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Blame It On Martin Luther

with one comment

As I write, it is very early Sunday morning.  Too early, really.  Sundays are usually good days for me, but last night I just couldn’t sleep, and now I’m sort of hammering along in the way I do when I can’t stop myself from thinking nonstop.

One of the things that occurred to me is an old theme here, but not one I think I’ve spent any time to work out in detail, so I thought I’d try it.

When I first brought up the moral argument that underlies the American health care debate–the principle that we have a moral obligation to care for the sick, that if we see somebody who is suffering or dying and know how to alleiviate those things, we are morally wrong not to do it–Robert wanted to know what that principle had to do with me.  It had to do with him, as a Christian, because he is a Christian.  But it could have nothing to do with me, because I am an atheist.

I find this entire idea–that moral principles are dependent on religion, and that without religion no objective moral principles can be discovered–odd in ways other than that I just don’t agree with it.

For one thing, any resident of the West, either in the Classical world or in the Europe of the Middle Ages, would have found such an idea nearly inexplicable.  The most important thing Aristotle and Aquinas had in common was that they understood morality to be something true about human beings that was available to all men to discover. 

It’s interesting, to me, that these two thinkers–and these two eras of Western civilization–both conceived of morality on the virtue side of MacIntyre’s virtua/rules divide.  That is, for both the Classical Greeks and the Medieval Church, talking about morality meant to ask what kind of person we should be, not what kinds of rules we should follow.

Aquinas was able to effect a synthesis of “Greek learning” and Christianity precisely because he shared Aristotle’s conviction that we could discover what virtue was and what we must do to acquire it “by reason alone,” as the Middle Ages put it–that is, without the help of revelation. 

For the Medieval Church, the truths of revelation were few and particular:  the Trinity; the Virgin Birth; the salvation of the world through Jesus Christ.

The law of God is written on the heart of every man, Aquinas said, and any man who wanted to could read it there.

It’s a long way from that understanding of the place of morality in human life to the one we have now, which assumes that, without revelation, no such moral law is available to be discerned at all.

We can trace the history of that idea–that morality is entirely dependent on religion, and that without religion there would be no moraliy–to the Renaissance, although a stray thinker or two had come up with it (and being doctrinally condemned for it) in other times and places.

It was the Thomist/Aristotlean conception of virtue and morality that gave birth to what was then called “Christian Humanism,” and what we now call the Renaissance, and it was the Renaissance that gave birth to Humanism as it came to be understood until ery recently. 

Humanism was first and foremost a commitment to the infinite moral worth of every human being.  What followed from that was a series of obligations both to ourselves and to other people, and among those was our obligation to care for the sick and the poor.

What interests me is the fact that this understanding of the moral life–as something objective, and outside our wishes and whims, and discoverable through reason–ended on both sides of the religious divide at the same time.

For that, we have to thank (or not) Martin Luther. 

Okay, maybe I’m being unfair here.  I’ve read only limited work by Luther himself.  What I really mean is that we have to thank (or not) the Protestant Reformation.

That Luther himself was not a fan of Christian Humanism is well documented, but what I think is much more important about Protestantism as an historical phenomenon is its narrative of sin and grace.

For Aristotle and Aquinas, for most of the philosophers and theologians of Classical antiquity and early to Medieval Christianity, man was a being who naturally longed for the good, and longed to be good.  Being good was hard, so he wasn’t always successful, but most men wanted to be successful, and therefore strove to understand what it meant to be virtuous and what it meant to live a virtuous life.

For a good chunk of the Protestant reformers, man was a being so utterly depraved by the fall that he was incapable of even willing what was good without the grace of God.  In fact, he was incapable of even conceiving the good.  Left to his own devices, without revelation or grace, he would choose to do evil as a matter of course.  His only hope was grace and revelation, and without them there could be nothing but chaos.

Maybe the idea was in the air.  Maybe it was just the idea of morality as a set of rules everybody was supposed to follow that was in the air.

Whatever it was, the Protestant Reformantion’s understanding of the moral law had a lot more in common with Macchiavelli than it did with the history of the Christian Church. 

It was, in fact, a complete break with the entire intellectual history of Western Civilization. 

I am not, I will admit, a big fan of the Protestant Reformation on almost any level, but on this level I think its influence was largely disastrous.

The idea that we could not know what was good unless God told us, that there were no rules to the game of being human that could be discovered by investigation, quickly led to the conviction that there were no rules except success–that all that mattered was whether you won or lost. 

Or, as Mr. Lombardi is supposed to have put it:  winning isn’t the most important thing, it’s the only thing.

And no, I’m not saying that the Protestant churches held this particular precept.  It was more that they held onto a rules-based moral universe for those people who chose to remain within their communities, and gave carte blanche to the men outside those communities to concentrate on the…practical.

I’m doing that thing again where I’m not sure I’m making any sense at all, so I might not be.

For better or worse, the cultural assumptions of the Protestant Reformation have become the cultural assumptions of most of the globe. 

It isn’t that we’ve all become Calvinists, or even that most of us have.  But the countries of the Protestant Reformation were also the countries of the Enlightenment, and the Enlightenment was a period that broke decisively with Christianity on all matters of revelation while retaining the Protestant framework for thinking about morality and ethics–as rules-based, and largely arbitrary, once the truth of revelation was rejected.

One of the things I’ve always wanted to learn more about is just how necessary the one thing (the idea of morality as rules-based and impossible without religion) was to a lot of other things that arose only in Protestant cultures (science as we know it, the democratic project).

For right now, I’d only like to point out that the assumptions necessary to believe that morality must either be based on God or be something entirely arbitrary that we make up ourselves are irrational–and unscientific–in the extreme.  They require that we assume that human beings, unlike any other animal on the planet, have no discernable and discoverable nature.

And that’s just to start. 

I understand the attraction, for both the religious and the nonreligious, in such a view of human life and human morality.  It gives the religious an automatic basis for feeling superior to their brethren–only we know the rules to make us good–and the unreligious both a blank check to do what they want in the world, and an excuse not to work very hard to be better people than they feel like being.

As a principle, however, I think it’s demonstrably untrue, and largely dysfunctional. 

And it leaves us in situations like this one.  A great majority of the US does in fact hold to the moral principle I started with–that we are obligated to relieve the sickness and suffering of our fellow human beings if we are able–without knowing why they think that, or even that they think it.

It therefore becomes damned near impossible to untangle the principle from its practical applications. 

Instead, we have discussions like the one we’ve been having on the health care proposals now before the US conference:  one side talks about doing something, the other side talks about why doing that particular something is going to be bad–but nobody comes out and directly addresses the problem:

Assuming that we have a moral obligation to relieve the sickness and suffering of our fellow human beings if we are able, what exactly are we in fact able to do? 

It’s not enough to say that THEIR plan in fiscally irresponsible.  You have to say what YOUR plan is to solve the fundamental problem, and to be specific about what ways it will solve the problem. 

Because, for all the yelling and screaming that’s been going on in the public square these last few months, the ordinary run of human being in the United States is concerned first and foremost with the moral problem. 

And he–or she–doesn’t even know it.

The  Senate is likely to pass a bill I don’t like today, that I do not think will solve the problem–

But it’s the only actual attempt to solve the problem on the table, and they’re getting away with a lot because of that.

Written by janeh

March 21st, 2010 at 6:03 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response to 'Blame It On Martin Luther'

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  1. Current ideas about moral codes are inextricably tied to the ideas of the primacy of the individual. People seem to think moral opinions can be discovered, but they are not universal. Everyone has their own moral laws, and shouldn’t need to defend or explain them to anyone else (except when demanding a change in laws which impede one living by one’s own moral code), since all moral codes are equivalent, and what’s right for me might not be right for you.

    Now, I don’t believe all this. I believe in a universal moral code given by revelation and also able to be understood by reason. I don’t see a lot of people around me applying reason to their understanding of moral issues, though. I see a certain amount of automatic assumptions, probably picked up during childhood, about the right way to do things – that would include the assumption that no one should do without necessary medical care. And there’s a good bit of popularized scraps from various philosophies and theologies. None of it is worked into any kind of a coherant whole, and when inevitably, as in any discussion of morality, conflicts arise – well, your beliefs are true for you and mine for me, so there’s nothing to discuss!!

    This especially drives me crazy when whatever the moral claim is clearly requires something FROM the others the individual is so clearly insisting on being separate from – as in a lot of rights talk.

    Oh, well, I’m tired – I was up too late last night and need more sleep but can’t get it – so perhaps I’m being a bit gloomy about our current societies.


    21 Mar 10 at 7:32 am

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