The Moral Argument, Part 1

splash_02“Is what is pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved?” This was an unsettling enquiry for our world’s first democratic society. Equilibrium was restored through nothing short of Socrates’ execution.  But today, this is a question warmly embraced by the ambassadors of heaven.  The answer is now obvious:   because it is loved.


To put it in more fashionable terms: a human action is moral only because God thinks it moral. And God is entitled to his opinions on this subject. His own immutable triune personhood is the very fount and standard of all we can rightfully call good, right, beautiful and just. The Almighty has, as the epistemologists say, “special access” to the relevant facts.


No matter what the growing body of evidence suggests about the relation between morality and religion – no matter how horrible God’s character might at times seem to be, how harsh his dictates, how petty and arbitrary his rule, cruel his command of exclusion, condemnation, and genocide – the debate is over as soon as it begins: religion provides the only sufficient standard for morality. Sure, God ordered his chosen people to slaughter all the unarmed women and children in a non-threatening neighboring community. This is of absolutely no consequence to issues of morality; without this God, there would be no such thing as right and wrong anyway.


Anti-theist Christopher Hitchens winces and then stares knowingly at this new confident Euthypro; with gate relaxed, his cheeks droop and swagger with defiance.  With his own brand of cavalier authority, Hitchens then  pronounces the truth that any half-wit mammal already knows: morality is “innate.” “I just don’t see what the big deal is,” Hitchens retorted while interviewed with Douglas Wilson on CBN.  


Well, is there a big deal? This is one question I want to explore. Does the non-theist have a basis for a robust moral claim? And while we are enquiring: Does the theist have a basis for a robust moral claim as he or she supposes?  And a third question arises: even if we were to grant a moral claim to  the non-theist, what then do we do with Hitchen’s ferocious pronouncements and censorial judgments against the immorality of the Christian faith? The inescapability of solidarity in human communities is one thing; the new atheism’s sermonic roasting of the poor Christian’s conscience is another. On the face of it, this at least seems to be a big deal.


Canon Press has recently published a debate between Wilson and Hitchens, splash_041also web published at Christianity Today.   As any good professing presuppositionalist would do, Wilson centers the debate on a neo-Van Tillian version of the moral argument. I plan to offer an analysis of this debate and in time get on to seeking some answers for the questions above. For now, I want to challenge Hitchens’ elegant claim that morality is simply “innate.” 


This claim reminded me of Colin Turnbull’s The Mountain People. During the time of my monastic career in the Kirk, Peter Leithart assigned Turnbull’s book as mandatory reading for his year-long theology class at New St. Andrews College.  Systematic theology, Leithart explained, does not do as good a job as Turnbull’s anthropology in illuminating the true nature of sin.  


Turnbull lived among a small group of “mountain people”, called the ‘Ik’, for two years in the mountains separating northern Uganda, Sudan and Kenya. (more…)

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