Biblically Inspired Ethics
"How I Believe in God" at the Chicago Sun-Times (April 17, 2009).
When I was in first or second grade and had just been introduced by the nuns to the concept of a limitless God, I lay awake at night driving myself nuts by repeating over and over, But how could God have no beginning? And how could he have no end? And then I thought of all the stars in the sky: But how could there be a last one? Wouldn't there always have to be one more? Many years later I know the answer to the second question, but I still don't know the answer to the first one. ... I no longer lost any sleep over the questions of God and infinity. I understood they could have no answers. At some point the reality of God was no longer present in my mind. I believed in the basic Church teachings because I thought they were correct, not because God wanted me to. In my mind, in the way I interpret them, I still live by them today. Not by the rules and regulations, but by the principles. For example, in the matter of abortion, I am pro-choice, but my personal choice would be to have nothing to do with an abortion, certainly not of a child of my own. I believe in free will, and believe I have no right to tell anyone else what to do. Popes come and go, and John XXIII has been the only one I felt affection for. Their dictums strike me as lacking in the ability to surprise. They have been leading a holding action for a millenium. ¶ Catholicism made me a humanist before I knew the word. When people rail against "secular humanism," I want to ask them if humanism itself would be okay with them. Over the high school years, my belief in the likelihood of a God continued to lessen. I kept this to myself. ... ¶ Did I start calling myself an agnostic or an atheist? No, and I still don't. I avoid that because I don't want to provide a category for people to apply to me.
John Brown on Biblical Ethics said...
"Discourse X: The Nature and Design of Civil Government and the Christian's Duty in Reference to It" in Expository Discourses on the First Epistle of the Apostle Peter (R. Carter & Brothers: 1851), p. 242.
It has been remarked, that the moral precepts of Christianity are highly valuable, not only when viewed in reference to their primary and direct object, the direction and guidance of the movements of the inner and outer man, the regulation of the temper and conduct, the dispositions and actions, but also when considered in their subsidiary and indirect references, particularly in their bearing on the evidence of the Divine origin of that system of revelation of which they form so important a part. That bearing is manifold. Let us look at it in its various phases. Were a book, consisting partly of doctrinal statements and partly of moral precepts, claiming a Divine origin, put into our hands; and were we to find on perusal the moral part of it fantastic and trifling, inconsistent with the principles of man's constitution, unsuitable to the circumstances in which he is placed, and incompatible with the great laws of justice and benevolence, we should enter on the examination of the evidence appealed to, in support of its high pretensions, under the influence of a strong and justifiable suspicion. ...
"Truth Commissions and Judicial Trials" in The Provocations of Amnesty (New Africa Books: 2003) p. 82.
The isolating device of prison guarantees that reconciliation between prisoners and the rest of 'us' remains far out of our minds. The case with amnestied perpetrators is different. Their very presence raises the daily question: can the sinning and the sinned-against achieve a new positive relationship. For the sake of new social harmony, the motto 'forget and move on' has its utilitarian attraction. Bt the motto is deceptive. Forgetting is a tricky business, both psychically and politically. Psychically, Kierkegaard was right to suggest that real forgetting requires real remembering: 'When we say that we consign something to oblivion, we suggest simultaneously that it is to be forgotten and yet also remembered.'
"Truth Commissions and Judicial Trials" in The Provocations of Amnesty (New Africa Books: 2003) p. 63.
Post-modernists know many ways to disparage and eliminate claims to truth in all of these dimensions. If history (as assessment of what actually happened) is infinitely malleable at the behest of the powerful, if moral suppositions about what histories are important to recover, are arbitrary, if personal experience has nothing to do with collective acknowledgment of truth, if human suffering is not accessible to moral judgement at the moment or post facto, and if the facts of history cannot be attributed in some tangible way to human agency, then both judicial institutions and truth commissions are philosophically illegitimate. Such illegitimacy would spell the demise of Christian ethics, of course, for the discipline, with Christian theology, has a stake in the truths of history, in vital distinctions between just and unjust suffering, and in the obligations which persons and societies owe to identify, curb, and remedy wrongs suffered by any of our neighbours.
The Quotable Bertrand Russell (ed. Lee Eisler, Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 1993), p. 118.
The fundamental defect of Christian ethics consists in the fact that it labels certain classes of acts 'sins' and others 'virtue' on grounds that have nothing to do with their social consequences.
Tragic Sense of Life, trans. J.E. Crawford Flitch (Dover: 1954), orig. 1921, p. 291.
The fact that society is guilty aggravates the guilt of each one, and he is most guilty who most is sensible of the guilt. Christ, the innocent, since he best knew the intensity of guilt, was in a certain sense the most guilty. In him the culpability, together with the divinity, of humanity arrived at the consciousness of itself. Many are wont to be amused when they read how, because of the most trifling faults, faults at which a man of the world would merely smile, the greatest saints counted themselves the greatest sinners. But the intensity of the fault is not measured by the external act, but by the consciousness of it, and an act for which the conscience of one man suffers acutely makes scarcely any impression on the conscience of another. And in a saint, conscience may be developed so fully and to such a degree of sensitiveness that the slightest sin may cause him more remorse than his crime causes the greatest criminal. And sin rests upon our consciousness of it, it is in him who judges and in so far as he judges. When a man commits a vicious act believing in good faith that he is doing a virtuous action, we cannot hold him morally guilty, while on the other hand that man is guilty who commits an act which he believes to be wrong, even though in itself the act is indifferent or perhaps beneficent. The act passes away, the intention remans, and the evil of the act is that it corrupts the intention, that in knowingly doing wrong a man is predisposed to go on doing it, that it blurs the conscience. And doing evil is not the same being evil. Evil blurs the conscience, and not only the moral conscience, but the general, psychical consciousness. And everything that exalts and expands conscious is good, while that which depresses and diminishes it is evil.
"Letter from a Birmingham Jail", (April 16, 1963).
You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court's decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all."
A Natural History of Religion (1757), Part XV.
Hear the verbal protestations of all men: Nothing so certain as their religious tenets. Examine their lives: You will scarcely think that they repose the smallest confidence in them. The greatest and truest zeal gives us no security against hypocrisy: The most open impiety is attended with a secret dread and compunction. No theological absurdities so glaring that they have not, sometimes, been embraced by men of the greatest and most cultivated understanding. No religious precepts so rigorous that they have not been adopted by the most voluptuous and most abandoned of men. ... Look out for a people, entirely destitute of religion: If you find, them at all, be assured, that they are but few degrees removed from brutes. What so pure as some of the morals, included in some theological system? What so corrupt as some of the practices, to which these systems give rise?
On Liberty (Longmans, Green, Reader, & Dyer: 1863), p. 95.
Christian morality (so called) has all the characters of a reaction; it is, in great part, a protest against Paganism. Its ideal is negative rather than positive; passive rather than active; Innocence rather than Nobleness; Abstinence from Evil, rather than energetic Pursuit of Good: in its precepts (as has been well said) "thou shalt not" predominates unduly over "thou shalt." In its horror of sensuality, it made an idol of asceticism, which has been gradually compromised away into one of legality. It holds out the hope of heaven and the threat of hell, as the appointed and appropriate motives to a virtuous life: in this falling far below the best of the ancients, and doing what lies in it to give to human morality an essentially selfish character, by disconnecting each man's feelings of duty from the interests of his fellow-creatures, except so far as a self-interested inducement is offered to him for consulting them. It is essentially a doctrine of passive obedience; it inculcates submission to all authorities found established; who indeed are not to be actively obeyed when they command what religion forbids, but who are not to be resisted, far less rebelled against, for any amount of wrong to ourselves.
God in the Dock (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1970)
Christianity claims to give an account of facts — to tell you what the real universe is like. Its account of the universe may be true, or it may not, and once the question is really before you, then your natural inquisitivenes must make you want to answer. If Christianity is untrue, then no honest man will want to believe it, however helpful it might be: if it is true, every honest man will want to believe it, even if it gives him no help at all. As soon as we have realized this, we realise something else. If Christianity should happen to be true, then it is quite impossible that those who know this truth and those who don't should be equally well-equipped for leading a good life. Knowledge of the facts must make a difference to one's actions.