Posts Tagged ‘morality’

Relativism: A “flawed philosophy”

October 28, 2009

Just spotted this from Friday’s Times. Antonia Senior writes:

It’s impossible to be a cultural relativist when faced with daily examples of other cultures getting it wrong. There is no validity in any view of right or wrong expressed by the Taleban. There is no truth in any cultural creed that treats women as inferior, let alone those that mutilate them. There is no cultural excuse for child abuse disguised as exorcism.

Relativism is in retreat, but there is no coherent moral framework taking its place. It helped us move from the certainties of the imperial age into a more tolerant era, but it’s almost impossible to work out what comes next.

I’m in complete agreement that moral relativism is both a) flawed and b) responsible for stifling public debate over moral questions by privatising them. Relativism is, if not ubiquitous, still extremely common as a position among university students and the middle class. But what do we put in place of it? Ms Senior suggests that on (her) atheist presuppositions it’s actually quite hard to test moral propositions and decide what’s right and wrong. She’s on to something here – moral and ethical debate is completely shaped by our wider philosophical and theological presuppositions. Relativism perhaps represents the best of the failed attempts to get around this fact and allow holders of incompatible theologies to share a morality. The fact is that moral truth-claims really hang upon theological truth-claims and any attempt to discuss morality needs to recognise this. Does this mean that morality is even more radically privatised? Not necessarily – rather it means that we must allow the theological dimension to moral discussion to be mentioned (and examined) in public moral debate, and not written off from the start as irrelevant.

Barth on Christian Ethics: “You have been told, O man, what is good”

August 24, 2009

“I admire the ethics of Christianity, and try to live by the moral teaching of Jesus, but I don’t believe he was the Son of God.” A common enough position, perhaps even still the default one for the English middle classes, but according to Swiss-German theologian Karl Barth, such a position doesn’t even make sense. Christian ethics are not detachable from the gospel, and from the history of God’s relation to humanity in Jesus Christ.

Perhaps the most concise statement of Barth’s position on Christian ethics (from a theologian not known for his brevity!) is his 1946 essay Christliche Ethik, republished and translated in God Here and Now (Abingdon, Oxon / New York: Routledge, 2003). First of all, Barth says that Christian ethics derive from God, not a human philosophy or world-view:

Christian ethics is the attempt to repeat what has been said to man, to repeat in human words and with human concepts the divine commandment. Christian ethics rests upon the attentiveness and openness of man for God’s commandment, for God’s own answer to the question about the good… Christian ethics begins, therefore, not with what might be called reflection. It begins with hearing.”

Such a position, Barth admits, does make Christian ethics confusing to non-Christians,

“It must always be the case, therefore, that Christian ethics takes its point of departure from what must be a puzzle to him who is not yet or perhaps no longer prepared to listen to God. Such a one must always be baffled by the question of whence Christian ethics derives its concepts, how it uses them, and how the same concepts have such a different meaning and effect here from their meaning and effect elsewhere.”

but Christians should not try and “evade” grounding their ethics in the gospel, and in God’s revelation. In seeking to evade this, they make their ethics sub-Christian, and they themselves become no longer willing to listen to God. If this is true, then the final grounding for Christian ethics will not be accepted by non-Christians. The answer to the question about if and why divorce is wrong must ultimately be “God forbids it” (c.f. Matthew 5:31-32) and not that it damages families and societal fabric. But is this all that can be said on Christian ethics? Has Barth set up a position vulnerable to that A-Level philosophy standby, the Euthyphro dilemma? Although Barth doesn’t explicitly interact with this objection, I think he circumvents it by his situating of Christian ethics with reference to God’s action in history – i.e., the gospel:

“Christian ethics is connected with a history between God and man which has taken place, still takes place, and will take place in the future… To say it with the simplest words possible: God became, was, and is a man. And it happened that God as this man was not a success, but had to suffer and died as a condemned criminal on the gallows [i.e. the cross]. And it happened, further, that this man who was God was raised from the dead. But thereby it happened that every man in him and all men by Him were exalted to the glory of God. I anticipate. The conclusion of this history consists in this: that it will happen, it will be revealed for all and to all [i.e. finally and publicly], that our guilt and need is taken away by the person of this man, and that we are called in the person of this man to the glory of God.”

I can’t agree with the “all men by him” in a salvific sense, but, that aside, this is the history to which Christian ethics must relate. Ethics is, as Barth says, “the fruit that grows upon this tree” and cannot be understood if this history is omitted or mis-interpreted. It is from this vantage point that we can begin to define what “good” and “evil” are – and we find that they are not at all abstract, free-standing notions as Plato (and indeed, the Enlightenment!) thought they were.

“Good, in the Christian sense, is that conduct and action of man’s which corresponds to the conduct and action of God in this history. That human work is good, therefore, in which man accepts- and not only accepts but affirms- that God humbled Himself for him in order that man might live and rejoice. That activity of man is good, in the Christian sense, in which man acknowledges that he stands in need of this divine mercy; yet that he is not only in need of it, but also shares in it … That human conduct and act of man’s is good, therefore, which corresponds to the grace of God.
What then is evil, in the Christian sense of the word? Evil is that conduct and act of man’s in which he contradicts the content and the action of God’s history, in which he hurries or sneaks past the suffering and the joy of Jesus Christ. That deed of man’s is evil in which man, openly or in secret, because of anxiety or pride, is unthankful.”

It seems odd to define good and evil in Christian ethics without reference to love, but that is not really the case here. Ultimately defining the good as doing what is “loving” is unclear – what or who are we to love? All sorts of evil acts can be presented as loving by shifting the goalposts of who they are loving towards. The Scriptures specify the “what” and the “who” of love. We are to love God and our neighbour, according to the Bible; but… we know this by grace and are able to do it only by grace. Finally, thankfulness for grace produces love – knowing the gospel of salvation by grace leads us to perform the good. It is, incidentally, exactly the logic of Titus 1:2-4:

 Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ to further the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness— in the hope of eternal life, which God, who does not lie, promised before the beginning of time, and which now at his appointed season he has brought to light through the preaching entrusted to me by the command of God our Saviour…

The gospel is the truth that leads to godliness. Paul, too, relates this to the “greatest drama ever played” of God’s plans for the world – giving good biblical warrant for Barth to proceed as he does.

Barth’s way of setting up Christian ethics seems to have a number of attractions. It seems to be biblical; it avoids the vagueness of unqualified reference to “love” and at the same time does not make God vulnerable to a caricature of an arbitrary dictator – God’s character revealed in the gospel, his plans for his creation revealed in the gospel, and his grace to us revealed in the gospel all underpin the idea of listening to, repeating, and obeying God’s commandment. The Bible is not a law-book, but rather tells us the gospel which produces the fruit of Christian ethics in the lives it transforms.

What, then, of the fact that Barth makes Christian ethics unintelligible to those outside the Church? How now will the Church persuade those outside to behave morally? The answer is – she can’t; at least, not so far as those outside remain outside. If the gospel is the tree on which Christian ethics grows as fruit, we cannot expect to find it growing on different trees. Instead of urging non-Christians to behave as if they were Christians, perhaps it would be better to urge them to become Christians – for only then, if Barth is correct here, can they understand, affirm and practise Christian ethics.