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Letís do the right thing!

By Peter Sellick - posted Friday, 18 November 2022


The phrase "do the right thing" may be found issuing from the mouths of leading members of our community as if doing the right thing is obvious. We also hear the phrase announcing that "I am a good person". Presumably, if one is a good person then they will always do the right thing. The problem of human being and action that has bedevilled philosophers and theologians for millennia has been solved! Moral choices are deemed to be easy. Right and wrong are obviously distinguishable and the world is made up of good persons and bad persons. The ethics of the kindergarten are in the ascendent.

Of course, this is a parody. A moment of thought reveals that the "good" is not so obvious. The Nazis thought they were doing good by attempting to eliminate European Jewry, Stalin, during the terror, thought he was doing good by establishing a communist state, the same goes for Mao, Pol Pot and today Putting obviously thinks he is doing good by rescuing old Russia from fragmentation. Human beings are poor judges of their own character because we dissimulate in order to protect our self image. In old age we may remember our youth with horror!

The corollary of simplistic ethics (moral positivism?) is simplistic judgement. No wriggle room is given for offenders who cross the lines of an increasingly rigid moral code. Businesses and organisations are taking moral stances that narrow the breadth of opinion to what they regard as right thinking. One has the suspicion that public relations determine public morality. Right thinking is extended into the past. It may not matter that a generation has passed between us and the colonialists; the sins of the fathers are visited on future generations; guilt and victimhood are perpetuated. While we may have thought political correctness has been expelled, it has come back to haunt us in a new and pernicious form.

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While some believe that they have a hold on moral judgment, others have taken to the idea that the truth is whatever they say it is. The isolated self has become a possibility. The fact that so many are caught up on one side or the other speaks to a derangement of the soul perhaps never seen before. Whole countries are divided by transparent lies. America is becoming ungovernable because bipartisanship had disappeared from the political landscape.

Francis Fukuyama may have announced the end of history in the liberal democratic state but it appears that the progress of modernity has still more tricks to play on us. The theological picture is marked by appearance of almost universal atheism, or at least atheism as the world knows it to be. The idea of God has been taken over by the philosophers and they have arrived at a negative view as to His existence. However, none of this philosophising comes to grips with the centre of Christian thought; that God is essentially triune. The God that has been dismissed is that of Deism, the one who after setting the universe in motion is now distant from us. God has been de-trinitized. This means that the Christological fulfilment of humanity has been extinguished and the relationship between the creature and the creator erased. The gratuitous and beautiful creation is now pure nature and the realm of cause and effect with no transcendent reference.

The latter exchange came about with the event of the theory of evolution that unnecessarily voided the faith of millions. But, for example, Augustine's understanding of creation was not about the cause and effect of natural science, it was aesthetic. At its centre lay the delight of the Father for the Son. Humanity participated in this delight and celebrated the beauty of the creation. The human response was doxological, not cosmological. The creation became a part of salvation because it was the beneficial gift of God, thus bridging the gap between nature and grace. This understanding of creation can live side by side with the theory of evolution because the latter is about cause and effect, how we came to be here, and the other is formed by a desire for the beauty and gratuity of the world.

The theological wasteland left by the success of modernity, underway since the twelfth century, has left us without a language to represent the properties of the human soul even as the psychological sciences have progressed. This lack contributes to the partisan nature of our politics. In the US it is all about guns and abortion!

Old heresies, that the Church thought it had dealt with, have been resuscitated and injure the coherence of our view of what it means to be human. Such is our cultural amnesia that heresies are not recognised and indeed have become mainstream in secular thought. A prominent influence on modern thought is the heresy of Pelagianism.

Pelagius was a British theologian and one of Augustine's opponents who dismissed the need for infant baptism because he did not believe in original sin, who saw the grace of God as a mere possibility obtainable by humanity and who announced the importance of moral choice. Michael Hanby, in his book Augustine and Modernity defines the modern self as the Pelagian self. This is primarily the self-created self that is the precursor to the modern self of the Enlightenment. It has as its precursor the Stoic self for whom any descent into irrational emotion is a failure in virtue. There is a direct connection between Pelagius and the hyper morality we experience since it holds that we can identify what is right and wrong and choose accordingly. "We are all masters of our fate, captains of our soul" as the poem Invictus would have it. The leakage of Pelagianism into European culture (some say via monasticism) is yet another factor in the building of the modern consensus that results in the autarchic self.

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The problem with this is that human behaviour becomes incomprehensible as does our own experience of life. Neither Stoicism nor Pelagianism or moral certitude offers a competent psychology. They do not provide pathways by which we may understand ourselves. School speech nights often give this away. We hear talk of values which smacks of the Stoic Virtues, we hear of being true to yourself, an idea that isolates and reduces, we hear that we should follow our dreams without reflection on their origin in desire. In opposition to Stoicism, passion is necessary for any genuine action.

The emphasis on choice is a give-away. We speak of choice as though it arises from ratiocination. But it can be argued that choice arises not from the rational will but from desire. Even if we think we choose to study law or medicine in order to help other people, desire always lies in the background. Augustine stated that any grace that begins with us is not grace. In other words, we should be suspicious of our good intentions. For us, choice is about freedom, but freedom is not the ability to do anything, it is not arbitrary. Our choosing is tied to desire and our desire may be, and increasingly is, in our world, disordered. Indeed, disordered desire is the foundation of consumer capitalism.

In the old dispensation, the origin of grace was transcendent, and human will untrustworthy; (The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse- who can understand it?Jer.17:9)

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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