There are three components to the dilemma. Three statements, not all of which can be true at the same time. If we want to discuss them in an abstract way they can be stated like this: God is X. God has commanded Y. Y is contrary to X. Obviously at least one of these statements is false. I believe that how we resolve this conundrum is one of the key differences between a religious liberal and a religious conservative. But to really understand this we need to fill in the variables.
Let us fill them in thus: God is just (any attribute of God would fit here, Merciful, Loving, etc.) God has commanded genocide (1 Samuel 15:3). Genocide is unjust.
There are a vast number of ways to resolve this type of conflict, but I believe that they can all fall into three basic categories: the atheist resolution, the liberal resolution, the conservative resolution.
The atheist resolution is this: if God has commanded genocide and genocide is unjust then God is not Just, therefore God is not God (or God does not exist), this is a fascinating argument for another time and nowhere near as simple as it sounds from this brief description. I’ve made my choice, God exists. What I really want to explore is the liberal and conservative resolutions.
The conservative resolution is this: God is Just, God commanded genocide, and therefore genocide is just. In other words Justice is defined as being God’s will, so whatever God wills becomes Just because God wills it, or alternately in a less harsh interpretation God would never command anything that was unjust, therefore when it appears that he has commanded something unjust we in our error-prone human ways simple don’t understand or don’t have all facts and when we do we will see that God was right to command as he did and therefore we should follow what he has said without further question. One simplistic way to think of it is that God outranks justice and can tell justice to be whatever he determines it to be. Conservatives worship obedience, and conformity to God’s word. The conservative view puts the commandments of God in a primary position, and the attributes of God in a secondary position. Obey the commandments and you will be just. The commandments limit Justice.
The liberal resolution is this: God is just, Genocide is unjust, and therefore God did not command genocide. In other words God is defined as being Just, so whatever is Just is God’s will. Therefore when there is a conflict between what we believe is God’s word and what we believe is Justice, Justice wins. In our error-prone human ways we are apt to misunderstand or even occasionally willfully distort God’s words for our own ends. To use the mental simplification from above Justice outranks God, God is God because he Just. The liberal view puts the attributes of God in the primary position. Be just and you will keep the commandments. Justice limits the commandments.
What do I mean by limits the commandments? By limits I mean that no commandment can be understood in a way that would violate Justice. So if there are 10 ways a commandment could be understood, and 4 are unjust I throw those interpretations out. I use my understanding of the attributes of God in order to help me understand what he means by his commandments. Contra wise some people advocate using the commandments to understand the attributes of God. Often these people will claim not to interpret at all; they just follow what God says. In reality they are interpreting too, choices are being made about how best to live the commandments and what they mean, but without rooting that interpretation in something larger than the words themselves the interpretations can quickly start to violate the true fundamentals (justice, mercy, love, hope) In the extreme this unanchored “Good is what God says it is” has been used to justify things like the Spanish Inquisition. This attitude it is what is at work when religious today people use the words of God to justify religious intolerance of Muslims (or when extremists of any faith use the words of their God to just bigotry), or dehumanizing attitudes toward homosexuals.
The liberal reasoning makes conservatives very uncomfortable- it sounds as if one is trying to replace God’s Justice with one’s own, and this seems to be the height of arrogance. It can appear that we are placing our own view of what is right above that of God’s. In essence the liberal view is that we understand the principle of Justice better than we understand God’s word. What conservatives do not appear to understand is that the conservative approach is just as arrogant, their underlying assumption is that their understanding of God’s words trumps their understanding of Justice.
We were watching a movie that briefly featured Gandhi, I don’t know if this quote is actually from him or was from the writers of the script but it lays out the problem nicely. It was something like this “For too many years we have believed that God is Truth, when we should have believed that Truth is God.” This same thing could be said of Justice, Mercy, Hope, Love or any of God’s other characteristics.
Without an understanding of the underlying structure-the true goodness of God- and the way that that structure informs and lights the commandments, we cannot understand the commandments properly. It is not possible to work backwards and still get the right answer. We can’t say that because God commanded something it is Just, because we could be misunderstanding the commandment.
This world is an imperfect place, and so it is possible that we will make mistakes. There will be times that we misunderstand what justice really is. They question is what kind of mistakes do we want to make? Not- how can I make no mistakes? We stand before the judgment seat of God would we rather be saying: “Forgive me I tried to be just, I didn’t think that what I was asked to do was just, I was wrong and I’m sorry.” or “Forgive me I knew that what I was being asked to do was unjust but I did it anyway because that’s what I thought you wanted.” As for me I’d rather try and be just (or merciful, or full of charity) and fail occasionally on obedience, than succeed on obedience and fail on justic