Monthly Archives: April 2014

Moral Law—So Yesterday! Faith and the Contemporary Moral Crisis (#4)

The Right

In the first three installments of this series, we examined the concept of “the good” for its relevance to morality. We discovered that the good is not by itself a moral category. Strictly speaking, the mere fact that something is good for us does not obligate us to seek it. It leaves undecided whether or not we are at fault for refusing it. In my view, a sense of obligation is an essential feature of moral experience. And this requirement leads us to the concept of “the right.”

Hence the concept of “the right” is indispensable for moral reasoning. If something is good because it is “good for” something else, then something is right because it corresponds to a norm, standard or authority. The answer to a math problem will be right when the student understands the symbols and follows the rules for the operations. A history of a Civil War battle is not right unless it corresponds to the facts. In the same way, a human action is morally right only if it measures up to a moral law. And an act is morally wrong if it breaks a moral law.

Human Law

We are familiar with the concept of human law, that is, law legislated by the state. The state claims authority to make and enforce laws to regulate the behavior of its citizens. A law is a statement that forbids or requires a certain act and prescribes the penalties for infractions. It is legislated by a legislative authority, enforced by an executive and adjudicated by judges.

But we know that the state is not the ultimate moral authority and that demands of the state are not right simply because it commands them. Human laws can be right or wrong, just or unjust, good or bad. There is hardly any need to marshal examples of unjust laws. They are all too common in human history. But we can judge a human law to be wrong only when we see that it is out of line with a higher law by which human laws must be judged.

Natural Law

What is this higher law? And how is it legislated and made known? On what authority, and who enforces and adjudicates it? For many thinkers, nature is a prime candidate for this higher law. After all, nature exists independently of human culture and law. So, let’s consider the possibility that there is a natural law that stands above legislated law.

Upon consideration, natural law can mean only in two things. Natural law either describes (1) the basic physical laws according to which nature invariably works or it describes (2) the conditions and actions required for human flourishing.

In neither sense of natural law do we come under an obligation to act or refrain from acting. In the first case (1) we have no obligation to act consistently with basic physical laws, since we have no freedom of choice in this area. Obligation and moral law concern only free actions. In the second case (2), natural law merely describes “the good” or what is good for us, and, as we noted above, the concept of the good does not include the concept of the right.

Natural law can have the force of moral law only if the order of nature reflects the will of a moral authority above nature. If there were no God or anything like God, the order of nature would be a brute fact with no moral authority. Our actions would be limited only by nature’s physical laws. There would be no class of actions that ought to be done or that ought not to be done. The idea of an unjust or wrong human law would make no sense.


However, for Christian theology the order within nature reflects the will of the Creator. The world is the creation of an infinitely good, just and wise God. Hence the true order of nature, including those actions that enable human beings to flourish and achieve their natural ends, possesses moral authority.

Hence we are obligated to seek to know and follow the law of nature, that is, those conditions and actions that enable human beings to function properly, flourish and achieve their end. In this way, what is good for human beings (“the good”) and our obligation to obey the moral law (“the right’) converge in the will of God. Or to say it another way: if we consistently do the good, we will also be acting rightly. And if we consistently do the right, we will also be achieving the good.

Where Are We?

Where are we in the series? We’ve arrived at a way to conceive of the union of the good and the right: the will of God is reflected in the created order. So far, so good! But there is much more ground to cover. Do human beings have ends beyond nature? Is there a divine law not given in nature? How do we learn what is good and right? If good and right ultimately coincide why do we need both concepts, and which is primary?

To be continued…


Says Who? Faith and the Contemporary Moral Crisis (#3)

Last week (#2) we concluded that we call a thing “good” when we want to express the relation of being “good for” between it and something else. To say a particular hammer is good is to say that it is good for doing what hammers are meant to do. In analogy, to say a particular human being is “good” is to say that this human being is capable of doing and actually does what human beings are meant to do. In the same way, a particular human action is good if it does for human beings what human actions are meant to do for human beings.

Notice that hammers, human beings and human acts can be called “good” only if we know what they are meant to be and do. And the idea that human beings are meant to be and do certain things and not others implies that they possess natures and ends. Put as simply as I can, a nature (or essence) is the design plan or structure of a thing that makes it the kind of thing it is. Inherent in the idea of a design plan of a thing is its proper function and purpose. Just as a hammer’s design plan suits it for driving nails but not for threading needles, human nature directs human beings to certain ends and not others. And certain acts enable human nature to function properly to achieve its intended end and others do not.

The idea of the good is relevant to moral issues only if human beings possess natures that determine the conditions under which they can function properly to achieve the end at which their nature aims. Without the idea of human nature and its end, the “good” will always be reduced to the “pleasant”. And the pleasant is not a moral category. Whether you find a certain activity pleasant or not cannot by itself demonstrate whether or not it is good for you. As we will see in the course of this series, at the center of our contemporary moral crisis is the loss of faith or even the explicit rejection of the idea that human beings possess natures and ends. Human nature and its ends have been replaced by the arbitrary human will. (See the series on the God and the Modern Self for more on this shift.)

Philosophers from Aristotle onward attempted to describe the perennial and essential features of human nature and the ends toward which it is naturally directed. Aristotle’s work on this subject in Nicomachean Ethics exercised profound influence on western ethical thought, and it still commands respect today. Although I value such naturalistic ethics and I am happy that many thinkers engage in it, as a Christian theologian I cannot limit myself to examining human nature apart from my faith in God as the Creator of human nature, Jesus Christ as the perfect example of a good human being and union with God as the end of human nature.

For Christian moral thought, the idea that human beings possess natures and an ends is securely grounded in the confession of God as the maker of heaven and earth. God created human beings “in his image and likeness” (Genesis 1:26). Throughout the Bible God deals with human beings as if they were designed to function properly by doing certain things and not others. Certain individuals are set forth as examples of “good” human beings. Jesus Christ serves as the supreme example of a perfect human life. Certain commands direct us to engage in activities that show us the best of which human beings are capable, chiefly the commands to love God above all else and our neighbors as ourselves. The resurrection of Jesus Christ and our union with him in faith and baptism ground our hope of eternal life and union with God in the general resurrection.

In sum, the Christian understanding of the good is determined by the following convictions: (1) the most important characteristic of human nature is that it is the image and likeness of God, (2) human nature’s proper function is to image the perfect character of God in the world as informed by the example of Jesus Christ, and (3) human nature is directed by its Creator toward the end of eternal life and union with God. Nothing can be considered good or good for human beings that contradicts or inhibits these three principles.

These three foundational principles provide us with the lenses with which to read the Bible along with the church to fill out in greater detail the character of a good human being, that is, a picture of what the Creator intended human beings to do and become.

To be continued…

Words and Weapons: Faith and the Contemporary Moral Crisis (#2)

“Discussion of theology is not for everyone,” warned Gregory of Nazianzus in the heat of the late 4th century controversy over the Trinity. It is for serious minded and thoughtful people. It’s “not just another subject like any other for entertaining small-talk, after the races, the theater, songs, food, and sex: for there are those who count chatter on theology and clever deployment of arguments as one of their amusements” (Oration 27, Chapter 3).

Basil the Great describes the controversy of his day (late 4th century) as like a great naval battle:

“Imagine, if you will, the ships driven into confusion by the raging tempest, while thick darkness falls from the clouds and blackens the entire scene, so that signals cannot be recognized, and one can no longer distinguish friend from foe…Think of the cries of the warriors as they give vent to their passions with every kind of noise, so that not a single word from the admiral or pilot can be heard…they will not cease their efforts to defeat one another even as their ships sink into the abyss” (On the Holy Spirit, Chapter 30).

In a very different setting, Matthew Arnold spoke of his age as dwelling on “a darkling plain, Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, Where ignorant armies clash by night” (Dover Beach, 1867).

As I look out on the moral crisis that has engulfed our culture, I see the trivialization of the serious of which Gregory complained, the explosion of violent passion Basil describes and the ignorant, nocturnal clash that so troubled Matthew Arnold. My first inclination is to stay out of it and let the enemies vent their passions on each other. Recoiling from the combatant’s sword and the referee’s flag, I prefer to carry the medic’s bag. And yet, perhaps, there is something I can do even during the heat of the battle. For not everyone is enraged all the time. Some have not yet joined the fray, others are resting on the sidelines, and still others wish to stay neutral. And some, only a few perhaps, long to understand what is happening and why and what to do in response.

In riots participants use sticks, broken bottles and bricks as weapons. In moral controversy combatants use words. Words can convey information or express feelings. They can illuminate the mind or evoke emotion. And the emotions they instill can be positive or negative. Many—too many—contemporary discussions of moral issues consist primarily in expressions of emotion, approval or disapproval, in the absence of conceptual clarity and precision.

The Good

In this series I want to address this lack of conceptual clarity. I’d like to begin by reflecting on the concepts of the good and the right, two of the most basic categories necessary for conducting reasonable discussions of moral questions.

I find it interesting that even though the word “good” is very general and bland, it is indispensable for discussions of morality. The meaning of the word can range from weak expressions of esthetic pleasure to assertions of superlative excellence. It can be used to express personal preference or pronounce moral judgment. It can be (mis)used as synonym for the “right” or it can mean the “pleasant”. Given the wide range of meanings for the word good, it would seem important to be clear and specific in one’s use of the term in serious moral discussions.

Examination of all the ways the word good is used shows that in every case, except in reference to God or its misuse to mean the right, it is used in a relative sense; that is to say, something is declared to be “good for” something else. Apart from God, who is absolutely good, any finite good can be “good for” one thing but bad for something else: Salt is good for preserving meat but bad for snails.

A thing can be “good for” someone in two senses: it can give pleasure or promote well-being. Likewise it can be bad for someone in two senses: it can cause unpleasant feelings or reduce well-being. To say that something is good in the first sense is to express the connection between it and a feeling of pleasure. Examples are abundant: that was a good meal, a good show, a good experience.

But an experience can give momentary pleasure and not be “good for” one in the sense of promoting one’s well-being: “Overeating is not good for you.” And an experience can be “good for” your well-being but not be especially pleasant. We can readily offer examples: “Eat your vegetables because they are “good for” you,” “Moderate exercise is “good for” you,” and “Honesty is the best policy.” These assertions declare that possessing these goods, regardless of whether or not they give immediate pleasure, advances your well-being. We can distinguish these two meanings of the word good by naming one “the pleasant” and the other “the productive”.

Let’s draw a preliminary conclusion. To engage in fruitful moral discussions it is important not to confuse the two meanings of “good”, the pleasant and the productive. If one party uses the word good to mean the immediately pleasant and the other party uses it to mean that which is productive of long-term or ultimate well-being, the discussion will be futile.

We can hardly dispute a claim that someone finds something pleasant or unpleasant. The claim is the proof! Hence this type of assertion about goodness is not subject to rational debate—although feelings of pleasure or displeasure can still be expressed in reaction to such claims. (Example, “I find disgusting what you find pleasant.)  But a claim that something is productive of long-term or ultimate well-being is subject to discussion and dispute.

What is the difference? The difference is this: the assertion that X is productive of long-term or ultimate well-being is a claim about what our physical, psychological, moral or spiritual natures require for proper and optimum functioning. This can be true only if within these dimensions of human existence there are objective structures and inherent ends, subject to rational analysis; additionally, these structures and ends must remain constant regardless of our subjective feelings.

Analysis of the concept of the good has led us to the concept of human nature, its proper functioning and its ultimate end. Is there such a thing as human nature, and, if so, how can we discover what is “good for” it? Do human beings have a natural (and perhaps a supernatural) end, and do we know what it is? These questions lead us to our most basic beliefs about God and creation.

To be continued…

Forget Truth!…Is Christianity Even Good? Faith and the Contemporary Moral Crisis (#1)

Christianity has its critics and always has. From the beginning it faced opposition from religious and political authorities, from cultural arbiters and from grassroots society. Paul noted that many of his fellow Jews considered the message of the cross unworthy of God and the Greeks dismissed it as foolish (1 Cor 1:18-25). The Romans disparaged Christians as “atheists” and “enemies of the human race.” And the cultured elite of the Empire considered it superstitious. Depending on the spirit of the times, the Christian faith has been attacked as rationally incoherent, historically false, politically subversive and morally bankrupt.

Christians have been characterized as backward, snobbish, clannish, cultish and self-righteous. If I may be allowed a broad judgment, it seems to me that in the first three centuries of the church the major criticisms of Christianity were moral in nature. Christianity was attacked as a corrupting influence on society that produced political subversion, social conflict and moral decline. And many of the early Christian apologists dealt with these charges in their writings.

At least since the Enlightenment, the dominant challenges to Christianity have been intellectual. Philosophers challenged the possibility and need for revealed religion. They focused their critique on the biblical miracles, dismissing them as myths, legends or lies. And historians challenged the authenticity and historical accuracy of the New Testament writings. After Darwin, many critics challenged the truth of divine creation and even denied the existence of God, urging that the theory of evolution removes the need for a supernatural explanation for life. Understandably most modern defenders of Christianity dealt primarily with these intellectual challenges. Answering the question “Is Christianity true?” has been the dominant concern of modern Christian apologetics.

But it seems to me that since the middle of the 20th century the apologetic situation of Christianity in the western world and particularly in the United States has changed dramatically. The most urgent question has shifted from “Is Christianity true” to “Is Christianity good?” Could we be returning to the situation that characterized the first three centuries of the church in which Christianity’s opponents ignored the question of truth and challenged Christianity’s goodness? Even in the modern era there has been an undercurrent of moral criticism of Christianity. Deism denied the need for a divinely revealed morality, and the Romantic Movement developed an individualistic and subjective definition of the good that justified transgressing moral conventions.

Karl Marx argued that Christianity justified suffering and oppression and robbed the majority of humanity of well-being in this life by promising rewards in the next life. Friedrich Nietzsche blasphemed Christianity as a slave religion, contending that its teaching about sin, compassion, humility and the need for forgiveness kept people from achieving their natural excellence. And Freud explained moral rules as rationalizations of irrational impulses buried deep in the human psyche.

The so-called “sexual revolution” of the 1960s brought to the surface the undercurrent of Romanticism that has always been just under the surface in American culture. It rebelled against the conventional moralism of respectable society, adopting the Romantic definition of the good as individualistic and subjective. It manifested itself most visibly in the youth culture of drugs, free love and rock ‘n’ roll. And the postmodernism of the 1980s borrowed from Marx, Nietzsche and Freud—the so-called “masters of suspicion”—to ground the instinctive moral rebellion manifested in the sexual revolution in a theory of deconstruction and suspicion. This theory interprets all truth claims, social structures, moral rules, esthetic norms, religious beliefs—that is, any objective construct whereby one person or group sets the rules for other persons or groups—as manifestations of the hidden desire for domination.

This is the situation in which Christians must proclaim, explain and defend the Christian vision of life today. You may think I am too pessimistic, that there are many people in the United States, perhaps the majority, who have not adopted moral nihilism as a philosophy of life. You are probably correct about the number of thoroughly consistent nihilists: there are relatively few. But the metric by which I am measuring the moral situation is different. I am gauging the situation by two symptoms that I think indicate an underlying crisis:

(1) How many people do you know who can give a coherent moral explanation for rightness or wrongness, goodness or badness of a particular moral belief they hold? Don’t most people, Christians as well as non Christians, simply appeal to their feelings and choices to justify their moral beliefs? But such justifications merely imitate the nihilistic culture; for that is how it justifies its rebellion against moral rules it doesn’t like!

(2) Imagine yourself standing before a group of your contemporaries, whether the group is chosen at random from society or is comprised of people from your church. Now what reaction would you expect to receive if you argued from a natural or revealed moral law that a certain behavior—especially if it is connected to the sexual revolution in any way—is immoral, that measured by an objective moral standard the behavior is wrong and bad? I think you know the answer to these questions. Modern people, including church-goers, have lost confidence that there is a moral order, that there is a way we are supposed to live our lives.

And, if Christians nevertheless assert such a moral order we will likely face something like what our brothers and sisters faced in the first three centuries. Are we ready?

Next week we begin to explore the vocabulary in which moral discussions are conducted: good, bad, right, wrong, justice, and more.