The Moral Dimension of Theology, Part 2

I argued in part 1 that human beings are morally obligated to believe what is true (in particular, to have a correct theology) and reject what is false. The intellect is a profoundly moral part of the human person, and propositions to which we give our assent have profound moral implications for us.

I make this argument because of the widespread idea that ethics is primarily about behavior, disconnected from any definite theological or metaphysical framework. Kant is primarily responsible for this split, which relegated religion to what Francis Schaeffer called the “upper story,” detached from real life. For most people in this post-Kantian world, it doesn’t matter what you believe so long as you are sincere and don’t harm anyone else. I believe this is an incorrect understanding of both theology and ethics.

For starters, this popular idea cannot account for the moral imperative it seeks to enforce. On what basis should we not harm anyone else? Is it on the basis of God’s existence, his authority over us, and the value he has placed on each human being? If so, then we have entered into the realm of theology to justify the ethical imperative implicit in the supposedly atheological approach to ethics. But what if one holds to a different theology? What if one grows up in a family full of Muslim extremists and believes, based on the command of Allah to kill infidels, that his ethical imperative is to strap a bomb to his chest, walk into a crowded market, and detonate it? The moral imperative “don’t harm others” does not make sense in that kind of theological framework.

But what would we have the Muslim extremist do? Adhere sincerely to his beliefs and yet refrain from killing anyone? That would be a contradiction. A Muslim extremist cannot sincerely be a Muslim extremist and not kill someone else. Therefore, in order to justify the moral imperative “don’t harm others,” we must automatically rule out certain theological frameworks from the start, because they, if sincerely held, will inevitably lead to a violation of this ethical imperative. Muslim extremists are not welcome here, thank you. Either convert to another view (most likely moderate Islam) or be excluded from the utopia of liberalism.

This example should make it abundantly clear that ethics cannot be divorced from one’s underlying beliefs. Beliefs will translate into ethics, thereby falsifying the modern liberal myth that the particulars of religion do not matter so long as we all adhere to a common ethical core. For a Muslim extremist to live according to the Western ethical values we hold dear would be to violate his own ethical principles, and therefore he can either (1) convert to another religious framework, (2) be a hypocrite (i.e., insincere adherent to his religion), or (3) act in accordance with his beliefs and murder people.

But so far I have only argued that different theologies lead to different ethical behaviors. I have not yet made the case (in this post) that to believe a faulty theology is itself an ethical failure. But surely the conclusion is not too much of a stretch, especially when the proper nature of theology is understood. Kevin Vanhoozer has recently argued in his book The Drama of Doctrine that doctrine must be understood as a directive enterprise. In other words, inherent in the task of theology itself is the practical, sapiential directive that sound doctrine provides. In the dramatic metaphor, the Bible is the script, and doctrines are the marginal notes written in to help us understand how it is to be performed. Therefore, if doctrine is by its very nature directive, then it is illegitimate for us to drive a wedge between the ethical value of belief and practice, since belief gives rise to practice. If one man hires another man to murder someone, both are implicated in the crime, not just the one who actually carried out the act. If doctrine directs us to act in certain ways, then belief of doctrine is implicated in the ethical outcome of our actions.

But what about a more difficult example? Muslim extremists are one thing, but Jehovah’s Witnesses are very different. They reject the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and bodily resurrection, but is it fair to argue that they are guilty for holding false beliefs, especially since they, as adherents to a Christian heresy, hold ethical values very similar to orthodox Christians? I believe they are guilty, for at least two reasons. First, their beliefs rob God of glory by demoting the person of Christ and destroying the gospel message. If Christ is not God, then he cannot save us, because only God can save. Second, their beliefs translate into the ethical imperative of aggressive proselytizing, which leads many others into their error. Now, I have no problem with proselytizing (how could I, since Jesus commanded it?); my problem is with spreading error through proselytizing. By spreading their false gospel, Jehovah’s Witnesses lead many away from the truth about God, Christ, and the gospel, and for this they are accountable, no matter how sincere they are.

I want to take a couple of paragraphs now to respond to some questions from the last post. Ali wrote, “The only way I can see moral culpability for the act of not believing or believing falsely in and of itself is if there is enough evidence for the person to have come to the right conclusion.” I agree with this statement, although I would add the caveat that we may be morally culpable for failing to notice or properly interpret the evidence in front of us, or if we are simply too lazy to investigate it. Scripture often describes unbelievers as blind and deceived, but the image is clearly not meant to get them off the hook!

Luke Smith asked about what I mean by “belief” in this discussion, and I want to make clear that I am defining “belief” here as assent to a proposition. I realize that this is not the way Scripture customarily describes belief, but my purpose is not to do biblical theology but to offer a philosophical-theological reflection. I believe that assenting to true propositions is a moral imperative. Luke S. further argued that this makes faith into a work. I disagree, because clearly in Scripture people are held morally accountable for rejecting the gospel, and yet we would not argue from this that accepting the gospel is a meritorious work. I think we need to distinguish between concepts of merit and ethical imperative. One can be under an ethical imperative to do something (i.e., accept the gospel) without that something constituting a meritorious work.

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2 Responses to “The Moral Dimension of Theology, Part 2”

  1. Ali Says:

    Yes, Aaron, I agree with your caveat. I would add that the blindness and deception are the result of refusing to see, rather than being unable to see.

  2. Anonymous Says:

    opinated arent we?
    sure are and dont we hate you for it!

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