“Theistic ethics” or Christian ethics?

I said in my previous post that some Christians might be worried by the fact that Ward’s Morality, Autonomy, and God doesn’t appeal to the Bible or specifically Christian revelation. Shouldn’t Christian ethics be informed by convictions specific to Christianity?

In his book Behaving in Public, Christian ethicist Nigel Biggar takes a position that is similar to Ward’s, but is in some ways more satisfactory (in my view) because he is more willing to draw on specific Christian doctrines. Like Ward, Biggar affirms a version of natural law:

To affirm natural law, then, should be to affirm the following: that there is a form of flourishing that is given in and with the nature of human being; that reflection on human nature can achieve an understanding of that flourishing and its component basic goods; that reflection on human experience can produce a grasp of kinds of disposition and action that respect and promote those goods; that all human beings are, despite their sinfulness, somewhat capable of an accurate grasp of basic goods and their practical requirements; and that, therefore, there are sometimes areas of ethical agreement between Christians and others.

However, Biggar also says that “revelation and faith” add both motivational and cognitive content to ethics:

None of this, however, makes the Christian theological salvation-narrative ethically irrelevant. It does not say that sinful humans have the motivation to do sufficiently what they know to be right, apart from the penitence, faith, gratitude, and hope that the story of God’s salvific initiative inspires. Nor does it say that they have the power, unaided by biblical tradition, to know completely what is good, what is virtuous, or what is right.

Like Ward, Biggar thinks that the hope for “postmortem fulfillment” can make moral aspirations more reasonable: “the presence or absence of theological faith and hope can determine what seems morally ‘reasonable.’” Yet, Biggar doesn’t appeal to a generic theism, but to specifically Christian revelation. An implication of this revelation is that there are certain goods beyond those identifiable by “natural” reason which are an intrinsic part of human fulfillment–goods like religious practices “designed to reverse our alienation from God.” In addition, God’s “revealed salvific ethic also involves a certain way of responding to injuries that other sinners cause: namely, through ‘forgiveness’ in the forms of forbearance and compassion and a will to reconciliation.” Although there can be agreement about temporal goods necessary to a relatively just society, the overlap between Christian ethics and other traditions within a pluralistic society will be “partial and provisional.”

I doubt Ward would disagree with much of that (he is, after all, a Christian); but an appeal to an unqualified or abstract “theism” obscures distinctive Christian doctrines and practices and elides the differences between Christianity and other theistic religions. For Biggar, the distinctive goods and  norms of action prescribed by Christianity derive their force from its specific salvation story. This isn’t an optional extra, but an integral part of what it means to do Christian ethics.

(How) does morality need God?

“Does ethics need God?” is an old question, and the answers we get are often simplistic. On the one hand, Christians (and other religious believers) sometimes identify ethics with “God’s will” conceived as a sheer command, and they imply (or sometimes outright assert) that only believers in God can be moral. On the other hand, secularists sometimes insist that belief in God is not only unnecessary to ethics but positively harmful, because it makes being moral a matter of cowering before an arbitrary deity who threatens us with eternal damnation if we slip up.

Keith Ward’s recent book Morality, Autonomy, and God offers a refreshing alternative to this rather stale stand-off. Ward (former Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Oxford) agrees that people don’t have to believe in God to be able to discern what is good and bad, but he goes on to argue that a theistic metaphysics can provide support for moral understanding and moral endeavor—support that may not be available to non-theistic views.

Ward argues that reason can identify certain goods that are conducive to the well-being of rational, autonomous agents. These include things like freedom, knowledge, creativity, and friendship. These goods are “worthwhile states” that are “reasonably choosable by an affective intelligent agent” (xii). Such states are states that “all rational agents have a good reason to want” (ibid.).

According to Ward, a naturalistic metaphysics (at least an “enriched,” non-reductive naturalism) can make room for such goods as part of the “fabric of reality.” In other words, ethics is about human flourishing—about realizing that goods that are worth choosing.

However, naturalism has some weaknesses that may undermine a more ambitious understanding of ethics. In particular, it’s unclear whether naturalism can account for the “categorical” nature and universal scope of moral obligation. That is to say, are we obliged to pursue worthwhile states, or is this just a matter of the desires we happen to have? Moreover, is ethics just a matter of establishing rules to facilitate each person’s pursuit of their own well-being, or is there a stronger obligation to work for a society of universal benevolence—one in which everyone can realize their potential?

There is a morality that may be founded on human sympathy together with cool self-love, and a recognition of the necessity of a cohesive society for the secure pursuit of most of our interests. Yet we may be left feeling that this rather comfortable morality lacks the resources for passionate resistance to injustice or for real self-sacrifice for the sake of others. (p. 45)

Naturalism can support the first point, but it’s difficult, Ward says, to see how it underwrites the second, more ambitious, understanding of morality. On most naturalistic views, the universe does not support our pursuit of the good; everything depends on our “fleeting, ambiguous, and short-lived” efforts. Why try to create a society of universal flourishing when this is almost certainly doomed to failure? And given the radical gap between our moral ideals and our actual performance, does it even make sense to expect such lofty things from human beings?

Theism, Ward suggests, can provide support for this higher moral aspiration. Goods—i.e., possible worthwhile states that can be realized in the world—can be understood as eternal possibilities residing in the divine mind. In creating the world, God chooses to actualize certain objectively worthwhile states. Further, God presents us, as creatures endowed with reason, with possibilities for realizing further goods. Along these lines, Ward sketches a revised “natural law” account of ethics—human flourishing consists in realizing the goods proper to personal agents. (This non-biologistic account of natural law would likely yield less conservative conclusions than some traditional versions in areas like sexual morality.)

God can also been seen as providing aid to human moral effort—helping us to bridge the “moral gap” between what we are and what we should be. In traditional Christian terms, this includes both “justification” (forgiveness) and “sanctification” (making us actually better). A theistic view of the world also holds out the promise of a fully realized society of universal flourishing (even if only after death). Understood this way, theism can provide support and motivation for the more ambitious morality of universal human well-being.

It’s important to note that Ward isn’t arguing that ethics can prove the existence of God. Rather, he’s saying that our intimations of a categorical morality of universal human flourishing receive the most support within a broadly theistic metaphysical (or possibly non-theistic  but religious) framework. Naturalism, he maintains, strains to find the resources to justify anything beyond a limited, prudential morality.

Some Christians may object to Ward’s argument because he doesn’t rely on the Bible or special revelation. But he represents a long-running tradition of theistic Platonism that sees ethics as rooted in universal, eternal truths that subsist in the divine mind. Revelation may clarify certain moral truths, but as such they are accessible to reason. More important, however, is the point that moral obligations aren’t based on arbitrary divine commands, but flow from the eternal divine nature itself and God’s desire for human flourishing. This strikes me as an important counterbalance to some popular conservative accounts of Christian ethics.

“Deep time” and religious belief

Keith Ward reviews what sounds like a pretty interesting book on “deep time” and the possible future evolution of religious beliefs.

The acceptance of deep time — of the fact that the universe has existed for billions of years and that it will continue to exist for billions of years — could, if inwardly digested, have a radical effect on human religious beliefs. In the first two chapters of this book, Schellenberg presents the scientific arguments for this view, and argues that the far-future beliefs of whatever succeeds the human species are liable to reduce our own early and primitive beliefs to virtual irrelevance. This is true in science, and we should expect it to be true of religion, too.

You could see this as the cosmic and temporal analogue to recognizing that human religious beliefs already vary widely across different communities. For many people, realizing that their own beliefs are at least partly contingent upon chance and circumstance introduces an element of doubt. The thrust of Schellenberg’s argument seems to be that contemplating what our beliefs may look like to our far-future descendents is cause for even greater skepticism.

Ward provides some good reasons for thinking that we needn’t lapse into wholesale religious skepticism, though. If there is an ultimate reality that human beings can come into contact with, it seems plausible that our experiences of it to date would not be wholly misleading.

I suspect that anyone who postulates that there is a supremely valuable source of universal and ultimate good will expect to find some specific instances of human contact with, and transformation by, this good. A search for revelation will begin, and you might expect to find that while such instances do not disclose all the truths there are to be known about the ultimate, nevertheless they provide accurate information which is not seriously misleading about the nature and goals of human existence.

But he also says that Schellenberg makes a strong case that “religious believers should be much less dogmatic, especially about very detailed and obscure and controversial beliefs” and that they should be more open to developing their beliefs in light of new insights.

I do think that Christians in particular are prone to thinking that most of the important development of our religious beliefs has already happened. We look back to the writing and formation of the Biblical canon, the great councils of the early church, and maybe the Middle Ages or the Reformation (depending on our church affiliation) as codifying, more or less for good, the right way of understanding who God is. This is probably inevitable to some extent because Christianity is based on a historical revelation. But another important motif of Christian faith–though one not emphasized as consistently–is the messianic, future-oriented dimension. Christianity teaches that the Kingdom has not come in its fullness and we still see “in a glass darkly.” This might lend support to the idea that our current beliefs about ultimate reality will undergo indefinite revision. But this has to be kept in balance with the conviction, which most Christians would share, that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus provide a reliable indication of what God is like.

Keith Ward on creation and the (social) Trinity

Keith Ward’s Religion and Creation (RC) is part of his multi-volume “comparative theology.” Its goal is to develop a contemporary Christian theology in genuine conversation with both modern science and other religious traditions.

The focus of RC is the doctrine of God. Ward argues that recent representative figures from four major religious traditions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism) all make similar moves in revising the classical understanding of God.* They have qualified the traditional insistence on God’s complete immutability and impassibility with an emphasis on the importance of the spatio-temporal creation to God. The particular moves they make differ, but they agree that the creation makes a difference to God in a way that classical forms of theism generally denied. In some cases, this means affirming that God experiences time, change, and empathy with the sufferings of creatures.

In the book’s final chapter, Ward discusses the Christian doctrine of the Trinity in relation to creation. He suggests that creation of some kind may be necessary for God to realize the capacity for loving what is truly other. As he says elsewhere, it is “a love for what is other than God but can be united to the life of God in fellowship.”

Ward rejects the view, proposed by some theologians, that God can be perfectly loving in Godself because of the love that exists between the three persons of the Trinity. This strongly “social” view of the Trinity sees the godhead as comprising three divine persons or centers of consciousness whose unity consists of their loving fellowship.

According to Ward, some forms of social Trinitarianism border on polytheism, though a “rather cosy and harmonious polytheism” (p. 322). Social Trinitarians have a difficult time accounting for the necessary unity of the three persons, and attempts to do so often look like subordinationism (i.e., by making the Son and Spirit derivative from, and less than, the Father). Or they treat love as a reified, abstract principle that somehow stands “above” the three persons and binds them together.

It’s better, he proposes, to talk about “one ultimate subject which possesses three distinct forms of action and awareness” (p. 323). The problem with social Trinitarianism, he says, is that it tends to veer into speculation about three divine individuals with intra-divine relations apart from any relation to created reality. Trinitiarian thinking should be rooted in the biblical witness, which does not speak of “three divine individuals in continuing conversation” (p. 327). Rather, “belief in the one God of monotheism, who is somehow mediated to [the apostles] through Jesus and intimately present in the power of the Spirit. The idea of the Trinity does not supersede monotheism; it interprets it, in light of a specific set of revelatory events and experiences” (p. 327).

Threefold-ness is a real aspect of God, but it is manifested in relation to creation (p. 329). Theology shouldn’t posit some purely immanent, intra-trinitarian relation of the persons: “intra-Trinitarian being is given to us only in revelation” (p. 329). The basis of trinitarian doctrine is the apostolic experience of Jesus making God present in a new way:

[T]he simple historical source of this doctrine is the apostolic experience of God as loving Father, Jesus as the obedient Son, the Father’s image on earth, and the Spirit as the one who makes Jesus present to every time and place, and unites ll in him. (pp. 330-1)

While the Trinity corresponds to something real in God’s being, we only have access to the “economic” Trinity–that is, the threefold activity of God as we see it in the history of salvation. The economic Trinity is God-in-relation–responding to and affected by the actions of creatures. “This is the responsive aspect of the Divine, which interacts with created beings to check tendencies to disintegration and guide them actively toward perfection” (p. 340).

I’ve always been a bit skeptical of social Trinitarianism, particularly when it’s combined with political theologies which suppose that human communities can and should reflect the intra-Trinitarian life (Kathryn Tanner and Karen Kilby have both powerfully criticized this view). They often seem to rest on just the sort of speculative divine metaphysics Ward is criticizing, and draw what are, to my mind, improper analogies between human communities and the divine “community.” (Obviously there’s a lot more that can be, and has been, said on this topic, both pro and con.)

Even if we reject social Trinitarianism, though, couldn’t we say that God perfectly loves the divine self and would do so even if God had not created a world? Ward would say, however, that God would still have failed to realize the capacity for loving what is genuinely other than God, and that this form of love is a great good. In Ward’s view, it is better to have a universe with creatures who can enter into freely chosen fellowship with God, even if this also creates the possibility of their estrangement. Therefore, he thinks, creation does make a difference to God, enriching the divine life beyond what it would’ve been had God not created.

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*The four 20th-century figures Ward focuses on are Abraham Joshua Heschel (Judaism), Karl Barth (Christianity), Mohammad Iqbal (Islam), and Aurobindo Ghose (Hinduism).

“Physical” vs. “spiritual” resurrection?

Liberal Christian icon Marcus Borg recently joined the blogosphere, and one of his first posts was an attempt to clarify his views on the resurrection of Jesus. Borg has been accused of denying the independent reality of the resurrection, reducing it to a subjective experience the disciples had after the crucifixion. But Borg maintains that he believes in a real resurrection, just not a physical one. Jesus is really alive and manifested himself to his followers following his death, but his body was not raised physically from the tomb.

I’m not sure I find the “physical”/”spiritual” distinction particularly helpful or important. First, it presumes that we have a clear idea of what “matter” is and how it contrasts with “spirit.” Modern physics, if nothing else, has called that kind of Cartesian dichotomy into question. But more fundamentally, the New Testament stories themselves don’t seem particularly interested in answering that question. Even if we take the resurrection stories at face value, we have a Jesus who is both “physical” in the sense of being a tangible presence, who eats with his disciples and shows them the still-present wounds in his body, but who also can appear and disappear at will and whom the disciples don’t immediately recognize as being the same person. The only thing that comes through clearly here is that, for the NT writers, Jesus’ post-resurrection state involved both continuity (he was the same person, the crucified one) and discontinuity (he had been radically transformed and raised to a different state of existence).

Keith Ward has suggested that Jesus’ resurrection involved a transformation of his body (i.e., the tomb was empty) to a “spiritual” state. But “spiritual” here doesn’t mean the opposite of “physical”; rather it means something more like a state of being fully infused with God’s Spirit. Jesus lives in the power and presence of God, but in a form that radically transcends his earthly, pre-resurrection existence. It’s not clear that asking whether this constitutes a “physical” or “spiritual” resurrection is a particularly meaningful question. The point is that the resurrection signifies God’s victory over the forces of sin, alienation, and death and promises a consummation of God’s purposes for creation.

Modern science, classical theism (3)

One of the impulses motivating “revisionist” views of the divine nature (process theology, et al.) is not only that they can seem more consonant with modern science, but that they provide a more intimate and relational view of God. Many theologians have argued, in fact, that seeing God in responsive, relational terms such as those offered by process theology is truer to the biblical portrait of God. This view has widespread currency in recent theology. Even theologians with important differences from process theology have accepted that God is in some respects changeable and affected by what happens in the world. These included feminist, liberation, and other “contextual” theologians as well as “neo-trinitarian” thinkers like Jurgen Moltmann and Robert Jenson. Such thinkers tend to emphasize the differences between the biblical God and the Greek-inspired God of classical theism.

In light of this, Cynthia Crysdale and Neil Ormerod (see previous posts here and here) ask “Can a transcendent God be a personal God?” That is, can a God who exists “outside” of time and space and who brings the entire history of creation into being through one timeless divine act also be related to individual human beings in a personal and responsive way?

C&O think the answer is yes:

[C]lassical theism presents us with a God who is infinitely responsive, who has responded so fully and so completely in the one divine act of creation that no further response is possible or needed[.] In the one infinite act of creation, past, present, and future for us , God responds to all our prayers and petitions, answers all our needs, all guided by an infinite divine loving wisdom and wise loving. . . . And while God’s response to us is itself eternal and unchanging, it unfolds for us in the fullness of time. Thus God responds to this prayer in our here and now. And if we do not pray, God does not so respond. Prayer is meaningful, it does change the situation, and God does act in response to our prayers. But this does not amount to some intervention along the lines of stirring an inactive God into action, but is part of the one creative act of God who brings into existence everything that is. (p. 128)

God has, in effect, “already” taken into account every action, intention, prayer, and desire in the history of the universe and responded accordingly in the single, eternal creative act.

But even on this view, there seems to be an aspect of God that is contingent, namely God’s perfect response to the world. For if God had chosen to actualize a different world from among the (presumably) many possible ones, then to the extent that the choices, prayers,etc. of the people in that world were different from ours, God’s response would have to have been different. This seems to imply that God is not wholly unchangeable, at least on the assumption that God’s actualization of other worlds than this one was a genuine possibility.

Maybe C&O would respond that God is nevertheless not dependent on creation because it is God who chooses which possible world to make actual. This certainly distinguishes their position from those forms of process theology that deny creation ex nihilo and appear to give creation an independent ontological status. I agree with C&O in rejecting such a view. But I’m less certain how much daylight there is between their position and the more moderate “dipolar” theism espoused by someone like Christopher Southgate or Keith Ward. Both Southgate and Ward affirm creation ex nihilo and thus God’s ontological ultimacy; but both also argue that there is an aspect of God that is involved in and affected by what happens in the world.

It’s not clear to me that C&O couldn’t accept the modified dipolar theism of Southgate and Ward while still upholding their other positions. In fact, both Southgate and Ward make arguments similar to theirs in relating theism to modern science. Alternatively, C&O could bite the bullet and say that the actual world is the only possible world. God’s creative act would give rise to this world out of necessity, rather than from God’s free choice. This seems to be essentially the view of Schleiermacher, whose views C&O’s arguments echo at several points. While this would salvage divine impassibility, it would seem to mean giving up on genuine contingency in the world. If this is right, it raises the question of whether “classical theism” is as stable a construct as it seems.

These questions aside, I don’t want to suggest that Creator God, Evolving World is a bad book by any means. I found it incredibly stimulating (as these posts might suggest!) and also found a lot to agree with. Plus, at a time when “classical theism” has become something of a bogeyman, it’s refreshing to see it defended and brought into conversation with contemporary issues.

Idealism in twenty minutes

Keith Ward gives a concise overview and defense of metaphysical idealism:

This lecture is essentially a summary of the argument from his 2010 book More Than Matter. The basic claim is that mind or consciousness is a fundamental component or aspect of reality, and it can’t be reduced to or explained exhaustively in material terms. Ward points out that we’re immediately aware of consciousness, while the material world–at least as it appears to us–is something that is in part constructed by our minds. This doesn’t mean that the physical world isn’t real; but it does suggest that there’s something problematic about arguing for the reduction of mind to an aspect of reality that is itself partly mind-constituted. Minds are the only “things-in-themselves” we know first hand. On that basis, Ward says

What idealists maintain is that the ultimate nature of reality itself is mind-like, and that human and other finite minds are the best clues we have to what objective reality is like. The cosmos is not a mindless, unconscious, valueless, purposeless, yet somehow strangely intelligible, mechanism. Such a view is the result of extrapolating a machine-model, very useful in many scientific contexts, to provide the most comprehensive and adequate picture of the real cosmos.

Idealists propose that the human mind provides a better model from which to extrapolate to the cosmos as a whole. That is not because the cosmos looks like a very large human person or because there is some large person hovering just beyond the cosmos. It is because human minds play a creative and constructive role in producing the phenomenal world. They seem to point to a level of reality that is not merely phenomenal or an appearance to consciousness. Human minds generate an idea of reality as mind-like in a way that far transcends human mentality, yet that does include something like consciousness, value, and purpose as essential parts of its nature. (More Than Matter, p. 58)

Ward doesn’t claim to offer a knock-down argument for idealism, but he thinks it’s at least as reasonable as competing views, if not more so. He also points out that some form of idealism is arguably the majority view in the history of philosophy.

Even when I was an atheist, I never found materialism particularly compelling. And studying philosophy–particularly early modern philosophy–only reinforced that. It’s hard to come to grips with the arguments of Descartes, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, and Kant and still think that materialism is a straightforward, much less obviously true, understanding of reality.