You, along with many other religious leaders, use the words, "God wants us to . . ." Please tell me how you know what a supernatural being wants?
--M., via email
The differences between the teachings of faith and the teachings of just anyone who thinks he or she has a direct line to God are clear and important.
The first way we know what God wants is through our sacred Scriptures. Holy Writ represents, for believers, the trustworthy content of God's revelation. Scriptures are usually not the work of one God-intoxicated person but are the combined remembrances of many believers over a long period of time.
The Scriptures of a particular religion are also set in the context of generations of authoritative commentators who have interpreted difficult passages and clarified religious obligations. Scriptures stand, but they do not stand alone. By rooting our lives in these ancient teachings, we certify through our faith and works that the path of life taught in our Scriptures will produce a life of humility, love and compassion, and lead to salvation. We know this because of the spiritual goodness of the lives of our ancestors, who lived by these teachings and walked on that sacred path. Revelation through Scripture is the first way we know what God wants from us.
The second way we know what God wants is through the truth of reason. Scriptures are only accessible to believers as a proof text for their lives, but human reason is accessible to all people who can think clearly about what is the right thing to do.
The key to the truth of rational ethics is that they are universalizable. They are true for all people, believers and secularists.
Reason is the second way we know what God wants because God wants the truth to be lived in our lives and our world. Sometimes (I would argue, most of the time), religion and reason generate the same laws for life. The term for this is "natural law." The biblical laws prohibiting murder and theft, for example, are consonant with reason.
Of course, it is true that sometimes the path of revelation and the path of reason diverge. The easy cases are religious rituals that do not offend reason but could never be generated by reason. We light candles in our home on Friday night to celebrate the arrival of the Sabbath, but I would never rationally argue that all people should light candles on Friday night. It is a Jewish ritual act.
Lighting candles is not immoral; it's just not moral. Rituals give religion its color and distinctiveness, its flavor and calendar of sacred times. Rituals and rational ethics comprise the basic content of what God wants us to do. Could a ritual be immoral? Could a religious ritual be an act that's not only particular to a religion but also offensive to reason? Yes.
As a liberal religious Jew, let me say that I consider the traditional Jewish ritual prohibiting women from reading from the Torah to be immoral, and I don't follow it in my synagogue. I believe that God wants my daughter, Mara, to have the same spiritual horizons as my son, Max. And some Catholic friends believe that women should be allowed to be ordained as priests.
Traditionalists believe that once you start making your own emendations to inherited tradition, there is no end to that slippery slope.
Liberal religious people counter that the tradition is not monolithic and has, indeed, changed over time. For example, priests were allowed to marry for half of Christian history, and Judaism once consisted of an inherited priesthood and animal sacrifices.
What I would say in sum is that this debate is healthy and will continue forever. I would also say that the number of rituals that might be immoral is very small indeed. As for me, I don't believe that God wants us to cover immorality with the mantle of religious obligation. When God showed Abraham that child sacrifice was immoral, God established that his word and the truth are one.
So when somebody says, "God wants us to . . . " look beyond the claim to the claimant. If the person is rooted in authoritative tradition and texts, you can continue to listen. If not, it is just the religious version of caveat emptor.