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Response to Chapter 15 of Russ Shafer-Landau’s book Whatever Happened to Good and Evil? “Does Ethical Objectivity Require God?” Part I

By David Baggett 

Russ Shafer-Landau is a leading metaethicist today, and the book in which this particular chapter is included is a popular treatment of the question of moral objectivity. In dealing with this book, I don’t pretend I have addressed everything he’s written (in his other work) on this specific question of God and ethics, and I also readily concede that the treatment he gives these issues here is more cursory than he treats them in other places.

All in good time; philosophy is slow. On another occasion I can discuss those other works. Here I will consider just this one chapter in this particular book, a book that’s full of good sense on a wide variety of subjects. Much of the time I find myself entirely agreeing with his analysis in the book, which is tremendously useful and admirably well expressed. The content of this particular chapter, though, while clear, is far less persuasive to me, for reasons I’ll outline below. I thought it might be worthwhile to explicate the reasons why.

The title of this chapter reveals a clue as to how Shafer-Landau (subsequently SL) intends to conduct the discussion: does ethical objectivity require God? Language of requirement here is interesting to note. From a descriptive viewpoint, it’s surely not the case that all atheists are skeptical of ethical objectivity, so that’s one obvious sense in which ethical objectivity doesn’t require God—though, of course, what’s shown by this descriptive analysis is merely that belief in ethical objectivity doesn’t require belief in God. Beliefs may or may not be rational, warranted, justified, and the like, however, so this isn’t much of a substantive claim yet.

CoverA more revealing question is whether belief can be rational that there is moral objectivity without believing in God. I suspect the answer to that question is yes, even though I myself am a theistic ethicist and, in fact, a moral apologist. But this is because my case is that God (not mere belief in God) is the best explanation of various moral phenomena (including a robust sense of moral objectivity), not necessarily the only explanation, and that, given certain background assumptions and other convictions, folks are well within their epistemic rights, as atheists, to believe in moral objectivity. Of course, the fact that my argument doesn’t require God to be the only ultimate explanation of morality doesn’t preclude my believing that he is, but the point that needs special emphasis at the moment is this one: the moral argument for God’s existence assumes that there are plenty of unbelievers who have solid reasons for taking moral objectivity seriously.

If indeed God exists and even does serve at the foundation of morality, it makes all the more sense that even unbelievers would have epistemic access to moral truth—on the assumption that a piece of evidence for a divine reality is objective morality itself. An argument for God’s existence needs to feature evidence that appears at least as likely as God’s existence, preferably even more so. Otherwise the argument is trying in vain to persuade one to accept a conclusion on the basis of evidence that seems even less likely. I wholeheartedly affirm that unbelievers can know, just as well as theists can, that there are objective moral standards of rightness and wrongness, good and evil. (Obviously, in speaking of morality here, the reference is to objective moral truths, not merely conventional and contingent moral beliefs and practices that may or may not comport with objective morality.)

The question “Does Ethical Objectivity Require God?” can be understood epistemically or ontologically. Epistemologically, I’ve already argued that rational belief in ethical objectivity doesn’t require God. If the order of being is different from the order of knowing, however, this isn’t enough to show that morality is independent of God metaphysically. The ontological or metaphysical question is the more penetrating question: does moral truth require God as its foundation? Admittedly this is a question that’s not easy to answer; making a case either for or against such an idea takes quite a bit of time and effort. If SL doesn’t want to pursue this particular question in this chapter, that’s entirely fine and his prerogative, but it will be useful as we go along to look to see if his claims broach moral metaphysics or are confined to moral epistemology. If the former happens (and it surely does), I intend to subject what he says to critical scrutiny.

Now that we’re done assessing the title of the chapter, we can proceed.

“Consumed by Christ” A Sermon by Dennis Kinlaw

“Consumed by Christ” is a sermon by Dennis Kinlaw. Dr. Kinlaw was president and chancellor of Asbury College; he also taught Old Testament. He is also the author of many books, including This Day with the Master, Let’s Start with Jesus, Preaching in the Spirit, The Mind of Christ, We Live as Christ, and Malchus’ Ear and Other Sermons.

In this sermon, Dr. Kinlaw explains what it means to be “consumed by Christ.” Kinlaw offers worthwhile insight into why a person would want to follow Jesus when he demands so much. First, Christ has given all of himself as the Lamb and so he does not ask for something he has not also provided. Second, though his way may seem hard, in the end, it will be the only thing that can truly satisfy the human soul.

Download “Consumed by Christ”

 


John Hare’s God’s Command, 7.1 “Maimonides”

Summary by Jonathan Pruitt

In Chapter 7, Hare explores the tensions between divine command theory and Jewish thinkers. Hare suggests that though there are important differences between the Abrahamic faiths, they nevertheless all “wrestle with the question of how divine command relates to human nature.”

In the first of three sections, Hare concerns himself with the thought of Maimonides, especially as he has been interpreted by Marvin Fox. One of the difficulties with understanding Maimonides is due to the esoteric nature of his work. On the surface, it seems that Maimonides presents and affirms many contradictory positions. Maimonides’ approach can sometimes obfuscate or confuse his meaning, so the first step to understanding his insights about the connection between natural law and divine command will be to determine how to interpret his The Guide for the Perplexed.

Hare considers three different hermeneutical approaches. The first approach comes from Leo Strauss. Strauss suggests that the seeming contradictions can be untangled by taking whatever position is least frequently mentioned as Maimonides’ actual view. But Hare thinks this approach is not well supported and leads to some awkward interpretations. Second, Fox argues that Maimonides wants his readers to hold the opposing views at the same time, but that these views are not actually contradictions. Fox thinks that this strategy is didactic; it is meant to ease the reader into deeper and deeper truths about God. Hare, however, thinks that such a practice will leave Maimonides’ thought forever in a fog and is uncharitable; therefore, Hare thinks we should adopt a third way. Hare thinks we should Maimonides as presenting opposing statements as only appearing to be contradictory and the right set of qualifications and context will dissolve the tension.

With a principled method for interpreting Maimonides in hand, Hare applies it Maimonides’ doctrine of the mean and account of the virtues. Hare takes Fox and his interpretation of Maimonides as a foil as he provides his own account. Fox thinks of Maimonides’ understanding of the virtues as deeply influenced by Aristotle. Even though Maimonides and Aristotle disagree, they both have a “doctrine of the mean.” Fox tries to show that Aristotle’s account of the virtues was established by appeal to nature. Supposedly, Aristotle determined what the virtues were and their character by grounding them in facts about human nature.

hare god's commandHare thinks Fox’s analysis of Aristotle goes wrong in two ways. First, the doctrine of the mean does not only seek to find the balance between human activities, like courage being between foolhardiness and cowardice. Often, virtue is correlated with a “peak” which might vary depending on context instead of a balance. The best number of calories to eat, for example, will depend on the activity and physiology of a particular person. There is no set number of calories that is exactly in the middle of two extremes which all people should eat. Secondly, Hare says that Aristotle never makes the connection between nature and the specific character of the virtues. Aristotle does, broadly, ground happiness in human nature and its proper function. But his specific characterization of proper function is primarily influenced by his own tradition, especially as it comes from Homer. Thus, Aristotle does not ground the specific requirements of the moral life in facts about nature and, therefore, Fox’s understanding of the disagreement between Maimonides and Aristotle is mistaken.

Hare thinks there are two fundamental differences between Aristotle and Maimonides. First, Maimonides is conscious of his use of sources outside his own tradition and argues for their legitimacy. This is important because it helps to demonstrate that Maimonides recognizes the cognitive value of philosophy in thinking about ethics. Aristotle, on the other hand, has his own sources but they come from within his tradition and he offers no argument for their use. The second difference has to do with the sources internal to their tradition. Aristotle says that God does not give commands, but that he serves the role of grounding what reason can determine. Maimonides, on the other hand, thinks God has given commands and that these commands have ontological and epistemic priority, but they can be shown to be consistent with proper human reason and nature. However, moral obligations are only obligatory because they are command by God. Man can see often that they are good, but their rightness supervenes on the divine command.

Hare’s final aim in his discussion of Maimonides is to correct the idea that he was a moral non-cognitivist. One motivation for the non-cognitivist view comes from Maimonides’ comments on the effects of the Fall. Prior to the Fall, Maimonides say that Adam could make “true judgments” and afterwards, he could only make judgments about what is “beautiful or ugly.” Fox argues, on the assumption that aesthetic judgments are non-cognitive, plus Maimonides’ relative pessimism about human ability to discern the moral law, that this makes Maimonides a non-cognitivist.

Hare disagrees for two reasons. First, he thinks it is anachronistic to apply the label to Maimonides. Second, he argues that it is simply not true that aesthetic judgments are non-cognitive. But then what did Maimonides mean in his comments about the Fall? Hare suggests that possibly Maimonides was merely indicating that human epistemic capacity is limited by the effects of the Fall. Maimonides intends for the move from truth to beauty to be a deterioration and Hare thinks that this deterioration has to do with man’s capacity to discern rightly objective truths. Without the proper relation to God, man can only judge from his perspective. These judgments will be based on convention and be provisional. However, God in his revelation of himself in the Torah, makes accommodation to man’s position while also providing them with moral truth. An example of this accommodation and restoration is the animal sacrifices. The moral truth is that God should be worshiped, but God accommodates this truth to man by allowing them to continue their “natural” practice of worship through sacrifice, but only when it is directed to him.

In this section, Hare wants to emphasize that Maimonides did not think that morality and reason are totally isolated; they are complementary. But this does not mean that the moral law can be discovered by reason, even if it can be shown to be rational after it is revealed.

 

Image: “Maimonides” By Unknown – Psychiatric News, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26202333

Peter Goodwin Heltzel, summary of “Prophetic Ethics” of Christian Ethics: Four Views

by Jeff Dickson

As Heltzel observes the contemporary moral sitz em leben he recognizes a need for the abandonment of what he refers to as a “one-sided emphasis on personal ethic to an ethic that is both personal and social.” To this end, he advocates for prophetic ethics that he defines as a moral theory that is committed to action, discipleship, embodiment, mission, justice, and love.

The Source and Shape of Prophetic Ethics

Heltzel claims that the Holy Scriptures in general and Jesus’ teachings/practices in particular, are the primary source of prophetic ethics. The contents of Jesus’ message and the character of his activity encouraged “shalom justice” and proclaimed “the kingdom of God” all in the context of “a Spirit led movement fueled by the fire of revolutionary love.” Stories of Jesus’s dealings with others ought to, according to Heltzel, steer Christians toward empathy for those who are “the least of these” and galvanize disciples toward compelling action in the context of transformational communities.

This requires that Christians know themselves and the context in which they live. If believers are to involve themselves in the justice movement, they must understand where they fit “within the travail and tragedy of human history, which is also the history of redemption.” In so doing, Christians are to take their cue from Christ’s example and act as moral agents who are sensitive to local conditions, events, circumstances, and actions.

81EExywD6iLSuch moral activity is supported by Heltzel’s interpretation of Micah 6:8. Therein, the prophet Micah challenges the people of God to “act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” This verse satisfies what Heltzel believes are the three characteristics of prophetic ethics: faith-rooted organizing (acting justly), empathetic solidarity (loving mercy), and daily prayer (walking humbly with God). While these characteristics describe the praxis of prophetic ethics, Heltzel argues that such practices are rooted in the Hebrew Scripture’s imperative for justice and righteousness. When these two terms (tzadeqah and mishpat) are juxtaposed (see Psalm 33:5 and Jer. 9:23-24 for examples), Heltzel and others like Tim Keller believe that they convey the idea of social justice. As a result, what the Hebrews Scriptures advocate and what Jesus illustrates is a call not just to personal morality, but to appropriate social relations. Taking from Christ’s example, the believer ought to fight for the same in his/her context.

The Application of Prophetic Ethics

Though Love and justice most nearly categorize the moral norms of prophetic ethics, improvisation is its method. “Like a jazz musician improvising on standards,” Heltzel believes that “Jesus improvises on Scripture when he preaches and teaches.” This is most clearly witnessed in his exposition of the Old Testament law in Matthew 5-7. There, Jesus provides his commentary on the law and preaches a revised ethic that offers love and justice to an oppressed and broken people.

In similar ways, contemporary Christians ought to take the themes of love and justice that are articulated in the example of Jesus and improvise on their themes in a way that can speak to the issues that people are confronting.  Though the Black Lives Matter movement, death penalty opposition, and Martin Luther King Jr. are cited as examples of how this looks, prophetic ethics is satisfied anytime Christians “empathetically enter the experience of…fellow humans, especially the marginalized who are victims of violence,” and bring love and justice with them. Ultimatley, Heltzel and the prophetic ethic movement is calling Christians to prayerfully shrug off a deleterious preoccupation with personal righteousness and strive for social sanctity.

Virtue Ethics Response

Brad Kallenberg is sympathetic to Heltzer’s assessment of the church as overly individualistic and largely ignorant/avoidant of social involvement. Kallenberg also concurs with Heltzel’s emphasis on ethics as active and performative. However, Kallenberg believes that Heltzel’s system is not prepared to answer why this is the case. Also, using his own musical metaphor, Kallenberg criticizes prophetic ethics for not identifying any unifying/fundamental theme by which the many variations of moral improvisations Heltzel calls for can be rightly understood and applied.

Natural Law Response

Along with the other contributors to the volume, Claire Brown Peterson agrees with prophetic ethics’ call for a just society and prayerful, coordinated, open, and nonviolent campaigns to that end. However, she criticizes prophetic ethics in general and Heltzel in particular on three fronts. First, while advocating for social justice, prophetic ethics does not elucidate how the requirements of justice must reference human nature and flourishing. Second, in its appeal for society, Heltzel largely ignores the necessary private dimensions of ethical consideration. Finally, Heltzel’s iteration of prophetic ethics makes it appear as those collective organization and embodied solidarity are the only appropriate responses to injustices when more choices are, in fact, available.

Divine Command Theory Response

Divine command theorist John Hare widely concedes the crux of what Heltzel has offered inasmuch as prophetic ethics is predominately based on prophetic commands divinely given in the Scriptures. However, Hare wonders if Heltzel does not draw an unnecessary dichotomy between personal purity and concern for others. Also, while Hare appreciates Heltzel’s emphasis on Jesus “prophetic” work, he wishes that prophetic ethics would not dismiss his roles as priest (committed to holiness and sacrifice) and king (exercising stewardship over the created realm). Finally, Hare questions whether or not it is appropriate to describe Jesus’s preaching as improvising on the Scripture and if more work needs to be done to improve this analogy.

 

An Old Example

“An Old Example” is a sermon by Dennis Kinlaw and here he examines Genesis 12:1-9, God’s calling of Abraham, and urges listeners to submit their lives and possessions to God’s will. Dr. Kinlaw was president and chancellor of Asbury College; he also taught Old Testament. He is also the author of many books, including This Day with the Master, Let’s Start with Jesus, Preaching in the Spirit, The Mind of Christ, We Live as Christ, and Malchus’ Ear and Other Sermons.

What Sort of _______ Is This?

 

by Tom Thomas

A mystery seized the disciples.  The mystery’s answer unlocks the door to the Book of Matthew; it unscrambles the Gospel itself; and it opens the gate to your life – to its present satisfaction – its eternal future.  The disciples wondered, ‘What sort of man is this that even the wind and the sea obey him?’ On that occasion their boat is caught in a Galilean sea windstorm.  Waves are lapping over their fishing vessel’s sides.  They are being swamped.  They panic.  They fear they are sinking. Then Jesus speaks to the winds telling them to be silent.  The sea hushes.  There is dead calm.  The disciples gasp, ‘What sort of man is this that even the wind and the sea obey him?’ The original language of the text does not have any noun after the ‘what sort of’.  Literally, it’s ‘what sort of____’ is this that even the wind and sea obey him?’.  One has to supply the noun.  That is, the question: what sort of ‘one’, what sort of ‘person’, being, is this to whom the wind and sea are subject?  It’s the same question I want to put to you.  ‘What sort of “one” is this that even the wind and the sea obey him?’  I trust you have already responded to it.  Answering this question is a confession one continually reaffirms.  Answer it for yourself again.

Ancient people answered it similarly.  The weather – rain, wind, thunder, and lightning – said the Canaanites is controlled by Baal, the Canaanite god.  The Egyptians said the weather was controlled by Horus, the falcon-headed god.  The ancient Greeks said it was Poseidon, the god of the sea.  Poseidon controls the oceans and the seas.  The Romans answered it was Jupiter.  The Jews said in Psalm 107 the Lord God ‘made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed.’

The ancients all agree controlling the weather is the domain of a god – not of a human.  Atheists like Richard Dawkins or theologians like Rudolf Bultmann say ruling the weather is not the work of a god. They do agree it is not the province of a human, either.  Upon this we’re all are agreed:  commanding the weather is not in the province of a human.  The disciples’ rhetorical question, ‘What sort of’, one, person, _?__ , is this that even the winds and the sea obey’ – anticipates the answer.

What sort of person this is again is highlighted just two chapters later in Matthew 10: 34-39.  Jesus says, ‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.  For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.’  This is jarring! The Lord’s anointed has not come to bring peace but a clash.

He declares he will turn son against father; divide daughter and mother; and daughter in law against mother in law.   He will deliberately split life’s most enduring, affectionate and necessary bonds.   Elie Wiesel and his family were Jews who just got off the Nazi train at Birkenau.  A Nazi SS officer wielding a club barked, ‘Men to the left! Women to the right!’  Suddenly, Elie was separated from his mother and sister.  He watched his mother and sister disappear into the horizon.  That was the last time he ever saw his mother.

Jesus separates family members. He claims there is a deeper, more necessary bond than the familial bond.   There is a relationship more primary than family.  The relationship with Him is greater than the familial bond.  Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.  He inserts love for himself between that of son and father; daughter and mother.  Love for Him surpasses the primary human love.  Love for Him is more fundamental and transcendent than human love.  Who ranks above the love for your father?  Who ranks above the love for your daughter? Or your mother?  Jesus says whoever loves mother more than me is not worthy of me.

My late mother Betsy had a college friend in Lynchburg who she kept up with over the years.  They would talk.  My mother inevitably got the conversation around to church.  ‘Claire, come to worship.  You belong there.  We miss you.’  But, Claire would remind her worship was at the time her family went to brunch.  My mother said, ‘Then change the time of brunch.’  Is that what you say? What sort of one even claims preeminence over life’s primary priority?

Jesus was leaving a large crowd.  One from his larger group of disciples said to Him, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’  (Then I will follow you.)  To bury your father is one of those things you do to fulfill the commandment, ‘Honor your father’.  Some think the disciple was not speaking literally but meant he needed to care for his aged father.  After his father died and was buried, the disciple would be free then to follow Jesus.  Either way, Jesus’ response remains: ‘Follow me and let the dead bury the dead.’  The spiritual dead will take care of the physical dead.  First things first…following Me takes immediate priority.  Nothing – not even burying one’s father – comes before this One.

Jesus demands to be loved preeminently above your human loves.  In fact, if you love your father more than Jesus, you do not deserve Jesus; you are not suited to Him; and you cannot belong to Him.  ‘What sort of’ person is this that demands such exclusive love?

Who is it that makes such an absolute claim?  What sort of person is this?  Who is it the weather obeys? Who demands love surpassing all human love? 

Perhaps the greatest claim Jesus made was the one in Matthew Chapter Eleven.  He said, ‘All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.’ (Matthew 11: 27-28).  Here Jesus claims ‘all things’- literal word is ‘all’ – all has been handed over to him by ‘my Father’.   The ‘all’ is inclusive.  Nothing is excluded from the set of ‘all’.  ‘Handed over’ is to turn over, deliver to or entrust to.  At my mother’s death, everything of hers and my late father’s – everything – clothes, address book, furniture, photograph albums, files, bank account, bills, and their 1820 Eli Terry clock – were handed over to my sister and me.  Everything.  What is handed over to Jesus?  Some contemporary scholars say it was John claiming this for Jesus not Jesus Himself.  Really? Jesus defines the Father- who- has- turned-everything-over- to-Him:  He is ‘Father, Lord of heaven and earth’.  What all does the ‘Father, Lord of heaven and earth’ have to entrust to Jesus?  Heaven? The Milky Way?  The Sun?  The earth?  All its inhabitants?  You? What’s not included?  Jesus said plainly, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given me.’

Jesus tells his disciples the reason they know hidden things and the wise and intelligent do not:  ‘no one knows the Son except the Father; and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.’  The Father and Son share knowing exclusive to themselves.  We expect the Father to know the Son.  What is shocking is that Jesus says ‘no one knows the Father except the Son’.  In the original language, the word ‘know’ is intensified:  knows exactly, knows completely, and knows through and through.  Jesus is claiming He is the only One who knows God through and through; exactly as He is.  Who is it who knows God’s mind exactly?  Who is the only one who knows completely Tom Thomas’ mind? Who is buried in George Washington’s tomb?!

The second part of this is ‘no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him’.  Jesus is the only one who mediates and reveals God.  Revealing God is at the Son’s discretion and according to His own prerogative.

Jesus’ claim was on trial in a recent Senate hearing.  Russell Vought was being interviewed for a deputy position in the White House Office of Management and Budget.  Bernie Sanders took him to task for an article Russell wrote for his college newsletter.  Russell said Muslims ‘do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ His Son, and they stand condemned.’  Sanders asked him if he was being respectful of other religions.  Vought in his words was echoing Jesus.

Jesus is not disrespectful.  He is making an exclusive but truthful claim.  ‘No one – not the Buddha, Mohammed, the guru, the Imam, or Moses – knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.’  No one can know the Father who does not first know the Son.  Who is it that makes such an absolute claim?  What sort of person is this?  Who is it the weather obeys? Who demands love surpassing all human love? Who knows completely the inner mind of God?  Who have you said Him to be?  Who do you now say Him to be?  He is the Person to whom I submit my body, my soul, my fame, my fortune, my friends, my reputation, my life, and my all!  You too?

 

Freedom in Christ

 

A Twilight Musing 

By Elton Higgs 

            As on every July 4, we heard a lot earlier this week about “freedom,” which in the context of the holiday refers to the political freedom gained by the American colonies breaking away from an oppressive British government.  The justification for that action was eloquently and nobly expreessed by a Declaration of Independence.  However, “freedom” is often used more for its emotive content than its precise definition.  It frequently embodies a self-congratulatory attitude, as in identifying the U. S. as one of the nations of “the Free World.”  The term also commonly refers to the rights of individuals to do as they wish, being under no legal restrictions in making their choices, as in the popular catch-phrase, “a woman’s right to choose,” referring to abortion.  However, as the founders of our republic understood, the exercise of freedom requites a foundation of moral law.

The Bible has a great many references to freedom, but they are not primarily (and sometimes not at all) concerned with political or civil freedoms.  In fact, the concepts they convey are often counterintuitive to human reason, for, particularly in the New Testament, they are presenting the paradox of people who are apparently politically or personally free being in bondage, while the freedom that God wants to give His people is spoken of as slavery.  In fact, our fallen human condition means that we are enslaved in our natural state, and that our only deliverance from that bondage is to become slaves to Christ:

But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.  When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness.  But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? The end of those things is death.  But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life.  (Rom 6:17-22)

This is worlds away from the idea of “freedom” as something we have a right to.  Jesus made this distinction clear when he imparted His radical truth to the Jewish leaders:

So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”  They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?”   Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.  The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever.  So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.

Freedom, Jesus tells them, is not something they can claim as a part of their “rights” as Israelites, children of Abraham.  Rather, it is something granted by the Son of God, completely His to give or withhold.  As Paul says, the only thing we fallen humans can claim as our “right” is death, whereas “the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23).

It’s appropriate to celebrate the anniversary of the founding of our “free” country, with its constitutionally defined Bill of Rights.  But no amount of political or personal freedom in the society of mankind can bring us the freedom that we most need, the God-defined and grace-granted freedom “from the law of sin and death” (Rom. 8:2).  Let us principally rejoice in that which makes us “free indeed.”

 

 

 

Sophocles and the Doctrine of Sin: A Reflection on Teaching Greek Tragedy

 

Josh Herring

This past year I taught 9th grade Ancient Literature for the second time. My first year teaching this curriculum I spent too much time in Homer, and did not make it to tragedy; this year, my goal was to pace the course correctly and work through the most significant plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Along the journey, I discovered an unexpected blessing of teaching Greek tragedy: no other literature I have taught highlights quite so well the reality, the unavoidability, and the consequences of sin. I spent seven weeks with sixty 9th graders discussing questions of justice, inherited guilt, atonement, reconciliation, and grief. As a Christian educator in a secular school, I feel a burden to urge my students to consider topics I believe will prepare them for the gospel, and teaching Sophocles led to just such a discovery.

In setting the context for Oedipus Rex, I explained the play’s basic assumption that the plague in the city of Thebes resulted from a violation of the universe’s moral law; the action of the play then, is a mystery solving the crime and rooting out the perpetrator. When the story unfolded and Oedipus’ guilt became increasingly plausible, I learned one of my students was a fervent relativist. He asserted adamantly that every person has a value system and that no one value system is preferable to another. People are good or bad based on how well they achieve their chosen values. This student left me scratching my head; how could I steer him towards truth without coming right out and telling him he is wrong? How do I guide him dialogically to discover that his thinking is insufficient? Fortunately, Sophocles himself resolved my dilemma.

That night, the students read a section of Oedipus Rex which made the incestuous relationship between Oedipus and Iocaste unmistakable; my student came in the next afternoon with a new declaration: “Mr. Herring, that’s wrong!” “Whether it fits his value system or not?” I responded. “Yes – that, that right there, is wrong.” Leave it to the Greeks—their licentiousness notwithstanding—to enshrine moral rock bottom in their literature. The battle for truth is in no way won; I suspect this student and I will go back and forth on the nature of truth for the next three years. But his declaration of “wrongness” struck me: Sophocles reached for a universal category in his drama, and in so doing he communicates down through the ages to our own “secular age.”

There is a sense in which it is harder to teach virtue than it used to be; teachers of years past could frame their moral instruction capitalizing on a common biblical literacy. Today, the idea of “loving your neighbor” because “God first loved you” simply does not compute without lengthy preparation. If we have lost the common cultural framework of biblical literacy, however, we are not left to our own devices to begin re-establishing the categories of sin and guilt. These are universal human experiences, and they underpin the best literature.

Sophocles can teach us moral fundamentals; sleeping with your mother and producing children offends the universe, human sensibility, and civic law. In Antigone, Sophocles has the title character appeal to the “unwritten laws of God” to justify her actions. In this line lies the glory of human literature as a moral teacher. On the other hand, therein also lies its insufficiency. Poets can discern sin, just as Paul calls the law the teacher of sin. Incest, pride, atheism, child murder: the tragedians illustrate the wrongness of these things. And yet, they can point to nothing more certain than the “unwritten laws of God” to prove the wrongness of these actions. These tragedies pull on a common human awareness of wrong actions, but fail to answer the desire for something clear, certain, and definitive.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the divine wrote down the rules? And then clarified them for us? This of course is exactly what we have in the Bible. We have the clarity of the Ten Commandments and the extensive development of practical outworkings all grounded in the nature of a loving God who created all things and knows our best interests. Suddenly, we have a sense of why hubris is dangerous: because God made us humans for a certain place, and the man of pride reaches for more than God intended. In the overreach lies the dangerous fall. Incest, too, offends the created order, wherein God intended human beings to form new covenant communities to diversify across the earth so that new facets of his image are revealed across creation. Scripture also shows us an alternative for guilt. We run not away from the angry Greek gods of Sophocles but to the loving God who through bloodshed atones for our wrongdoing. The Bible looks to the same universal problems and longings Greek tragedy addresses, but with hope.

Pascal famously wrote of a “God-shaped void” in every human heart; Greek tragedy can illuminate this void, but does nothing to fill it.

After seven weeks in the wonderful poetry of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripedes, I reached three conclusions. First, tragedy operates in a pre-evangelistic manner. The stories are simple, but so well-crafted that the reader becomes imminently mindful that he may have committed some great evil unawares just like Oedipus. Second, tragedy highlights a missing certainty in 21st century post-postmodernity. Reading Oedipus Rex worked to “blow the roof off” of my student’s assumptions that morality is completely relative, beginning a further conversation about the existence of moral truth. Third, tragedy is like a cancer diagnosis without chemotherapy; it provides no hope. Without the gospel, without the real word from a real God, we are left with Oedipus in despair over what our understanding reveals. Unless God is real and the Bible is true, we stand with Nietzsche gazing into the abyss of existence with no authentic response but despair.

Pascal famously wrote of a “God-shaped void” in every human heart; Greek tragedy can illuminate this void, but does nothing to fill it. In seeking some sort of atonement, Oedipus blinds himself, Iocaste commits suicide, and (in a later play) Antigone ends the evil of her existence by hanging herself. Tragedy looks at the human experience, sees the reality of sin, and concludes that nothing but despair remains. Where the tragedians despair, the gospel proclaims hope. Christ himself enters our tragedy and in the greatest eucatastrophe in human history reverses the tragic into the salvific.

 

Image: Bénigne Gagneraux, The Blind Oedipus Commending his Children to the Gods, Public Domain