DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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Questions

Two contributors present brief essays in response to some perennial questions. Each writes independently of the other. One comes from a person closely linked to a Christian denomination. The other comes from a person at the fringes of the traditional Church.

2. Are there immutable moral principles that apply at all times and in all circumstances?
Some say there is no reality beyond the material, that human existence is but the result of chance evolution, and morality is simply another name for the tools humans use to get along or gain advantage over one another.

I consider morality as beginning with the rise of consciousness. Then humankind was forced to recognize the consequences of behavior toward others as well as to self. Experience taught that life was to be protected and cultivated as opposed to destroying it. Self respect was recognized as an essential foundation for good living and citizenship and self respect in turn led to respect for the same in others.

All these qualities led to the development of communal living and society wherein the same principles applied. This accumulation of consciousness led humankind to the inevitable question, who or what created all this and what does our existence mean?

Over many millennia, progressive experience resulted in codes of law and morality. The Ten Commandments are an example. Two thousand years ago Jesus Christ arose to embody all our human concerns and serve as a model for living that is unsullied and endures to the present.

Here is the sticking point. Is our morality solely a product of our physical nature that derives from chance evolution and always rests on a fragile base of circumstance? Can we really know right from wrong if we don�t know the context of the moral setting? Some contend that given the fluidity and uncertainty of human life there can be no immutable moral principles if we are going to live effective lives and adapt to the modern world. Our actions must always be seen in context and we must be equipped with adjustable principles to meet an array of challenges.

On the other hand I assert that the foundations of morality were created by the Creator of the physical universe. They are as fundamental as any physical law and are deeply embedded in our beings. At times the moral template may be difficult and ambiguous to lay over modern circumstances. Nevertheless, the timeless and immutable principles of respect for human life, respect for individual dignity, respect for personal integrity, and concern for ones neighbor and society are sufficient to approach any contemporary moral dilemma.

It may be asked, why must we invoke God as the source of morality? This is a choice that derives from one�s conception of reality. It is based on the conviction there is an immaterial reality beyond or along side the physical material universe. It asserts there is a God, a divinity who has created us and our morality.

Where there is no firm basis and source of morality there is "moral relativism". Morality is then the hand maiden of power, money, social status, race or any inequality that gives undue preference in society. The tension between moral relativism and its opposite, "authoritative morality", has gone on for ages. Invoking God and Jesus Christ tips the balance to the authoritative side.

I have avoided using the term "absolute" morality because of its pejorative character. I prefer the term "authoritative morality." Full well do I know that what I call authoritative morality has often been corrupted by representatives of the church and others with pretensions to representing God. This fact in no way invalidates the idea there is a God-given bedrock of morality that at times may seem obscure and far away but nevertheless exists and endures.
____________________________________________________

Soon after dawn on 6 August, 1945, the Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima in Japan. Within seconds 70 000 people were dead or dying.

Days later Japan surrendered and the Pacific war ended.

United States President, Harry Truman, had been faced by a tormenting decision. Should the bomb be used? Some advisors thought the consequences too terrible. Others held that Japan had to be shocked into submission. If not, millions more might die in protracted fighting.

So "Little Boy" was dropped. The USA Bombing Survey later stated that the Japanese "would have surrendered prior to November first [1945] in any case".

The question arises: "Was the choice to drop Little Boy morally wrong?"

There are two possible sources of morality. First, laws governing our behaviour may come from God. If so, they must by definition be absolute since God can't be wrong. This is the standpoint of traditional Christianity. God has "spoken" through the Bible, which can be consulted in any moral dilemma.

Alternatively, we might ourselves be the authors of morality. However, when we talk of morality we don't usually mean laws passed by a government. These derive from a social contract, not from God. Human laws change and penalties for disobeying them are finite.

Paul recognised that absolute laws inevitably create sinners. The Hebrew Torah only "makes us know that we have sinned" and "brings down God's anger". His solution was, "If you love others, you will never do them wrong."

He was echoing Jesus, who said that love overrides moral laws. Augustine of Hippo later took him up. "Dilige et quod vis, fac," he wrote: "Love with care and then what you decide, do".

The Christian position, then, is that the only moral absolute is love.

To love is to give. Love encompasses everyone - even an enemy, said Jesus.

In contrast, the moralist gets trapped into an ever-increasing maze of rules in trying to cope with reality. If he or she wishes to act lovingly, exceptions to the laws must be sought. Casuistry becomes a way of life.

On the other hand, the person who loves is free, for love is always right. Love is essentially calculating. Provided we weigh up the pros and cons of a situation, and provided we factor in the human element with utmost care, whatever we choose is loving and therefore right - regardless of the actual outcome.

Provided Harry Truman and his aides agonised over the best possible outcome for the most people, their choice was morally right even if tactically wrong. The "wrong" thing done in love is right. That's why T S Eliot wrote,

The supreme treason
is to do the right thing
for the wrong reason.

What is right is not revealed by moral principles. It is revealed by the facts interpreted as best we can for the good of all. To love is to choose as best we can for the good of others and ourselves.

The Church therefore fails when moral rules and not love are at the heart of its teaching and practice.

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