The State We’re In: is God the problem or the answer?

This is the text of a lecture I gave at St Brides Liverpool on 23rd March 2015.

The issues

My answer will be that bad accounts of God make things worse, but better accounts of God are better than no god at all.

By ‘The state we’re in’ I am referring to the growing indications that modern western society is becoming more anxious, more cynical, more dissatisfied. Gone is that confident sense of progress that characterised the 1960s and 1970s. Instead we are ill at ease, thrashing about looking for scapegoats to blame – immigrants, scroungers, the European Union. The opinion polls indicate that whoever wins the General Election will be unpopular.

worldburnFor example: we are destroying the environment we all depend on. Climate change, extinctions of species, soil erosion, pollution. We’ve known about these for 40 years, we’ve agonised about them, and we’re still making them worse. What is it about us that makes us destroy our future?

The polarisation of wealth. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. This also has been happening consistently for 40 years, though recently it has been speeding up. Most of us don’t like it, but it carries on. Why?

The growing fear of terrorism and, with it, militarisation. Gone is the earlier sense of international cooperation to produce a more peaceful world. Now we are more fearful, more inclined to bomb others to make sure they don’t bomb us.

This evening I am not going to produce all the answers. Instead I dig deeper to ask: why have we given up expecting answers? What would persuade us that there are answers and they would be worth finding? The focus will therefore be on moral philosophy, and in particular God as moral authority.

Introductory history

To set the scene, a short history of the main approaches. Anthropologists have found that all over the world archaic societies developed explanations of how the world works: their equivalent of science. Because life is not only complex but also full of meaning and value, they thought the forces of nature expressed minds with intentions and purposes. This means their understanding of how things work was integrated with their understanding of the meaning of life and what they ought to do. Science and theology in combination produced an integrated theory of reality, natural theology.

Traditions like this develop over time. Sometimes a tradition becomes reactionary, and forbids new ideas in the interests of sticking to what has already been received. In Christian history this happened in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries: if you want to know what you ought to do, look up God’s commands in the Bible – divine command morality.

The Enlightenment reacted against it; back to ethics being based on what people are like. However they had to contend against divine command morality. Keep God out of it; the big questions of state and society should be kept separate from religion. Secular modernism.

By separating off religion, secular modernism deprived morality of any grounding. Postmodernists and relativists point out that it offers no way of deciding what we ought to do.

Most of this talk will describe these four options, in reverse order: postmodern relativism, secular modernism, divine command and natural theology. All these terms mean a lot else as well. I shall not define them; I shall only use the elements relevant to the question about God.

Postmodern relativism

The logic behind value relativism is that if there is no god, only humans create values and only humans use reason. Our values differ. Since there is no moral authority above humans we can never stand above the disagreements and judge one right and another wrong. There is no way of measuring them against each other, so they are incommensurable. If you say something is wrong all you mean is that it is wrong relative to your values.

In any one society the values that dominate are the values of the most powerful, the ruling classes. The disadvantaged, the excluded and the oppressed usually have different values, not so well publicised but are just as valid as the values of the ruling classes. In the 1980s when the ruling classes in America were taking seriously the prospect of dropping hydrogen bombs over Russia, feminists replied: ‘Your account of reality, truth and goodness is just one of many: ours is just as valid as yours’.

Just as valid, because all value systems are relative. The trouble is, by playing the relativity card they cannot claim any more than equality: not having a nuclear war is just as valid as having one but having one is just as valid as not having one.

And so on. The people who live in rain forests want to keep them as they are. Developers want to cut them down. We think young girls should get a school education. Boko Haram think they shouldn’t. These are differences in values. The differences are incommensurable because there is no higher authority to judge one right and another wrong. There are no right answers.

It follows there is no universal progress. The idea of progress is an error inherited from Enlightenment modernism, which got it from Christianity. We are what we are because we have evolved this way, and all our modern science and technology doesn’t change human nature. We will always have conflicting values so we will always fight over resources, we will always kill each other. Conflict is inevitable. Justice, the way things ought to be, is simply a concept representing the interests of the most powerful classes.

If this is right the outlook is pretty gloomy. However most of us do not accept it entirely. Let me try this on you. IS captures Christians, gets the cameras out, beheads them and broadcasts the event for all to see. They think they are doing the right thing. In their society, it is the right thing to do. Just as our society creates our values, their society creates their values and there is no moral authority competent to judge between them. Does that sound okay to you? When you watch the news about the beheadings, do you tell yourself that they are not wrong, they are just different? Or do you feel like shouting at the television that these people are evil?

If you ever feel like that, about anything, you will be presupposing that some societies have higher moral standards than others. This only makes sense if there is another moral standard, above societies, with authority to judge them: some kind of transcendent truth about the way things should be.

Secular modernism

Now we are retreating from postmodernism to modernism. There are transcendent truths about right and wrong. If we find out what they are and apply them, we can solve our problems and the world can make progress.

The way to do this without reviving God is to say that some values foster the happiest societies with the most fulfilled people. We work out what works and we deduce from it what we ought to do.

The most influential 20th century proponent is John Rawls’ Theory of Justice. Rawls invited us all to imagine putting on a veil of ignorance. While wearing this veil none of us knows which character we are going to play in real life. We discuss what the principles of justice ought to be. Since none of us would know which character we were going to play, the safest bet would be to opt for an equal society. Rawls’ point is that imagining what we would vote for behind this veil of ignorance tells us what a good system of justice would be like in real life. It would be designed for equality.

In effect what Rawls has given us is a God’s-eye-view: a transcendent mind, equally concerned for all the individuals, able to foresee the results of possible actions. Centuries earlier, when early modern thinkers began to detach their theories of morality from God, they could no longer appeal to a transcendent mind who knows everything, sees what we are all doing and judges it from a perspective that cares for all of us.

If they had taken that away without providing any substitute, Europe would have jumped straight from the religious wars to the postmodern relativism where there are no right answers at all. Instead they replaced the all-knowing and all-caring judgement of God with an enlightened elite. We, the educated classes, are between us finding out about everything, and improving the conditions of human life. We know what is good for people. Social engineering.

This tradition has a great many positive achievements to its credit, most obviously science and technology. However it is also responsible for imperialism, racism, communism and capitalism, all in the name of progress. Hitler, Stalin and Mao had their personal ambitions but they also thought they were improving the state of the world.

When the knowledge and benevolence once attributed to God got transferred to the educated classes, and from there to governments, it unleashed unprecedented activism achieving both good and harm.

Strip them of their divine attributes, and what is left? Being humans they cannot assess everything. Being a small proportion of humanity they have vested interests. The postmodern relativist critique is valid after all. Secular modernists are just expressing one way of looking at the world, one set of values. Even if they knew exactly how to make us all live longer with less illness, the facts are one thing but the values are another. In the Islamic world there is rising hostility to western values, offering alternative values. If the superiority of western values is only based on western judgements, if there is no higher authority competent to judge between our values and theirs, we are back to postmodern relativism.

Where does this leave secular modernism? The good news is, it should be possible to establish universal agreements about how to resolve our problems. If everybody abides by these agreements we can make progress.

The bad news is that these agreements will be human constructs. They will only be authoritative for those who choose to accept their authority. Whereas postmodern relativism denies that there can be a transcendent morality, secular modernism tries to find one but fails.

God

To recap so far. As long as we disagree about values there will be conflicting perspectives. Conflict leads to power struggles. Power struggles usually lead to victory by the most powerful. They then impose their values on everybody else.

To resolve conflicts in a more constructive way we need solutions that transcend self-interest. Conflicting parties need to agree on some kind of moral authority that takes priority over self-interest. What kind of moral authority might that be, and why should anyone believe in it?

In fact we do it all the time. Normally we don’t treat our moral values as subjective, like our tastes in music. Every time we think that the things we disapprove of really are wrong, we are implying that there is some kind of higher moral authority to which we can appeal.

Usually we don’t speculate any further about what this moral authority is. When we insist that something is wrong we appeal to a wrongness but we don’t think through what wrongness is like. What is this authority that transcends individual preferences?

In secular ethics moral authority always was a moving target. At first, rights and duties were ways of describing God’s laws. By the end of the eighteenth century, the revolutionaries in both America and France could speak of self-evident and inalienable rights as though they were quite independent of God but demanded obedience. The trouble is, once they have been detached from God, to become free-floating moral imperatives wandering about in moral cyberspace shooting commands at us, why should anyone obey them? As long as they were God’s laws, it was possible to draw on other theories about God to provide an account of why we should obey them.

Many ethicists therefore argue that in order to make sense of our moral beliefs we need to believe in some kind of transcendent moral authority which knows our circumstances, knows where our true interests lie, cares for the well-being of everybody, and therefore knows what we ought to do. It sounds like God so I shall call it God.

Divine command

Among moral philosophers the belief that morality needs some kind of authority like God is usually described as ‘divine command morality’.

This is most unfortunate. The term ‘Divine command’ suggests that God has laid down commands and all we have to do is obey. This was a common view in the Reformation debates, and has been revived recently. So Calvin:

The Lord, in delivering a perfect rule of righteousness, has reduced it in all its parts to his mere will, and in this way has shown that there is nothing more acceptable to Him than obedience.[1]

Where do we find God’s commands? For Protestants, the Bible. For Roman Catholics the Magisterium has authority to interpret the Bible. For Muslims, the Qur’an and Sharia law.

This belief has had disastrous effects. If you know what God’s commands are, and they are written in a divinely given text, then it follows logically that those words transcend any interpretations or modifications any mere humans propose. You convince yourself that you are not interpreting them at all. You accept them as certainties. Anyone who does not accept them as you accept them is just plain wrong.

You don’t need me to tell you the results. People put to death for their religious beliefs. Crusades. Jihad. Suicide bombers. Here in the UK, all those campaigns against one thing or another because of a favourite biblical text forbidding gay sex or female headship. Religious rhetoric is full of excessive certainty. Meanwhile anti-religious rhetoric is full of claims that religion causes wars.

According to divine command theory, believers and unbelievers mean completely different things by right and wrong. Unbelievers disapprove of murder because it kills people, believers disapprove because God forbids it. And so on for every divine command: the Christian reason is the biblical reason. Some Christians believe that there is no point discussing moral issues with non-Christians; first you convert them to Christianity and only then do you have a shared basis for working out what the Bible teaches on any issue.

If unbelief leaves us without an authority on right and wrong, divine command leaves us with too many authorities, all offering certainty but commanding different things. Far from resolving our disagreements, it inflames them.

Natural theology

The position I prefer is to retain God as the ultimate moral authority but to discover what God wants us to do by using the methods that are typical of public debate, among unbelievers as well as believers. This is usually referred to as ‘natural law’, an aspect of natural theology.

The general point of natural law ethics is that we derive our moral norms from observing the way things are in nature. However the best known Christian tradition of natural law ethics is Roman Catholic casuistry, which interprets nature in very specific ways which I don’t share, so I won’t be focusing on that.

My sympathies are with those who believe right and wrong are more variable than sets of words can express. God gives us reason and conscience, to judge some things right and others wrong. Unbelievers as well as believers have reason and conscience, so unbelievers and believers can respond to the same events with the same concerns, the same emotions and the same arguments. Most of the time this is what happens in practice.

But is it Christian? And where does it leave the Bible?

Actually it characterises the overwhelming majority of Christian history. There was a debate about it in the second century when some Gnostics treated human reason as too misleading, but the more positive Catholic view of reason prevailed from then till soon before the Reformation.

With the nineteenth century split between religion and secular society, churches once again reaffirmed divine command morality. The churches today have inherited it, and it lies behind recent debate within the churches. If you have been following Linda Woodhead’s research for the Westminster Faith Debates, you will be aware that very few Protestants and even fewer Catholics actually believe the official teachings of their church leaders. Despite official church statements, divine command morality is no longer popular. Most believers think for themselves.

The Bible and divine command

What about the Bible? Isn’t the Bible full of commands by God?

In the middle of the 20th century there was a group of scholars called the Biblical Theology Movement, who said God lays down commands without giving reasons for them. Our job is to obey, without asking questions.

Today most scholars think that although some texts read like this, the Bible as a whole varies. Many commands come with reasons or appeal to natural law. A classic example is in Genesis. The city of Sodom is so immoral that God decides to destroy it. Abraham argues against God:

Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?[2]

God assents; but then Abraham proceeds to bargain with God until the criterion is reduced from fifty righteous Sodomites to ten. Abraham rubs God’s nose in the fact that divine command doesn’t make it right.

For Christians the best exemplar of natural law ethics is Jesus. According to the gospels Jesus taught mainly through parables. The parables make their points by appealing to well-known features of society and the environment; a father trying to persuade his sons to do their share of the work, a woman hunting for a lost coin, weeds growing on the farm. His opponents quote Scripture: he appeals to reasons which his hearers can recognize from ordinary life. This is natural law ethics.

Natural theology & secular modernism

I have now finished summarising my four positions. Postmodern relativism seems to me to be the root cause of our present inability to solve our problems, with its constant refrain that there are no right answers. Divine command morality institutionalises conflict. I now compare the two remaining options, natural theology and secular modernism.

They are similar in many ways. Both think there are right answers. Both think universally: the world can become a better place or a worse place, depending on what people do. Both think that in order to find the right answers we learn about the world and about the similarities and differences between different societies. Both use their emotions and empathise with other people.

The difference is that some believe in God and others do not. Does it matter? If believers and unbelievers care about the same things for the same reasons, does it matter whether they believe in God?

I think it does make a difference. When we judge that something is right or wrong, we presuppose that our moral judgements are meaningful. When I hear on the news that somebody has been guilty of sexual abuse, I think it was wrong. I don’t spend time deducing my moral judgement from my moral principles step by step in a logical sequence. Most of the time when we make judgements, we don’t think them through logically. Nevertheless there has to be some logic behind them.

This is how natural theology adds what secular modernism lacks. Both want to make the world a better place. Both look at the statistics for greenhouse gases, food banks and refugees and say we must find ways to improve things.

Differences

However, believers can resist the challenge of relativists. Relativists argue that there is no right answer: some people really don’t care whether we destroy the planet, and their values are just as valid as anyone else’s.

Natural theologians reply that there is a right answer, and it is the right answer of an authority wiser and better than the human mind. Logically, this puts believers and relativists on a par. There is a God, there are right answers; there is no God, there are no right answers. One or the other.

Secular modernists fall into the gap between them. They want right answers without God. It turns out that their right answers are only relative, nothing but the answers of secular modernism. The relativists win their argument against secular modernists but draw against natural theologians.

Practical implications

How much does it matter in practice? How can believing in God help? Four points.

First, relationship. Believers have a range of spiritual practices that can help us relate to transcendent moral authority, and spend time reflecting on what it would want them to do. Typically, we can pray. Unbelievers do not have equivalent resources.

Secondly, strength of commitment. People who understand what they believe, why they believe it and how it fits coherently with their other beliefs, are more likely to express it in practical action.

Thirdly, unconscious values. We all live our lives on the basis of some values. We inherit values from our families, our neighbours, personal experience and the media, mostly unconsciously. Most of us do not think through the logic of our values, but we are influenced by those who do. Values which are strongly held for defensible reasons are likely to survive longer and be more influential.

Finally, every society has a range of acceptable values and plausible beliefs. In most of Britain today, if you say Boko Haram are right to abduct schoolgirls, you will be jumped on. It is outside most people’s plausibility structure. At any one time society offers its members a range of plausible values and beliefs. As long as it seems plausible that there are no true values and we all create our own, it is easier for people to accept whatever values suit their self-interest. Where there is a strong belief in some kind of true moral authority, it becomes more plausible to think in terms of right answers, universal progress and the common good.

For example, nearly all food banks are run by churches. One reason is that a moral duty to feed the hungry is deeply embedded in Christian teaching. Some of the volunteers know this. Others don’t know much about Christianity but are influenced by its values.

In Britain as a whole feeding the hungry is a plausible value, but there are competing plausible values: scroungers come to food banks because the food banks are there, or the starvation of a few is a price worth paying in times of austerity. In Britain today it is socially acceptable to hold any of these values. The competition between them is a major influence on how the poor get treated.

Summary

Our society faces a number of major issues. We are failing to respond constructively. One reason is that we have no agreed method for judging between conflicting preferences.

It is a question of moral philosophy. I have classified the many different positions into four types. Divine command morality, instead of resolving the conflicts, inflames them. Secular modernism saws off the branch it is sitting on. This leaves two options that remain defensible.

One is that there are no right answers. We humans have evolved with instincts. We do what we feel like doing, just like cats chasing mice. We also invent ideas of right and wrong, but these are merely fictions of the human mind, and they contradict each other.

The other option is that there are right answers. We humans have not just instinct but reason and conscience. We are able to judge that some states of affairs are better than others. To say that a judgement is correct is to say it agrees with a higher moral standard, a higher truth, an authority that transcends human judgements.

Yesterday in our prayers here at St Brides we used these words:

Imagine knowing that
despite our doubts, weaknesses and mistakes
and with our suffering
we are held in God’s relentless love.
Imagine a world of people
knowing their oneness with creation.

We can imagine that, or we can choose not to. I hope to have shown how much is at stake.

Notes

1. Calvin’s Institutes. Idziak, Janine Marie, Ed, , Divine Commands and Morality: Historical and Contemporary Readings, New York: Edwin Mellen, 1979, p. 98.

2. Genesis 18:23-25.

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