Train Up Your Wizards in the Way They Should Go (Part 1)

Photo by  Mervyn Chan  on  Unsplash

Photo by Mervyn Chan on Unsplash

The opening lines of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities are among the most recognizable passages in literature—it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. The description is simultaneously timeless and time-bound: written in Victorian England, depicting the eve of the French Revolution, but somehow no matter how much time passes, it seems that they ring perpetually true. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Isn’t it always?

In short compass, Dickens manages to draw from his historical moment a broader truth about the human condition: “[I]t was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” We humans, it seems, are continually caught between two extremes: our promise, creative potential, and idealistic possibilities on the one side and our hubris, destructive capacities, and cynical bent on the other. If you don’t believe me, a quick glimpse at your social media feed will prove my point.

Okay, yes, admittedly—we’re nowhere near French-Revolution-era craziness. No one’s brought out the guillotines. At least not yet. But I daresay that most of us can recognize something of our current cultural moment in this iconic Dickens quote. We rally behind one another in the wake of national disasters, volunteering our time and money to restore communities; meanwhile other communities are languishing in the thrall of opioid abuse. Our technological and artistic ingenuity is at an all-time high, with brilliant new gadgets and imaginative creations released daily, while fraud and corruption, violence and ill-health run rampant across the country.      

How then do we proceed? What might provide some hope in these troubled times? There are a slew of answers on offer, many of them politically focused—protest, lobby, legislate, vote, agitate. While I don’t think those responses are wrong per se, I do think that absent a personal, individual revolution of the wills and characters of those who make up society, these political maneuvers will merely widen the divide between us, and deepen the challenges we face. Dickens, concerned as he was with the state of Victorian culture and its societal tendencies that had ground many of its people down, suggests another avenue for correction. George Orwell—of all writers—found something about this vision compelling, even if he himself preferred the political: “There is no clear sign that [Dickens] wants the existing order to be overthrown,” Orwell reflects, “or that he believes it would make very much difference if it were overthrown. . . . His whole ‘message’ is one that at first glance looks like an enormous platitude: If men would behave decently, the world would be decent.” 

J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, I think, follows this same line of thought. She has, in fact, identified Dickens as an important influence on her work. Like Dickens, Rowling is asking about the cause of our woes and what remedies are on offer and, I argue, drawing similar conclusions. In the pages of her seven highly imaginative, fantastical Harry Potter books, we find—surprisingly enough—a realistic world much like ours, filled with characters that mirror the best and worst of us and who experience the very same joy and despair. Like us, Rowling’s wizards and witches long for good to prevail over the evil they see around them and sincerely want to do the right thing. Well, most of them anyway.

But those others are just as instructive in the moral arc of Rowling’s story and especially in the lessons it provides for readers. Because, let’s face it, Rowling—like most great storytellers—is a master teacher. Harry Potter is not simply set at a school; the series itself is a school, training readers to recognize, prefer, and enact what is good and right. The venerable Roman poet Horace famously said that literature should teach and delight, and Rowling executes his charge well, as readers watch her characters navigate situations that challenge their heart and mind, identify and hone their values and beliefs, and ultimately shape their very selves in their moral choices—for good or ill.

At the center of this education, of course, is the enchanted Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Each year, young wizards throughout Britain await their acceptance letters with bated breath (or for muggle-borns like Hermione, are taken by surprise by them). These spirited scholars head off each fall to the fabled Scottish castle, to take up exotic subjects like transfiguration, potions, herbology, and the daunting defense against the dark arts. Here they get initiated into the world their older siblings and parents have already been a part of—learning to fly, caring for magical creatures, and finally trying their hand at apparition. It’s a fanciful world, and I know we’d all welcome our own Hogwarts invite. But as whimsically as it’s described, we can’t forget that the curriculum is not merely fun and games for these students. It’s real, hard work. They train, practice, fail, try again. They sometimes face disagreeable and downright cruel professors yet have to learn the material despite those challenges. Those O.W.L.s and N.E.W.T.s won’t pass themselves.

These magical skills are crucial to living in Harry, Hermione, and Ron’s world, and the three friends have varying degrees of success mastering them. Arguably these wondrous features are what make Harry Potter the phenomenon it is. Readers thrill at the games of Quidditch, imagining the students aloft on their broomsticks. They cheer for Harry as he participates in the Triwizard Tournament, putting his magical training to the test. Without the children’s initiation to magic, they’d have no access to Platform nine and three quarters or Diagon Alley, no Patronus charm to fend off the dreaded Dementors. The spells and charms and magical properties of myriad objects in Harry Potter enlarge the story’s possibilities to be sure. Pictures move and talk, invisibility and shape-shifting are live options, as are mind reading and talking with snakes. But, even though magic is at the crux of the Hogwarts curriculum, these magical techniques do not constitute the real education the books offer—neither to the characters nor to the readers. These, in fact, are mere machinery, available to the good and bad characters alike. In fact, someone as wicked as Voldemort has magical abilities at least as strong as those of the virtuous Dumbledore, if not more so. On a smaller scale, we see this contrast play out between Harry and his friends and Draco Malfoy and his.

In The Sorcerer’s Stone these children arrive at Hogwarts full of promise, and in many ways, both sets of friends follow the same path: taking classes, learning their spells, and growing in magical acumen. But that similarity is of little concern to the story; what matters more—what is in fact crucial—is that their paths diverge, as they learn (or reject) the deeper lessons and inculcate in themselves (or don’t) the virtues of friendship and love. They—and we—learn well what Dumbledore notes in The Chamber of Secrets, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” What the contrasts between Harry’s and Draco’s friends show is that an education caught up in teaching only technique—encouraging children’s hands and minds but not guiding their heart—is not one worthy of its name. I think we all know this, but that often doesn’t translate to the dominant view of education in our own world. We don’t have magic, of course, but technology seems to function similarly for us. Who hasn’t, at least once, been wowed by the newest gadget? Every year we hear about new medical advances, feats of modern engineering, and manufacturing capabilities that would have been unthinkable even twenty years ago. Arthur C. Clark captures the connection well with his proverbial quip, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

As with those in Harry Potter, we can easily confuse (or prefer) technical expertise and training with humane education. In many higher education circles, this shift toward the technical and practical—this emphasis on vocational training over the liberal arts—is just about complete. The number of humanities majors are shrinking, and fewer state dollars are going to support the liberal arts overall, deemed too impractical to add value to communities. On one hand, this shift is understandable. People need jobs. The market is changing, and demand for technical skill is on the rise. However, the danger, as I see it, in getting so fixated on these technological pursuits, we might become mindless technophiles, subordinating all else to what Neil Postman has identified as “the sovereignty of technique and technology.” 

In other words, we might mistake the means of education for the end of education. But, as Postman notes, “Any education that is mainly about economic utility is far too limited to be useful, and, in any case, so diminishes the world that it mocks one’s humanity.” The Harry Potter series knows (and shows) that, although the magic it depicts (and the technology of our world that it mimics) may mesmerize us, it is neither the cause of nor the solution to our deepest human problems. Instead, the story directs our attention to other, more fundamental concerns—the virtues that make the real differences in the characters’ lives and well-being, chief among them are humility, courage, and love. These virtues are the bedrock of a good life and our full development as human beings; they nurture and grow our spirit and soul. These are the lessons taught by Rowling, learned by Harry and his friends, and inculcated in the readers’ imaginations.

The Bible, Same-Sex Sexual Activity, and the Parameters for Flourishing

Photo by  Hieu Vu Minh  on  Unsplash

Photo by Hieu Vu Minh on Unsplash

The Bible, Same-Sex Sexual Activity, and the Parameters for Flourishing

It may surprise those outside of the field of biblical studies that there has been intense debate in recent decades over the meaning of the handful of passages in the Bible which seem to condemn same-sex sexual activity. These passages, sometimes referred to as “clobber” texts, since it is often said they have been used to “clobber” LGBT persons (and they unfortunately have), have maintained a fairly stable interpretive history (at least as far as these things go) in the church until the sexual revolution resulted in their revisitation. It may also be surprising that with several of these passages there are legitimate questions regarding the meanings of words and phrases, as the terminology is not always completely clear, even from the context of the passage. Thus there have been some good reasons for the debate, even though there have also been some overly-creative interpretive approaches attempted as well. Having done a fair amount of reading on the matter (though by no means considering myself an expert on all things related), I remain convinced that the texts do indeed forbid same-sex sexual activity.

Notice I did not say they forbid “homosexuality.” The way that term is used today usually refers to sexual orientation, or to one’s basic sense of attraction. While conversion therapy in its heyday sought to redirect homosexual attractions into heterosexual attractions, most now recognize that the therapy largely did not work, and that orientation is not easily changed.[1] Though some still suggest the possibility of conversion therapy’s success,[2] most within the evangelical community have abandoned it. While I do not think the Bible speaks clearly (if at all) about “sexual orientation,” it does speak (and I think with greater clarity) concerning same-sex sexual activity.

To recognize this distinction is to recognize a difference between our context and the biblical context(s). The Bible was written in places, times, and cultures vastly different from our own. When we come to the text, our goal should be to interpret it, as much as we are able, in its own context rather than ours. This does not remove its relevance for today’s Church, but it does mean we must consider that relevance with a great deal of thought and care. Though I can develop the case only briefly here, I wish to suggest that it is that very ancient context which makes it highly plausible that the New Testament authors, and Jesus himself, would have understood same-sex sexual activity as sinful.

Texts Addressing Same-Sex Sexual Activity

First, and perhaps most famously, Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 state:

You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination (Lev 18:22, NASB).

If there is a man who lies with a male as those who lie with a woman, both of them have committed a detestable act; they shall surely be put to death. Their bloodguiltiness is upon them (Lev 20:13).

Leviticus 18 and 20 are both concerned with inappropriate forms of sexual activity. Forbidden here are various forms of incest, adultery, and bestiality. The basis for the condemnation of this behavior is that it is an abomination (Heb: ʿēbâ; Gr: bdelugma). This term, which has been argued is restricted to a cultic/purity usage and thus is not applicable to Christians, refers to something offensive to God which makes a person unclean. Such activity would defile Israel in ways the surrounding nations had been defiled (cf. Lev 18:4ff.). Language of “clean” and “unclean” is less common in the New Testament than the Old, and is indeed transformed in a sense (e.g., Mark 7:19; Acts 10:11-15; 1 Tim 4:1-5), but this in and of itself does not mean the entire passage is no longer applicable (more on that below). The term (ʿēbâ; bdelugma) also carries a similar ethical connotation in Revelation 17:4, where it is connected with “sexual immorality” (more on that notion below as well).

Often what constitutes “sin” in the Old Testament (and the New) is that which disrupts the intended function given by God. We learn in Levicitus that it is not just the individual, but the community and the land itself, which would be corrupted by these forbidden activities. There are communal and ecological consequences for disrupting the divinely established parameters for human flourishing. Just as God is “otherly,” his people must act “otherly,” distinguished from the surrounding societies, as he has set them apart to do (cf. Lev 20:26).

Second, while it is frequently claimed that Jesus is silent on issues concerning same-sex sexuality, there are implicit indications in Jesus’ words which indicate otherwise. Two texts (among a few others) in the Gospels seem to point in a different direction.

But from the beginning of creation, God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother, and the two shall become one flesh; so they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate (Mark 10:6-9, NASB).

Some Pharisees came to Jesus, testing Him and asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?” And He answered and said, “Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.” They said to Him, “Why then did Moses command to give her a certificate of divorce and send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” The disciples said to Him, “If the relationship of the man with his wife is like this, it is better not to marry.” But He said to them, “Not all men can accept this statement, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb; and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men; and there are also eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to accept this, let him accept it” (Matt 19:3-12, NASB).

What makes us think Jesus here is implicitly (NOT explicitly) suggesting same-sex sexual activity, or more broadly, any form of sexual activity outside of a male-female marital relationship (which, for Jesus, would include sexual activity among the illegitimately divorced)[3] is condemned? If we remind ourselves that Jesus was a first century Jew, who grew up within Second Temple Judaism and shared major affinities with Judaism[4], we can see that Jesus shared a common thread with traditional Jewish beliefs about sexual activities. These beliefs, largely derived from Leviticus 18-20, among other places, viewed all forms of incest, adultery, and same-sex sexual activityas causing defilement and out of step with the divinely intended pattern. They were actions which, if not repented of and “put off,” merited consequences, both immediate and eschatological. As Preston Sprinkle has summarized succinctly, “Judaism from 300 B.C. to 500 A.D. unanimously and unambiguously maintained the Levitical prohibitions against all forms of same-sex relations.”[5] Jesus, within the context of first-century Judaism, and only validating male-female marriage (cf. Mark 10:6-9) or celibacy (cf. Matt 19:10-12) as the available options, stood squarely within that Jewish context. There is no hint that Jesus deviated from the traditional, widespread Jewish belief. None.

Much also has been made of the Pauline passages which touch on the subject of same-sex sexual activity (Rom 1:26-27; 1 Cor 6:9-11; 1 Tim 1:9-10). We should remind ourselves, before attending briefly to these texts, that Paul shared this same first century Jewish context with Jesus. If Paul deviated significantly from the standard, traditional Jewish sexual ethics, we would expect to find a great deal of effort and care exerted in order to accomplish that end. What we find instead are numerous affirmations of that ethic.

“For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error” (Rom 1:26-27, NASB).

Perhaps the most famous Pauline condemnation of same-sex sexual activity comes here in Romans 1. There are, however, a handful of real interpretive issues related to this passage. Some have suggested that 1:18-32 actually sets out the opinion of Paul’s interlocutor, and thus is not even Paul himself speaking.[6] Romans is frequently recognized as a diatribe, where Paul interacts with his interlocutor (whether imagined or real), and so it is possible that he presents his interlocutor’s position here (an ancient rhetorical strategy known as prosopopoeia) at the beginning of the letter and begins his own response in 2:1. We do not have time to chase that rabbit here, but suffice it to say that if that is the case, Romans 1:26-27 loses considerable (i.e., all of its) force as it relates to our question about same-sex sexual activity. Second, there is also the question of what Paul means here by exchanging natural relations with unnatural ones. It has been suggested that Paul has something in mind here other than consensual same-sex sexual activity. If, however, pederasty, oppressive same-sex practices, or cultic sexual practices are in view, Paul has used rather obscure terminology to indicate this when clearer words were available to him. There would be clearer ways to express that idea than the way Paul has done here. That withstanding, legitimate questions persist concerning this particular text and its relation to our topic. In my estimation, other passages in Paul are clearer.

“For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and shall be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” (Eph 5:31, NASB).

In terms of a positive example, Paul (who I take to be the voice of Ephesians) uses male-female marriage as a picture of the relationship of Christ and the Church and also affirms here the male-female nature of that union. For Paul, like Jesus, there was no consideration given to recognize same-sex unions or to validate same-sex sexual relations.

“But we know that the Law is good, if one uses it lawfully, realizing the fact that law is not made for a righteous person, but for those who are lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers and immoral men and homosexuals and kidnappers and liars and perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound teaching” (1 Tim 1:8-10, NASB).

The NASB does not render the key words here as clearly as it could. The terms here are likewise debated. The Greek word for “homosexual” is arsenokoitais. The term here is a compound of two terms found in Leviticus 20:13 and refers to a man who engages in sexual activity with another man. This same term appears also in 1 Corinthians 6, where it is paired with another debated term.

“Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” (1 Cor 6:9-11, NASB)

Here again a certain deficiency plagues the translations chosen by the NASB (I used it here simply because I used it elsewhere). The words for “effeminate” and “homosexuals” are malakoi and arsenokoitai, respectively. The terms in 1 Timothy 1:8-10 and 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 both have been questioned as to whether they refer to same-sex sexual activity in general, or to the practice of pederasty in the ancient world, where older men would engage in sexual activity with boys.  Both BDAG and Louw-Nida (two standard NT lexicons) suggest the terms refer to the passive (malakoi) and active (arsenokoitai) partners in a male same-sex sexual encounter. The term arsenokoitai was likely coined by Paul on the basis of Leviticus 20:13, which suggests Paul has in mind here the context of the Law of Moses rather than Greco-Roman practices. Nothing in the context indicates Paul has a more specific, restricted application of the term in mind, and his inclusion of sexually immoral persons (pornoi), idolators, and adulterers, strengthens the possibility that Leviticus is informing his thinking all the more. The other major category mentioned in Leviticus is incest, which Paul has addressed quite thoroughly in 1 Corinthians 5. In other words, it seems quite plausible that Paul is bringing Leviticus 18-20 to bear on the Corinthian congregation in order to set out the proper sexual pattern for followers of Jesus. It seems no small coincidence that Paul also lays out two possibilities in the next chapter (1 Cor 7) for his audience. All forms of sexual immorality (porneia) must be avoided, and the two options set forth are male-female marriage among believers and celibacy. Like Jesus, and like the Jewish world around them, Paul imagines no other alternatives for sexual activity.

This all raises a flag for how the debate often goes concerning how we should understand Leviticus’ application for today. Because Christians often view the Law in negative terms (i.e., it represents unattainable moral perfection) or as something which was discarded (though numerous NT texts indicate otherwise), there is a challenge in understanding how Leviticus might be relevant for a Christian’s sexual behavior. The question of the role of the Law is a complex and sticky one, and I cannot do complete justice to it here. The fact of the matter is that Jews continued to keep the Law. The whole point of the Acts 15 council was to consider what expectations Gentile Jesus-followers should keep and which ones they were exempted from following. Their conclusion is that Gentile Jesus-followers were to abstain from idolatry, sexual immorality, and consuming blood or meat from animals which had been strangled. In other words, no keeping the feasts, no circumcision, no following Jewish purity rights, etc. (all of which are issues which Paul addresses in his letters, meaning some Jews apparently did not get the news or ignored it). This does not mean the Law did not apply to them, but rather that the Law was not what centrally defined their identity. Jesus did. Throughout Paul’s letters, we find Paul grounding both his instruction and ethical teachings in the Old Testament in general, and the Law specifically. This issue provides a clear example. Paul expected the ethical guidelines concerning sexual behavior to still be binding on Gentile Christians, which meant incest, adultery, same-sex sexual activity, and other forms of sexual activity outside of male-female marital unions were forbidden. This was true of Jews and was to be true of Gentiles as well. Leviticus 18-20 still applied.

Furthermore, the term porneia, which we have mentioned several times now, was a bit of a “catch all” term for all kinds of inappropriate sexual behavior. It, along with its cognate terms, is used 55 times in the NT. It is used in various places in the NT to refer to adultery, prostitution, and incest, yet is also distinguished at times from those categories, indicating again that it could be a bit of an “umbrella” term for inappropriate sexual activity (i.e., that occurring outside of a male-female marriage union). All this should weigh heavily in favor of the fact that both Paul and Jesus very likely viewed all forms of sexual activity outside of male-female marital unions as sinful and forbidden.

New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson, who supports same-sex unions, notes,

The exegetical situation is straightforward: we know what the text says [i.e., the NT authors condemned same-sex sexual activity]. But what are we to do with what the text says? We must state our grounds for standing in tension with the clear commands of Scripture, and include in those grounds some basis in Scripture itself.”[7]

Johnson argues from the movement of God in human experiences, using the analogy of the Spirit-led work of the inclusion of the Gentiles to what we see occurring in same-sex relationships today. He does not see a basis in the NT itself for declaring same-sex sexual activity as good. Rather, he suggests the cultural movement afoot today and the stories of LGBT persons show us that the opinions of the NT writers are no longer valid for our understanding of sexual ethics today.

For those who do not accept the Bible as authoritative, discussing exegetical nuances (see Parts 1 and 2) likely offers little reason to change their view. I would not expect it to, nor would that be my intent. However, for those who do believe in the authority of the Bible for faith and yet would challenge its prohibitions against same-sex sexual behavior, I think we must ask, in what sense, then, does the Bible offer any ethical norms? In other words, if cultural movements and individual stories can override the prevailing opinion of Second Temple Jews (the NT’s context), Jesus and Paul (the NT’s central sources of doctrinal information), the earliest “Christians,” and the majority view of the Church throughout its history, in what sense can we find any ethical norms in Scripture or tradition? Is it all fair game and to be redefined as culture changes? Would the same principle apply, for example, to illegitimate divorce, or lying, or stealing, or drunkenness?

A possible retort might be here that what is being argued for (same-sex unions) falls under the hermeneutic of “love,” which Jesus (Mark 12:28-31; Matt 22:37-39; Luke 10:27), Paul (Rom 13:8-10 ; Gal 5:14), and James (Jas 2:8-13) all affirm as central to Christian obedience. However, these commands come from a combination of Deuteronomy 6:4-5 (Love God) and Leviticus 19:18 (Love neighbor). The irony here is Jesus, Paul, and James affirm the validity of Leviticus 19 for Christian practice. If their basis for establishing the centrality of love for Christian obedience is rooted in Leviticus 19, would we expect them to then be ignoring Leviticus 18 and 20? Clearly not. If these three chapters informed both their sexual ethics and their commitment to the centrality of love, can we so readily rend them apart? It seems to me this runs roughshod over sound and sensible hermeneutical principles. To claim the centrality of love is to stand upon Jesus, James, and Paul and Moses (cf. Lev 19). Erasing the validity of Leviticus from the foundation of ethical norms likewise erases the foundation for the centrality of love of neighbor which permeates the New Testament. Let’s not throw Moses out with the bathwater.

This does not mean, of course, that the Church, even if it stands on reasonable ground historically and exegetically for holding that same-sex sexual activity, and all sexual activity outside of male-female unions, has handled these matters well. The numerous failings, offenses, and outrages are well-documented. In fact, we have inverted the matter entirely. It appears that both Jesus and Paul value the primacy of celibacy for religious service and offer marriage as a concession. Jesus seems to imply this in Matthew 19:10-12, which we examined above, and Paul states it outright in 1 Corinthians 7:7-9 (“Now I say to the unmarried and to the widows: It is good for them if they remain as I am. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with sexual desire” (LEB).).

In our efforts to establish the validity of our position on marriage, we have established it as the norm to be attained and ignored completely the value of celibacy, perhaps even reinforcing the misguided idea that the primary function of marriage is sexual pleasure and gratification. Celibacy is to be praised rather than seen as an unfortunate outcome for those unfit for marriage. Celibacy frees followers of Jesus to dedicate their life and relationships to ministry and service. Celibacy does not entail loneliness. It entails a sacrifice, of course, but the Christian life is paradigmatically a life of sacrificial cruciformity. In fact, as Joseph Hellerman has argued,[8] we seem to have gotten Jesus’ (and Paul’s) priorities out of order. For Jesus, the “fictive kinship” offered in the family of God was to be the central place of community and relational nourishment for God’s people. The Church was the family. When Jesus places following him over blood-relation ties, this is what he means. We frequently hear it said that our priorities should be God-family-church, but Hellerman argues Jesus’ priorities were God-church-family. This does not mean the family is to be neglected, and ideally the biological family will overlap with the spiritual family. However, the New Testament suggests, perhaps clearer than we have recognized, that the primary place of relational sustenance was to come from the community of faith. The Church family. We do not offer the church, then, to those who we think should pursue celibacy as the way to follow the teachings of Scripture, as a lesser good. Rather, it is the primary good which we have regrettably made secondary.

The Church for too long has singled out same-sex sexual activity as the ultimate offense. If we were consistent, we would view adultery (including remarriage in cases of illegitimate divorce and dwelling on sexual thoughts toward a married person), pre-marital sex, consumption of pornography, and other forms of porneia with the same rejection as same-sex sexual activity. Perhaps we have found the LGBT “other” an easier target than the offenses of adultery, pornography, and cohabitation which permeate the church in the West today. Whatever the case, this lopsided aggression toward same-sex sexual activity in the larger culture at the expense of ignoring more prevalent issues in the Church must end. This means we should openly acknowledge that the Church has regrettably promoted disrespect, hate, and an unequal measure of condemnation on the LGBT community. Repentance is in order. We can and should maintain our position, but we should maintain it with consistency, taking into account the entire biblical witness and the whole picture of what human flourishing should look like. And we should maintain it with love. We need not separate Leviticus 19 from 18 and 20.

Rather than maintaining a theologically informed and balanced sexual ethic, too often evangelical believers have depended on a “yuck” factor to bolster their negative depictions of homosexuality. Without a more biblical and rigorously honest rationale undergirding their proscription of homosexual practice, there is little wonder that so many Millenials today (even professing Christians among them) have been remarkably resistant to the idea that same-sex sexual activity is a sin.

Our society largely judges “freedom” as the ability to follow one’s every whim and desire. As Christians, we rightly view this as bondage. Unfettered freedom is ultimately destructive. The teachings of Jesus and his apostles and the rich traditions of the Church, like the Law before them, provide parameters for human flourishing. We err when we selectively pursue the parameters which best serve our purposes or are most easily implemented. Full human flourishing requires full submissive obedience to the revelation of God and to the Revealed One.


[1] See Bobby Ross Jr., “No Straight Shot: More Evangelical Therapists Move from Changing Orientation to Embracing Faith Identity for Gays,” Christianity Today, September 14, 2009, accessed June 30, 2015. and Sarah Pulliam Bailey, “Gay, Christian, and Celibate: The Changing Face of the Homosexuality Debate,” On Faith, August 4, 2014, accessed June 30, 2015, and “Evangelical Leader Russell Moore Denounces Ex-Gay Therapy,” Religion News Service, October 28, 2014, accessed June 30, 2015,

[2] John Piper, “Same-Sex Attraction and the Inevitability of Change,” Desiring God, September 19, 2012, accessed June 30, 2015.

[3] To flesh this out would take us too far afield of our topic. I bring this up since the New Testament makes concessions for divorce in certain cases (i.e., sexual unfaithfulness). I think theologically a case can also be made for abusive relationships and perhaps other situations. Beyond this, divorce because “it didn’t work out,” or “we grew apart,” or “we fell out of love” is simply not allowed in the New Testament view of marriage. Jesus says this is a hard teaching for a reason.

[4] He does not reject Judaism as a failed religious system as older Lutheran and Bultmannian traditions assumed.

[5] Preston Sprinkle, “The Sin “of” Homosexuality?” Theology in the Raw, April 20, 2015, accessed June 30, 2015.

[6] See Douglas A. Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 528ff.

[7] Luke Timothy Johnson, “Homosexuality & The Church: Scripture & Experience,” Commonwealth Magazine, June 11, 2007, accessed June 30, 2015,

[8] Joseph H. Hellerman, When the Church Was a Family: Recapturing Jesus’ Vision for Authentic Christian Community (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009).

Chad Thornhill

Chad Thornhill

Dr. A. Chadwick Thornhill is the Chair of Theological Studies and an Assistant Professor of Apologetics and Biblical Studies for Liberty University Baptist Theological Seminary. Chad completed his PhD in Theology and Apologetics through LBTS with an emphasis in biblical studies. His areas of academic interest include ancient Christianity, apologetics, biblical languages, Second Temple Judaism, New Testament studies, Old Testament studies, and theology. He is the author of a forthcoming title (IVP Academic) on the Jewish background of the apostle Paul’s election texts. Dr. Thornhill lives in Lynchburg, VA with his wife Caroline and their two children.

John Hare’s God’s Command, Chapter 3, “Eudaemonism,” Section 3.3.1: The First Defense: Epicurean


3.3: Four Attempted Defenses of Eudaemonism. The rest of this chapter considers four defenses of eudaemonism, and rejects them all. The first is an Epicurean defense, the second a Stoic defense, the third a Thomist defense, and the last a defense through the notion of self-transcendence.

3.3.1 The First Defense: Epicurean. The first defense of eudaemonism against the charge that it is unacceptably self-regarding derives from the Epicurean tradition, which identifies the good with pleasure. There’s an important division within the hedonist tradition between what Sidgwick calls “egoistic hedonism” and “universalistic hedonism.” The egoistic hedonist proposes that the agent should think about her own pleasures, and the universalistic hedonist proposes that she should think about the pleasures of all those affected by her decision, and count those people as worth the same as herself in the calculation of all sentient beings.


Both kinds of hedonist have in common that it is pleasures the agent should think about, and that these pleasures constitute happiness. As friendship is so vital, some hedonists might suggest the wise will feel the same way about their friends as they do about themselves. The friendship marked by equal regard for the friend may develop gradually, and it may sometimes involve something like a pact or agreement to love one’s friends as much as oneself. But the basic point is the first one, that pleasure as our chief good should be expanded to include the pleasure we get from the pleasure of our friends. With some kinds of pleasure such as pleasure in friendship, pursuing something for its own sake and for its particular kind of pleasure amount to the same thing, and with these pleasures we can give a plausible account of a good life that includes concern for the good of others for its own sake.

Note that this first eudaemonist defense doesn’t have to be put in terms of pleasure. Some utilitarians moved from an emphasis on pleasure to an emphasis on happiness, because there seemed to be ingredients of happiness that are not in any obvious way pleasures, and they thought we should be maximizing those ingredients as well. Some utilitarians moved beyond the value-laden notion of happiness to an account in terms of maximization of preferences.

The essential form of the first eudaemonist defense is that an agent’s own good, whether this is defined in terms of pleasure, happiness, or preference-satisfaction, can be structured in a complex way, so that it contains both merely one-at-a-time goods and life-as-a-whole-affirming goods; the former can be evaluated by their contribution to the latter. Some goods, like friendship, have leverage over one’s life, making it worthwhile as a whole. The point of this first defense is that objectors to eudaemonism focus on the merely one-at-a-time goods, and fail to see the resources of the life-as-a-whole-affirming goods for addressing the objection that eudaemonism is unacceptably self-regarding. Not all of these latter have to be pleasures.

We can put the point in terms of Scotus’s distinction between the three different kinds of thing we want in loving God: wanting God to have everything good, wanting union with God, and wanting the satisfaction that comes from union with God. The first eudaemonist defense does not need to rely only on the third kind, but can work with the second kind as well. If, however, it moves to the first kind, it will no longer be eudaemonist.

The strategy in this first eudaemonist defense is to distinguish two different ways in which we can enjoy something “for its own sake.” In one way, if something is loved for its own sake, there can’t be anything at all for the sake of which it is loved. The analogy with music is helpful here. It’s wrongheaded to criticize one who says he loves music for its own sake because in fact he derives pleasure from music. When I get the proper kind of pleasure from music, the pleasure is not something else, or something external, for the sake of which I love the music. The second way we can enjoy something “for its own sake” is when there is nothing external to it for the sake of which it is loved. Pleasures come in two different kinds, as do ingredients of happiness and preference-satisfaction. There are what was called earlier “one-at-a-time” goods and “life-as-a-whole-affirming” goods. When I love my friend for her own sake, this is like loving music for itself; both of these loves are perfectly compatible with, indeed they require, getting a certain kind of pleasure or satisfaction, and loving that satisfaction. The two loves also have the capacity to have leverage over one’s life as a whole. Life-as-a-whole-affirming goods characteristically have instances such that the instance is loved both for its own sake and for the sake of the life-as-a-whole-affirming good, which belongs with it internally. The first eudaemonist defense argues that in loving my friend for her own sake I am also loving her for the sake of my happiness, and there is nothing paradoxical in this because her well-being is internal to, or an ingredient in, my own.

We can appeal here to two different levels at which we do practical thinking. We operate most of the time at an intuitive level with principles that we do not think out from scratch. But when we have leisure, we can try to work out critically what principles or intuitions we should live by. We could call this higher level “the critical level.” This strategy works for the first eudaemonist defense because we can say that the self-referential eudaemonism comes into play only at the critical level. Most of the time we live at the intuitive level, and at this level we can think entirely about the well-being of our friends or of other people. Some object to this two-level thinking as schizophrenic, but Hare thinks this is unfair. The two-level account, he says, is not supposed to be an account of two simultaneous pieces of reflection. There’s nothing schizophrenic about parents thinking sometimes about the benefits to the world as a whole of parents feeling special obligations to their own children.

There is, however, something troublesome about the application of the two-level picture to a defense of eudaemonism, rather than to an analysis of morality more broadly. The question is how much concern for others the higher or critical level will let through. Suppose we concede that it will endorse principles at the intuitive level that call for loving family and friends for their own sake. The problem is that the critical level is still by hypothesis eudaemonist, and, when I consider the interests of others beyond family and friends, it will not make all that much room for them. We have a limited capacity for caring. Even if the eudaemonist critical level endorses principles of non-self-indexed concern for family and friends at the intuitive level, this will itself diminish the caring we can do for those outside these limits.

Suppose we grant that the satisfaction we get from seeing the happiness of those we love is capable of exerting significant leverage on whether our lives seem to us worthwhile on the whole. Nonetheless there are needs of people and indeed of all sentient beings beyond these limits that we both can and should try to meet. We seem to reach natural limits of human caring, and we almost certainly have moral obligations that go beyond these limits. If the eudaemonist responds that my sense of a meaningful life is not what counts, but rather the degree of my perfection, we have gone beyond the limits of the Epicurean defense.

John Hare’s God’s Command, Chapter 3, “Eudaemonism,” Section 3.2.1: A Single-Source View: Aristotle


Section 3.2 is called “The Sources of Motivation.” In the introduction to this section, Hare writes that to explain the term “self-indexed” we need to go back in the history of the topic; first to Aristotle, then to Scotus. Aristotle gives a single-source account of motivation, Scotus a double-source account.

3.2.1 Aristotle wrote that the good has been aptly described as that at which everything aims. Action and rational choice are related in the same way as art and discipline: in other words, rational choice controls action. So there’s a similarity between these two pairs of terms, but also a contrast: for some ends are activities and others are products apart from these. This distinction structures the whole discussion. Both art and action have ends, but art has an end that is a product apart from the activity of the art itself, whereas the end of action is not separate from the activity in this way.

Action has as its end happiness, and happiness is activity in accordance with characteristic virtue (or excellence) and therefore perfects the agent. Various virtues all are dispositions to act or feel or think as reason prescribes, so the end of action is itself doing something or being active in a way that manifests these dispositions. We can describe the status of the action or activity in terms of how noble it is or how close it is to the divine. The good for the polis is more noble and divine than the good for an individual.

Aristotle acknowledges that, even though the good is agreed to have the name “happiness,” there are different accounts of what happiness consists in. He himself mentions three, and he’s probably reflecting the Pythagorean picture of the three lives, which came to him through Plato. Pythagoras distinguished three kinds of people who go to the Olympic Games: the athletes, who go to compete; the businessman, who go to make money; and the spectators, who go to watch. By analogy, in Aristotle’s account there is the life of somatic pleasure, the life of politics, and the life of contemplation. All three of these candidates are activities of the agent. Pleasure, on this account, is an activity or at least accompanies activity, political life is constant activity, and contemplation (which has the noblest and most divine objects) is the activity of our highest part.

Two reasons might be proposed for disputing this reading of Aristotle. Someone might say that we act virtuously in order to attain what is noble, and the term “noble” involves no essential reference to the agent. And someone might say that Aristotle ends up stretching the identity of the agent to include his family and friends and fellow-citizens. These two reasons converge, since Aristotle thinks it’s noble to care for one’s friends for their own sake, and not for one’s own. But to test whether we genuinely escape essential reference to the agent in good that’s pursued by the agent, we need to look at cases where there’s tension between the good of others and the agent’s own good, and see how Aristotle adjudicates those cases. One example: does nobility require death in battle for the sake of the polis? Here Aristotle feels he has to give a justification in terms of the brave man’s reward either by posthumous honor or by the brief moment of exaltation before being killed. Neither of these justifications takes us beyond essential reference to the agent.

The case of friendship is even clearer. Aristotle uses the language of “a different himself” to talk first about a father’s relation to his son, and then a virtuous friend’s relation to his friend. The father loves the son as “a different himself” because the son came from him, and the virtuous friend loves his friend as “another himself” because he related to the friend and to himself in the same way. So the happiness of a good person will require the happiness of his family and friends. But he will aim at their happiness only to the extent that they have these special relations with him. Aristotle is not proposing here that we value every human being as an end-in-itself or that our own happiness counts morally no more or no less than anyone else’s. If we are noble, we will have concern for the other for the sake of the other, but this concern is conditional on the maintenance of the special relation. This limitation is made vivid when Aristotle considers the question whether we wish our friends to become gods. Aristotle thinks not, for they would then no longer wish our friendship, so we want the greatest good for them “as human beings.” He adds the additional qualification that we do not strictly want the greatest good for our friends because “it is himself most of all that each person wishes what is good.” He insists that virtue doesn’t leave the sphere of self-love.

Two distinctions need to be made here. The first is often associated with Bishop Butler. There are two senses in which every good aimed at by an agent might be a good for the agent, and the first does not imply the second. The first sense is that the good aimed at is good for the agent just because the agent aims at it. In this sense, the good aimed at might not itself contain any relation to the agent beyond that of being aimed at by means available to the agent. In the second sense, the good for the agent is an object whose definition includes internal reference to the agent, as in Aristotle’s example of “the good of my friend.” It’s a mistake to think the second follows from the first.

The other distinction is implicit in the description of the first. We should not insist that the good for the agent (in the second sense) be articulated as such by the agent. We can internalize various principles without being able to articulate them; even without articulation, though, they can shape the lives we try to lead.

Summing up, we can say that Aristotle gives us a single-source view of the motivation of an agent; the source is the agent’s happiness, understood as a perfecting activity of the agent. This is good “for the agent” in the second of the two senses distinguished by Butler. The object pursued has essential reference to the agent, not merely because it is what she is pursuing, but in its own definition. The self-indexed good does not, however, require that the agent articulate it as self-indexed. The claim of the present chapter is that a single-source view of the motivation of an agent is a mistake, but that Aristotle is right nonetheless to say that we start from self-preference. This is not because we are human, however, but because of a disorder of our wills. It’s not necessary for humans to prefer themselves in this way.

John Hare’s God’s Command, Chapter 3, “Eudaemonism,” Section 3.3.4: The Fourth Defense: Agent-Transcendent Eudaemonism

Finally, the Aquinas-Porter argument can be revised in a way that is not liable to the objections to the first step and the second. Suppose we say that the agent’s encompassing good is not some more general good, like the good of the polis or of the natural world or of God’s friends, that necessarily includes her individual good, but the divine itself, which is by its own nature self-transcending. For Scotus, the end for human beings is to enter into the love that the persons of the Trinity have for each other, or to become co-lovers. This means that the highest activity is one of will, prepared by intellect, since Scotus accepts the principle that nothing is willed except what is previously cognized. This view should be distinguished from a view that happiness involves both the intellect and the will, but the activity of the will (the loving) is consequent on the highest activity, which is the beatific vision in the intellect. On Scotus’s view we can say that, of faith, hope, and love, the greatest is love both here and in heaven. On the other view, love may be the greatest of the three down here on earth, but in heaven the greatest will be a state of the intellect. The proposal we are now considering is that the agent identifies her happiness as entering into a kind of loving that is itself self-transcending. Such divine self-transcendence can be seen within the Trinity.

The proposal we are considering would appear to overcome the difficulties with the two steps of the Porter-Aquinas argument. First, it doesn’t beg the question about motivation. It allows that we have both a self-perfecting and a self-transcending love. But it holds that the second comes out of the first, because we identify in perfecting ourselves with a being that is itself self-transcending. Second, it does not hold that there is a necessary harmony between the self-indexed interests of an agent and the wider groups in which she is included.

The proposal has been stated in theistic terms, but can also be found in non-theistic terms. It might seem that if you identify the best (the most perfect) state of yourself as loving, then there will no longer be a tension between perfecting yourself and spending yourself for others. But there’s a difficulty here, which discloses itself in the following dilemma: either this is a single-source theory (deriving all motivation from my own happiness and perfection) or it is not. We have interests that do not reduce to virtue, or to conforming our lives to the Categorical Imperative for its own sake, and it’s completely appropriate for beings like us to have these interests. The point was made earlier that Kant should have allowed that self-indexed motivation includes more than the satisfaction of sensuous inclination. Now a single-source theory can to some extent accommodate such motivation. Aristotle, for example, can insist that self-love of the right kind is consistent with various forms of self-sacrifice. But he also insists that these are forms of self-love. His picture of motivation is that, if the agent were to ask herself “Why am I doing this?” the fundamental answer would be “because I am assigning myself the best thing.” Scotus and Kant would say that this answer is unacceptably self-regarding. But there is a dilemma here. Some followers of Aristotle disagree with his point about self-love and say the virtuous person should be called “good-loving.” This is unobjectionable, but now we no longer have a single-source theory. In Scotus’s terms, God will be loved both for God’s own sake and for the sake of the union. So either we stick with a single source theory that seems objectionably self-regarding, or we allow that self-indexed motivation properly remains, and then we have a double-source theory again, like that of Kant and Scotus.

The point is that the self-indexing of some goods needs to remain. An attempt to get rid of all such goods is Maimonides’ notion we’re absorbed into God. But surely there’s a sense in which we lose ourselves on that view; we lose, in Scotus’s term, our haecceity. One way to put this is that the fourth defense of eudaemonism paradoxically ends up compromising the aspiration to happiness.

So there is a dilemma for this kind of “agent-perfective” account of eudaemonism. It is the best form of eudaemonism; one free from many of the objections raised in this chapter. But it still faces the present dilemma. Suppose we think that an agent should be motivated by the desire to perfect herself, and suppose that being perfected is becoming the kind of person who is not always motivated by self-indexed goods. Do we now have a form of eudaemonism that is not “unacceptably self-regarding”? The problem is that we need to know whether this is a single-source account of motivation. If it is, and this account does not retain motivation toward goods that are self-indexed and necessarily so (such as the particular way of loving God that is unique to an individual), goods that could be (counterfactually) in tension with God’s own good, then the account is, we might say, “unacceptably self-neglecting.” But if it keeps these goods, then it is no longer a single-source account. By the definition at the beginning of this chapter, this means it’s no longer a form of eudaemonism. But what we need in our substantive theory is an account that gives us both kinds of goods.

John Hare’s God’s Command, Chapter 3, Section 3.3.3, “The Third Defense: Thomist”

The third defense of eudaemonism is drawn from the picture of Aquinas’s account of the relation between morality and happiness described by Jean Porter. She starts with a difficulty about understanding Aquinas, which is that he seems both to affirm eudaemonism and to assert that charity loves God for the sake of God and the neighbor for the sake of the neighbor, and not for our own sakes. Porter tries reconciling these. Aquinas expresses his eudaemonism by saying we all act with the goal of happiness, which sounds like a denial of the picture Hare attributed to Scotus and Kant featuring two fundamental motivations behind human action. But Aquinas also says that the love of God for God’s own sake is the distinctive mark of charity, and that charity towards the neighbor requires us to promote the neighbor’s good for the neighbor’s sake and not our own. There’s a paradox here. Porter tries resolving it in two steps.

The first step is to say that whatever overarching good the agent loves as her final end, she must regard it as in some way a meaningful goal for her own actions. But the Kantian would say this begs the question. For Kant and Scotus there are two fundamental sorts of motivations. For Aristotle and Aquinas-Porter, just one. For Aquinas the actualization of one’s final end is natural, but for Kant it’s free, not in this sense natural. Scotus says if an angel had the affection for advantage but not for justice, it wouldn’t be free. It begs the question to assert that we know, just on the basis of understanding human agency, that there is just one final end.

It might be thought almost unavoidable to say any action of mine must be directed at my own good, but recall some distinctions here. The first, from Butler, is that there are two senses in which every good aimed at by an agent might be a good for the agent, and the first does not imply the second. The first sense is that the good aimed at is good for the agent just because it is aimed at. In the second sense, the good for the agent is an object whose definition includes internal reference to the agent. Now, the moral law occasions in the agent a feeling of respect. Respect is my feeling, but it is not occasioned by a self-indexed object. Rather, it is occasioned by the moral law, which has no reference to me at all. The second distinction was between cases where the explicit description under which the object is loved is self-indexed and cases where it is not. Here Aquinas-Porter and Scotus-Kant would share common ground in saying that the self-indexed description need not be present to the mind of the agent. But what is at issue between the two positions is the former question: must the object be self-indexed if it to be intelligible to an agent? Aquinas-Porter says yes, and Scotus-Kant no.

Aquinas-Porter gives a second step in the proposed solution to the apparent contradiction of asserting both eudaemonism and the thesis that we should love God and the neighbor for their own sakes. The solution is to point to the fact that the individual belongs in a nested series of comprehensive general goods: the political community, the natural world, and God’s friends.

Both sides agree God brings virtue and happiness together, but the anti-eudaemonist insists this is not a necessary connection, but one due to God’s providential care. This makes a difference to the kind of gratitude we have to God. It also reminds us of the possible conflict, and the need for a ranking. Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these other things shall be added unto you.

Is it the case that the interest of the individual necessarily coincides with the true interests of the polis? Not necessarily, for what the polis might need is for me to hand the reins over to another, yet that might not be in my own interest. Even if we leave the Aristotelian framework, the possibility of tension between the true interests of the individual and of the state arises in the so-called problem of dirty hands. The state needs in its leadership people who are willing to compromise moral standards in a way that is inappropriate for private individuals. Moral compromises need to be made, and this is a cost to moral character that our leaders have to bear. Or consider surgeons who have to cut into living tissue on a regular basis, and who have to develop a certain kind of hardness of heart if they are going to do their jobs. This, too, is a kind of sacrifice of moral sensitivity they make. Or take the case of soldiers who have to be willing to become hardened to some degree about killing other people. It seems likely that there is some conflict between the interests of the state and of the individual. Remember the modal claim of Porter-Aquinas that there can’t be a conflict. For Kant divine assistance is needed to ensure there’s no conflict.

The second level in the nested series is the level of the natural world, or cosmos. Can we say that the interests of all the individuals who suffer and die in the course of evolution are somehow realized in the development of human beings? It seems doubtful that the whole created order exists for our sake. Kant’s own position is one that sees no natural coincidence of interest, but he agrees that humans can’t survive or flourish without the laws of nature in place.

The third level in the nested series is the community of the redeemed, the “friends of God.” Is it possible that the loss of salvation by some persons might be to the glory of God, and that charity might therefore require them to accept damnation? In previous generations, Calvinist congregations would regularly contain people who thought they were among the reprobate, but nonetheless attended divine worship with devotion, and no doubt tried to do their duties recognizing them as divine commands. Is such a frame of mind incoherent? If not, then surely there is not a necessary coincidence between my greatest good, in this case my salvation, and the glory of God. This mere possibility is enough to reject the necessary connection of the modal claim.

The point is just that God is not constrained here by necessity any more than we have necessity at the other two levels of the nested series. (I think I disagree with Hare here.) About all three levels we can that, if there is a harmony, it is a contingent harmony established because God is both, in Leibniz’s terms that Kant also uses, sovereign of “the kingdom of nature” and sovereign of “the kingdom of grace.”

John Hare’s God’s Commands, Chapter 3, “Eudaemonism,” Section 3.3.2: The Second Defense: Stoic

We turn next to a different defense that the eudaemonist might make, one that derives from the Stoics. The idea is that the notion of reason brings impartiality with it, and so our good as rational beings requires that we follow the moral law. This is the sort of idea that says achieving the good of all, as you do if you act impartially, just is achieving your own good properly understood.

The key is “properly understood.” The good or “benefit” has to be distinguished from the merely “convenient.” Goods when properly understood are shared or common to the excellent. We have from the Stoics a “double-source” view of motivation. They distinguish motivation by self-concern and motivation by concern for others. Both of these develop. They have a technical term for this that we can translate “appropriation.” We can distinguish two kinds of appropriation: personal and social. The first is the development that takes us from self-preservation to valuing reasoning as a way to get the things that fit our nature, such as health and wealth, and then to valuing reason in its own right. The second is the development through progressively wider social groupings, until one cares for every human being.

This is a double-source theory in a sense, but not in the sense introduced earlier. This is because the Stoics were eudaemonists, and held that both forms of appropriation enable one to see better a single thing, one’s own chief good, which remains the source of all motivation. But here’s a problem: It’s true that if I already see my aunt, for example, as worth the same as my mother, then I will see that a benefit to my aunt is worth the same as a benefit to my mother. But if I don’t already see this, it is unclear how reason can require me to see it. What the argument needs to show is that it’s irrational to prefer benefiting those near to those far. Why should reason move to this? In fact, for that matter, why should reason prevent me preferring benefiting myself to benefiting someone else?

A contemporary philosopher who makes an argument rather similar to the Stoic one is Peter Singer. He thinks that we can get on an “escalator of reason,” and find ourselves moving toward the standpoint of the impartial spectator or ideal observer. From this standpoint, which Sidgwick calls the point of view of the universe, it makes no difference to the moral decision whether the interest being served is mine or someone else’s. But Singer also accepts from Sidgwick that reason allows me to get off the escalator at any point. He denies the argument he attributes to Kant that reason by its nature requires universalizing, or willing the maxims of our actions as universal laws. The point is that Singer acknowledges that we can’t get a convincing argument from the nature of reason itself for moving to the moral point of view. There is nothing irrational in itself, he says, about preferring oneself.

A number of other contemporary philosophers have tried a similar strategy. One is Korsgaard, whose conception of the “normative question” Hare’s been using all along. She thinks that Kant intended the formulation of the Categorical Imperative in terms of universal law to give us, all by itself, the moral law. But she thinks Kant failed to see that prescribing universal law does not yet settle the question of the domain over which the law of the free will must range. The domain could be the desires of the moment, for example, or of the agent’s whole life. She thinks she can provide an argument for extending the domain over every rational being. She starts from the observation that what separates humans from other animals is their ability to act on the basis of a self-conception, what she calls a “practical identity,” conceptions like “sister” or “philosopher.” She thinks practical identities create unconditional obligations, and this is one place where her view can be questioned.

Cohen raises the case of the idealized Mafioso. Not doing some horrible deed might result in his loss of identity, yet surely we are better off not having to say that the Mafioso has an obligation to do the horrible thing. Korsgaard qualifies her claim by adding that the Mafioso has a deeper obligation to give up his immoral role. This is because the activity of reflection has rules of its own, and one of them is the rule that we should never stop reflecting until we have reached a satisfactory answer, one that admits of no further questioning. Following this rule would lead the Mafioso to morality.

Hare thinks the argument breaks down here. There is nothing in the nature of reflection as such that requires giving priority to the way humans are the same (namely, that they have practical identities) over the ways they are different. Even if it’s true that valuing your practical identity implies valuing the human capacity to set a practical identity, you can still value your differences from other human beings more. So, alas, it’s possible to be a fully reflective Nazi. To be sure, we can always define “reflection” or “reason” in such a way that it brings morality with it. But there does not seem to be a morally neutral account of reason or reflection that allows us to deduce morality from it. The history of attempts to give such an argument is not encouraging. If, though, we accept that the moral law is God’s command, then we can see a way to argue for it from the premise that reason tells us that, if there is a God, God is to be loved and obeyed (a proposition, recall, Scotus argued, can be known from its terms).


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John Hare’s God’s Command, Chapter 3, “Eudaemonism,” Introduction and Section 3.1: Does Morality Make You Happy?

INTRODUCTION: Recall the argument from justification in ch. 1. If we ask the normative question “Why should I be moral?” or “Why should I take the moral demand as a valid demand on me?” one answer we might propose is “because it will make me happy.” Another answer is “because it will fulfill my nature as a human being.” These are related because one theory about happiness is that it resides in the fulfillment of our nature. If either theory is sufficient, a divine command theory will not be needed for answering the normative question. This chapter is about the first answer, and the next chapter about the proposed derivation of the moral law from human nature.

Hare’s claim is that the first answer fails for two reasons. First, it is not strictly true, at least in this life. Second, even if it is true, it gives the wrong kind of motivation. Questions of justification and questions of motivation are different but linked on a Kantian account of morality. If the terminus of a person’s motivation is her own happiness, she is not following the moral law for its own sake, and therefore “because it will make me happy” fails as a justification of this kind of moral obedience. The claim that such a pattern of motivation is unacceptably self-regarding is the central topic of this chapter.

3.1: It’s not strictly true to say that morality makes you happy in this life, or that, if you act well, things go well. There are two reasons for this. The first is that you can be morally good and still be miserable, because moral virtue does not have the right kind of leverage to secure happiness. Consider people striving to be virtuous but are clinically depressed. Or consider that a great deal of happiness is dependent on our relations with other people. We live in a world in which many of the people we know and love are not doing whatever they can to follow the moral law, and in this way we become sources of unhappiness for each other.

The second reason it is not strictly true to say that morality makes you happy in this life is that morality not merely fails to secure happiness; it can actually decrease it. Virtue can make unhappiness worse if we think we deserve to be happy if we’re virtuous. Denial of opportunities in accordance with virtue can be very frustrating. Moreover, the more virtuous you are, the more acutely you will feel the sufferings of those around you and hate the injustice that causes it. Even more straightforwardly, morality may require a genuine sacrifice of this-worldly happiness. The key question is one of motivation and ranking. How do we negotiate the continual dilemmas in which one or the other seems to have to give way?

To say there is regularly tension between the two goals is consistent with saying, with RMH, that, if we were bringing up a child purely in his own interest, we should try to inculcate in him some reasonably demanding moral principle with the attendant moral feelings. His view was that virtue was necessary but not sufficient for a good human life. He thought an empirical judgment is that those committed to a life of virtue are generally happier than those who aren’t thus committed, but he conceded that occasions will arise in which the saints’ or heroes’ principles will require them to make very great sacrifices. So, if parents educate their children to admire and practice virtue, they may be bringing it about that in some unlikely contingencies their children have to pay a very high price. Even so, he thought, the parents should bring up their children that way, because it is usually the case that people who are so brought up are happier.

Recall in this context that the demand of Kantian morality is very high. We are to love enemies with what Kant calls “practical love,” for example, sharing their ends, as long as these ends are themselves morally permissible. Also, we have to share the ends of the poor in the rest of the world who could be helped by our lowering our standard of living and sending out the proceeds. This doesn’t mean we have to reduce ourselves to abject poverty; but, even though it is a complex question just how much to reduce, it is very likely that most of us in the developed world live too richly.

Even if it’s strictly true, however, that morality leads to happiness, perhaps mediated by the supersensible author of nature, this answer to the normative question would not give us the right kind of motivation for a justification. “Eudaemonist” is Kant’s term for someone who says that “happiness is really his motive for acting virtuously.” This is a single-source view of motivation; all our motivation derives finally and properly from our own happiness. Hare claims that this is unacceptably self-regarding. He looks at four proposed defenses of eudaemonism against this claim, and replies to each of them. The first three will end up compromising on the moral demand, and the fourth will compromise on the aspiration for happiness.

Some criticize Kant’s argument from providence by saying Kant defines happiness and morality too narrowly, the former as the sum of pleasures and the latter as the sense of duty requiring elimination of all singular reference. Hare replies that the argument from providence doesn’t in fact need these defective features of Kant’s account. All the argument needs is that happiness is essentially self-indexed, and that morality is essentially not self-indexed. If we want to hold that we are properly motivated by what is good in itself, independently of its relation to us, this requires a double-source view of motivation: We are motivated both by our own happiness and by what is good in itself independently of our happiness. Once we concede that point, we will see that there is no necessary coincidence between morality and happiness, and that assurance of consistency between the two requires a view about the governance of the universe as a whole.

The substance of this chapter will be an examination of four defenses of eudaemonism. The first is from the Epicureans. It starts from the pleasure we get in the pleasure of others, what Sidgwick calls “sympathetic pleasure,” and argues that there is a good sense of “for its own sake” where what is meant is “for the sake of the agent’s pleasure internal to it.” The second is from the Stoics. It’s the notion of reason that brings impartiality with it, and so our good as rational beings requires that we follow the moral law. The third is from a character Hare calls Aquinas-Porter, to whom is attributed an interpretation of Aquinas by Porter. On this representation, Aquinas has a way to reconcile Aristotle’s eudaemonism with the view that the distinctive mark of charity is loving God for God’s own sake and promoting the good of the neighbor for the neighbor’s sake and not our own. The key to reconciliation is to postulate a nested series of interests that’s necessarily harmonious and includes the agent’s own happiness within it. The fourth defense revises the third by dropping the nested series, and it proposes instead that an agent perfects herself by union with God, who is self-transcending. These four proposed defenses are not an exhaustive list, but they are among the most important.

Image: By Phillip Medhurst (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The Possibility of Virtue in Christianity and Buddhism: The Victory of Christian Virtue (Part 5 of 5)


Chapter Three

The Victory of Christian Virtue

In Chapter One, it was argued that for a particular worldview to be compatible with virtue ethics, it has to meet two kinds of criteria. First, it must be able to account for teleology of persons and the world. Second, it must have a view of man that allows for the narrative unity of a single human life.  Chapter Three will demonstrate two claims. First that experience and reason confront the Buddhism with facts that are difficult to explain away; these same facts naturally flow from the Christian worldview. Therefore, Christianity provides a better explanation for the nature of reality and human persons than Buddhism. The second claim is that Christianity can accommodate a virtue view of ethics.

The Foundations of Christian Ethics

The Nature of God

Any account of Christian ethics must begin with God. In Christian thought, God is metaphysically necessary: “The existence of God is a first truth; in other words, the knowledge of God’s existence is rational intuition. Logically, it precedes and conditions all observation and reasoning.”[1] Further, he is the “infinite Spirit in whom all things have their source, support, and end.”[2] God is defined as the greatest conceivable or maximally great being. As such, he is said to possess all great making properties, like moral perfection and ultimate value.  By definition and ontological necessity, God constitutes the good of Christian ethics.

As a maximally great being, God exists with certain attributes. Strong divides the attributes of God into two categories: the absolute or immanent attributes and the relative or transitive attributes. The absolute attributes are those attributes that God possesses without reference to anything else. God possesses life, personality, aseity, unity, and moral perfection as ontologically necessary properties.  The life that God possesses is not biological life, but rather mental energy. He “lives” as a personal being, possessing “the power of self-consciousness and self-determination.”[3]  God, then, is fundamentally and necessarily a unified, conscious, and rational person who possesses libertarian free will. In addition, he constitutes the ultimate ground of all value and moral objectivity.

The Nature of Man

The imago Dei explained  

As a free being, complete within himself, God chose to create mankind in his image:

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”[4]

While the Bible does not specifically explain the nature of the imago Dei, Erickson argues that there are at least six facts that can be inferred from what the Bible does say.  His first five facts explain that the image of God is something bestowed freely by God, without reference to any trait or merit within man, and that all humans possess the image equally. Each of these facts is vitally important to ethics, and the application of ethics in particular. However, his sixth point is especially important to demonstrating that Christianity meets the requirements of virtue:

“The image refers to the elements in the human makeup that enable the fulfillment of human destiny. The image is the powers of personality that make humans, like God, beings capable of interacting with other persons, thinking, and of willing freely.”[5] Essentially, possessing the imago Dei is what makes human beings persons; the absence of which makes animals merely animals.

J.P. Moreland has argued that as the imago Dei relates to persons, there are five principle parts: consciousness, free will, rationality, the soul, and objective moral values and the intrinsic value of a human being. If Christianity is true so that people are, in fact, created in the image of God, then there ought to be facts about human persons that are difficult for other worldviews to explain away. This provides an excellent opportunity to offer an apologetic toward Buddhism and a fuller explanation of what constitutes the imago Dei and how it is relevant to Christian ethics.

The recalcitrant imago Dei: human persons and the failure of Buddhism[6]

One of the criticisms made of the virtue view of Buddhism is that it is motivated for some reason other than obtaining an honest interpretation of the Buddha’s ethics. Some Buddhist virtue ethicists even openly admitted that they had ulterior motives.[7] It was suggested that Keown was a kind of “revisionist.” This raises an important question: Why would someone want to reinterpret the Buddha in favor of a virtue ethic? The answer seems to be that a theory of virtue ethics makes better sense out the world than the theories that the Buddha taught. While the insights of the Buddha are tremendous, they are nevertheless out of step with what human beings can know by experience and reason. In particular, Chapter Two pointed out that a virtue view of ethics was guilty of ignoring or distorting truths about the nature of a human person and the moral quality of reality. There are recalcitrant facts about the nature of man and morality for Keown and other Buddhist virtue ethicists. These are facts about the sort of world human beings find themselves in as well as the sort of lives they experience, facts about the apparent narrative unity of the human life and the teleology of the world in general. Specifically, the Buddhist will have trouble explaining the five parts of a person who possesses the imgao Dei.


Moreland argues that “mental states require a subjective ontology–namely that mental states are necessarily owned by the first person sentient subjects who have them.”[8] According to Moreland, there are five states of consciousness and each is expressed in terms of a subject/object relationship.  A sensation is a state of awareness. One might have the sensation of “seeing red,” or “feeling pain.” A thought is a “mental content that can be expressed in an entire sentence.” “All fire trucks are red,” is a thought and so is “My favorite fruit is apples.” A belief is a “person’s view, accepted to varying degrees of strength, of how things really are.” A desire is a “certain felt inclination to do, or experience certain things or avoid such.” And finally, an act of will is a “choice, an exercise of power. . . usually for the sake of some purpose.”[9] The states of consciousness do not constitute some conventional person nor are these states aggregates of a whole. Instead, the five states are all properties of a mind (mental states), which is a unified whole and indivisible. Moreland further suggests that there is an I that stands behind and above these various states so that they belong to a particular individual: “the first person perspective is not a property persons have, it is the thing that persons are – centers of a personal kind of consciousness.”[10] On this point, Moreland agrees with Strong:

Self-consciousness is more than consciousness. This last the brute may be supposed to possess, since the brute is not an automaton. Man is distinguished from the brute by his power to objectify self. Man is not only conscious of his own acts and states, but by abstraction and reflection he recognizes the self which is the subject of these acts and states.[11]

Moreland’s view of consciousness as mental states stands in contrast to the Buddha’s.

The Buddha believed that there are five aggregates that constitute a conventional person:  form

(rupa), sensation (vedana), perception (sanna), mental formation (sankhara), and awareness[12]

(vinnana).   The last four of these aggregates are mental states,[13] similar to the ones utilized by Moreland, although the Buddha is clear that these mental states do not belong to anyone. An unnamed monk, in a dialogue with the Buddha, argued that human persons mistakenly assume that one of the skandhas might be identified as the self.[14] Later in the discourse, the Buddha explains that each of these assumptions is unfounded. The Buddha asks the monk concerning each of the skandhas, “Is this what I am?” The monk responds, with Buddha’s approval, “No, lord.” There is no unified self; there is only an aggregate of parts with an illusion of self.

However, the idea that a person is merely a collection of parts does not solve the problem that Moreland raises. For example, the Buddha suggests that awareness or vinnana is the “awareness of sensory and mental objects.”[15] But awareness, as a mental state, requires necessarily a subject and an object. There must be a subject who experiences awareness of a particular object or state of affairs. The other aggregates (with the exception of form which merely describes the physical body) have the same requirement. Perceptions will require both a “perceiver” and an object to be perceived.  Formations (sankhara), which are “a range of mental responses to objects,” also require a subject/object relationship.[16] By formulating the aggregates, the Buddha has not solved the problem of the I standing over and above the aggregates. Instead, he has merely described the conscious states that an I possesses.  Further, it is not likely that the doctrine of “no-self” and a belief in the aggregates as mental states can be held simultaneously. The only option would be to either affirm that a conscious self exists over and above the aggregates or that the five aggregates are not describing mental states.  The juxtaposition of the “no-self” doctrine and the strong sense of the reality of self creates a tension within the Buddhist worldview to such a point that the language employed must be understood as either being only conventionally  true (there is a self) or ultimately true (there is no self).

Besides the subject/object problem implicit within the aggregates, there is a kind of cosmological problem. How could consciousness arise when reality is fundamentally empty, non-personal, and lacking any causal powers? A monk asked the Buddha this question directly:  "Lord, what is the cause, what the condition, for the delineation of the aggregate of form? What is the cause, what the condition, for the delineation of the aggregate of feeling... perception... fabrications... consciousness?"[17] The Buddha responded:

Monk, the four great existents (earth, water, fire, & wind) are the cause, the four great existents the condition, for the delineation of the aggregate of form. Contact is the cause, contact the condition, for the delineation of the aggregate of feeling. Contact is the cause, contact the condition, for the delineation of the aggregate of perception. Contact is the cause, contact the condition, for the delineation of the aggregate of fabrications. Name&-form is the cause, name-&-form the condition, for the delineation of the aggregate of consciousness.[18]

According to the Buddha, consciousness arises as result of a material cause (earth, water, fire, and wind) intersecting with particular conditions, the reality of dependent origination. While the

Buddha refrains from metaphysical speculation, there is nevertheless another tension in Buddhism at this point: how does consciousness arise out of reality as the Buddha understood it?

The answer is not clear. Consciousness, for Buddhism is a recalcitrant fact.

The unity of human life (the soul)

If mental states are something possessed so that there is an indivisible I over and above them, then another issue presents itself: the concept of a substantial soul.  Moreland argues against naturalism, but his point can easily be adapted to a Buddhist view:

I. I exist, as does a particular arrangement of skandhas associated with me.

II. I am not identical with the skandhas associated with me.

III. I am not identical with any single skandha (like vinnana, for example).

IV. I do not have any proper part which is not part of the skandhas

V. Therefore, I have no proper parts: I am altogether simple entity.

The Buddhist would likely find (III) and (IV) uncontroversial. There would be no ultimate I to be identical to a set of skandhas and whatever an I is, it would consist totally of the skandhas. Clearly, there would a problem with (I). But, if Moreland is right about mental states necessarily requiring a “subjective ontology,” then (I) should be acceptable even if there is protest. If (I) makes it through, then so do (II) and (III). If there is a “subjective ontology” that possesses the five skandhas, then it follows that a person is not identical to the skandhas.  The result is that the self is an “immaterial, non-extended substance”[19] that has no necessary relationship with the skandhas. This would explain why “we have very strong, deep intuitions that we are enduring continuants even though we undergo various changes and… experience part replacement.”[20]

The Buddhist faces a problem here: if there is a self that exists over and above the skandhas, that self would, presumably, not be conditioned by the laws of dependent origination or karma since it stands outside the space where those laws would have causal powers. The self would create a kind of dualism within Buddhism: there is what is unconditioned and without self (nirvana) and there is the unconditioned self. To explain these phenomena, Buddhism would need to develop a doctrine of the soul. The apparent necessity of an unconditioned self, enduring over time, and being metaphysically simple, the apparent necessity of the soul, creates another recalcitrant fact for Buddhists.

Free will

The concept of free will creates another tension in Buddhist thought. In one of the most important suttas, responding to the question, “What is dependent co-arising?” the Buddha said,

From birth as a requisite condition comes aging and death. Whether or not there is the arising of Tathagatas, this property stands — this regularity of the Dhamma, this orderliness of the Dhamma, this this/that conditionality. The Tathagata directly awakens to that, breaks through to that. Directly awakening & breaking through to that, he declares it, teaches it, describes it, sets it forth. He reveals it, explains it, makes it plain, & says, 'Look.' From birth as a requisite condition comes aging & death.[21]

From the dependent co-arising of things come “dependently co-arisen phenomena.” These phenomena are the complex conjunction of several “lines” of dependent co-arising and result in events like birth, becoming, craving, and so on. [22] The Buddha summarized his teaching on causality by saying that “Where this is present, that comes to be; from the arising of this, that arises. When this is absent, that does not come to be; on the cessation of this, that ceases.”[23] The Buddha extended this kind of causality uniformly to explain “the evolution and dissolution of the world process…plant life… and [even] to human personality.”[24] However, the Buddha is said to be able to break this chain of causation so that he is free from the cycle of rebirth. This assumes that the Buddha is able to enact “top-down” causation, and that he is significantly free from prior causes.  In short, the Buddha possesses a form of libertarian free will.[25]

Once again, there is tension within Buddhism.  The Buddha has explained the universe in fully deterministic terms so that every effect has, at least theoretically, a detectable cause. The Buddha also wants to maintain that he and others like him are sufficiently free to break the chain of causation. However, he provides no means by which this is possible. Persons, in particular, are not a good candidate for the sort of top-down causation that is required as persons are themselves an aggregate of parts reacting according to the laws of karma and dependent-origination. The apparent existence of free will establishes another recalcitrant fact for Buddhism.




Buddhism faces a similar problem with the idea of rationality. The Buddha taught that the world was arranged in a rational way so that causes have predictable effects; he had a kind of process metaphysics. His teaching represents a “framework of thought that hinges on the ideas that sentient experience is dependently originated and that whatever is dependently originated is conditioned, impermanent, subject to change, and lacking independent selfhood.”[26] The Buddha consistently emphasizes that reality is a rational place in his teaching on Right View.  A disciple named Kaccayana Gotta asked the Buddha, “What is right view?” The Buddha said that

This world is supported by (takes as its object) a polarity, that of existence and nonexistence. But when one sees the origination of the world as it actually is with right discernment, 'non-existence' with reference to the world does not occur to one. When one sees the cessation of the world as it actually is with right discernment, 'existence' with reference to the world does not occur to one.[27]

Clearly, there is a twofold assumption here: first that reality is a fundamentally rational place and second that human persons are rational themselves so that they are able, at least potentially, to apprehend reality as it is. However, the Buddha does not provide reasons as to why reality and human persons would be arranged in just this way. Thomas Nagel suggests that the fact that humans have the ability to reason is only possible under two sorts of circumstances: either “we can reason in these ways because it is a consequence of a more primitive capacity of belief formation that had survival value when the human brain was evolving” or “the universe is intelligible to us because it and our minds were made for each other.”[28] In Chapter Two, it was shown that the sort of teleology presupposed Nagel’s second option is unlikely on the Buddhist view. Presumably, then, the Buddhist would have to accept some sort of naturalistic (naturalistic in the sense that it would arise out of the impersonal laws of dependent co-arising and karma) mechanism as the origin of rationality. But Nagel says that this answer is “laughably inadequate” and it would still not explain why reality itself is a rational place. In addition, Alvin Plantinga argues that naturalistic accounts of rationality are self-defeating; it seems likely that his argument would stand against Buddhist forms of naturalism.[29] Thus, once again, the Buddhist faces a recalcitrant fact.

Objective moral value and intrinsic human value

One final area of tension in Buddhism concerns the nature of morality and the intrinsic value of human persons. The ethics of Buddhism are “thought to be objectively true and in accordance with the nature of things.”[30] The dharma defines good and evil so that

Of paths, the eightfold is best. Of truths, the four sayings. Of qualities, dispassion. Of two-footed beings, the one with the eyes to see.  Just this is the path — there is no other — to purify vision. Follow it, and that will be Mara's [the demon of corruption and desire]  bewilderment.[31]

This objectivity of ethics in Buddhism led Velez de Cea to conclude that Buddhism has characteristics of moral realism because “certain external actions are unwholesome or wholesome.”[32] As moral realists, Buddhists believe that “moral claims do purport to report facts and are true if they get the facts right.”[33] A statement like “murder is wrong” is objectively either true or false.

Karma serves as the foundation of moral value: “For the Buddha, the moral order of the universe is contained first and foremost in the doctrines of kamma and rebirth.”[34] Given its lack of belief in a personal God, it seems fair, then, to characterize Buddhism as “atheistic moral realists” who “affirm that objective moral values and duties do exist and are not dependent on evolution or human opinion, but they also insist that they are not grounded in God. Indeed, moral values have no further foundation. They just exist.”[35] The trouble here is that it is difficult to understand how moral values could exist independent of persons. Craig and Moreland suggest that the idea may be incoherent and that “Moral values seem to exist as properties of persons, not as mere abstractions.”[36]

If moral values can exist as an abstraction that only raises another question: how is it that an abstract moral foundation would have any relevance to human persons? Even if moral value could exist as an abstraction, it would not provide moral obligation. The only way persons could be morally obligated to a set of values is if those values were grounded in a person: “A duty is something that is owed… But something can be owed only to some person or persons. There can be no such thing as duty in isolation.”[37]

Related to the existence of objective moral value is the intrinsic worth of human beings.

The value of the human person is often taken to be self-evident in Buddhism. For example, the

Dalai Lama begins Ethics for the New Millennium by stating that the proper goal of ethics is the “great quest for happiness,” a fact that “needs no justification and is validated by the simple fact that we naturally and correctly want this.”[38] According to the Dalia Lama, the natural and correct desires of human beings define what is valuable. Such a view seems to presuppose that human beings are, in fact, incredibly valuable. Keown points out that “compassion (karuṇā) is a virtue that is of importance in all schools of Buddhism” and that the Buddha serves as a primary example of this when he decided to delay returning to nirvana in order to teach others the dharma.[39]However, if persons only exist in the conventional sense, it is difficult to see how some ultimately impersonal, dependently arising, arrangement of parts could be said to possess intrinsic value. Further, given the questionable nature of the Buddhist moral universe, conventional persons may not be able to be moral agents in the first place. Thus the existence of objective moral values and duties, as well the intrinsic value of human beings, is also a recalcitrant fact for Buddhism.

These facts, the nature of consciousness, the soul, rationality, free will, the existence of objective moral values and duties, and the intrinsic value of human persons, are features not easily explained within the Buddhist worldview. However, these truths are central and fundamental to the Christian worldview. Alvin Plantinga makes this very point:

What is it to be a person, what is it to be a human person, and how shall we think about personhood? …The first point to note is that on the Christian scheme of things, God is the premier person, the first and chief exemplar of personhood. God, furthermore, has created man in his own image; we men and women are image bearers of God, and the properties most important for an understanding of our personhood are properties we share with him. How we think about God, then, will have an immediate and direct bearing on how we think about humankind.[40]

God, as a unified, conscious, personal, rational, and ultimately valuable person, created man in his image. Man possesses these same traits, though to a different degree, because he is essentially made in the imago Dei. Given the Christian doctrines of God and man, it has been demonstrated that it can ably accommodate the necessary components of virtue: the narrative unity of a single human life and an explanation of teleology in man and the world.

Christ: The Ideal Man and Savior of Virtue

Aristotle argued that the good for man was to live a certain kind of life, a life characterized by the development and practice of the virtues. The driving question behind his ethic was, “What kind of person should I be?”  The ancient Israelites had an answer to this question: “Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy (Lev. 19:2).” Their “basic moral doctrine is the imitatio Dei, to be like God as much as is humanly possible.”[41] They were to do this by following God’s commandments. Primarily, the ethics of the Hebrew Bible were deontological. They were obligated to obey God in light of who God is and what he had done for them.  While the character of God provided the standard of right actions, it did not constitute the

good for man in the Aristotelian sense. However, with the incarnation of the Son of God, the ethics of the people of God shifted: “Christ is the Word made flesh, the perfect revelation of the Father, which means that, to the Christian, God is most perfectly revealed in a person, not a set of commandments or any written or spoken words, although Jesus says he comes to fulfill the law, not to destroy it.”[42] The absolute center of Christian ethics is the person and work of Jesus Christ.

One of the key texts on Christian ethics was written by Paul in his letter to the Ephesians.

Paul’s purpose in writing was to convey that God had begun “cosmic reconciliation” through his Son, Jesus Christ.[43] Given this wide scope, Ephesians is a good place to look for what is fundamental to Christian ethics. In the first three chapters, Paul explains the role that the individual, the church, and himself has within the plan of God for the world. In chapter two, Paul explains that the individual is “saved by grace, through faith.” Salvation is not given according to an individual’s actions, but because “we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”  Here Paul affirms that people have both intrinsic value and a teleogy. They are intrinsically valuable because they are “a product God’s making (αὐτοῦ γάρ ἐσμεν ποίημα).” They possess a telos because they were made with a purpose: “created in Christ Jesus for good works (κτισθέντες ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ ἐπὶ ἔργοις ἀγαθοῖς). On the basis of these realities, Paul formulates his Christian ethic throughout the rest of the book. But, Ephesians 4:22-24 is especially relevant: “You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds;  and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.”

In these verses, Paul teaches that the Christian life is a process of putting aside sinful habits and attitudes, replacing them with habits and attitudes that are reflective of who God is. This dynamic component also corresponds to Aristotle’s ethic.[44] Aristotle taught that the moral life did not consist merely in performing right actions, but also in becoming a certain kind of person through the development of character. Through this development, one can reach his telos.

The process of sanctification in Christianity is similar: “sanctification is a teleological concept. More specifically, sanctification involves the growth and transformation of oneself and one's character toward a partially determinate picture of the human good or end.”[45] But what constitutes the telos of man in a Christian context? While not answering this question directly, Paul nevertheless provides the answer as he concludes his thought in 5:1-2: “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

When Paul provides an example of the end goal of this process of sanctification, he says that Christians should “walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us.” According to Paul,

Christ is the moral exemplar, the ideal man, and Christians should model their lives on the life of

Christ. The Christian answer to the Aristotelian question, “What sort of person should I be?” is

“You should be like Christ.” The gospels provide the fullest picture of the mission and life of Jesus Christ. According to Hauerwas, the key ethical feature of the life of Jesus was that he “did not direct attention to himself, but through his teaching, healings, and miracles tried to indicate the nature and immediacy of God’s kingdom.”[46]

The Aristotelian virtues were realized largely within a political context. The virtues were those goods that enabled the ideal kind of society, and individuals within that society, to flourish. Both Aristotle and Christianity agree on the social nature of human beings and that “human wellbeing and flourishing occur in various relationships where life is shared and common goods are realized.”[47] Aristotle argued that only within relationships between people of a certain class, gender, and social status can one achieve eudaimonia. Virtue was attained through relationships with people like one’s self.  However, in the Christian context, the kinds of relationships that allow moral development are the kinds of relationships found within the kingdom of God – relationships between God, the individual, and the kingdom community.

While Aristotle required a group of like individuals for moral growth, Christian ethics emphasizes the difference between God and man.[48] Moral development occurs when a person exists in right relationships, not only with other human beings, but also with God himself (Matt. 22:36-40). Jesus demonstrates how these relationships should be worked out when he “comes to initiate and make present the kingdom of God through healing of those possessed by demons, by calling disciples, telling parables, teaching the law, challenging the authorities of his day, and by being crucified at the hands of Roman and Jewish elites and raised from the grave.”[49] Jesus demonstrated that the ideal life is characterized by obedience and love for God as well as sacrificial love for other human beings, especially human beings that are considered unworthy of that sacrifice. This is why Jesus is the human paradigm of virtue; “he realized our full human potential. He resisted selfish temptations, identified with the weak and oppressed, made love his motivation and guide, responded in love to both friends and enemies, was obedient to God (even to death), and found self-fulfillment in relationship with God rather than in autonomy.”[50]

Reuschling makes an excellent point here:

Jesus himself is the exemplar of the virtuous life. It might be easy to attribute the virtuous life to Jesus based on his divinity. Yet the virtues that Jesus taught were demonstrated in the life he lived through his humanity and in his social and personal interactions. It’s Jesus’ humanity that gives us the window through which to view the quality and shape of a life that pleases God. Jesus did not just teach about the virtue of mercy. Jesus was merciful. Humility was not an abstract idea in Jesus’ teaching. Jesus himself was the model of humility. Jesus did not present theories of justice. Jesus was reconciling, securing justice and righteousness as marks of shalom.[51]


A Christian ethic of virtue, then, is well founded and superior to a Buddhist virtue ethic. The Christian worldview provides the necessary foundations, an account of teleology and the narrative unity of human life, while Buddhism does not. Christianity does more than merely allow for a theory of virtue ethics. It provides a rich, substantive, and attractive theory of virtue. The Christian account affirms what we all we want to affirm and know intuitively: that human life is immensely valuable and that we were meant for some incredible good. Jesus Christ provides the fully realized example of the human telos that affirms these intuitions and calls humans to the good for which they were originally intended. By contrast, the Buddha asks men to deny a substantive good and even the commonsense understanding of themselves in order to achieve the extinguishing of life:

Delight is the root of suffering and stress, that from coming-into-being there is birth, and that for what has come into being there is aging and death. Therefore, with the total ending, fading away, cessation, letting go, relinquishment of craving, the Tathagata has totally awakened to the unexcelled right self-awakening, I tell you.[52]

In stark contrast, Jesus declares, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”[53] Jesus affirms what the Buddha denies, which is they very essentials of virtue. Therefore, I invite the Buddhist virtue ethicist, who correctly wants to affirm the goodness and value of human life, to identify with Christ, who, “in his full humanity and solidarity with us, became what we were created to be: the image of God.”[54] The good life does not consist in the extinguishing of it, but in entering into the Kingdom of God, conformed to the image of his Son.

[1] Augustus Hopkins Strong, Systematic Theology: A Compendium and Commonplace-Book Designed for

the Use of Theological Students (Philadelphia: Griffith & Rowland Press, 1907),  52.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 251.

[4] Gen 1:26

[5] 158  Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1983), 532.

[6] 159 This heading is adapted from Moreland’s The Recalcitrant Imago Dei: Human Persons and the Failure

of Naturalism

[7] 160  James Whitehill, “Buddhism and the Virtues,” in Contemporary Buddhist Ethics, ed. Damien Keown (Richmond: Surrey: Curzon, 2000), 17.

[8] James Porter Moreland, The Recalcitrant Imago Dei: Human Persons and the Failure of Naturalism (London: University of Nottingham, 2009), 20.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 133.

[11] 164  Strong, Systematic Theology, 252.

[12] 165  Typically, vinnana is translated as consciousness. However, this translation is not consistent with what is usually meant by consciousness, “the totality of conscious states of an individual.”

[13] 166 Peter Harvey, “Theravada Philosophy of Mind and the Person,” in Buddhist Philosophy: Essential Readings, ed. William Edelglass and Jay Garfield (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 265.

[14] 167  Maha-punnama Sutta: The Great Full-moon Night Discourse, trans. Thanissaro Bhikku,

[15] Harvey, “Theravada Philosophy,” 266.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Maha-punnama Sutta: The Great Full-moon Night Discourse

[18] Ibid.

[19] Moreland, The Recalcitrant Imago Dei, 120.

[20] Ibid., 115.

[21] Paccaya Sutta: Requisite Conditions, trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu,

[22] Kalupahana, Buddhism as Philosophy, 29.

[23] 176  Ibid., 66.

[24] Ibid., 30.

[25] 178  Moreland, The Recalcitrant Imago Dei, 50.

[26] Noa Ronkin, “Theravada Metaphysics and Ontology,” in Buddhist Philosophy: Essential Readings, ed. William Edelglass and Jay Garfield (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 14.

[27] 180  Kaccayanagotta Sutta: To Kaccayana Gotta (on Right View), trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu,

[28] 181  Thomas Nagel, The Last Word (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 75.

[29] See Plantinga’s “Naturalism Defeated,”

[30] Keown, A Short Introduction, 25.

[31] Maggavagga: The Path, trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu,

[32] Velez de Cea, “The Criteria of Goodness,” 134.

[33] 186  Geoff Sayre-McCord, “Moral Realism,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta (Stanford: Stanford University, 2007). Par 3.

[34] 187

Gowans, Buddhism, 29.

[35] 188  James Porter Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2003), 492.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Richard Taylor, Ethics, Faith, and Reason (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1985), 83.

[38] The Dalia Lama, Ethics, 5.

[39] Keown, A Short Introduction, 30.

[40] Alvin Plantinga, “Advice to Christian Philosophers,” Journal of the Society of Christian Philosophers (1984): 6.

[41] Linda Trinkaus Zagzebski, Divine Motivation Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 316.

[42] Ibid., 316.

[43] D. A. Carson,  Ephesians: New Bible commentary : 21st century edition (4th ed.) (Downers Grove, Inter-Varsity, 1994), 134.

[44] Wyndy Corbin Reuschling, Reviving Evangelical Ethics: The Promises and Pitfalls of Classic Models of Morality (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2008), 117.

[45] 198  Joseph J. Kotva, The Christian Case for Virtue Ethics (Washington: Georgetown University, 1996), 72.

[46] 199

Stanley Hauweras, “Jesus and the Social Embodiment of the Peaceable Kingdom,” in The Hauerwas Reader, ed. John Berkman and Michael Cartwright (Durham: Duke University, 2001), 117.

[47] Reuschling, Reviving Evangelical Ethics, 116.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Hauerwas, “Jesus and the Social Embodiment of the Peaceable Kingdom,” 119,

[50] Kovak, The Christian Case, 80.

[51] Reuschling, Reviving Evangelical Ethics, 123.

[52] 205 Mulapariyaya Sutta: The Root Sequence, trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu,

[53] John 10:10

[54] Kovak, The Christian Case, 80.

The Possibility of Virtue in Christianity and Buddhism (Part 1 of 5)


Aristotle, the great teacher of Greece, once asked, “What is the good for man?” This is a question that every worldview seeks to answer. The Israelites said that good for man consisted in living a life of holiness to God, as a separate and distinct people. The Greeks said that man was meant for the polis.[1] Christ taught men were for his kingdom. The Buddha held his own view.

The heart of Buddhism is ethics.[2] This is evident even in the legendary accounts of the Buddha’s life. The Buddha first encountered the problem of suffering after he finally escaped the isolation of the palace he had grown up in. His father, a powerful ruler, wanted to force his son into a life of politics and war. He had been warned that if his son was exposed to the kind of life people experience every day, a life marked by suffering, that his son would likely become a great teacher instead of a ruler. However, despite his father’s best efforts, the Buddha eventually ventured outside the palace walls. There he was faced with illness, old age, and death. As a result, the Buddha became a renunciate; he gave up his royal lifestyle and began searching for a way to bring an end to suffering. In his search, the Buddha tried all the available philosophies and religions; whether they be hedonistic or ascetic. Whatever he tried, the Buddha excelled beyond his teachers, but in each case, he found that suffering still remained. Eventually, while under the Bodhi tree, and after much effort, the Buddha attained enlightenment. He saw reality as it really is and was able to formulate a solution.

The solution he came up with was an entirely practical one: cultivate happiness.[3] This was to be achieved by taking “the appropriate action: seeking nirvana.”4   This emphasis on action means that Buddhism is primarily an orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy.[4][5] What is important is “the harmony of behavior, not harmony of doctrines.”[6]

What this means is that Buddhism as a worldview is in a unique position. Since it is primarily a particular set of practices, essentially an ethic, the validity of the Buddhist worldview rises and falls on whether or not Buddhism succeeds as an ethical system.  This provides an opportunity to test Buddhism to see whether it is a coherent worldview.

Statement of the Problem

There are two leading interpretations of Buddhist ethics. The first and most popular interpretation understands Buddhism as a kind of utilitarianism. Proponents of this view argue that Buddhist ethics are merely provisional and ought to be disregarded once nirvana is attained.

The well respected Saddhatissa takes a utilitarian view and argues that the moral teachings of the Buddha "were never ends in themselves, confined to a mundane life, but were the essential preliminaries, and the permanent accompaniments, to attaining the highest state."[7]  However, a system that is merely provisional will not do if it is agreed that ethics must account for what is ultimately good or valuable. But there is another interpretation. Damien Keown, as well as several others, suggests that Buddhism is a kind of virtue ethic, very much similar to the kind taught by Aristotle.[8] A Buddhist version of virtue ethics offers the possibility of a complete, substantive account of ethics. Whether or not virtue ethics can be meaningfully understood in a

Buddhist context is the first problem that thesis will seek to solve.

The second problem concerns whether a Christian worldview might accommodate a virtue view of ethics better than a Buddhist one. Increasingly, Christians are adopting a blended approach to ethics, usually holding to a combination of deontological and virtue ethics.[9]  This thesis will put the possibility of a Christian virtue ethic to the test. If it turns out that Christianity can, in fact, provide a more robust context for a virtue ethic, then in order to be a fulfilled virtue ethicist, one ought to abandon the Buddhist worldview and adopt a Christian one.

Statement of the Importance of the Problem

A prima facie look at this thesis might cause some readers to think it is relevant only to Buddhists who hold to a virtue view of ethics–the subject matter here ought not concern the average Buddhist, much less anyone else. However, this is not the case. To understand the importance of this thesis, one must first understand just how the topic falls within contemporary scholarship. First, there is the current state of Buddhist ethics as a scholarly discipline. Many writers on the subject have been quick to point out that serious study of Buddhist ethics from a theoretical standpoint is a rather new phenomenon.

So far, there have been primarily only two theoretical accounts of Buddhist ethics offered: utility and virtue. If one agrees that a utility view is not a satisfactory account of ethics, then there is only one other viable option: the virtue view. Of course, there can also be new interpretations and revisions to old ones, but that is why this thesis is significant: the best contemporary interpretations of Buddhist ethics may need to be adjusted.  Second, since Buddhism is primarily a system of ethics, then whether or not it succeeds as an ethical system is vitally important to the entire worldview. If the Buddhist worldview does not succeed as an ethic, it does not succeed at all.

Foundational questions of worldviews are always weighty, so it is hard to overestimate the importance of engaging the foundations of a religion, especially a religion as influential as Buddhism. While it has been shown that the discussion in this thesis will be relevant for more than just a few, it also needs to be understood that a goal of this thesis is to be part of a wider conversation about the nature of Buddhist and Christian ethics and not the final word. The topics discussed are immensely important; the thesis itself is only part of that vital conversation.

Hopefully, it will contribute to a greater understanding of both systems.

Statement of Position on the Problem

As stated above, this thesis seeks to discover whether a virtue ethic interpretation of

Buddhist ethics is viable. This thesis addresses the question both negatively and positively. Negatively, the position taken on this problem is that a virtue view is inadequate for multiple reasons. Positively, this thesis holds that a Christian view of virtue ethics succeeds and is superior to the Buddhist view. Consequently, if one wants to be a satisfied virtue ethicist, one ought to abandon the Buddhist worldview and become a Christian.


Since the label “Buddhism” covers a wide array of beliefs and practices, this thesis will be limited specifically to early Buddhism. All Buddhist scriptures are taken from the Pali Canon, a set of scriptures considered authoritative by nearly all Buddhists.  Further, the clarification needs to be made that Buddhist cosmology or metaphysics itself is not under scrutiny. It is specifically the relationship between worldview and ethics that is being examined. This means that questions like, "How can it be the case that these are the four marks of existence and not three others?" will not be addressed. Also, this thesis will be limited to metaethical concerns.

Issues of practice will not be discussed. Primarily, the goal will be show that foundational issues in early Buddhism prevent Buddhist ethical practices from being applied in a way consistent with a virtue view of ethics.


Comparative ethics can be a difficult endeavor. There are two primary pitfalls. The first is to presume the truthfulness of one view at the start. The result is that opposing viewpoints are inadequate due to mere definition and no understanding is gained. A Buddhist, presuming Buddhism to be correct, might say that Christianity is inadequate simply because it does not further progress toward nirvana. The other danger is to assume that there can be no conclusions. Systems may be compared, but each one is right in its own context. The best we can hope for is greater understanding. This produces unsatisfactory results as well. There ought to be resolution: one view demonstrated to be superior to another. To avoid these dangers, a neutral framework is needed. The first component of this framework is a shared assumption: the fundamental relationship between ethics and reality. This is the same assumption as made by Geertz:

It is the conviction that the values one holds are grounded in the inherent structure of reality, that between the way one ought to live and the way things really are there is an unbreakable inner connection. What sacred symbols do for those to whom they are sacred is to formulate an image of the world’s construction and a program for human conduct that are mere reflexes of one another.[10]

The second component needed is an account of virtue ethics that is neutral to both Christianity and Buddhism. Alasdair MacInytre has established such a view of virtue ethics. His view presupposes at least two features that are required of a worldview in order to accommodate a virtue ethic: an account of teleology and the narrative unity of a single human life.

The next step will be to take these criteria and their necessary conditions and apply them to Keown’s interpretation of Buddhist ethics. If it turns out that Keown has adequately accounted for these in his system, then perhaps it is correct to characterize Buddhism as a kind of virtue ethic. However, if Keown does not succeed, then he has not saved Buddhist ethics from the other primary interpretation: Buddhist ethics is merely utilitarian. The final step will be to apply the criteria to the Christian worldview in order to determine whether the Christian worldview provides a superior account of virtue.


[1] Rosalind Hursthouse, “Virtue Ethics,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta (Stanford : Stanford University, 2007). Par 6.

[2] 2

Damien Keown, Buddhism A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 1.

[3] 3  Christopher W Gowans.  Philosophy of the Buddha (London: Routledge, 2003), 25.

[4] Mark Siderits, Buddhism As Philosophy: An Introduction (Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2007), 22.

[5] Keown, Buddhism, 3.

[6] 6 Paul Williams and Anthony Tribe, Buddhist Thought (New York: Routledge, 2000),  99.

[7] 7  H.  Saddhatissa, Buddhist Ethics: Essence of Buddhism ( New York: G. Braziller, 1971), 81.

[8] 8 Keown, Buddhism, 33.

[9] This is the position of Reuschling, Moreland, and Craig .

[10] Clifford Geertz, Islam Observed: Religious Development in Morocco and Indonesia(Chicago: University

of Chicago Press), 97.

Image: CC BY 2.0,

Platonic Ethics and Classical and Christian Theism, Part 3


In my first  two posts, I reviewed Plato’s requirements for a truly objective morality and then showed how Judeo-Christian theology meets his four requirements, providing a solid foundation for objective morals. With an objective foundation for morality in place, the big question becomes, “Why should I care?” Just because objective morals exist doesn’t necessarily mean I sufficiently want to obey them. This is the issue of moral motivation, and, unsurprisingly, Plato addresses this topic as well. In this post, I’ll take a look at the three levels of moral motivation that Plato describes in the Republic.

I’ve actually been working backwards in these posts. In the Republic, the question of moral motivation is the subject of Book II and the starting point for the investigation as to what justice (the Good) really is. After Socrates defeats Thrasymachus’s philosophically unsophisticated challenge that justice is merely “the advantage of the stronger” in Book I, Glaucon doesn’t let Socrates off the hook that easily, immediately challenging him to show why one should want to be just. While Plato asserts that justice is good in and of itself and good for the one who practices it, Glaucon responds:

Well, that’s not the opinion of the many…rather it seems to belong to the form of drudgery, which should be practiced for the sake of wages and the reputation that comes from opinion; but all by itself it should be fled from as something hard.[1]

Glaucon persuasively recites some popular arguments against acting justly, saying that it is best merely to appear just (so you can enjoy the benefits of a good reputation) rather than to actually practice justice—if you can get away with it. Given this popular opinion, why should one want to be good? Plato has three reasons, corresponding to three levels of moral motivation.

  1. It Is Good to Love the Good because It Is Good

As discussed before, in the Euthyphro the pious was loved by the gods because it was (obviously) pious.[2] It had an innate loveliness that impelled the gods to love it. Likewise, the Good is loved by the gods because they directly experience its goodness and cannot help but to love it. Plato describes this concept the most thoroughly in his Symposium where people are drawn to the Beautiful through a form of eros, erotic love. John Rist brings the point home well:

The Socratic person, as we have seen, is a philo-sopher, a lover of wisdom, an erotikos, as has been emphasized in the Symposium…. His knowledge of the Form is inseparable from his love of it; he is as committed emotionally as he is intellectually to the world of Forms and the Good; his mind is not that of a Cartesian calculator, but of a Socratic lover.[3]

The first and highest form of moral motivation is love of the Good. Those who experience the form of the Good directly—the gods for Plato—are captivated by it and happily arrange their actions according to it because of their love for it. If men could see the Good directly, they would always want to do good. Unfortunately, they do not. What then are we mortals to do? What should compel us to do good even if we do not have this love for the Good? We should do good because it is good for us.

  1. It Is Good to Do the Good because It Is Good for You

In the middle of Book II, after repeating the common man’s argument that it is best to act unjustly as long as people believe you to be just, Glaucon sets up the main challenge for Socrates that drives the rest of the book:

So, don’t only show us by the argument that justice is stronger than injustice, but show what each in itself does to the man who has it—whether it is noticed by gods and human beings or not—that makes the one good and the other bad.[4]

In effect, Glaucon wants to know what makes practicing justice good for the soul and practicing injustice harmful to one’s soul—this is the main question of the Republic. Through his investigation of the best and worst types of cities, Socrates is really discovering the best and worst types of man.

The very worst city corresponds to the most miserable man—the tyrant. This person, even if he enjoys wealth and good reputation (wrongly), is the most miserable because the turmoil in his soul will not allow him to enjoy the good things that are available to him. He is more a beast than a man. He cannot enjoy the best pleasures of this life because those enjoyments are experienced through our rationality and the tyrant has debased himself in this area. Because of the defilement of his soul, at best he can enjoy animal goods; but, because of his injustice, even those things cannot satisfy him.

On the other hand, the very best city, ruled by the philosopher-king, corresponds to the very best type of person: he who lives justly, who does the Good and can truly enjoy it. Because he is trained in philosophy, his rational abilities are honed and he can truly enjoy the best—the most human, or, better, the most divine—pleasures. Even if this person does not have material possessions, and if his fellow citizens do not understand him and hence mistreat him, his intellectual pursuit of and love for the Good make him the happiest man of all.

John Stuart Mill captures the difference between these two types of people in his famous quote:

It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question.

The pursuit of, and adherence to, the Good leads to the very best life, whether or not that life is accompanied by material possessions and the acclaim of men. For Plato, Socrates was the prime example of this. The pursuit of injustice leads to the worst possible life for a person. Even if it is accompanied by riches and fame, the debasement of the soul that it causes leads the unjust man to a truly miserable life, whether or not he realizes it.

So, for the rational person there are two good reasons to be moral: love of the Good is good in and of itself, and the Good is also good for you. In his Finite and Infinite Goods, Robert Adams similarly argues that what is best for us is what is good in and of itself. But what motivates the person who is acting irrationally?

  1. It Is Good to Do Good because the Just Will Be Rewarded and the Unjust Punished

In the early dialogues, Socrates teaches, and Plato appears to hold, that people will never knowingly do the worse when they know the better. In his middle and later dialogues, Plato appears to move away from this position and deal with the problem of akrasia, where people know the good to do but choose the worse. How are people motivated when they know the Good is good, and is good for them, but they still choose to do the worse? For these people—who are more like unreasoning animals than men—rewards and punishments must be offered to motivate them.

In Book II Glaucon challenges Socrates to show that acting justly was beneficial even if it was accompanied by poverty and scorn, and Socrates argues his case with this restriction in place. In Book X, Socrates asks Glaucon to let him correct this injustice and show that the just man will receive good for acting justly: “Thus, it must be assumed in the case of the just man that, if he falls into poverty, or diseases, or any other of the things that seem bad, for him it will end in some good, either in life or even in death.”[5] In this life, Plato believed that the just will typically receive rewards for the good that they do and that the unjust will typically receive punishment for their injustice; however, if it does not happen in this life, Plato had a story for what would happen to the just and unjust after this life.

Book X ends with the myth of Er, a valiant warrior who died in battle but came back to life after twelve days and shared what he saw in the “other world.” There, the just and unjust went through a period of 1,000 years of either rewards or punishment for their deeds. The just “told of the inconceivable beauty of the experiences and sights” in heaven, while the unjust “lamenting and crying, [recounted] how much and what sort of things they had suffered and seen in the journey under the earth.” While the common unjust suffered for 1,000 years, men who were tyrants, after suffering for that same duration, were bound and thrown into Tartarus, never to emerge. This is Plato’s message for those who would practice injustice, and the message “could save us, if we are persuaded by it, and shall make a good crossing of the river of Lethe and not defile our soul.”[6] If nothing else will motivate one to be just, they must be coerced with either the hope of reward or the fear of punishment.


So for Plato there are three levels of moral motivation. The first and purest is to be good because of a passionate love for the Good itself; this is the best, and only truly moral, type of motivation. For those who are too short-sighted to make the philosophical investment to know the Good directly, the second is to be good because doing justice is good for you—more importantly, it is good for your soul. This motivation leans more towards the self-interested side, but at least it remains a form of internal motivation. Finally, for those who will not strive to do even what is good for them, the third form is either to bribe with promises of rewards for acting justly or threaten with punishment for the unjust. This form is not strictly moral motivation, but, given the problem of akrasia, it is necessary to get some to act rightly in a world that is moral to its core.

In my next post, I’ll take a look at how Plato’s moral motivation compares with Judeo-Christian theism’s and briefly contrast these views with moral motivation typically found in certain naturalistic ethical systems.


[1] Plato, The Republic, Book II, 358a.

[2] Plato, Euthyphro, 10a, d.

[3] John Rist, Plato’s Moral Realism, p. 150.

[4] Plato, The Republic, 367e.

[5] Plato, The Republic, 613a.

[6] Plato, The Republic, 621c.

Image: "The School of Athens; a gathering of renaissance figures in Wellcome V0006665" by Licensed under CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons -;_a_gathering_of_renaissance_figures_in_Wellcome_V0006665.jpg#/media/File:The_School_of_Athens;_a_gathering_of_renaissance_figures_in_Wellcome_V0006665.jpg

Too Good Not to be True: A Call to Moral Apologetics as a Mode of Civil Discourse

Men despise religion. They hate it and are afraid it may be true. The cure for this is first to show that religion is not contrary to reason, but worthy of reverence and respect. Next make it attractive, make good men wish it were true, and then show that it is. 

                                                                                                          Blaise Pascal[1]


I once attended an atheist parade, where hundreds of atheists marched through downtown Denver, carrying signs and chanting anti-Christian slogans. It was an unusual group, but stranger still were some of the Christians who lined the parade route. A particular image that continues to haunt me is of the representative of Jesus wearing a yellow construction hard hat with a large, battery-operated speaker mounted on top, and a cable connected to a hand-held microphone. Glaring in evident hatred at the marchers passing by, he screamed repeatedly into the microphone, at the top of his lungs, “Jesus loves you!!!  Jesus loves you!!!”

As one would expect, the parade immediately stopped at this point, as the atheists, grasping the truth that Jesus loved them, dropped their placards and joined Mr. Hard Hat in grateful praise to God. Well, not exactly. Instead, the march continued, the marchers all the more firmly established in their convictions. This episode represents, shall we say, a “failure to communicate.” Certainly, nothing was amiss in the proposition asserted; Jesus loves you was both true and important for the audience to understand. And it was articulated clearly; competent speakers of English had no trouble understanding the words. Yet I warrant that none in the audience came, as a result of this speech act, to see the proposition to be true – to believe it. If anything, the communicative result was the opposite. (“You’re with Jesus, you hate me, therefore Jesus hates me.”) Although Jesus loves you is true, it was not believable to those who heard it.

This scenario may serve as a metaphor for what believers now face in much of American and European culture with respect to communicating the gospel. To a growing extent, when we assert Jesus loves you (i.e., when we declare the gospel or articulate the Christian worldview), people do not find it believable. As with the atheists in Denver, this is not so much a function of the content of what we say as the context in which we say it. In some cases, it may be the way we say it; in most cases, it is the hearers’ perception (whether accurate or not) of who we are, as we say it. That is, what makes the gospel unbelievable to many today is their perception of Christians and Christianity. This is a reality that followers of Jesus, as they consider the task and importance of civil discourse, particularly in relation to representing the gospel, must recognize.

Once Christian moral teaching was widely regarded in western culture as the highest expression of ethical thought. Indeed, Christians were seen by some to set the moral bar too high, that Christianity was, as it were, "too good" to be true—a criticism, but one that rests upon an underlying moral admiration. Times have changed. According to Richard Harries, former Anglican Bishop of Oxford,

For 1,500 years, it has been assumed that to be good and to be Christian were synonymous. That is simply not true now . . . One of the churches’ great, unacknowledged failures is their reluctance to face this. They like to assume that they hold the high moral ground. If they ever did, they certainly do not now, at least in the minds of the liberal intelligentsia. People often find Christianity’s picture of God unattractive . . . I believe that, beneath people’s alleged philosophical or scientific objections, there is often a gut feeling, at once both psychological, moral and spiritual, that they do not like what has been put before them—and they do not like it not just because of their temperament, or because they are wicked, but because it feels psychologically oppressive, morally suspect and spiritually unattractive . . . I believe that the Christian understanding of God is the most morally and spiritually beautiful picture of the divine that has been put before human beings. But if we want people to feel the persuasive power of this, we have first to hear how people find it morally and spiritually unpersuasive.[3]

Arguably, the central objections to Christianity these days, from Dawkins to the editorial pages, are moral objections: Christianity is "too bad" to be true. Engaging such objections adequately—"moral apologetics"—is, in my view, the chief apologetic challenge of our time. However, Christian apologists have given comparatively little attention to diagnosing, understanding, and strategically responding to it.[4] As Harries suggests, we need to consider how people find our understanding of God “morally and spiritually unpersuasive,” and work together to address it. In this paper I hope to encourage further, strategic work by many of us in the area of moral apologetics, toward the end that people would come increasingly to see Christianity and the gospel as too good not to be true.

Arguably, the central objections to Christianity these days, from Dawkins to the editorial pages, are moral objections: Christianity is "too bad" to be true. Engaging such objections adequately—"moral apologetics"—is, in my view, the chief apologetic challenge of our time.

My purpose here is to contribute to the beginning of a conversation about these matters, by suggesting some ways to think about the project and where it fits into the apologetic and moral terrain, specifically in relation to the believability of the gospel. More particularly, I attempt to sketch a conception of the apologetic task and its relation to moral goodness that is informed by considerations from epistemology, philosophical theology, and broadly Aristotelian moral psychology, which I hope will help clarify the need for moral apologetics, as well as its nature and general shape. What I say is more suggestive than definitive; each of these areas needs to be developed much further. It will also be more diagnostic than prescriptive; developing a strategic plan for addressing these issues is something, I hope, that some of us can work on together. The challenge is much bigger than all of us. I hope that what I say here will be helpful in thinking about the broad shape of the project, but my chief aim is to cast a vision: to sound a call to moral apologetics.

The term moral apologetics is ambiguous. It can refer either to being “moral” (i.e., morally good) as we do apologetics, or to doing apologetics in relation to (matters of) moral goodness and evil. In my view, the ambiguity is appropriate, as both aspects are implicated in the problem and required for the solution. My central intuition is that apologists must take seriously the role of goodness in how people are drawn to the gospel. Doing so implies both negative and positive apologetic tasks: that we respond to moral objections raised against Christianity and the gospel and that we point to the goodness of God, both in the content of our apologetic arguments and—most especially—in our lives. Each of these elements is essential, I maintain, if we are to say Jesus loves you in such a way that people actually believe it.

1 A brief sketch of apologetics

I understand apologetics as the art and science of explaining and defending the truth-claims of the Christian worldview.[5] As a science, doing apologetics involves mastering information and arguments. As an art, it involves developing skills in understanding one’s “audience” and tuning what one knows toward engaging them in real communication. While the science of apologetics focuses solely on questions of truth and validity, the art of apologetics is concerned with understanding how people come to believe what is true, or matters of “believability.” Moral apologetics, as I describe it here, reflects concerns that particularly emerge from the “art” side.

Positive apologetics involves “playing offense”: pointing to the truth of the gospel by offering reasons and positive pointers on its behalf. Negative apologetics involves “playing defense”: answering objections and clearing away obstacles that obstruct someone’s vision of the truth of the gospel. Moral apologetics includes both orientations. It involves thinking strategically about how to point to the goodness of God, on the one hand, and about how to respond effectively to moral objections mounted against God’s goodness, on the other.

Beyond these basic distinctions, I will make two further suggestions about apologetics that are, perhaps, less obvious. I will introduce the second in the section 3, but the first here. An important concern related to the art of apologetics, I have suggested, is “believability.” Apologists should be concerned, not only to defend the claim that a proposition like Jesus loves you is true, but to do so in such a way that others will see it to be true, to believe it. What does it mean, to come to believe such a proposition—in a way that is appropriate to the sort of proposition it is and to the kind of response that it properly calls forth? Deep theological waters glisten before me, which I hope to leap with a single bound. For my purposes here, I make two assumptions. I assume, first, that a necessary condition for one’s coming to believe that p, where p is a proposition that is part of the essential content of the gospel, such as Jesus loves you or Jesus died on the cross for my sins, is that the Holy Spirit is at work in one’s heart, drawing one to himself—however we undertand the details of this, theologically. Second, I assume (again, however one spells out the details) that the Holy Spirit uses human agents such as evangelists and apologists in the process of drawing someone to himself. The first assumption is simply a given in this discussion; my focus is related to the second. That assumption implies that we should approach our role as apologists both prayerfully and intelligently, and I suggest that this means we should think carefully and strategically about both the science and the art of apologetics. With respect to the latter, I suggest further that we should reflect, among other things, on how people form beliefs, and specifically, how they find them to be believable.

This leads us into deep epistemological waters as well, and here I just want to dip my toe in enough to appeal to a distinction I find quite helpful in envisioning the apologetic task, one adapted from sociologists of knowledge: the distinction between credibility and plausibility.[6] Both, on my understanding, are constituents of believability. As I describe them briefly, what I mean by believability should become reasonably clear as well. (“Reasonably clear” is all I aspire to here.)

            Credibility has to do with having reasons to believe something is true. The credibility question with respect to some matter is: Is it true? Where p is a proposition, for subject S to believe that p (i.e., to hold p to be true, or to assent to p as true), S needs to think that p is true—S needs to have reasons to believe that p. That is, p must be credible to S; credibility is a necessary condition for believability. Put differently, there is, as it were, a credibility filter in S’s mind through which S’s considerations of p must successfully pass, before S believes that p.

The gospel, as they see it, is (therefore) implausible—it couldn’t be true; it’s too bad to be true. Thus, although there is important work for moral apologetics to do at the levels of both credibility and plausibility, the need for making plausible (“plausibilizing”) the Christian worldview morally is particularly exigent at this time: softening the moral soil so that the seeds of the gospel may be able to penetrate.

Traditional apologetic strategies focus on the credibility of Christianity, providing evidence or reasons that, in its constituents (e.g., the resurrection of Jesus) or in its totality, the Christian worldview is true. This is a crucial task, as credibility is necessary for believability. But it is not sufficient. There is a prior filter in S’s mind through which S’s considerations must successfully pass before S will even entertain the question whether p is true, and, thus, actually consider evidence that it is. This is a plausibility filter. The plausibility question with respect to p is: Could p be true? Only if S sees p as plausible will S seriously consider whether p is credible. To use agricultural language, plausibility has to do with the kinds or conditions of “soil” in which propositional seeds can grow. Misconceptions about the gospel, faulty assumptions about science, or bad experiences with Christians do not (yet) function as reasons or arguments against the existence of God or explicit defeaters for belief in things like the resurrection of Jesus. What they do is to harden the ground against entertaining such reasons, or seriously considering the truth of the gospel. Plausibility factors like these render Christianity unattractive, even unthinkable for people, who may simply write it off from consideration entirely (“It couldn’t be true”) and so never seriously consider evidence that it is true.

Credibility and plausibility both constitute necessary conditions for S’s coming to believe p to be true. If p is already plausible to S, credibility considerations may be all that is needed for p’s becoming believable to S. But if p is not plausible to S, S will not seriously attend to those considerations, and the communicative focus must shift to plausibility. Such is the situation to an increasing extent, I believe, with respect to the gospel, which has become implausible to many. While this is due to a number of factors,[7] our subject here is at the heart of it: Christians and Christianity seem to increasing numbers of people to be bad. The gospel, as they see it, is (therefore) implausible—it couldn’t be true; it’s too bad to be true. Thus, although there is important work for moral apologetics to do at the levels of both credibility and plausibility, the need for making plausible (“plausibilizing”) the Christian worldview morally is particularly exigent at this time: softening the moral soil so that the seeds of the gospel may be able to penetrate.


2 The goodness of God and why it matters

The Psalmist invites us to “Taste and see that the LORD is good.” (Psalm 34.8)[1] Peter draws upon this image, as he invites his readers to grow in Christ: “Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good.” (1 Peter 2.2-3) What Peter sees as the result of his readers’ tasting of God’s goodness is suggested in his immediately subsequent phrase: “As you come to him . . .” (4a).[2] The picture suggested here is one that is reflected throughout Scripture and the history of Christian thought, viz. that God is good, and we are—and should be—drawn to him for precisely that reason: as good. Such an understanding also fits the classical philosophical conception of goodness as essentially desirable.[3] On this view, we as rational agents are drawn to what we take to be good, and, whether we are reflectively aware of it or not, we in fact order our lives in relation to what we conceive to be our ultimate good, our summum bonum. Such is the basic shape of moral psychology in the classical, especially the broadly Aristotelian tradition.[4]

Although I can’t defend these claims in any remotely complete way here, I will fill in the contours of this biblical and classical picture a bit more fully in what follows. The biblical story emphasizes God’s goodness and people being drawn to him in that light. Examples of passages and contexts could be multiplied. I’ll briefly note two, the first reflecting a general pattern, the second a particular instance. Arguably, the most common worship chorus in the Old Testament, appearing in different Psalms and appealed to in a range of circumstances and worship contexts, from dedicating the Temple to facing enemies in battle, is the familiar refrain: “Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever.”[5] The worship pattern of the people of God was consistently to face joys and challenges by focusing their attention on God’s goodness, expressed in his steadfast love (hesed) toward them.

A vivid particular instance of reflecting on God’s goodness and being drawn to it is found in Psalm 73. In this strikingly honest meditation, the worship leader, Asaph, struggles with the problem of evil: the unjust suffering of those who are good and the unjust flourishing of those who do evil. Resolution for Asaph comes when, in the Temple (v. 17), he sees the bigger, eternal perspective, and comes to understand in a fuller and deeper way that God is good – indeed, that God is his good (“But as for me, the nearness of God is my good,” v. 28, NASB) – and Asaph is drawn back to God as a result. Charles Spurgeon comments on this Psalm:

The greater our nearness to God, the less we are affected by the attractions and distractions of earth. Access into the most holy place is a great privilege, and a cure for a multitude of ills. It is good for all saints, it is good for me in particular; it is always good, and always will be good for me to approach the greatest good, the source of all good, even God himself.[6]

What I want to emphasize from both of these contexts is not only the centrality of God’s goodness to the biblical understanding of God, but also the role that one’s awareness of God’s goodness plays in one’s being drawn to him, coming to him in order to worship him, trust him, and love him. Responding properly to Jesus loves you, I suggest, involves a kind of conviction of Jesus’ goodness.

God’s goodness plays a central role in the historical tradition of Christian thought about God as well. According to Boethius, for example, God is identical in his substance to true or supreme goodness,[7] by which “He rules all things.” God’s goodness “is the helm and rudder, so to speak, by which the fabric of the universe is kept constant and unimpaired.”[8] The goodness of God is a central (perhaps the central) feature of Augustine’s thought. 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.

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.[9]

The highest good, Augustine argues, which everyone is ultimately seeking, is in fact God himself.[10] Augustine’s famous words at the beginning of his Confessions should be understood in that light: “You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”[11] God is our good, the good we ultimately seek.

In Thomas Aquinas the classical understanding of good as desirable is at the heart both of his moral psychology and his metaphysical teleology.

 [W]hatever man desires, he desires it under the aspect of good. And if he desire it, not as his perfect good, which is the last end, he must, of necessity, desire it as tending to the perfect good, because the beginning of anything is always ordained to its completion; as is clearly the case in effects both of nature and of art. Wherefore every beginning of perfection is ordained to complete perfection which is achieved through the last end.[12]

The “perfect good” toward which all human desires ultimately point, for Aquinas, even beyond the full realization of the specific potentialities of human nature, is God himself. God is the ground or “Supreme Fount” of goodness[13] and its true fulfillment, as “the vision of the Divine Essence fills the soul with all good things, since it unites it to the source of all goodness.”[14] Like Augustine, Aquinas sees the universal human hunger for goodness as an expression, most fundamentally, of the longing to know God. “There is but one Sovereign Good, namely, God, by enjoying Whom, men are made happy.”[15] The deep connection between goodness and God also shapes Aquinas’s natural theology. Near the beginning of his initial metaphysical reflections on the nature of God, prior to his arguing for God’s infinity or even unpacking the nature of God’s existence, Aquinas devotes two full questions (Ia.5-6) to the nature of goodness and God’s goodness, developing a rich metaphysical account of goodness that underwrites the metaphysical teleology and moral psychology noted above.[16] At the heart of Aquinas’s thought is seeing God as good, as the supreme good.

John Calvin also firmly and evocatively points to the role of understanding God’s goodness in one’s coming to worship him properly. In the first paragraph of his Institutes, noting the relationship between knowledge of God and knowledge of oneself, Calvin observes that our recognizing “the blessings which unceasingly distil to us from heaven” naturally leads us to the “infinitude of good which resides in God,” that is, to the Lord, in whom “dwell the true light of wisdom, solid virtue, exuberant goodness.”[17] To be sure, for Calvin, it is “one thing to perceive that God our Maker supports us by his power, rules us by his providence, fosters us by his goodness, and visits us with all kinds of blessings, and another thing to embrace the grace of reconciliation offered to us in Christ.” Still, to worship God properly, “it will not . . . be sufficient simply to hold that he is the only being whom all ought to worship and adore, unless we are also persuaded that he is the fountain of all goodness.”[18] It is not enough even to recognize God as creator, the one to whom we must give reverent obedience, for “your idea of his nature is not clear unless you acknowledge him to be the origin and fountain of all goodness, and that we seek everything in him and in none but him.”[19] The fact that God created solely out of his goodness[20] has implications for natural theology. According to Calvin, the most direct path toward natural knowledge of God is to “contemplate his works” – to which Calvin adds: “and so refresh ourselves with his goodness.”[21]

What I hope is salient from this incomplete survey is the recognition, from Scripture and the Christian tradition, of the essential connection between coming to God and seeing God as good. Although recognizing God’s goodness may not be sufficient for coming to him, i.e. for believing in him and embracing the gospel, it does appear to be not only necessary but central.


3 Anselmian apologetics

In his Proslogion, St. Anselm famously articulated what has come to be called the ontological argument for God’s existence.[22] The success of that argument, or even whether Anselm intended it as an argument for theistic belief, continues to be debated. His pattern of reasoning, however—drawing out the implications of understanding God as the maximally perfect Being, or “that than which nothing greater can be conceived”—has proved fruitful in the field of philosophical theology for analyzing the concept and attributes of God. Unlike Mary Poppins, who was “practically perfect in every way,” God is completely perfect in every way. Thomas V. Morris describes our intuitions of God’s being supremely perfect as “Anselmian intuitions,” and he calls this approach to theology, “Perfect Being Theology.”[23] In his introduction to philosophical theology, Morris begins with an analysis of God’s goodness, and underscores the centrality we have seen it enjoy in earlier thinkers:

For the religious believer, trust, praise and worship all focus on this one property, whose importance in the religious life thus cannot be overestimated. In fact, earlier in this century, the British philosopher A. C. Ewing once stated that the most important thing about religion is its claim that the being on whom everything depends is absolutely and supremely good.[24]

I can now fulfill my earlier promise to introduce a second suggestion for apologetics that I find helpful in marking out the conceptual terrain for moral apologetics, by drawing upon the distinctions we have made so far, and by applying a broadly Anselmian approach to the apologetic task. I will call this, “Anselmian apologetics.”[25]

Classical philosophers and theologians identified the supreme or ultimate values in the moral, cognitive, and aesthetic realms as goodness, truth, and beauty (or: the good, the true, and the beautiful). As ultimate values, goodness, truth, and beauty constitute the ends or what is ultimately desired and sought for in these different domains. Moreover, classical thinkers understood goodness, truth, and beauty as bound together in a dynamic unity; indeed, as being ultimately one: truth is good, goodness is beautiful, beauty is good and true, and so on. This picture was easily amenable to early Christian thinkers, who saw these values as ultimately bound together in the nature of God. God is the good, the true, and the beautiful—the ultimate ground, source, and end of all cognitive, moral, and aesthetic value. On this view, as we have already seen with goodness, desires for truth and beauty ultimately reflect a desire for God.

Anselmian apologetics not only appeals to a richer and more balanced understanding of humans as bearers God’s image, but also follows the broader pattern of biblical examples of apologetics found, for example, in the Psalms—where psalmists, using vivid poetry (set to music), declare and describe God’s manifold greatness (beauty, goodness, power, majesty, truth, etc.) as being supremely worthy of worship, and call the nations, on that basis, to respond with such worship.

Traditional apologetics is concerned chiefly with truth; its appeal is to the cognitive domain. The aim of traditional apologetics is to show, with reasons and arguments, that Christian truth claims are in fact true—true to facts about the natural order, the origin of the universe, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, and so on. Some people, however, are drawn to God more through reflections of his goodness or beauty in the world than through reasoning about such matters. Given the variety of pointers to God and the complexity of human psychology (and epistemology), I suggest that our understanding of apologetics should be broad enough to include each of these (and perhaps more) kinds of considerations in pointing to God. Anselmian apologetics not only appeals to a richer and more balanced understanding of humans as bearers God’s image, but also follows the broader pattern of biblical examples of apologetics found, for example, in the Psalms—where psalmists, using vivid poetry (set to music), declare and describe God’s manifold greatness (beauty, goodness, power, majesty, truth, etc.) as being supremely worthy of worship, and call the nations, on that basis, to respond with such worship.[26] God is the ultimate ground of goodness, truth, and beauty; he is their origin, their source, their end, their fullest actuality, and he is to be worshiped as such. God is not just an inferred entity or the best explanation of certain phenomena, but the ultimate to-be-worshiped. This broader picture, it seems to me, should be reflected in our apologetics.

For some people and in some circumstances, goodness and beauty play a particularly important role in plausibilizing the gospel. These values (to anticipate where I’m headed next) engage experiential and desiderative aspects of the epistemic “soil,” beyond the merely cognitive, and those aspects are often deeply important in determining what one takes to be plausible. Consider Psalm 27, for example, where David, in the midst of ugly, fearful conflict, longs for beauty—and turns to God as the satisfaction of that longing.

One thing I ask of the LORD, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple. (Psalm 27.4)

David’s deepest longing, he saw, was for God himself. This fits the general picture we’ve seen. But note that this longing for God was beauty-shaped, an experience, I suspect, that is echoed in the lives of many others. C. S. Lewis stands, for many of us, as a model for truth-oriented traditional apologetics, and rightly so. But Lewis also developed pointers to God based on goodness and beauty, expressed both in arguments and in imaginative literature. To many readers, the latter represent Lewis’s most powerful apologetic work. In Lewis’s own journey to faith, moreover, beauty was arguably the most important factor.[27]

Putting these considerations together with what we’ve already seen, we can rough out an initial picture of moral apologetics: Within a broad conception of apologetics as pointing to all that is true of God, including his goodness, truth, and beauty, and recognizing the centrality of seeing God as good in coming to believe in God, the focus of moral apologetics will be on pointing to God’s goodness. This could take a number of forms, beyond (but including) traditional forms of argument. A further line of thought suggests the importance of broadening our approach, however, and it is crucial for understanding how moral apologetics relates particularly to plausibility considerations and for illustrating the devastating power of moral objections to Christianity.


4 Grasping that God is good

Concern with God’s goodness plays at least two roles in traditional apologetics. First, a very important line of apologetic argumentation, a negative one (“playing defense”), is to respond to the perennial “problem of evil” (POE). The POE constitutes a moral objection to the Christian worldview. For many objectors, moreover, it is not merely a rational puzzle about the formal consistency of evil and divine great-making properties, but (also) an expression of their existential struggle about believing in God in the midst of suffering and pain. Part of the negative task of moral apologetics, then, will be continued work on the POE—supplemented with an emphasis, I suggest, on giving attention to the plausibility-relevant, real-life experiences of suffering that often lie behind this objection for some who object.

Second, concern with God’s goodness has also played a positive role in traditional apologetics. Moral arguments for theistic belief appeal to moral considerations that point to the existence of God.[28] Probably the most famous of such arguments is C. S. Lewis’s line of reasoning in the first few chapters of Mere Christianity.[29] The basic intuition driving moral arguments is that the existence of objective moral values or moral obligations, properties that impinge upon us, bind us, and obligate us point beyond themselves—and beyond us imperfect moral agents—to a perfect moral agent who made us and who reveals his character and will to us in these ways. They point to a supreme moral authority who holds us responsible to live up to them. In short, the best explanation of a moral order is that there is a Moral Orderer. It is notoriously difficult, at best, to account for these pervasive and central features of moral reality in terms of alternative worldviews such as naturalism or pantheism.

Although moral arguments like this are often difficult to spell out in their specifics, they capture what is for many people one of the most powerful pointers to the existence of God. This is because, I suggest, it reflects the Anselmian intuition that God is the final, ultimate locus or ground of value. Moral arguments touch our desire for goodness, which is central to our being drawn to God. What motivates moral arguments for theistic belief, then, is what is at the heart of moral apologetics. Developing such arguments, then,  is part of moral apologetics.

But it would be a mistake to confuse the part with the whole. Traditional moral arguments play a crucial role, but they function primarily at the level of credibility; their fruitfulness in pointing God’s goodness presupposes the existence of plausible soil, where God’s goodness is already plausible. But what is particularly exigent at this time with respect to God’s goodness is at the level of plausiblility: the need to soften and enrich the soil. The chief objection today is that Christianity is too bad to be true. Traditional moral arguments do not address this directly, either in their content or, more importantly, in the level at which they function. This is not to say that traditional moral arguments play no role in plausibilizing the Christian worldview. Any considerations that point to God’s goodness will contribute. But what I wish to stress here is the importance of other, more experiential aspects of grasping goodness that need to be taken into account.

It is helpful to appeal here to a final classical perspective that I think gives us specific insight into the relation between goodness and believability: in this case, the rich virtue-oriented moral psychology and epistemology of the classical tradition. The insight I want to draw from it here is that moral knowledge, specifically grasping something as good, involves qualitatively more than grasping something as true. One’s grasping x as good necessarily involves a kind of affective experience, an engagement with one’s affections. (I use “affections” to refer to one’s desiderative-motivational complex.)[30]

Consider an analogue from another side of Anselmian apologetics, beauty. Aesthetic pointers to God must be expressed aesthetically, as it were; a certain kind of experience is involved in grasping beauty, which is not merely cognitive. Actual aesthetic pointers to God could hardly be sufficiently captured in formulating “aesthetic arguments” for theistic belief. There may be such arguments, and some may be very good ones, but—as Lewis describes in his own experience—it is the experience of beauty that draws one to the ground of Beauty. Arguments about or from beauty presuppose such an experience.

Something similar, I suggest, is the case with goodness. The phenomenology of moral experience is that moral properties essentially engage one’s feelings, desires, and will. The rational intuition of a logical truth like modus ponens is different in this way from the moral intuition that cruelty is bad, or that it is wrong to torture babies for fun. Philosopher John Hare describes the phenomenology of a moral property as its having a kind of “call” upon one—it elicits a response, obliges one, binds one, presses in upon one, draws one.[31] Because of this affective aspect of morality some philosophers have mistakenly inferred that moral judgments are “nothing but” expressions of desire or feelings or intentions. To rebut metaethical noncognitivism would take us too far afield here. My short response, however, is that moral experience is more than merely cognitive—but it’s not less. In any case, because grasping something as good or bad involves a kind of experience, it goes beyond merely grasping it to be true or false. As C. S. Lewis points out in The Abolition of Man, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas all hold this view—Lewis concurring—and apply it to the task of moral education: one’s being able to engage in higher-order reflection about goodness presupposes one’s actual experience of goodness, and that kind of experience involves the engagement of one’s affections, desires, and will. Classical moral education is about learning to be good, the shaping of one’s feelings and desires, about one’s developing a “taste” for what is good. And this begins with one’s learning to experience pleasure and pain rightly in relation to what is good and bad, through, particularly, parental discipline.[32] “That,” says Aristotle, “is why we need to have had the appropriate upbringing—right from early youth, as Plato says—to make us find enjoyment or pain in the right things; for this is the correct education.”[33]

This is where I think that traditional moral arguments can fall short for many people: not as good philosophy but as fully persuasive apologetics, given current epistemic soil conditions. Where the moral evidence for God is most important in this respect is prior to argument: it is seen, rather than heard, as it were. Grasping that God is good—believing that God is good, that the gospel is good—requires an experience of goodness associated with God and the gospel. Bad experience in this regard, or no experience, will derail credibilizing moral arguments from reaching their mark.

So I suggest that it is in the experience of goodness associated with God and the gospel, that the goodness and badness of Christians and Christianity, whether actual or merely perceived, is relevant to the goodness of God. We are, as is often noted, the tangible hands and feet of God. We are what people do see of the God they do not see. This sensory, experiential imagery, it seems to me, is important. Thankfully, my first assumption is true – the Holy Spirit’s work in people’s hearts limits how badly we can mess things up in this process. Still, if grasping good essentially involves a kind of tangible experience of goodness, the experiences people have with God’s people will be hugely significant in relation to their seeing God as good. This is why, as with Mr. Hard Hat, if the context conflicts with the content—if who we are conflicts with what we say, however true—people will go with the context. Jesus loves you is not believable.

5 The power of embodied moral arguments

The project of moral apologetics, then, should be full-orbed and holistic. The genus of moral apolostics is: pointing to the goodness of God. Its species reflect the different approaches that may be taken to point to God’s goodness, including traditional moral arguments and responses to the POE but also a variety of more experiential, embodied approaches. Along Anselmian lines, we build on the strong sense that we as humans have that goodness is not merely or ultimately self-explanatory or self-grounding. Tastes of goodness are themselves hints or clues or reflections of something much bigger and better: “the way it’s supposed to be,”[34] which we can grasp only provisionally now, and is often reflected in our experience in twisted and distorted ways. As moral creatures we desire to make sense of our experience of moral value and we long for a worldview that does so in a coherent, explanatory, livable way; one that connects our experience and our aspirations, but also can provide a solution for our guilt in falling short of what we know to be good. We want and need to know the truth of these things, but we also deeply want and need to experience them—to experience goodness, forgiveness, cleansing.

In the second to last page of his book exploring the implications of Life After God, Douglas Coupland makes a startling turn. He acknowledges his longing to be good, and he recognizes that that hunger points to God:

Now—here is my secret:

I tell it to you with an openness of heart that I doubt I shall ever achieve again, so I pray that you are in a quiet room as you hear these words. My secret is that I need God – that I am sick and can no longer make it alone. I need God to help me give, because I no longer seem capable of giving; to help me be kind, as I no longer seem capable of kindness; to help me love, as I seem beyond being able to love.[35]

The hunger for goodness that Coupland describes is a reflection of the Anselmian intuition that goodness ultimately points to and can only be finally grounded in God. It is an expression of the classical picture of the nature and role of goodness in relation to God that we saw in Augustine and Aquinas, not to mention Scripture.

Jewish moral philosopher, Philip Hallie, having completed an extensive analysis of cruelty, was driven to despair. But his perspective radically changed when he happened to read the story of a French village of about 3,500 people, who, during World War II, rescued some 6,000 Jews from the Nazi Holocaust. Hallie writes:

Then one gray April afternoon I found a brief article on the French Village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon. I shall not analyze here the tears of amazement and gladness and release from despair—in short, of joy—that I shed when I first read that story . . . at last I had discovered an embodiment of goodness in opposition to cruelty. I had discovered in the flesh and blood of history, in people with definite names in a definite place at a definite time in the nightmare of history, what [no one] could deny was goodness.[36]

Hallie discovered people living the way people are supposed to live, morally—embodying goodness. And he was drawn to them and the kind of life they represented. Moreover, what he and others discovered as they dug deeper is that the people of this village were, in fact, Christians—people who lived as they did, doing what they did, as Christians, as a reflection of their simple, non-scholarly yet deeply, irreducibly biblical understanding of reality. Today, in the field of ethics, the village of Le Chambon is well known, and is widely regarded as the chief example of moral altruism or self-sacrificial goodness in the twentieth century. The power of their example and its Christian basis are undeniable, and they elicit universal admiration. The people of Le Chambon constitute an embodied moral argument for the gospel, one that makes Christianity immensely more plausible to those who are aware of them and what they did.[37]


6 Moral objections

The understanding we have developed here not only makes sense of the positive power of such examples, but it also reveals the devastating power of moral objections to belief in God, why they make the gospel unbelievable to so many. Bad Christian behavior, whether real or merely perceived, hardens the soil and makes the gospel implausible. Beyond the essential connection between experiencing good and grasping good, the effect of bad Christian behavior is exacerbated by its collision with the basic Anselmian intuition that the human hunger for goodness ultimately points to and can only be finally grounded in God. This, in my view, is an important explanation for why Christians, as those who represent God, are expected to be good, even by those who adamantly disagree with them, and why it is so devastating for all concerned when Christians are not. Many different moral systems and religions commend high standards of morality, but Christians are typically held to a higher standard. Part of the reason for this is that Christianity has historically been seen, rightly in my view, to represent the highest of moral standards, and so there is understandable revulsion at the hypocrisy of Christians making high moral pronouncements but not living up to them. But that’s not all there is to it; Christianity also, after all, teaches that all humans fall short of the glory of God, that all are sinners and are in need of God’s grace and divine intervention. The gospel is not a reward for moral perfection, but rescue, forgiveness, healing and hope for those who admit they need it.

When Christians are bad, I suggest, people experience a kind of existential disillusionment. Related to the Anselmian intuition that God is the ultimate ground of goodness, there is a deep sense that Christians who represent him should be good, and that their goodness really does point to the ultimate source of goodness—that their being good is essentially related to their message being believable. So when they’re not, it’s not just that they are inconsistent, or even just that they are bad people. They’ve committed a kind of cosmic treason; they’ve betrayed a much bigger story. They’ve made the gospel unbelievable.

Sadly, examples here may also be multiplied. I will cite only a few. An evangelical journalist who lost his faith after years of covering news of religion attributes his disillusionment to bad Christian behavior.

If the Lord is real, it would make sense for the people of God, on average, to be superior morally and ethically to the rest of society. Statistically, they aren’t. . . . It’s hard to believe in God when it’s impossible to tell the difference between His people and atheists.[38]

More extravagantly (as usual), in “Why I am Not a Christian,” Bertrand Russell points to what he sees as overwhelming evidence that Christians and Christianity are morally bad.

That is the idea—that we should all be wicked if we did not hold to the Christian religion. It seems to me that the people who have held to it have been for the most part extremely wicked. You find this curious fact, that the more intense has been the religion of any period and the more profound has been the dogmatic belief, the greater has been the cruelty and the worse has been the state of affairs. In the so-called ages of faith, when men really did believe the Christian religion in all its completeness, there was the Inquisition, with all its tortures; there were millions of unfortunate women burned as witches; and there was every kind of cruelty practiced upon all sorts of people in the name of religion.

You find as you look around the world that every single bit of progress in humane feeling, every improvement in the criminal law, every step toward the diminution of war, every step toward better treatment of the colored races, or every mitigation of slavery, every moral progress that there has been in the world, has been consistently opposed by the organized churches of the world. I say quite deliberately that the Christian religion, as organized in its churches, has been and still is the principal enemy of moral progress in the world.[39]

Similar charges are stock in trade of “new atheists” like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris.

Moral objections to the goodness of God range from the problem of evil and suffering to charges that the “God of the Old Testament” is wicked, petty, and genocidal; to examples of (perceived) shameful Christian misbehavior in history (the Inquisition, Crusades, witch hunts, opposition to science, colonialism, slavery, intolerance toward women and gays, etc.); to bad personal experiences with Christians that some people have had.

Sometimes moral objections are based on actual wrongs Christians have done, or at least to those that people have done in the name of Christ. Sometimes they’re based on misinformation or misunderstandings. Sometimes they’re based on questionable assumptions—as when Christians may have done nothing wrong at all, but their actions (e.g., proclaiming Jesus as Savior) conflict with relativistic assumptions about tolerance and truth, and deemed evil as a result. And sometimes the objections just reflect irreducible conflicts between Christianity and cultural values (chastity vs. sexual freedom, for example).

In any case, real or merely perceived, moral objections that lead someone to see Christianity as bad make the Christian worldview unbelievable to them. Christianity couldn’t be true; it’s too bad to be true. The important negative task of moral apologetics, then, is to respond to those objections.

7 Moral apologetics

In conclusion, I summarize the nature and role of moral apologetics, as it has emerged here. The aim of moral apologetics is to point to the goodness of God in ways that are appropriate to that aim, including—and emphasizing—being good as believers, exemplifying God’s goodness in relation to those to whom we seek to share the message that Jesus loves you. Moral apologetics is one aspect (not the only one) of an Anselmian approach to engaging others with, and pointing toward, God’s goodness, truth, and beauty, and doing so in ways that are appropriate to each of those values.

Negatively, moral apologetics involves engaging and responding to moral objections to the goodness of God and his people. Because moral objections proliferate, we as apologists need to think them through strategically and sensitively, and begin to address them. I suggest that we do this in community, collaborating with each other about how to engage different groups and generations effectively concerning different questions. Some objections will require significant, specialized study in order to address them adequately. Others may require less effort. Working in community, dividing the labor, can make this possible. In all of this, we should be particularly sensitive to the role of plausibility considerations in these objections, and so we need to approach them prayerfully, humbly, and usually dialogically. Again, we can help each other in these ways.

Positively, moral apologetics involves “making the case” that God is good and is the ultimate ground of all goodness. This can take a variety of forms, including traditional moral arguments. My emphasis in this account has been the positive task of moral apologetics in a fundamentally experiential or incarnational sense: being good, as Christians, as representative of God’s goodness—making the gospel plausible, by enabling people to grasp the goodness of God through experienced goodness with his people.

Obviously, the scope of this project goes far beyond traditional understandings of the science of apologetics or even the art of apologetics. It is the task, not only of apologists, but of the entire body of Christ. In fact, that is exactly as it should be, since Jesus described what makes the gospel believable in just these terms: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13.34-35) “In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Mathew 5.16) These famous passages are pictures of plausibility, and, according to Jesus, apparently, they represent the chief pointers to God. Notice particularly, in the latter passage (from Matthew) the connection between our good deeds and those who see them coming to worship God. As we have seen, one’s worshiping God is essentially, perhaps chiefly dependent on one’s coming to see God as good.

May we be able to say Jesus loves you so that those who hear us believe it. May they see Christianity as too good not to be true.

Image: "vying from the gutter" by blueskyjunction photography. CC License. 


[1] Pascal, Blaise, Pensées 12, A. J. Krailsheimer ed. and trans. (London: Penguin Books, 1995), p. 4.

[2] The term, “moral apologetics,” was first suggested to me, I believe, by Greg Pritchard of the European Leadership Forum, when he invited me to address these issues in a series of lectures given in Hungary in 2006. This paper is a more thorough development of those and subsequent talks on moral apologetics I have subsequently given in various popular-level contexts. I presented an initial draft at the Evangelical Philosophical Society national meeting November 17, 2011. Recent efforts by other scholars include Mark Coppenger’s Moral Apologetics for Contemporary Christians (Nashville, Tenn.: B&H Publishing Group, 2011) and David Baggett’s website,

[3] “Listening Church,” The Guardian, October 14, 2002.

[4] This is changing. See note 2, and especially the resources featured at

[5] I also describe apologetics in Mind Your Faith: A Student’s Guide to Thinking and Living Well (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2011), pp. 189-193. I first came to think of apologetics along these lines through the writings and teaching of my esteemed mentor and friend, Gordon Lewis. The definitive work on apologetics today is Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2011).

[6] For a related introduction to this distinction and literature, see Dennis Hollinger, "The Church as Apologetic: A Sociology of Knowledge Perspective," in Timothy R. Phillips and Dennis L. Okholm, eds, Christian Apologetics in the Postmodern World (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1995), pp. 182-193. My characterization here is provisional and draws substantially from Hollinger’s account. I discuss these matters further in Mind Your Faith, pp. 177-180 and 238-244.

[7] I do not deal here with two other powerful “plausibility” assumptions that tend to derail serious consideration of the Christian worldview: scientism (the assumption that all that is real, true, or knowable is what science is able to establish) and the commonly accepted view of tolerance, according to which all propositions (at least in matters of religion and ethics) should be considered equally true, and it would be immoral (“intolerant”) to think otherwise. I address these briefly in Mind Your Faith, pp. 112-114, 136-137.

[1] Unless otherwise indicated, Scriptural quotations are from the New International Version (2011).

[2] Proserchomai—Peter uses the present participle, suggesting behavior that is active and regular.

[3] See Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (NE) 1.1.1094a2-3; Aquinas, Summa Theologiae (ST) Ia.5.1c; Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy (CP) 3.11;ß Dionysius Div. Nom. iv.

[4] See Julia Annas, The Morality of Happiness (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993).

[5] See 1 Chr 16.34, 41; 2 Chr 5.13; 2 Chr 7.3; 2 Chr 20.21; Ezra 3.11; Ps 100.4-5; Ps 106.1; Ps 107.1; Ps 118.1, 29; Ps 136.1 (and passim).

[6] C. H. Spurgeon, Treasury of David: Volume Two: Psalm LVIII to CX (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1988), p. 253.

[7] Consolation of Philosophy, 3.10.

[8] Ibid., 3.12. Cited from Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, V. E. Watts trans., (London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1969), p. 115.

[9] City of God, 8.8. Cited from Augustine, Political Writings, Michael W. Tkacz and Douglas Kries, eds. and trans. (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1994), pp. 63-64.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Cited from Augustine, Confessions, Henry Chadwick, trans. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), i (1), p. 3.

[12] ST IaIIae.1.6c. Citations from Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Fathers of the English Dominican Province, trans. (Westminster, Maryland: Christian Classics, 1981).

[13] IaIIae.4.7 ad 2.

[14] IaIIae.5.4c.

[15] IaIIae.5.2c. Following Augustine and the tradition, Aquinas understands “enjoying” to refer to seeing something as intrinsically good, desiring it for its own sake and not “using” it as a means to some other end or for the sake of some other good.

[16] On the metaphysics of goodness in classical and Christian thinking, see Scott MacDonald, ed., Being and Goodness: The Concept of the Good in Metaphysics and Philosophical Theology (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991).

[17] I.1. Citation from John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Henry Beveridge, trans. (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2008), p. 4.

[18] 2.1. Beveridge, p. 7.

[19] 2.2. Beveridge, p. 8.

[20] 1.5.6. Beveridge, p. 20.

[21] 1.5.9. Beveridge, pp. 21-22.

[22] See Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works, Brian Davies and G. R. Evans, eds. and trans. with Introduction (Oxford World's Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).

[23] Thomas V. Morris, Anselmian Explorations: Essays in Philosophical Theology (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1987); and Our Idea of God: An Introduction to Philosophical Theology (Vancouver, B.C.: Regent College Publishing, 2002).

[24] Our Idea of God, p. 47.

[25] What follows depends closely upon my discussion in Mind Your Faith, pp. 190-192.

[26] See, e.g., Psalm 96.

[27] See C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (Orlando, Flo.: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1955); and "The Weight of Glory," in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, Walter Hooper, ed. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996), pp. 25-40.

[28] See Robert M. Adams, “Moral Arguments for Theistic Belief,” in The Virtue of Faith and Other Essays in Philosophical Theology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987; Robert Gay, "Moral Arguments for the Existence of God," Modern Theology 3 (1987): pp. 117-36; Stuart C. Hacket, "The Value Dimension of the Cosmos: A Moral Argument," in Philosophy of Religion: A Reader and Guide, William Lane Craig, ed. (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2002), pp. 149-54; John E. Hare, The Moral Gap: Kantian Ethics, Human Limits, and God's Assistance (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996).

[29] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2000; reprint of 1952 edition). Moral arguments were more popular during the early to mid-twentieth century. Besides Lewis, see, e.g., W. R. Sorley, Moral Values and the Idea of God (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 1918, and A. E. Taylor, The Faith of a Moralist (London: Macmillan, 1937). A recent moral argument is David Baggett and Jerry L. Walls, Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[30] Cf. the role of desire in relation to goodness and virtue noted in part 2 and notes.

[31] John Hare, God's Call: Moral Realism, God's Commands, and Human Autonomy (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2001).

[32] C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man: How Education Develops Man's Sense of Morality (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), pp. 16-17.

[33] NE 2.3.1104b13. Citation from Irwin trans. (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1999). For a very helpful analysis of Aristotle’s view here, see Miles F. Burnyeat, "Aristotle on Learning to Be Good," in A. O. Rorty, ed., Essays on Aristotle's Ethics (Berkeley, Calif.; University of California Press, 1980), pp. 69-72.

[34] See Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., Not the Way It's Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1995), chapter 1.

[35] Douglas Coupland, Life without God (New York: Pocket Books, 1994), p. 359.

[36] Philip Hallie, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed (New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1979), p. 93. I tell the story of Le Chambon in detail in Mind Your Faith, chapter 13.

[37] In Mind Your Faith I suggest the possibility that Albert Camus’ reported turn toward Christianity shortly before he died may have been the product of his living in Le Chambon during this time (see pp. 243-244).

[38] William Lobdell, Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America - and Found Unexpected Peace (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), 271. Cited in Jonathan Lunde, Following Jesus, the Servant King: A Biblical Theology of Covenantal Discipleship (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2010), 25.

[39] Bertrand Russell, “Why I Am Not a Christian,” online:, accessed 23 February 2015.




David Horner has taught at the University of Oxford, Denver Seminary, and served as a Visiting Scholar and Research Associate at the University of Colorado. He has lectured in numerous classrooms and university forums nationally and in Europe, and he has written numerous articles and book chapters on ethics, apologetics and ancient and medieval philosophy. Horner serves as Research Scholar for Centers for Christian Study, International, an effort to develop intellectual Christian communities within secular university contexts. He also serves as Executive Director of The Illuminatio Project, whose aim is to bring the light of a classical biblical vision of goodness, truth and beauty into the thinking of the church and culture through strategic research and communication.

The Faustian Bargain of Fifty Shades of Gray

Editor's Note:  A longer version of this piece was originally published at The Federalist.

In the wake of Valentine’s Day 2015 and the unveiling of the much-anticipated theatrical release of Fifty Shade of Grey, I tried to pin down the appeal. It can’t be the prose—that seems to be one element at which all critics cringe. Nor can it be the level of explicit pornography. As the New Yorker’s review claimed, more graphic nudity can be found in a lecture on the Renaissance. Why then did this R-rated movie just pull in nearly $100 million on its opening weekend? In contemplating an answer, I began to consider the German novel Faust. Written by Johann Goethe in the late nineteenth century, Faust posits a bored academic who makes a bargain with devil. In so doing, Faust follows Mephistopheles (the devil) on a stream of adventures ultimately leading to tragedy. By understanding the Faust story, I think we can recognize the appeal of Fifty Shades of Grey.

Illustration by  Harry Clarke  for Goethe's   Faust

Illustration by Harry Clarke for Goethe's Faust

In his interpretation of the Faust myth, Goethe changes the legend from a bored academic who makes a deal with the devil to a wager about the nature of the world. Goethe’s Faust concludes there is no cause of happiness in the world, and nothing beyond it. He is the epitome of dissatisfaction, and not even the Devil can show him lasting happiness. Mephistopheles as the modern image of the Adversary is more than happy to take this wager; after all, Faust’s wager serves Mephistopheles’ bet with God that Faust will choose the Devil’s path. This divine wager introduces the play, and serves as the primary point of the story: will Faust fall completely into the devil’s grasp, or regain his humanity by turning to God? The remainder of the play/novel/poem consists of a whirlwind of experiences, cycles of speed and experience swirling Faust ever downward into his own depravity, with naught but the love of Gretchen crying, “Heinrich, Heinrich!” as she ascends to heaven to provide any hope of redemption by the end of part one.

Mephistopheles is a clever devil. Gone are the old ways where the demonic fiend might get his prey addicted to drink, or harlots, or greed. No, Mephistopheles plays a closer game by showing Faust purity (in the form of Gretchen), and then leading him to corrupt the purity. Faust misses the actual hope of happiness in his quest for corruption. Faust is consumed with lust for Gretchen, and consummates his desire, leading to tragic consequences. In his quest for Gretchen, however, Faust discovers the one transcendent quality in his world: love. He cannot achieve that love, however, without abandoning his existential quest for proving the dissatisfaction of the world. In constantly seeking the hurly-burly of Walprugis Night, Faust fails to grasp the good in the world and instead condemns Gretchen to prison while he grinds against a naked witch in the Brocken.

Faust provides a helpful metaphor in light of the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon. After three poorly written erotic novels and a now-released film, the New York Times, Washington Post, Independent, and the Guardian carried articles the week before the premier about the upcoming movie and tie-in erotic toys. Why is this such an event? This film is garnering quick attention for at least two reasons. First, and most obviously, it is the entrance of BDSM into mainstream cinema. Secondly, however, it represents the temptation and titillation of a Faustian sexuality with all the incumbent promises of true happiness and empty fulfillment.

Fifty Shades of Grey is a recent re-articulation of the Marquis De Sade’s vision of sexuality: dominance and submission, power and punishment, pain and satisfaction stewed together producing the best experience for both participants. This vision of sexuality is exciting, and ultimately tragic. Just as Faust missed true happiness in the mundane, in a life wedded to Gretchen in the world, so Fifty Shades of Grey misses the right place of true sexuality: marriage. Men, women, and sexuality are all made in such a way that when sexual intimacy is embraced outside the confines of marriage, such as when Faust rushes into the orgy with Mephistopheles by his side, humanity is gradually eroded. Fifty Shades of Grey provides a stimulating pornographic vision of excitement while actually delivering a dehumanizing love of slavery enshrined in the closest physical human connections.

In the confines of marriage, sexuality becomes a raging force used constructively. Within a lifelong commitment between spouses, sexual intimacy serves a higher calling and produces true joy. Gretchen offered this life to Faust: the life of confinement, restraint, and true joy. Faust instead chose to allow Mephistopheles to “carry him away” into the never-ending rush of constant experience. Faced with a Faustian sexuality at the movies in coming weeks, the ticket-purchasing audience will be faced with a choice: is Fifty Shades of Grey be a celebration of real love between two humans who are called to serve, honor, submit to, and respect one another? Or is this film a call to step onto Mephistopheles’ cloak and be whisked away to a false pleasure creating a deceptive experience leading to tragedy?


Interview of Dr. Tom Morris

In this interview, I asked Dr. Tom Morris several questions about his life and ministry, his teaching and writing and speaking. Dr. Morris is a very dear soul, a brilliant philosopher, great long-time professor, dynamic speaker, and eminently gifted and prolific writer. Along with Elton Higgs, Good God was dedicated to him; he was Jerry Walls’ teacher and dissertation advisor at Notre Dame, and I have had the privilege to get to know him personally through the years. He is something of my intellectual grandfather, you could say! He’s also a dear friend. He’s been a wonderful encourager and mentor to me for many, many years, and my respect for him is boundless. Two of my prized possessions are books he sent to me some years ago, books he didn’t just sign. He drew little cartoons on the inside of each of them, personalized just for me. It was one of a plethora of gestures of kindness he’s shown me through the years. He’s likewise been a source of encouragement, inspiration, and wisdom for thousands and thousands of others. It’s my distinct honor to share this interview with Tom Morris, a great scholar and even better man. Please visit his website at, and be sure to read his daily blogs and his regular column at the Huffington Post.

-Dave Baggett

Photo by  Matt Lamers  on  Unsplash

Photo by Matt Lamers on Unsplash


  1. I’d love to know about the experience you mentioned in God and the Philosophers, when you were an undergraduate at North Carolina, and you experienced something of an epiphany in front of the math building. It pertained to your sense of calling. Can you describe that influence in more detail, and its impact on you then and since?

I remember the day vividly. I wish I had written down the date and time. But when it happened, I had no idea how lasting the memory or the effect would be. It was like many of the most important events of my life – I didn’t see it coming. There was no preparation that I was aware of. It just happened like a bolt from the blue. I was struck with a thought that seemed to come to me from beyond, an assurance that there’s a reason I’m here, in this life, on this earth – that I have a mission, a job to do, something important to accomplish. I had no idea what that might be, at the time, but that didn’t matter. It wasn’t like I was having a premonition of my work, or career, just a powerful assurance that there’s an importance in my being alive, a specific value in my adventure. It made me feel good, and strongly confident, and somehow grounded in a sense of meaning and purpose, even though, again, I didn’t know any specifics, at that point.


And what’s odd here is that I believe we’re all alive for a purpose. That was just my moment of assurance that I had nothing to fear or worry about concerning my future. First, there would be one. And second, it would be something that I could feel good about. I would be able to serve people in some way. I did sense that deeply and powerfully, but again, without specifics. The phenomenal, keen psychological feel of the experience was unlike anything I had ever had happen to me. It was almost like a voice speaking to me, yet not with a tone or timber, heard by the ear. It was just a thought, a message with propositional content and emotional resonance that came to me suddenly and seemed to touch my spirit in the deepest way. From that moment on the sidewalk in Chapel Hill, I had a sense of meaning that went beyond anything I could explain.

  1. When you were still in college, you began your first book—on Francis Schaeffer and apologetic methodology. This site, as you know, is about moral apologetics, various moral arguments for God’s existence. Do you think some of the distinctive features of morality—its authority, prescriptivity, etc.—are better explained by a religious worldview than by naturalism?

I really don’t see how naturalism can accommodate any degree of ultimate objectivity about moral principles and demands, or even about such things as rights. And the naturalist, like any of us, typically has strong moral intuitions about such things that impinge on our conduct. We may disagree about the details, but naturalists can be as morally offended, or inspired, as any of us. And they’ll have real trouble making metaphysical sense of the power they feel, the power that truly moves them, and us.

George Mavrodes, I think, once wrote a nice essay about the oddness of morality in a materalistic universe that says it all very well – or at least, it struck me that way as a young philosopher, when I first read him. [ed--“Religion and the Queerness of Morality”]

Theism roots so much so deeply in the metaphysical weave of reality in ways that naturalism just can’t do. You have to give up a lot to be a naturalist, and I don’t think most naturalists, even very intelligent naturalists, fully understand this and all its implications. They still keep a foot in the warm water that their own view can’t provide.

  1. When you were a student at Yale, you bucked the system and enrolled in a number of classes in both analytic and Continental philosophy, and earned doctorates in both philosophy and religious studies. What led you to do that, and how did that breadth of study shape your work?

I was determined to leave no ultimate stone unturned. I didn’t care about the divisions in the department philosophy or in the university, or about the animosities that accompanied these divisions. I was intensely curious and wanted to be able to follow my nose wherever it might lead me. So imagine my surprise when I was once in a Kant seminar on the “other side” of the department with dancers and artists and actors and had to read books with titles like “The Mass Psychology of Fascism” and “Love and Lust” and “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” and “The Female Orgasm,” to help in my understanding of the categorical imperative and The Critique of Pure Reason. Of course, my worries about the connections were a bit assuaged when, like a ritual, we had to retreat to the professor’s office every day after class for sherry and even more cheese.

I think my work was shaped by an intellectual breadth of early acquaintance with a wide variety of modes of thought that was relatively rare in my time. I came to discover that, most typically, philosophers knew almost nothing of theology; theologians knew little philosophy; continental thinkers weren’t trained in logical precision, and analytic practitioners seemed to hardly ever sip sherry.

  1. At Notre Dame your teaching was legendary. I know several folks who served as a TA for you, and to a person they confirm what a remarkable privilege it was to do so. You brought the marching band into the classroom before a final exam, and all sorts of things to make learning fun and enjoyable and memorable, without sacrificing the rigor. You won the Indiana Professor of the Year award at one point. What are the top two or three pieces of advice you’d give to teachers, guiding principles that you followed yourself?

You have to love your students first and then love what you’re teaching. Love is the moving force. That leads to connection and enjoyment and success.

I often told my TAs that philosophy is serious but that doesn’t mean it’s somber. We always had fun. I wanted the students to think of philosophy as a fun and fascinating and important way of confronting the world. Ultimately, I wanted to bring them back to the ancient view of philosophy as a way of living. And that includes laughing and loving.

I always tried imaginative gimmicks to make philosophical points vividly and memorably. And I’ve had people come up to me in convention centers all over America and say, after a talk to a financial services company, or an industry association meeting, “Professor Morris, I was in your class in 1983 when the lights all went out suddenly.” I’d reply, “Why did that happen?” And then I’d get an answer like “You were giving us a Near Death Experience and it was really vivid and so funny I remember it all these years later.”

A robot might tell corny electricity jokes in a class about artificial intelligence, or Dominoes might deliver pizzas to the class early in the morning when they weren’t even open, to illustrate something in a lecture on miracles, or I might provide a little electric guitar performance to illustrate something in the philosophy of science. My general rule was “Four minutes of craziness to gain their attention for the next forty six minutes.” We had a theme song that would play when I entered the auditorium. Snickers bars often flew through the air for good answers, or just to start the class. When people avoided sitting in the front, Burger King might cater cheeseburgers to only the first two rows. A month into the semester, we did Early Course Evaluations asking for suggestions. The next class I’d go over, the often hilarious, suggestions that my very clever undergraduates would make, and I’d actually implement some of them. They never know what would happen next.

At the end of each semester, on official final course evaluations, students would always say: “I could NEVER sleep late and miss class, because I knew that if I did, it would probably be the class everybody would talk about for the next ten years.” That’s why I never had an attendance policy. If I couldn’t make it so good they didn’t ever want to miss it, I was not doing my job, as I understood it.

  1. Your work in philosophical theology greatly influenced many philosophers, including me. I remember reading your analysis of a modal version of the Euthyphro Dilemma that, at the time, opened my eyes to a whole new approach to solving the Dilemma. Much of your work focused on a particular conception of God—understood in the Anselmian sense. What are some of the reasons for the philosophical power of this notion of God?

Thanks for your kind compliment. Now, about that conception of God: Well, for one thing, it’s the most extreme idea imaginable, isn’t it? And whatever else is true of me, I’m a person of extremes. I’ve been known to find a new restaurant and love the meal so much that I would go back and eat there every night for two weeks. When I decided to start working out hard at the gym, I committed to two hours a day, every day, for the first year. I do extremes. It’s my great strength and weakness. Extremes intrigue me.

The idea of the greatest possible being, a maximally perfect individual – you can’t get any more extreme than that. It’s a sort of absolute ideal for a philosopher. And any attempt to understand and apply it has got to lead to discoveries all over the place. I found it very attractive and intriguing. I wanted to give it a new level of rigorous and creative attention, as a unifying idea of great importance for philosophical theology and then perhaps for other specialties as well. I felt like, if we understood the core idea of perfect being theology deeply enough, and logically enough, we’d get answers to problems that would otherwise be unavailable. And I think I was right.

  1. What led to your leaving Notre Dame after 15 years, situated as you were as one of the brightest among a set of premier philosophers making up what was one of the best philosophy departments in the world? What do you miss most, and least, about academia?

When I was approached out of the blue by Disney to make TV commercials for Winnie the Pooh, as a philosopher, I was so surprised, and I was delighted to be reaching out beyond the classroom, especially to promote a most philosophical bear. The two network commercials I got to costar in, with the Pooh characters, brought a surprising amount of attention my way. Various area business and civic groups had been asking me to come and speak on ethics and success, and other topics for a couple of years. And I would always say yes, to build bridges between the university and the community. Then word started to spread. NBC Sports had me speak to their sponsors at every Notre Dame home football game. The Young Presidents Organization began to ask me to give talks to presidents of companies all over the world. Then, when the Pooh hit the fan, when the commercials started showing five or six times a day on all the networks, everybody got interested in this strange guy, part philosopher, and part TV pitchman.

Quickly, I published a first trade book, True Success: A New Philosophy of Excellence, and I was soon getting invitations to speak everywhere. My wife would pick me up from the airport for my morning freshman Philosophy 101 class. I’d teach, have lunch, then do a senior afternoon class, and head back to the airport for another trip and another talk somewhere in America, or beyond. As this grew in momentum, and I saw people in every business get excited about the wisdom of the ages, I began to feel a sense of calling, almost Abrahamic in nature, to leave the known for an unknown promised land where I was meant to grow and prosper intellectually in new ways. I had started all this with no clue that people actually PAID speakers. Then it became a real business. It was hard to teach full time and also serve the world in this new way. I felt I had to make a choice. I loved my students and my academic work, but felt so strongly that this was the next adventure, that I left the full professorship, the tenure, and all its guarantees for this big new challenge and joy.

Norman Kretzmann, Sage Professor of Philosophy at Cornell, who had been a sort of informal mentor and great encourager to me, wrote me a nice letter at the time urging me not to leave the world of philosophical theology just to go and popularize philosophy for the masses. I wrote back and told him that the new challenges were just as tough, even without requiring modal logic. If people had already figured out happiness, struggle, change, and success, there wouldn’t be a steady stream of new books on these issues. And I was going to be the first philosopher ever to bring the best rigors of analytic training to bear on such matters. I felt I had a shot at making a big difference to people’s everyday lives, not something that was even on the radar screen when penning a piece for The Philosophical Review, or The American Philosophical Quarterly. I had experienced and enjoyed serving the 126 people in the world who could read my technical work, and the 4 who actually understood it well enough to be persuaded. Of course, I’m kidding. It was more like 3. In any case, I was ready for the new assignment that I was being given.

When I resigned from Notre Dame, I wrote a long letter to the campus newspaper telling all my students that I was leaving not because I had found something more important than they were to me, but because they had prepared me for a new mission that I was being called to launch out on, and I would always appreciate and treasure the time I had with them for those many years in South Bend.

What I miss most about academia is the time I had to see my students grow in wisdom and understanding throughout a semester and beyond. What I miss least is excessively long faculty meetings, unspoken professional resentments, and the manifest irritation of certain formerly affable colleagues who had decided that, as an exuberant public philosopher, I was no longer to be greeted in the hallway, or spoken to in any way, unless absolutely necessary. They must have thought that Pooh-losophy could be dangerously contagious.

  1. You describe yourself as shy. I’m sure that would come as quite a surprise to anyone who has seen you give a public lecture. How would you explain the discrepancy?

When someone moves in next door to me, it may take me six weeks or months to get the courage up to go say hello. And yet, I’ll talk freely to anyone sitting next to me on an airplane. I’m a walking paradox (one in philosophy, one in religious studies). Part of me would be happy sitting alone in my room reading and writing most of the day, and just taking breaks to talk to my wife, pat the dogs, and throw a ball to the cat to chase or disdain, depending on his mood. And then another part of me wants to be with those 5,000 people in Las Vegas, or those 10,000 in Orlando, or the 20 top executives in Silicon Valley. When this started happening, I began to realize more deeply that I really liked being around people who enjoyed and appreciated the ideas I was bringing them. And I had to get over the shyness to do the job. Of course, as a professor, I already learned a lot about how to do that. Like many performers, actors, singers, comics, and jugglers, I learned, for the sake of my audience and my effectiveness, to overcome any tendencies that would keep me from having a sort of exuberant effectiveness. And it’s always a joy.

But the two parts of me serve a purpose. The shy side encourages the scholarship and thought required to create new frameworks of ideas. The sociable showman side helps me get those ideas out into the world. Ultimately, great presentations happen where personal neediness meets the love of others amidst the joy of service.

  1. Explain your vision of public philosophy. Is this a tradition that, after the likes of Emerson and perhaps James, has been neglected?

Public philosophy is just a version of public health. What would we think if all the physicians just stayed in their labs, discovering things, and talking about them among each other, but never brought those discoveries out into the world, or – worse yet – just worked on things that they happened to be interested in, whether those ideas would ever have any practical implications or not? We need basic research in science, all the sciences, without regard for payoff or practicality, but we also need applied science that aims at positive impact. I think of theoretical philosophy as immensely important, but it’s not the only sort of philosophy that deserves attention. The practical side of philosophy has been neglected for a very long time in our culture. And I think we’ve all suffered as a result. I came to realize that I was being put into a position to do something about that.

But I had few role models in our time. What Emerson and James accomplished in their time gave me a sense that it can be done, and to great effect. And of course, there were other philosophers who had reached out to a broader audience, like Mortimer Adler, who was actually more of a historian than a philosopher, and Bertrand Russell, who maybe shouldn’t have reached out at all. Sartre and Camus had made their splash, as it was, but a lot more was needed, and in a different direction, adumbrating a different sort of worldview. Pascal had inspired me, as had Kierkegaard. But rather than jokingly jabbing Jesuits or hilariously harpooning Hegel, I decided to focus on another set of issues. Give me another 200 years to work in practical philosophy, and I think I’ll get it right. But even now, it’s the most satisfaction I’ve ever felt on any intellectual pursuit, although figuring out the incarnation and tracing the implications of perfect being theology were pretty much fun, too.

  1. Tell us about your eight-part novel series—how it happened, what it’s about. Is this something you planned to do, or did it catch you by surprise?

This is definitely the wildest, most unexpected story of my life. In February 2011, I woke up, had toast, jam, and coffee for breakfast, and, before I could get out of my chair to go work on a book about how to deal with change, one of the greatest changes and adventures of my life suddenly began. I started to see, as if in my mind's eye, a vivid movie. It was something like the most amazing daydream of my life.

In an instant, I was watching and listening to an old man and a young boy, who were sitting under a palm tree in the desert and talking about life. Their conversation was really great, so I ran up the stairs to my study and began to type as fast as I could, to catch up and keep up. I then put a short essay on The Huffington Post with the first rough version of that initial conversation. People reacted quickly and with great enthusiasm. "What is this?" "Is this the beginning of a book?" I honestly didn't know what it was.

The movie then continued to play, most days, on and off, for almost four years. The result is, so far, eight completed books that have not yet been shown to publishers. A former student of mine who is now a famous thriller novelist saw the first two books when they were freshly written, and said right away, "This is The Alchemist Meets Harry Potter Meets Indiana Jones!" I hope so.

Watching this inner movie and writing it all down has has been the pinnacle of my experience as a philosopher. The things I've seen and heard and learned by viewing this mysterious movie go beyond anything I've ever read or discovered in more normal, ordinary ways.

Three weeks after the movie began to play, and well before I realized that I was in the process of writing a book, and, of course, long before I knew it would be the first of many books, I woke up one day and had an almost equally unusual mental vision, where I saw something new, again, almost like in a dream.

It was clearly a book called The Oasis Within. Noticing a banner across the top of the front cover in this surprising morning vision, I realized right away that it said, "Over Three Million Copies In Print." So, I responded to that by saying, "Ok, then. I'll write this book." And the big adventure began.

The series is set in Egypt in 1934 and 1935, a place and time about which I knew almost nothing when all this started. But after 2 or 4 or 6 hours of writing, I’d google stuff that I saw – a certain kind of snake, a specific men’s wristwatch, a car of a particular make, and was amazed to discover, time after time, that these things were in fact in Egypt in 1934 or 1935. I heard characters call out each others’ names – Arabic names I didn’t know – and those I checked out turned out not only to be legitimate names, but most often perfect for the characters. It’s fiction, but all the research that novelists do before writing, I didn’t have to do at all. I just wrote what I saw and heard. I never made up a plot point, or a conscious decision about what should happen. I watched. I listened. I wrote.

In the end, it’s a series about life, death, meaning, friendship, the secrets behind everyday events, and the extraordinary power of a well-focused mind. It’s about love and commitment and redemption. It’s about good and evil and folly and wisdom. It’s about what moves people to chart their way in one direction rather than another. It’s about inner peace, inner power, and the role of this world in a much bigger scheme of things. It’s about dreams and difficulties, and triumph and ultimate reality. How could that not be fun to write!

The publication of this first book, which is something like a conversational prologue to the series of action and adventure stories that go on to reveal a deep and ancient philosophical worldview that's uniquely powerful for the twenty-first century, will be announced at my website, when it's available. I don’t even have a fiction agent for it yet. So wish me luck!

  1. What would you say is the integrating theme—or themes—of your entire career, spanning your time in academia, your work as a public philosopher, as an essayist and novelist, and your future goals?

My overall theme is helping people think through the most important ideas there are, with conceptual precision and concrete imagination.

My future goals are to keep doing it, and discover more new things that I can share with excitement and great satisfaction.

Photo: "Happiness" by C. Roengigk. CC License. 

The Inadequacy of a Naturalistic Virtue Ethic (Part 2 of 2)

Photo by  Sebastian Unrau  on  Unsplash



Objections to Teleology

One of the main concerns is the role that teleology plays. According to Foot, individuals have a telos; they are meant for thriving as a member of a certain species. But it is unclear what this really could mean in a naturalistic world. To say something has a telos means it has a purpose essentially. Alasdair MacIntyre suggests that insofar as a virtue ethic is teleological, it requires “at least one central functional concept, the concept of man understood as having an essential nature and an essential purpose or function.”[1] Having a purpose, and having it essentially, means that a thing has a purpose by its very nature. One obvious way to say that teleology is both genuine and morally significant is to say that a thing was made by a person with certain intentions and purposes. An artist might design and paint a picture with the intention of bringing happiness (a moral good) to others. It is the artist’s intention that gives the painting moral significance. But the naturalist cannot say that humans are relevantly like paintings.  It does not make sense to say that nature “intended” an animal for something any more than it makes sense to say that a puddle of water was intended to fit in the hole it finds itself. This is because we normally think of teleological properties like being meant for X or being intended for Y as irreducibly mental properties. And the only thing we know that can have intentions or meanings is a mind. However, human beings are not the product of any mind, on naturalism, but of matter and the laws of physics. The same amount of intentional care that went into making puddles fit holes went into making us biologically fit for life; granted, there is more sophistication to the latter, but, on naturalism, the amount of intentional care is the same. That being the case, it stretches language beyond the breaking point to say that, on naturalism, we are intended or meant for anything.

Perhaps this objection can be turned back by means of clarification. What then does Foot mean when she says there is a way humans should be? To get that answer, we first have to know what she means by “human” and, second, what she means by “should.”

In responding, the naturalist faces an immediate difficulty. The naturalist cannot even say “there is a way humans are” without controversy because such a statement presupposes certain views about the nature of the category of species and thus what the term human actually means. Specifically, Foot argues that “human” is a real metaphysical category.[2]  Species in general must refer to real metaphysical categories if Foot’s system is going to work because it is by appeal to these categories that she can say what counts as specifying conditions. If the category of species were only fictional, contingently assigned to living things by human animals, then no meaningful norms can be grounded in them. So then, Foot needs there to be a genuine “human nature” to ground her theory. However, David Hull thinks naturalism cannot provide a way to account for this. Hull argues that in light of the impersonal, atomistic world of naturalism, there is no space for metaphysically robust concepts like “human nature.”[3] He says,

The implications of moving species from the metaphysical category that can appropriately be characterized in terms of "natures" to a category for which such characterizations are inappropriate are extensive and fundamental. If species evolve in anything like the way that Darwin thought they did, then they cannot possibly have the sort of natures that traditional philosophers claimed they did. If species in general lack natures, then so does Homo Sapiens as a biological species. If Homo Sapiens lacks a nature, then no reference to biology can be made to support one's claims about "human nature." Perhaps all people are "persons," share the same "personhood," etc., but such claims must be explicated and defended with no reference to biology. Because so many moral, ethical, and political theories depend on some notion or other of human nature, Darwin's theory brought into question all these theories. The implications are not entailments. One can always dissociate "Homo sapiens" from "human being," but the result is a much less plausible position.[4]

The upshot of this is that even having the term human refer to a class of things which share the same nature will not work on naturalism. Human only refers to a nominal way of grouping animals by their traits. However, by human Foot means a real metaphysical category. The trouble is that there is no way for naturalism to ground that meaning.

This also undermines Foot’s normative concept of “should.” To see why, let us consider what Foot means by the locution “should.” It is worth quoting her at length on this:

What, then, determines the truth of the teleological propositions…? We start from the fact that it is the particular life form of a species of plant or animal that determines how an individual plant or animal should be: the Aristotelian categoricals give the ‘how’ of what happens in the life cycle of that species. And all the truths about what this or that characteristic does, what its purpose or point is, and in suitable cases its function, must be related to this life cycle. The way an individual should be is determined by what is needed for development, self-maintenance, and reproduction: in most species involving defence, and in some the rearing of the young.[5]

Thus, by should Foot means individuals ought to exhibit the features which constitute the ideal for their species. But, the argument above has been that Foot can only consistently use species in a nominal way. Species do not really exist, on such a worldview; therefore, there is nothing to make teleological propositions true. From that it follows that there is no way a thing should be. All that naturalism allows for is descriptions of how things are. There is no such thing as a categorical moral “should.” (There are instrumental shoulds, presumably.)

Objections to Eudaimonia

But for the sake of the argument, let us grant Foot that humans have a telos so that there is a way a human should be and that moral evaluations follow from that. Still, what constitutes the ideal is a complete accident of physics. The ideal is further contingent on some arbitrary selection of a specific moment of time in human evolutionary history. What is ideal now could change in the future and it will change if Darwinism is correct. The result is that what is morally repugnant now may not be in the future. This is the view that Angus Ritchie calls “strong evolutionary ethics.”

The fact that the good is contingent on a species also leads to other puzzles. For example, if we suppose that Star Trek’s Borg were a real species, we could not disagree that their assimilation of other species was good for them as Borg, even if it were bad for us as humans.[6] Or, as Angus Ritchie has pointed out, the good for a cancer cell is in direct conflict with the good for a human. In cases of Borg and cancer, there are contradictory goods. And if the survival of cancer cells isn’t an intrinsically good thing, why is the survival of human beings, on this analysis? The fact that Foot distances herself from utilitarianism makes the challenge all the more pressing.

This at least seems like a problem. Intuitively, we think that the good is a trans-species thing. Part of the problem is that the term “good” is so slippery. In one sense, it is obvious and uncontroversial that if there is such a thing as Borg nature, then there is a good for Borg. But our intuitions about the moral good are such that this good cannot be totally determined by the way a species is. This good is supposed to be objective and necessary. It does not depend on anything, especially accidents of nature. So if the good for Borg or cancer is a real, moral good, it is because it stands in the proper relation to the moral good.  Foot thinks the intuitive problem is due to confusion about what we mean by “the good.”[7] According to her, goodness can only be determined by references to species; there is no good outside of that. However, the Borg and cancer puzzles show that there are real problems with identifying the good with the biology of a species.

Objections to the Role of the Virtues

Another problem with virtue in Foot’s theory arises from the conjunction of the role of the virtues and the implications of her naturalist ontology of human persons for human freedom. Aristotle says virtues are those practices that we “choose indeed for themselves (for if nothing resulted from them we should still choose each of them), but we choose them also for the sake of happiness, judging that by means of them we shall be happy.”[8] Virtues both lead to happiness and constitute it, but they are also intentional practices, chosen for good reasons.  Aristotle’s concept of the virtues presupposes a certain view of human persons, namely that they possess at least the power of rationality and volition.

But is such a view at home in a naturalist worldview? Perhaps not. There have been serious challenges to the naturalist’s ability to have confidence in human reason. For example, Alvin Plantinga has powerfully argued that the conjunction of naturalism and atheistic evolution undermines the possibility that humans actually have reliable cognitive faculties. Evolution, after all, is not aimed at producing reliable ways of knowing, but only survival through replication. But there are also concerns about the naturalist account of volition or human freedom. Mark Linville and Angus Ritchie have given similar arguments more delimited to moral cognition in particular.

One view of human freedom is called libertarianism. On this view, a person has the power to choose between alternatives. If presented with the choice of eating either Lucky Charms or Raisin Bran for breakfast, Susan, by her choice, determines which cereal she will eat. The word determines is important here. The libertarian thinks that humans actually act upon the world; they are the ultimate cause of their own actions. (Source theorists assign primacy to this aspect of free choices—that the agent in question is the source of the action—rather than the ability to do otherwise; on occasion, such as after an individual has formed a good enough character, choosing not to help someone in need might become a practical impossibility, without the agent’s freedom being impaired; a source analysis would make good sense of this.) So if Susan chooses Lucky Charms over Raisin Bran (the only rational choice!), the cause of the choice is Susan herself. However, this view of human freedom is problematic for naturalists precisely because a libertarian free will is generally thought to require an immaterial soul.[9] John Searle says that “our conception of physical reality simply does not allow for radical [libertarian] freedom.”[10] And naturalist John Bishop admits, “Agent causal relations do not belong to the ontology of the natural perspective.”[11]

Instead of thinking as humans as unified, immaterial souls, naturalists tend to hold that humans are (highly complex) collections of atoms and molecules. There is nothing special about the parts that make up humans. The laws of physics that operate in the world operate the same way on the parts a human body. This is why Daniel Dennett says, “according to naturalism, “we can (in principle!) account for every mental phenomenon using the same physical principles, laws and raw materials that suffice to explain radioactivity, continental drift, photosynthesis, reproduction, and growth.”[12] Susan’s choice of Lucky Charms is determined by the physical interactions of the parts that make her up, and environemental factors functioning deterministically, and not by Susan herself—in the sense that would satisfy most source theorists. In fact, Dennett thinks that though most people imagine they have a libertarian free will, there is no “I” that steers a human; “the little man in the brain” is illusory.[13] Along these same lines, Sam Harris says, “What I will do next, and why, remains, at bottom, a mystery—one that is fully determined by the prior state of the universe and the laws of nature (including the contributions of chance).”[14]

However, some naturalists think that despite the fact that our actions are determined by physical laws, human freedom still exists. The view that determinism and free will are consistent is called compatibilism. Usually “freedom” is not understood to mean “to exercise volition between two alternatives,” but “to do what one desires.” A free action is still caused, but in the right sort of way. Susan desired Lucky Charms and so she does what she desires to do, even if she could not have done otherwise except in a counterfactual sense. Or, as naturalist Sam Harris puts it, to say one could have done otherwise “is an empty affirmation.”[15]

Now let us return to what Aristotle said about the virtues. He said that a person will practice the virtues because they are judged to be good and to bring about a desired end. This works easily with a libertarian, common sense understanding of free will. But it is more difficult to say that a person practices the virtues because she thought it was a good idea on naturalism. She may indeed think it was a good idea to do, but such thinking plays no causal role in her action. Harris and Dennett think that we tell ourselves a fictional story about why we make the choices we do (I chose to exercise because I think it is good for me), but these are only stories, useful fictions. The real reason has only to do with brain chemistry. Other naturalists speak in terms of reasons as causes, and wish to retain room for what they dub genuine deliberation—but to my thinking this is rather difficult to square with the deterministic implications of a naturalistic world, at least at the macroscopic level. At any rate, onsider what it  means for a virtue ethic if naturalists like Dennett and Harris are right. It follows that persons cannot direct their lives toward a certain end. Instead, they are only directed by nature. Practicing the virtues may be a good thing to do, but we cannot be any more (or less) virtuous than nature has determined us to be. It is also difficult to see how a person could be held deeply culpable for failing to be virtuous or be deeply praised for being virtuous. After all, she could not have done anything besides what she in fact did. Ascriptions of praise and blame, at least intuitively, seem to require that a person could have done otherwise, at least most of the time. Deterrence and rehabilitation are categories that can be explicated on naturalism fairly well, but not anything like retributive justice or giving people their just desserts.

Such reflections do not show that a virtue ethic and naturalism are, in fact, incompatible. However, they raise questions about how comfortable the fit really is. If we want to be virtue ethicists and naturalists, we will have to lower our expectations about what counts as virtuous activity. It cannot be, as Aristotle said, an action chosen by an agent for good reasons that is both a means and end of human flourishing. (Indeed, most naturalists have already abandoned conceptions of formal and final causes so central to Aristotle’s paradigm.) Instead, we must incorporate the compatibilist idea that humans are determined by nature so that they could not do otherwise. Then virtue ethics becomes more about describing what happens to lead to happiness, rather than actually pursuing it. Ethics becomes predominantly descriptive rather than prescriptive. This, to my thinking, seems a rather deflationary kind of ethic. If we want to retain Aristotle’s more robust ethic, we will likely have to adopt a worldview besides naturalism that better explains the role of the virtues.


Earlier I said that for a virtue ethic to be successful it must  explain three facts: (1) that humans have a telos, (2) that achieving the telos is the highest moral good for a human, and (3) that the way to bring about that telos is through the practice of the virtues. In light of the objections raised above, it seems that a virtue ethic requires a set of metaphysical commitments that naturalists do not have the resources to make. Therefore, the NVE is not well grounded. If you want to be an intellectually satisfied virtue ethicist, you should look for a more promising worldview than naturalism.


[1] Alasdair C. MacIntyre, After Virtue : A Study in Moral Theory, 3rd ed. (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 69.

[2] Philippa Foot, Natural Goodness, 36.

[3] David L. Hull, The Metaphysics of Evolution, Suny Series in Philosophy and Biology (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989). 73.

[4] Ibid., 75.

[5] Foot, 33.

[6]  Gary Watson expresses a similar objection: “An objective account of human nature would imply, perhaps, that a good human life must be social in character. This implication will disqualify the sociopath but not the Hell's Angel. The contrast is revealing, for we tend to regard the sociopath not as evil but as beyond the pale of morality. On the other hand, if we enrich our conception of sociality to exclude Hell's Angels, the worry is that this conception will no longer ground moral judgment but rather express it.” See Gary Watson, "On the Primacy of Character," in Identity, Character, and Morality: Essays in Moral Psychology, ed. Owen Flanagan and Amelie Rorty (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990), 462-3.

[7] Foot, 36.

[8]Nicomachean Ethics, Book I, Chapter 7. W.D.  Ross translation.

[9] J. P. Moreland, The Recalcitrant Imgao Dei. 44. There are other, non-theistic ways, of trying to explain how a human can have libertarian freedom. One possibility is pan-psyhcism. On this view, the universe itself has latent mental powers. When put in the right combination, minds occur. Another option is emgergentism. According this view, an entirely new substance emerges from certain physical arrangements. These theories, if true, might allow for libertarian freedom. But, it is not clear that either one deserves the title of “naturalism.” Both are also highly controversial, and for good reasons, such as their relatively obscurantist elements.

[10] John Searle as cited in J. P. Moreland, The Recalcitrant Imago Dei, 44.

[11] John Bishop as cited in J. P. Moreland, The Recalcitrant Imago Dei, 46.

[12] Daniel Clement Dennett, Consciousness Explained, 1st ed. (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1991). 33.

[13] Daniel Clement Dennett, Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), 30.

[14] Sam Harris, Free Will, 40.

[15] Sam Harris, Free Will, 37.

Podcast: David Baggett on Four Ways God Best Explains Morality

On this week’s episode, we have a lecture by David Baggett entitled, “Four Ways God Best Explains Morality.” Dr. Baggett begins by assuming the position of moral realism, the idea that there are various moral facts in need of explanation: moral values, moral obligations, moral knowledge, the convergence of virtue and happiness, and the reality of moral transformation. He then explains why theism generally and Christian theism particularly provides a better explanation of these facts than does naturalism.

Photo: "God is Love" by C. Clegg. CC license. 

Video: David Horner "Feelin' Groovy? God and the Pursuit of Happiness"

In this talk delivered at a Biola Chapel service, Dr. David Horner explains that, despite what some might think, God wants everyone to be happy. Of course, the kind of happiness God offers is not equivalent with what we often take to be happiness. If you're interested in a fun, but enlightening, explanation of how the Christian life and happiness come together, Dr. Horner's message is well worth watching!  


Photo: "Green" by Beshef.  CC License.