as His. When you express your inner god-nature through your actions, the glory and the reward will all go back to you." The fruit of self-worship is as tempting as it ever was. But in the end it brings nothing but moral and spiritual death.

Getting back to LotR, I don't see Faramir's honor as motivated by a serene inner confidence in his own divine nature and worth, or anything like it. Indeed, a good argument could be made that Faramir is more aware of his own weakness and has less of a sense of self-worth than any of the characters who are visibly tempted by the Ring, except Frodo. Faramir is acutely conscious of his father's indifference toward him, and has spent years in thankless service trying to prove himself. His manner is humble, cautious, temperate. Far from having faith in the innate nobility of the men of Gondor, or believing that good intentions are sufficient to protect them from Sauron's influence, he trusts neither himself nor anyone else to wield the Ring. And I would say it is this very recognition of human moral weakness, including his own weakness, that allows Faramir to resist the Ring's seduction and keep his word not to touch it.

Whereas Boromir, whose unshakeable sense of self-worth and belief in his own moral judgment would have made him a veritable poster-boy for Asatru, is the one to be seduced and destroyed.