Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The law above law


“Do you think anyone who doesn't have access to Scripture has any knowledge of what is right and wrong? What do you make of C. S. Lewis's argument that everyone recognizes a moral law which they know themselves to have violated, and that Christianity comes in not to tell us what the law is (we know that, in broad outline already) but to provide us a way of being right with God given the fact that we know ourselves to be moral failures?”

Several issues:

1.The basic problem with your position is that you’re trying to bootstrap a moral criterion to judge Christianity (and other religious claimants). In order to do this, you have to bracket or suspend any Christian commitments.

You are approaching Christianity from the viewpoint of an honorary atheist. You may not be an atheist. You may be neutral on that question at this stage of the game. But to judge Christianity, you assume the viewpoint of an outsider. An unbeliever.

But the problem with that framework is that if you approach the question from an atheistic point of view, then there’s no reason to abode any confidence in your moral intuitions. To the contrary, there’s every reason to distrust or simply discount your moral intuitions.

Consider the source. From a secular standpoint, our moral sensibilities are the end-result of amoral natural selection and/or amoral social conditioning.

As such, our moral “intuitions” fail to intuit moral absolutes. In that worldview, there are no moral absolutes to intuit.

Consider your Kantian axiom about treating people as ends rather than means. If I were an atheist, why in the world should I take that seriously? Wouldn’t it make far more sense to lie, cheat, and steal (as long as I could get away with it)?

2.In consequence, while it’s possible to mount a moral argument for the Christian faith, it’s not possible to mount a moral argument against the Christian faith. The argument can only be confirmatory, not disconfirmatory.

For there’s a fundamental asymmetry. A moral argument presupposes moral absolutes. But a godless world can never yield or justify the operating assumptions you need to feed into a moral objection. So that standpoint is a non-starter.

3.Apropos (1-2), Christianity lays the foundation for your moral intuitions, such as they are.

4.As a Christian, I think that God has given us a conscience (although that’s subject to various caveats). However, I can’t step out of my Christian faith and retain my moral intuitions intact. If I lose my Christian bearings, I also lose my moral bearings. Morality is the first casualty of atheism.

5.Even from a Christian perspective, our moral intuitions are unreliable. This doesn’t mean they’re always wrong. They may often be right.

But since our moral intuitions are wrong some of the time, we can’t rely on them. We need some objective criterion to sort out the hits from the misses. Moral intuition is useful, but inadequate. It must be corrected and supplemented by something more reliable.

6.From a Christian standpoint, nature is not a purely amoral process. It can be a moral medium. Likewise, from a Christian standpoint, cultural transmission can also be a moral medium. But once again, we need an independent criterion to distinguish between moral effects, amoral mechanisms, and immoral conventions.

7.Unlike Lewis, I don’t regard all cultures and societies as having a least lower threshold below which they will never sink. Common grace varies in time and place. From person to person.

I think God turns over some individuals and entire societies to utmost depravity to remind us of just what fallen humanity is like when left to its own devices, without divine restraint.

We can find many examples of this, both in Bible history and world history generally.

So, unlike Lewis, I don’t think we can abstract a universal norm from cross-cultural analysis. To the contrary, I think cross-cultural analysis uncovers many cases in which individuals, subcultures, and entire societies are in a state of moral freefall.

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