Given the level of sophistication that the philosopher Edward Feser brings to his defense of medieval Thomism, I was somewhat taken aback recently to see him write at his blog the following:
I think a divine cause was the source of the fire in the case of the priests of Baal.
Such a casual statement, but think of its implication: God hates it when people worship false gods and is jealous for his reputation. He sometimes bypasses the laws of nature and directly causes such things as fire to come down from heaven. In this particular instance, Feser appears to literally believe that God did this miracle to vindicate Elijah in his prayer competition with the priests of Baal, and that God then approved the prophet’s slaughter of those priests for being worshipers of a false god.
Weird. Crass. Primitive. Medieval. Here’s the biblical passage (1 Kings 18:38-40):
38 Then the fire of the Lord fell, and consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench. 39 And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces: and they said, The Lord, he is the God; the Lord, he is the God. 40 And Elijah said unto them, Take the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape. And they took them: and Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon, and slew them there.
Again, Feser, a highly educated and accomplished intellectual, loses his mind here. He thinks this really, really happened–and he apparently approves of Elijah’s behavior. In bringing up the incident, he certainly says nothing–nothing–to distance himself from the story’s grotesque outcome–the mass killing of a whole people’s religious leaders.
Is this what taking seriously medieval Thomistic philosophical notions of God leads one to? Feser’s remark about the priests of Baal incident reminds me of another intellectual apologist for religion, William Lane Craig, who defended God’s slaughter of the Canaanites in this way:
God stays His judgement of the Canaanite clans 400 years because their wickedness had not reached the point of intolerability! This is the long-suffering God we know in the Hebrew Scriptures. He even allows his own chosen people to languish in slavery for four centuries before determining that the Canaanite peoples are ripe for judgement and calling His people forth from Egypt.
By the time of their destruction, Canaanite culture was, in fact, debauched and cruel, embracing such practices as ritual prostitution and even child sacrifice. The Canaanites are to be destroyed “that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices that they have done for their gods, and so you sin against the Lord your God” (Deut. 20.18). God had morally sufficient reasons for His judgement upon Canaan, and Israel was merely the instrument of His justice, just as centuries later God would use the pagan nations of Assyria and Babylon to judge Israel.
All such talk is too much for me. If this is what believing in the God of classical theism brings one to, who can endure it? Better to be a Buddhist, an agnostic, an atheist, a deist, or a Reformed Jew. When, for example, the literary critic Irving Howe, at the age of fifteen, told his Jewish uncle that he was an atheist, his uncle smiled and replied, “You think God cares?” How sensible, how freeing–how funny. It hits the spot. No narcissism. No threats. Just good sense–and a bit of noodling to keep the young Howe on his intellectual toes.
So in their confidence monotheism, Craig and Feser can have their One True God of fire, blood, ethnic cleansing, and war, for it echoes too comfortably with the silly, silly prayer that a fundamentalist prayed at a McCain rally in 2008:
When apologists like Craig and Feser claim to defend a sophisticated view of God, it’s good to ask: What about the Canaanites? What about the priests of Baal?