Christianity and the Need to Reform
The history of Christianity shows a constant need for reform. The fact that those who consider themselves to be Christians cannot seem to get it right might lead to the conclusion that the enterprise is essentially futile. Maybe those who cling to the notion of a true Christian community should recognize the futility and try something else. In fact, many people in our time have done just that. They turn to secularism, Eastern religion, or spirituality without religion. Those options or a myriad of others might work – work in the sense of providing meaning to life. But the perpetual need for reform does not mean that the Christian promise is futile.
The awareness of the need for reform indicates a judgment that there can be something better than the status-quo. We sense the need to reform our religion, or any other human institution when we sense that the reality falls short of what the institution professes to be or what it can potentially be. We cannot think of a need to reform without a vision of the good. To draw a parallel from our secular culture, anytime racism rears its ugly head in the United States, we are reminded of the ideals set forth by the founders of our country, even though they themselves did not live up to their own ideals. American reality has always clashed with the ideals of moral equality and universal liberty, but the ideals show us which way we ought to move.
The pull of integrating and dis-integrating forces that run through evolutionary creation also exert themselves in the church as elsewhere. The integrating force is the spirit drawing individuals into a community of love. But members easily slip into idolatries of power and wealth and ethnic exclusiveness. These anti-communal forces then lead to religious wars and persecution and oppression.
In every generation, reformers have shown up to remind Christians what their faith is all about. I will not try to prove this point and I am not doing church history. But I will give some examples to illustrate my point, namely that reformers work against the idolatries that nourish anti-communal forces.
Christianity and the Evolutionary Struggle
In previous posts I have argued for the feasibility of believing that consciousness precedes matter and directs its evolution. In the evolutionary process, matter itself becomes more and more conscious. This development consists of a process of composition in which the infinitely divided elements are becoming integrated. The process takes place in the formation of elements, molecules, stars, and planets.
On earth, and probably a multitude of other planets, the process culminates in living organisms, consciousness, and intelligence. In the most recent posts, this process was applied to human religious consciousness. At every step we find the opposition of integration toward greater being and disintegration, which is the tendency to fall back into nothingness.
The next several posts will consider the historical Christian church as a microcosm of the evolutionary struggle. While the goal of Christianity consists of the universal beloved community, for two thousand years Christians have frequently fought among themselves or with outsiders. The creative action to produce universal harmony and the tendency to slip back into the all-in-division of nothingness. The first aspect stands out more explicitly in the church than any other institution. The Church claims to be the Body of Christ, and therefore the social embodiment of Universal Consciousness. In Christian terminology the highest is called God, and Christ is called the “Word of God” incarnate. On the other hand, the human individuals who constitute the Church, whether they be hierarchs or lay people, weigh themselves down with all of the disintegrating forces that plague the whole human race.
The problem specific to religion stems from the human tendency to slip into forms of idolatry. The idols include power, wealth, and ethnic exclusiveness. Each of these expresses what I have referred to as forms of disintegration.
In the secular world, a person may legitimately acquire and even accumulate wealth if the purpose is to promote the common good. The wealthy philanthropist can achieve results that the poor philanthropist cannot. Even aside from philanthropy, a wealthy capitalist can promote the prosperity of many through the production of products, jobs, and tax revenue. But those who seek wealth for themselves, regardless of the effect that their action has on others, leave behind dislocations such as lost jobs, environmental deterioration and an imbalanced use of resources.
So with church leaders, wealth can be, and usually is, used for religious, educational, or charitable purposes. But when Church leaders slip into the idolatry of wealth and accumulate money for themselves, or to live in a grand style, they present themselves on the wrong side of the evolutionary struggle. Their actions destroy rather than enhance the community. If the persons in power, such as bishops, make power itself their object of worship and make obedience to themselves the ultimate virtue, they are also destructive of authentic community. Most destructive of all might be the tendency to use religion as a cover to exclude those who are not members of their own community such a people of different religions, ideologies, or sexual orientations.
If the whole evolutionary creative process is to craft a universal community out of an infinitely divided reality, then the duty of religion is to show the way, mainly by example. When religion itself become the source of divisiveness, then it has distorted its purpose and becomes an evil factor.
Christian Scriptures and the Evolution of consciousness.
The Gospels depict the highest consciousness becoming incarnate in an individual who teaches crowds about the Kingdom of God, which in the context of the thesis of these posts, would mean individually conscious beings sharing to some extent the universal world-forming consciousness. The incarnate presence of God was not seen in a warrior king or emperor, but in Jesus, a person of no political, economic, or even religious significance. He appealed to the lowest rungs of society. According to the Magnificat, or Hymn of Mary, “He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and has exalted the lowly” (Luke 1:52) The message seems to be that compared to the universal consciousness, whose essential characteristic is love and compassion, power and wealth fall into insignificance. Lust for power, wealth, and pleasure continue to plague society including the Church. The struggle of evolution as described in chapter two goes on in every aspect of human history.
The theme of evolutionary integration struggling with the force of disintegration in the development of religion, can best be shown by examining the Fourth Gospel, “The Gospel According to John” and the writings of St. Paul. To clarify the method of my approach, since I am writing a work of philosophy and not theology or Scripture study, my approach does not begin with Scripture as a source from which we can draw conclusions. Rather, I am beginning with the idea stated in Chapter I, that consciousness precedes matter. The explicit point of this Fifth Chapter is to show continuity between traditional religion and an idea that does not depend on Scripture or on any religious authority. That idea, namely, is that consciousness precedes matter, and in the course of evolution, matter is becoming conscious. If my project is successful, those who study consciousness from the point of view of biology, psychology, neurology, can also look to religion as a source of insight. It would further mean that those who begin from a religious or theological perspective can find another link to the sciences mentioned here.
St. Paul describes the Christian community as one body and he emphasizes that the community persists by love for Christ and a mutual love of the members for each other. Paul was well aware of the dissension that worked against the communal sense and spent many of his letters instructing the newly converted Christians to avoid such disunity. For Paul, the acceptance of Christ and his community created a “New Man,” But the old habits have a way of returning and exerting themselves. In terms of the theme of this work, the expansion of consciousness to a higher level of love and community co-exists with the old tendency toward egoistic narrowness.
In John’s Gospel, the force of light, love, and unity struggles with darkness, hate, and division. Given what we know today about the evolution of our species, we can legitimately interpret these themes as a break-through in consciousness. The development of consciousness requires a greater integration of our brain, which is experienced as a growth in light and love.
The first chapter of John announces that “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.” As we become more conscious, the previous states of consciousness, individually and collectively are judged as darkness. As the popular hymn has it, “I once was blind, but now I see.” In Chapter 3 of John’s Gospel, Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night – night connoting darkness. Jesus tells him he must be born anew. At this stage of his life, Nicodemus could understand this statement only as the absurd task of returning to his mother’s womb to be born again. Jesus teaches him about being born of the Spirit. This rebirth involves a break-through in consciousness that ordinary consciousness cannot comprehend.
Jesus further explains that light has come into the world but people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. Recognition of the light would expose the evil of their deeds. By the time of the New Testament, the consciousness of the human species had developed far beyond anything else on earth. But there was, and is, the tension between the integrating power of consciousness and the disintegrating force of a bodily based individualism. People act out of greed, pride, anger, and hatred in ways that thwart the unifying power of the spirit of consciousness. This idea runs throughout the Gospel, but culminates in the prayer that Jesus offers in Chapter 17:21 of John. “That they all may be one even as thou Father art in me and I in thee, that they all may be one in us.” The ultimate goal of the Gospel is the same as and an expression of what I am arguing is the goal of evolution, namely the overcoming of chaos and division and the creation of harmonious integration.
The Greek tradition
In the Greek tradition, Homer depicts gods and goddesses who were supremely powerful and beautiful and who controlled events on earth from weather conditions to the outcome of battles. These deities were clearly the projection of what humans aspired to or at least wished to be. Most especially, they were immortal. The notion of the gods and goddesses reveals that human consciousness had developed to where people were aware of the tragedy of their mortality, their imperfections, and what they would be if they were not so limited. Significantly, the gods and goddesses did not exhibit a superior morality, and for humans, morality consisted primarily of keeping the deities happy.
The philosopher Xenophanes (570 - 478) exhibited a breakthrough in the development of consciousness when he was appalled by the depictions of sleazy morality among the deities and in their treatment of mortals. First, this criticism shows a moral awareness that is not dictated to by mythology. Secondly, it shows belief in a non-material consciousness. The gods and goddesses were made after our own image and likeness. Not only were they made to look human, but each ethnic group depicted the deities as looking like those who made the images. Xenophanes argued that God has no body nor is He multiplied according to the multiplication of nations. Aristotle writes of Xenophanes: “with his eye on the whole heaven he says that the one is god.”
In the Republic, Plato (428 - 438) described “The Good” as the source of all good and beautiful forms, which in turn were the source of good and beautiful images in the physical world. The Good is not only above material things; the good is “beyond being.” Plato’s view represents the complete inverse of any materialism. In the Platonic understanding, the non-physical and invisible reality serves as the source and model for physical reality, which is being called out of chaos into cosmos. In the dialogue Timaeus, the title character explaining the reason for creation states:
God desired that all things should be good and nothing bad, so far as this was attainable. Wherefore also finding the whole visible sphere not at rest, but moving in an irregular and disorderly fashion, out of disorder he brought order, considering that this was in every way better than the other. Now the deeds of the best could never be or have been other than the fairest, and the creator, reflecting on the things which are by nature visible, found that no unintelligent creature taken as a whole could ever be fairer than the intelligent taken as a whole and again that the intelligent could not be present in anything which was devoid of soul.
Timaeus makes it clear that his story should not be taken as an exact account of how the world was created, but only as a probability, which is the most a mortal could hope to achieve. Plato’s view of creation, as expressed in Timaeus, while not exactly the same as that of a Christian theologian, has much in common with it. Further, Plato’s view would fit compatibly with a contemporary religious view of evolution, bringing order out of chaos and seeing intelligence as an essential component of order. The materialist of course sees the ideas of Plato as an illusory invention rather than a discovery of reality.
Aristotle understood God as being above and beyond the natural world, hence the term “metaphysical.” For Aristotle, thinking is the highest form of being. Therefore, he describes God, who is pure, fully actualized being, as pure thought thinking of itself. We, as rational animals, are born with the potential to develop the power of rational thought. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle set out to define the highest good for human beings and the means to attain it. At the beginning of the Ethics he stipulated that the good is that at which all things aim. Some things are good because they are a means to a higher good; but the greatest good is that which is sought for its own sake.
The good of any being consists in achieving its specific telos – fulfillment, and since humans are rational animals, our telos consists in fulfilling our potential of rationality. In Book X of Nicomachaen Ethics, Aristotle recaps the meaning of the best way of life. In Book I, he had identified the good as happiness, defined generally as living well and doing well. Some identify happiness with pleasure, others with honor. But Aristotle contends that the highest happiness consists of contemplation.
To the extent that we actualize our potential for thinking and living rationally, we become friends of God; and acquire a virtue that survives the death of our bodily nature. Leaping ahead to the Christian Middle Ages, St. Thomas Aquinas absorbed much of the Aristotelian philosophy and integrated it with Christianity. His synthesis remains a strong force in Catholic thought up to the present.
The Biblical Tradition - Hebrew Scriptures
While Christian philosophy derived from Aristotle, Christian religion descends from the Hebrew tradition in which God is active and caring in human history, unlike the aloof god of Aristotle. The Hebrew God was revealed to Moses as a mighty warrior-liberator who would force the Egyptians to free the Israelites. But Moses did not understand God as merely a more powerful warrior god among many. God, as revealed to Moses could not be depicted in an image nor could he be invoked by calling his name.
In Moses’ understanding and teaching, God made a covenant with his people that begins with their liberation from Egypt and the entry into the Promised Land. The duty of the people required exclusive worship of God, who transcended images and names, as well as observance of the required acts of justice to each other. Set-backs, both before and after the chosen people’s entry into what became their land, were seen as the result of failing to live up to the covenant.
If the evolution of religion, specifically biblical religion, can be seen as the evolution of the human awareness of a transcendent consciousness, the leading edge of this awareness can be found in the person of each of the prophets. In one of the crucial breakthroughs in the history of religion, the prophet Amos upended the notion that we can live a good life simply by placating God with ritual and sacrifice. Amos railed against evil immoral acts and attributed the suffering of the people to God’s punishment. But the reform that Amos demanded did not involve pleasing God with rituals. Rather it meant justice toward the poor. Amos, voicing what he believed God said through him, warned:
I hate, I despise your feasts
And I take no delight in your solemn assemblies
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and cereal offerings,
I will not accept them….
But let justice roll down like water
And righteousness like and ever flowing stream.
Hear this you who trample on the needy
And bring the poor of the land to an end. (Amos: 5: 21, 22, 24, 8: 4)
American philosopher Josiah Royce (1855 - 1916) summed up the breakthrough of Amos in the context of mediating ideas, which bring together apparently incompatible thought processes. In a previous paragraph, Royce had illustrated the mediating idea of Malthus on the thought of Charles Darwin. Arguing that the same creative process that works in science also works in religion, he showed how Amos reconciled the self-righteousness of religious leaders with the grim reality of the neglected poor. As Royce states it: “Amos introduced into the controversies of his time the still tragic, but inspiring and mediating, idea of the God who, as he declared, delights not in sacrifices but in righteousness. And by this one stroke of religious genius the prophet directed the religious growth of the centuries that were to follow.” The Problem of Christianity, 307.
So the insight of Amos does not constitute merely another idea in a pantheon of religious ideas. Rather his insight shows real progress. The idea of the need to take care of the poor as central to religion runs through the history of Judaism and Christianity. The tendency to return to a smug selfish attitude remains, but the arrow of religious history shows a constant attempt to overcome greed and selfishness in favor of justice and charity.
The prophetic vision of Amos was carried forward by the prophet Isaiah.
As Daniel Berrigan, in his book Isaiah, quotes the prophet speaking in the voice of God:
Of what import, what value
These sacrifices of yours,
Innumerable---useless, repugnant !
Turn, turn, turn !
Succor the oppressed,
Cherish the defenseless !
Berrigan observes that the religious sense itself is declared perverted. When religious sense moves forward, the old religiosity, which had been understood as prescribed by God Himself, becomes an obstacle to true worship. This state of affairs can lead to despair. But Berrigan shows the hopeful meaning of this sea change in religious consciousness:
But just as despair is the ignoble stock-in-trade of the world’s systems hope is the noble stock-in-trade of the prophet. For “my people” some breakthrough, a personal and social change of heart is possible, the prophet is compelled to state this possibility and also to show a path.
Worshiping the supreme reality no longer means placating an angry, jealous, and vengeful despot. Rather it means caring for all human beings in whom consciousness is embodied. To the best of my knowledge, the biblical tradition did not extend compassion to non-human animals as did some forms of Buddhism. This extension is only now coming into western religion.
The case for continuity between religion and modernity
The next several posts will make the case for a continuity between traditional religion and modern thought by showing an evolution that moves continually, although not smoothly, from primitive religion to the theological ethical, and scientific thinking of our own time. This continuity includes an intimate connection between a world-forming consciousness and the notions and experiences that human beings have with such a consciousness.
At first sight the anthropomorphic notions of the Creator, and the religions that have developed around these notions, seem to be so far removed from any feasible scientific explanations as to be useless. In fact they may be worse than useless in that they stand in the way of rational understanding. But the status of traditional theistic religion deserves and requires a further look, beginning at the beginning. Generations educated with an acceptance of physical and biological evolution should at least be open to the possibility of spiritual evolution.
Our remote ancestors faced mysterious phenomena that far surpassed their understanding and ability to control. These phenomena included things that are no longer mysteries to us, such as the sun moving across the sky, the change of seasons, lightening and thunder, and natural disasters. As consciousness developed, our forerunners projected consciousness on things that we look on as inanimate such as the sun, a holy mountain, or the unseen source of thunder and other phenomena. People faced these seemingly higher realties with a sense of what Rudolph Otto, in his classical work The Idea of the Holy, called Mysterium tremendum and fascionsum. The mystery appeared to them as overwhelming and at the same time fascinating.
They were not yet ready to think philosophically about whatever is the highest power in the universe, but it struck them as extremely powerful and also as fundamentally good. Therefore they approached and avoided it with a combination of fear and reverence.
In trying to understand the notion of God that has come down to us through the Judeo-Christian tradition, we have to look at the development among the Greeks and the Hebrews. In Western culture, both the popular and the theological notions of God descended primarily from these two sources. A scanning of the development of consciousness in each of these traditions will show the continuity between the early notion of the power behind the universe and an understanding of a divine being that can serve as a live option for scientifically educated people today.
Evolution of the Religious Traditions
The previous posts reflected on whether consciousness is a rare product of an otherwise unconscious process of physical and biological evolution or, whether consciousness is a real power that propels and guides the whole process. The previous posts described these polar opposites as the materialist and the teleological views.
We could simplistically assert that the conflict comes down to atheism versus religion. But unfortunately – or better, fortunately, the range and depth of possible interpretations is more complex by far. Those who ponder the deeper meaning of reality can move away from the stark materialism of writers like Dennett and Dawkins, and still see the whole structure and practice of religion as false and illusory. They may accept the notion of purpose in the process of the evolving universe but still be secularists and even atheists in that they see the notion and name of God as false and misleading.
For example, Christof Koch, whose writing I drew from in the previous posts, sums up his position as a “romantic reductionist” saying: “I do believe that some deep and elemental organizing principle created the universe and set it in motion for a purpose that I cannot comprehend.”(165) Koch had rejected traditional religion and affirmed the principle of reductionism, and yet, the above quote affirms a teleological principle.
The discontinuity between modern spirituality and religion
An often heard phrase states “I am spiritual but not religious.” The metaphysical notion of a purpose in the universe can be compatible with science, but does it have any connection with traditional religion? The belief in an anthropomorphic god who cares about and enters into human history seems to be an outdated and outlandish superstition compared to the sober reflection of a contemporary scientists musing on a possible meaning to the universe.
As early as the 17th century, regarding the ultimate meaning of the universe, a chasm opened between traditional views on the one hand and rational views on the other. For example, in 1786 future American president John Adams, who had learned of William Herschel’s discovery of the planet Uranus, and the forty-foot long telescope with which he peered into deep space, visited Herschel at his observatory in England. Adams pondered the newly discovered vastness of the universe, the relative insignificance of the earth, and the probability of countless inhabited worlds. He drew the conclusion that the notion of “The Great Principle” becoming human, dwelling on earth, being spit upon and crucified, is absurd, and so Calvinism or any orthodox form of Christianity is a blasphemy that we should get rid of. (Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder, 67)
In the context of the gap between the religious world-view before the enlightenment and the science of the last three hundred years, can traditional religion have any standing in the 21st century? I will make the case that it can, based on the premise that, as we human beings evolve, physically, chemically, and biologically toward greater consciousness, our understanding of the highest consciousness also evolves, and that we can discern a continuity between earlier and later stages.
To state this approach in popular theological terms, we gradually come to understand God as revealed over time. As we move toward higher stages of religious awareness, the older and lower stages appear to religious believers as idolatries, and to non-believers as preposterous superstitions. In tracing the development of religious consciousness, the focus here will be on the Western tradition.
While religious consciousness developed independently among people all over the world, and a fruitful encounter among traditions is taking place relatively late in history, my posts will concentrate on the development that took place, and is still taking place in the Biblical and philosophical traditions of the West.
This post is not part of the philosophical theme that I have been posting. It is a letter to the editor of the Wheeling News-Register on the national deficit.
Many pundits and politicians extol the current growth of the American economy and ask, “What’s wrong with that? ”I want to point out one of the things that is wrong. The recent increase in the growth rate of our economy, which has been growing steadily over more than eight years, was due in large part to the tax cut. The problem, which supporters of President Trump’s policies seldom mention, is the spike in the deficit caused by the decrease in revenues.
Government debt is not necessarily bad, but if the debt becomes too large, the payments on the debt could make it impossible to meet other public needs. Timing is also important. In time of recession, pumping more money into the economy by borrowing becomes necessary to get the economy growing again. George W. Bush and Barack Obama took such measures to reverse the recession in 2008 and 2009. It worked. The economy has been growing ever since. A time of growth is a time to reduce the deficit, as Obama did steadily for eight years.
Trump inherited an economy that was moving in the right direction in wealth and job growth as well as in deficit reduction. Instead of continuing, he cut taxes, and now we face what might become an unsupportable burden on our children and grandchildren.
If the supporters of Trump can explain either why there will not be a great increase in the debt, or why it doesn’t matter, I would like to hear their reasoning. This is the conversation that we need to have, and is more important than the foibles of any politician.
Richard P. Mullin
A Contemporary Defense of the Good
In spite of the modern rejection of a natural ethics as presented in the previous post, theologian John Haught argues for a morality rooted in nature. Haught argues that for us to connect our moral life to the natural world, we would have to “…discern in the cosmic process some general aim or purposiveness with which our own life might be morally aligned” (God After Darwin, 126). In the ancient and medieval worldviews of Aristotle and St Thomas, the connection between nature and ethics appeared to be obvious. Every natural creature as well as every human ethical act could be understood in terms of seeking an end or fulfillment.
But Haught contends that in spite of the apparent chasm between nature and human ethical striving, we can develop a metaphysics, compatible with science, that presents the cosmos with meaningfulness coinciding with human striving. For this purpose he draws on the “process theology” that stems from the metaphysics of Alfred North Whitehead.
Haught acknowledge that the ruthlessness in nature seems to exclude the possibility of some overarching purpose in the universe. He mentions that most theologians attempted to find meaning in human experience in spite of the meaninglessness of the non-human natural world. But Haught credits Whitehead for developing a cosmology that unites our human striving with the whole history of the universe. Haught contends that Whitehead’s philosophy and the process theology that flowed from it perceives the universe as a process in which all the contrasting and conflicting occasions merge into harmony of contrasts that expresses an intense cosmic beauty.
The shaping of the universe expresses an “aesthetic cosmological principle” by which the elements are being brought into harmony. This idea is different from what some have called the “anthropic cosmological principle,” which sees the whole universe as leading toward the emergence of the human race. The aesthetic principle sees the whole process as leading to the production of beauty of which the emergence of humanity constitutes an aspect. As Haught phrases it, the emergent beauty that stands out in our terrestrial experience is “…the emergence of life, subjectivity, freedom, consciousness, and community” (128). As the universe grows in complexity, it most probably grows in consciousness, not only on earth, but throughout the universe.
The correspondence of complexity and consciousness was be taken up in earlier posts on consciousness (July 7- September 6, 2018.) In this current post I am contending that good can be seen beneath what appears as an overwhelming evil in the physical world.
The point that I tried to make earlier, is that good consists in the fulfillment of the aesthetic principle. Consciousness slowly becomes embodied in nature. The process happens all too slowly in terms of a human life span, but it is happening. This embodiment of consciousness presents itself to us most obviously in the physical and cultural evolution of the human species.
As stated in the earlier posts, consciousness while the most universal and familiar of topic, eludes attempts to provide analytical understanding. Yet, consciousness stands out as the most essential condition for anything that we might call good. Materialism reduces consciousness and therefore all good, to an accidental product of blind, indifferent, unconsciousness physical events. But my thesis affirms the reasonableness of holding that consciousness precedes the evolution of the human brain, which becomes a channel of consciousness. If this view, as opposed to the materialist view is correct, then goodness is real and the meaning of our life consists of promoting that which is good aesthetically and ethically
In the following posts I will strive to show what the priority of consciousness has to do with Biblical religion, how it can also provide meaning for those without religion, and how it enhances our understanding of environmental ethics, economic, and social ethics.
The undermining of a providentially ordered universe and where we stand today.
In the nineteenth century, many social economic and cultural events undermined the
notion of a world that is providentially ordered. The most important event philosophically was probably the publication of Darwin’s Origen of Species (1859), which not only led many thinkers to the notion that there was no need to posit a God-Creator, but that the brutality of the process is incompatible with such a God.
A post-Darwin natural morality emerged with a theme of “survival of the fittest.” Herbert Spencer, who coined the term, applied it not only to Darwin’s biological natural selection, but also to economic and social policy, an idea that came to be known as “Social Darwinism.” Industrialist, Andrew Carnegie, expressed his debt to Darwin and Spencer for providing an ethical and philosophical background for his industrialization and the harsh living conditions that accompanied it. Carnegie justified any harm done to people and to the environment by trusting that “All is well since all gets better.” The optimistic thinking of the Enlightenment was not abandoned, it was just projected into the future.
The social reformers who saw the need to reverse the fortunes of the working class believed that they had to act contrary to the principle of natural selection. They believed that rather than live by the “law of the jungle,” our humanity required us to take care of the weak and the poor. Rather than follow a “natural law,” morality involves acting in spite of nature, or even against nature.
Two examples, one from the late 19th century and the other from the late 20th century illustrate the divorce of morality from nature in the wake of Darwin. The first is William James, who referring not to a natural morality, but to a natural spirituality, said that such a thing is impossible. The romantic view of nature that flourished in the 18th century is built on an illusion. In his lecture, “Is Life Worth Living,” he emphasized the role of religion in an affirmative answer to the title question. But he agreed with those who held that “the physical order of nature, taken simply as science knows it, cannot be held to reveal any one harmonious spiritual intent. It is mere weather…doing and undoing without end.” James, whose background was scientific biology and psychology, asserted that “Our science is a drop, our ignorance a sea.” As an interesting aside, James loved nature, and hiking and camping were among his favorite activities.
Morality requires some degree of spirituality since free will cannot exist without some independence of the mind from the brain. In James’s one essay on moral theory, “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life,” he explicitly rejects the notion that we can find the good in the nature of things. Rather, the good is simply what conscious beings, human or divine, claim to be good. Therefore, the highest good is to create a moral universe, or as he also calls it, a moral republic, in which as many claims as possible can be satisfied. In James’s pluralistic view, we may try to connect as many things as possible, but some things will remain unconnected. When the material world perishes, as it ultimately must, we may hope for salvation in a non-material realm.
The second example of divorcing morality from nature is Richard Dawkins, an uncompromising atheist and materialist, who nevertheless holds that we can create morality by opposing nature. In his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, he argues that all living things are disposed to preserve, not their own individual life, but the genes that they carry. In the process of natural selection, the only genes that survive in the long run are those that direct their hosts to replicate themselves. So if parents, of any species, sacrifice themselves for the sake of their offspring, their genes will survive. The genes of parents, or potential parents, who do not care about their offspring, will die with the individual organisms. So every organism that has survived so far has a strong inclination to pass on its genes. But human beings alone have the ability to act contrary to the “selfish gene.” As was stated in an earlier post, we may act contrary to the natural inclination to preserve our genes out of either individual selfishness, or out of an altruistic care for those who are not in our genetic line. Much moral thinking after Darwin holds that if the good exists at all, we can find it or create it only apart from nature or even contrary to nature.
John Haught, however, argues for a morality rooted in nature. Haught argues that for us to connect our moral life to the natural world, we would have to “…discern in the cosmic process some general aim or purposiveness with which our own life might be morally aligned.” In ancient and medieval worldviews of Aristotle and St Thomas, the connection between nature and ethics appeared to be obvious. Every natural creature as well as every human ethical act could be understood in terms of seeking an end or fulfillment. But Haught contends that in spite of the apparent chasm between nature and human ethical striving, we can develop a metaphysics, compatible with science, and that presents the cosmos with meaningfulness coinciding with human striving.
In my next post I will try to explain Haught’s reconstruction of a natural ethics.