‘You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God’ (Exodus 20:7)
Blasphemy’s been in the news a fair bit recently. But what actually is blasphemy, and should it be a crime under national or international law?
The word ‘blasphemy’ comes from a Greek root meaning to slander or injure reputation (not necessarily God’s). For much of Christian history, blasphemy has apparently been viewed as one of the worst sins – for example, Thomas Aquinas calls it the ‘most grievous sin’, and the Heidelberg Confession proclaims that ‘no sin is greater’. I find this surprising, as according to Jesus all blasphemy is forgivable except the mysterious ‘blasphemy against the Holy Spirit’ (of which more later).
Today ‘blasphemy’ is normally taken to mean speaking ill of God; mocking, insulting or denigrating the deity or using his name disrespectfully (for example, using ‘Christ’ as a swear word). This is not my understanding of blasphemy, nor I think how the Bible presents it. But either way, blasphemy is a religious, devotional sin; it is not and should not be a legal crime – unless you live in a theocracy, which thank God most of us don’t.
There are two major problems with the idea of blasphemy as insulting God. The first is practical; how do we agree what counts as blasphemy in a society and world in which we all have different gods, some of us have no gods, and some consider other people’s gods to be false idols or devils? A world where one person’s orthodoxy is another’s heresy, and one person’s devotional act is another’s blasphemy?
For example, to many monotheists, Hindu deities are idols; to Muslims and Jews, it’s wrong and idolatrous for Christians to worship Jesus. The Israelites of the Old Testament would probably have had few qualms about speaking ill of other nations’ gods: Moloch, Marduk, Baal or Ashtoreth. On Mount Carmel, Elijah teased the Prophets of Baal quite mercilessly about their god. It’s easy to have a definition of blasphemy within one’s own religion, and so within a monotheistic theocratic state. But in a multi-cultural secular democracy, how on earth do we come up with a universally-applicable definition of blasphemy?
What insults God?
‘American dollars proclaim to all the world, “In God we trust”. They are then used to pay for nuclear bombs which destroy people and the world itself. This is what is sometimes called blasphemy’. Mike Riddell, Godzone
The second (and to me more serious) problem with blasphemy is theological. I think that to equate blasphemy with mere profanation or verbal insult against deity is a serious misunderstanding. I believe that we have failed to grasp the deeper nature and meaning of blasphemy, and therefore the true reason why it is wrong and to be avoided.
It also seems to me that the charge of ‘blasphemy’ (like heresy) is frequently used as a weapon of control by religious authorities, and that all too often it merely means the expression of a dissenting view.
God can handle human criticism, even insult and abuse. And if we’re hating him and fighting against him at least there’s a relationship, a basis that can be worked with. As in Mills and Boons romances, the best love affairs often start with hate. The antithesis of love is indifference not hate, and the best marriages are not the ones without any conflict.
So the crucial question is, what truly insults and offends God? What really dishonours his name and brings it into disrepute? Is it the godless speaking profanities and insults against him, calling him rude names or using his name as a swear-word? Or is it the religious claiming to represent him but ill-treating others, committing abuses in his name or under the auspices of his religion?
I’ve written before about the terrible treatment of the children of Irish soldiers who fought for the British in World War II. Some of them were taken into special schools run by ‘The Christian Brotherhood’, and there systematically subject to brutal abuse. To me that is true blasphemy; that is taking the Lord’s name in vain. Similarly, oppressive theocracies who persecute religious minorities in the name of God are committing blasphemy. And in a different way, corrupt televangelists who use Christ’s name to line their own pockets by fleecing the vulnerable and gullible are also in my view committing blasphemy.
Blasphemy is not primarily saying nasty things to or about God, or Jesus, or Muhammad, or Buddha, or Wotan. It’s claiming God’s authority and support for our flawed or sinful human attitudes, prejudices and actions. It’s using God’s name or supposed command to justify dehumanising or demonising other people, whether they be homosexuals, single parents, divorcees, Jews, Catholics, Muslims or whoever. It’s using God’s name divisively, destructively, exclusively, oppressively. It’s using God’s name for our own selfish or self-aggrandising purposes or as a weapon of power, and so turning it into a name of fear or horror or derision. It’s saying ‘God told me you’re going to hell’ or ‘God hates you’. It’s saying ‘God told me he’s going to heal you (if you send me some money)’; or ‘God is telling you to marry me’.
Identification and incarnation
Christians believe that God has deigned to put his image in human beings, and to completely identify himself with us – in Jesus, to the extent of taking on our nature and our dirt and our pain, and ultimately our sin and shame. The Incarnation is God’s utter self-abasement, sharing the humiliation of human bodily life and bodily functions. That is blasphemy if you like; but it is God’s willing blasphemy against himself.
Ironically, blasphemy was one of the alleged sins for which Jesus was finally crucified, and it was the reverse of his actual ‘self-blasphemy’. Christians believe that Jesus was Almighty God in the indignity of mere human form; his supposed blasphemy was being a mere human who falsely claimed to be Almighty God, or equal with God. (Interesting that this ‘blasphemy’ was not insulting God but claiming to be God. That’s not our normal idea of blasphemy; more just like self-aggrandizement on a monumental scale – unless of course it’s the truth).
Because we all bear God’s image in us, and further because in the Incarnation he has also taken on our likeness, how we treat others is how we treat God. This is the message of Jesus’ Sheep and Goats story: ‘whatever you did to the least of my brothers, you did it to me’. If we dehumanise others or treat them as worthless, we risk blaspheming against God.
So was Life of Brian blasphemous? The Last Temptation of Christ? Dogma? Jerry Springer: the opera? Maybe. Certainly offensive to many. But not in my view as blasphemous as many of the things the church has done in God’s name; perhaps some of the things we do in his name. For we’re all blasphemers in one way or another.
God can handle our mockery and abuse; what truly offends him is our abuse of each other. So I would cautiously and respectfully suggest that those who respond violently to insults against their religion or God may be in more danger of committing blasphemy than those who gave them offence.
Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit?
But what is the unforgivable blasphemy against the Holy Spirit? ‘“Truly I tell you, people can be forgiven all their sins and every slander they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven”’ (Mark 3:28-29).
This is a scary verse, but as always, context is everything. The very next verse explains: ‘He said this because they were saying, “He has an impure spirit.”’ Back in verse 22, the teachers of the law are accusing Jesus of being possessed by the devil. In other words, they were mistaking the holy Spirit of God for the spirit of evil.
The problem is not that this causes God offence; it’s that it blinds us to him, cuts us off from him. It’s like in C.S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew when wicked Uncle Andrew persuades himself that Aslan’s singing and speaking is just brutish roaring, or in The Last Battle when the mistrustful dwarves can only taste stable fodder when they’re given Aslan’s feast.
If God comes to us and speaks to us and we refuse to listen, dismissing it as the voice of the devil, we are condemning ourselves; cutting ourselves off from our only source of reality, of life and salvation and forgiveness. It’s the unforgivable sin, not because God will not forgive it, but because we are putting ourselves in a place where we cannot accept or receive his forgiveness. In calling God the devil we’re calling light darkness and goodness evil, and so undermining the very basis of our relationship with reality.
Postscript: perfect prophets or sinful saints?
As a final aside it may be worth mentioning that Islam generally has a much higher view of the honour of prophets than do Christianity or Judaism. My understanding is that in Islam it’s seen as dishonouring (almost blasphemous) to speak ill of a prophet, or to portray them as sinful humans. In Judaism and Christianity, however, even God’s greatest human representatives are deeply flawed. Both Old and New Testaments are very frank in portraying the weaknesses and sins of God’s prophets, priests, apostles and saints.
Noah got drunk. Abraham lied about his wife. Moses committed murder, angered God with his reluctance to obey, and finally sinned by working an unauthorised miracle. David (the ‘man after God’s heart’) committed adultery and murder and shed so much blood that God wouldn’t allow him to build his temple. Solomon the wise married way too many women and was led astray into idolatry. Jonah ran away from God. Gideon the idol-breaker made an ephod which then became an idol. Elijah had a sulking fit in a cave. They all had major feet of clay.
In the New Testament, all of Jesus’ closest followers messed up in one way or another – betraying him, denying him, deserting him, doubting him. They were frankly a pretty hopeless lot; but Jesus chose them to found his church – not just despite their flaws, but perhaps in a way because of them. It’s all part of the same pattern; just as God chooses to take on the indignity of incarnation as a human baby needing its nappy changed, he then chooses weak and flawed people to represent him to the world. That may seem like blasphemy, but it’s simply the deep and compassionate wisdom of the God who is love.