Objective Morality, the Nature of Guilt, and God’s Offer of Divine Forgiveness And Promise of Moral Transformation: A New Look at C. S. Lewis’s Moral Argument

by Stephen S. Jordan

Introduction

Countless philosophers and theologians throughout history have postulated arguments in favor of a divine being. There are four kinds of classical arguments that have attempted to establish the existence of God: the cosmological argument, the teleological argument, the ontological argument, and the moral argument. The origins of the cosmological and teleological arguments can be traced to the ancient world, the ontological argument dates to the medieval time period, but the moral argument is a relative newcomer as it has modern ancestry.[1] Although the moral argument emerged onto the philosophical scene largely through the writings of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) in the eighteenth century, it was C. S. Lewis (1898-1963) who popularized the argument more than anyone else in the past two centuries.[2]

Lewis’s moral argument is detailed primarily in Book 1 of Mere Christianity; however, portions of Lewis’s moral argument are found in his other writings as well. Therefore, this essay will pull from a broad Lewisian corpus in an attempt to present a more robust picture of his moral argument, which begins with reasons for believing in the existence of objective morality, continues with mankind’s inability to adhere to such a moral standard, and concludes with the necessity of a divine being (of a particular sort) in order to account for these realities.[3]

The Existence of an Objective Moral Law

            In Book 1 of Mere Christianity, Lewis suggests that the existence of objective morality is obvious (or self-evident) for at least four reasons. First, when two or more individuals quarrel, they assume there is an objective standard of right and wrong of which each person is aware of and one has broken. For example, when one says, “That’s my seat, I was there first!” or “Why should you shove in first?” he is not merely stating that the other man’s behavior does not happen to please him, but rather that there is “some kind of standard of behaviour [sic] which he expects the other man to know about.”[4] At this point, oftentimes the other man will provide reasons for why he did not go against the standard or he will provide excuses for breaking it. Such a response is an acknowledgement that a moral standard exists; an individual would not try to provide reasons or give excuses if he thought no such standard existed. Second, mankind has generally agreed throughout history that “the human idea of decent behaviour [sic] was obvious to every one [sic].”[5] This does not mean “that you might not find an odd individual here and there who did not know it, just as you find a few people who are colour-blind [sic] or have no ear for a tune.”[6] Writing during wartime, Lewis provides an example to drive his point home: “What was the sense in saying the enemy was in the wrong unless Right [sic] is a real thing which the Nazis at bottom knew as well as we did and ought to have practiced? If they had had no notion of what we mean by right, then, though we might still have had to fight them, we could no more have blamed them for that than for the colour [sic] of their hair.”[7] Third, mistreatment reveals what an individual really believes about morality. To validate this claim, Lewis states, “Whenever you find a man who says he does not believe in a real Right and Wrong [sic], you will find the same man going back on this a moment later. He may break his promise to you, but if you try breaking one to him he will be complaining ‘It’s not fair’ before you can say Jack Robinson.”[8] Although some deny the existence of objective morality through their actions, they always affirm it through their reactions. When an individual is mistreated, he will usually react as if an objective standard of proper treatment does, in fact, exist. Fourth, making an excuse for a mistake is providing a sufficient reason (in one’s mind) for breaking a standard of behavior. As Lewis says, “If we do not believe in decent behaviour [sic], why should we be so anxious to make excuses for not having behaved decently?”[9] He continues by adding, “The truth is, we believe in decency so much – we feel the Rule of Law pressing on us so – that we cannot bear to face the fact that we are breaking it, and consequently we try to shift the responsibility.”[10]

            Throughout The Abolition of Man, Lewis constructs a case for the existence of objective values such as love, justice, and courage.[11] Lewis states that there are three possible responses for one to consider regarding objective values: 1) reject their existence; 2) replace them; or 3) accept them. One, if objective values are rejected, then all values must be rejected. If values are subjective, then values as a whole become a matter of preference. Furthermore, if objective values are rejected, then rules/laws are no longer possible or binding upon humans because every rule/law has a value behind it.[12] Next, to attempt to refute a value system and replace it with a new one is self-contradictory. According to Lewis, “There has never been, and never will be, a radically new judgement of value in the history of the world.”[13] Furthermore, to attempt to replace a value system with another one is to assume that there is something awry with the present system, which can only be realized if an objective standard of judgment exists in the first place.[14] This leaves one viable option: accept the reality of objective moral values.

Lewis indicates in his essay entitled, “Evil and God,” in God in the Dock, that an objective moral standard must exist in order to allow for moral improvement. He claims,

If things can improve, this means that there must be some absolute standard of good above and outside the cosmic process to which that process can approximate. There is no sense in talking of “becoming better” if better means simply “what we are becoming” – it is like congratulating yourself on reaching your destination and defining destination as “the place you have reached.”[15]

 

According to Lewis, talk of moral improvement is nonsensical if there is no “absolute standard of good” that exists. If no such standard existed, one might change his morality, but he could never improve his morality.

            In Miracles, before actually discussing the possibility of miraculous events, Lewis argues for the existence of God by utilizing the moral argument and the argument from reason.[16] There are times when these two arguments overlap. For example, “Besides reasoning about matters of fact, men also make moral judgements – ‘I ought to do this’ – ‘I ought not do that’ – ‘This is good’ – ‘That is evil.’”[17] When men reason over moral issues, it is assumed that there is an objective standard of right and wrong. If there is no such standard, then moral reasoning is on the same level as one arguing with his friends about the best flavor of ice cream at the local parlor (“I prefer this” and “I don’t prefer that”).[18] Simply stated, if there is no objective moral law, then everything becomes a matter of preference.

            Within the introductory chapter of The Problem of Pain, Lewis presents what he calls the “strands or elements” found within “all developed religion.”[19] The second strand that is noted involves mankind’s sense of a moral code. According to Lewis, “All the human beings that history has heard of acknowledge some kind of morality; that is, they feel towards certain proposed actions the experiences expressed by the words, ‘I ought’ or ‘I ought not.’”[20] The words “ought” and “ought not” imply the existence of an objective moral law that mankind recognizes and is obligated to follow. If such a moral code did not exist, then the words “ought” and “ought not” would mean little more than “I prefer” and “I do not prefer.”

            In sum, Lewis provides at least eight reasons for believing in the existence of objective morality. One, when two or more individuals quarrel, it is assumed that an objective standard of right and wrong exists.[21] Two, mankind has generally agreed throughout history that an objective standard of decent behavior is obvious to all people.[22] Three, mistreatment reveals what one really believes about morality.[23] An individual might deny the existence of an objective standard, but as soon as he is mistreated, he will respond as if such a standard exists (“That’s not fair!”). Four, when a person makes an excuse for a mistake on his part, he essentially provides a sufficient reason (in his mind) for breaking an objective standard of behavior.[24] Five, if objective moral values (such as love, compassion, etc.) are rejected, then all values must be rejected. If this happens, then values become a matter of preference. Additionally, if an individual attempts to replace one value system with another, he must assume that an objective standard of judgment exists to help him determine that one value system is superior to another.[25] Six, an objective moral standard must exist in order to foster the possibility of moral improvement.[26] Seven, when individuals reason over moral issues, the existence of objective morality is assumed.[27] Eight, the words “ought” and “ought not” imply that an objective standard of behavior exists that mankind is obligated to follow.[28]

(Part 2 coming next week) 

Notes: 

[1] The cosmological argument can be traced to Plato and Aristotle. Although traces of the teleological argument appeared in the writings of Socrates (Xenophon’s Memorabilia 1.4.4ff), Plato (Phaedo), and Philo (Works of Philo 3.182, 183.33), it came to fruition later in the middle ages (the last of Aquinas’ “Five Ways”) and modern world (Paley’s Natural Theology). The ontological argument was first formed by Anselm in the medieval time period, although he was not responsible for naming it. Implicit fragments of the moral argument can be found in Plato, Augustine, and Aquinas, but its emergence onto the philosophical scene did not take place until Kant utilized it in the eighteenth century.

[2] To be fair, there are numerous “heavy hitters” in the field of moral apologetics between Kant and Lewis, such as: John Henry Newman (1801-1890), Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900), William Sorley (1855-1935), Hastings Rashdall (1858-1935), Clement Webb (1865-1954), and A. E. Taylor (1869-1945). Lewis “popularized” the moral argument, in the sense that he made it appealing to a wider audience, but he would not have been able to do so without these men who came before him.

[3] Lewis’s argument is not a strict, deductive proof for God’s existence. Rather, Lewis provides an argument that is rationally persuasive in the sense that the existence of a divine being (of a particular sort) is the best explanation for the available evidence. See David Baggett, “Pro: The Moral Argument is Convincing,” in C. S. Lewis’s Christian Apologetics: Pro and Con, ed. Gregory Bassham (Leiden: Brill Rodopi, 2015), 121.

[4] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001), 3.

[5] Ibid., 5. In the appendix section of The Abolition of Man, Lewis provides a list that illustrates the points of agreement amongst various civilizations throughout history. See C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001), 83-101.                              

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 6.

[9] Ibid., 8.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Values are the “why” behind rules/laws, whereas rules/laws are the “what.” For example, there are laws against murder because human life is intrinsically valuable.

[12] Ibid., 73.

[13] Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 43.

[14] Lewis expounds upon this in Mere Christianity when he suggests the following: “If no set of moral ideas were truer or better than any other, there would be no sense in preferring civilized morality to savage morality, or Christian morality to Nazi morality. In fact, of course, we all do believe that some moralities are better than others...The moment you say that one set of moral ideas can be better than another, you are, in fact, measuring them both by a standard, saying that one of them conforms to that standard more nearly than the other. But the standard that measures two things is something different from either. You are, in fact, comparing them both with some Real Morality [sic], admitting that there is such a thing as a real Right [sic], independent of what people think, and that some people’s ideas get nearer to that Right [sic] than others.” Lewis, Mere Christianity, 13.

[15] C. S. Lewis, “Evil and God,” in God in the Dock, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2014), 3-4.

[16] He does this because if God exists, then miracles are at least possible. In his words, “Human Reason and Morality have been mentioned not as instances of Miracle (at least, not of the kind of Miracle you wanted to hear about) but as proofs of the Supernatural: not in order to show that Nature ever is invaded but that there is a possible invader.” C. S. Lewis, Miracles (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001), 68.

[17] Lewis, Miracles, 54.

[18] Naturalism largely fails to account for this. Lewis explains: “If we are to continue to make moral judgements (and whatever we say we shall in fact continue) then we must believe that the conscience of man is not a product of Nature. It can be valid only if it is an offshoot of some absolute moral wisdom, a moral wisdom which exists absolutely ‘on its own’ and is not a product of non-moral, non-rational Nature.” Lewis, Miracles, 60.

[19] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001), 5.

[20] Ibid., 10.

[21] Lewis, Mere Christianity, 3.

[22] Ibid., 5.

[23] Ibid., 6.

[24] Ibid., 8.

[25] Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 43.

[26] Lewis, “Evil and God,” in God in the Dock, 3-4.

[27] Lewis, Miracles, 54.

[28] Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 10.

 

Insights of C. S. Lewis Concerning Faith, Doubt, Pride, Corrupted Love, And Dying to Oneself in Till We Have Faces (Part 2)

 Photo by  Igor Goryachev  on  Unsplash

 

Pride, Devouring Love, And Dying To Self

Let us turn now to a second major theme in TWHF: pride and corrupted love. There are a number of insights concerning this theme that Lewis offers in his prose that are illustrated well in TWHF. Consider first the nature of pride and the fact that it blocks the knowledge of God. Lewis says that pride is the key sin that is central in Christian ethics. People recognize pride in others but often fail to see it in themselves.[1] Lewis says that pride is what often makes it difficult to convince unbelievers of their sin problem. It leads them to overlook their own sins yet feel that they can judge God for allowing the evils in the world; in short, it leads humans to think we are “on the bench and God in the Dock.”[2] Pride is the pathway to all other vices. It is the “complete anti-God state of mind” and is by nature competitive. We are not proud merely because we are smart or attractive but because we are smarter or more attractive than others.[3] Pride seeks power and puts one’s self forward. It always causes conflict with others and with God.[4] Lewis says, “The moment you have a self at all, there is a possibility of putting yourself first—wanting to be the centre—wanting to be God, in fact.”[5] Since God is “immeasurably superior” to all people, Lewis stresses that pride prevents one from knowing God. Pride involves “looking down,” but God can only be known by looking up. Prideful people may say they know God, but they cannot.[6] Those who truly know God will have their focus on God and not themselves. We cannot relate to God properly unless we humbly recognize Him as God.[7]

In TWHF, Orual fails to recognize her pride for most of the novel, and this prevents her from knowing the gods and discovering truth. So long as she was elevating herself and only looking down, she could not realize that the gods were above her. She could not know herself or the gods because she was a prisoner of her pride. As the novel opens, she seeks to put the gods in the judgment seat (i.e., in “the dock”) and is angry that they will not answer her.[8] By the end, however, she discovers that the accusations she had wanted to make against the gods for most of her life were indefensible. She realizes that this is why the gods “do not speak to us openly” about our concerns. It is because we do not know as much as we think we do and our pride blinds us to the truth. The gods cannot “meet us face to face till we have faces.”[9] This also illustrates why Lewis says that prayer would be far too dangerous for us if God answered every prayer.[10] Orual had prayed for the gods to reveal things to her, but they were silent. In the end, she knew it was good that they had remained silent and not answered her prayer.

A second insight within this theme is that pride corrupts love into a jealous hate that devours others. In The Four Loves, Lewis says that prideful self-centeredness and jealousy can creep into “every kind of love.” This may involve not wanting the one we love to “become brighter or more beautiful” or not wanting “the old ways to be changed even for the better.”[11] He gives the example of two siblings who share everything and are extremely close throughout life, but one of them experiences a change—a new interest that the other cannot share. Perhaps, he says, the change is that one “undergoes a religious conversion.” The one who did not change is liable to feel that she is losing the bond with the other. She is likely to mock the new love of the changed sibling and call it “nonsense.”[12] This is exactly what Orual experienced when Psyche found a new love that Orual did not share and did not want intruding into her love for Psyche. Orual admits that her hatred of the gods and her true motivation to separate Psyche from them were rooted in her belief that the gods stole Psyche’s love from her. Orual would rather Psyche be killed than have another come between her and Psyche. “Psyche was mine,” she says.[13]

Lewis also notes in The Four Loves that there is sometimes a need to be needed by the one we love, and this can be twisted into something like hate. Lewis gives the example of one who has the need to care for another person in a motherly way such that the other person is smothered by these efforts and does not desire them.[14] Love should express itself in wanting the other person to be self-sufficient and not require one’s support;[15] when it does not, this twisted sort of love “contains a good deal of hatred” and becomes “a god” in one’s life—an idol that “becomes a demon.”[16] This is reflected in The Great Divorce by the female ghost who, even in the afterlife, is obsessed with controlling her husband and desires to continue to rule over him and “make something of him”—a goal she believes she never fully completed in her earthly life.[17] She goes on and on describing how she met all of his needs and how he would be lost without her even though it was evident that he did not desire (or, in her mind, “appreciate”) her efforts. Her preoccupation with her husband needing her prevented her from knowing God and from seeing the destruction that her “love” produced in her own life and in the earthly life of her husband. In the end, this continual need to be needed sucked up her very existence.[18] This type of twisted love is clearly exemplified in Orual’s desire to control and rule over Psyche. Although Psyche assures Orual that her god husband must now be the one to guide her, Orual insists, “You cannot go your own way. You will let me rule and guide you.”[19] Although Psyche neither needed nor desired Orual to rule her, Orual had a need to be needed. She was so desperate to keep Psyche under her “loving” rule that she coerced her by threats. Mirroring what Lewis says in The Four Loves, Psyche tells Orual, “I am not sure I like your kind [of love] better than hatred.”[20] Orual, in revealing her true thoughts at the end of the novel, says she was not jealous of Psyche until the gods started to elevate Psyche and make her the “next thing to a goddess.” Orual wanted the gods to elevate her instead and show her the truth so that she could in turn teach Psyche.[21] She was bent on Psyche needing her as a ruler and teacher. Although Psyche was happy with the gods, Orual took no comfort in this. Her pride and twisted love led her to insist that she must be the only one to give Psyche happiness.[22] The Fox described this attitude as “one part love in your heart, and five parts anger, and seven parts pride.”[23]

Lewis declares that the worst sort of pride involves looking down on others “so much that you do not care what they think of you.”[24] Although Orual no doubt would have preferred for Psyche to think well of her, there is a real sense in which she exemplifies the sort of pride Lewis is describing. Orual wanted to have Psyche’s companionship and love, and she did not care if Psyche knew she was coercing her so long as it meant keeping Psyche in her life and under her control. She was willing to threaten to kill Psyche and herself to keep Psyche under her rule and did not back down when Psyche accused her of using Psyche’s love for her as a weapon.[25] Orual devoured others with her twisted love and was “a craver” even if they thought less of her for it.[26]

Another insight of Lewis concerning pride and love is that one should never be less drawn to God than one is to another human and should never love God less than another human. Lewis says that we cannot love another human too much. We can only love God too little so that our love for that human person is placed higher than our love for God.[27] Lewis also thinks it is not a sin to be proud of another human—so long as that pride is mere admiration and that admiration is less than what one has for God. It is never acceptable to “love and admire anything more than we love and admire God.”[28] Lewis portrays this concept well in The Great Divorce through the character Pam. Pam wants to see her son Michael, who is in heaven, but she needs to desire God to do so. She says she will love God if that is the only way to see her son, but she is told that one must not love God as a means to being united with what ought to be a lesser love. She is “treating God only as a means to Michael.”[29] Indeed, Lewis wrestled with this temptation himself after his wife died. As he was struggling to maintain his trust in God’s goodness, he considered that he may simply be “sidling back to God” because he knew that doing so is the only possible road to seeing his wife again. But he realized that God “can’t be used as a road.” Lewis says, “If you’re approaching Him not as the goal but as a road, not as the end but as a means, you’re not really approaching Him at all.”[30] So love for God must exceed one’s love for any human; however, throughout nearly all of TWHF, Orual’s relationship with Psyche was clearly far more important to her than Psyche’s relationship with the gods or her own relationship with the gods.[31] Orual was more drawn to Psyche than she was to the gods and desired a love relationship with Psyche that she did not desire to have with the gods. This made Psyche an idol in Orual’s life that led her astray greatly.

Finally, a crucial insight of Lewis related to pride is that one must die to oneself in order to know God and love others properly. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity, “Give up yourself, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it.” He says that if you “look for yourself,” then “you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.” We must submit to the death of our “ambitions and favourite wishes every day” if we are to be remade.[32] This dying to self is powerfully illustrated in TWHF, as Orual is told by the gods to “die before you die.”[33] Orual had to be “unmade” and die to herself and her prideful ambitions in order to become her perfected self.[34] In Mere Christianity, Lewis uses a fleet of ships to illustrate how moral growth needs to occur within a human, between humans, and in the interaction between each human and God. To function properly, each ship in the fleet must be seaworthy, each ship must not collide with or damage other ships, and all the ships must be collectively headed toward the proper destination (i.e., God).[35] In TWHF, Orual must die to herself in order to grow morally as an individual. Doing this allowed her to relate better to others and understand the root of pride that infected her relationship with and knowledge of other humans and the gods.

Conclusion

Lewis illustrates powerfully many insights from his prose in TWHF. Concerning faith, he portrays emotional doubt in the lives of Orual and Psyche and the need to use reason to trump such doubt. He reveals through Orual how moral growth requires personal effort as well as drawing upon God’s help. He also reveals much of what he learned in his own struggle with doubting God’s goodness through Orual’s process of discovery. Concerning pride, he shows through Orual’s self-discovery how pride prevents one from knowing God by blocking one from knowing oneself and one’s flaws. He also illustrates in Orual many of his insights concerning the way pride and jealousy can corrupt love into a devouring hate and how one’s love of self and others can wrongly exceed one’s love of God. Finally, Lewis shows in TWHF how dying to oneself is a true prerequisite to overcoming pride and finding one’s true self so that one can relate properly to God and others. Thus TWHF is a masterpiece in which Lewis—via the medium of retelling a myth—portrays many of his theological and moral insights

Notes

37. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 121.

38. C. S. Lewis, “God in the Dock” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970), 268.

39. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 122.

40. Ibid., 123-4.

41. Ibid., 49.

42. Ibid., 124.

43. Ibid., 127.

44. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 3.

45. Ibid., 294.

46. C. S. Lewis, “Work and Prayer” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970), 107.

47. C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves (San Diego, CA: Harcourt, 1960), 45.

48. C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves, 46.

49. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 290-1. This is much like what Lee Strobel experienced prior to his conversion to Christianity. When his wife became a Christian, he at first resented her love for God out of his own “self-interest.” He worried that he was losing her because her belief that she now had a relationship with God was coming between them. See Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998), 16.

50. C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves, 48-50.

51. Ibid., 50.

52. Ibid., 56.

53. C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, in The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperCollins, 2002), 516.

54. Lewis, The Great Divorce, 513-6.

55. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 159.

56. Ibid., 165.

57. Ibid., 291.

58. Ibid., 292.

59. Ibid., 148.

60. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 126.

61. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 165. Orual also used her position as Queen to keep Bardia with her needlessly and selfishly and did not encourage the Fox to leave her and go home to Greece as she knew he wished to do.

62. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 305.

63. Lewis, The Four Loves, 122-3.

64. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 127.

65. Lewis, The Great Divorce, 518.

66. Lewis, A Grief Observed, 685.

67. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 72-6.

68. Ibid., 226-7.

69. Ibid., 279.

70. Ibid., 307-8.

71. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 71-2.

Insights of C. S. Lewis Concerning Faith, Doubt, Pride, Corrupted Love, And Dying to Oneself in Till We Have Faces (Part 1)

 Photo by  João Silas  on  Unsplash

Photo by João Silas on Unsplash

In Till We Have Faces (henceforth TWHF), C. S. Lewis combines his passion for pagan mythology with his knack for communicating Christian truths via story. Lewis often stresses in his various works his belief that pagan mythology, while not reflecting the complete truth about God, contains various nuggets of the ultimate truth that is found in Christianity. Christianity, he says, is the “true myth” that melds the human need for believing what is true about the world as it actually is with our need for imagination and wonder and delight.[1] It is thus not surprising that, in TWHF, Lewis powerfully illustrates a number of theological and moral positions that are prominent in many of his other writings by retelling the story of the myth of Psyche and Cupid.

This paper will examine two major themes in TWHF that are also emphasized heavily within Lewis’s prose: the theme of faith and doubt and the theme of pride and corrupted love. With regard to the first major theme of faith and doubt, we will examine three key aspects of faith that Lewis stresses throughout his writings that are beautifully illustrated in TWHF. The first aspect of faith involves holding onto what one believes with good reason to be true about God in the face of various emotionally-driven, non-evidential temptations to abandon one’s faith. The second aspect of faith involves humbly drawing upon God’s help as we strive to follow Him and be molded into a person of greater character. The third aspect of faith deals with believing that God is good in the midst of pain and suffering and incomplete information.

The paper will then examine the second major theme of pride and corrupted love. This will begin by examining how Lewis considers pride to be the antithesis of God’s mindset and how it prevents one from knowing God. This truth is at the heart of TWHF. Next, we will consider what Lewis has to say about how pride corrupts love into a sort of jealous hate that devours others and how this is exemplified in the life of Orual in TWHF. We will also see how Lewis’s warning against loving God less than we love others is illustrated in the novel. Finally, we will examine how Lewis’s repeated exhortation to engage in the biblical principle of dying to oneself in order to combat pride and relate properly to God and others is portrayed clearly in TWHF.

 

Faith and Doubt

Lewis has much to say about faith and doubt in his prose; indeed, two chapters of Mere Christianity are fully devoted to the subject. Let us consider three aspects of faith that Lewis emphasizes in his writings and exemplifies in TWHF, beginning with his recognition that faith requires us to hold onto what reason tells us is true about God and not allow our commitment to God to waver when we are tempted to doubt for various emotionally-driven reasons that are not rooted in evidence or reason. Lewis recognizes that human minds are not “completely ruled by reason.” Despite having good reason to trust one’s surgeon, for example, Lewis himself experienced emotional doubt and anxiety when he had surgery; he allowed his “emotion and imagination” to overrule his reason.[2] A Christian with reasonable faith still experiences times when “his emotions rise up and carry out a sort of blitz on his belief.” Also, in some situations there are moral reasons that it is not “convenient” to think that Christianity is true (e.g., when one is tempted to sin). Faith involves maintaining commitment to what one knows is true about Christianity despite one’s changing moods and circumstances.[3] It is a virtue to “teach your moods where they get off” and control them when they challenge one’s reason. This involves recognizing one’s moods and using reason to remind oneself that one’s faith in Christ is true by engaging in the spiritual disciplines of prayer, Bible reading, and church attendance.[4]

This sort of emotional doubt is seen in both Psyche and Orual in TWHF. Psyche rationally believes—on the basis of her longing for the gods, her recognition of their beauty, and her religious experience—that the “god of the Mountain” is the source of all beauty and has been “wooing” her to come to him.[5] Lewis considers the human longing for God and for that which is beyond this world to be a rational reason to believe in God.[6] Yet, despite having good reason to be confident in the gods, Psyche has moments when her emotions—fear in particular—rise up and cause her to doubt. A fear arises in the back of her mind that the god of the Mountain does not exist and that she will slowly die tied to a tree instead of being united with the god. The thought made her cry, but she quickly began reminding herself of the confidence that she has that the Fox’s skepticism about the gods is wrong and that her sense that the gods exist is correct.[7] As Lewis says in A Grief Observed, “You never know how much you really believe in anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you.”[8] At such times, it is easier for emotions to get the better of one’s faith, but Psyche reasoned herself away from this doubt in exactly the way Lewis says one should respond to such emotional blitzes.[9]

Orual also experiences emotionally-driven doubts. Unlike Psyche, Orual has no longing for the gods—especially after they take Psyche away. She has hate for them and admits her repulsion to believing that Psyche is living with a god husband in a palace, exclaiming in an angry outburst, “I don’t want [to believe] it!”[10] Although she clearly realizes that the evidence for Psyche’s account of her god husband is enough to believe it is true,[11] she allows her emotions to overrule her reason. Indeed, immediately after realizing that she believes it is true, emotional doubt occurs—what reason told her is true is wiped out by an emotional blitz of “blinding waves of sorrow”.[12] Because she lacks the longing for the gods that Psyche has, Orual does not invoke reason to try to talk herself out of her emotional rejection of the truth. Instead, she convinces herself that she is justified in accepting what is not true despite the fact that factual doubt (i.e., doubt rooted in a lack of evidence) was never the problem.[13] Unless one is determined to rule one’s moods by reason, Lewis says one will remain merely “a creature dithering to and fro” with one’s beliefs “dependent on the weather and the state of its digestion.”[14] That is exactly what happens with Orual. Because she is so influenced by her moods and emotions rather than grounding herself in reason, her beliefs seem to swing wildly back and forth. She goes from nearly a “full belief”[15] that the unseen palace exists to moments later “fluttering to and fro between two opinions” and finding it “unbelievable” that Psyche’s palace and god “could be anything but madness.”[16] Then, shortly thereafter, she briefly sees the palace and is so sure that Psyche is married to a god that she plans to go and ask Psyche and the god to forgive her of her doubts, but when the palace disappears she immediately tries to tell herself it may not have been a veridical experience.[17] Then, after hearing Bardia’s opinion and reflecting again on the evidence, she considers it “plain” truth that Psyche was given to the god.[18] In the end, it is made clear that Orual did know that the palace was real all along and that her emotions—especially her jealousy—were the culprits in her convincing herself that the evidence is unclear.[19] Her emotions carried out a blitz on her beliefs. Like Orual, Lewis experienced the temptation to think negatively about God out of anger rather than what he knew to be true. He calls it “hitting back” at God. But Lewis stresses that “the mood is no evidence.”[20] He illustrates this well in Orual.

Consider now a second aspect of faith stressed by Lewis: realizing that one falls short of the mark morally and striving to be good while at the same time recognizing that one must seek God’s help to make this improvement.[21] Lewis says that the first step to developing this aspect of faith is to try hard to be good for even “six weeks,” as nobody realizes “how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good.” Doing this convinces us that we lack the resources apart from God to live up to the demands of morality.[22] This is seen in TWHF, as Orual realizes in the end that she is “ugly in soul” and desires to change her “ugly soul into a fair one.” She realizes that she needs the gods’ help to do this, but she sets out to try to be good and take the first step. She finds that she could not be good for even a half hour and was concerned that the gods would not help her.[23] So as soon as she tries hard to be good, she realizes how much divine help is needed. Yet as the novel unfolds, she finds that the gods are helping her to grow morally. They are doing their “surgery” on her by revealing things to her about herself using events in her life (e.g., the process of writing her book) and interactions with other people (e.g., Ansit and Tarin).[24] As Lewis stresses in Mere Christianity, God helps us to grow via many means. He uses nature, books, experiences, and other people—even when we do not realize they are being used.[25]

A third aspect of faith addressed by Lewis involves believing that God is good in the midst of suffering and incomplete information. Lewis knew well the reality of this faith struggle, as he wrestled with doubting God’s goodness after his wife died. Like Orual, who never seriously doubted the existence of the gods but had serious doubts about their goodness, when Lewis lost his wife he reports struggling with thinking “dreadful things” about God. The conclusion he fears most “is not ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God’s really like.’”[26]

As Psyche was preparing to be offered to the god, she talks with Orual about how to interpret the gods’ actions in such a way that they are considered good. Psyche suggests that even if the gods seem to humans to be doing evil, we may simply not know enough to realize that the gods are actually doing what is good; in addition, she suggests that it is possible that the gods are not the cause of the evils we attribute to them. Orual, on the other hand, sees no other way to interpret the gods demanding Psyche as an offering than to declare that it is clearly evil.[27] Like Orual, when Lewis was in the early stages of his grief after his wife died he was tempted to think, “What reason have we, except our own desperate wishes, to believe that God is, by any standard we can conceive, ‘good’?”[28] Yet he quickly realized that it is “too anthropomorphic” to think of God as an evil Being; moreover, there seems to be too much good in the world. An evil Being is not likely to include “love, or laughter, or daffodils, or a frosty sunset” as traps or baits in a ploy to harm us. In response, however, to the question raised by Psyche as to whether we are able to evaluate God’s goodness, Lewis rejects the idea that anything God does must be considered good because we are too limited or fallen to pass judgment on God’s morality. He denies that “we are so depraved that our ideas of goodness count for nothing” and that the goodness of God is beyond our ability to assess. If that were true, Lewis says, we would then lack any reason to obey God or to call God “good,” for that term as it applies to God would be meaningless.[29] Lewis, however, does hold that God’s ways and His knowledge are beyond us so that we do not fully understand God’s reasons for allowing things[30]—a truth borne out in TWHF.

Orual also thinks for most of the novel that the gods are toying with us in “cat-and-mouse play” by giving us something good in our life just to take it away and make things worse.[31] In the same way, Lewis for a time wondered if God was like that when his wife died. His concern was that there is a God who is playing with us like we are “rats in a laboratory.” It seemed to Lewis that “time after time, when [God] seemed most gracious He was really preparing the next torture.”[32] Yet Lewis came to realize that this thought was an emotional “yell rather than a thought” rooted in reason and evidence.[33] Orual, too, comes to see that the gods have not been mistreating her; rather they have been preparing her for moral surgery.[34]

It is also interesting that, when his wife dies, Lewis wonders on what basis he had begun having doubts about God’s goodness. He knew about evil and the fact that spouses die before his own wife died, and it never bothered him before; however, it began to bother him and challenge his confidence in God’s goodness once the suffering happened to him personally.[35] In the same way, Orual says she “never really began to hate” the gods and hold the strong feeling that they are cruel until they affected her personally by taking Psyche away.[36] It is only when suffering impacts our lives personally that this aspect of faith in God’s goodness tends to be doubted.

(Part 2 coming next week)

Notes:

1. C. S. Lewis, “Myth Became Fact,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970), 58-60.

2. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity: A Revised and Amplified Edition, with a New Introduction, of the Three Books Broadcast Talks, Christian Behaviour, and Beyond Personality (New York: HarperCollins, 2000), 139.

3. Ibid., 140.

4. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 141.

5. C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold (San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace, 1956), 74-6.

6. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 135-7.

7. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 70-1.

8. C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, in The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperCollins, 2002), 665.

9. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 140-1. See also Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 108-9. Psyche’s doubts began to return as she was left at the tree. She felt that her old longings were gone and she could no longer believe in the god and the palace. Yet in her doubt she prayed to the gods. Emotional doubt returned when faced with stress and the possibility that her faith is misplaced, but she turned to the spiritual disciplines in the midst of it.

10. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 124.

11. Ibid., 120, 123-4.

12. Ibid., 121.

13. Ibid., 290-1.

14. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 141.

15. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 120.

16. Ibid., 126.

17. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 133. See also C. S. Lewis, “Is Theism Important?,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970), 191. Related to the brief vision of the palace, Lewis says that religious experience often “comes and goes: especially goes.” Faith involves retaining “what is irresistible and obvious during the moments of special grace. By faith we believe always what we hope hereafter to see always and perfectly and have already seen imperfectly and by flashes.”

18. Ibid., 137.

19. Ibid., 290-1.

20. Lewis, A Grief Observed, 673.

21. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 141-9.

22. Ibid., 141-2.

23. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 281-2.

24. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 253-67.

25. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 190.

26. Lewis, A Grief Observed, 658.

27. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 71-2.

28. Lewis, A Grief Observed, 668.

29. Lewis, A Grief Observed, 669.

30. C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, in The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperCollins, 2002), 568.

31. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 249.

32. Lewis, A Grief Observed, 668-9.

33. Ibid., 669.

34. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 253-67.

35. Lewis, A Grief Observed, 671-2.

36. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 290.

 

 

Dead but not Deaf

 Photo by  Greg Rakozy  on  Unsplash

Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

The lord of Saxony Germany, Frederick the Elector, saved Martin Luther from execution.  He protected Luther for a year in his castle.  In the coming years, Frederick died, grieving Luther.  Luther moaned, ‘Death is oh so bitter – not so much to the dying as to the living whom the dead leave behind.’ ( Luther, Metaxas, 340)  Many of us have grieved over the death of a loved one.  We know the pangs of being left behind.  Good Friday and Easter Sunday are just passing in the rear view mirror.  Like me, maybe you have reflected on death and resurrection.  Let me share a Scriptural text that has consoled me in the wee hours of the night on death and life.

Jesus speaks it to you and me as he did to the onlookers at the Pool of Bethsaida.  He just healed a man lame for thirty eight years.  He says, ‘Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.’

Jesus introduces his word saying, ‘Very truly’ or, ‘verily, verily’ as in the King James Version.  In the New Testament text it is literally, ‘amen’, ‘amen’.  A teacher says, ‘Class, y’all listen up’.  Perk up your ears.  Listen carefully.  Trust what I’m going to tell you.  It is the truth. Guaranteed.   You can ‘take it to the bank’.  It will be on the exam.  

‘The hour comes’.  In fact, ‘the hour is now.’  The tense is ‘progressive present’.  The ‘hour’ was present when Jesus spoke.  The ‘hour’ is still present - at this very moment.  It is a special hour, a rare time. It will not always be here.  It is here now.  It is the juncture of circumstances that have been ripening to a purpose - n o w.   It is five minutes to midnight Christmas Eve.  You’ve been preparing for the stroke of midnight for weeks.  You have been anticipating it for months.  It has now arrived!

What hour is it?  The hour ‘when the dead will hear’.  Has not the hour for the dead past?  Why should the ‘dead’ concern us?  Jesus is referring to you and me.  Jesus can use the word ‘dead’ for both the biologically and the ‘spiritually’ dead.  Here Jesus is speaking of the spiritually dead.  It is not applicable to the biologically dead.  Have you ever thought of yourself as ‘dead’?  Every person either was, or, is, dead.  It is the default human state.  The apostle Paul tells the Ephesian Christians to remember ‘you were dead in your trespasses and sins in which you once walked’.  We either were, or, are, dead?  Can I own it?

My wife Pam lived in Haiti.  Her Haitian friend Vivi knew a Haitian girl the witchdoctors made a ‘zombie’.  The witchdoctors made this girl a ‘zombie’ by giving her a potion – a powdered drug.  It puts the victim in a paralyzed state, a ‘zombie’ state.  Though she was fully conscious, she was buried alive on top of the ground.  At night the witchdoctor took her out of the grave.  She did not die.  But she was not the same. She lived in a disoriented state.  She was what the Haitians call a’ zombie’ – the walking dead.  You are not a Haitian zombie.  But you were or, are, the walking ‘dead’.

The hour comes ‘when the dead will hear.’  Who can speak to the dead?  Is it not a contradiction in terms?  The dead are dead!  Are they not incapable of either having sounds directed at them or receiving them?  There is One who speaks to them.  He spoke to the possessed woman, Mary Magdalene and to Zacchaeus. What amazes me is He even wants to speak to the dead! Jesus says, ‘I came not to call the righteous but sinners.’

What will the dead hear?  ‘The hour is now when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God.’ The dead will hear the Voice of the Son of God.  Last summer my recent retirement was haunting me.  In the wee hours, retirement felt too much like death.  I was meditating on this phrase ‘the dead will hear’.  I cried to Jesus as a suppliant in the dark, ‘I want to hear your Voice…speak to me…I want to hear…I want to live’.  Hallelujah!  He speaks to the dead!  What is the effect of his speaking to the dead? 

‘The dead will hear …and those who hear will live’.  ‘Will live’ is contingent.  Living is dependent on listening.  The dead will hear with their ears.  Sounds will go in.  They must listen with their hearts.  They must consent to, own, obey, keep, treasure, and actively trust in what is said.  Those who hear say, ‘Yes, I will!’

I will never forget Harry R. Truman.  This is the other Harry Truman.  Harry and his wife operated for forty years the Spirit Lake Mountain Lodge at Mt. Saint Helen’s, Washington.  In 1980 the once dormant volcano began volcanic activity.  Scientists began to caution an explosion was imminent.  Officials warned people to get off the mountain.  ‘This is an extremely dangerous place to be’ said a USGS volcanologist.  Harry Truman was not going to hear of it.  He said, “I don’t have any idea whether it will blow…But I don’t believe it to the point that I’m going to pack up…the mountain ain’t gonna hurt me.’  Law officials were incensed he refused their last warning.  The next morning the entire northern flank blew off.  Harry was never heard of again.

Jesus’ word to mortals is heartening:  ‘those who hear will live’!  They will live now, and into eternity.  Jesus promises, ‘Anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life’.   Be sure of this - you can take it to the bank- those who hear will live! I want to live!  I want to live now!  I want to live into eternal life!  Don’t you?!  Repent, and put all your confidence in Jesus’ word.  Martin Luther’s 13 year old daughter Magdalena lay dead in her coffin.  Luther said, ‘Go ahead and close it! She will rise again on the last day’.  After the coffin was carried away, he said, ‘Do not be sorrowful.  I have sent a saint to heaven.’

Do not be dead - and deaf!

 

Comment

Tom Thomas

Tom was most recently pastor of the Bellevue Charge in Forest, Virginia until retiring in July.  Studying John Wesley’s theology, he received his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Bristol, Bristol, England. While a student, he and his wife Pam lived in John Wesley’s Chapel “The New Room”, Bristol, England, the first established Methodist preaching house.  Tom was a faculty member of Asbury Theological Seminary from 1998-2003. He has contributed articles to Methodist History and the Wesleyan Theological Journal. He and his wife Pam have two children, Karissa, who is an Associate Attorney at McCandlish Holton Morris in Richmond, and, John, who is a junior communications major/business minor at Regent University.  Tom enjoys being outdoors in his parkland woods and sitting by a cheery fire with a good book on a cool evening.

John Hare’s God’s Command, “Summary” (Final Chapter)

 Philippe de Champaigne - Moses with the Ten Commandments

Philippe de Champaigne - Moses with the Ten Commandments

Here Hare wants to offer a brief summary of the theory of the book as a whole, an outline of the main points of the theory. The book is designed to defend the thesis that what makes something morally obligatory for us is that God commands it, and what makes something morally wrong for us is that God prohibits it. Hare thinks the fact that divine command is so central to all three Abrahamic traditions, and that so many of the same problems arise in all three about the relation between divine command and human reason, should be taken as confirmation.

God is taken in this book to be the supreme good, manifested in three ways. First, God is the creator of all that exists other than God, and God maintains it and is present to it once created. Second, God gives us revelation, and for the purposes of this book the primary revelation is of the divine will for our willing, which God gives us in command. Finally, God redeems us, by bringing us to that union with God that is our proper end. These three functions (creation, revelation, and redemption) can be expressed in terms of a threefold sovereign role that God has over the created order, by analogy with human sovereignty. God has legislative, executive, and judicial functions. God makes and promulgates the law by command; God runs the universe and sustains its order; and God judges us and punishes and saves us.

Human beings are created as rational animals through the processes of evolution. We have the purpose of a kind of loving union with God that’s available only to rational animals. Each of us has, however, not merely the purpose common to the whole species, but a particular purpose (unique to the individual) of a kind of love of God particular to that individual. Our destination is a realm in which all these individual kinds of love are conjoined. We all have the same basic value because we all have a call from God of this unique kind. We are individual centers of agency, in time, free, and language users, features that put constraints on what we should take to be a divine command. From these constraints, we can deduce a presumption against taking anything to be a divine command that requires breaching these constraints. We’re born with a predisposition to respond to the command, but a propensity to put our own happiness above the command. We are in that way a mixture, but the predisposition is essential to us, and the propensity is not.

Our power to accept or reject the command is made possible only by God’s sustaining power, and God in the second decree brings all things to good. The relation between our freedom and God’s power is that we are like a lake and God’s power is like the flow in that lake from a hidden spring.

Moral obligation can be both universal and particular. It’s universal when it has all human beings in the scope of the subjects who are commanded to act and the scope of the beneficiaries or victims of that action. Commands are a species of prescription, and we can distinguish five types of divine prescriptions: precepts, prohibitions, permissions, counsels, and directly effective commands. God has objective authority over all human beings, whether they recognize it or not, because God’s commands give all human beings rightful reason to comply, given God’s threefold sovereign role already described. The reasons are rightful because God’s commands make obligatory the good things that God prescribes, all of which take us to our proper end by the path God has selected for us, and our obedience is an expression of our love for God, which is good in itself and our end.

There are at least five objections to Hare’s thesis. One is that it produces an infinite regress. But the principle that God is to be loved is known from its terms: we know that if something is God, it’s to be loved, but to love God is to obey God, and so we can know from its terms the principle that God is to be obeyed.

A second objection is that the thesis makes morality arbitrary. Could not just anything be obligatory if God were to command it? The solution to this worry is that there is a distinction between the good and the obligatory. The thesis of Hare’s book is that God’s command makes something obligatory. When a person judges that a thing is good, she expresses an attraction to it and says that it deserves to attract her. There is a prescriptivist or expressivist side to this and a realist side. The prescriptivist side is that the evaluative judgment expresses some state of desire or emotion or will. The realist side is that there is some value property that she claims belongs to the thing, in virtue of which her state of desire or emotion or will is appropriate. The goodness might reside in resemblance to God. It might also reside in the union with God that is the human destination, or what leads to this union, or what manifests God by displaying God’s presence. If God is supremely good, union with God must also be good as an end, and so must the path to this end be good as a means. God commands only what is consistent with this destination, and thus the command is not arbitrary in the contemporary sense, in which what is arbitrary ignores some consideration that is relevant to a decision.

The third objection is this: If God commands only what is good, is God’s command redundant? Hare again makes a distinction: the moral law can’t be deduced from our nature, but it fits our nature exceedingly well. There are two kinds of deduction we should deny. It might be thought that we could fix the reference of ‘good’ by looking at what most people, most of the time, think is good. But this does not fit the fact that we could be, and in fact are, wrong much of the time in our evaluation. An examination of Greek ethics and its stress on the competitive goods illustrates this. The second kind of deduction we should avoid is the deduction of virtue from our human form of life, even though there is a goodness of organisms that can be deduced from their simply being alive. The human form of life does indeed put a constraint on what we should conceive our virtues to be, but a large part of our conception of virtue is constituted by our ideals. And these can’t be deduced from our form of life, unless we have already screened our description of this form of life through our ideals. The central reason for the failure of this deduction is the mixture in both our natural inclinations and our ideals between what deserves to attract us in this way and what does not so deserve. The danger of some kinds of natural law theory is that God disappears into creation, in the sense that, because we think we can get morality from our nature, we think we do not need a personal divine commander. But creation itself, including our created nature, is not yet sufficiently complete for us to deduce from it how we should live. Reason (in the sense of looking at our nature) can be thought of as a junior partner in determining our duties, and it’s indispensable in disputes between traditions. But its results are not sufficiently determinate to tell us how to live, and we need the revelation of divine command in addition.

A fourth objection is that we live in a pluralist society, and appealing to God’s commands is inappropriate for conduct in the public square in such a society. The reply to this objection is twofold. First, it is discriminatory against religious believers to require them to shed their most basic commitments in public dialogue. Second, there is not enough common ground between all the parties to public conversation so that we could get good policy by sticking to the lowest common denominator.

A fifth objection is that, even if God were to give us commands, we are too unreliable as receivers of them to make them the final arbiters of our moral decisions. Too many bad people have appealed to divine commands in justifying their actions. The question here pertains to what sort of access to the commands we have. One way to proceed is to work out a rational ethical decision procedure and then say simply that God commands us to follow it. But the Abrahamic faiths have additional resources in the content of the narratives they give us of God’s dealing with human beings, in the procedures they prescribe for checking with other members of the community, and in the phenomenology they describe as characteristic of the reception of divine command. They can say that direct divine commands present themselves with clarity and distinctness, external origination, familiarity, authority, and providential care.

Finally, we should deny another thesis found in some forms of natural law theory, the thesis of eudaemonism that we should choose everything for the sake of happiness. We need instead a dual structure of motivation, according to which happiness is properly one of our ends, but we are also to be moved by what is good in itself independently of our happiness. The notion of happiness is not just pleasure. It includes an ideal element, so that we would not count a person in a pleasure-machine as “really” happy. But it is self-indexed, in the sense that the agent pursues it as her own good, and this makes eudaemonism unacceptably self-regarding.

Various defenses of eudaemonism should be rejected, like this one: happiness includes sympathetic pleasures. This should be rejected because sympathetic pleasures are limited in a way that morality should want to transcend. A second defense is that reason brings impartiality with it, and so our good as rational beings requires that we follow the moral law. But the notion of reason here simply begs the question. A third defense is to propose that the interests of the whole of creation form a nested hierarchy, so that, if the agent correctly sees this order, she will see that her good is necessarily consistent with the good of the whole. But it’s not hard to think of cases of real conflict, or at least possible conflict, between interests, in which case the question arises of whether any self-indexed good should take the priority. Finally, we can revise the third defense so that the agent perfects herself by identifying with God who is self-transcending. But, if she thereby loses attachment to self-indexed goods, this revision becomes unacceptably self-neglecting. We need a dual structure of motivation. We should hold that happiness and morality are indeed conjoined, but not because of some necessity in the nature of happiness or in the nature of morality, but because of the free benevolence of the supersensible author of nature.

John Hare’s God’s Command, 8.5, “Transcending our Evolutionary Situation with God”

 Photo by  Mahkeo  on  Unsplash

Photo by Mahkeo on Unsplash

The story at the beginning of this chapter was treated as a Kant-like translation from biblical theology into the language of contemporary (non-theological) anthropology, though it is still a story and not science. We can now go back and put God back into the story, and doing so helps make sense of the story. We can do this in three moments: the encounter, the command, and the punishment.

First of all, God meets our ancestors, though they were probably not monotheists. The story described this in terms of awe and joy. When we feel awe, we have a sense of something’s greatness, and this requires some standard of comparison. There are many kinds of greatness. Kant distinguishes, for example, between the mathematical sublime that responds to greatness in amount and the dynamic sublime that responds to greatness in power. Both kinds of greatness can make everything else seem small by comparison. It is probably impossible to specify a kind of greatness that is the object of all kinds of awe. But it’s plausibly something personal early on. We’re looking after all at agency detection. Such awe is something like reverence. It doesn’t go far enough to say one respects the Torah, and “respect” may also not be adequate as a translation of Kant’s Achtung, which is the feeling occasioned by the moral law that we “recognize as God’s command.”

Bringing in an encounter with God at this first moment explains how we might arrive at the silencing or subordinating of self-interest. Suppression is not the same as subordinating. It doesn’t mean that in the presence of what is good in itself we lose the affection for advantage, but its salience can be radically decreased. This produces a double-source account of motivation. The encounter with divinity might have been with something experienced as great, not merely terrifying but deeply attractive (in Otto’s terms of fascinans as well as tremendum).

The second moment at which God enters the story is the command. This command, in the story, is not connected in any intelligible way with nature. We are invited to think that God selects within the divine prerogative (arbitrium) the fruit as a test, and the test is to see whether the humans will try to usurp the divine function of establishing what is good and bad, or what is right and wrong. For present purposes, the significant feature of the command is that it is not deducible from our nature or from any nature, and it can therefore stand in for the whole series of divine commands that are within God’s arbitrium in the same way. The basic command is not about the fruit, but is the command to love God that comes out of the experience of being loved by God. Refraining from the fruit is merely a symbol of that response. But, if we generalize to all the divine commands for which we do not see the whole reason, we get some sense of how introducing God into the picture might help from an explanatory point of view.

The third moment is God’s punishment. In Genesis there is expulsion from the Garden, and the condemnation to wearisome work, pain in childbirth, and distorted sexual relations. Despite the punishment, there’s hope that continues, and an ongoing high moral demand. The theistic version of the story tells us that divine punishment doesn’t exclude divine love, and that God intervenes in our predicament to rescue us. The possibility of that redemption is already implicit in the original encounter, but is made explicit in the form of covenant. God goes on making initiatives towards us, and we go on refusing them. Redemption returns us to the argument from grace in Chapter 1.

It’s not surprising that the story fits the theistic explanation, because the original version had God as a central character. But to the extent that the translated version fits what actually happened to our ancestors, it is significant if a theistic explanation is coherent and helpful. Evolutionary psychology gives us an excellent background against which to see why bringing in God might give us a good explanation. There is a fit between what we need and what God’s presence, guidance, and assistance give to us.

Hare now goes back through the discussions of evolutionary psychology to see how our situation as evolved makes some independent guidance helpful. In terms of Greene, we need something both to include us, so that we can get beyond the tragedy of the commons, and to push us beyond the group, so that we do not end up with mere within-group altruism. The failures in psychological altruism that Kitcher posits as the origin of ethics infect both our intra-group and our inter-group lives, and we can see the preachments of the great religious traditions helping us with both. In Arnhart we see our devotion to the competitive goods such as wealth, power, and honor. We have seen Haidt’s claim that because of our evolutionary background we care more about reputation than about truth or sincerity, and that our reasoning is often better seen as an “inner lawyer” managing this reputation than an “inner scientist” trying to work out what is right to do. We have seen Greene’s claim that from an evolutionary perspective our reasoning systems are designed for selecting rewarding behaviors.

We don’t have to accept all of these claims in order to conclude that even within the group our ability to care for others is fragile. Our list of failures could be expanded to include unrighteous anger, importunate lust, and craven fear. To make such a list is not “Calvinistic Sociobiology,” because it’s consistent with saying that we also have tendencies to the good, “better angels” of our nature, so that we end up a mixture. But we need something other than just an appeal to our nature to get us to follow the parts of the mixture that we should follow and not the parts we should not.

Now consider the preachments of the traditions. God is luminous, severe, disinfectant, exultant, and the law of the Lord is cast in the same terms, giving light and cleansing us, to be rejoiced in, more than gold or honey. The Sermon on the Mount is full of commands that go inside the mind. The Qur’an says to give money to kinsmen, orphans, the needy, etc. In all these ways, the resources of religious traditions have responded to the problems within groups posed by our evolutionary heritage. The same is true of the second class of psychological-altruism failures between groups. For Greene, the tragedy of our between-group hostility can be overcome by utilitarianism, but he cuts this school off from its theological roots and the common ground they provide. A variety of commands takes the adherents of the Abrahamic faiths towards a universal morality. These faiths both include their adherents into a community, and then push them beyond it.

Does the picture of divine command, mixed natural capacity, and divine assistance actually work to produce morally better lives in those who accept it? There is some empirical evidence that the answer is “Yes.” Shared religious life binds people together. More importantly, Robert Putnam and David Campbell compared how religious and non-religious Americans behave in terms of giving money and time to charities and social organizations. The religious Americans gave more money not just to religious organizations but to the American Cancer Society, and they volunteered not just in church and synagogue and mosque but in civic associations across the board. They conclude, “By many different measures religiously observant Americans are better neighbors and better citizens than secular Americans—they are more generous with their time and money, especially in helping the needy, and they are more active in community life.”

When we look at the great movements towards the recognition of human value over the last sixty years, we will often find a religious motivation. Hare is thinking of Martin Luther King and the civil-rights movement, and the Lutherans in East Germany and the fall of the totalitarian state. Why is this? Hare suggests it’s because of the nature of the God they worship. It’s true that belonging to a community is very important, but the God of Abraham not only includes us in community but pushes us out beyond community, to meet the needs of the poor and the marginalized who are the object of God’s care just as much as we are. God commands both the inclusion and the moving-out. And these do not need to be competing goals.

What Needs Explanation

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A critic of the moral argument for God’s existence might wish to make much of saying there’s something as unhelpful as unassailable in appealing to God as the explanation of any particular moral phenomenon (or any phenomena, for that matter). By definition “omnipotent,” God (at least in the Anselmian sense) can presumably do anything at all, including, presumably, providing the needed explanation of, say, moral obligations. God can do anything and everything, so God can “explain” morality, invoking his specter bring us no closer to any actual helpful explanation. Though unassailable in that way, such an effort of explanation by appeal to the divine is well-nigh worthless. So some critics argue.

Such critics’ resistance, thus construed, is understandable. In brief, the critics take the import of the moral argument to be exploiting the alleged strength of the explanans—that which is doing the explaining. Since an omnipotent God is the source, there’s no shortage in the presumed strength of such an explanation, but the critic rightly discerns there’s something illegitimate about so tidy an account.

However, we suspect that this critique involves a misunderstanding of at least some of these explanatory arguments. A moral case for God as the best explanation of various moral phenomena need not and should not focus, to begin with, on the explanans—God as explanation—so much as on the explanandum: that which is to be explained. In the case of morality, we offer a four-fold abductive case, starting with the moral facts of objective values and duties (and going on to include moral knowledge and what Kant called moral faith). Let’s zero in on objective moral duties for the moment to see how this works and how the concern of the critic can be addressed.

The case we want to build requires that the first step we take is a careful, attentive look at moral obligations using a variety of analyses. For example, by considering the nature of moral language, the logic of moral discourse, and the phenomenology of moral experience, we can glean insights into the nature of moral obligations. Among the salient features of moral obligations that we can identify is that they are unavoidably prescriptive, not merely descriptive, and, at least sometimes, categorical, not merely instrumental. Violations of moral obligations often, though not always, produce feelings of guilt, which are themselves often assumed (rightly or wrongly) to track an actual condition of moral guilt. Violating moral obligations also often, if detected, can strain relationships, causing estrangement and alienation. Harm can be done by shirking one’s perceived moral duties, and, where estrangement has taken place, offers of forgiveness can often heal the relational rifts.

Although all of these features—and others—tend to be important aspects of moral obligations, some of them don’t always obviously apply. If the neglect of a duty goes undetected, for example, it may not strain relationships; or someone may do something wrong but rationalize it in such a way or so often that it leads to no guilty feelings at all (though objective guilt remains a living possibility). A feature of moral obligations that seems perhaps less a contingent matter is what we’ll call their “authority.” It’s the idea that moral obligations, at least some of them, aren’t optional. They are more than mere suggestions. They possess clout, “oomph,” as Richard Joyce puts it (who himself is skeptical of their existence, but he’s at least conceptually clear on what he’s rejecting). This is much of what C. Stephen Evans is driving at when discussing the “Anscombe intuition” about moral duties. Authority is different from power. Someone or something with power can force or coerce your compliance; rightful authority deserves your obedience and allegiance.

The authority of morality, in particular, is something that cries out for explanation. If it’s taken seriously, as it arguably should be, it requires a robust explanation. To stop short of pursuing this inquiry is to ask at least one too few philosophical questions. If, however, someone were to offer a deflationary and distinctly reductionist account of moral obligations, suddenly the explanandum in question becomes sterile and feckless. The domestication of moral obligations understandably defangs the moral argument, but here a needed distinction is important. That critics might endorse a watered-down, instrumentalist account of moral obligations does indeed mean the moral argument won’t have purchase in their eyes, but this simply doesn’t so much as even suggest that the moral argument fails. For the critics may well be simply wrong to reduce the import of moral obligations in this way, and indeed arguably they are.

At the least it’s worth noting that theirs—the critics’—is the distinct, deliberate departure from the more classical usage of moral language and interpretation of moral experience. Echoes of the distinctive features of moral obligations echo all the way back to the dialogues of Socrates. The newcomer on the scene here is the reductionist, not the proponent of the binding authority of morality. What seems crystal clear is that it’s the reductionists’ account of moral obligations that’s congenitally unable to do justice to the aforementioned features of moral obligations classically construed, particularly their binding authority. This doesn’t mean the deflationary analyses are wrong, but it does at least minimally mean that they are the departure from the typical understanding of moral obligations.

For those who gravitate toward the more historical and classical understanding of moral obligations—replete with their rich moral phenomenology and prescriptive authority—such binding, categorical, and authoritative moral obligations make up the fertile, robust explananda in strong need of adequate, substantive explanation. The focus, at least for our abductive moral argument, doesn’t begin with the power of God as an explanation, but rather with that which is need of explanation. Moral obligations—which most all of us at moments seem able to apprehend—speak to us poignantly, not with a loud trumpet blast but with a quiet, confident, ineradicable authority.

The rights of children not to be abused are one of those perfect correlates (of binding duties) that tug at our hearts and flood our minds with illumination and conviction. Does anyone really think that the prohibition against such acts is merely instrumental? That children ought not be violated just because it will bring about the desired end? There’s nothing remotely contingent or merely instrumental in such obvious and axiomatic truths. The need to respect such rights is most plausibly seen as a categorical fact, an authoritative moral law, a binding duty. And that calls for an explanation adequate to the task. But before the abductive case can even get off the ground and the name of God invoked as a possible or plausible explanation, we need to see the need for the thick realities of morality to be robustly explained, rather than its desiccated caricature blithely explained away.  

 

The Always Scandalous Cross

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The pagan Celsus was the earliest infamous, literary critic of Jesus Christ.  He blistered Jesus for suffering on the cross. He railed against Christians’ affirmation that Jesus is God’s Son – even God himself.  When Jesus was on the cross, why did he receive no assistance from the Father? Further, if Jesus were God, why was he unable to help himself? Underneath Celsus’ criticisms are assumptions humankind has shared across the ages.  If God were God, would He really will his only Son to suffer so ignominiously? Would not God have foreseen such a tragedy and planned to avoid it? Furthermore, would the all-powerful God allow his power to be impugned and subverted by plotting priests, and his supremacy to be bested by Roman power?  These questions and assumptions may be roadblocks for some in considering Jesus’ death. Let me consider them briefly.

The explanatory meaning of the Cross takes Celsus’ assumptions and turns them on their head!  Scrutinizing Celsus’ criticisms gives us a singular portal into God and the cross. First, if God were God, would He really will his only Son to suffer so scandalously?  Yes. The foreordained coming of a suffering servant-champion who would redeem humankind from the ghastly effects of the Fall begins as a thin red line in Genesis chapter three and runs through Isaiah chapter 53.  The suffering and death which Adam and Eve’s sin caused has to be born. God’s coming Servant Prince takes this sin with its suffering upon himself in order to redeem humankind from it. Neither is God’s dignity offended nor is He blindsided by his Son’s cross.  God knows with full intention the Serpent ‘will strike his heel’. ‘He was crushed for our iniquities’ and ‘by his wounds we are healed.’ Celsus says a god knowing this would not rush headlong into it. Oh no? Since when do champions, much less God, shrink from a noble end charged with pain and suffering?  The very confrontation with suffering and victory over it is what gives champions their character. Olympic Half Pipe icon, snowboarder Shaun White, overcame a devastating, face-altering snowboarding accident last fall to win a gold medal in the 2018 Olympics. This made him an even stronger champ. Contrary to weakness and cowardice, Jesus’ conquering of the cross demonstrates the very heroic redemption of suffering and shame.

Take another of Celsus’ criticisms of Jesus. If Jesus were God’s Son, why did he receive no assistance from his Father?  Further, if Jesus were God, why was he unable to help himself? Celsus deliberately echoes the chief priests’ mockery as they looked on the dying Jesus.  ‘He saved others; is he unable to save himself? He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now….’ In my youth, I wondered the same thing.

Power is the ability to get something done.  It may also be the ability to choose not to do something.  Would not the killer by restraining himself from the impulse to gun down seventeen Stoneman Douglas’ students have shown greater power than by pulling the trigger?  Choosing not to save himself on the cross enabled Jesus to demonstrate more power. Power is also the rate at which work gets done. A Corvette ZO6, going from 0-60 miles per hour in 3.3 seconds, gets work done faster than an Aston MartinV12 Vantage that takes 4.1 seconds.  Jesus could have saved himself in three hours by coming down from the cross. In those three hours he would have saved only himself from death. He would have saved only himself from death but not conquered it. However, by waiting some thirty nine hours till Sunday morning to rise from the grave, he conquered death, saved millions, and all creation!  Which is the greater display of power?

Celsus’ attacks perennially play to the lust for a momentary flash of brute muscle.   The prideful lust for superiority and the diabolical wish to cut God down to size are perpetual temptations.  Twenty one centuries later, what Salvation Army founder William Booth said remains true, ‘It is precisely because He would not come down that we believe in Him.’

Comment

Tom Thomas

Tom was most recently pastor of the Bellevue Charge in Forest, Virginia until retiring in July.  Studying John Wesley’s theology, he received his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Bristol, Bristol, England. While a student, he and his wife Pam lived in John Wesley’s Chapel “The New Room”, Bristol, England, the first established Methodist preaching house.  Tom was a faculty member of Asbury Theological Seminary from 1998-2003. He has contributed articles to Methodist History and the Wesleyan Theological Journal. He and his wife Pam have two children, Karissa, who is an Associate Attorney at McCandlish Holton Morris in Richmond, and, John, who is a junior communications major/business minor at Regent University.  Tom enjoys being outdoors in his parkland woods and sitting by a cheery fire with a good book on a cool evening.

Matt Dillahunty, David Baggett Discuss an Abductive Moral Argument

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On Thursday night, David Baggett and Matt Dillahunty held a live discussion on the abductive version of the moral argument. Many are familiar with the deductive form of the argument:

1. If there are objective moral values and duties, then God exists. 

2. There are objective moral values and duties. 

3. Therefore, God exists. 

The deductive version can be a powerful and effective argument for the existence of God, but Baggett and Walls suggest that there are some contexts where the abductive version has the advantage. In particular, the abductive argument requires substantive interaction with rival accounts of the moral facts. This means that the abductive argument will engage and invite engagement at a different level than the deductive argument. Abductive arguments aim to find the best explanation of certain facts from a range of hypotheses. This search for the "best explanation" encourages the atheist to offer her own explanation of the moral facts which can then be compared with the theistic explanation to determine which theory best fits the facts. This is the kind of moral argument presented in Baggett and Walls' Good God and God and Cosmos

In this discussion with Dillahunty and Baggett, a number of topics were covered. But one might divide the debate into two main sections: 1. An Exploration of Abduction and 2. Why Theism Best Explains Moral Obligations.

Thank you to Capturing Christianity for hosting this discussion. 

Wonder Bread

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In the eighteenth century, a French lawyer Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote a book on the pleasures of cuisine.  He made this memorable argument:  ‘Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.’ The food you eat is directly linked to your physical and mental state.  Yes, tell me what you eat, I’ll tell you what you are:  dead or alive.  Listen to what Jesus tells you: ‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven.  Whoever eats of this bread will live forever…unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.  Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day.(John 6:51, 53-54)  This is a mouthful.

Jesus equates himself with ‘bread’.  Then, He connects his being bread with His flesh and blood.  Let consider:  First, what does Jesus mean by comparing and contrasting himself to breadSecond, how do you eat Jesus’ flesh and drink His blood?

What does Jesus mean by saying He is the ‘bread of life’?  He is comparing himself to ‘bread’.  ‘Bread’ had special meaning for a Jew.  Consider this background.  Jesus has just fed the thousands with a few fish and five barley loaves.  This reminded the Jews of how God fed their ancestors in the wilderness after the Exodus.  God gave them bread-like substance ‘manna’.  To the Jew, bread was a staple of life.  Bread and drink were life’s two ‘must – haves’.  Meat and vegetables were mere supplements.

In the wilderness God’s people experienced great hunger and need.  They lacked the ‘must-haves’ (Exodus 16: 3).  They learned God wanted them to trust Him to supply their need.  ‘You open your hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing’ says Psalm 145: 16.  Likewise, as ‘the bread of life’, Jesus wants persons to see their great need.  He also wants us to trust Him to supply our need.

Jesus shows up in the Galilean shoreline hills multiplying bread and fish.  He says, ‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven.’  On the one hand, He likens himself to ordinary bread.  On the other hand, He also distinguishes Himself from ordinary bread.  I prayed this morning, ‘Thank you for this bread that keeps us alive today; feed us also with the bread that will keep us alive forever.’

Ordinary ‘bread’ is necessary for natural life.   Jesus is the bread necessary for eternal life.  He is not just another loaf of bread.  He is ‘wonder bread’.  In 1931, the ‘Wonder bread’ Company did a ‘blind promotion’:  they marketed their new bread with an ad campaign that simply said: ‘Wonder is coming May 21’.  Wonder came to the shores of Galilee.  Jesus is distinct from every other bread – even manna.  He is bread from another world.  He says, ‘Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died’ (John 6:48).  In contrast, ‘This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die’.  In fact, ‘Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.’  Do you want to live forever?  Try this wonder bread.  It is of a different origin, of a different essence, and of a different reality.  He is the Bread of heaven!

After Jesus fed the thousands, the Jews searched for him.  They saw in him a perpetual bread machine.  Crank out bread like that and we won’t have to plow, or plant, or reap.  We can have an unlimited supply of loaves of bread!  Yippee!  The woman at the well wanted similar: endless well water.

Jesus called them out.  “You are looking for me not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of loaves.’ They wanted endless materiality in this world.  Jesus had something better in mind.  Ordinary bread won’t keep you from dying.  The Bread of life will.  My sixty one year old first cousin Elizabeth Archer lay in ICU in Lewis Gayle Feb 23.  Growing up she wouldn’t eat green beans or vegetables.  On my first visit to her I said, ‘Archer, I brought you some string beans.’  She said, ‘No Brussel sprouts?!’  No food on earth could keep her alive.  In fact, Dr. Haney said there is nothing we can give Archer to keep her alive.  Jesus gives bread that whoever eats won’t die.  Give me this Bread!  You too?

Jesus said, ‘You can believe this.  It is certain, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.’  Jesus transposed ‘bread’ into His ‘flesh and blood’.  His statement is startling.  It’s downright repulsive: ‘those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life’.  Here He doesn’t even try to soften our squeamishness.  His statement is even more graphic than you imagine.  Jesus uses the word for ‘eat’ that suggests the audible sounds of an animal munching and gnawing its food.  Critics slam Christianity for this imagery.  Contemporary atheist Sam Harris says if you take the Bible literally you’d be a cannibal.  An ancient second century church critic already said this.  He told Christians: ‘Nobody likes you…we hear that you are cannibals.’

Jesus tells us to eat his flesh and drink his blood.  What is he telling us to do?  He can’t mean we are to eat his arms and legs raw, baked or fried!  There wasn’t enough of his flesh to go around to his 12 disciples, much more for the world. The word ‘eat’ is used figuratively.  If you ‘swallow’ an insult, you submit to it.  If you ‘eat up’ a novel, you can’t put it down.  In the early American colonies they’d say ‘to eat earth’.  ‘To eat earth’ meant to ‘possess oneself of the land’.   ‘To eat’ can mean ‘to take something into you’, make it all yours.

To ‘eat’ Jesus flesh and drink His blood can mean ‘to take Jesus into you’; to possess Him; and to make all of Him all of yours.  Having said this, Jesus’s command to eat and drink Him is more than just a figure.  It may not be literal, but it is objectively real.  To take into you and possess the flesh and blood Jesus shed physically on the Cross really procures God‘s forgiveness; it really releases you from the law of death; it really makes you friends with God; and it really invests you with eternal life.

To eat His flesh and drink His blood then equals to believe in Him (John 6: 29).  Jesus says, ‘This is the work of God that you believe in Him’.  To eat Him is to believe in him is to take Him into yourself is to own Jesus in all He is and does for you.  It is to possess Him and His flesh and blood given for you on His atoning cross.

When you eat a Porterhouse steak, your body breaks down the steer’s DNA.  Your body then rearranges the animal DNA into human DNA.  The DNA is integrated into your body.  The animal’s protein becomes your energy to power your bodily processes.

If you will eat Jesus’ flesh and drink His blood, you will believe in Him.  You will take Him into you so He becomes identified with your body and you with His.  You become united with His death so that His death is yours.  You become united with Him in His resurrection so His resurrection is yours.  His death releases you from the judgment of death for your sin.  His resurrection invests you with eternal life.

What you eat determines what you are: dead or alive!  Repent of your sin; believe in Jesus Christ and eat to live forever!

 

2 Comments

Tom Thomas

Tom was most recently pastor of the Bellevue Charge in Forest, Virginia until retiring in July.  Studying John Wesley’s theology, he received his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Bristol, Bristol, England. While a student, he and his wife Pam lived in John Wesley’s Chapel “The New Room”, Bristol, England, the first established Methodist preaching house.  Tom was a faculty member of Asbury Theological Seminary from 1998-2003. He has contributed articles to Methodist History and the Wesleyan Theological Journal. He and his wife Pam have two children, Karissa, who is an Associate Attorney at McCandlish Holton Morris in Richmond, and, John, who is a junior communications major/business minor at Regent University.  Tom enjoys being outdoors in his parkland woods and sitting by a cheery fire with a good book on a cool evening.

John Hare’s God’s Command, 8.4.2, “Philip Kitcher”

 

Hare thinks Kitcher’s book The Ethical Project is ideally suited to the purposes of the present chapter. He argues for a pragmatist naturalism that is governed by the principle “No Spooks,” including God, but also a realm of values, faculties of ethical perception, and “pure practical reason” (in Kant’s phrase). Although Kitcher’s book isn’t an argument against God’s existence, he does briefly give two reasons for denying the existence of God. They are (first) that not all religions can be true because they contradict each other, and there is no core set of doctrines holding them all together, and (second) that the methods by which people reach religious belief are unreliable. Hare’s book has, in addition to pointing out overlaps between the Abrahamic faiths, defended a view of general revelation according to which all human beings get enough revelation of the divine nature to be without excuse if they reject God, even though they do not all have an innate sense of a single God.

In general, it doesn’t follow from the fact that some set of beliefs contains beliefs that contradict each other that they are all false, any more than disagreements across time about scientific claims show that all scientific claims are false. As to the claim about the unreliability of the methods by which humans reach their religious beliefs, Hare’s argued that the methods are natural to us, though not infallible. He’s also written about some of the ways internal to theology for correcting some of these beliefs. So we can’t settle the question of whether the communication with that divine being is reliable independently of a view about the existence of that being. In any case, the important question for the present chapter is not the truth of atheism but what follows for ethics from the assumption that God does not exist.

Kitcher starts from a distinction between different types of altruism. The most important for understanding the ethical project is “psychological altruism,” which differs from “biological altruism” and “behavioral altruism.” Psychological altruism involves the intention to promote what are taken to be the wishes or the interests of others. Kitcher suggests that ethics arises as a means of reducing psychological-altruism failure. In the kinds of groups that we can imagine our first human ancestors to have formed, it was crucial for survival to be able to trust each other not to defect from the various forms of cooperation that constituted their way of life.

One key step in this development is what Kitcher calls “normative guidance,” which is defined in terms of the ability to apprehend and obey commands. He makes the reception of supposed divine commands central to the development of ethics, even though he thinks there is no transcendent being to give such commands. He makes it clear that he thinks fear is the central original motivation, the fear of divine punishment. Unless there were sanctions for disobedience, fear could hardly be central to the initial capacity for normative guidance. This fear then gets internalized as conscience, and the commanding voice seems to come from within, initially and crudely as the expression of fears.

Hare notes a difficulty here. On the supposition that our original human ancestors were hunter-gatherers, it’s important to notice that the hunter-gatherer societies that we know about do not, on the whole, have moralizing high gods. After various principled exclusions, out of over 1250 societies, 23 societies are left in the sample (among those early hunter-gatherers), and of these only one has “moralizing high gods,” the Yahgan or Yamana. Hare thinks this matters because it suggests that worship of the divine is much older than what the narrative about an “unseen enforcer” implies. The idea that humans invented gods in order to enforce the law has a long tradition behind it, but the anthropological evidence doesn’t support this. The societies that didn’t have moralizing high gods may have had “enforcers,” but equally some emotion other than fear of punishment may have been the primary emotion involved in their religion. Something like awe or respect or reverence is a good candidate. This would make ancient religion more continuous with our own. We would then need to ask what accounts for this phenomenon. An encounter with God is one explanation, though not the only one. What is remarkable in Kitcher’s account is the absence of any recognition, especially for educated people, of the human desire for the divine. It’s striking that a central desire of so many of the world people both educated and not, and both now and in our history, is here excluded.

Another reason for worrying about making fear of punishment central to religion is that this makes it contradictory to think, in Kant’s phrase, of “recognizing our duties as divine commands.” Kant gives an argument in the Groundwork that we can’t base our duties on fear of divine punishment. But this is quite different from respecting God as the head of the kingdom of ends, who can maintain the system in which good is rewarded and evil is punished. The moral agent needs the state to punish, but not because her moral motivation is fear of punishment. Rather, she values freedom, and values punishment as a “hindrance to the hindrances to freedom.” The moral agent is to aim at the highest good (union of virtue and happiness), and this requires the belief that the system by which virtue is consistent with happiness is in place and the apparent disproportion of virtue and happiness that we experience in this life is not final. Hare, then, wants to distinguish two different motivations. One is fear, because punishment can force the costs of free-riding above the costs of cooperation. The other (more satisfactory to the Kantian) is hope: a belief in punishment is part of a belief in a world morally governed. There is a difference between being motivated by a fear of divine punishment and being motivated by love of justice, which is a system that divine punishment maintains.

When Kitcher comes to consider concrete cases where ethical decision is influenced by religious faith, he is concerned to deny that these cases involve anything like ethical “insight.” He has two reasons for saying this in the case of Quaker John Woolman’s realization about the wrongness of slavery. One is that Woolman is reflecting on the New Testament and not directly on experience, and the other is that he doesn’t mention the name of the slave whose sale “afflicted” his mind. But neither reason is persuasive.

Having accepted that divine command theory may reflect a deep fact about cultural competition, Kitcher rejects it. He has four main objections. The first is Plato’s argument from the Euthyphro. The main problem here is that he has not considered the versions of divine command theory that navigate between the horns of Plato’s dilemma. Mackie had already seen how to do this, and there are excellent versions in Adams and Evans. A second objection is that we get an infinite regress if we ask, “Why should we obey a divine command?” Recall Scotus’s answer is that God is to be loved (and so obeyed) is knowable from its terms (and so does not require prior justification).

A third objection is from horrible commands such as the commands to kill Isaac or slaughter the Canaanites. Abraham’s situation is quite different from ours. He points to Wolterstorff’s claim that the stories might be fictional, and to Baggett and Walls’ discussion in Good God.  The fourth objection is that religion leads to hierarchy of an oppressive sort, and so undermines what Kitcher takes to be our initial situation of equality. But Hare argues that such a hierarchy can’t be essential to religion (for it wasn’t a feature of the religion of hunter-gatherers). Religion, just like any social phenomenon, can be used for violent and oppressive purposes, but also for peacefulness and inclusion. We can add that the corruption of the best is often the worst.

Kitcher’s answer to the normative question is that humans have throughout history had an ethical project whose method can be idealized in a certain way, and that we need to appreciate how central the ethical project is to human life. But the skeptic may ask why he should be bound by the rules emerging from this project. Why adopt any ethical tradition? Kitcher’s answer to the normative question belongs in the same family as Greene’s (“We can grasp the principles behind nature’s machines and make them our own.”) The ethical project is central to human life, as we observe it, but so is self-preference. Our nature as evolved is a mixture. That is exactly why we need ethics; we are best by psychological-altruism failure on all sides.

The most important point may be that Kitcher thinks that ruling out any false beliefs about the natural world means that any modification of ethical practice invoking the commands of an allegedly transcendent being would rightly be rejected and excluded from the outset. Religious conviction, which is to say most people’s conviction, does not even get into the conversation. But surely, Hare counters, what we need are the conditions for settling disagreements on these central concerns without assuming religious grounds don’t even make the threshold for conditional mutual engagement. Kitcher’s account of ethical method would be a great deal more plausible, and more consistent with his overall pragmatism, if he allowed that religious disagreements could be consistent with conditional mutual engagement in this way.

John Hare’s God’s Command, 8.4, "Transcending our Evolutionary Situation without God"

This section attempts to bridge the gap between natural selection and moral obligation without bringing God into the picture. It looks at two figures: Joshua Greene and then Philip Kitcher.

8.4.1 “Joshua Greene”

Hare begins with Joshua Green’s book Moral Tribes. The governing metaphor of the book is that of two tragedies, which Greene calls the tragedy of the commons and the tragedy of common-sense morality. The tragedy of the commons is a multi-person cooperation problem. Morality is thought to be given to us by evolution to solve such dilemmas by cooperating because we can trust each other to do so at least to some significant degree. Something like the Golden Rule facilitates cooperation, but why be committed to such a rule? Perhaps brotherly affection, or a tit-for-tat agreement. Or they may be friends, or care about reputation, or may fear the other’s built-in irrational desire for vengeance.

But also, we have at least a small amount of care for strangers and a readiness to help them “hard-wired” into us, and Greene claims that such “neighborliness” can be found in other primates and even in capuchin monkeys. The problem is that tribal loyalty and self-interest are stronger. For the first of these (tribal loyalty), Green quotes the anthropologist Donald Brown, whose survey of human cultural differences and similarities identified in group bias and ethnocentrism as universal. For the second (self-interest), he quotes studies on what he calls “biased fairness” in which our perception of reality and fairness is unconsciously distorted by self-interest.

The tragedy of common-sense morality, on the other hand, results from a higher-order dilemma. Imagine different tribes who’ve come to accept different moral pictures. What seems common sensical to one tribe isn’t to another. The point of this parable is that the situation of these tribes is our situation. What we need to find is a metamorality that can adjudicate conflict between us. Once we see the evolutionary forces that gave rise to morality we can “climb the ladder of evolution and then kick it away,” as Wittgenstein says about his method in the Tractatus. Greene argues that the unnatural metamorality we should end up with is utilitarianism. This is because utilitarianism trades only in the currency that is common to all the tribes, and that currency is happiness and its maximization.

The picture raises three questions, deriving from the three arguments in Chapter 1: the arguments from providence, grace, and justification. Consider them in reverse order. Why should I regard the conclusions of this metamorality as binding on me? This is Korsgaard’s so-called normative question. The second question is how can I move to this metamorality, given that I am the mixture of motivations that Green has described? The third question is how can I reasonably believe that moving to this metamorality is consistent with my own happiness, if it does not seem that other people are moving in the same way? This question focuses on the cost of the moral demand, construing it as Green does in a utilitarian way.

The first question asks for a justification. How can Greene justify the claim that we should live under his form of the moral demand? He rules out religion, but the exclusion is unfortunate, because it deprives him of resources for justification that he needs. It’s hard to find accurate figures, but one estimate is that, by 2050, 80% of the world’s population will belong, at the present rate of change, to one of the major religions. Surely we should be looking at the resources of those religions to see if they can help us with common currency.

It is significant here that Greene has distorted the history of utilitarianism by excising its religious roots. He says it was founded by Bentham and Mill, but he ignores Hutcheson, who first writes of the greatest Happiness for the greatest numbers, and especially Paley, whose work preceded Bentham and indeed the success of whose book at Cambridge provoked Bentham to write his own version of the theory. The point is that utilitarianism starts with Christians, and works out the view that, as Butler puts it, benevolence, especially God’s benevolence, seems in the strictest sense to include in it all that is good and worthy. Bentham, but not Mill, is cutting himself off from the roots of his own theory. Indeed, the prizing of benevolence is common currency to all areas of the world in which the five major religions have established a significance presence.

What is Greene’s answer to the normative question? There are various question-begging answers. One is that strengthening our sympathies for distant strangers is the honest response, the enlightened response to world hunger. But the striking thing is that he does not squarely face this question. At one point he implies this: the love of what is good simply because it is good, which Scotus calls the affection for justice. But there is a problem here. There is another abstract principle behind nature’s working, namely, competitive self-replication. Nature is a mixture. We can’t generate a justification of the obligation to follow a universalistic moral demand just from the principles behind nature’s working because we need to know which principles to invoke.

The second question is how can I move to this metamorality, given that I am the mixture of motivations that Green has described? Here again Greene doesn’t provide an answer, and he concedes our brains weren’t designed to care deeply about the happiness of strangers. He thinks Hume’s right that reason is the slave, but he wants to allow more space than Haidt to reason. He wants reason to be able to transcend the emotions, which he regards as automatic processes that tell us what to do.

But if our reasoning process starts from emotional inputs as its premises, and this input is contaminated in the way Greene says it is, how is the processing supposed to give us pure utilitarian theory as its output for how we should live our lives? We are dealing here with a mysterious emergent property. But Hume’s a telling case here. He concedes that if we had a society in which those whom we exploited were not able to harm us because of their weakness, we would not be moved by any abstract principle of justice to end the exploitation, even if they resented it. We might hope to be moved by the calm passions of compassion and kindness, but the reach of our natural endowment of these is, as Greene acknowledges, significantly limited. What is supposed to get us to accept a higher standard?

What creates the problem here is the combination of optimism about the new metamorality with pessimism about the input processed by our reasoning. One solution is to be more optimistic about the sentiments. Frans de Waal has criticized the denigration within sociobiology of human moral capacity, and called this kind of denigration “Calvinist,” tracing the view back to Calvin’s picture of the total depravity of human beings. The roots of morality, he thinks, lie in empathy and reciprocity, and are already present in primate sociality. For de Waal, the philosophical defender of moral sentiments is again Hume, and the enemy is Kant. But de Waal is not consistent in what he says about religion. He concedes that there is no human culture without religion, though humans had social norms before they had our current major religions, and he says that, if we were able to excise religion from society, it is doubtful that science and the naturalistic worldview could fill the void and become an inspiration for the good. This means that, ironically, in terms of the second question, at least sometimes he says we need religion (just as Kant does), even though he is not himself a religious person. It also means that our sentiments in the absence of religion are not sufficient to take us to a morally good life.

The third question asks how I can reasonably believe that moving to this utilitarian metamorality is consistent with my own happiness, if it does not seem that other people are moving in the same way. Something like an argument from providence can be found in both Mill and Sidgwick, Mill in Three Essays on Religion, and Sidgwick at the very end of Methods of Ethics. Sidgwick, though, doesn’t endorse the solution, though the problem it addresses is recognized as a real problem. A utilitarian needs to have something to say about how prudence (understood as the pursuit of one’s own happiness) is consistent with the moral demand (understood as the pursuit of the greatest happiness of the greatest number). Without an argument like this it is not clear how Greene can hold his utilitarian metamorality and the pursuing of individual happiness are consistent.

John Hare’s God’s Command, 8.3.4, “Paul Bloom”

This subsection is about a different kind of anti-realism, namely, anti-realism about God. It examines the question whether evolutionary psychology gives us any reason to doubt the existence of God. Since the claim that it’s irrational to believe in God is a presupposition of much of the literature Hare’s been considering, he thinks it’s worth discussing.

Bloom says that religion emerges as a by-product of certain highly structured systems that have evolved for understanding the social world. Another term sometimes used here is that religion is a “spandrel effect,” where the spandrel is the space (sometimes decorated) between the outer curve of an arch and the angle formed by the moldings enclosing it, so that the spandrel does not itself bear weight. Religion would be like the ability to understand calculus, not itself emerging because of adaptive claims, but made possible by faculties that did emerge in this way. Bloom says he’s trying to explain universal religious belief here, not those that vary from one culture to another, and not religious rituals.

There are two tendencies with which humans have evolved that are relevant here. The first is what Justin Barrett calls a “hypersensitive agency detection device” (HADD). Our tendency to find agency around us has no doubt arisen for survival reasons: “Better to guess that the sound in the bushes is an agent (such as a person or tiger) than assume it isn’t and become lunch.” The second tendency, less firmly established, is that we implicitly endorse a strong substance dualism of soul and body, of the kind defended by Plato and Descartes, and that this endorsement is a by-product of our possession of two distinct cognitive systems—one for dealing with material objects, the other for social entities. These tendencies might produce a belief that there is a supernatural agent behind natural phenomena and that this agent like our own souls is spiritual and not bodily.

Hare considers what the theological implications would be of Bloom being right about these two side effects. We can generally explore why people form the beliefs they do without that settling the question whether the beliefs are true. But in this case, the origins of the belief would cast its truth into question. Not unlike Freud’s argument that it would be irrational to believe in something just because one desperately wanted for it to be true.

So what is the bearing on the rationality of religious belief of the claim that there is an explanation of such belief from the two side effects? We should ask what kind of psychological explanation would resist being incorporated into a larger, more comprehensive supernaturalistic explanation, and whether the present explanation is one of these. It’s hard to give a general account, but perhaps this much is true. A psychological explanation of some phenomenon would resist such incorporation if it postulated a kind of causation of that phenomenon that would be inappropriate for God to employ. But there is no reason to think that it is inappropriate for God to use randomness, in the sense in which this is part of evolutionary theory. There is no reason to think that God would not allow us to acquire our basic cognitive capacities by random mutation plus natural selection.

So far this is a merely defensive maneuver. But perhaps more can be said. Following Justin Barrett’s work, we might suggest that the hypersensitive agency detection device is a form of access to religious belief that fits our nature well. In this book Hare has been arguing that the moral law, though it can’t be deduced from our nature, fits that nature well. Now we can suggest the same about our theistic belief acquisition. Barrett links the agency detection device with a set of subsystems designed to carry out particular tasks important for our survival. Concepts that are “minimally counter-intuitive” given the operation of these subsystems will seem plausible, and will be easily remembered and transmitted. This does not mean that these subsystems always yield true beliefs. We can’t deduce the truth of a belief from its deliverance by one of these subsystems. But these beliefs fit our nature, as constituted by these systems, exceedingly well.

For example, belief in a super-knowing god may be natural, helping account for children being “intuitive theists.” Barrett also suggests plausibly that the connection between God and moral concerns is intuitive as well. In other words, the theist can legitimately hold that God chooses means for our access to divine command that are not inappropriate but entirely fitting to our nature, the kind of means that we would expect creatures with cognitive subsystems like ours to use. Hare says we should conclude that at least from the evidence marshalled in the present section, there’s no demonstration that belief in God is irrational.

 

John Hare’s God’s Command, 8.3.3, “Sharon Street”

In 2006 Sharon Street published an article, “A Darwinian Dilemma for Realist Theories of Value,” which has been the subject of a considerable literature in reply. Her argument relies on the primary claim that our normative dispositions—that is, our dispositions to form certain normative beliefs rather than others—are (largely) selected because they have some natural property. For example, perhaps they contribute to reproductive success by promoting certain kinds of cooperation. But from the perspective of realism, accepting this claim defeats our epistemic entitlement to our normative beliefs, because we will come to be aware of the unlikely reliability of the processes that shaped those beliefs.

This is the Darwinian dilemma: the realist has either to deny the primary claim or to concede that her “normative judgments are, by her own lights, irrational.” She’s not arguing for skepticism or for the impossibility of ethical knowledge. Rather, she is trying to show that, if there is to be ethical knowledge, it has to be understood on an anti-realist model. Her point is that all that natural selection needs is our beliefs in the normative facts, not the normative facts themselves. If our normative and theological beliefs are largely the product of our evolutionary history, fitness-enhancing beliefs about morality and gods will be adopted, regardless of whether they are, in the realist sense, true or false. Even if a particular belief is false, it may promote genetic propagation.

This is the challenge. But there is a good response to it. Even if we grant that natural selection has given us normative belief-forming dispositions that are not truth-tracking, and that have in fact given us a mixture of “nasty” belief-forming dispositions and corresponding behaviors alongside other “nicer” ones, and even if we grant that therefore our normative beliefs are unreliable to the extent that they are given to us by natural selection, nothing follows about how many of our normative beliefs are formed in this way.

Consider the analogy with mathematical beliefs. To what extent do we have the ability to track truths about non-linear algebra? The point is that, even if we get our cognitive equipment from evolution, we can use that equipment to reach beliefs that are independent of adaptive value. It remains possible that cultural evolution has been operating to refine our normative stance in a truth-tracking way. If we use the phrase “cultural evolution” loosely, we can make the point that admitting a significant initial effect of biological evolution on belief formation does not license the conclusion that natural selection is the sole force in all our belief formation thereafter.

The initial effect of natural selection is still relevant, because, if we were given cognitive equipment that was hopelessly and permanently vitiated, then we could not hope to use this equipment to discriminate subsequently between the beliefs in the initial mixture that we should endorse and the ones we should reject. We would be, so to speak, fatally handicapped. But there is no reason to think our situation is hopeless in this way.

Are our current normative disposition all simply products of natural selection and not (partly or wholly) products of experience, reflection, and reasoning guided by moral reality as such? This is a metaphysical question, not one proper to science in its own domain. Ruse’s recognition of this separates him from Mackie. We need to distinguish the claims of science and the claims of “scientism,” which is the attempt, as Ruse puts it, to make science say everything. Metaphysical naturalism claims baldly that there is nothing beyond physical reality, but this is a claim that requires philosophical justification and is not within the proper sphere of science. Street’s argument does not give us any reason to believe that metaphysical naturalism is true.

Image: Australopithecus Afarensis, Lucy. C. Lorenzo. CC License. 

John Hare’s God’s Command, 8.3.2, “Michael Ruse”

Michael Ruse is an anti-realist, in some ways like Mackie, but in other ways different. He thinks ethics is an illusion put in place by natural selection to make us good cooperators. Ruse is a moral skeptic. He does not think the sense of right and wrong has a justification at all. It’s an illusion foisted on us by our genes, like a mirage in the desert.

Yet Ruse is quite optimistic that our moral lives will not be affected by the kind of skepticism he endorses. Hare is skeptical of this, thinking we surely need some kind of justification for morality to answer the “normative question” of the first chapter. Not everybody is consistently moved by the forces of natural selection to cooperate in the way morality requires. Moral obedience is fragile. We do find precursors of the moral sentiments in our non-human ancestors, but we also find defection, and we have inherited both of these tendencies. We are by nature, in this sense, a mixture. But this means we need support from our cultural sources not only for our beliefs about what morality requires, but for our beliefs about why we should comply with it, or endorse it, why it’s valid as a demand on us. There’s evidence in the psychological literature that the force of the moral demand can be undermined by teaching, as Ruse does, that objective morality is an illusion. Saying that ethics is an illusion put in place by natural selection to make us good cooperators is likely to have the same undercutting effect as an egoist ethical theory has on economics students, particularly when morality might call for a sacrifice.

But is it just an unfortunate truth that morality is an illusion? What arguments does Ruse have for his skepticism? He has basically two, and they are versions of the same arguments we saw in Mackie. But here is the irony. Ruse ought not to accept either of them any longer because of differences from his mentor that he has come to have in other parts of his theory.

First, the argument from relativity. Ruse’s form of the argument makes a significant shift from the factual to the counterfactual. Ruse embodies a pendulum swing away from Mackie back to human universals, encoded in our genes (with environmental triggers). He appeals to what he calls “our shared psychological nature,” which includes a sense of right and wrong. So his argument from relativity is counterfactual. We could have had a quite different morality if our evolutionary history had been different. Since evolution could have taken a different path, there can’t be an objective set of values that lies behind our moral practice.

But for a divine command theorist this is not a successful objection. God could use evolution to produce the kind of creatures God wants to have, and this does not deny “random” mutation of the kind that Darwinian evolution proposes. Ruse concedes this, and agrees that a Christian can, consistently with science, “be committed to a form of what is known as the ‘divine command theory’ of metaethics.” But then the fact that humans could have evolved differently does not give us reason to think there is no objective value. Perhaps God willed us to evolve to recognize the values there actually are, and gave us commands to supplement the limits of this evolutionary history.

Ruse’s version of the argument from queerness is similarly undercut by his later concessions. He doesn’t use the term ‘queer’ but he does insist that it’s biological theory that requires us to take the skeptical position about justification. At the causal level, he thinks what’s going on is probably individual selection maximizing our own reproductive ends, and there’s no room here for objective rightness and wrongness. But Mackie was an atheist who thought theism was a “miracle.” Ruse, on the other hand, aims to expose the over-reaching character of some contemporary militant Darwinism that wants to turn science into metaphysics and to make science the arbiter of all truth. Darwinism, he holds, should not try to say everything. Whether there is or is not a God Ruse says he does not know, and science doesn’t tell him. Such claims go beyond science. He says in light of modern science someone can be a Christian and that he sees no arguments to the contrary.

To be consistent, though, Ruse should say the same of objective morality. Mackie’s argument from queerness required the premise that anything that has causal relations with the world must be accessible to science. Ruse at least sometimes now wants to deny this, and if he denies it then the foundation of the argument from queerness disappears. There’s a tension in Ruse’s thought that can be resolved by rejecting the skeptical hold-over from the less generous views of his mentor.

Here is a general principle worth emphasizing. Antagonism to realist claims in ethics or theology that made sense against the background of a thoroughgoing reductive empiricism makes no sense once that kind of empiricism is rejected.

 

Image: "Australopithecus sedibaby B. Eloff. Courtesy Profberger and Wits University who release it under the terms below. - Own work, GFDL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10094681

 

United or Untied?

matteo-vistocco-240766-unsplash.jpg

 

The second largest denomination after the Southern Baptists, The United Methodist Church (UMC), is schismatized.  For almost a decade some bishops and pastors have been defying church law and electing, ordaining and solemnizing the marriages of homosexuals. The issue finally came to a tipping point in 2016 when the church’s ruling body, General Conference, formed a commission to provide a plan to the bishops to resolve the matter in 2019. Last November 2017, President Bishop Bruce R. Ough envisioned the way forward in his address to the Council of Bishop’s (COB).   In his message, ‘In Love with Union’, he said the church may be divided theologically, but unity can trump it. He repeated the word ‘unity’ no less than twenty five times.   He told the Bishops, ‘I have focused nearly all of this President’s address on the theme of maintaining unity.’ He reminded them what the COB told General Conference in 2016 when they formed the Commission on a Way Forward.  The COB is committed to maintaining the unity of The United Methodist Church.[i] Bishop Ough is telegraphing that unity is the guiding principle which will determine the proposed model the COB will offer as a way forward to the 2019 General Conference.

This focus on unity prompted a question in me, ‘What does the New Testament say about ‘unity’?  In the following I want to consider three New Testament words regarding ‘unity’.  I will organize them under two headings, horizontal and vertical unity.   In light of this, I want to show how the prevailing talk of unity leaves out the most crucial factor in the unity equation.

The word ‘unity’ (enotas) appears but four times and the term ‘united’ seven in the Holy Scriptures.  This is few in comparison to such key terms as ‘truth’ which appears approximately seventy times.  In each of the four occurrences ‘unity’ speaks of the saints in Christ’s Body having a oneness of spirit.  Peter exemplifies its meaning when he exhorts believers to have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind (1 Pet 3:8). This ‘unity’ is horizontal.  It speaks of ‘unity’ on the human plane.  It talks of human inter-relationships and the nature of saints’ attitude, mind and purpose among themselves.  This is the plane in which Bishop Ough operates.

The word ‘united’ is used to mean being ‘joined’.  Persons are ‘united in love’ if they are connected and brought into close association with another. One use of ‘united’ speaks of our being ‘united’ to the Lord.   This conception of our being united to the Lord is more fully expressed by another term which I am coming to now.  (1 Corinthians 6:17, Colossians 2:2).

I asked myself, is this all the Bible has to say about ‘unity’ and being bound together as one?  The Bible talks also of ‘unity’ in speaking of ‘being one’.   The Greek New Testament word for ‘one’ is eis.  Eis can mean the quality of being one in mind, feeling, opinion, purpose and spirit.  Indeed, the word ‘one’ is the Bible’s richest word for ‘being one’ or ‘unity’.

Let me organize ‘one’ under two large headings: (1) ‘vertical’/ transcendent oneness (2) horizontal oneness.  What do I mean by ‘vertical’ or transcendent oneness?  This is the oneness the believer experiences in ‘being one’ in the Father and Son.  The believer can be one in the Father and Son as the Son is in the Father and the Father in the Son.  Jesus prays in John 17:21, ‘…that they may all be one.  As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us….’  In John17:23, Jesus prays, ‘I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one….’  This oneness and unity comes only by believing in Jesus Christ.  ‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one….’ (John 17: 20).  Only through saving faith may the believer be one with the Father and Son.

Constituent of being one in the Father and Son is sharing: sharing their glory and the Son’s blood.  Jesus prays, ‘The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one.’ (John 17: 22).  Believers share also in Christ’s blood.  Paul says, ‘The cup of blessing…is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ?’ (1 Corinthians 10:16)

Being one with the Lord is further fleshed out by the Apostle Paul.  Being one with Him is being ‘united to the Lord’ and one spirit with him.  Paul says, ‘But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.’ (1 Corinthians 6: 17).    The word ‘united’ is ‘kollao’.  ‘Kollao’ means ‘to cling close to something or someone’ or ‘to come into close, intimate contact with’.  ‘Kollao’ can picture sexual union where ‘the two shall be one flesh’ embodying the higher, spiritual union of believer with Christ.  Being one spirit with the Lord means the ‘believer’s “spirit” has been joined indissolubly with Christ’[ii]

One would like to go on, but suffice to say, the believers’ oneness with the Lord is oneness and unity of the first order.  Oneness as revealed by the Lord Jesus originates in being one in the Father and the Son.   Vertical, transcendent unity issues in horizontal unity.  Grace through faith shares in the blood of Christ reconciling antitheses – uncircumcision and circumcision, and Gentile and Jew.  ‘In his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall…’ (Ephesians 2: 13-16)  We, the Body of Christ ‘though many, are one body’.  By grace through faith we share in Jesus’ blood (1 Corinthians 12: 12).  Each in the Body is one because each is reconciled with God through Christ.  Jesus’ prayer ‘that they may all be one (John 17: 21) only works in this light.  The reconciled are many different members with different gifts in one Body because each is one with the Father and Son through the Spirit.  The meaning of ‘we who are many are one body’ only now has reality and power.

This is a brief and inadequate description of ‘being one’.   Nevertheless, I hope it is enough to contrast the biblical witness on first-order unity with ‘unity’ being promoted by UMC leadership today.  The prevailing view of the vanguard leading the way forward virtually ignores the vertical union. The stress is horizontally on a theologically diverse church (‘the many’) being ‘one’.  Yes, so the argument goes, we may differ on the sufficiency and authority of Holy Scripture, on the nature of God and Jesus Christ, on the nature of salvation, and on human sexuality.  These should not divide us because we the ‘many’ are one Body bound by a common purpose and mission.  Do we believe in Jesus Christ so that we are one in the Father and in the Son?

The prevailing view is keeping alive yesteryear’s conception of ‘theological pluralism’.  ‘Theological pluralism’ is doctrinal diversity in unity.  It harks back to theologian Albert Outler’s revision of John Wesley’s theological approach.   ‘Revision’ it is because it is a misuse of John Wesley’s approach.  Indeed, John Wesley argued for unity on theological ‘essentials’ and liberty on theological ‘opinions’.  However, he argued for it among a pre-selected group whom he knew was already united by an inner experience of conviction of sin and of saving faith in Jesus Christ.  ‘Dost thou believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, God over all, blessed forever?  Is he revealed in thy soul? Dost thou know Jesus Christ and him crucified?’ he asked those of ‘catholic spirit’.[iii]

What Albert Outler revised and, subsequently, several generations of pluralists have ignored, is that ‘unity’ begins with intimate union with the God/Man Jesus Christ and the Father through saving faith.  Vertical oneness cannot be assumed or ignored.  It is first-order business.  Horizontal oneness only works in unity with vertical oneness!

Martin Luther became almost violently exasperated with ‘the Prince of the Humanists’ scholar Erasmus.  Luther felt Erasmus with great subtlety and tenacity promoted church unity but neglected Jesus Christ.[iv] What value is ‘unity’ if we ignore Jesus Christ?  What value is ‘unity’ if we are not united first with the Savior Jesus Christ?  No transcendent union, no unity!

 

[i] Bishop Bruce R. Ough, Council of Bishops The United Methodist Church President’s Address: ‘In Love with Union’, Nov. 6, 2017, http://s3.amazonaws.com/Website_Properties/news-media/press-center/documents/BishopOughAddressNov62017.pdf

[ii]F. F. Bruce, gen. ed., The New International Commentary on the New Testament, 19 vols. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987), The First Epistle to the Corinthians by Gordon D. Fee,  p. 260.

[iii] Frank Baker, editor in chief, The Works of John Wesley, 34 vols. (Oxford: Claredon Press, 1975 - ), Vol. 2: Sermons II, ed. by Albert C. Outler, pp.  87, 90, 94.  See, Howe O. Tom Thomas, ‘John Wesley: Concept of “Connection” and Theological Pluralism’, Wesleyan Theological Journal, 36: 2(Fall, 2001), p. 98.

[iv] Eric Metaxas, Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World (New York: Viking, 2017), p. 368.

Comment

Tom Thomas

Tom was most recently pastor of the Bellevue Charge in Forest, Virginia until retiring in July.  Studying John Wesley’s theology, he received his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Bristol, Bristol, England. While a student, he and his wife Pam lived in John Wesley’s Chapel “The New Room”, Bristol, England, the first established Methodist preaching house.  Tom was a faculty member of Asbury Theological Seminary from 1998-2003. He has contributed articles to Methodist History and the Wesleyan Theological Journal. He and his wife Pam have two children, Karissa, who is an Associate Attorney at McCandlish Holton Morris in Richmond, and, John, who is a junior communications major/business minor at Regent University.  Tom enjoys being outdoors in his parkland woods and sitting by a cheery fire with a good book on a cool evening.

John Hare’s God’s Command, 8.3.1, "Evolution and Anti-Realism"

This section explores whether evolutionary psychology gives us a reason to be anti-realists, either about value or about God. The first of these forms of anti-realism rejects the view described earlier as “prescriptive realism.” According to prescriptive realism, when we make moral judgments we are both expressing some attitude of the will or desire and claiming that evaluative reality is a certain way independently of our judgment, so that our judgment is appropriate to it. The second part of this, the realism, is at stake in the present context. Mackie, Ruse, and Street will be covered. The second form of anti-realism is about God, and the fourth part of this section, concerning Paul Bloom, will focus specifically on this.

8.3.1 “John Mackie”

We begin with John Mackie’s argument in Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. His first sentence is, “There are no objective values.” He was Humean (like Haidt), and thought our tendency to believe in objective value results from what Hume called the mind’s “propensity to spread itself on external objects” together with the pressure of our sociality. He proposed an error theory, “that although most people in making moral judgments implicitly claim, among other things, to be pointing to something objectively prescriptive, these claims are all false.” In other words, Mackie conceded that realists are right about what moral language means, but he held that nonetheless what people mean when they make moral judgments is always false.

He conceded if DCT were true then moral judgments that claim objective prescriptivity would also be true, but he was an atheist and thought DCT false. He was also opposed to Kant’s universalism, and behind this to the biblical commandment “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This is simply impracticable, and inconsistent with human nature, he thought, because “a large element of selfishness—or, in an older terminology, self-love—is a quite ineradicable part of human nature,” and it’s doubtful any agency could effect the fundamental changes that would be needed to make practicable a morality of universal concern.

Mackie offered two arguments against realism, which he called the “argument from relativity” and the “argument from queerness.” The first says moral views are too diverse for us to suppose plausibly that we are all receptors of the same objectively prescriptive values beaming down to us. They rather seem to reflect participation in different ways of life.

But in reply, Hare says on DCT it’s unsurprising to find substantial variation in the reception of divine commands. First, in Kant’s language, we are born under the evil maxim, so that we have, in addition to the predisposition to good, the propensity to evil. The closer a faculty is to our heart or will, the more likely the faculty is to be distorted in its perceptions by the preference for our own happiness over what is good in itself, independently of its relation to ourselves. There are manifold ways in which it’s possible to get value perceptions wrong, and so there is manifold variety in moral views.

The contrast with color perception is interesting here. Though there are marginal differences in how different people split up the spectrum, there’s large-scale agreement.

Second, what God commands one set of people, or one person within a group, may be different from what God commands another.

A third important point is that Mackie may have been wrong about the amount of variety. The pendulum seems to have swung back within evolutionary psychology to the acknowledgment of human universals. It’s surprising in fact how much agreement there seems to be on basic principles between cultures, though the details and application of these principles vary substantially.

The argument from queerness is that the objectively prescriptive values that realism proposes and their effects on us are very strange things, not easily related to any kind of causation we know about within science. The simpler explanation is a subjectivist one. The notion of something objective in the world like rightness and wrongness is, in Mackie’s terms, “queer,” by which he meant inexplicable by scientific theory. He accepted that it might make sense if we believed in a God who was prescribing, but science acknowledges, in his view, no such thing.

Hare adds that Mackie was right to point out that a theist has less reason than an atheist to be an anti-realist about value. A divine command theorist already believes in a divine spiritual person outside normal science. She will still have valid questions about how a spiritual being communicates with material beings like us, but she will be less inclined to think such communication is impossible.

John Hare’s God’s Command, 8.2, “Evolution and Reducing the Moral Demand”

The first way of thinking about the relation between evolution and morality is that evolution shows the idea of impartial benevolence to be utopian. 8.2.1 covers the views of Herbert Spencer and Larry Arnhart.

8.2.1 “Herbert Spencer and Larry Arnhart”

Here Hare looks at two attempts to oppose a Kantian or universal morality on the basis that it is unrealistic for our present condition, given our evolutionary endowment. Herbert Spencer is now deeply unpopular because of the use that was made of his eugenic ideas in the twentieth century. For Spencer, as Michael Ruse puts it, what holds as a matter of fact among organisms holds as a matter of obligation among humans. The relevant fact about organisms is the struggle for existence, and the consequent weeding out of the less fit, Spencer says.

He disparages efforts of those who advocated in the name of a universal humanitarianism for intervention by the state to counteract the effects of the unregulated market in 19th century Britain. In Germany this idea of the law of struggle was taken up, notoriously by Hitler in Mein Kampf. National Socialism took up also the idea of encouraging the natural order by which imbecile and unfit parts of the population are eliminated, and the highest form of life flourishes. Spencer didn’t think this natural order of struggle was permanent. He was a Lamarckian, not a Darwinian, and he thought that there would be human progress through the inheritance of acquired characteristics, so that the lower forms of human life most given to violence would decline, and we would end with universal peace. Still, in our current situation, he thought that we should let the order of nature weed out the unfit also in human society, since we are part of nature.

The particular application to eugenics and laissez-faire economics is not the important thing for our present purposes, but the general principle that we should follow our biological nature. Chapter 4 argued against what it called “deductivism,” the principle that we can deduce our moral obligations from human nature. The present principle is a species of deductivism, telling us that we can tell how we ought to live by looking at the nature of organisms in general, since we are organisms. The trouble with this principle is that the nature of organisms in general, and human nature in particular, contains characteristics that, when promoted in human society, produce evil as well as good by Kantian and utilitarian standards. To say this is not so much to argue against Spencer as to display some of the consequences of his view, and the same is true of Larry Arnhart. (Both thinkers seem to be aware of this.)

This deductivism is clearly displayed in Arnhart’s Darwinian Natural Right: The Biological Ethics of Human Nature, a work Hare earlier compared with Foot’s Natural Goodness. The governing principle of Arnhart’s book is that the definition of the good as the desirable (as in Aquinas) means that the good is what is generally desired, or what most people in every society throughout our time on earth have in fact desired. Arnhart claims that evolution has given us these desires because of their adaptive value, and he lists twenty of them. The claim is not that these desires are universal, because there can be defective individuals who lack them. But the principle of his book is that only if a desire is general in the above sense, or is a specification or application of such a desire, is its fulfillment good. The normative theory that results is one, he claims, that enables us to understand human nature within the natural order of the whole. He intends a contrast here with Christianity, which invokes the supernatural in explaining how we should live. And he faults Darwin for having been misled by the prevailing universal humanitarianism of his time into a utopian yearning for an ideal moral realm that transcends nature, a yearning that contradicts Darwin’s general claim that human beings are fully contained within the natural order. Arnhart doesn’t deny that humans have a natural sympathy for others, but, though sympathy can expand to embrace ever-larger groups based on some sense of shared interests, this will always rest on loving one’s own group as opposed to other groups. Arnhartian morality will always be, in the language of Chapter 3, self-indexed.

The important point for present purposes is that the list of twenty natural desires doesn’t include disinterested benevolence or the love of the enemy, and therefore the theory can’t say that the fulfillment of such desires or preferences is good. It’s significant that Aristotle is Arnhart’s philosophical hero, to whom he continually appeals. Aristotle thinks an admirable human life usually requires wealth and power and high status, and he may be right about the desires we’re born with, but it doesn’t follow that he’s right in his inference that the fulfillment of this ranking is good. The thesis of Hare’s book has been that “following nature” in this way is not a good alternative to following Kantian or Christian morality.

Goodness

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By David Baggett and Jonathan Pruitt  Goodness is a broader category than moral goodness. One way to show the conceptual distinction, even if organic connections or family resemblances obtain between them, is that something is good to the extent it fulfills its intended function. A good car, to use a contemporary example, is good in virtue of and to the extent it provides reliable transportation. In that case, the goodness in question is not moral goodness, of course; but the same general principle, he thought, applied to the moral goodness of persons. The impetus behind this conviction might be a strongly teleological conception of everything in existence, including human beings. On such a view, persons, too, have an intended function, such as being rational beings. Again, to the extent a person fulfills this function, which includes cultivating virtues of character by developing the right sorts of settled dispositions, he is a good, indeed morally good, human being.

A different way to highlight the distinction between goodness per se and moral goodness in particular is by identifying two salient contrasts with goodness: badness and evil. Contrasting goodness with badness primarily pertains to the relative desirability of various states of affairs. A good state of affairs is one that we are positively drawn to, like a pleasant evening filled with mirth, whereas a bad state of affairs is one to which we are averse, like a painful toothache. When goodness is contrasted with evil, however, it is most natural to think of the ascription as applied to persons and their choices or characters. This was the import of Kant’s suggestion that the only unqualified good is a good will, a distinctive feature only of persons; this is arguably the province of moral goodness (Kant 9). So no state of affairs is rightly thought of as morally good or evil per se except in a secondary or derived sense. A hurricane, no matter how intense, is not morally evil in itself despite the havoc it wreaks, because hurricanes don’t have a mind of their own of which we can predicate such a moral property. At most we can say the hurricane is nonmorally bad because of the suffering it produces.

Moral goodness is one type of value; other comparable values traditionally identified include truth and beauty. Moral value is most naturally applicable to persons, but another disambiguation remains in order. Based on their exemplification of various virtues, persons might be thought morally good, but such an ascription remains importantly distinct from the moral worth or value of such persons. Attributing inherent value, dignity, or worth to persons is acknowledging the objective value they possess qua persons. Kant famously contrasted value in this sense with something like a price (Kant 46). An object or service might be worth a certain monetary amount, but treating persons as worth a particular price is irremediably unseemly. Moreover, even morally bad persons presumably still possess intrinsic human value. Such worth does not depend on their moral goodness, which is part of the import of qualifying it as “intrinsic,” in contrast with extrinsic or instrumental value.

An Aristotelian dictum is that the good is that at which all things aim, and in some cases the activity itself is the end (Aristotle 3). In speaking of an activity that is the end itself, part of what Aristotle had in mind is that some activities are worth doing for their own sake. In other words, some activities have intrinsic value. This is one way to flesh out the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic goods. Money is often used as an example of a merely extrinsic or instrumental value. Rather than valuable in and of itself, its value derives from the fact that it can be exchanged for other goods (that themselves may have either intrinsic or extrinsic value). Whereas moral goodness primarily applies to persons and only secondarily to states of affairs, intrinsic moral value may have a broader primary application than persons alone. Presumably there are goods—for example, human activities like (at least some) friendships—that have intrinsic value.

G. E. Moore offered an “isolation test” that asks what value we would give something if it existed in absolute isolation, stripped of all its usual accompaniments (Moore 187). Of course, a thorny (even if not intractable) challenge in applying such a test is the risk of subtly replacing prescription with description in the thought experiment. H. P. Owen once made a distinction in this vicinity when he wrote that we may use the notion of intrinsic goodness in either a subjective or an objective sense (Owen 22). Calling something an intrinsic good in the subjective sense is to say that it is desirable “in itself,” while in the objective sense it possesses goodness as a property. A back rub might be thought of as an intrinsic good in the subjective sense, desirable in itself, but characterizing it as an objective intrinsic good strains credulity. Any sense in which goodness would inhere in a back rub as a property would not, at any rate, count as an intrinsic moral good.

Equipped with those distinctions, let’s now consider, by turns, the significance, first, of ascribing objective moral value to human persons, and, second, moral goodness to persons. First consider the contemporary Kantian, Christine Korsgaard. Her moral theory is an ostensible attempt at constructivism, which sees itself as an alternative to substantive moral realism. A key part of her interpretation of Kantian ethics is to fill in the content of potential maxims with agents’ existential commitments, practical identities, based in a sense of who people think they are. Such reflective endorsements can rectify the criticism of Kant’s categorical imperative that it is too formal and abstract to give a determinate enough sense of content to the moral law.

However, since not everyone would choose a sense of practical identity consistent with recognition of the dignity and value of other persons—think of a person whose self-identity is as a member of the Mafia—Korsgaard claims that “our identity as moral beings—as people who value themselves as human beings—stands behind our more particular practical identities” (Korsgaard 121). But Korsgaard’s attempt to do justice to the Kantian principle of respect for others seems to be a tacit recognition of moral realism—that others are in fact worthy of being shown such respect and accorded such dignity. Her effort to provide an alternative to substantive moral realism on this score seems to fail. If valuing is not a response to a property in the thing or action chosen, but merely an expression of one’s identity, morality would also become self-referential, and therefore intolerably narcissistic. Korsgaard is right to affirm that people have intrinsic value grounded simply in the kinds of beings that they are, but this is not constructivism.

Philippa Foot, in her naturalistic account of goodness, also fails to provide an account of the intrinsic moral value of human persons. Foot wants to show that judgments usually considered to be the special subject of moral philosophy really should be seen as belonging to a wider class of evaluations of conduct with which they share a common conceptual structure. In Aristotelian fashion, she argues that happiness is best understood in terms of flourishing, and to flourish is to instantiate the life form of that species. Perhaps the most significant flaw in her analysis is that her account seems to leave unanswered a most fundamental question: Is human flourishing of intrinsic value? She surely thought it was, but can her account explain it? It seems unlikely.

To see why, consider cancer cells, which similarly feature their own natural normativities without such categoricals, however teleologically connected to their survival, implying anything of intrinsic moral value in their survival and flourishing (Foot 48-49). Foot is not suggesting that the biologically adaptive patterns of behavior in cancer cells or even tigers either entail or are predicated on objective moral facts about the value of their survival. Rather, in light of the sorts of entities or species that they are, some behaviors simply conduce better to their flourishing than others.

True enough, but then we’re left with this question: how to effect Foot’s slide from natural normativity to objective morality in the case of human beings? For she is admitting in the case of animals and pestilential creatures that her analysis is neither based on the assumption of, nor logically implies, any intrinsic moral value in their surviving and thriving. Why then is it different for human beings? The insuperable challenge for Foot is to account for such differences with the resources to which she’s limited herself, and it is not at all clear that she can. In fact, in light of what she has said, there are reasons to think that she cannot. If moral value does not follow from the teleologically significant natural normativities of pestilential creatures or animals, then why does it do so in the case of human beings?

Some secular nonnaturalist ethical realists suggest that moral goodness supervenes on natural properties, but among the challenges that sort of attempt encounters is accounting for how physical properties can cause abstract properties to come into existence in light of their qualitative differences. Of course, there’s no shortage of attempts by various secularist theorists to provide accounts of objective values, though an important recurring challenge is accounting adequately for their normative force.

In light of the challenges naturalists and secularists encounter on this score, some consider intrinsic human value and dignity as one of the divine signs that provide a signal of transcendence, a distinct moral phenomenon in need of a substantive enough explanation. How might a classical theist account for the intrinsic value or essential equality of human persons? David Bentley Hart suggests that Christianity gradually succeeded in sowing in human consciences a tenderness of moral intuitions. In contrast to the casual destruction of lives among the ancients, he says that we would do well to reflect that theirs was a more “natural” disposition toward reality. To make even the best of us conscious (or at least able to believe in) the moral claim of all other persons on us required an extraordinary moment of awakening in a few privileged souls. It was Christian teaching, he argues, that inexorably shows the splendor and irreducible dignity of the divine humanity within all persons. For those tempted to historical naiveté on this matter, he also issues a sober warning of how precarious and easily forgotten this mystery is that only charity can penetrate (Hart 214).

Christian theists suggest that, on a Christian understanding, the value of human persons is found in the personhood of God. Similarly, Robert Adams thinks that the value of persons derives from what they have in common, a shared, relevant resemblance to God. John Hare partially demurs at this point, however, and in doing so adds an important element about how human dignity can be both intrinsic and derivative. His point is that an account of goodness rooted in God must emphasize not just what good things they share in common but the distinctive ways they are different. For in those very differences are reflections of disparate aspects of God. Human beings aren’t called to reflect God only in virtue of their collective humanity but also as individuals. This is why Hare is skeptical of Moore’s aforementioned isolation test for intrinsic goods, for Hare thinks it isn’t clear that any necessarily-God-maintained good could exist in complete isolation, so as to be the object of the required thought experiment. He suggests instead that a normative property can be intrinsic even if it is necessarily given not just its existence but its goodness by God. Part of his motivation in doing so is his conviction that the good that is the individual’s destination is itself both a relation and a kind of intrinsic good (Hare 188). Whether intrinsic goodness can essentially include such a relational component is a recurring bone of contention between certain secular and religious ethicists.

Turning now to moral goodness, Hart is bold enough to suggest that among the mind’s transcendental aspirations, it is the longing for moral goodness that is probably the most difficult to contain within the confines of a naturalist metaphysics. Among the challenges naturalists face in accounting for moral goodness and such a longing is the inevitable gap between the best that human beings can morally do by dint of their most valiant efforts at moral improvement and the uncompromising standard of moral goodness. At best humans can experience some finite amount of moral development in their lifetime, but that would leave anything like the hope for unalloyed moral goodness beyond our reach. Secular efforts to close this “moral gap” include lowering the moral demand, exaggerating human capacities, or replacing divine assistance to close the gap with a secular substitute. The Christian doctrine of sanctification recognizes the need for divine assistance without exaggerating human capacities or compromising the moral demand.

This line of thought is most germane to a performative variant of the moral argument for God’s existence, which is closely related to the human need to forgive and to be forgiven and liberated from guilt for failing to meet the standard of moral goodness. Here too the resources of Christian theology, in particular its doctrine of atonement and justification, might be seen as especially effective at providing a sufficiently sturdy solution. H. P. Owen, John Henry Newman, A. E. Taylor, and William Sorley are important examples of ethicists who made a centerpiece of their moral apologetic this component of forgiveness for wrongdoing and freedom from a condition of objective moral guilt. Then, once sins are forgiven, sin itself can be ultimately expunged.

The quest for attaining moral goodness potentially raises what Henry Sidgwick called the “dualism of practical reason.” It seems unavoidable that there are occasions in which conflicts arise between what’s doing what’s good for another and what’s good for oneself, and both impulses are morally legitimate. Sidgwick considered this tension to be fairly intractable for ethics, and the only means he saw of resolving it involved a providential God who ensures that the morally good are also ultimately fulfilled and satisfied people. He himself was unwilling to embrace theism on this account, and chose to live with the intractable tension, while admitting that, without a solution, it’s difficult to see how the moral enterprise is altogether coherent.

Even more foundational than either the performative and rational versions of the moral argument, however, is the metaphysical inquiry into the nature of goodness itself. Secular attempts to offer deflationary accounts of goodness, according to which it is reducible to something else (pleasure, fulfillment, etc.) are legion, but many of these efforts fall prey to the naturalistic fallacy; there’s more to say, of course, but for now let’s set those to the side. A contrasting theistic account here is the Thomistic equation of goodness with being. Being and goodness, on this view, co-refer, picking out the same referent under two different names and descriptions.

A more contemporary example of a distinctively theistic account of moral goodness comes from Robert Adams, who takes intimations of an ultimate good or paradigmatic archetype of goodness and beauty as veridical, akin to beatific visions of God among theists (Adams ch.1). Because of the similarity of these perceptions he thinks it only natural that an Anselmian theist would take God himself to be what is apprehended in those moments (Adams 45). Rather than a Kantian, Aristotelian, or utilitarian theory of the good, his theistic Platonic account sees an infinite and transcendent good, understood as God himself, as foundational to the right axiological account. His theory comes from an extensive argument canvassing the language and phenomenology of moral experience, and entails that finite goods are good in virtue of somehow resembling or otherwise participating in goodness itself.

Of course, these are just a few examples of a theistic account of the good, but their underlying shared intuition is important. It resonates with key features of goodness. The source of moral goodness must plausibly be perfectly good, as an omnibenevolent God is, which distinguishes the operative theology from that of the fallible and finite gods of, say, the Greek pantheon riddled with foibles and caprice. God qualifies as the best account of both the first and final cause of moral goodness.

A common view of many historical Christian thinkers is that God is the Good itself, and that all things but God are good by participation. The goodness of God is a central (perhaps the central) feature of Augustine’s thought (cf. Augustine 114ff, 1998). Augustine endorses the classical moral psychology, according to which we do all that we do in relation to what we take to be our summum bonum, God himself: “Here the supreme good is sought, the good to which we refer everything that we do, desiring it not for the sake of something else, but for its very own sake. Obtaining it, we require nothing further in order to be happy. It is truly called the ‘end,’ because we want everything else for the sake of this, but this we want only for itself” (Augustine 63-64, 1994).

 

References

Adams, Robert 1999. Finite and Infinite Goods: A Framework for Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics 2009. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Augustine, Saint 1998. The Confessions. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Augustine, Saint 1994. Political Writings. Indianapolis: Hackett.

Foot, Philippa 2003. Natural Goodness. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Hare, John E. 2015. God’s Command. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hart, David Bentley 2015. The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Kant, Immanuel 2012. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2nd edition.

Korsgaard, Christine 1996. The Sources of Normativity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

MacDonald, Scott, ed., 1991. Being and Goodness: The Concept of the Good in Metaphysics and Philosophical Theology. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Moore, G. E. 1903/1993. Principia Ethica. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Newman, John 2006. Fifteen Sermons Preached before the University of Oxford. Oxford. Oxford University Press.

Owen, H. P. 1954. The Moral Argument for Christian Theism. London: George Allen & Unwin.

 

 

Further Readings

Ewing, A. C. 1973. Value and Reality: The Philosophical Case for Theism. London: George Allen & Unwin.

Kinghorn, Kevin 2016. A Framework for the Good. South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.