North Western Winds

Contemplating it all from the great Pacific Northwest

Myths of Divine Command

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This article by Robert P. George reads like a preview of his book, The Clash of Orthodoxies. It should be good reading for anyone who thinks all of religion is defended only by claims to divine command, or “revelation.” Yeah, that might cover some of the folks with “hidden agenda” on their tongue whenever the CPC is mentioned.

George sets out to take on The Myth:

Orthodox secularism promotes the myth that there is only one basis for disbelieving its tenets: namely, the claim that God has revealed propositions contrary to these tenets. Most orthodox secularists would have us believe that their positions are fully and decisively vindicated by reason and therefore can be judged to have been displaced only on the basis of irrational or, at least, nonrational faith. They assert that they have the reasonable position; any claims to the contrary must be based on unreasoned faith. Secularists are in favor of a “religious freedom” that allows everyone to believe as he wishes, but claims based on this “private faith” must not be the grounds of public policy. Policy must be based on what secularists have lately come to call “public reason.”

Interestingly, there have been two different lines of response by religious people…

[1] Some concede that religious and even moral judgments depend on faith that cannot be rationally grounded, but they argue that secularism itself is based on a nonrational faith, that secularism must, in the end, also rest on metaphysical and moral claims that cannot be proved. In that way, they suggest, secularism is just like religion, and is not entitled to any special standing that would qualify it as the nation’s public philosophy. In fact, its standing would be less than that of the Judeo-Christian tradition, since it is not the tradition upon which the country was founded. On this account, secularism itself is a sectarian doctrine and, as such, is incapable of fulfilling its own demands of being accessible to “public reason.”

[2] A second response by people of faith to the myth promoted by orthodox secularism is to affirm the demand for public reasons for public policies and offer to do battle with secularism on the field of rational debate. Those who take this view tend to agree that secularism is itself a sectarian doctrine, but they claim that religious faith, and especially religiously informed moral judgment, can be based upon and defended by appeal to publicly accessible reasons. Indeed, they argue that sound religious faith and moral theology will be informed, in part, by insight into the authentic and fully public reasons provided by principles of natural law and natural justice.

These principles are available for rational affirmation by people of good will and sound judgment, even apart from their revelation by God in the Scriptures and in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Based on this view, it is possible for Christians to join forces with believing Jews, Muslims, and people from other religious traditions who share a commitment to the sanctity of human life and to other moral principles.

Here is another rebuttal. Brian W. Harrison asked himself the question much of Liberalism stands on: “If all the ‘experts’ on Truth—the great theologians, historians, philosophers—disagreed interminably with each other, then how did God, if He was really there, expect me, an ordinary Joe Blow, to work out what was true?”

I’ll quote Harrison at length because political debate gets terribly distorted in the wake of errors that arise because of The Myth. We wind up talking right past one another, both as friends and as opponents. Harris shares some of his struggle to find a method of working through the maze of epistemology:

The more I became enmeshed in specific questions of Biblical interpretation—of who had the right understanding of justification, of the Eucharist, Baptism, grace, Christology, Church government and discipline, and so on—the more I came to feel that this whole line of approach was a hopeless quest, a blind alley. These were all questions that required a great deal of erudition, learning, competence in Biblical exegesis, patristics, history, metaphysics, ancient languages—in short, scholarly research. But was it really credible (I began to ask myself) that God, if He were to reveal the truth about these disputed questions at all, would make this truth so inaccessible that only a small scholarly elite had even the faintest chance of reaching it? Wasn’t that a kind of gnosticism? Where did it leave the nonscholarly bulk of the human race? It didn’t seem to make sense. If, as they say, war is too important to be left to the generals, then revealed truth seemed too important to be left to the Biblical scholars. It was no use saying that perhaps God simply expected the non-scholars to trust the scholars. How were they to know which scholars to trust, given that the scholars all contradicted each other?

Therefore, in my efforts to break out of the dense exegetical undergrowth where I could not see the wood for the trees, I shifted towards a new emphasis in my truth-seeking criteria: I tried to get beyond the bewildering mass of contingent historical and linguistic data upon which the rival exegetes and theologians constructed their doctrinal castles, in order to concentrate on those elemental, necessary principles of human thought which are accessible to all of us, learned and unlearned alike. In a word, I began to suspect that an emphasis on logic, rather than on research, might expedite an answer to my prayers for guidance.

The advantage was that you don’t need to be learned to be logical. You need not have spent years amassing mountains of information in libraries in order to apply the first principles of reason. You can apply them from the comfort of your armchair, so to speak, in order to test the claims of any body of doctrine, on any subject whatsoever, that comes claiming your acceptance. Moreover logic, like mathematics, yields firm certitude, not mere changeable opinions and provisional hypotheses. Logic is the first natural “beacon of light” with which God has provided us as intelligent beings living in a world darkened by the confusion of countless conflicting attitudes, doctrines and world-views, all telling us how to live our lives during this brief time that is given to us here on earth.

Logic of course has its limits. Pure “armchair” reasoning alone will never be able to tell you the meaning of your life and how you should live it. But as far as it goes, logic is an indispensable tool, and I even suspect that you sin against God, the first Truth, if you knowingly flout or ignore it in your thinking. “Thou shalt not contradict thyself” seems to me an important precept of the natural moral law. Be that as it may, I found that the main use of logic, in my quest for religious truth, turned out to be in deciding not what was true, but what was false.

If someone presents you with a system of ideas or doctrines which logical analysis reveals to be coherent—that is, free from internal contradictions and meaningless absurdities—then you can conclude, “This set of ideas may be true. It has at least passed the first test of truth—the coherence test.” To find out if it actually is true you will then have to leave your logician’s armchair and seek further information. But if it fails this most elementary test of truth, it can safely be eliminated without further ado from the ideological competition, no matter how many impressive-looking volumes of erudition may have been written in support of it, and no matter how attractive and appealing many of its features (or many of its proponents) may appear.

Some readers may wonder why I am laboring the point about logic. Isn’t all this perfectly obvious? Well, it ought to be obvious to everyone, and is indeed obvious to many, including those who have had the good fortune of receiving a classical Catholic education. Catholicism, as I came to discover, has a quite positive approach to our natural reasoning powers, and traditionally has its future priests study philosophy for years before they even begin theology. But I came from a religious milieu where this outlook was not encouraged, and was often even discouraged. The Protestant Reformers taught that original sin has so weakened the human intellect that we must be extremely cautious about the claims of “proud reason.” Luther called reason the “devil’s whore”—a siren which seduced men into grievous error. “Don’t trust your reason, just bow humbly before God’s truth revealed to you in His holy Word, the Bible!”—this was pretty much the message that came through to me from the Calvinist and Lutheran circles that influenced me most in the first few years after I made my “decision for Christ” at the age of 18. The Reformers themselves were forced to employ reason even while denouncing it, in their efforts to rebut the Biblical arguments of their “Papist” foes. And that, it seemed to me, was rather illogical on their part.

Harris’ admission that some religious do throw in the logical towel is important.

It will be hard for us to get the world to pay us any attention if we proceed like that. This lack of seriousness – of fidelity to God’s creation – creates division among Christians and even between Christians and other religions. Division makes us weak and in so doing, allows a lot of terrible things to happen.


Written by Curt

June 26, 2005 at 8:49 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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