Thursday 29 January 2015

Why Be Moral?

Surely the righteous shall give thanks to your name;
    the upright shall live in your presence.
Psalms 140:13

 If you consider that he is righteous, you also know that everyone who acts in righteousness is begotten by him
1 John 2:29

Before answering the Why question a philosopher would ask the What questions- what is morality? what is a moral life? After answering the What and Why they would likely then proceed to the How questions- how can I live ethically? how can human societies be collectively moral? This helps explain why philosophy books tend to be quite big and not very popular. They seem to spend a lot of time proving what the reader already knows to be true or attempting to disprove what the reader thinks of as 'common sense.' Religion appears to offer a way of short-cutting all this tedious playing with words. All religions have associated moralities and within the Abrahamic religions these have the sanction of divine revelation. Morality is what revelation says it is, obedience to God is the only acceptable response to revelation and within the content of that revelation, either in the form of scripture or divinely mandated authority, is all the guidance required for individuals and societies to live out the moral life in practice.

There is no real doubt that if this is an accurate summary of religious belief then many of the criticisms levelled at religion by New Atheists like the late Christopher Hitchens (God grant him rest) and the current Richard Dawkins (God keep him on Twitter) are well merited. Such a rigid structure which requires no moral judgement on the part of believers but merely an acceptance of the first principles of faith would lend them and their belief system to being manipulated in the service of anyone who could pervert the interpretation of revelation to suit their own purposes, as Islamic State and Boko Haram appear to have done with Islam. There are, however, a number of things which could be said about this critique. Firstly, any moral code which has been reduced to a written set of rules is liable to be misadministered by the kind of unimaginative epigones that rise to the top of an established bureaucracy. This will typically result in injustices and absurdities regardless of the original source of the code because the letter and not the spirit is the deciding principle in decision making. Stalinism is the classic secular example of this but even the much vaunted Western Liberalism is vulnerable to the same defect. Secondly, Catholic thought proposes two crucial considerations which must always be borne in mind by those seeking to apply the moral rules derived from revelation. These are the principle of reason and a living relationship with the divine source of revelation.

In an Address to scientists at Regensburg early in his papacy Pope Benedict XVI looked closely at the role of reason in religion. One of his key points was that part of the definition of God provided by the scriptures is that God is Reason in the same sort of way that we say God is Love. He focussed on the prologue to the Gospel account of St John 'in the beginning was the word' where what we translate as 'word' is Logos in the original Greek. He said 'God acts...with logos. Logos means both reason and word - a reason which is creative and capable of self-communication, precisely as reason' One of the implications of this is that God cannot act irrationally, this is, as it were, a check on His omnipotence. And what He cannot do He cannot command. Therefore all moral codes which are derived or claim to be derived from divine revelation must past the test of reason. Moreover humans, being endowed by God with reasoning powers, are obliged to apply that test to everything which they encounter including revelation itself. A mechanical obedience to authority of whatever kind is of no merit, however meritorious the authority may be and however outwardly virtuous the physical act may appear to be. Right action always requires to be accompanied by right intention and the latter cannot be formed without the conscious and deliberate use of reason.

The Regensburg Address gave rise to a storm of controversy because a quotation used by the Holy Father from Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus was maliciously or ignorantly attributed to Benedict himself. The emperor had said "Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached." Although Muslims were wrong to suppose that this was intended as a modern commentary by the Pope it might be argued that some of the other words used by His Holiness should have given them pause for thought- 'for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality.' Speaking about theological speculations by both Christians and Muslims he added that they might lead to  'the image of a capricious God, who is not even bound to truth and goodness. God's transcendence and otherness are so exalted that our reason, our sense of the true and good, are no longer an authentic mirror of God, whose deepest possibilities remain eternally unattainable and hidden behind his actual decisions.' The Catholic Church has decisively rejected such speculations and the image of a God always in harmony with reason forms part of her infallible Magisterium. This cannot, however, be said for Islam or, indeed, for Judaism or the Christianity of the Reformation if only because there is no body with the authority to say it. Thus these religions remain vulnerable to dissident groups who will use the image of a capricious God as the basis for a moral code which demands obedience unmediated by reason from its followers.

                                            St Thomas Before the Cross- Sassetta

God should have more than a walk-on part in the life of His faithful people. That is, each person should have a living relationship with Him and this exchange of love should lie at the heart of their decision-making processes. The Apostle John suggests that those who live righteously are begotten by the Righteous One. I think that means more than asking What Would Jesus Do when we are faced with morally significant choices. It means that we should allow ourselves to be possessed by our Lord in such a fashion that He lives in us (and we in Him.) Thus it should be the case that He acts through us and that in a sense our moral choices are literally His. This is a difficult programme to fulfil of course but at the least when we are charged with making especially significant ethical decisions we should have recourse to prayer, meditation, study of Scripture and the Sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist. We give Him an opportunity to speak clearly within our very hearts and then we pause to listen to what He might say. In that sense I would interpret the psalmist words 'the upright shall live in your presence' as meaning that we only come to life as upright persons when we are in His presence. Apart from Him we can do nothing (John 15:5) Therefore it must be our aim to be as fully clothed with Christ as is possible in our daily journey because only so can we be fully alive to Him and, through us, He can be alive to those whom we encounter who will be affected by our moral actions. His choices are always morally good and where there is no difference between His choices and ours then we can be sure that we are living a moral life.

It is important to stress that any one of the three strands, revelation, reason, relationship, used independently of the other two is potentially dangerous. Revelation can be radically misunderstood, reason can be based on faulty assumptions, relationship can be illusory (atheists would argue that it always is.) Therefore the three must be woven together and all of them must lie behind any moral act we take individually or corporately. A further danger flows from the situation where revelation is understood to consist of nothing more than a written text. Here everything rests on private judgement so a person can believe that they have accurately and reasonably interpreted the text and that God has personally OK'd their interpretation. They can then go on to persuade others to agree with them and set in chain a movement grounded perhaps upon irrational and immoral premises. Against this there requires to be an authoritative source for interpreting revelation in the light of reason. It might be argued that this source itself can fall prey to irrationality or delusion and teach unreason as reason. Here the Catholic idea of infallibility presents itself not, as is generally thought, as an expansion of Papal power but a limitation upon it. An infallible teaching cannot be abrogated or negated therefore Popes are bound by precedent and cannot issue instructions which contradict previous ones. The moral codes present in the Church today are present in them for all time.

If we answer the question 'why be moral?' by saying 'because Jesus is moral' then we are correct but insufficiently so. Behind this answer is the question 'why is Jesus moral?' To which the answer might be that morality is always reasonable and God is reason and Jesus is God. Christianity proposes a morality which is, I think, of a much higher standard than can be proposed by unaided reason alone. That is, it is reason taken to a superlative level, revelation and relationship are the two wings upon which we can rise up to the level of a divine morality which is divine reason. It is not a rejection of reason or an alternative to it, it is the perfection of reason. So the question 'why be moral?' becomes the question 'why be perfect?' to which the answer this time really is 'So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect' (Matthew 5:48)

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1 comment:

  1. "New Atheists like Christopher Hitchens have argued that religion is uniquely suited to impel good people to do bad things. I look at why this is not true and why the Catholic faith is in fact uniquely suited to prevent anyone doing bad things..."

    ## I think it's true. Only something of transcendent value is capable of making men act llike devils, when they should be acting as Saints. Only that which is highest, can be capable of falling to the lowest depth. In this sense, the evils committed by Catholics, because they have at times been enormous, are evidence of her Divine origin.

    Even if Hitchens' point was the different point, that religion is repulsive because it induces good men to act repulsively, it can still be taken in that other sense.

    As for this:

    "'...for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality.' Speaking about theological speculations by both Christians and Muslims he added that they might lead to 'the image of a capricious God, who is not even bound to truth and goodness. God's transcendence and otherness are so exalted that our reason, our sense of the true and good, are no longer an authentic mirror of God, whose deepest possibilities remain eternally unattainable and hidden behind his actual decisions.' "

    ## I started writing a post dissecting this, but it became very long. Suffice it to say that AFAICS the Pope missed the point pretty thoroughly.