Can we know right from wrong? Ethics, faith, knowledge.

I was involved in a number of conversations last week that prompted me to think seriously about the relationships of ethics, Christian faith, and knowledge:

    • a discussion in the always fascinating OneKirk Facebook group about whether faith had any contact with truth and knowledge
    • another discussion there about an article in the Telegraph reporting an article in a journal of medical ethics proposing a parental right to infanticide
    • an ecumenical lent study group at Augustine United Church in which  we talked about what a Christian society was or would be and whether this was something we desired
    • a Scottish United Reformed and Congregational College session in which a fundamental difference emerged between some of us who contended that we can discern the image of God in our human nature and others (including, or maybe only, me) who hold to a Calvinist/Augustinian belief that the fall has erased that image (in Calvinist jargon the “total depravity” of fallen humanity)

Cardinal Keith O’Brien made an intervention in the debate about changes in the marriage law regarding same-sex couples and there was an outraged response to that intervention in a number of forums.

In addition I listened to Radio 4’s Moral Maze programme in which various people argued for and against the “right” of women to abortion (the discussion was very largely framed by a problematic of rights, a point to wish I might wish to return but which is not really my theme today).

It was this last discussion, to which I was a non-participating spectator that crystallised for me the common thread in my reactions across all these incidents and episodes; my feeling that what often makes this kind of talk go wrong is discomfort with uncertainty, temporariness, and dependency.

In the argument about abortion many of those taking part seemed to believe that the way out of the difficulties created by our disagreements would be to establish a single principle as unarguable and absolute, trumping all others, and then deduce ethical norms from it that would apply in all cases. On one side you have the right to self-determination as regards one’s body (“a woman’s right to choose”) on the other the obligation to protect and sustain the vulnerable and powerless, taken to apply to the foetus (“sanctity of life”).

I don’t at this point want to take sides on this question but rather to assert that the proper context for it in the mainstream of the Christian tradition is the idea of the fall and of original sin. This has a number of general consequences for ethical reflection of which two are of crucial significance.

First and most important it means that we cannot expect to act innocently. None of us can claim to be without sin. All of us stand in need of God’s forgiving grace. Our attempts to do the right thing are always under the shadow of failure and limitation. A real sense of this should encourage us to modesty and forbearance.

We are  looking for the least bad more than for the best course of action and this will always be relative rather than absolute. We must anticipate a tragic balancing of pain and harm and not a clear, final and absolute answer.

Second it means that the very faculties we are using to achieve this balance are themselves marred and distorted by sin. This is the link to the conversation about faith and knowledge. We are not the kind of beings that can know ourselves, the world, or God clearly. This means that we should always be ready to acknowledge that all we think and feel is liable to correction and change.

This is no less true of our moral reasoning and moral intuition than of anything else. We have to have a tolerance of those who think and feel differently, even where we cannot tolerate actions that flow from their thoughts and beliefs. We need to try to understand the positions of those with whom we disagree and to assume that they really do have good reasons for their views and feelings, even when we think they’re dangerously wrong.

There are limits to this tolerance, of course, and there comes a point where we have to have recourse to the idea of  “evil”, whatever we may mean by that difficult word, but this should be a last recourse and come to unwillingly, since it implies the end of conversation and the beginning of another and more desperate form of struggle.

What follows from this? Well for one we should be suspicious of our outrage. Calm is almost always better. People on all sides of all serious moral questions seem to disagree with this. The more strongly you feel about a question the greater seems to be your right to speak. I think this is wrong.

For another we have to be ready to see the bad things about our position or proposed course of action and acknowledge them. On abortion I’m inclined to see the current arrangements in Britain as about right but I still think every abortion is a tragedy. The alternative to them is not, though, just extra happy children. It is also unhappy mothers and children and  illegally procured and dangerous abortions.

In deciding what to do and how to legislate we are always faced, in this fallen world, with balancing bad outcomes. This will never be unambiguous and certain and we shouldn’t act as if we thought it was.

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9 comments
  1. Alan Kimmitt said:

    I don’t often get around to reading your posts, Nick, but find they always inspire valuable reflection. The humility that underlies this argument is important for me. I am not God, and I am not entitled to act as if I am God. Even when I proclaim what I believe to be something which is God-like or at least Not-inconsistent-with-God, I am aware that there are others (often more faithful, prayerful, reflective and wise than me) who hold different views.

    I agree that calm is almost always better but, as I prepare to preach on next Sunday’s lectionary reading of Jesus overturning the tables in the temple, I am aware that excessive calm might lead to inaction.

    • Thanks, Alan. I agree with you that sometimes inaction is wrong, and that sometimes anger is justified; and that’s where things get really difficult. It’s hard to know when one is confronted with an evil beyond the range of what one is called on to strive to understand.

  2. David Denniston said:

    A thought provoking post, Nick. I am especially in agreement with your assertion that ‘the proper context for it in the mainstream of the Christian tradition is the idea of the fall and of original sin’. I am increasingly surprised/concerned that (outwith the confines of conservative evangelicalism etc) the concept of the fallenness of humanity/creation has all but disappeared. I suppose the one ethical issue where we might expect it to be asserted int he the matter of Christians and warfare. I suspect that mist Christians would still affirm that there may be circumstances (however, extreme) where it was justifiable to go to war. Yet none of us would imagine that a world where there is warfare is the world as God intended it.

    But, while agreeing with you in the most part, I do find myself wondering about your interpretation of the Calvinist principle of ‘total depravity’. I affirm what I THINK is the principle, but do not think it means that the image of God has been entirely erased, nor do I think it means that we are ‘totally depraved’. Rather I consider its intention is to assert that in every way and in every part there is a post-fall distortion in human nature. If I look at my image in a mirror, how truly it reflects that image is dependent on the cleanliness and ‘trueness’ of the mirror. But if in the Fall we have been sullied and distorted then the reflection of the image WHILE STILL DISCERNIBLE will no longer be completely true.

    I do not think that humanity is totally depraved, but the image of God is distorted in every aspect of our humanity. A slightly (but significantly) different thing I think.

    • Thank you, David, I share your dismay at the way in which the fall, and the consequent gap between the way things are and God’s intention, is neglected. Warfare is indeed a particularly sharp exemplar of the “penultimate” status of ethics but is far from alone in this. Our inability to arrive at a satisfactory position on sexual ethics is also, I feel, a consequence of a general refusal to face up to the limits of our (unaided) capabilities.

      You may well be right to take a more cautious line on “total depravity”, although I still think I was at least partly justified. I was (over) reacting to a conversation about the “image of God” which was being used, as it often is, to argue that we can get a fix on God’s nature by considering ours.

  3. Oh my, I think you fell on the wrong side of the debate on being made in the image of God. Genesis demonstrates our “god-stuff” in Adam’s choice of names, moral capacity and ability to understand that ‘the day you eat it you will start to die,’ and his ability to infer or reason (Adam did not find a mate suitable for him). If you choose, make value judgments or form rational arguments you have contradicted the “belief that the fall has erased that image.” These transcendent capacities are the best evidences of the existence of God to the unbeliever. (Actually they fuel my faith as a believer in a foundational way) Paul wrote, ‘because that which is known about God is evident within them. The image of God in man is the evidence evidence within.

    The depravity exists because we have lost contact with the truth. Jesus is going for a total restoration. He can bring us back to His glory and to the glory that was meant to be ours from the very beginning as spiritual beings and children of God. Peter’s second letter was written to shape the disciplines needed to become “partakers of the divine nature.” Restoring the image or God, our honor and dignity, is the platform of sanctification. Any viable morality must have a personal view of human nature and the assumption that this nature is shared equally. (Bye, bye naturalism)

    Calvin’s idea of ‘total depravity’ unfortunately went ontological instead of ethical. There are problems with his interpretive grid as there must be with all systematics. God is much bigger than our attempts to define and explain Him. We must allow Him to define reality and Himself. That’s the incredible gift of revelation.

    • I think we may differ somewhat in how we understand what it means to be the “image of God”. You imply that this phrase indicates “partaking of he divine nature”. I don’t think this is what it means. An image represents something. This does not necessarily imply sharing any of its properties but rather centres on having an ability to call something to mind or (in a political sense) being authorised to speak and act on behalf of somebody. These two were regularly combined in the Ancient Near East by the placing of statues of a ruler, accompanied by tablets (stele) with codes of law on them at key points to symbolise the delegated authority of the local governor. This authority was like that of the ruler but circumscribed by legal codes and dependent on the ruler’s appointment.

      I am persuaded by the contemporary scholarship which has drawn on increasing knowledge of the wider cultural context of ancient Israel to deepen our understanding of the OT in a wide range of ways but especially in appreciating more fully that Israel was both a religious and a political entity and that these two were not separable. This particular aspect of the Genesis text reflects this reality. Adam (as Luther understood better than almost anyone else I’ve encountered) exists already in all three spheres of life (the “three estates”) of religion, economy/household/family, and state/law.

      The fall is not only (or even mainly) about ethics any more than sin is. It is best seen as a failure, on our side, of the relationship with God which impacts across the whole of our existence. We can no longer do, think, feel, or act in accordance with the right ordering of creation in which we were intended to represent (“image”) God.

      This means (and this was the point of my post) that we can’t know what is right and what is wrong any more than we can know why things have mass or exactly what happened at instant zero of the big bang. All our knowledge is provisional and representational.

      Also it means that we cannot distinguish “right” from “wrong”. Rather we have to negotiate different wrongs, until the coming of Christ in glory to (re-)instantiate the kingdom (full rule) of God. In our moral debates we need to get away from the idea that OUR preferred course of action is “right” and that of others “wrong” and grasp that only God’s way is right. Our way is always more or less wrong (sinful) which is why we are dependent on grace for forgiveness.

      • But, but. The Fall is a fallacious concept, early Christian theology moving well beyond the Biblical texts. The Genesis narrative is a myth. And the Holy Spirit is God, resident in humanity. No, we are not part of the divine nature, the divine nature is part of us. How else, if you say we can’t know right from wrong, could we know what is God’s way?

      • The Fall is not a concept definitive of Christian orthodoxy as understood in the United Reformed Church, that is clear from a perusal of either of our statements of faith. However they are unambiguous (in my view) in stating that Jesus Christ’s work is centrally concerned with our sin: “died upon the cross for our sins” (1972); and “died for sinners on the cross” (1997). I discern a traditional belief in the incorrigibility of our sinfulness behind these statements.

        We know God’s way (here comes the Barthian bit) because God chooses to reveal it to us, in Christ. We cannot discern (fully) what is required of us without the gracious action of God. And what’s more we cannot achieve a state of perfection such that we are freed from the continuing need for forgiving grace. We are incapable of sinlessness and repose our faith in its not being necessary.

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