Saturday, February 11, 2017

Voluntarism and absolutism

The whole point of religious commitment is that it is ultimate commitment. There are things to which one has given one's whole self, things to which one is absolutely committed. Christianity, as taught not just in verses about not denying Jesus but throughout the whole fabric of the New Testament (and Judaism in the Old) is similarly about absolute commitment of oneself. To the Christian, God, as revealed in the Son, Jesus Christ, is the ultimate value. If we don't have Him, we have nothing. We are therefore willing to die for him, to suffer for him. Nothing else is more important. Literally nothing. Nothing can compete with Him, nothing can take His place.

Posted by Lydia McGrew 

Like Anselm says, if God told you not to look in a particular direction, even though by looking you could save the whole world from destruction, you still ought not to look. We are never commanded to love our neighbor by denying God, even only formally, which is a grave sin.

Posted by: Steven Nemeș 

One of the ironies of the reaction to Scorsese's Silence is that some critics, in the name of moral absolutism, take a position on religious duties which borders on theological voluntarism. For instance, we need to be circumspect about using hypotheticals in moral theology. It's child's play to concoct morally outrageous hypotheticals. So the question is how seriously we should take hypothetical scenarios about total devotion. You can make God command or forbid anything in a hypothetical. But that doesn't correspond to actual obligations. Here's one example: "Suppose God ordered you to rape a little girl, cut her tongue out, and set her on fire". 

If I have an unconditional obligation to obey God, then I'm duty-bound to heed that command, right? That's my sacred duty. After all, religious commitment is ultimate commitment. God has an absolute claim on my allegiance. The little girl can't compete with my unrivaled duty to honor God before before all else. 

Problem is, these hypotheticals are just a reflection of human imagination. The fact that we can dream up a divine command doesn't mean it's a pious requirement for me to submit to that injunction if "God" enjoined me to do it, for the God imposing that obligation on me is the God of the hypothetical. A hypothetical God issuing hypothetical commands. That doesn't necessarily or even presumptively map onto a realistic conception of religious duties. 

God's authority isn't absolute in the voluntaristic sense. To the contrary, God's authority is qualified or characterized by his moral attributes. By his wisdom and goodness. That's what makes divine authority a moral authority, rather than sheer dominion. It's striking that even in the limiting case of Abraham and Isaac, God didn't make Abraham go through with it. 

Some critics of Silence are appealing to moral absolutes to decry a symbolic act of desecration, yet they've driven such a wedge between fidelity to God and justice or compassion for the innocent that they subvert the principle that anything is intrinsically right or wrong. Beginning with moral absolutism, the critics wind up defending moral relativism. 


  1. Are God's attributes good because they are his attributes or because they are actually good? If you affirm the former you would affirm Lydia view. If you accept the critic you accept the latter. That's how I conceptualize the conversation. I think we end up in ethical dilemmas we have misunderstood the norm God has given.

    1. That's a non sequitur. Affirming moral realism doesn't entail that a symbolic act of sacrilege is wrong. At best, that's just a necessary, but insufficient condition for you to draw that conclusion. For you must demonstrate that a symbolic act of sacrilege (e.g. stepping on an icon of Christ) to spare the innocent from torture or murder is intrinsically wrong. Merely affirming that some actions are intrinsically right or wrong doesn't ipso facto imply that any particular action is intrinsically right or wrong. That requires a separate argument. Even Lydia admits that distinction.

    2. The possibility of moral dilemmas depends on the nature of divine providence, as I pointed out. Denying the Euthyphro dilemma doesn't automatically get you off the hook of moral dilemmas.