Tag Archives: divine law

Adding Insult to Injury: Faith and the Contemporary Moral Crisis (#6)

In the previous installment of this series (#5) we learned that human beings discover what is good for them through experience. Each new generation must be taught the knowledge of the good acquired and tested by billions of individuals over thousands of years. The knowledge of what is good for us is communal and traditional. It should be obvious to any thoughtful person that no individual can acquire this knowledge from private experience alone.

Allow me to anticipate my final diagnosis of the contemporary moral crisis: the crisis was precipitated when modern culture abandoned the notion that human beings acquire experiential knowledge of the good as a community and transmit it through tradition. Simultaneously, modern culture adopted a romantic notion of the good as a feeling of well-being and an individualist view of how we come to know the good. Only by gross inconsistency, sheer arbitrariness and threats of coercion can modern culture assert a moral order that limits the behavior of individuals.

Not surprisingly, when Christian moralists appeal to the Bible to determine what is good and right they are met with incredulity and hostility from the dominant culture. Appealing to the Bible strikes modern people as strange for two reasons. First, the Bible preserves a view of the good learned by a community over many thousands of years and passed on in a tradition. Since our contemporaries don’t understand that communal experience and tradition are the only ways human beings can learn about the good, they reject our appeals to the Bible for this reason alone. They would reject the authority of any other community and tradition.

Second, Christian moralists don’t just appeal to the long-term experience of a community. They also equate the view of the good presented in the Bible with divinely revealed moral law. The rules and laws of the Bible present themselves not only as discoveries of what is good for human beings but also as divine commands. The consequence of not adhering to the good is experiencing something bad as a natural result. But the consequence of disobeying a divine command is divine wrath and punishment.

Perhaps this second aspect of the Christian moralist’s message is the primary reason for the hostility of the culture. It’s one thing to warn people of the natural negative consequences of their actions. It is another to invoke divine disapproval and threat of punishment in addition to the natural consequences of the bad act. The first may cause people to smile at our naiveté, but the second will be taken as an insult and will evoke anger. It adds insult to injury.

But it’s not just outsiders who experience difficulty reconciling the good with the right and comprehending the relationship between learning about the good in communal experience and learning about it from a divine command. Believers, too, are often disturbed by the thought of God punishing bad behavior with pain in addition the act’s natural consequences. Or, perhaps they are troubled even more by the thought that God might command something unrelated to any obvious good and punish transgressors even when natural negative consequences are wholly absent. The moral crisis touches the church more than we would like to admit.

I want to begin to address these difficulties by considering the issue of why a divinely commanded moral law may be needed above and beyond humanly discovered good. I am assuming for the moment that we at least understand the reasonableness of looking to the moral tradition contained in the Bible for instruction about the good. As I argued above, it is most wise for an individual to accept the moral authority of a long, continuous community and tradition above private feelings and experience or abstract theory. But why divine commands?

(1) In view of human wickedness and the human tendency to degenerate into sensuality and violence, we can see the value of divine guidance and inspirations to help lawgivers, prophets, religious and moral reformers formulate the truly good for the community. This is certainly how the Bible sees it. After the fall in Genesis, chapter 3, humanity keeps on its downward moral trajectory until there is only one good human being, Noah. From the biblical point of view the customs of the peoples surrounding Israel are evil and inhumane. The laws given by God through Moses, however, are good and wise (See Psalm 119!).

Even though most of the moral laws in the Bible could have been learned—and in some cases were learned—from communal experience, human beings are inclined to follow their immediate desires rather than reason. And this inclination can even poison the moral traditions of whole cultures, for example, Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18 and 19). Hence, from the biblical perspective, God’s decision to educate his people about the truly good by giving laws is a gracious and kind act.

Next week we will consider a second reason divine commands are necessary: God has good things in mind for human beings that extend beyond individual and even communal well being, and only God knows this good.

To be continued…

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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.

Creation

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…