The Ambiguous Branch

A Twlight Musing

Two Messianic passages in Isaiah speak of the Savior as a shoot from an apparently dead source, but they are starkly different in tone.  In Isaiah 11 we have a mighty King:

There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. . . .  [W]ith righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.

(Is. 11: 1, 4)

Here the emphasis is on the Messiah as triumphal ruler, exercising divine power to bring justice and peace on the earth.  In contrast, the other passage, Isaiah 53, presents a despised and rejected Messiah who is put to death unjustly:  He

grew up . . . like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.  He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (Is. 53: 2-3)

His role here is seen, not as ruler, but as one “wounded for our transgressions” (v. 5) and “oppressed” (v. 7).

I find it both startling and instructive that that there should be such contrasting uses of the same image of the Messiah as an unexpected offshoot or sprout.  Both applications of the image are, of course, true, but they depict different stages of the Messiah’s impact on the world, and they need to be seen in the proper sequence.  The presentation in Isaiah 11 focuses on the Davidic lineage of Jesus and on the ultimate rule of Christ on the New Earth when he reigns as David’s heir, exercising power over the “Peaceable Kingdom” depicted in Isaiah 11 and 65:17-25.  However, this manifestation of the Messiah was not to come merely as a renewal of the flawed political Kingdom of Israel, nor was it to be a direct outcome of the First Advent of the Christ, but as a component of His Second Coming.  Before the full fruition of Jesus as the Son of David must come the fulfillment of His mission as the Son of God, accomplished through His death as the perfect sacrificial Lamb of God.  Only in that way could the temporal throne of David be transmuted into the Eternal Kingdom.

Moreover, that is also the pattern for us as God’s children.  If we are to be glorified with Him, we must first participate in His suffering (see Rom. 8:17).  Reflecting that truth, and in the spirit of the Advent season, I present the following poem.


The Budding Stump

(Isaiah 11:1-3 and 53:1-3)


The Stump of David,

Cracked and grey with age,

Neglected, cast aside,

Now sprouts again, as God had said.

Not couched in beauty, or in power,

Comes this obscure and unexpected Branch;

Nor with glory sought by swords,

Drenching Israel's enemies in blood--

Though bloodshed nascent lies within.


O Lord of stumps,

Whose sapience informs

What men have cast aside,

And makes to grow again

What You Yourself have pruned away:

Take now the hopes of glory

Grown and nourished by our pride;

Reform them by Your promised Shoot,

That we may find the power

That lies in roots, and not in mighty trees.


Elton D. Higgs (Dec. 26, 1982)



Image: "Winter Bloom" by MelissaTG. CC License. 


Elton Higgs

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

Three Reasons Christmas Matters for Morality

At this time of year, Christmas images are everywhere. As we walk into the grocery store, we see Santa and his reindeer painted in the window, adorned by the phrase, “Peace on earth, good will to men.” As we drive by a neighbor’s house, we notice a brightly lit nutcracker. Close beside, a nativity. These decorations go up right after Thanksgiving, and by the first week in December, they just blend into the background. I think the lack of attention we pay to ornaments often extends to Christmas itself. We hear the sermons and sing the carols, but the reality they point to, we often overlook. The preacher says, “One of Jesus’ names is ‘Emmanuel.’ That means ‘God is with us.” We nod our heads, and we know that is a good thing. But why is it a good thing, exactly? And what is this business about “peace on earth and good will to men?” That’s a question I aim to answer at least partially by giving three reasons Christmas matters for morality.

  1. Jesus’ birth reveals the metaphysical nature of human beings

Many atheists today think that human beings are merely biological machines. For example, Richard Dawkins has famously said, “We are machines built by DNA whose purpose is to make more copies of the same DNA. ... This is exactly what we are for. We are machines for propagating DNA, and the propagation of DNA is a self-sustaining process. It is every living object's sole reason for living.” A similar idea is expressed by Daniel Dennett who thinks of humans as “information processing machines” created by mindless natural forces. Now, Dawkins and Dennett are likely quick to affirm the dignity and value of human persons. But difficulty arises when we ask, “How is it that a machine could have such value?” It does not seem the bare matter could ground real value. Besides that, what follows from such a view is that humans have no genuine free will. Instead, their actions are determined by physical necessity. Not everyone agrees this precludes free will, but the views of such compatibilists strain credulity and common sense. Another problem is that on such reductive materialist views, humans as humans don’t even exist. Instead what we have is a pile of parts arranged human-wise. Humans are, when we take the view seriously, a collection of elements hanging together due to natural forces. “Human” is just the term that human-shaped piles call other human-shaped piles. With a view like this, it easy to see why ethicists like Peter Singer have argued that very young babies or the mentally disabled are justifiably euthanized.[1]

Consider the contrast presented in the Christmas story. For one, there is a certain metaphysical view of human persons at work. God became a man.  We’ve got to keep in mind that God did not just appear to become a man. He really did become a man. If this is true, then humans could not possibly be mere machines. As Jesus tells us, “God is spirit” (John 4:24). Something that is essentially and necessarily spiritual cannot become only material and retain its identity. If God, who is spirit, became a pile of parts arranged human-wise, he could no longer be called God. Therefore, there must be something more to man than his physical parts. But what kind of thing must humans be for God to become one of us? It seems that, at the least, humans need to be souls.

Why is this so? First we must realize that the Second Person of the Trinity existed as a person prior to his incarnation. This person is a person without any physical parts. If this person continues to be a person in the incarnation, his personhood cannot depend on any physical parts or else he would not be identical with himself prior to incarnation. That is to say, the material parts of Jesus as the incarnate Son of God must be only accidental properties and not essential ones. If they were essential, it would mean there was an essential difference between Jesus incarnated and Jesus prior to his incarnation. The person incarnated would not be the same person as the Second Person of the Trinity. But, Jesus, who is an essentially spiritual person, became an actual human person. Consider what this must means for humans in general. If Jesus really became a human, humans must also be essentially spiritual persons. Humans, then, must essentially be non-material substances; humans must be souls.[2]

If humans are souls, everything they do is not determined by the physical laws of the universe. Having a soul also provides the “metaphysical goods” to ground a human nature. If humans are souls, they are not piles of parts. Instead, they are a unified substance endowed by God with personhood. These powers include the power of volition so that humans are able to direct their lives toward one end or another. So when we see Jesus laying in manger, one of the things we ought to perceive is a rejection of the reductive view of human persons proposed by Dawkins and Dennett. The incarnation tells us that humans are body and soul. As such, they have the capacity to transcend the determinative laws of nature and become agents, capable of directing their own lives.

  1. Jesus’ birth demonstrates the value and dignity of human beings

Jesus’ birth also demonstrates the value and dignity of human beings. It does this a couple of ways. First, as we read in John 3:16, God sent Jesus into the world because he loved the world. God loved humanity and so he made a way for us to be saved from our sins. And he did this at very great cost. God could have loved us, but only a little. In that case, he might refrain from sending his Son, but feel very bad about doing so. Suppose you have a friend who you loved only half-heartedly. Unfortunately, some malicious criminals take your friend hostage. They are the kind of criminals that will slowly torture and kill your friend just for the fun of it. And then these criminals send you a ransom note saying that, if you agree, you can take her place. Now, only loving your friend half-heartedly, you feel empathy for her, but you don’t make the trade. You would have to love your friend deeply and fully if you were to trade your life for hers. And this is what Jesus has done for us.

For humans, though, we often love what we should not. We love things that are not good. However, God, who is maximally good, has no misplaced affections. When God loves us, he does so because we are his children and made in his image. We have intrinsic value and are therefore worth loving. Notice, though, that this worthiness is not autonomous from God, as if we could make ourselves worth loving. Instead, we are only worth loving because God graciously made us in his image, investing us with the worth we possess. As Mark Linville puts it: “God values human persons because they are intrinsically valuable. Further, they have such value because God has created them after his own image as a Person with a rational and moral nature.”

The fact that Jesus came as a man is another way his birth shows the value and dignity of humans. Not only were humans worth saving, it was also worth becoming a human to do it. Consider this proposition: “Being a human is good.” How could we know whether this was true or false? A reductive atheist would have real trouble here because (1) there are no such things as human beings, only human shaped piles, and (2) there is no clear way to make sense of “good.” David Bentley Hart, with his characteristic confidence and cadence, writes, “Among the mind’s transcendental aspirations, it is the longing for moral goodness that is probably the most difficult to contain within the confines of a naturalist metaphysics.” However, as Christians we know both that humans exist and that God grounds the good. We also know that God, being maximally great, only ever does what is good. Therefore, if God became a human being, being a human being must be good. That may sound like a trivial idea, but consider the implications. If being human is good, it means that our lives have meaning. We do not need to progress to the next stage of evolution, we only need to live as humans as God intended. It also means, contra the worldview of many, that there’s nothing inherently bad about the body; salvation includes the redemption of the body, not deliverance from it. If being human is good, all humans have dignity and value.

  1. Jesus’ birth means it is possible for humans to live the moral life

If we consider the possibility of living the moral life on reductive atheism, we end up with some dim prospects. One worry is that there is no objectively good moral life. This is why so many atheists talk of making one’s own meaning in life. Though the universe is cold and dark, human ought to nevertheless pull themselves up by the bootstraps and choose to live a life of meaning. I am inclined to think this is just wishful thinking. Besides this, if humans are machines and have no free will, it seems impossible to live a moral life. It seems that for a choice to be moral, it must be chosen by an agent. We don’t think our computers are immoral when they crash (despite the temptation); neither are human biological machines when they do something destructive.

Further, unless the universe just happens to cause us to live a moral life by accident, we will have to work at becoming a virtuous person. We must act as agents who are capable of making moral progress. Atheist Sam Harris agrees and makes this suggestion: “Getting behind our conscious thoughts and feelings can allow us to steer a more intelligent course through our lives (while knowing, of course, that we are ultimately being steered).”[3] But of course, to say that we can steer ourselves in any sense is to discard the idea that humans are machines. In order to steer ourselves, we must be something more than that. So reductive atheists seem to have no hope for living the moral life, whatever that might be. And the way Harris in such sanguine fashion affirms a contradiction as if doing so makes sense doesn’t eliminate the incoherence.

The birth of Jesus, on the other hand, suggests a very different outcome. To see why, we must go all the way back to the creation account in Genesis. There we see that God made man in his image and to rule and reign as his representatives on the earth (Gen. 1:27-28). Adam and Eve were, in a very real sense, responsible for realizing the kingdom of God. And God’s kingdom is what humans were made for, a place where God, humans, and creation live together in peace. It is important to understand here that peace means much more than we modern readers might normally think. We tend to think of peace as the absence of violence. But for the Jews, peace was much more robust than that. Peace, for them, was happiness and human flourishing—shalom. If we live in peace, we live according to the created order, enjoying and appreciating God and all that he has made, especially other humans.

However, humans chose to disobey God and thus sin entered the world. The effects of sin were so dramatic that humans could no longer live as God intended; the kingdom of God could not be established by these fallen humans. However, God did not leave us in this predicament. God set into motion a plan that would restore the kingdom of God to the earth and the story of the Bible is very much this story. God called Abraham and promised that through him, all the people of the earth would be blessed (Gen 12:3). Then, from the descendants of Abraham, God formed the nation of Israel. God promised Israel a King who would restore peace to the earth. God says this King will take away punishment and take great delight in his people. He will “rescue the lame” and “gather the exiles”; he will restore their fortunes (Zeph 3:15;19-20).  Zechariah records for us what God says it will be like when this King comes (8:3-12):

This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Once again men and women of ripe old age will sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each of them with cane in hand because of their age. The city streets will be filled with boys and girls playing there.”

 This is what the Lord Almighty says: “It may seem marvelous to the remnant of this people at that time, but will it seem marvelous to me?” declares the Lord Almighty.

 This is what the Lord Almighty says: “I will save my people from the countries of the east and the west. I will bring them back to live in Jerusalem; they will be my people, and I will be faithful and righteous to them as their God.”

 This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Now hear these words, ‘Let your hands be strong so that the temple may be built.’ This is also what the prophets said who were present when the foundation was laid for the house of the Lord Almighty. Before that time there were no wages for people or hire for animals. No one could go about their business safely because of their enemies, since I had turned everyone against their neighbor.  But now I will not deal with the remnant of this people as I did in the past,” declares the Lord Almighty.

“The seed will grow well, the vine will yield its fruit, the ground will produce its crops, and the heavens will drop their dew. I will give all these things as an inheritance to the remnant of this people.

The takeaway from this passage should be that this King will restore the robust, Jewish notion of peace to the world. Without this King, humans would be left without hope and the possibility of ever flourishing as humans. But, under the reign of this King, the effects of sin will be done away with and human flourishing will once again be possible.

We are also told by Micah that this king would be born in Bethlehem and from the tribe of Judah; his origin will be “from old, from ancient times” (Micah 5:2). So when Jesus, Son of God and from the family of Judah, was born in Bethlehem, we know this must be the King about whom we were told. We should understand that God has kept his promise to make the world right again. Now, while Jesus was still laying in a manger, how this would happen had not been made clear. That would come later. But we should be very happy indeed to know that God, our King, was born on Christmas some 2000 years ago because with his birth came the promise that humans can live as God intended – in peace.



[1] Singer thinks that the only thing that counts as a person is a rational, self-conscious person. Babies and the mentally disabled are therefore not persons and do not deserve the same rights as other persons. See for example his Should the Baby Live?: The Problem of Handicapped Infants (1988), Oxford University Press.

[2] This is not to say that having a body is not the ideal way for humans to exist. However, humans can apparently be separated from their bodies at least for a short while. Paul, for example, was caught up to the third heaven. Also, prior to the Second Coming, humans will apparently exist sans bodies while they await the resurrection. J. P. Moreland and Scott Rae defend this view in Body & Soul (2000) IVP Academic.

[3] Sam Harris, Free Will. Simon & Schuster.

Photo: "Nativity" by Jess Weese. CC License. 

Moral Transformation in C. S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces



If asked what morality looks like, many would say it’s listening to one’s conscience or, particularly if speaking to a Christian, following the instructions laid out in the Bible. However, C. S. Lewis describes a process of total moral transformation which is significantly more involved, including divine intervention in addition to personal choice and rule-following, and which bears a striking resemblance to plot elements found in standard fictional plot structure. Where the avoidance of evil and the effort to make good choices serves as the whole of the moral question for some, Lewis describes four separate, if sometimes overlapping, stages—self-deception, honest assessment, serious moral effort, and finally redeemed morality—that can be compared to the exposition, crisis, try-fail cycle, and climax of a story’s plot. This succession of stages can most clearly be seen in Lewis’s retelling of the myth of Psyche, his novel Till We Have Faces.

Exposition: Self-Justification and Self-Deception

In our flawed moral state, we naturally find ways of justifying or even completely ignoring our moral failings. Here we find the tin soldier in one of Lewis’s analogies: in the attempt to turn him into a real man he does not want to be made real, mistakenly thinks that he is being killed, and fights as hard as he possibly can to remain in his current state.[1] “Before we can be cured we must want to be cured.”[2] The preference to try and cure ourselves, or worse, the temptation to believe that there is nothing of which to be cured, keeps us in a scenario in which we are attempting to be good (or think we are) but are in fact seeking happiness as our ultimate goal, an impossible situation since, while holiness can produce happiness, the pursuit of happiness cannot produce morality.[3]

Orual spends the greater portion of Till We Have Faces in this stage of the plot. She continually justifies her own selfish actions or overlooks them completely, avidly accuses the gods of punishing her without valid cause, and both actively and passively harms those around her throughout the process, all while thinking of herself as a martyr and demanding that everything happen on her own terms. “It had been somehow settled in [her] mind from the very beginning that [she] was the pitiable and ill-used one.”[4] Even when shown the truth of situations, Orual refuses to acknowledge it for what it is, doggedly insisting that she is in the right and has been treated unfairly, even when threatening violence and blatantly manipulating or mistreating the people around her. Orual sees a glimpse of Psyche’s palace, claims the gods are mocking her, and eagerly accepts the faulty theories of Bardia and the Fox to make herself feel better, to justify her desire to control Psyche and ruin her happiness because Orual had not been the one to provide it for her.[5] She even goes so far as to suggest, when the god appeared to her, that he changed the past to make her appear guilty: “He made it to be as if, from the beginning, I had known that Psyche’s lover was a god, and as if all my doubtings, fears, guessings, debatings, questionings of Bardia, questionings of the Fox, all the rummage and business of it, had been trumped-up foolery, dust blown in my own eyes by myself.”[6] She is shown truth at this moment (and at other moments throughout the story) and dares to accuse the gods of wrongdoing rather than acknowledging her own sin. This is an excellent example of the lengths to which someone will go to avoid the realization of their own moral failure. Lewis’s description is unique but its silhouette is readily recognizable at the center of human nature. Every person contains this exposition in his own story though the specific details will obviously vary. It is where we all start in terms of morality.

Crisis: Honest Assessment

In the midst of all the denial and justification comes a point (or points) at which an honest voice is heard speaking the truth of our failures, sometimes a slap to the face and sometimes a gentle nudge to direct our focus. We have the choice to suppress the warning or heed it. When we choose the first option, we revert to the previous stage to begin again. This is seen in Orual’s dismissal of her glimpse of the palace, her suppression of her brief desire to let Psyche be happy, her refusal to hear that Psyche’s husband could be anything other than a villain, insisting that the gods hate her, etc. When we choose the second option, though, we turn a corner. This is the point at which Orual says that she must edit her book because

I know so much more than I did about the woman who wrote it. What began the change was the very writing itself…. Memory, once waked, will play the tyrant. I found I must set down (for I was speaking as before judges and must not lie) passions and thoughts of my own which I had clean forgotten. The past which I wrote down was not the past that I thought I had (all these years) been remembering. I did not, even when I had finished the book, see clearly many things that I see now. The change which the writing wrought in me (and of which I did not write) was only a beginning—only to prepare me for the gods’ surgery. They used my own pen to probe my wound.[7]

She begins to see the reality of her situation when she makes a legitimate effort to be honest about her story, and this attempt at sincere honesty provides clarity. “Virtue—even attempted virtue—brings light; indulgence brings fog.”[8] When our focus shifts from ourselves and our natural motives to virtue and the sincere desire to be good (and not primarily happy), we begin to make real progress and see ourselves more and more clearly. “When a man is getting better he understands more and more clearly the evil that is still left in him.… You can understand the nature of drunkenness when you are sober, not when you are drunk. Good people know about both good and evil: bad people do not know about either.”[9] In the minds of many this stage of honest self-assessment and desire to be good, to make better choices, amounts to the peak of one’s personal moral journey. They would say that the only thing left is to follow through with those better choices and to continue being honest with oneself. For Lewis, though, this stage is more akin to the crisis point in a story’s plot; this is where the protagonist realizes the problem and attempts to effect change. Pride is identified and begins to be rejected.[su_pullquote align="right"]Once we are in right relation to God, he will make us more like himself as well as most fully ourselves.[/su_pullquote]

The Try-Fail Cycle: Moral Effort and Repeated Failure

It is at this point that sincere moral effort begins. Lewis’s recommendation at this point is to “make some serious attempt to practice the Christian virtues.… Try six weeks. By that time, having, as far as one can see, fallen back completely or even fallen lower than the point one began from, one will have discovered some truths about oneself. No man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good.”[10]


This stage can be seen in a handful of moments in Orual’s journey. She comments directly on it at one point: “I could not hold out half an hour…. I could mend my soul no more than my face.”[11] She gives the Fox his freedom, sets out to improve conditions for the workers in Glome’s mines, gives Redival the husband she wants, and takes other steps to help the people in her kingdom.[12] On the other hand, some of these actions are more selfless than others and for every success there seems to be a corresponding moral failure—her bitterness that the Fox might choose his home and family over her, her hostility toward Redival, the execution of Batta, her possessive love of Bardia, to name a few.[13] The attempt to be virtuous is admirable in that it allows us to strengthen the desire to reach that goal and in a practical sense does improve our character. Certainly, we will make better choices when the desire to do good is present rather than only the desire for happiness, but for Lewis its primary purpose is to convince us that we need divine assistance.

Now we cannot…discover our failure to keep God’s law except by trying our very hardest (and then failing). Unless we really try, whatever we say there will always be at the back of our minds the idea that if we try harder next time we shall succeed in being completely good. Thus, in one sense, the road back to God is a road of moral effort, of trying harder and harder. But in another sense it is not trying that is ever going to bring us home. All this trying leads up to the vital moment at which you turn to God and say, “You must do this. I can’t.”[14]

According to Lewis, under the right circumstances and with a decent natural temperament, we can appear to be exceptionally moral people but even at our natural best we are caught in this try-fail cycle precisely because our focus is centered on our actions and motives while God is looking for something related but different. “[W]hat God cares about is not exactly our actions. What he cares about is that we should be creatures of a certain kind or quality—the kind of creature He intended us to be—creatures related to Himself in a certain way [and therefore related to others in a certain way].”[15] For that to happen, we must reach a point, through the try-fail cycle, at which we recognize our inadequacy and seek God himself rather than seeking only moral actions.

Climax: Redeemed Morality

The climax of moral transformation (on Earth) is reached at the point when failure is recognized and the need for divine assistance is accepted and pursued. The climax is humility before God. Moral effort is still required but now Jesus is providing what is needed to succeed. “It is a living Man, still as much a man as you, and still as much God as he was when he created the world, really coming and interfering with your very self; killing the old natural self in you and replacing it with the kind of self He has. At first, only for moments. Then for longer periods. Finally, if all goes well, turning you permanently into a different sort of thing; into a new little Christ, a being which, in its own small way, has the same kind of life as God.”[16]

Something resembling the try-fail cycle will still occur but with more and more success and less and less failure, really more analogous to the falling action of the story. “For you are no longer thinking simply about right and wrong; you are trying to catch the good infection from a Person…. The real Son of God is at your side. He is beginning to turn you into the same kind of thing as Himself…beginning to turn the tin soldier into a live man. The part of you that does not like it is the part of you that is still tin.”[17] The solution draws near and things are being put right. Now when we fail, it is not in vain. God is producing perseverance and dependence in us, moving us toward virtue with each choice and making us more into the creatures he means us to be.[18]

The final stretch of Till We Have Faces shows us this stage in Orual’s story and it occurs in a relatively brief amount of time. Once she accepts that the last virtue she thought she possessed—her love for Psyche—was not the selfless love she imagined it to be, when she sees herself and the gods accurately, acknowledges that they had been right all along and that she had no excuse for her actions, she is finally able to change in a much more significant way than her previous efforts had allowed. Once Orual accepts her own failings and the illegitimacy of her accusations against the gods, accepts their judgment and the fact that she cannot fix herself, she receives more clarity. Shown Psyche’s suffering, her response is no longer justifications and denials. Instead she asks the Fox, “Did we really do these things to her? ... And we said we loved her.”[19] And when Psyche returns from her task, Orual falls at her feet and begs forgiveness, showing the new understanding she has gained in the process: “I never wished you well, never had one selfless thought of you. I was a craver.”[20]

Having tried her best to be good and failing and having recognized her actions for what they were, she finally reaches the climax: her moral redemption. When the god comes to her, she sees her reflection alongside Psyche’s. “Two figures, reflections, their feet to Psyche’s feet and mine, stood head downward in the water. But whose were they? Two Psyches, the one clothed, the other naked? Yes, both Psyches, both beautiful (if that mattered now) beyond all imagining, yet not exactly the same.”[21] This harks back to Lewis’s assertion that, once we are in right relation to God, he will make us more like himself as well as most fully ourselves.[22] Having moved through the previous stages and embraced God, Orual undergoes a radical change, not only in her actions but at her core. This is the climax of moral transformation.


For C. S. Lewis, moral transformation is a dynamic process and dramatic event with a very specific end result. It begins in a dark place and requires sincere effort, recognition of incompetence, and a turn to God—the exposition, crisis, try-fail cycle, and climax of one’s moral story. The process in reality is perhaps a bit messier than a typical plot structure but the categories fit well. Lewis assures us that the process a realistic one, that we possess the ability to become a Psyche with God’s assistance and will be if we allow God to have his way and embrace the process.

The command Be ye perfect is not idealistic gas. Nor is it a command to do the impossible. He is going to make us into creatures that can obey that command. He said (in the Bible) that we were “gods” and He is going to make good His words. If we let Him—for we can prevent Him, if we choose—He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess, a dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to God perfectly (though, of course, on a smaller scale) His own boundless power and delight and goodness. The process will be long and in parts very painful, but that is what we are in for. Nothing less. He meant what He said.[23]

Lewis’s simple explanation of this moral transformation can be found in the instruction to Orual: “Die before you die.”[24] Socrates said philosophy trains us how to die—and perhaps this is what’s most true about his dictum: we need to die to our vainglory, our self-aggrandizement, all the various maladies within that only God’s grace can excise and heal.


Lewis, C. S. The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics. New York: HarperCollins, 2002.

Lewis, C. S. Till We Have Faces. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1956.

[1] C. S. Lewis, The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperCollins, 2002), 97.

[2] Ibid., 59.

[3] Lewis, The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics, 105.

[4] C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1956), 256.

[5] Ibid., 132-133, 137-138, 144.

[6] Ibid., 173

[7] Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 253-254.

[8] Lewis, The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics, 60

[9] Ibid, 56.

[10] Ibid., 78

[11] Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 282.

[12] Ibid., 207, 212, 231-236.

[13] Ibid., 207, 212, 230, 233.

[14] Lewis, The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics, 81.

[15] Ibid., 80.

[16] Lewis, The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics, 103.

[17] Ibid., 102.

[18] Ibid., 60.

[19] Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 304.

[20] Ibid., 305.

[21] Ibid., 307-308.

[22] Lewis, The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics, 118.

[23] Lewis, The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics, 109.

[24] Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 279.

Co-Guardians for the God-child

I like the 2007 movie “The Nativity Story,” because it presents the story of Mary and Joseph and the events leading up to the birth of Jesus with a gritty realism that easily (and usually) gets lost in the romanticized crèches and Christmas pageants that depict the Christmas narrative.  Both of the couple God chose to raise His Son had to face excruciatingly difficult circumstances and attendant decisions when Mary was “found to be with child by the Holy Spirit.”  In the two poems below, I have attempted to portray the consternation felt by each of them when an angel brought the message that they had been chosen to be parents to the Holy One of Israel, Emmanuel, the Messiah.

               The Husbandry of God

                       (Luke 1:26-35)   

How can I contain this word from the Lord?

His light has pierced my being

And sown in single seed

Both glory and shame.

Content was I

To wed in lowliness

And live in obscurity,

With purity my only dower.

Now, ravished with power,

I flout the conventions of man

To incubate God.

In lowliness how shall I bear it?

In modesty how shall I tell it?

What now shall I become?

But the fruit of God's planting

Is His to harvest.

No gleaner I, like Ruth,

But the field itself,

In whom my Lord lies hid.

--Elton D. Higgs



Joseph In Waiting

     (Matt. 1:18-26)

Familiar wood now nears its goal,

Purpose carved from formless block.

My wife sits waiting by,

Custodian of promised Son,

Full with Spirit-crafted child.  


How strange has been

This celibate intimacy

Since angel-visions

Translated besmirched betrothal

Into Holy co-habitation.

Others praise an act of mercy,

Taking shameful form into my house;

I know that in her Spirit-quickened womb

Lies more than chaste maid

Could ever have been.

Match made on earth

Transmuted now to Heaven’s pairing,

We dwell together with nascent God

And await the Day of Deliverance.

Elton D. Higgs

Dec. 12, 2015

Image: "Rembrandt van Rijn 195" by Workshop of Rembrandt - Web Gallery of Art:   Image  Info about artwork. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons -



Elton Higgs

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

Summary of The Chosen People: Election, Paul and Second Temple Judaism: Chapter 3: Who Are the People of God?

This chapter is concerned with addressing the collective aspect of election, which Thornhill believes is the primary emphasis of the material of the Second Temple period. There are two main ways in which the writers of this era showed this: (1) through metaphor, and (2) through a general focus upon collective election, “where the nation or its remnant takes center stage” (59). Thornhill once again surveys the Second Temple material and pulls out relevant data to relate within his pages. Roughly ten pages of evidence are offered for metaphors and another thirteen pages are given over to the general focus of the period.

Corporate metaphors abound in the Dead Sea Scrolls. In the Rule (1QS), for instance, true Israelites are spoken of as those in covenant with God. Yet, even these covenanted individuals can suffer damnation, since they can remove themselves from the covenant—the locus of election. The Rule also refers to the community of believers as the “plantation,” “foundation,” or “house.” These metaphors make it clear that the group viewed itself as God’s place of activity. The War Scroll (1QM) continues this corporate outlook by speaking of other Jews as separated from the elect group. These men are said to be “violators of the covenant” and are clearly to be thought of as those who have rejected the covenant of God. Moreover, these individuals are said to fight alongside the Gentiles against the hand of God. The metaphor that stands out in this section is the “sons of light,” which is applied to the group that has been chosen by God to continue faithfully in this life. This idea is furthered by 1 Enoch 10:16 where the “plant of righteousness” is applied to the faithful community. This is a particularly helpful metaphor because it is clearly a single plant that is mentioned. Although the expected meaning would be that an individual is this plant, it is instead applied to a group of people. The one plant represents all the faithful. And this plant can even be further divided. In at least one section of 1 Enoch, two elements of the one plant seem to exist simultaneously. As the number of faithful diminishes the plant does not “shrink,” but rather it splits. There is now a subgroup of the plant, which is considered the “true Israel” (1 En 93:10). In all of this, however, it is important to keep in mind that there is no focus on the individual within the plant. The plant as the chosen one is a metaphor for the collective.

Several other works move from metaphors like the ones above to more explicit statements about corporate election. In Wisdom of Ben Sira, for example, Israel is made out to be the special target of God’s affection. Within this group, there is once again a select remnant. Indeed, the blessings promised to the nation are said to be given to this latter group (Sir 47:22). Thornhill argues that Ben Sira may have had in mind the idea that not every Jew was part of the elect group. The group had rules (i.e., the Law) that had to be kept to remain in the fold. But even if Ben Sira did not think this, the concept is clearly articulated elsewhere (1 Macc 1:11, 34; 3:20). First Maccabees makes it clear that there are many who no longer fit within the chosen group. They are no better than the Gentiles. And in the Psalms of Solomon these who have strayed from the chosen group will be subject to judgment. The explicit motifs continue even more clearly in the Dead Sea Scrolls. In 1Q34 there is a rather lengthy explanation of how the Qumran sect believes God has chosen a remnant, even though the nation of Israel has been shown to be wicked time and again. The same is the case for the author of 4Q252, who sees his group as the inheritor of David’s throne.

After this material, Thornhill offers a thorough summary of the relevant material of Pseudo-Philo. The author of this material seems to have two strains of thought. In the first case, he clearly has a place for the perpetual status of Israel as God’s chosen. On the other hand, there are numerous passages that indicate that he also believed in the remnant concept. Thornhill believes balance is to be found by understanding the author as teaching that God has a covenant people, to whom he is always faithful, but “each individual’s fate is determined by their [sic] keeping or forsaking the covenant” (82).

Thornhill closes out this chapter by offering examples of this type of thinking in the Pauline corpus. His first discussion focusses on 2 Thessalonians 2:13-15. Although this passage is most commonly used to support the concept of individual election, Thornhill believes this overlooks a number of significant issues. First, there is some reason to believe that Paul thought of the Thessalonians as “firstfruits” of a great harvest. Second, Paul’s command for them to continue in the truth makes little sense if not understood within the context of continuing within the elect group. I Corinthians 1:18-31 showcases a similar thought, because here Paul is encouraging these believers to embrace the “foolishness” of God’s plan. Obviously, this is a sarcastic Pauline conception, intended to show that from the world’s perspective what God is doing looks ridiculous. What is this foolishness, though? It is God’s choice of a group of people who stand against the grain of the world. Paul believes that this group must be unified because of its grand purpose on earth. For Thornhill, this unity is challenged when the idea of individual election is forced upon this passage. This is because the focus, in this case, shifts away from believers remaining faithful in the covenant to seeking their own salvation. In other words, Paul is using the collective election motif of the Second Temple period to do something more than just affirm individual salvation. This, however, does not mean that Paul simply adopted the ideology, but rather mutatismutandis he applies it with Christ now as the central focus. Faithfulness to Christ is now the defining mark of the elect community.

Image: By  Valentin de Boulogne - vAHBpCifHgxB7g at Google Cultural Institute maximum zoom level, Public Domain,

Summary of Chapter 4 of God and Cosmos: “Moral Value,” Part I

In chapter 4, Baggett and Walls focus specifically on intrinsic human value. Historically, religious perspectives played a role in forming convictions about human rights. On the Judeo-Christian view, human beings are not only creatures of God, but are made in the image of God. Nicholas Wolterstorff claims that there is no plausible alternative to this religious framework to ground natural human rights. For example, some ground human rights in capacities like the power of reason, but this ends up excluding infants and those with mental disabilities who are often thought of as also having the same rights. Baggett and Walls do not want to say that respect-for-persons is supportable only on religious grounds. They make a more modest claim that respect-for-persons is best explained by theism compared to competing theories.

First they consider egoism. Kai Nielsen's proposal is that a respect-for-persons may be derivable from egoism (the view that one ought to act in one's own self-interest). Based on this, he thinks that one ought to treat others well in order to be treated well himself. The first problem is that this fails to account for the moral standing of others; it is just a strategy to be treated well. As Baggett and Walls put it, "What does my acting in my interest have to do with you possessing intrinsic worth?" A second problem is that this fails to account for cases where not respecting others does not affect one's self-interests. For example, one may be powerful and need not fear repercussions for treating people poorly. This results in having no reason for respecting others since it does not affect one's self-interests. Hence egoism by itself cannot account for intrinsic human value.

Next, they consider utilitarianism/consequentialism. On this view, one ought to maximize utility. For example, some utilitarians say that one ought to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. Jeremy Bentham, a proponent of utilitarianism, infamously said that the notion of intrinsic natural rights is nonsensical. Rights exist based on what is advantageous to society. Whether rights are protected or not is determined by social utility.

John Stuart Mill, another proponent of utilitarianism, likewise thinks that the sole reason for according rights to people is based on social utility. As Mark Linville notes, there is no necessary connection between an action's maximizing utility and its being fair or just. On utilitarianism, in a case where someone is raped, the wrongness of rape is not because their right is violated, but is because of the generally injurious consequences for the community. So utilitarianism fails to safeguard individual human dignity and worth.

Utilitarians offer many responses. One reply is that we tend to be unreliable calculators of consequences, so it is better to always safeguard individual rights than not to. Still, the problem persists that no individual's rights or dignity is beyond sacrificing if, by doing so, utility is maximized. A rule-utilitarian may say that one should follow the rules which maximizes utility. But still, this is far from saying that certain acts are categorically wrong. All that can be said regarding an act is that it is at most merely consequentially wrong. Angus Menuge has said that on utilitarianism, if a tyrant was more effective in brainwashing people or slaughtering those who disagreed, genocide would have been right. Hence utilitarianism has problems accounting for human value.

Next, Baggett and Walls consider Philippa Foot's virtue ethics that is based on a natural law theory. Foot's book called Natural Goodness is an account of virtues based on how human beings are normatively structured, how we typically behave when it comes to those teleological aspects of our human functioning. Her book has three distinct parts. First is her argument against non-cognitivism (the view that moral statements do not express propositions that can be true or false). Second is her defense of naturalistic moral objectivity. Last, she handles objections from utilitarians and from Nietzschian nihilists.

Baggett and Walls focus on the second section. Foot argues that we make judgments of goodness and defect of living things by reference to a teleological account of the life form based on its species. Her account covers evaluative judgments of the characteristics and operations of other living things. What an animal should do depends on the kind of animal it is. Likewise, what we (humans) should do depends on our being humans. This means that moral defect is really just a form of natural defect. Vice is a form of natural defect while virtue is a form of natural goodness, rooted in patterns of natural normativity. Based on the kind of species one is, some behaviors simply conduce better to one's flourishing than others.

Take for example the virtue of promise keeping. In giving a promise one makes use of a special kind of tool invented by humans for the better conduct of their lives, creating an obligation that contains in its nature a prescription that harmlessness in neglecting does not annul. Some accuse her account of being utilitarian. She however says that utilitarianism (and other forms of consequentialism) has its foundation in a proposition linking goodness of action to the goodness of state of affairs. Her theory of natural normativity has no such foundational proposition.

While Baggett and Walls agree with many aspects of Foot's work, such as moral cognitivism and moral realism, they have some significant reservations with her main account. The most significant is that her account does not answer whether human flourishing is of intrinsic value. While she affirms it, her account does not provide a foundation for it. First, Foot has to account for differences between pestilential creatures, animals, and human beings. If she wants to say that biologically adaptive patterns of behavior in cancer cells or tigers do not entail objective moral facts, then how does she go from natural normativity to objective morality in the case of human beings?

Second, there is a problem of smart free riders. Why should one keep their promise if no damage is done? Foot says that there is still a moral duty to keep it to cultivate the sort of character of being trustworthy. But her reply still cannot account for a really smart promise breaker who is able and willing to get over her aversion to breaking promises when doing so is unlikely to detract from optimal species-flourishing.

Third is the problem of a deflationary analysis. Foot's account is characterized as neo-Aristotelian, but Aristotle's worldview was far from naturalistic. While Aristotle placed great emphasize on being human, his view wasn't content with our being merely human.

Fourth is a transition problem. While she affirms good and noble human characteristics, she departs from a naturalistic, biologically grounded account of moral virtues. Furthermore, by limiting her resources to human flourishing, it seems unlikely she will have enough for the sort of thick account that virtue approaches to ethics tend to have as their distinctive strength.

Fifth, Baggett and Walls raise a normativity challenge. While they agree she is right, in one sense, to say that morality depends on our natures, this still leaves out an analysis of what that nature is exactly. Talk of telos (purpose) and human nature in a Godless world is difficult to sustain. Foot thinks that the designs of a Divine Mind are irrelevant to the natural-teleological descriptions of human beings. But if we have been created by God in His image, with his intentions in mind, then this is a relevant consideration.

Sixth is an epistemic challenge. Foot's work does not address the contemporary challenge (in regards to moral knowledge) posed by evolutionary moral psychology.

Chatting with Santa Claus

A Twilight Musing

I had a conversation with Santa Claus this morning.  It came just after my wife and I had noted, while taking our morning walk in a small mall, that the piped-in music was unrelentingly secular; and that led us to lament the season’s loss of religious meaning in our society as a whole.  We met “Santa” as he was strolling the central corridors of the mall.  He wasn’t in costume yet, but he was dressed festively in a green vest and a red cap, with other seasonal colors as decoration.  He greeted us affably, and we fell into brief conversation.  He affirmed that he was, indeed, “Santa Claus,” and he cheerfully confided to us that he considered it a great privilege to have the children on his lap and to listen to their hopes and stories.  “They warm my heart,” he informed us in the robust voice that enables him to boom out “Merry Christmas” to passers-by as he sits on his Santa throne.  We parted from him to continue our walk, but we saw him a couple of times more as we perambulated.

We noticed that he was consciously engaging people who were standing around waiting for the shops to open.  At one point we observed him grasping a man’s hand and having earnest conversation with him.  The next time we saw him, we asked if he was praying with the man, and he affirmed he was.  “I try to be of help to people if they’re willing to talk.”  It was obvious that he regarded his pre-duty time at the mall as a ministry opportunity.  “Take a look at my van out there in the parking lot.  It has a ‘Put Christ back in Christmas’ sign on it.  I try to do what I can to point people to Jesus, whatever their religious affiliation.”  We wished him God’s blessings in both his official and his unofficial activities, and in turn he blessed us on our way.

Reflecting on this experience, I accepted it as God’s answer to our lament about the secularization of Christmas in the world around, and about the general increase of hostility toward religion in the past few decades.  In the face of that discouraging situation, God is working through a portrayer of Santa Claus (a prime icon of secularization) to touch people’s lives with divine love and concern.

Keep up the good work, brother!  The mall management may be paying you to be Santa for the kids and their parents, but you are obviously working for a higher Master.  And when I walk by and see the kids on your knee and the parents looking on, I’d venture to say that they’re getting more out of the encounter than they know, for I suspect that they’re being prayed for as well as being given a listening ear and a jolly laugh.

As for me, perhaps I would do well when I walk in the mall this Christmas season to lay aside my self-righteous carping about secularization of the holiday and be on the lookout for opportunities God may open up for me to be a blessing to someone else who is there, even if it’s only to say a prayer for someone who looks sad or unhappy.  And if the piped-in music distorts the season, I can always hum some real Christmas music to myself.





Elton Higgs

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

John Hare’s God’s Command, 4.3, Prescriptivism

The third and fourth sections of this chapter are about a debate between RMH’s views about the objectivity of moral judgment and the contrasting attempt by Philippa Foot in Natural Goodness and Rosalind Hursthouse in On Virtue Ethics to deduce conclusions about moral goodness by what Foot called a “natural-history story” from the characteristic form of life of the human species. Foot scholars divide up her career, like Plato’s, into three periods: an early Foot, a middle Foot, and a late Foot. Natural Goodness was late Foot. Hursthouse has added significant structure to Foot’s account. There are some ways that late Foot is more like RMH than early or middle Foot. But there still differences, and one of them is that Foot affirmed and RMH denied the deducibility of conclusions about moral goodness from facts about human nature. Hare will argue that we should accept some of the positions of each side in this dispute, but that form-of-life deductivism should be rejected.

One theme in this discussion of Foot will be that we need to disentangle her deductivism from her attack on what she calls “subjectivism.” Hare will argue we can be opposed to both subjectivism of various kinds and to deductivism. What is subjectivism? RMH didn’t like being dubbed either a subjectivist or non-cognitivist, though Foot called him this. The central error she was concerned with was the error of thinking that value is desire-based, rather than being (“objectively”) there whether it is desired or not. But there are at least three things this might mean, and they can be distinguished under three headings: “motivation,” “moral properties,” and “ideals.” RMH’s views can be helpfully separated under these headings.

4.3.1 Motivation

RMH held that when we make a moral or evaluative judgment we are expressing a pro-attitude toward, or an endorsement of, some prescription. The position Foot was attacking was what we might call “judgment internalism,” the view that motivation is internal to moral and evaluative judgment. Why did RMH care about this? He thought it was a true analysis of the logic or grammar of evaluative language. But something else needs emphasis. RMH, through his life, was concerned for the possibility of communication about moral matters between different cultures and different generations within the same culture. He thought that his account of the difference between the meaning of evaluative terms such as “good” and “wrong” and the criteria for the use of such terms in evaluative and moral judgment was important for the preservation of this possibility. He thought we were more likely to be capable of genuine dialogue over moral issues if we shared the meaning of these basic terms, and could then talk together about what criteria to employ for their use.

What did he think was the difference between meaning and criteria? He thought that it was given in the meaning of evaluative terms that, when we use them sincerely in an evaluative judgment, we commit ourselves to an imperative. If the judgment is a moral judgment about action, the imperative is a command to act a certain way. For RMH, the criteria for an evaluative judgment were the descriptive facts about the world that we use in our evaluations. An endorsement of the goodness of something is called “a decision of principle.” The principle here is that, say, knives are good when they are sharp, and my decision is to endorse this principle in commending the knife.

Here is one place the early Foot and RMH disagreed. She held that we can’t simply decide what criteria to apply; some are internal to the moral point of view. RMH didn’t think a claim that it’s wrong to run around a tree right-handed was unintelligible (the way Foot did), but of course he did think it wrong. He agreed to this point: we have the pro-attitudes that we have, and therefore call the things good which we do call good, because of their relevance to certain ends which are sometimes called “fundamental human needs.” This passage is remarkable because of its similarity to many things in late Foot. The difference is just that these considerations about the human form of life and its evolutionary history were located by RMH as constraints on criteria, whereas Foot did not admit the meaning/criteria distinction.

There is a second, more significant, place that RMH and Foot disagreed, and this gives one reason for Foot’s rejection of judgment internalism. Foot referred to the category of shamelessness. She thought it showed that a person may make a full-fledged moral judgment without endorsing the norms he is referring to in the judgment. RMH’s response to this was that shamelessness is most probably a rejection of conventional morality, thinking there’s something nonstandard or defective about such a case.

We could put this in terms of a natural-history story. The human form of life needs not only norms—for example, norms of justice—to hold us together, but also ways to express to each other that we are committed to such norms. We need a form of expression that conveys, across a huge range of evaluations, “if I were you, I would.” We need this function because we can’t carry out our characteristic human projects without it. Being social animals is a feature of our thought life as much as our action. Moral language is plausibly construed as having this social function. But as with all functions, misuse or defective use is possible. It’s like not being able to use a chisel except as a screwdriver.

This point about the function of evaluative language is what is essentially right about judgment internalism. It’s true that each side in the dispute can explain the same phenomena. For Foot, shamelessness is making a full-fledged moral judgment but one that can’t be lived by; for RMH, it is not making a full-fledged, but rather a defective moral judgment. But the internalist account preserves one central contribution that evaluative language makes to our form of life. The key is the implication of this disagreement for deductivism. RMH thought that this internalism about judgment meant that no deduction of evaluative judgment from descriptive facts was legitimate. But surprisingly, even if they were to agree that a full-fledged evaluative judgment is an expression of some state of desire or emotion or will, they could still disagree about whether the state of the world being commended in such a judgment is a state of the world with natural properties and evaluative properties that have some kind of mutually implicative relation.

God and Cosmos Chapter 3: The Problem of Evil, Freedom, and Moral Responsibility

In this chapter, Baggett and Walls talk about the problem of evil. This is not the problem of evil as often heard in philosophy of religion (Why is there evil if a good and all-powerful God exists?). Instead, they refer to Susan Neiman who traced the problem of evil in modern thought. The problem of evil is that the world is not as it should be. There is a gap between how the world is, and how the world ought to be. Questions arise, for example, what reason do we have to think that some event ought not to happen? The answer is clear in Christian theology of course, that evil is at odds with God and His purposes. It is a problem that God Himself is working to overcome with His plan of salvation and redemption that will ultimately be fully accomplished.

Baggett and Walls review three influential modern thinkers. The first thinker is David Hume. Philo (a character in Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion who is said to represent Hume) thinks that the designer of our world is neither good nor bad. This is because if the designer was good, he would will the happiness of his creatures. However, it is apparent that our world is not designed to achieve this end. Hume's argument for God's moral indifference dissolves the problem of evil. It explains why the natural world is indifferent to human happiness. Baggett and Walls note here that it is odd that an amoral God would give human beings the ability to make moral judgments.

The second thinker is Immanuel Kant. Kant thinks that the nature of the highest good includes both virtue and happiness. He thinks that happiness and virtue should be tightly connected. The problem then is that the natural order is not arranged such that happiness and virtue correspond. The world for him is no less hostile to morality than it is to human happiness.

The third thinker is Friedrich Nietzsche. His problem was that Christian morality was hostile to happiness, restraining us from expressing our instincts. For him, the real problem of evil is that we thought it was a problem. Without God and objective morality in his view, he thinks that we have no reason to think that the world should be good in the Christian sense of supporting either our happiness or moral virtue. Sigmund Freud seems to agree with Nietzsche's view. Freud argued that religious belief is an illusion fostered by childish needs for security in a frightening world. Instead, he thinks that evil is part of life to be expected and coped with. There is no reason to think that the world ought to promote human happiness. Hence Nietzsche dissolves the problem of evil.

Neiman thinks that the problem of evil gives us the choice to either give up making moral judgments, or to come to terms with the demoralizing reality that the gap between what is and what ought to be will never be closed. Neiman herself takes the latter option and argues that recognizing evil as a problem is essential to our humanity. Instead of denying the problem of evil, we should accept that there is a conflict that will never be resolved. Baggett and Walls agree with Neiman that evil is a problem to humanity, but they want to argue that there are options other than resigning oneself to accept a conflict that will never be resolved. On the Christian story, there is another option, namely, that the gap will one day be resolved.

The main point being driven here is that God's nature as the best explanation of moral good, and the fact that He created us in his image, constitute an excellent explanation both of why we cannot avoid making moral judgments about the world and of why we cannot escape seeing evil as a problem. We will constantly see a gap between the way the world is and the way it ought to be, as long as we live in a fallen world that is "groaning for redemption." Naturalism, on the other hand, has no reason to believe that there is a problem of evil. Consider Richard Dawkins who thinks that the ultimate reality is morally indifferent (similar to Nietzsche and Hume). Evil and suffering is not surprising. There is no gap between the way the world is and the way it ought to be.

Part 2

Having discussed the problem of evil, Baggett and Walls turn to discuss freedom and responsibility, by examining an exchange between three naturalist philosophers. This exchange started after Daniel Dennett reviewed Bruce Waller's Against Moral Responsibility. Most philosophers are compatibilists, who think that determinism (the view that every event and state of affairs is completely determined by antecedent states of affairs and the laws that govern the physical world) is compatible with both human freedom (defined as doing what one wants to do) and at least some measure of moral responsibility. Waller however argues that while determinism and naturalism are compatible with freedom, they are not compatible with moral responsibility. Waller defines moral responsibility in a strong sense that holds praise/blame and reward/punishment as justified because moral agents deserve so. It is intrinsically good for offenders to suffer. This is known as the retributivist view of moral dessert that rejects consequences as relevant for punishment or blame. Contra Waller, Dennett thinks that moral responsibility should not be understood in these terms. He adopts a consequentialist account of just desserts and punishments. Punishment is needed to keep civilization from disintegrating; it is a practical necessity. Dennett uses the example of promise making and making contracts. The threat of punishments deters one from breaking one's promises or contract. This threat is essential for the glue of civilization to hold.

Tom Clark, the organizer of the exchange, makes a few points. First, he says that Dennett should give up the language of "just desserts" which implies the retributivist view. Second, the traditional account of moral responsibility is strongly shaped by a long history of believing in libertarian freedom (a stronger view of freedom than determinism is generally thought to allow). Hence, many think that dropping the retributivist view of just desserts alters the concept of moral responsibility. Third, he thinks naturalists should focus on debunking libertarian freedom to undermine the appeal to such freedom to justify punishment. Fourth, compatibilists must change how they think of humankind. They have to be honest that in their view, no one has the unconditional ability to do otherwise. He accuses Dennett of suppressing his commitment to determinism in attempting to make moral sense of punishment, just desserts, and deterrence. Dennett responds by highlighting the practical necessity of punishment to protect society from criminals. We should use force to quarantine muggers, enroll them in rehabilitation programs, and warn society to avoid them. Dennett says that if Waller and Clark agree to this but say we should not blame the muggers, then they are simply engaging in a rhetorical dodge. Waller continues to press the point that the system of moral responsibility is unfair, even if he has no better alternative system to offer.

To give further insight to the discussion, consider Dennett's discussion of Bernie Madoff. Madoff is infamous for costing people millions of dollars lost in his fraudulent financial schemes. Surely in such a case, punishment is necessary. Dennett writes, "If somebody's unavoidable mistake led to similar financial loss, we wouldn't do that, would we? It's because we deem Madoff guilty that we consider that we have the right to rescind his rights (under the moral responsibility game) and do all these things to him that he doesn't want us to do, and which we couldn't justifiably do if he weren't guilty. That's punishment. Not retributive punishment, but punishment and blame, all the same." From this example, it is easy to see why Waller and Clark criticized Dennett for helping himself to the traditional view of moral responsibility and retributivist punishment. Dennett says that it is not fair to blame someone for something over which they had no control. But in Madoff's case, Madoff was determined to defraud each of his clients by casual factors prior to him, over which he had no control. There is no alternative possibility. Next, Dennett emphasizes that we are justified in punishing Madoff, because Madoff is found guilty. This seems to be the retributivist position that Madoff did something to deserve punishment.

Baggett and Walls think that this debate makes many points against naturalism. Both freedom and moral responsibility fit far more naturally in a theistic account of morality. The whole notion of promise keeping also better makes sense on libertarian terms than on compatibilist terms. Thomas Reid had observed that "when I plight my faith in any promise or contract, I must believe that I shall have power to perform what I promise. Without this persuasion, a promise would be a downright fraud." However, compatibilists believe that no one who fails to keep a promise had the ability to do otherwise (except in the counterfactual sense of being able to do otherwise if they’d wanted to). Whenever one makes a promise, it is possible that the natural order is arranged such that when the appointed time comes, one shall be determined to will not to keep one's promises. Hence this is at odds with making promises, since doing so assumes that we can both keep our promises or not, and it also assumes that we have control over our actions. The reality of conscious control over our actions make better sense on libertarian freedom than the view that our actions are determined by a causal chain that preceded our very existence, and over which we had no control. On compatibilism, the agent has no alternate possibilities, and the agent is not the ultimate originator or source of his actions, since there is a causal chain external and prior to them, that is sufficient to determine those exact outcomes.

Attending to the Least of These in the Age of Trump

Editor’s Note: This essay was originally posted at Christ and Pop Culture

"Even if you have this baby, I’m not going to love you.”

Nearly twenty-four years later, despite my having faced and overcome many challenges since that time and finally feeling secure in God’s faithfulness and his plan for me, memory of these words can still easily unsettle me. The cold indifference with which they were spoken, how they foretold the lonely and grueling road ahead, the grievous recognition that I had cast my pearls before this swine who was content to leave them in the mud—all of these hard truths surface in this short statement.

I was twenty, living recklessly and trying desperately to make up for what my childhood had lacked—some affirmation that I was important, a little appreciation for my unique gifts and talents, even just a bit of recognition that I existed.

It’s natural to feel invisible in dysfunctional environments like the one in which I grew up.

So on the precipice of adulthood, quite unconsciously I’m sure, I was determined to get what I had been denied: self-actualization, consideration, admiration. But when you have no internal gauge for authenticity in these matters, anything bearing a superficial resemblance will do, even the paltriest of substitutes—like the attentions of my manager at the restaurant where I worked.

Although it’s difficult now for me to stand in the shoes of that fragile girl, I do remember how flattering it was to garner the interest of someone with a modicum of authority in a position of respectability. In retrospect his flirting sickens me, knowing the self-centered callousness behind it, but at the time it thrilled me to think that I might be special enough to merit his devotion, or at least what I mistook for devotion.

The ironic but simple truth is that those growing up without having their most basic emotional needs met will often debase themselves in their desperate attempts to meet them. So it was with me.

Another simple truth is that many will use their power to exploit these vulnerabilities. This dynamic has been on full display in recent weeks with the latest scandal in Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency. The most visceral reactions have been directed toward the leaked audio, and I have to admit, listening to Trump’s boasts gives me vivid flashbacks to the early days of my unmarried pregnancy.

To hear a rich and famous man speak with such casual pride on the license his power gives him to have his way with women—married or not—sparks shame deep within me. Shame because I know he’s right.

My story attests to this reality. Trump’s voice on that tape brings me face to face with the fact that the crisis point of my life, even the conception of my precious son, could so heartlessly be reduced to an emotionally stunted adolescent talking point.

What has been equally troubling is the political aftermath of the Trump tape, the way it has rallied his defenders and accusers alike. His advocates try threading the needle to denounce Trump’s past while embracing his future (Supreme Court in the balance, after all); others emphasize that these were words not deeds (though that’s become a vexed question) and establish a hierarchy of depravity with Trump on the acceptable side of the line. Still more adduce the philandering of Bill Clinton and Hillary’s enabling diatribes against his accusers.

Trump’s critics ostensibly inhabit the moral high ground. They rightly call Trump out for degrading women; they recognize the hostility and abuse of power. While some detractors, such as Beth Moore, predicate their critique on Christian conviction for the dignity and worth of all people and a concern for the vulnerable, others have leveraged their criticism to score political points. Because the tape discloses repulsive statements and attitudes about women, some seize the opportunity to offer Clinton’s platform as a corrective: complete with expansion of abortion access and an unseemly and sanguine acceptance of the practice as normative.

Michelle Obama’s moving speech delivered last week powerfully embodies the attractiveness of embracing a platform like this, one that is supposed to empower women. As many have reported, in that poignant speech Obama articulates the fear countless women have that they matter only as sexual objects and declares—with justification—that Trump’s nomination by a major political party has breathed new life into those fears, even inflamed them.

I hear her words and watch her passion, and they resonate, but I can join in Obama’s refrain for only so long. Her righteous indignation rings hollow in light of the suffocating internal and external pressure I felt to abort my child—pregnant, scared, and little-more-than-child myself.

The hideous refrain, “Even if you have this baby, I’m not going to love you,” echoes loudly in my ears these days.

This cruel declaration invokes my longing to be known and loved, reminding me how that deepest of human needs was wielded as a weapon. It crystallizes for me the enormous power men have when abortion becomes quotidian, effectively disempowering the women it purports to protect.

“My body, my choice” ultimately entailed that the child I was carrying was fully my responsibility. In the moment of this distancing and dispassionate declaration, I knew that—with conscience intact—my son’s father intended to leave me to bear the consequences alone.

This is the hard truth of our age. A people who pride themselves on “equality for all” has accepted unchecked power as a matter of course—wrongful dominion of men over women, of women over babies. A code of law crafted to defend the defenseless, in reality sacrifices the weakest of us all. And we turn a blind eye to exploited women who refuse the moral calculation of abortion that offers escape through passing on one’s victimhood to another.

Even now, those speaking loudest about the Trump tapes seem to overlook the exploited. They excuse, forgive, and change the subject. Or they condemn, scheme, and flaunt their moral superiority. Few have acknowledged the individual lives at stake. Grievously silent have been Christian voices calling on men and women alike to reject societal and legal allowances to exert illegitimate control over another.

For someone like me, the casualty of another’s entitlement, this silence is deafening.

God is good, and in recounting my experience, I don’t mean to imply that this desolate chapter is the end of my story. I have been blessed beyond measure, and God has indeed shown in and through me his delight in making beauty from ashes. I am no longer that abandoned, desperately needy new mother unprepared for what lay ahead. I am amazed, humbled, and overwhelmed by how far God has brought me, how he redeemed this turning point by transforming me and making me wiser and stronger.

Over the past week, with the two partisan camps warring over Trump’s latest scandal, I can’t help but think of my former self, ill-equipped for the crisis she faced. She would be able to find no refuge in either faction. And I can’t help but look at my female students at the university where I teach and wonder if any of them wrestle with the same inner and outer demons I faced at their age.

It’s to and for them I speak now. I want desperately for them to know that—no matter who has failed them, no matter what they have done, no matter who speaks lies to and about them—they are loved abundantly. They are created for a purpose they will find only in their Maker; they are unique and wonderful and valuable beyond measure. Exploitation of them is an offense to the God who formed us all.

And to men who might be listening in, mistreatment of women degrades you as well. To quote James Baldwin, “It is a terrible, an inexorable law that one cannot deny the humanity of another without diminishing one’s own.” You are called to something higher, to reject the pervasive cultural message that permits casual objectification and consumption of another.

A corollary with that truth is this one: good and right will prevail; evil begets evil and, left unredeemed, will never participate in good. While we live in a world fraught with sin and temptation, counterfeit satisfactions and fear will lure us to abandon God’s wisdom for our own, to rationalize our rejection of his law, and to enact justice injudiciously. Through abortion and more, our culture offers encouragement and approval for such blameworthy self-reliance. Only a resolute trust in God’s abiding faithfulness delivers us from evil, both inward and outward. Such is the way of hope.

Hope rejects voices that justify, minimize, or turn away from abuses of power. Even still, hope recognizes that abuse of power is not a zero-sum game and that such abuse, if left unchecked by grace, can quickly turn victim into perpetrator, all in the name of empowerment. Faustian bargains net no profit, no matter whose dignity is used as collateral.

Hope speaks truth about injustice, holds the wicked to account, but resists the creed that all’s fair play for the wronged. Hope, instead, knows you can entrust yourself to the one who judges justly. Through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, hope proves that it need neither compromise nor collude with corruption to effect victory.

Do not be fooled by rhetoric that claims accumulation of power is our purpose, no matter the source of those claims. Embrace instead Christ’s heart for the “least of these,” even if you find yourself in that category.

Our fallen state may be homo incurvatus in se, humanity curved in on itself, but hope releases us from bondage to self-gratification and self-centeredness. Through hope, we can and should live differently. My life and the life of my son testify to this possibility and to this hope.

Image: "Good Samaritan"  by David Teniers the Younger. Wiki Commons. 

Inspiring Kids to Become Christian Gumshoes : A Review of Cold Case Christianity For Kids by J. Warner Wallace

J. Warner Wallace is a cold-case homicide detective. As a detective Wallace was well respected and earned the nickname “the Evidence Whisperer.” At the age of thirty-five when Wallace was still an atheist, he turned his honed and careful mind toward the claims of Christianity. What Wallace found in his investigation surprised him; not only did the claims of Christianity appear plausible, but they were the best explanation of a variety of important facts, like the origin of the cosmos, the reality of the moral law, and the New Testament claims about the resurrection of Jesus. Wallace laid out his case for Christianity methodically as a homicide detective would in his book Cold Case Christianity, which has received numerous accolades, not least from my wife who, though acquainted with many well-known Christian apologists, found Wallace to be the most engaging and accessible. Wallace and his wife, Susie, have now translated that book into Cold Case Christianity: For Kids.

In this new book, Wallace aims to illuminate two ideas for children: how to think critically and the evidence for Christianity. Wallace tells the story of several young cadets who have entered cadet training under the supervision of wise Detective Jefferies. Wallace illustrates principles of critical thinking as the detective guides the children through the mystery of a missing skateboard.  Wallace breaks down tough concepts like abductive reasoning and induction masterfully. One might doubt that children could understand abstract concepts like these, but as Wallace applies them concretely to the skateboard case, they are easy to understand and ought to be within the grasp of most children. But Wallace does not talk down to his audience, either. Wallace employs terms that many adults would need a dictionary to understand. How many of us know what “abduction” is off the top of our heads? And yes, the term is actually in the book! Wallace also shows that discovering the truth is often not a simple process. It will take time to gather evidence and think through all the implications. This reticence to water down the content while simultaneously making the ideas understandable to children is the greatest strength of the book. Wallace expects his young audience to rise to the occasion of thinking deeply and critically about some of life’s most important questions. That’s not an easy balance to strike, but Wallace does it well.

Though the theistic arguments are not the focus of this book, one of the highlights is Wallace’s simple but effective summary of the cosmological, teleological, and moral arguments. The book also provides entertaining and informative pictures that will keep children engaged as well as provide clarity for them. Wallace further provides a simple but clear overview of some the primary issues relating to the resurrection of Jesus, and this is his main focus. Topics like “the chain of custody” of the New Testament documents, which I personally did not hear about until I was an undergraduate at a Christian college, are introduced and explained with ease.  Children who have read this book will be more prepared and aware of the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus than even many adults.

But it is the synthesis of critical thinking and the presentation of the evidence which deserves the most commendation. In a world that is increasingly pluralistic and challenges the central claims of Christianity, children will need more than simple articulation of Christian beliefs. They will need to learn to think critically, like Detective Jeffries. This book does not merely provide the evidence for the resurrection in a way that children can understand, it provides a model of intellectual virtues which its young readers will feel called to emulate.

This combination is the reason I will read and reread this book with my young son as he grows up. Wallace has provided parents an excellent tool that any parent concerned about teaching their children critical thinking and the truth of the resurrection should not overlook. Cold Case can help our children provide a reasoned defense for the hope that they have, and gives it our highest recommendation.

Image: "Junior Detective" by Jessica Lucia. CC License. 

John Hare’s God’s Command, Chapter 4, Section 4.2, “Consensus Deductivism”:

What about Adams’s claim that we can fix the reference of ‘good’ by the evaluations of most of the people most of the time? His analogy is water, which people refer to regularly; what constitutes water is something else, and on an imagined twin earth they do not have water at all, but something else, let’s assume, like XYZ. The structure of Adams’s account is that the meaning of ‘good’ does not give us the nature of ‘good’; what is given by the meaning is, instead, a role that the nature is to play. He limits the claim to the meaning of ‘good’ in certain contexts, those in which ‘goodness’ is naturally interpreted as meaning excellence.

Adams says that the role assigned by ordinary understanding to the good is that it is an object of pursuit. But here arises an objection: we don’t always pursue the good, and sometimes what we pursue is not good. Adams denies that this is a problem for his theory, because it’s not one of those theories that analyze the nature of the good as consisting in some fact about our desires. The role of our desires is only to help fix the signification of our value terminology to a property or object that has its own nature independent of our desires.

Hare asks whether the failure of our actual desires is a problem for Adams’s theory as well, even though Adams proposes that those desires only fix the reference of the good, rather than determining its nature. He is forced by his account to say that we can’t always or even usually be totally mistaken about goodness. Hare wishes to consider this claim. Surely it’s true that we can be and very often are deeply wrong about the good, but this is not quite the same as saying we are “usually totally mistaken.” But we are mistaken enough that we should be hesitant about our ability to fix the reference of ‘good’. Jesus overturns or “transvalues” (in Nietzsche’s term) our conception of the good, and Aristotle gives a more accurate picture of what we usually think of as “common sense.”

The chief contrast between Aristotle and Jesus has to do with what we might call “competitive goods.” A competitive good is one where, in order for one person to have it, another person has not to have it, or to have less of it. The chief good for Aristotle couldn’t be honor, because it would be to be honored by the best people. The chief good is activity in accordance with virtue. But being honored in this sense is a competitive good, and can be lost. Most of the time Aristotle seems to think the chief good for human beings usually requires wealth, power, and honor. To have the relevant virtue (like magnanimity) you have to be worthy of great honor and deem yourself worthy of it. What various passages indicate is that the chief good for a human being requires power over others. The claim is not simply that the competitive goods are good, but that they are necessary for a highly admirable life.

The Gospels portray Jesus as overturning this sort of view, and the rest of the NT follows suit. Aristotle says humility is the state in which persons are so low they should not even aspire to virtue; in the NT we are told in humility to consider others better than ourselves. Or consider the command to love your enemies. This overturning of the world’s values is a central Christian theme, and is abundantly discussed in the literature. There is an important and difficult question whether the difference of Christian virtue, as described in these texts, shows more continuity or discontinuity with pagan virtue. Can we know, by human reason, unaided by special revelation, what is the best human life? If we’re born under the evil maxim, we tend to prefer our happiness to our duty. It suffices for now to say that there is not enough truth in most people’s desires most of the time for those loves to fix the reference of the term ‘good’ and its related family.

This claim is not shown to be true just because Jesus disagreed with Aristotle. It’s possible general revelation is progressive, after all. It’s also true that the culture of large parts of the world has been shaped by the Abrahamic faiths. But there’s also been a return to Greek ethics in some. The central point is not about whether most people get most of their evaluations and preferences right most of the time. Even if they do, this is not the right way to fix the reference of ‘good’. As RMH pointed out years ago, this approach to fixing the reference by consensus is inherently relativistic. We end up saying that the reference of ‘good’ is fixed by whatever most people say it is. We ought to have a way of being able to say that most people most of the time are wrong, even if it is not the case that they are. If we take the consensus model, we lost such a way.

Adams is aware of a problem here, and wishes to maintain the “critical stance.” Thus he says the truth behind Moore’s Open Question argument is that for any natural empirical property or type of action that we or others may regard as good or bad, right or wrong, we are committed to leave it always open in principle to raise evaluative or normative questions by asking whether the property of action-type is really good or right, or to issue an evaluative or normative challenge by denying that it is really good or right. Hare, though, thinks this openness extends only to limited questions within what Adams takes to be the overall massively reliable field. Adams is not willing to concede that the framework as a whole might have been largely distorted.

So how can we be constrained in what we take to be a divine command by our conception of the good, if not by consensus or actual belief and desire? Those within each religious tradition in which there might be a divine command have to use the resources of that tradition about what is good. The Abrahamic faiths share a commitment to the distinction between general and special revelation. This is one of the relevant conditions: a divine command theorist can say that what we take to be a new divine command has to be screened through both the general and the special revelation about the good that has already been given.

Election Reflections

A Twilight Musing

Along with many other citizens, I’m sitting here the morning after the election trying to sort out where the results leave us as a nation, and especially as Christian citizens.  I’m relieved, as are many others, that the long, shabby campaign is finally over and we’re no longer bombarded by political junk mail, phone calls, attack ads, and sleazy discourse.  It has been widely stated that this campaign has been more flawed and ignobly pursued than any in living memory, and many are disillusioned as to the future of our democracy.

But perhaps this is a suitable reminder for Christians that nothing in Scripture indicates we are to expect government to do more than maintain public order and curb criminal activity. According to Paul in Romans 13:1-7, The proper response of Christians to governmental authority is submission to it and obedience to its laws.

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.  Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.  For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer.  Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience.  For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing.  Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.

An additional duty of Christians toward government is stated in 1 Tim 2:1-3: “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made . . . for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.”

Certainly submission to civil authorities, abiding by the law, and praying for political leaders are commands as applicable to us as to Christians of the first century; but it is also true that people of God who live in a democratic republic have broader opportunities to influence government than did our brothers and sisters in earlier times, and therefore we have more responsibility as citizens.  However, such opportunities and responsibilities can easily tempt us to place more emphasis on our own efforts than on seeking discernment from the Lord as to how to conduct ourselves politically.  In response to this or any other election campaign, we should not be elated in pride if the candidate we agree with wins, nor cast down in bitterness if our favored candidate loses.  Especially in the aftermath of such a heated and vituperous campaign as we have just seen, Christians need to rededicate themselves to being models of sincere concern for public officials, whether we voted for them or not; and models of mutual respect as we deal with our social and political differences.  The best testimony that Christians can give at a time like this is to be agents of healing, rather than strident voices of either self-righteousness in victory or bitterness in defeat.



Image: "election chalkboard" by Jeff Warren. CC License. 


Elton Higgs

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

A. Thornhill’s The Chosen People: Chapter 2: "God Chose Whom?"

Summary by C. P. Davis [su_dropcap]I[/su_dropcap]n this chapter, Thornhill, after drawing out the distinction between what he terms “individual” and “corporate” election, discusses individual election in Second Temple thought. He begins by first noting that there is a touch of artificiality to these two terms, inasmuch as neither of them is used within Second Temple literature. This, however, should not overshadow the fact that there is a distinction between these two concepts, whatever one might call them. The chapter is divided into four major sections and a summary. We will briefly overview each of the major sections.

The first section, “The Character of the Elect,” is devoted to showing that Jews from the Second Temple period did not necessarily think of election in terms of salvation. The evidence seems to indicate that salvation, though an important corollary, was still just a corollary to the main thrust of election. But if salvation is not the main point, what is? Thornhill argues that the character of the elect fills this spot. In regards to salvation as election, our author writes, “Jews did not necessarily think in those categories” (28). The first bit of evidence comes from Wisdom of Ben Sira, which is clearly not focused on “otherworldly” notions, but rather has an eye to the practical life here and now. Ben Sira is largely concerned with displaying the magnificent qualities of the elect before God. In a telling section of his work (Sir 44:1–50:29), Ben Sira highlights God’s choice of famous Israelites, all of whom have been selected because of some inherent quality each possessed. Moses, in particular, is said to be chosen because he was faithful and meek. Character clearly plays a role for Ben Sira, but what about others?

The idea that character is relevant to election is also found in a number of additional psalms of David, some of which were discovered at Qumran. Psalm 152 and 153 portray David as one that is holy and elect, the two terms being linked. This seems to indicate that election has to do with David’s character before God. This is supported further by Psalm 155 where David is seen pleading with God to save Israel, on the basis of the faithful whom God has chosen. All of these psalms share the common theme of linking personal piety with God’s choice. But there is even more evidence for this concept in 1 Enoch. In fact, it is frequent that one finds election attached to personal disposition in this work. Like the psalms, 1 Enoch links the terms “elect,” “holy,” and “righteous,” in such a way that it is hard to separate the notion of election from an individual’s piety.

  “Chosen for a Purpose” is Thornhill’s second section, and here the focus shifts from character to function. That is, election deals not only with the piety of an individual, but with the role that person is to fulfill here and now. For Ben Sira, Moses was clearly chosen. Now, if one stops there the picture is not complete; one must ask what Ben Sira had in mind with this choosing. Moses was not simply chosen for salvation, but was chosen “so that he might teach Jacob the covenant, and Israel his decrees” (Sir 45:5). Again, the additional psalms of David tell the same story, only here David, not Moses, is the chosen. David is actually said to be chosen against the natural choice of man. God had a preferred choice, and this choice was for the purpose of leading the flock of Israel. As Thornhill points out, this passage is eminently “office-oriented” (37). The situation is no different in the Psalms of Solomon. Here the focus is once more on David and God’s choice of him to rule Israel. Interestingly, Israel is rebuked in this psalm because its sin had effectively cast off blessings that come through submitting to the Lord’s chosen. The only way to fix the problem is to look for one in the line of David to rule Israel.

In the third section, “Corporate Representation,” Thornhill unpacks one final aspect of individual election. Though coming close to corporate election, the concept of representation focuses on the individual as a reflection of the masses. Under this aspect of election God might treat a group in accordance with the stance of an individual. Jubilees offers a number of examples. This retelling of the book of Genesis casts God’s choice of Jacob in terms of obedience and righteousness. It might be noted that character is once again brought to the fore. However, a new development can be seen here: Jacob becomes the paradigm for the covenant community. A similar insight may also be gleaned from Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. Specifically, the Testament of Simeon 5:1-6 indicates that Levi and Judah represent the remnant of God’s faithful, and both the Testament of Dan and the Testament of Naphtali, though not clearly making the same identification, elevate Levi and Judah in such a way that the same type of picture seems to be present. But perhaps the clearest instances of this corporate representation can be seen in 1 Enoch. Thornhill notes a number of locations that house this idea, among which 1 Enoch 39:6 makes clear that the “Righteous/Elect One ensures the salvation and blessing of the righteous/elect ones” (49).

The final section, “Paul and Chosen Individuals,” seeks to evaluate the writings of Paul in light of the preceding material. Again, the focus is upon Paul’s doctrine of individual election. In Galatians 1:15­–16, one finds Paul speaking of himself as one that was chosen for a specific task. Romans 16:13 portrays Rufus as one who had been chosen as a prominent member of the local church. Adam and Jesus are then presented as the paradigmatic individual representatives (in this case of the entire human race!) in 1 Corinthians 15:20–24. And in the case of Jesus, this issue becomes even more acute when thinking of the atonement (2 Cor 5:18–21). Needless to say, each aspect of individual election, as articulated above, can be found in numerous segments of Paul’s material.

Image: King David in Prayer By Pieter de Grebber (circa 1600–1652/1653) - Web Gallery of Art:   Image  Info about artwork, Public Domain,

John Hare’s God’s Command, Chapter 4, Section 4.1.3, “The Social Character of Obligation”:

Hare now asks if we, by bringing in human nature in this way, have abandoned the distinctive mark of divine command theory, and simply turned it into a species of natural law theory. The argument has not been that the moral law is natural law strictly speaking, but that the content of at least two of the Ten Commandments has been turned into presumptions against taking God to be commanding us to act in a certain way, and these presumptions are taken from what fits human nature. For Scotus, the first table is natural law strictly speaking (except for the “seventh day” prescription). The command to love the neighbor would also be natural law strictly speaking, since we are necessarily commanded to love God, and to love the love of God, and therefore to love the neighbor’s love of God. But Scotus believes in the possibility of reprobation, so there is a restriction needed: we are commanded to love the love of God in the neighbor “at least by anyone whose friendship [God] is pleased to have.” We can and should have a defeasible presumption that we and the neighbor are not among the reprobate, because the judgment is God’s and not ours. Moreover, since we are necessarily commanded to love God, and since human nature is specified in terms of this end, we can say that God necessarily commands what fits human nature. But Scotus does not think that any of the specific commands in the second table can be deduced from this. There are two different possible kinds of deduction from what fits us. There is a deduction of a presumption in two cases, but in no case is there a deduction of an absolute prohibition.

A second point is more important. The argument so far doesn’t imply the moral law or moral obligation is deducible from human nature even in the case of the prohibitions on killing the innocent or on lying. There can be a presumption against doing something and still not an obligation not to do it. Here we return to Adams and Darwall and their notion of the social character of obligation, which we can accept with one qualification. The social character is that we are obligated to someone, or by someone. [Murphy objects that, whereas tort law always has a tortfeasor and a victim, and so has a “bipolar” structure, this is not true of criminal law, which can have a “monadic” structure in which there may be no victims at all (God and Moral Law, 126). If this is right, we should not say that obligation as such is bipolar. But there is good reason, Hare thinks, explored by Darwall in The Second-Person Standpoint, ch. 5, to think that moral obligation is more like tort law in this respect.] The opposite of “obligatory” is “forbidden.” It is not at all an easy matter to delineate this social character, but the general point seems right. The qualification is that we should not derive the agent’s obligation from the goodness to the agent of the relation that would be damaged by violating the obligation. That would be another form of eudaemonism. But that aside, suppose we start with the way Adams puts the basic idea, that, where there is a violation of an obligation, one “may appropriately have an adverse reaction to it.” The question is: Who is it whose appropriate reaction is here in question? Human beings have limited information, and limited sympathies. Even if we did know the preferences of others, we would tend to prefer the preferences of some people to the preferences of others in a way not countenanced by the moral law.

We might ask, why should we assume that the person to whom we are accountable in an obligation is the same as the person who generated the obligation in the first place? There is a tradition of argument, in Kant, for example, and also in Suarez, that God is legislator, executive ruler, and judge, and that moral law assumes that it is the same person who carries out all three functions. This tradition lay behind the discussion of God’s authority in Ch. 2. In Kant’s terms, the author of the law (which we repeat in our own wills) has to have a holy will, the administration of the law has to be by the “supersensible author nature,” and the judge has to be able to see into our hearts; and there is one person, and it is the same person, who does these three things. We might ask: “Why could it not be three different persons?” After all, in human societies it can be an advantage to have these functions divided. Hare is content to make this modest claim: If there is only one God, that one God is the most appropriate person for these three roles.

If this argument works, or something like it works, we can say that moral obligation requires not just a presumption against doing something but an obligator, and that deducibility from human nature and non-divine facts alone therefore has to be denied. Now we can return at last to Murphy’s dilemma. The first horn proposed that, if God is free to command what God wants, the non-moral and non-divine facts are inert. But if, as Hare has argued, God is constrained though not determined by facts about our nature, these facts will not be inert. The second horn of the dilemma proposed that it is odd to say that we are obligated not by the maximal set of non-moral, non-divine facts (where these include facts about our nature), but God is so constrained. The response is that this is not odd at all. We and God are different. Both God and we are constrained by non-moral and non-divine facts, and neither God nor we are obligated by those facts. But we are obligated by God’s commands. God does not require an obligator at all, but is the obligator. Even in those cases of moral law (if there are any) in which God’s command is constrained by the non-moral, non-divine facts, we are obligated not by those facts but by God’s command.

Intuiting the Beauty of the Infinite: Ramanujan and Hardy’s Friendship and Collaboration

The Man Who Knew Infinity, a recent movie based on a book of the same name by Robert Kanigel, recounts the short but remarkable life story of India’s great mathematical prodigy Srivivasa Ramanujan (henceforth SR). Although what follows is a response to the film, the book is well-worth reading, filled with luscious prose such as in this sample: “The Cauvery was a familiar, recurrent constant of Ramanujan’s life. At some places along its length, palm trees, their trunks heavy with fruit, leaned over the river at rakish angles. At others, leafy trees formed a canopy of green over it, their gnarled, knotted roots snaking along the riverbank.”

The movie begins by quoting Bertrand Russell (a character in the movie itself): “Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth but supreme beauty.” It then shows SR in India, doing his mathematics (without much formal training) while trying to eke out a living for his family. His passion and talent for math are obvious; trying to describe maths (the preferred British abbreviation) to his wife, he says it’s like a painting, but with colors you can’t see. There are patterns everywhere in mathematics, he adds, revealed in the most incredible forms. Finding himself in need of someone who could understand and appreciate his ground-breaking work, SR wrote G. H. Hardy, legendary professor at Cambridge, and eventually Hardy invited SR to traverse the ocean and come work with him there.

This incredible opportunity required SR to leave his wife behind and endure the long journey and culture shock of moving to England, which contributes to a compelling narrative, with many twists and turns I’m not discussing but that make for a terrific, sometimes heart-wrenching tale. Despite the trials and challenges (including a war), what’s amazing was how much work SR and Hardy were able to do over the next five years—publishing dozens of groundbreaking articles.

The divergent worldviews of the two men make the dynamics of their friendship particularly fascinating to chronicle. SR was a devout Hindu whereas Hardy was a committed atheist—though the first time Hardy says this to SR in the movie (“I’m what’s called an ‘atheist’”), SR replies, “You believe in God. You just don’t think he likes you.” Incidentally, this is a key structuring question in C. S. Lewis’s moving novel Till We Have Faces: whereas both Psyche and Orual believe in the gods, Psyche believed they were marvelous and loving, but Orual thought they were only dark, unkind, and mysterious. In Rudolph Otto’s terminology, Orual was familiar with the tremendum aspect of the Numinous, but Psyche with both the tremendum (the awe-inspiring mystery) and the fascinans aspect of the Numinous. Fascinans is the aspect of the Divine involving consuming attraction, rapturous longing—and is often connected to the imagination, beauty, even poetry.

The diametric difference in SR’s and Hardy’s ultimate worldviews proves to be related to a central aspect of the plot. Hardy is adamant about the need to show step-by-step proofs of SR’s conclusions, while SR is depicted as functioning on a much more intuitive level. I’m not concerned for now what artistic liberties the moviemakers might have taken in this regard, but it is true that SR would often write down the conclusions of his work and not all the intervening steps. There may be at least a partial explanation of this which is fairly prosaic: paper tended to be in short supply for SR in India. But it’s at least intriguing to consider the explanation advanced in the movie: SR possessed incredibly strong intuitive skills. Mystifying Hardy, SR could just see things that few others could and felt little need to offer the proofs.

Hardy—though incredibly impressed with SR’s abilities, likening him to an artist like Mozart, who could write a whole symphony in his head—repeatedly says that intuition is not enough. Intuition must be “held accountable.” Proofs mattered, to avoid projecting the appearance of SR’s mathematical dance or art as on a par with conjuring.

It isn’t that SR’s intuitions were infallible. His theory of primes, however intuitively obvious, turned out to be wrong. Still, though, many of his intuitions were eventually vindicated and proved right. One among other interesting questions that SR’s reliance on intuitions raises is how much discursive analysis they involve. It’s a vexed question among epistemologists whether intuitions are a lightning quick series of inferences, or something more immediately and directly apprehended. The quickness with which they come naturally lends itself to the latter analysis, but perhaps there’s something to the former option—particularly if much of the analysis is done beneath the level of conscious awareness. In the Sherlock Holmes stories, for example, Sherlock’s inferences would come so quickly that Watson characterized them as resembling intuitions; likewise, realizing it’s sometimes easier to know something than to explain the justification for it, Sherlock himself recognized the way knowledge can have features that resemble more immediate apprehendings than just the deliverances of the discursive intellect. A couple of real-life Sherlocks, Al Plantinga and Phil Quinn had a dust up some years back on whether basic beliefs are formed inferentially or not.

The difference in Hardy’s and SR’s styles, we come to see, is related to their divergent worldviews. Exasperated at Hardy’s recurring disparagement of intuition as lacking in substance, SR finally blurts out, “You say this word as if it is nothing. Is that all it is to you? All that I am? You’ve never even seen me. You are a man of no faith. . . . Who are you, Mr. Hardy?” The underlying dynamic that brought this exchange to a head was the way SR connected his own identity to those intuitions. Hardy had asked SR before how he got his ideas. Now SR gives his answer: “By my god. She speaks to me, puts formulas on my tongue when I sleep, sometimes when I pray.”

SR asks Hardy if he believes him, and adds, “Because if you are my friend, you will know that I am telling you the truth. If you are truly my friend.”

In Till We Have Faces, we find a similar scene. Orual can’t see the gold-and-amber castle that Psyche tells her of, but Orual also knows that Psyche had never told her a lie. One issue here is testimony, and the conditions that need to be in place to take it as reliable. Of course someone could be telling the truth, the best they understand it, and still be unreliable—for perhaps they’ve unwittingly made a mistake, or they’re delusional or confused.

At any rate, Hardy’s reply is transparent: “But I don’t believe in God. I don’t believe in anything I can’t prove.”

“Then you don’t believe in me,” SR responded. “Now do you see? An equation has no meaning to me unless it expresses the thought of God.”

Hardy remained skeptical of SR’s theology, but couldn’t dispute with the results. He would go to bat for SR to get him a fellowship at Cambridge, and in his impassioned defense of SR’s accomplishments he extolled his incredible originality, by which SR could apprehend so much truth otherwise missed. On Hardy’s view, the creativity and originality, though they provided SR a lens through which to see, didn’t subjectivize SR’s findings; rather, they were a tool for seeing farther and seeing more.

This contrasts with, say, Simon Critchley’s interpretation of the poetry of Wallace Stevens. On (Critchley’s) Stevens’s view, the only reality we experience is mediated through categories furnished by the poetic imagination, rendering our perspectives products of the imagination and, thus, subjective—yet still able to be believed despite their fictive nature. This is what some might call a more “postmodern” perspective than Hardy’s more traditional view that there’s an objective reality we’re able to discern, however imperfectly and through a glass darkly.

In real life, when Hardy died, one mourner spoke of his “profound conviction that the truths of mathematics described a bright and clear universe, exquisite and beautiful in its structure, in comparison with which the physical world was turbid and confused. It was this which made his friends . . . think that in his attitude to mathematics there was something which, being essentially spiritual, was near to religion.”

Hardy didn’t believe in God, but he did believe in SR and in the objectivity of mathematical truth. He wrote of his Platonism in his Mathematician’s Apology, and the movie captures this too. In one of his defenses of SR, he related the story of the way SR said mathematical truths are thoughts of God—a view parallel to, say, Plantinga’s view that modal and necessary moral truths are also thoughts in the mind of God. Then Hardy added, “Despite everything in my being set to the contrary, perhaps he’s right. For isn’t this exactly our justification for pure mathematics? We are merely the explorers of infinity in the pursuit of absolute perfection. We do not invent these formulae—they already exist and lie in wait for only the brightest minds to divine and prove. In the end, who are we to question Ramanujan—let alone God?”

Though math, on Hardy’s view, is discovered, not invented, it may take those with prodigious talents to uncover its deepest truths. Speaking of which, near the start of the film Hardy had said, “I didn’t invent Ramanujan. I discovered him.” Even more than the math, this is a movie about men and their remarkable friendship and fertile partnership across radically divergent and conflicting paradigms. The humanity of the film is its best feature of all.

After five years of collaboration between these unlikely friends, SR returned to India, having contracted a fatal disease—likely tuberculosis. Within a year he died, at the age of just 32. Hardy was crestfallen when he heard the news, and grieved the loss deeply. Near the end of the movie, he reflected on his collaboration with both SR and another colleague, Littlewood, saying he’d done something special indeed: “I have collaborated with both Littlewood and Ramanujan on something like equal terms.”

Paraphrasing Hardy, he once commented that out of 100 points, he would give himself 30 as a mathematician, 45 to Littlewood, 70 to Hilbert. And 100 to Ramanujan. In the year SR spent in India before his death, he poured his brilliant findings into another notebook. It was lost for a while, but when found, the importance of its discovery was likened to that of Beethoven’s “10th Symphony.” A century later, these formulas are being used to understand the behavior of black holes.

Power, Holiness, and the Ark

The Ark of the Covenant was created according to God’s specifications to house three items: the two stone tablets on which were written the Decalogue; a container of God’s miraculous manna from the wilderness wanderings; and Aaron’s rod that budded as evidence of his divine appointment as High Priest.  The Ark was the center of God’s Presence in the Tabernacle (and later the Temple), and therefore it was to reside in the Holy of Holies where only the High Priest could enter.  However, during the period of the Judges, the Ark was lost to the Philistines, and when they returned it to Israel, it came to rest in Kiriath-jearim, not far from Jerusalem.  It was still there when David was made King of Israel, and one of his earliest acts (I Chron. 13:5-14) was to move the Ark to Jerusalem in anticipation of the building of the Temple.  The attempt proved to be abortive, and David’s experience in that failure marked a significant turning point in his understanding of God and his relationship to Him. During the period of David’s life before he was made King, he was on the run from the first king of Israel, Saul.  When Saul was rejected by God because of his disobedience, David was anointed King secretly while he was still a boy.  He experienced a brief ascendency when he came forward to slay the giant Goliath, and then was made a commander of Saul’s army.  But when he incurred Saul’s jealousy and wrath, he was forced to flee and became the leader of a rag-tag group of malcontents and lived as an outlaw in caves and wilderness areas.  During that period, he wrote such Psalms as the 18th, which focuses on God’s powerful deliverance of David from his enemies (including Saul, according to the heading).  This reflects the understandable focus of David on God’s power and might, an emphasis that was still there when he proposed to move the Ark to Jerusalem.  Consequently, he made some major errors that forced him to adjust his focus to recognize the importance of God’s holiness.

The Ark was designed with metal loops at each lower corner, so that poles could be inserted through them to enable the Ark to be carried without its being touched, a procedure which God had specified to underline the holiness of this special artifact that represented the very Presence of God.  In disregard to this command about how to transport the Ark, it was put on an ox-cart, and when the oxen stumbled at one point in its journey, Uzzah, one of the men driving the cart, quite naturally put out his hand to steady the Ark and keep it from falling.  Although Uzzah seems not to have had any active intent to show disrespect toward the Ark, he was struck dead by the Lord for committing sacrilege.  Indeed, God’s judgment was on the whole situation wherein David and the leaders of Israel had either forgotten God’s command as to how the Ark was to be carried, or thought it unimportant.  David acknowledges his great error when he makes a second, successful effort to bring the Ark to Jerusalem (I Chron. 15:1-16:1).  After specifying that only the Levites could transport the Ark in the way prescribed by God, David observed: “Because you did not carry it the first time, the Lord our God broke out against us, because we did not seek him according to the rule” (15:13).  So “the Levites carried the ark of God on their shoulders with the poles, as Moses had commanded according to the word of the Lord” (v. 15).

But David’s immediate response to the slaying of Uzzah is not submissive (“David was angry because the Lord had broken out against Uzzah” [I Chron. 13:11]), and he obviously had to work through that anger to realize the enormity of his offence against God’s holiness.  A part of his coming to that understanding was a feeling about God that he had probably not experienced before: “And David was afraid of God that day” (13:12).  All of David’s experience of God before this point, from his being given the power to defeat Goliath to divine deliverance from his enemies in the wilderness, seems to have evoked love for the Lord and gratitude toward Him, but not fear.  Why was it important for David both to love and thank God and to have fear evoked by radical exposure to His holiness?  The answer is akin to the reason that we must understand and accept not only God’s generous grace and mercy toward us, but also embrace the fact of His wrath toward sin, His judgment.  To see only God’s mercy and goodness is to ignore what it cost Him to overcome His righteous wrath and judgment toward sin and sinners and to be oblivious to His inherent holiness that makes it impossible to allow sin in His presence.  Impossible, that is, unless God Himself does something to make it possible.  And the ultimate Good News is that God sacrificed a part of Himself to pay the price demanded by His wrath.

Only a shadow of this truth was available to David under the Old Covenant, and his crucial experience with the Ark drove him to the immediate acceptance of the fact that God’s holy Presence in the Ark could be accommodated only by the yearly sacrifice of atonement within the Holy of Holies that was the Ark’s ordered dwelling place.  When it finally came to rest in the Tabernacle tent David provided for it in Jerusalem, David had finally come to realize that God’s holiness properly evoked fear and trembling, as well as gratitude that God had provided a way for His holiness to dwell with His people without destroying them.  Herein was the seed of the complete Good News that a full, final, and eternally sufficient sacrifice had been made through the death of God’s own Son so that God in the integrity of His holiness could dwell among His people through the Holy Spirit without destroying them.

What relevance does David’s experience with the Ark have for us?  Perhaps it is that like him, we must come to recognize, fully accept, and deal with the wrathful side of God.  It is common for modern-day Christians, in their zeal to present God in the most attractive terms, to ignore or minimize the fact that He has a terrifying side that insists on keeping the reality of sin and judgment vividly in our consciousness.  If we succumb to the temptation to minimize the presence of evil and sin in this fallen world, we cheapen what it cost God to bridge the gap between His holiness and our captivity to sin.  Without the application of what Christ did, God has no choice but to exercise His wrathful judgment on sin.  God’s love and mercy can overcome the effects of sin only when we fully acknowledge it to be what it is and confess that because of His inviolable holiness it separates us from God.

Thanks be to God that under the New Covenant of the blood of Christ, God’s holiness is no longer embodied in an untouchable box of death, but now makes its redemptive dwelling within us.  What a terrifyingly wonderful manifestation of God’s grace!

image: By Domenico Gargiulo -, Public Domain,


Elton Higgs

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

John Hare’s God’s Command, Chapter 4, “Can We Deduce Morality from Human Nature?” Section 4.1.2: The Fittingness of the Law to our Nature

Recall Adams’ answer to the famous arbitrariness objection to DCT: God’s command is not arbitrary in the contemporary pejorative sense because it commands what is good, but it has discretion over which good things to require. To make this picture work we need an account of goodness. Chapter 1 suggested that a person who says a thing is good expresses that she is drawn or attracted by it and says that it deserves to draw or attract her in that way. But now we need an account of the criteria for this deserving. Adams proposes a single criterion for when “good” means “excellent”: a thing is good to the extent that it resembles God. But while this fits many kinds of excellent things, it does not fit all. In particular it does not fit the goodness of natural kinds. Take two different species of plant that are different; there is resemblance to God in life, but also in such differences, but the differences aren’t differences in likeness to God. There’s a different goodness in the way a particular plant within a species differs from another. This is what follows from Scotus’s picture that we get more perfection as we move from genus to species, and then yet more as we move from species to each individual member, to the haecceity. Resemblance to God does not seem well equipped to explain all this difference in the good.

Here are four plausible ways of thinking of the relation of this difference to God. First, God created it. This suggests not simply that God is the source, but that God delights in the variety; perhaps this is one of the reasons for the “very good” in Genesis 1. Second, these various beauties draw us to God. Chapter 1 claimed that what finally draws us and deserves to draw us is God and what draws us to God. This makes the account dynamic rather than static, and that is an improvement, because it connects better with the account of the meaning of “good,” which is based on the idea of being drawn. But the goodness of the variety does not reside only in its drawing us to God. It also does not reside only in its having been created by God, which would make the value too transparent to God and insufficiently intrinsic. The third way of thinking is metaphysically the most ambitious. Perhaps we learn about God from the creation in the same sort of way we learn about an artist from his or her work. It’s not that the features resemble him, but the work is, nonetheless, utterly characteristic. It manifests his aesthetic preferences and aesthetic personality, which is in a sense present in the work. Two different plant species might manifest God in slightly different ways. This is close to Adams, but different. Manifestation and resemblance are not the same because of this sense of God’s presence in the manifestation. A fourth picture might be that each kind of flower species, indeed each plant, is a part of the biotic whole, which God loves. This is different from the previous picture because it makes the value of the parts derive from the value of the whole. We can add that God intends a whole new heaven and earth, not just new humans as co-lovers, but a new creation. Perhaps non-human species have goodness in their destination just as individual humans do, though there are large difficulties with this view, such as dinosaurs.

The moral law is good for humans because it fits human nature. Scotus says the precepts in the second table of the Ten Commandments are “exceedingly in harmony” with the first practical principles that are “known from their terms,” even though they do not follow from them necessarily. Scotus is saying that the second table fits our end, but is not deducible from it. He standardly describes this relation of “fit” in aesthetic terms. This account of goodness allows us to give some content to the way in which the good, at least the good for humans as humans, overridably constrains what we should take to be obligatory.

This suggestion is partly the same and partly different from the one Geach made in his famous article about the good. He distinguished “predicative” adjectives like “red” from “attributive” adjectives like “good,” on the grounds that the meaning of attributive adjectives can’t be detached from the meaning of the nouns to which they are applied. He held that “good” in phrases like “good human” is a purely descriptive term, and we know its meaning just by knowing the meaning of “human” and “human act” and so by knowing what humans and human acts are for.

Hare concedes that we do get a constraint on what we should take to be good for humans from knowing what humans are, and that this in turn constrains what we should take to be commanded by God. But Hare wants to make two points against Geach. First, the term “good” in “good human” and “good human act” has, in our ordinary language, more than a purely attributive use. For a Kantian a good human act is one that displays a good will, and this is defined in terms of the whole procedure of the Categorical Imperative. Hare thinks we should concede that “good” in “good person” is sometimes used attributively, and that in “good human being” it may be used both ways. Second, even the attributive use is more than merely descriptive. To ascribe a function to a chisel is normally to say how it is to be used, and to say that a chisel is to be used for cutting fine grooves in wood and is not to be used as a screwdriver is to make a prescription.

Adams’ DCT needs a constraint on what we should take to be commanded by God in order to overcome the objection from arbitrariness. If God’s command makes something obligatory, should we think that we might be commanded, and thus obliged, to fly a plane into a skyscraper? No, says Adams, for this could not be the command of a loving God. What counts as “loving” is settled by ordinary valuation, for Adams, but Hare thinks this seems wrong, for reasons he’ll give later. But a related idea seems right: we should probably not take something as commanded by God if it does not fit the characteristic kind of loving of God done by a rational animal. This would imply a presumption against taking an innocent human life, though it wouldn’t rule out such a command and at the same time God changing the circumstances. Also, recall various ways Abraham’s context is different from ours (no life of Christ to emulate, for example). At any rate, taking innocent life is inconsistent with the feature of our rational-animal agency that features each of us going through a particular trajectory.

This point comes helpfully into connection with the four Barthian constraints mentioned earlier. Our trajectories involve our being individual centers of agency, being in time, being free, and being language-users. This is often put in terms of our personal narratives. We don’t know in advance the good works God’s prepared for us, and God is free with respect to the route selected for each of us, and the duration of that route. God has discretion, but chooses in accordance with our good as pilgrims. But the question of what access we have to the nature of this good is a different one, though also an unavoidable one. It’s natural to assume the trajectory requires a full lifetime, so killing would be a premature termination, unless God were to indicate to the contrary.

This gives us one example of a constraint from our nature on what we count as good, if we are to be able to respond to the divine call to be co-lovers. There is a form of argument here that can be extended to other examples. The form of argument is transcendental in the Kantian sense; it argues from the conditions of possibility of some fact that is taken as basic. Thus the argument from providence is a transcendental argument from the “fact of reason,” that we humans (creatures of sense and creatures of need) are under the moral law. The present argument argues backwards from the fact that we are recipients of God’s call to conclusions about what we (and God) have to be like to make this possible. But then it reverses direction, and asks what constraints are placed on what we can take to be divine commands by the fact that we are this kind of people.

Now consider the proscription on bearing false witness. There is a plausible argument, this time from the last of the four Barthian constraints, that we are language-users. Our language is a system of external signs, used to communicate internal thoughts. But then we have to be able to assume that these signs are being used most of the time to communicate thoughts correctly. What is at issue here is not whether the thoughts communicated are true, but whether what is communicated corresponds to what is thought true. The plausible part of Kant’s argument is that the institution of language-using requires that we be able to trust that most of our fellow language-users are communicating what they believe to be the truth, or what they really want. So there is a presumption against telling a lie, because if anyone, anytime, with any degree of frequency, may lie, this undercuts the very institution of language, which is necessary for lying as well as for telling the truth.

In the case of lying, as in the case of killing the innocent, we are left with an overridable constraint. Consider by contrast the exceptionless kind of constraint offered by the “new” natural law theory, which proposes eight basic goods, as Porter puts it, “elemental enough to be regarded plausibly as self-evident to all and yet provided with enough content to provide an immediate basis for practical reflection.” The dilemma that Porter poses for this kind of theory is that either the list is sufficiently general to be self-evident, but then it does not have enough content significantly to guide action in the exceptionless ways the theory proposes, or it is specific enough to guide action in this way, but then it is not self-evident to all. To pose this dilemma, however, is not to deny that goods such as life and truth pose some constraint on moral obligation.

Some Things I’ve Learned by Living this Long

A Twilight Musing

Occasionally at this stage of my life, I think perhaps I’ve lived this long because there were things God wanted me to know that I wasn’t ready to accept when I was younger.  Perhaps you would like to know what a couple  of those things are.

Lesson 1: No amount of beating up on myself will compensate for my imperfections.  Early in my life, I was so full of my own virtues that I was too insensitive to feel guilty.  In my middle years, although I was increasingly and disappointedly aware of my failings, open admission of guilt was dangerous to my self-image; so I suffered the pain of my self-indictment privately, for the most part, seeking somehow to turn my guilt itself into an exonerating virtue.  As I edged into my mature years, I began to realize that in spite of my being a nominal believer in the unique efficacy of Christ’s sacrificial death to cover all my sin, I also harbored the unstated conviction that I could earn more of God’s love and favor than I already had by compiling a record of good behavior sufficient to forestall or minimize guilt.  Of course, I failed, and then I was ensnared in guilt again.

The solution, I found, is to embrace and rejoice in the process that John presents in his first epistle: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (I Jn. 1:8-9).  I had always read this process of confession and forgiveness as a kind of emergency medical care to cover those moral cripples who just could not make progress in the New Life they had been given.  But I now think that this process of confronting our sin, confessing it, and experiencing forgiveness is an integral and ongoing part of our maturing relationship with God.  Embracing this daily process (not achieving behavioral perfection) is what John means when he admonishes us to “walk in the light,” for it is there that “we have fellowship with one another [as fellow sinners] and the blood of Jesus . . . cleanses us from all sin” (I Jn. 1:7).  There is freedom in that light to fully accept that being redeemed is an ongoing process that absorbs our sins so thoroughly that we continually stand pure before Him.  So the  continual recognition of our sinfulness is not a source of perpetual shame, but a source of marvel and rejoicing, because we are walking miracles of God’s grace.  There is no longer any need to cover up or deny our lapses, for now our struggle with weakness is an ongoing opportunity to relinquish the attempt to glorify ourselves and to glorify God instead.  As Paul says in II Cor. 12: 9-10, I can “boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me . . . .  For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

Lesson 2: Waning strength provides new focus for my life.  In the energies of my youth, I had the luxury of being able to devote attention to a number of significant activities and goals, such as graduate school, church activities, and maintaining and enjoying my marriage.  In my late twenties I started my first full-time faculty position, children were added to the mix, and I even managed to participate in a boys’ mentoring group and sing in a community choir.  I didn’t always get my priorities right in the distribution of my time among these activities, but that difficulty arose from my having enough mental and physical resources to pursue multiple applications of my energies.  This prime of life ability to attempt doing an amazing number of things was exciting, but it sometimes prompted pride if I was successful in one or more of these areas.  When in later middle age I began to experience the diminution of some of my skills and the opportunities to display them, I discovered just how much pride I had invested in getting recognition for them.  Therefore, I did not accept that diminution gracefully, and I somewhat bitterly lamented my losses, particularly the decrease in quality of my singing voice.

But at least that forced acceptance of reality made me better oriented when real old age set in to be content with the opportunities that were left to me, some of which I wouldn’t have known how to appreciate earlier in life.  My writing of these Musings is a prime example of a new opportunity that God opened up as a surprise at just the right time in my life.  I spent a lot of time in my earlier life trying to find things I thought God wanted me to do, probably putting more emphasis on my ego-pleasing choices than on God’s will and direction.  Now that I have less energy to seek out areas of service, He has shown me that when I wait on Him, He brings things to me.

So, as one old preacher was reported to have said when asked how he was doing, “I’m just repentin’ and praisin’.”




Elton Higgs

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

John Hare’s God’s Command, Chapter 4, “Can We Deduce Morality from Human Nature?” Introduction & Section 4.1.1: The Non-Deducibility of the Law from our Nature:

Introduction: Hare has been arguing that eudaemonism (in the four forms discussed) does not have a proper place for what Scotus calls, following Anselm, the affection for justice. The present chapter is about a different dividing question in moral theory: can morality be deduced from “natural” facts, or from statements about the “natural” properties possessed by people and actions? The term “natural” here is problematic. The first section of the chapter discusses Scotus’s view that the moral law can’t be deduced from human nature, but is exceedingly fitting to it. In the second and fourth sections the denial of deducibility from “natural facts” will extend to a dispute with contemporary theorists. The third section examines RMH’s take on natural facts. The second section looks at Adams’ attempt to deduce a way to fix the reference of “good” from facts about what most humans most of the time think is good. Hare calls this “consensus deductivism.” The fourth section looks at the attempt by Foot and Hursthouse to deduce conclusions about moral goodness from facts about the characteristic human form of life. Hare calls this “form-of-life deductivism.” No entirely neat separation between these two kinds of view is possible.


4.1.1: The Non-Deducibility of the Law from our Nature

Scotus rightly denies that the moral law can be deduced from human nature. Note, first, it is deducibility that is denied, rather than some weaker relation such as fittingness. Scotus accepts that the moral law, such as the second table of the Ten Commandments, fits human nature exceedingly well, but he insists nonetheless that this is natural law only in an extended sense, not in the strict sense, because God is free to command creatures with human nature otherwise. Natural law in the strict sense is “known from its terms” or deducible from what is known in this way.

Second, it is moral law that is denied to be deducible from human nature, and not goodness. His examples of moral law are from the second table of the Ten Commandments, though we should not assume that he intends this list to be exhaustive. Third, the term from which deducibility is denied is human nature. But this has to be understood in a way that is not already conceptually subsumed under moral law. If we define “human being” as “a being under moral law,” or if we make being under moral law essential to the kind “human being” (as Kant does), then there will be a trivial deduction from the premise that a being is human to the conclusion that it’s under the moral law. On the other hand, if we deny that humans are by nature under the moral law, then we have simply denied deductivism from the beginning and begged the question.

Here’s a third alternative. We can grant that human beings are by nature such that they are fulfilled, or they reach their end, by loving God. Scotus says our end is to be condiligentes, co-lovers, which is to say that we enter into the love that is between the three persons of the Trinity. This human love of God, however, is distinct from the way angels love God or God loves Godself; humans love God as rational animals. We can ask whether we can deduce the moral law from our end specified as being condiligentes.

One prominent case Scotus gives is the commandment “You shall not steal.” Private property, he points out, is presupposed by the commandment but is not essential to human beings. There is no deduction of the proscription of theft just from human nature, and the divine command is to that extent contingent; there is no necessity here binding the divine will.

But stealing is not the most difficult case for someone who wants to maintain the contingency of the second table. What about killing? God could bring a killed person back to life, but perhaps more needs to be said. The question of whether the command not to kill is contingent tout court is not settled by the question of whether God could command otherwise given merely human nature. We can ask, “Could God command the killing of the innocent if not just human nature, but our circumstances stayed the same; in particular, if we stayed dead once killed?” In a later section Hare will take this up.