Thursday, 18 July 2013

Deconversion and Morality

The latest edition of Protestant apologist, James White’s semi-regular webcast The Dividing Line is on-line here. Dr. White devotes a considerable portion of this episode to this article, written by Rachel Slick, daughter of White’s fellow Protestant apologist, Matthew Slick, telling the story of her deconversion from Christianity.

White has quite a lot to say about the article and, in spite of the differences between his and my theology, I was surprised at how much of what he said I agree with and how much there is in what he says that I think Catholics can and should take to heart.

What I want to focus on, however, is this one section of Ms. Slick’s story. According to her, the crucial crisis leading to her renunciation of the faith happened as follows:

This changed one day during a conversation with my friend Alex. I had a habit of bouncing theological questions off him, and one particular day, I asked him this: If God was absolutely moral, because morality was absolute, and if the nature of “right” and “wrong” surpassed space, time, and existence, and if it was as much a fundamental property of reality as math, then why were some things a sin in the Old Testament but not a sin in the New Testament?
Alex had no answer — and I realized I didn’t either. Everyone had always explained this problem away using the principle that Jesus’ sacrifice meant we wouldn’t have to follow those ancient laws. But that wasn’t an answer. In fact, by the very nature of the problem, there was no possible answer that would align with Christianity.

On reading this section I was interested to hear White’s response. White begins dealing with this question at around the twenty minute mark of his podcast. I have to admit, I was surprised at how close White sounded to my own position. White, correctly, I think, remarks that Ms. Slick seems to think that morality is something that exists external to God rather than being a result, as White puts it “of God's nature and purpose.” I thought that was a good answer, or at least the beginning of a good answer, although I was a little confused about how exactly Dr. White understands the relationship between God's nature and His purposes. If Dr. White ever reads this, I'd be fascinated to hear his views in more detail and try to work out how closely aligned our views actually are.

Ms. Slick's question is related to an ancient philosophical problem, first raised by Plato in his famous dialogue, The Euthyphro. In that work, Plato asks whether certain acts are pious because the gods approve of them or whether the gods approve of them because they are pious. Applied to a monotheistic God, the question presents a dilemma between either a moral law which is above God and to which he is subject, or of morality simply defined by what God commands, with the implication that God could command whatever He likes.

To the best of my knowledge, no major Christian theologian or philosopher ever embraced the first horn of Plato's dilemma and affirmed a moral law external to God, to which He was subject. Certain theologians have, however, embraced the position known as voluntarism, essentially the second of Plato's options. Taken to its logical conclusion, and some have, indeed, explicitly, taken it that far, voluntarism holds that, while, as it happens, God has commanded humans love Him and love each other, He could equally have commanded us to hate him and hate one another. If he had done so, hate would have been a virtue and love a vice.

St. Thomas, however, and those who have followed him, reject the dilemma as a false dichotomy. For the Thomist, the basis of morality lies neither in something superior to God, or in something He arbitrarily decided but in who He, of necessity is.
St. Thomas distinguishes between four types of law: eternal, natural, divine and human. Describing, in detail, the meaning of these different types of laws and the relations between them is a topic for a book, not a blog post. What's relevant to Ms. Slick's question, (the one that supposedly can't be answered within Christianity) can be summarised reasonably easily.
The eternal law is an aspect of God. Since Thomists believe God to be absolutely simple, that really means the eternal law is God himself, viewed from a certain perspective. God loves and and commands love of us because that is what His nature requires, a nature that He could no more change than He could choose not to exist.
The divine law, refers to specific commands of God. As is well known, and as Ms. Slick notes, Christians believe that these commands have changed over time, at one time, God's commands prohibited His people eating of pork, today they don't.
As I said, explaining, in depth the reasons for these changes and the relationship between the eternal and divine law is beyond a blog post, but I believe, something of the relationship can be understood if we consider the rules parents make for their children.

Good parents have certain obvious aims in raising their kids. They want to keep them safe and do their best to ensure that they grow up into happy, healthy, well adjusted people. They probably also want to ensure a level of education and preparation for later life. Now, in furtherance of these goals, the parents will make rules for the kids, and some of these rules will probably be constant as long as the child is under the parents' care. For example, rules against anything unnecessarily dangerous, or against serious law breaking will probably be constant. On the other hand, some rules will very likely change over time: things forbidden a child of one age may well be allowed once the child is older, things not expected of a five year old may well be expected of a ten year old.

None of the above means that the parents are making arbitrary rules or that there is no consistent, objective principles. The objective principles are the goals that I outlined, but how those principles need to be applied will legitimately differ.

This is somewhat analogous (I don't claim the analogy is perfect) to the relationship between eternal and divine laws. The eternal law determines God's purpose in relating to humanity, but there is no contradiction between this and the suggestion that that purpose required different specific commands for different times in history.

1 comment:

  1. random thoughts:
    - when having to stop children doing something stupid, and getting the child's inevitable "why" parents frequently default to 'do this to show you love me". Hardly unreasonable that God would do this.
    - While Christianity was given to individuals, OT Judaism was given to a society. Thus social responsibilities, frex serving in the military, arre fundamental in the OT while irrelevant to Christianity; not because they have ceased being important or moral but because they have ceased being religious concerns.
    - Sanctification changes what is appropriate: frex you wouldn't fill a baptismal font will jello, even though creating a bowl of the stuff in an ordinary bowl is fine. The Jews have been sanctified as the People of God, Christians as part of the church(the Bride of Christ): different blessings with differing requirements.
    - Much of OT law is practical, concerned with preventing problems that were not a concern for the early church (poor food hardly matters when you've got a miraculous immunity to poison!) Also, much of the practical side we've returned to: leaving land fallow, basic hygiene etc.
    - On the flipside, much of the Jewish ceremonial law wasn't laid down by God, and condemned by Jesus as human invention. Getting rid of that was essential.
    - Finally, are you sure that the basic nature of the universe hasn't changed with the incarnation? I'd hesitate to state that.