So What Difference Does Theology Make for Ethics, Really?
By way of substitution, I'd like to offer some musings on a topic that has exercised me considerably over the past several years: To wit, Do theological beliefs really have any decisive role whatsoever in determining ethical decision making? I have been writing posts around this topic pretty much solidly since I started blogging here regularly a year ago, but to be honest, I'm not sure I've made that much progress in answering that basic question.
The problem rears its head again and again with a rising, sometimes almost plaintive urgency in many blog posts and articles I've read in recent months. An increasingly common genre is the type of article that ponders whether an atheist can be an actually morally decent person, or the perennial piece about how membership in this or that religious community seems to correlate with climate change denial, scroogely ungenerosity, gay-bashing and the like. Is it true that without belief in God, everything is permitted? And now we have the privilege of having moral philosophers of the caliber of Bill Maher and Ben Affleck pontificating about the religious ethics of Islam.
The issue of how theology and ethics are related has arisen pointedly in the fine series of posts at DET by Nathan Hitchcock (click here for the most recent one, with links to the earlier two; and be sure to check out the lively comment threads.) In discussing the Christian practice of replacing "bad" debt with "good" debt as a form of faithfulness the mirrors divine action, Hitchcock writes:
Occasionally the heathen act surprisingly Christian, as in the remarkable case of Arunachalam Muruganantham in the documentary Menstrual Man, who has repeatedly sacrificed his own social standing in order to help businesswomen in rural India manufacture sanitary pads.
So what difference does one's theological orientation make in one's life praxis? Try out this thought experiment:
Imagine a community where the persistent problem of homelessness remains a blight on society. As it happens, mine is such a community, and likely yours is too. Let's say a number of civic and religious leaders organize a meeting to consider the prospects for building a year-round shelter to mitigate this problem. A reporter for the local newspaper interviews several prominent participants of the meeting: 1) an American Baptist deacon; 2) a Buddhist monk; 3) a Roman Catholic priest; 4) a Unitarian minister (or whatever they're called), 5) a city councilwoman, who is a Rawlsian (John Rawls is liberal political thinker who argues that religious folks should keep their personal religious beliefs separate from their civic lives); 6) the mayor, who's a Machiavellian; 7) the president of the chamber of commerce, who's a Marxist (haha, just kidding!); and 8) U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, (R-Kentucky, a follower of philosopher Ayn Rand).
So the reporter asks each interviewee, "What motivates you to engage in this project?" Their answers are as follows:
- American Baptist: "In the Gospels, Jesus instructs us to protect the powerless as a supreme act of devotion to him; and besides that, the persistent problem of homelessness remains a blight on society.
- Buddhist: "The supreme act of a boddhisatva is to demonstrate compassion by striving to decrease the suffering of all sentient beings; thus, we strive to relieve the persistent problem of homelessness, which remains a blight on society."
- Catholic: "The church's rich social teachings, including pronouncements of popes and the magesterium as a whole (not to mention Jesus himself) instruct the faithful to care for the weak and destitute; thus we are moved to show charity by addressing the persistent problem of homelessness, which remains a blight on society."
- Unitarian: "The enlightened spirit of humankind yearns for the equality of all people; moreover, how can that happen as long as the persistent problem of homelessness remains a blight on society?"
- Mayor: "In this year when I am running for reelection, it is important for all residents to remember that our city takes care of all our citizens. I commit the resources of this administration to building this shelter because the persistent problem of homelessness remains a blight on society."
- Chamber President: "The persistent problem of homelessness, which remains a blight on society, is also really bad for the economy, as it drives away tourists from the business district."
- Councilwomman: "We should act now because the persistent problem of homelessness remains a blight on society."
- Sen. Paul: "The persistent problem of homelessness may be a blight on society, but what the heck does that have to do with the government?"
Get the point? Despite whatever secular or religious tradition each participant hails from, most of them -- at least in the context of this public discussion -- are guided by some sort of generic humanitarian or pragmatic impulse. Is this a Q.E.D. for the Rawlsians, then?
But this is a silly and simplistic thought experiment, you might object. I concede that the real world tussle of beliefs and actions is much more complex and fraught than this little exercise would suggest. Religious beliefs and ethical commitments are woven together into a much more complex tapestry than even Bill Maher's more sophisticated theories can explain.
But others might object that this example merely illustrates ad hoc moral reasoning on the fly; This is not a proposal for how to integrate formal systematic theology and ethics. Perhaps.
|Ayn Rand, "Philosopher"|
I'm not sure, but pondering this exercise makes me more suspicious of ethical reductionism. Schleiermacher, the father of modern theology himself, (in)famously posited (or "made up") this notion that all human experience is rooted in an priori, transcendental self-consciousness called "feeling" (Gefühl). The English term "feeling" is misleading here, as it intends something much more comprehensive than "emotion", as in the famous song by Morris Albert (So, Millenials,...Oh just nevermind!). But that's not important right now. What is significant here is that Schleiermacher distinguishes feeling from the faculties of knowing and doing (including morality) and claims that feeling is the true locus of religious experience. Christian theology, he argues, consists in the critical exposition of that religious experience as it has been molded and determined by the saving influence of Christ. Now whatever reservations one might have about this proposal, Schleiermacher might be onto something in this regard: Perhaps it's simply impossible to reduce theology to ethics, and perhaps the relationships between the two disciplines are more tenuous and subtle even for a DET post to untangle.
So no ethical reductionism then; rather, onward into the conflict of interpretations!
My apologies to the Kantians and (a little begrugingly) to the Rawlsians. But as for you Randians...I can't even!