Moral Strangers

My son, Wesley, is getting to the age where we have to talk about stranger danger. This is particularly a concern for my wife and I because Wesley is, to put it mildly, sociable. He talks to everybody. While I was waiting for my oil to be changed at Wal-Mart the other day, Wesley was carrying on a conversation with a bicycle mechanic, a 70 year old grandmother of two, and a 19 year old co-ed. While I was at the counter being told I absolutely must get that $65.00 radiator flush or else, I overheard Wes announce to his companions “My dad turned forty and has a lot of grey hair because of me and my sister.”

So obviously we need to explain that striking up conversations with complete strangers is something we only do when a parent is around. Christian bioethicst and Eastern Orthodox Christian, Tristam Englehardt Jr., writes about a different kind of strangeness. Moral strangeness:

Moral strangers are persons who do not share sufficient moral premises or rules of evidence and inference to resolve moral controversies by sound rational argument, or who do not have a common commitment to individuals or institutions in authority to resolve moral controversies.

Here’s a way to illustrate the problems with having a substantive moral debate between moral strangers. Suppose that an Evangelical Christian and an Atheist both see the following picture posted on facebook.

This is a picture of a tattoo that some yahoo had put on his arm quoting Leviticus 18:22–an injunction against homosexuality which uses the word “abomination.” Have you spotted the irony yet? Well some Atheists did. They posted the following quote from a Facebook group called “Christians Tired of Being Misrepresented”

Tattoo of Leviticus 18:22 forbidding homosexuality: $200
Not knowing that Leviticus 19:28 forbids tattoos: Priceless”

As I said this was part of one of those share-a-thons on the Facebook and so its probably gone to Indonesia and back several times over in the time it took me to compose this sentence. I used this to demonstrate from the point of view of secularists, the fact that ostensibly someone who has at least a familiarity with the Bible and who tacitly appeals to its authority isn’t very consistent in their practice. (Note to my secular readers: I mean nothing pejorative when I use the term secularist but I want a term that is broader than “atheist” and that gets to the heart of the disagreement.)

Now imagine our token Evangelical trying to explain why Evangelicals hold to Leviticus 18:22 to the extend that homosexual acts are incompatible with Biblical doctrine but don’t worry about Leviticus 19:28 (I mean have you seen the number of Christians with tattoos these days?).

True, he could talk about the difference between Old Testament law and New Testament grace. He could also quote Romans 1 and the further condemnation of homosexual acts. He could quote Jesus’ implied approval of heterosexual marriage. He could appeal to historical evidence for the divine inspiration of scripture and quote Josh McDowell and Norm Geisler chapter and verse. But honestly to our token secularist who doesn’t acknowledge the authority of any scripture, even if its true that Evangelical boy is being reasonable and not knee-jerking with statements about “just knowing in his heart etc,” it still sounds like the thinnest of threads to use as a reason to protest someone’s right to do with their own bodies what they please let alone participate in a non-religious ceremony between consenting adults.

In other worlds, our secularist would have to adopt a whole U haul truck load of assumptions before the Evangelical’s statement sounds like anything but the musings of astrologers and Trekkies. These assumptions might include the authority of scripture, the distinction between law and grace, progressive revelation, and accuracy of biblical transmission. By the time all of those assumptions had been discussed these two would have spent so much time together it would be weird to call them strangers except in the moral sense. If the Evangelical refuses to acknowledge the divide between them, then our secularist may start thinking all this stubbornness is really just masking a deep seated revulsion at homosexual acts which in the absence of any substantive moral claim looks like bigotry or latent homosexual self-loathing.

And that intimation is a whole lot easier to dismiss or revile than a substantive disagreement.

I was feeling a lot of moral strangeness just after commencement exercises at the Catholic university where I spend my days professing. The bishop drove down from Springfield to deliver the commencement address and he came with an agenda. Not that unusual these days. Every Tom, Dick, and presidential candidate will be giving polemics during graduation season. After the obligatory “thank yous” and “welcomes”, Bishop launched into a full on chastisement of what he deemed the specters of secularism and religious intolerance. For the next twenty minutes he compared the proponents of Obama administration’s pro-contraception lobby and Alabama’s illegal immigrant policy to the dark eye at the top of the tower in Mordor. Neither the left nor the right escaped his criticism. He didn’t talk about carrying what the graduates had learned into the future and he never uttered the words, “As you go forth into the real world.”

About half of the audience was riveted and the other half . . . somewhere between bored and uncomfortable. This is to be expected. Here’s Engelhardt again:

[Orthodox Judaism and Roman Catholicism] regard [abortion and euthanasia] as wrong, not just for their own adherents, but for persons as such. Even if these religions are tolerant in the sense of not using coercive force to constrain those who persist in their errors, they are not tolerant in the sense of viewing these matters as mere issues of personal choice or preference. They allow in the sense of not coercing, but they do not accept.

We may not coerce but we do not accept and that offends. This was apparent to me shortly after commencement when some of my colleagues were talking about the bishop’s insightful message or ideological rant depending on who was talking. One of my colleagues expressed eloquently that a shower was in order to wash off the taint after hearing the bishop’s talk. After a bit of inquiry, I discovered that these secular profs had high hopes for the talk before it began because the bishop was, and I quote: “educated with all these advanced degrees” but I was told that when he mentioned secularism, the prevailing opinion was that it all went downhill faster than the New York Times’ journalistic integrity.

And that is when I really started to feel that moral strangeness. To a secularist, religion is perhaps like an appendix. Its not a problem provided it doesn’t start acting up. As long as it sits there as in its vestigial irrelevancy then no harm no foul. This is a sentiment committed religious people like the bishop and roughly half of my university cannot share with the secularist. For those who genuinely believe that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, secularism is not vestigial. It is at odds with with our very worldview. The concept that the world would be a better place if religion went the way of the dodo, parachute pants, and 8-tracks is an offense to the nature of the gospel as good news to the open-hearted and condemnation to those who reject it.  At the very least, most secularists believe it would be better for everyone if the great commission to go unto all the world preaching the gospel and making disciples were re-interpreted to mean confining the outdated hymns and abhorrent tales to the same place every well-meaning psychosis belongs: small poorly lit buildings and (at least in the South) to the front porch and the parlor.

In short, Secularism can tolerate religion but devout religion, especially Christianity cannot accept secularism as a friendly alternative. None of this, of course, means that Christianity cannot tolerate secularism in favor of theocracy. It does mean that we are moral strangers and we should not be puzzled nor surprised at the resistance to our point of view. We should also not be surprised nor frustrated when secularists question why Christians would want to prevent any type of living arrangement let alone what people do with their genitals. I am convinced that the moral divide between religious believers and secular citizens really is no more apparent than when we talk about sex. And why not? In the absence of a common moral commitment, what moral authority in a pluralistic, secular context? Here’s Engelhardt again:

. . . the only source of general secular authority for moral content and moral direction is agreement. . . because there are no decisive secular arguments to establish that one concrete view of the moral life is better morally than its rivals, and since all have not converted to a single moral viewpoint, secular moral authority is the authority of consent.

Absent a Christian morality of the image of God, the holiness of matrimony, and the concept of “one flesh” the only moral currency for a secular society is consent. Put bluntly cannot be a substantive sexual ethics in a pluralistic society beyond mutual consent. Provided there is genuine consent by persons capable of understanding their choices (no five-year-olds, mentally handicapped, corpses, etc.) then there is no grounds for condemning any sexual act. It is true that Christians can appeal to natural law, but even that substantive morality is far from self-evident, indeed when one considers the alternative allows a secularist to enjoy orgasms any way that one wants, its a wonder natural law gets a hearing at all from the average person.

So what are we to do, all us citizens crawling between earth and what some of us believe at least is heaven? As Engelhardt points out, controversies in the public square can be resolved in one of four ways: 1) force including governmental force 2) full-scale conversion of one part to the other’s worldview 3) sound rational argument which causes one party or the other to abandon their advocacy for their position and 4) consent

Absent another great awakening, full-scale conversion seems unlikely. Both Secularists and Christians have been trying governmental force either legislative or judicial for nigh forty years–we call it the culture war. Sadly rational argument does not fare well across the moral divide in an age of sound bites and condescending internet memes. But when sound apologetics prevail it is most often too slow to be called a victory in the culture war. It takes place one-on-one in Starbucks, over rounds of golf, in professors’ offices, and backyards far from the maddening crowd.

When it comes public policy at least there is always 4) consent. One side agrees to tolerate the other while still reserving the right to express its point of view without retreating from the equal respect afforded everyone in the public square. But more on that in my next post. As always dear reader, I look forward to your thoughts and criticisms.

 


Comments

Moral Strangers — 2 Comments

  1. Engelhardt’s view of “consent” is most unattractive because it stops short of wishing for the persuasive abilities of the Christian worldview to win out in the public square. The outcome of his thought is that persuasion will never occur and we will always butt heads because of our worldviews, so any possible agreement will be based not on a shift in worldview but on “consent” from within the worldview framework. Engelhardt’s take on Christianity in the public square takes on an undesirable postmodern aroma in that our Christian mission is secondary, therefore we are stuck with our moral strangeness. Most of this is rooted in his belief that Eastern Orthodox Christianity is the only true form of Christianity, so its not desirous for Christians in general to be successful in turning secularists from their worldview to say evangelicalism or something else non-EO.

    • Sarah,

      I don’t think E is saying that persuasive abilities are outside of consent. I think he would include persuasive abilities (i.e. good sound argument) as part of conversion or discussion. His idea of consent does stop short of a lot of things because he considers secular consent to be anemic as a moral principle. Nevertheless you’ll notice I did leave room for just what you were talking about when I talked about Starbucks and prof’s office where honest discussion occurs through the help of the holy spirit. My only point was that legislative power is not the same thing as persuasive abilities and that the latter is within the context of relationship not politics. I do agree with you that E. is decidedly postmodern (or specifically Hegelian) in his pessimism about reason in general but I do think he’s right about the moral divide and how that affects our attempts to law and politics to change the world. And of course it goes without saying but perhaps must be said that my opinion is just my own not MCOI’s and I don’t endorse Engelhardt wholeheartedly. Thanks again for your comments.

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