No Longer in Glimpses: In Memory of My Mother Joan F. Decker

Touched by the Hand of God  by Jayt74

Touched by the Hand of God by Jayt74

Richard Decker is a second-year English master’s student at Liberty University. His eulogy for his mother, on her recent passing, speaks to God’s transforming grace and the hope we have as Christians that God’s love will fully restore us to our true selves, made in his image and for eternal communion with him and our fellow creatures.


When I think back to the good that my mother did during her lifetime, what comes to mind is a person who, despite everything, made it clear that she loved me and was on my side—no matter what. My mother showed me how important it was for me to stay strong and to break the cycle. She gave me a love for music and for people. She taught me the importance of being down-to-earth and open with one’s thoughts and feelings, and she always made it clear to me that I could tell her anything. I believe what I am trying to say is that through all the cloudiness, I was still able to see glimpses of a person who loved and cared so much for me and for others and did her best to show that love. But as I said, these were glimpses.

Joan and Richard Decker

Joan and Richard Decker

 For when I would look at old pictures and hear stories of my mother when she was young, I must admit it was always a surreal experience for me. Because the young woman in those pictures and in those stories—the young woman that many of you knew and loved so well—I knew only in photo albums—in glimpses.

As my mother and I would tell jokes with one another, I would see glimpses of that young woman who walked the hallways of Cider Ridge High School, laughing and having a good time with her friends. As I read my mother’s cursive on my Christmas and birthday cards, I would see glimpses of that young woman who loved sending similar cards and letters to her friends and relatives. As I would see my mother dressed up for a get-together with family, I would see glimpses of that young woman who aspired to be a model—and had her aunts and uncles drive her to modeling classes. As I would watch my mother tidying up the house, I would see glimpses of that young woman who would babysit her cousins and clean up their house solely for the sheer joy of seeing things tidy. As my mother showed me the ills of addiction, I would see glimpses of that young woman who wanted so much to be a nurse so that she could care for and look after others. I would see that young woman, every now and then, through these small actions that my mother would take—and I loved her for that.

And above all, my mother knew Christ and trusted in Him. And I know that she is now with Him in a state of peace—no longer afflicted by the demons of this world—no longer consumed by its cloudiness. You know, I heard once—mostly through rumors—that when people enter heaven, they tend to look like their younger selves. I do not know how much I trust such an idea, but I believe I do trust the symbolism behind it: a symbol of purity and innocence that reveals that we as believers are able to see each other as our greatest selves when we are once again with our Heavenly Father.

I believe that such an idea is close to the truth because I also believe that when my time comes—when I, too, am with my Savior—I will also be with my mother again, and I will be able to not only see her but also that loving and caring young woman—no longer in glimpses, but in a full, bright, and beautiful image—to whom I will say, “Joanie! Mom! There you are! I knew you were there that whole time—and I love you for that.”

Different Bodies: Part One

  A Twilight Musing

I have long been intrigued by the question of how things would have developed had Adam and Eve not eaten of the forbidden fruit and been banished from Eden.  One can exercise some inferential imagination by envisioning a world without the known consequences of sin. Attached to those inferences are some questions: Would Adam and Eve and their descendants have lived forever, absent the penalty of death?  Would the innocence of universal nakedness have continued?  If so, it’s hard for us fallen people to imagine there being no sexual desire except for one’s mate.  God arranged the union between Adam and Eve; how would the monogamous coupling of their descendants have been arranged?  Would reproduction be unlimited?  With no need to produce food by the sweat of their brows, would human beings have been engaged in other activities, such as creative, artistic, and scientific pursuits?

These questions may seem to be idle speculation, but I think they lead into matters of some significance.  All of the questions I have posed above are based on the assumption that there existed in the pristine world of Eden an expectation of purposeful and orderly development over a period of time.  God Himself looks in this direction when He tells the newly-created man and woman, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over . . . every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen. 1:28).  Things in the original creation were expected to change in ways designed by God to fulfill His nascent purposes for this new world of His.   Since any kind of change requires the observed passage of time, it seems legitimate to infer that there was a kind of positive temporality in the prelapsarian world that in the postlapsarian world became a degenerative penalty.

Perhaps the best way of getting some sense of God’s original plan for Edenic fulfillment is to consider the implications of the two trees placed in the Garden, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life (Gen. 2:9).  We find out after Adam and Eve have eaten from the forbidden tree that God took precautions against their also eating from the Tree of Life.

Then the Lord God said, "Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—" 23 therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. 24 He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.  (Gen 3:22-24)

To me, this passage implies that, had Adam and Eve not disobeyed God, there might have been a time for them to partake of both trees under God’s direction.  It seems not unreasonable to conjecture that the Lord wanted unfallen mankind, under His timing and direction, to become aware of the presence of evil in the universe so that He could equip them to partner with Him in the final defeat of that evil, and thereby be ready in the full maturity of their existence to eat of the Tree of Life.

At any rate, I think that God created the physical world as a kind of theater in which to do battle with the Devil.  We have some biblical hints of a battle in Heaven between God and his angels and Satan and his cohorts, in which God by His superior power cast a rebellious Satan down from his exalted position in Heaven (see Ezek. 28:11-19; Rev. 13:7-12).  The most familiar literary rendition of this battle is of course in Books V and VI of John Milton’s Paradise Lost.  Although his narrative of the epic battle in Heaven exercises the privilege of poetic imagination, it nevertheless presents a drama that may very well have taken place in some form before the creation of Eden.  This was a victory of God’s power, but it remained to provide a setting in which Satan could be confronted with the moral superiority of God, which could take place only in an arena where God’s love could be triumphant over Satan’s hate.  Exactly how that would have worked out if the Creation had not been corrupted by human sin, we don’t know, of course; but it’s hard to imagine how it could have had more dramatic or emotional impact than God’s “backup plan,” in which He participated in the suffering of the sinful world, even becoming a mortal human being and dying in order to redeem the fallen world.

This little essay (Part One) represents a refinement of ideas I have held in rough form for some time.  My central point here is that God’s created world, both before and after the Fall, is in marked contrast to His eternal being, which has no beginning and no end and is perpetually and always the same, yesterday, today, and all possible tomorrows.  As God’s inherent nature is immutable, so is the place where we will dwell with Him in resurrected form for eternity (see the description of the New Jerusalem in Rev. 21-22).  “Heaven” is where all divine purposes have been realized, and there is no longer the need for change toward an objective.  The catalyst for this refinement of my ideas on original and fallen creation was a rereading of Paul’s discourse on the Resurrection in I Cor. 15, in which he details the radical contrast between the temporal bodies of the first humans and the eternal bodies that we will share with the resurrected Christ.  Part Two is an analysis of this passage, with application of the principles Paul enunciates to the larger matter of the radical difference between the temporal earth and our eternal dwelling place with God.

Image: By William Blake - William Blake Archive, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7735228

 

Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

Interview with Jerry Walls

Photo by  Bryan Minear  on  Unsplash

Photo by Bryan Minear on Unsplash

In this interview for MoralApologetics.com, David Baggett interviews his dear friend, former teacher, and collaborator, the one-of-a-kind, iconoclastic Dr. Jerry Walls, a leading and prolific Christian philosopher and professor of philosophy of religion at Houston Baptist University. Questions canvass Dr. Walls’ education, early interest in philosophy, his graduate work at Princeton, Yale, and Notre Dame, his interest in eschatology, and other book projects in which Walls is engaged.

  1. When were you first drawn to philosophy?

The first time I can recall becoming really fascinated by philosophy was one summer in high school when I was bored and looking for something to read, and picked up a book my dad had bought at a second hand book store by Francis Schaeffer entitled Pollution and the Death of Man.  It was a book about ecology, which, frankly, did not interest me much.  But I was fascinated by how he analyzed the issues in the ecology debate in terms of basic presuppositions and worldview.   During the next several years, I read all of Schaeffer’s books as they came out, and that is how I was first introduced to things like epistemology and came to see that Christianity makes big truth claims about ultimate reality, and is among other things, a philosophy that provides answers to all the big questions.

  1. When did you become interested in issues of the afterlife, especially hell?
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Well, I was raised in Knockemstiff, Ohio, and “hellfire and damnation” was often preached about in my little country church, especially during revivals.  Listening to the sermons at Bethel Chapel, there was no doubt that issues of life and death were at stake in how one responded to the gospel.  I was converted at age 11 in response to a sermon on the text, “there is but one step between death and thee.”   Several years later, I went to Princeton seminary, and many students as well as faculty were dubious about the idea of hell, and some rejected the afterlife altogether.   The clash between my religious formation and my formal theological training was existentially riveting for me, and provoked me to think seriously about heaven and hell and whether there really are good reasons to believe in them or not.  After graduating from Princeton, I went to Yale Divinity school, where I wrote a master’s thesis on hell, and I have been thinking and writing about these issues ever since!

  1. Is it true you were a teenage preacher?

Yes, I preached my first sermon when I was thirteen, and had preached well over a hundred sermons by the time I graduated from high school.

  1. Tell us about your education at Princeton and Yale and Notre Dame. Who most influenced you among your teachers, and how?

Well, as I said above, Princeton was rather diverse in its theological commitments, and posed a number of challenges to my evangelical background.  We had a student group made up of evangelical students at Princeton called the Theological Forum, and I was President of the group.  Some of my best learning came from this group.  We had a number of notable speakers, including John Stott and Cornelius Van Til (who had not, I believe, been back at Princeton until we invited him) and others.  (One of the students who was in our group by the way, was Bart Ehrman, who was still an evangelical at the time.)  But the most memorable speaker was Alvin Plantinga, who we were able to get because his brother Neal was doing his PhD at the seminary at the time.  It was the first time I had met Plantinga and he gave a lecture in which he dismantled the theology of Gordon Kaufman, the Harvard theologian who labored under Kantian strictures concerning what we can say about God.  It was both a gutsy and a galvanizing talk, and an enormously encouraging breath of fresh air and it elevated the enormous respect I already had for Plantinga.  As for my teachers at Princeton, I learned a lot from Diogenes Allen, though he was a difficult personality and I did not have much of a relationship with him.

At Yale, where I did a one year STM, I worked almost exclusively with Paul Holmer, whose main interests were Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein, though he also wrote a little book on C. S. Lewis. Holmer was a delight to work with and he encouraged my interest in the doctrine of hell. Holmer was very dubious of what he called the “bright chatty” sort of students, and I remember when I first met him and told him I wanted study with him, he was reserved until he asked me what I was interested in.  When I told him I wanted to write about hell, he immediately got excited and encouraged me to come to Yale.

Notre Dame was simply an ongoing intellectual feast and was by far the greatest educational experience of my life.  I had the privilege of taking courses with the very best people who did philosophy of religion, starting with Plantinga, and including Fred Freddoso, Tom Flint, and Phil Quinn.  I did a reading course with Quinn, by the way, on divine command ethics, a foreshadow of our work together.  Quinn, of course, wrote an important book on divine command ethics.  Plantinga’s courses were extremely stimulating and mentally challenging and you always left feeling like your brain had just had a strenuous workout that pushed you beyond your limits.  But my most influential teacher at Notre Dame was my mentor Tom Morris, who was something of a force of nature with all the interesting stuff he was producing at the time.  I learned a lot from him not only about how to do philosophy, but also how to teach, and that still influences everything I write.

  1. How did you end up writing not just about hell, but also about heaven and even purgatory?

Well, after writing about hell, I came to see that heaven poses its own distinctive issues that deserved addressing.  Moreover, heaven was almost entirely ignored by philosophers at the time so I wrote a book entitled Heaven: The Logic of Eternal Joy.  I wrote a chapter on purgatory for the heaven book, having become convinced that a version of the doctrine makes theological sense for Protestants as well as Catholics.  I had no thought of writing more about purgatory at the time, but again, further reflection led me to see that it too poses distinctive issues that deserve discussion.  I was fortunate to receive a Research Fellowship in the Notre Dame Center for Philosophy of Religion for the 2009-2010 academic year and I wrote the book that year.

  1. How big an influence has C. S. Lewis been on you?

In short, it has been incalculable.  I vividly recall the first time I read The Great Divorce, a book that has had a profound influence on all of my thinking about the afterlife.  I was at Yale working on my STM thesis on hell, and struggling to make sense of how eternal hell can be compatible with the perfect love and goodness of God.  I remember reading that book into the early morning, and finishing it before I went to bed.  What was stunning to me was the way Lewis made moral and psychological sense of how human beings can prefer evil, how they can choose to remain in hell, even if given every opportunity to repent and embrace the love of God.  That recast how I thought about hell, and it would eventually help me to think more clearly about heaven and purgatory as well.

  1. You’ve published with Oxford University Press, but you can also write very accessible books. Should more philosophers try to write books for wider audiences than just fellow philosophers? Why isn’t it done more?

Well, the best and most interesting philosophy deals with big issues that matter to every thoughtful person.  Even if the immediate issues we are writing about are highly technical, if they really matter, it is because of their connection to bigger questions and concerns.   I wish more academically accomplished philosophers would keep these big issues in mind and attempt to write books that address them for a wider audience.   Such books, of course, are not a substitute for academically rigorous books, and should not be mistaken for them but they play an absolutely vital role in communicating the central ideas of philosophy to the broader culture.  Not everybody can do this, but those who can should, in my view.  The failure to do this has the effect of marginalizing philosophy and even trivializing it in contemporary culture.  The vacuum of course, has often been filled by popular books that are superficial and often poorly informed.  And many philosophers accordingly shy away from writing popular books because they do not want to be identified with such superficial books.  Moreover, such books gain little recognition in the academy, and may even hurt your reputation.   But the solution, I think, is for more philosophers to try to do both, to write serious books but also write books that communicate the central ideas in an accessible but responsible fashion.  If we fail to do that, we should hardly be surprised if philosophy is seen as increasingly irrelevant to the overwhelming majority who lack our specialized training.

  1. Tell us about your most recent book on heaven, hell, and purgatory.

Well, in short, it is my attempt to distill the central ideas of my academic trilogy into a more popular form for a broader audience. The book explores heaven, hell and purgatory in light of the big philosophical issues like the problem of evil, the nature of personal identity, the ground of morality, and the really big one: the very meaning of life.  I attempted to write it in such a way that any thoughtful reader who would like to understand these issues better could read it with appreciation.  I will be interested to see if I have succeeded.

  1. What other book projects are you involved in?

Lot of things.  I just wrote a long essay on purgatory for a new Four Views of Hell book that is forthcoming.  My son Jonny and I have a book of essays coming out shortly entitled Tarantino and Theology.   Another book I am excited about is Two Dozen or So Theistic Arguments, which I am co-editing with Trent Dougherty.  It is based on Alvin Plantinga’s famous paper of that title, and will explore each of his arguments, several of which are new ones that have yet to be developed.  A colleague here at HBU and I are working on editing a collection of essays on issues in sexual ethics.  Another book I am co-authoring is Why I am not A Roman Catholic.  I am co-authoring this one with Ken Collins, a church historian.  Not to mention a history of the moral argument I am co-authoring with Bag.   So it looks like I’ll be busy for a while.

  1. Why do you think the book you and I are wrapping up, the sequel to Good God, is important?

Well, it deals with huge issues of urgent practical concern, just for a start!  Contemporary culture is morally confused to put it mildly, and seems increasingly bereft of moral foundations.    Christian theism provides not only a rationally powerful, but also an existentially appealing account of moral truth that beautifully answers to our deepest yearnings for ultimate meaning.   We advance in this book an abductive moral argument that brings together an array of powerful considerations that have not, so far as we know, been advanced in this fashion.  These considerations, taken together, provide a powerful case that God makes sense of the crucial features of morality far more convincingly than secular alternatives.

Photo: "Conversation" by John St John. CC License. 

Jerry Walls

 

Dr. Walls, Dr. Baggett’s co-author of some of the books already mentioned, is one of the world’s leading thinkers on issues of heaven, hell, and purgatory, having written a book on each and a forthcoming book covering all three. He’s written voluminously, from a book on the apologetics of Schaeffer and Lewis, a critique of Calvinism, two books on basketball, and more besides. Currently, Dr. Walls is a professor at Houston Baptist University in Houston, TX.

Podcast: Dr. Leo Percer on the Exclusivity of Christianity and the Problem of Hell

On this week's podcast, we hear from Dr. Leo Percer. Dr. Percer provides some excellent and honest responses to objections skeptics raise to the moral argument in light of the exclusive  nature of Christianity and the reality of hell.

 

 

Leo Percer

Dr. Percer grew up near the Mississippi River in Millington, Tennessee, where he received a call to the ministry of teaching while attending First Baptist Church. Pursuing that call sent him on an educational journey that includes two Masters degrees and a PhD. This journey provided opportunities to minister in a variety of capacities, including youth ministry, children’s ministry, small groups, and homeless ministry. Upon completion of his PhD, Dr. Percer taught as an adjunct at both Baylor University and McLennan Community College in Waco, Texas. He came to Liberty University Baptist Theological Seminary in 2004 and teaches a variety of New Testament classes including: Hermeneutics, Greek, New Testament Orientation 1 & 2, the Gospel of John, Hebrews, 1 & 2 Peter, Life of Christ, and New Testament World. He also directs the Ph.D. Program for the seminary and teaches a variety of biblical studies classes. Dr. Percer lives in Lynchburg, VA with his wife Lisa and their two children.

Saving Wasted Virtues: Heaven and the Ground of Morality

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I

At the outset of his chapter “The Suicide of Thought,” Chesterton made the ironic observation that the modern world, in some ways, is far too good.  Indeed, the modern world, as he saw it was “full of wild and wasted virtues,” an inevitable result when a religious scheme is shattered.[1]  When this happens, it is not only the vices that are let loose and create havoc.

But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly,

and the virtues do more terrible damage.  The modern world is full of the

old Christian virtues gone mad.  The virtues are gone mad because they

have been isolated from each other and are wondering alone.[2]

A generation later, in The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis echoed this point in criticizing those who depart from traditional morality (which he called the Tao) and offer new systems or ideologies in its place.  All such new systems, Lewis maintained, “consist of fragments from the Tao itself, arbitrarily wrenched from their context in the whole and then swollen to madness in their isolation, yet still owing to the Tao and to it alone such validity as they possess.”[3]

While Lewis’s diagnosis is similar, his prescription for moral health and integrity is significantly different.   He prescribes a dogmatic belief in objective value and a commitment to the Tao as having absolute validity.  Indeed, the principles of the Tao must be accepted as obviously rational, just as one takes the axioms of geometry to be self-evident.[4]  Most interesting, for our purposes, is that Lewis goes on to emphasize that his argument does not depend on theistic assumptions.  Though acknowledging his own Christian convictions, he made it clear that he was not offering an indirect argument for Theism.  He insisted that he was “simply arguing that if we are to have values at all we must accept the values of Practical Reason as having absolute validity: that any attempt, having become skeptical about these, to reintroduce value lower down on some supposedly more ‘realistic’ basis, is doomed.”[5]   While leaving open the possibility that morality implies a supernatural origin, Lewis was prepared to hold that morality can be sufficiently grounded for anyone who can see the obvious rationality of the principles of practical reason.

Lewis’s fully developed argument has considerable force, but I do not share his confidence that traditional morality can stand alone without Theistic grounding. And here I claim Chesterton for an ally.  He suggests a different solution to the moral confusion that results when “wild and wasted virtues” are let loose in our society.   At the end of the chapter I cited above, he observes that Joan of Arc combined in her person virtues advocated by figures as diverse as Nietzsche and Tolstoy.  While they were “wild speculators” who did nothing, she actually did something.  “It was impossible” Chesterton remarked, “that the thought should not cross my mind that she and her faith had perhaps some secret of moral unity and utility that has been lost.”[6]

His thoughts inevitably turned to a larger figure, namely, Christ Himself, and Chesterton noted that Christ combines virtues that moderns can only see as opposed to one another.  Most interestingly, he observed, altruists denounce Christ as an egoist whereas egoists denounce his altruism.  Chesterton concluded with the following memorable line

There is a huge and heroic sanity of which moderns can only collect the

fragments.  There is a giant of whom we see only the lopped arms and leg

walking about.  They have torn the soul of Christ into silly strips, labelled

egoism and altruism, and they are equally puzzled by His insane magnificence and His insane meekness.  They have parted His garments

among them, and for His vesture they have cast lots; though the coat was

without seam woven from the top throughout.[7]

Chesterton’s example here is particularly well chosen, for the dilemmas posed by egoism and altruism have been particularly troublesome for moral philosophers for over a century now, and remain vexing to this day.  In what follows I want to argue, following Chesterton’s suggestion, that we need the resources not only of Theism to resolve these difficulties, but distinctively Christian doctrine as well, particularly the doctrine of heaven.

 

II

Although the problem of egoism and altruism emerged much earlier,[8] let us begin our examination of it with a landmark in moral philosophy by one of Chesterton’s contemporaries, namely, The Methods of Ethics by Henry Sidgwick, a work that went through seven editions between 1874 and 1907.  Sidgwick identified as the greatest moral problem of his time what he called the “Dualism of Practical Reason.”[9]  This dualism arises because of a possible conflict between what may serve the happiness of a given individual, on the one hand, and what would serve the happiness of the larger universe of sentient beings.   As a utilitarian, Sidgwick believes the ultimate good is happiness, or what he also calls desirable consciousness for sentient beings.

Consider the case of an individual who is called upon to sacrifice his own happiness, perhaps even his life, for the happiness of others.  Now if we judge it to be a reasonable thing for him to do so, then it might be argued that we are assigning a different ultimate good for the individual than for the rest of sentient beings; whereas their good is happiness, his ultimate good is conformity to reason.  While Sidgwick admits the force of this argument, he nevertheless maintains that it may actually be reasonable for an individual to sacrifice his own good for the greater happiness of others.  It is at this point that Sidgwick identifies the Duality of Practical Reason in his footnote.  There he acknowledges that it is “no less reasonable for an individual to take his own happiness as his ultimate end.”

Sidgwick goes on to observe that in earlier moral philosophy, particularly the Greeks, it was believed that it was good for the individual himself to act sacrificially even when the consequences as a whole are painful to him.  While he attributes this belief partly to certain confusions, it is also important to recognize that he also recognizes it is partly due to a “faith deeply rooted in the moral consciousness of mankind, that there cannot be really and ultimately any conflict between the two kinds of reasonableness.”[10]

Sidgwick returns to this unresolved difficulty in the final pages of his book.   Significantly, he identifies one clear way of resolving it that he rejects, namely, by assuming the existence of God and divine sanctions that would be sufficient to assure it was always in our best interests to be moral.  He rejects this assumption, defended most notably in the modern period by Kant, because he does not believe it is strictly required to ground “ethical science.”  In his view, later adopted by Lewis, the fundamental intuitions of moral philosophy are as independently self-evident as the axioms of geometry, and therefore need no grounding from theology or other sources.  But while our moral duty is intuitively obvious, it is, unfortunately, not equally evident that the performance of our duty will be suitably rewarded.  Admittedly, we feel a desire that this be the case not only for ourselves, but for all other people as well.  However, our wish for this to be so has no bearing on whether it is probable, “considering the large proportion of human desires that experience shows to be doomed to disappointment.”[11]

Now even if this desire is doomed to disappointment, this gives us no reason to abandon morality according to Sidgwick, but it does mean we must give up the hope of making full rational sense of it.  Our moral duty is still binding on us despite the fact that it makes no rational sense how this can be so when duty conflicts with self-interest.   In his final paragraph, Sidgwick tentatively offers some brief epistemological reflections on whether we might be rationally justified in believing in the ultimate convergence of morality and self-interest even if this belief cannot claim philosophic certainty.  But what is still clear at the end of the day is that the issue remains unresolved for him.

What Sidgwick recognized as the profoundest problem of moral philosophy in his day has only intensified in later generations.  In much twentieth century moral philosophy, the conflict was stated in terms of egoism versus altruism, and morality was often defined in terms that exclude egoism.  Moreover, this view remains widespread as moral philosophy advances into the twenty-first century.  As a representative of twentieth century moral philosophers, consider the words of John Rawls in his widely influential work A Theory of Justice: “Although egoism is logically consistent and in this sense not irrational, it is incompatible with what we intuitively regard as the moral point of view.  The significance of egoism philosophically is not as an alternative conception of right but as a challenge to any such conception.”[12]

While this conflict has been taken for granted for some time now, it is important to reiterate that it is sharply at odds with how morality has been conceived by most moral philosophers in the greater part of human history.  As David Lutz has observed, it was the view of “the multitude” or “the many” that virtuous living might be in conflict with self-love, but moral philosophers forcefully argued just the opposite.  But now, the view of “the multitude” has become the view of most moral philosophers.  As Lutz sees it, “this change in how we think about our lives is both significant and regrettable.”[13]

Surely the consequences for how we live our lives and for society at large are significant indeed.  The issues here are too pressing to be confined to the halls of academic debate, because they touch on all aspects of our common life.  It is no surprise that these debates have worked their way into popular culture and conversation.  A vivid instance of this occurred in the late 1980’s, a tumultuous time in American cultural history, during which a series of highly publicized scandals rocked a number of American institutions including government, business, the military and the church.  Time magazine did a cover story on ethics the title of which was simply, “What’s Wrong.”   In the concluding paragraph of the article, the author noted a profound ambivalence in the American soul, even as the nation aspired to restore some sense of moral integrity: “the longing for moral regeneration must constantly vie with an equally strong aspect of America’s national character, self indulgence.  It is an inner tension that may animate political life for years to come.”[14]  The tension that the author notes is, of course, another variation on the unresolved problem Sidgwick bequeathed to his successors.    Moreover, events since that time, only the most notorious of which involve the Clinton administration, have certainly vindicated the prediction that this tension would continue to animate political life for years to come.

In an accompanying essay, Time probed the roots of our moral disarray.  Again, it is interesting that the essay ends by grappling with the familiar issue of the relationship between morality and self-interest.  After citing ethicists who believe that it is possible both to be ethical and to get what we want at least most of the time, the essay observes that this is an optimistic solution which only lays bare the heart of the problem, namely, the nature of human desires.  The final sentences of the essay leave us with this prospect for moral renewal:

If Americans wish to strike a truer ethical balance, they may need to re-examine the values that society so seductively parades before them: a top job, political power, sexual allure, a penthouse or lakefront spread, a killing on the market.  The real challenge would then become a redefinition of wants so that they serve society as well as self, defining a single ethic that guides means while it also achieves rightful ends.[15]

The question this obviously raises is what could motivate such a redefinition of wants.  Some convincing account needs to be given of goods that clearly surpass things like top jobs, political power, sexual allure and so on.  The question is what sort of goods would not only be of surpassing value but would also be such that in choosing them one is not forced to decide between one’s own ultimate interest and that of others.

When this choice is forced upon us, that is, when altruism is pried apart from self-interest, it is very revealing to note that it is inevitably distorted in the process.  Indeed, here is a graphic illustration of  “wild and wasted virtues” isolated and wandering alone. Consider two extreme claims about the nature of self-sacrifice that are current in contemporary thought.  On the one side are those who maintain that the only real gift is one that expects nothing in return.  Thinkers such as Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida hold that the highest gift is a sacrifice of one’s life for others, a sacrifice that is ultimate and uncompensated.  Indeed, it is the very finality of death that endows morality with seriousness and makes it truly possible.  The hope of life after death on this view is problematic for ethics.  As John Milbank concisely describes this view, “Death in its unmitigated reality permits the ethical, while the notion of resurrection contaminates it with self-interest.”[16]

On this view, altruism has been stripped of any vestige of human self-interest and raised to truly heroic proportions.  This account of altruism takes moral sacrifice far beyond anything that traditional moralists imagined could be required or reasonably expected of human beings.  These thinkers demand that humans be prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice without the support of the sort of moral faith that more traditional moral philosophers, such as Kant, thought necessary to make sense of morality.

By sharp contrast, there is another very different view of altruism current in contemporary thought, namely, that of some influential sociobiologists and evolutionary theorists.  These thinkers attempt to account for altruism in terms of naturalistic evolution, where it poses an obvious problem.  The problem stems from the notion of natural selection, which maintains that traits that reduce reproductive advantages will be eliminated.  Altruism is a double-edged sword in this regard, for not only is it a disadvantage to those who practice it, but it is also an advantage for those who are on the receiving end of it.  So it seems that those who are altruistic would sacrifice themselves out of existence in the unforgiving competition for survival and reproductive advantage.  And yet, altruistic behavior of various kinds continues to be exhibited and highly admired in the human race.  The question of how to account for this fact remains.

Sociobiologists have developed a number of different theories to meet this challenge, some of which can explain at least certain forms of altruistic behavior with a fair degree of plausibility.[17]  It would take us too far afield to discuss these in detail, but one thing in particular is striking about some of these theories, namely, the role that deception plays in them.  One such theory focuses on the recipients of altruistic behavior and suggests that behavior of that sort is produced by the skillful manipulation of those recipients.   Altruistic actions such as adoption, organ donation, and even radical human sacrifice have been explained in terms of manipulation of various social instincts by those who benefit from such activity.

In a similar vein, altruism is also explained as a matter of elaborate self-deception.  This account begins with the recognition that reciprocity is central to human society and the further observation that the optimal position is to cheat the system for personal advantage when one can get away with it.  Successful cheaters, however, must obviously avoid detection.  And one way they can do this is to engage in impressive displays of sacrificial behavior.  When cheaters are detected, ever more creative and costly exhibitions of altruism must be invented to persuade others of one’s sincerity.   Here is where self-deception enters the picture.  If we are to be successful in our self-serving manipulations, we first need to deceive ourselves into believing that we really do care about others and that morality rightly obligates us to do so.  Otherwise, we would never treat others well enough to accomplish our purpose of manipulating them.  Moreover, we will be most persuasive in this regard if our real intentions never enter our minds as conscious thoughts.   Thus, our altruistic displays mask our real purposes not only from others but even from ourselves.

Writing from a similar perspective, Michael Ruse and Edward O. Wilson maintain that nature has made us believe in a disinterested moral code according to which we are obligated to help others.  “In short, to make us altruistic in the adaptive biological sense, our biology makes us altruistic in the more conventionally understood sense of acting on deeply held beliefs about right and wrong.”[18]   Since we have been wired by evolution to believe in moral obligation, we are not being insincere or hypocritical when we endorse it.  It is because we consciously believe in morality in this sense that it works as well as it does and serves it reproductive purposes.  But the element of deception remains, as the following remarks by Ruse and Wilson indicate.

In an important sense, ethics as we understand it is an illusion fobbed of on us by our genes to get us to cooperate.  It is without external grounding.  Ethics is produced by evolution but not justified by it, because, like Macbeth’s dagger, it serves a powerful purpose without existing in substance.[19]

The illusion lies in the fact that we are naturally inclined to believe morality has an objective grounding and this illusion is what makes morality effective.  The illusion also explains why ordinary people do not view morality merely as a means of survival, or the promotion of our genes, or worse, as an elaborate form of manipulation and self-advancement.

 

III

Now then, let us turn to consider how distinctively Christian resources can help us save these wild and wasted virtues.  To get right to the heart of the matter, let us note that Sidgwick’s “Dualism of Practical Reason,” which fossilized in the twentieth century as the conflict between egoism and altruism, is simply dissolved on Christian premises.  Indeed, it is an impossible dilemma from a Christian standpoint.  The fundamental reason for this is that the ultimate good for all persons is an eternal relationship with God.  To enjoy this relationship, we must trust and obey God, even when it is costly and difficult.

At the forefront of what God requires of us is that we love others selflessly, but paradoxically, our own self-interest is best served when we do so.  We should distinguish then, between self-interest and selfishness.   One is acting selfishly when he promotes his interests at the unfair expense of others.  Christian morality, like most secular morality, would reject this sort of behavior as wrong.  But there is nothing wrong with acting out of self-interest since all rational creatures naturally and inevitably desire their own happiness and well being.   To love another person is to promote his happiness and well being.  The same thing that makes it right to promote these for other persons makes it right to desire these for oneself as well.  For all human beings share essentially the same nature and are alike valuable to God as creatures he loves.

Learning to love selflessly is what transforms us and prepares us to enter the fellowship of the Trinity.  So as we love in this fashion, we are being prepared to experience our own highest joy and satisfaction.  Consequently, the conflict between acting for our own ultimate good and that of others simply cannot arise.  But this assumes that the highest goods are not those mentioned above in the Time article, namely, things like a top job, political power, sexual allure, a lakefront spread, and so on.  Recall that that article suggested that we needed a redefinition of our wants so that they would serve society as well as self.  Well, I am arguing that the only sorts of goods that will fit the bill in a convincing fashion are heavenly ones.  If naturalism is true, the goods of this life are the only ones available, and it is a Utopian dream to think that we can consistently act in such a way as to promote these goods both for ourselves and for others.

Recognition of this reiterates the point that selfless actions are not easy on the Christian account of things.  For it requires profound faith in God to resist the seductive temptation to believe that the only goods, or the most desirable ones, are those of this life.  To sacrifice such goods for the sake of others is to trust that Trinity is ultimate reality, that giving is reciprocal and mutual in the end.

Because Trinitarian love is the deepest reality, the notion of altruism as ultimate sacrifice with no expectation of compensation is at best a distortion of the aboriginal truth about reality.  At worst, the notion that such utter disinterest represents a higher or more admirable standard is pagan hubris.  As previously observed, this view is represented in current thought by such writers as Levinas and Derrida.  Similar notions were expressed by the Stoics in antiquity, and in the modern period Kant is no doubt the high water mark of philosophers who worried that morality would be contaminated by any element of self-interest.  While Kant believed we must postulate God and immortality to make rational sense of morality, as noted above, he insisted, incoherently in my view, that this could not affect our motivation without corrupting its moral value.

In Christian thought, resurrection and immortality are not afterthoughts, nor are they  postulates to salvage morality from irrationality.  They are integral to the grand claim that ultimate reality is reciprocal love.  Christ’s resurrection, no less than his giving his life as a sacrifice for our sins, is a picture for us of the eternal dynamic of divine love.  It is life, not death--as Levinas and Derrida contend--that gives morality substance.  As John Milbank puts it, “resurrection, not death, is the ground of the ethical.”[20]

Consider in this connection the book of Hebrews, which presents a theologically rich account of how Christ offered his life as a sacrifice to save us from our sins.   In two passages particularly relevant to our current discussion we are informed not only that Christ yielded obedience to the one who could save him from death, but also that it was for the joy set before him that he endured the cross.[21]   Thus, the consummate sacrifice that gives meaning to all others according to the book of Hebrews gives no credence whatever to the pagan notion that the finality of death is necessary for ultimate sacrifice.  To the contrary, the ultimate sacrifice in human history, the sacrifice that saves the world, was given in faith that joy will triumph over death.

In commending Christ as a model in this regard, this passage is encouraging Christians who suffer for their faith to do so with confident hope that the God whose nature is love will reciprocate their costly obedience.  Self-interest in this regard is a straightforward component of Christian moral motivation.  Indeed, it is a rather obvious implication of the logic of Trinitarian belief.  For we cannot harm our well being by obedience to God, just as we cannot promote it by selfishness.

Indeed, there is no other way to be happy and to find the fulfillment we desire than by obedience to God.  Thus, there is no parallel problem on the Christian view to the one posed for naturalism by those who choose, often successfully, to cheat the system.  God cannot be deceived or cheated in any way, so moral parasites are completely out of the question on this view.   It might make rational sense to think that cheating could successfully serve one’s ultimate well being on naturalistic assumptions, but that could never be the case given Christian beliefs. This observation further confirms the power of Christian theology to account not only for why morality is objectively binding upon us but also for why any reasonable person should want to obey it.  It provides a rationally persuasive and winsome account of moral motivation that nothing in secular morality can emulate.

Before concluding this section, let us return for a moment to Sidgwick and recall that he rejected the notion of theistic sanctions for morality, confident that morality could stand on its own.   As Alasdair MacIntyre put it, he held that at the “foundation of moral thinking lie beliefs in statements for the truth of which no further reason can be given.” [22]  MacIntyre goes on to argue that it was this sort of intuitionist view that undermined any claim to objectivity and prepared the way for the emotivism of twentieth century moral philosophy.  Subsequent moral philosophy, not to mention the moral confusion of our culture, has surely shown that Sidgwick’s faith was not well founded and that morality needs a better grounding than he or his heirs have provided.  I have been arguing that the theism he rejected, particularly in its orthodox Christian forms, along with its teleological account of human nature and happiness remains the most viable resource for resolving the problems we have inherited from him.

 

IV

Before concluding, let us hear from Chesterton again.  In his discussion of the “Paradoxes of Christianity” he noted that “Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them both furious.”  He goes on to give this as an example: “One can hardly think too little of one’s self.  One can hardly think too much of one’s soul.”[23]

This comment points us to the very end of his book where he notes the irony that modernism is emancipated in seeking pleasure in this life, but ultimately despairing because it does not believe there is any final meaning in the universe.

 The mass of men have been forced to be gay about the little things, but

sad about the big ones.  Nevertheless (I offer my last dogma defiantly) it

is not native to man to be so.  Man is more himself, man is more manlike,

when joy is the fundamental thing in him, and grief the superficial.[24]

Christians follow one who obeyed God, even unto death, because of the joy set before him.  Therein lies not only the foundation of morality and the salvation of wasted virtues, but our very humanity.

 

 

Notes:

[1] G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: Image, 1959), 30.

[2] Orthodoxy, 30.

[3] C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2001), 44.

[4] The Abolition of Man, 40; 73.

[5] The Abolition of Man, 49.

[6] Orthodoxy, 44.

[7] Orthodoxy, 44-45.

[8] For helpful historical analysis, see David W. Lutz, “The Emergence of the Dualism of Practical Reason in Post-Hobbesian British Moral Philosophy,” Ph.D. dissertation, The University of Notre Dame, 1994.

[9] Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1962), 404, note 1.

[10] The Methods of Ethics, 405.

[11] The Methods of Ethics, 507-508.

[12] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971), 136.

[13] “The Emergence of the Dualism of Practical Reason in Post-Hobbesian British Moral Philosophy,” 8.

[14] Walter Shapiro, “What’s Wrong,” Time, May 25, 1987, 17.

[15] Ezra Bowen, “Looking to Its Roots,” Time, May 25, 1987, 29.

[16] John Milbank, “The Ethics of Self-Sacrifice,” First Things 91 (March 1999), 34.

[17] For a helpful discussion of these theories, see Jeffrey P. Schloss, “Evolutionary Accounts of Altruism & the Problem of Goodness by Design” in Mere Creation, ed. William B. Dembski (Downers Grove, Il: Intervarsity Press, 1999), 236-261.

[18] Michael Ruse and Edward O. Wilson, “The Evolution of Ethics,” in Religion and the Natural Sciences: The Range of Engagement, ed. James E. Huchingson (Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1993), 310.

[19] “The Evolution of Ethics,” 310.

[20] “The Ethics of Self-Sacrifice,” 38.

[21] Hebrews 5:7; 12:1-3.

[22] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, Second Edition (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), 65.

[23] Orthodoxy, 95.

[24] Orthodoxy, 159.

Photo: "Heaven Above" by Jochemberends. CC License. 

Jerry Walls

 

Dr. Walls, Dr. Baggett’s co-author of some of the books already mentioned, is one of the world’s leading thinkers on issues of heaven, hell, and purgatory, having written a book on each and a forthcoming book covering all three. He’s written voluminously, from a book on the apologetics of Schaeffer and Lewis, a critique of Calvinism, two books on basketball, and more besides. Currently, Dr. Walls is a professor at Houston Baptist University in Houston, TX.