Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Is Moralism Defensible?

Joe Carter at Evangelical Outpost writes "In Defense of Moralism"

Before we discard the term, though, we should question why we would abandon such a useful word when there are so few suitable alternatives. Admittedly, moral philosophers also study morals and moral problems. But unless one has a PhD and an office in the Ivory Tower, calling oneself a philosopher is considered pretentious. The same holds true for almost every other subject worthy of study. To say a person is a theologian, bioethicist, or economist implies they are "professionals" with the necessary degrees and vocational credentials. Unless we consider morality a subject unsuitable for "amateurs", why would we want to toss aside such a useful term as moralist?

The obvious answer is that the term has become weighted down with too much baggage. Before we can reclaim the term it is necessary to cut loose some of the predominant misconceptions about the label:
Certainly, go read Joe's post - it is a valiant effort to reclaim the word. What follows after the fold is my comment at that post:

I suppose one could try to resurrect "moralist" as a term applying to one that studies morals - although I am not sure where the professional future of that job lies. In the secular world, ethicist would probably do better. For the follower of Christ, we probably should be looking at how the secular world we are trying to reach views our moral claims and prescriptions.

First, Christ's primary ministry was to the Jews - the religion of His birth and the community His ministry was launched in and directed to. He shared a common moral framework, and indeed a common citizenship in a theocracy - or at least one repressed by the Romans. The group of Pharisees he was most likely railing against were those calling Jews to ultra-holiness, and strict adherance to religious law and custom, in order to stave off the inroads of hellenization; and to keep Roman rule from breaking their faith community. Of course, in about 30 years, that group would combine with Zealots to start the first of three wars with Rome that would destroy Judah. So, Christ warned against the very things our current moralists and legalists attempt to organize: the creation of rules and customs to be strictly adhered to in order to stave off secularization of our religion. Indeed, we find our extremes wishing to legislate those rules and customs into ["Roman"?] law. Christ instead talked about writing these laws on our hearts, and not in stone. In being pure, not acting pure. And criticized those who would lay additional moral and legal burdens on God's people [that they themselves could, or would, not follow].

Paul would do the same as the church formed. He did not expect Pagan society to follow Christian rules - his moral prescriptions focused entirely on internal church life; and, indeed, he made it clear that we must be "all to all" in order to bring people to Christ so that the morality of God even applied to them at all. At the beginnnings of Romans 2, right after those famous verses and homosexuality and more in Romans 1:18-32, we have this chilling warning against trying to take the moral high ground:
1 Therefore you are without excuse, whoever you are, when you judge someone else. For on whatever grounds you judge another, you condemn yourself, because you who judge practice the same things. 2 Now we know that God’s judgment is in accordance with truth against those who practice such things. 3 And do you think, whoever you are, when you judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself, that you will escape God’s judgment? 4 Or do you have contempt for the wealth of his kindness, forbearance, and patience, and yet do not know that God’s kindness leads you to repentance? 5 But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath for yourselves in the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment is revealed!
Can you have the "kindness, forbearance and patience" of God while knowing that only His kindness will lead folks to repentance? Then, indeed be a moralist. Otherwise, I think a better idea is to realize that no one cares what you think about their morality until they know you love them.

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How to debate charitably (rules are links to more description of rule):
1. The Golden Rule
2. You cannot read minds
3. People are not evil
4. Debates are not for winning
5. You make mistakes
6. Not everyone cares as much as you
7. Engaging is hard work
8. Differences can be subtle
9. Give up quietly