Tuesday, 3 February 2009

A word on the topic of ethics

Neither ethics nor moral theology are areas which I have pursued in great depth, though there are elements which I find most interesting. Heaven knows they are incredibly difficult areas to pursue, and I do not envy moral theologians (or even confessors!) As well, and as I've mentioned in innumerable other posts about philosophical matters, there can be a huge gap between philosophical arguments and pastoral approaches.

I attended a talk yesterday, which was the beginning of a series on Christian ethics. The presenter is a Thomist - and Thomistic terminology can be highly confusing. A young man who asked a question at the end raised an interesting point - whether we have free will at all, or if all is predetermined. Where those of us grounded in Thomas Aquinas see free will as part of being created in God's image and likeness (Thomas was defending omnipotence and omniscience, and the horribly complex idea of simplicity, while seeking to emphasise that evil is not incompatible with a God who acts in creation), certain Christian thought (for example, Calvin) indeed makes it seem that all is predetermined. (I'll not even give room here to B. F. Skinner - I do not happen to be a rat in a maze.) That makes evil all the greater a problem! I'm sorry that question came right at the end - because the presenter had to answer quickly, mentioned that God makes me do what I do (I imagine in holding all things in existence) and his answer could be puzzling, because he didn't have time to mention that Thomas was trying to underline that all creation is good - Thomas sees evil as a lack of fulfilment of our potential, not as evil being created by God - and that God is responsible for creation in the sense that he holds it in being, not that he gave Eichmann a push at the concentration camps.

Coincidentally, I have been studying ethics in more depth recently. This particular set of notes comes from a book on ethics by Richard Gula, called "Reason Informed by Faith."

  • God is the fullness of being. His actions are good as flowing from the divine nature, which is love.

  • All other forms of goodness are derived from this - dependent on the prior goodness of God.

  • Responding to God is our moral obligation, because establishing anything other than God as the centre of value is idolatrous. There is a necessity of ongoing discernment to discover ways most responsive to God.

  • "Morality... means to make 'customary'... to ritualise, in the actions of our lives, the experiences we have of knowing and being loved by God. In this sense, the moral life is like worship. It is a response to an experience of God. The moral life has a different quality when an awareness of God is lost; moral actions become 'works' of moral rightness rather than grateful responses to the goodness of God; moral deliberation becomes a computer-like problem solving rather than prayerful discernment of what God enables or requires." God is Creator. We, as created in God's image, are stewards of creation. Divine beneficence calls forth our gratitude, the pivotal virtue of the moral life.

I found Gula's emphasis to be very good, because he stresses that God is love and perfectly self-giving, and that the Trinity shows that 'to be' is to be in relationship.

I think it can be very dangerous to think that God causes everything that happens, in any way. Thomas's defence, based on defending omnipotence, can be a pastoral disaster!

Of course, there are plenty of Catholics who give short shrift to Calvin, but would spend much time debating whether omniscience is incompatible with free will. I'll save that for another day - since the Franciscan William of Ockham opposes Thomas on that one, and I want to give William his due. (I can set forth both their positions. Making sense of them is another story...)

Perhaps I'm no authority on ethics, but I loved the quotation from Richard Gula - the only change I would make is eliminating 'like' and making the sentence read, "The moral life is worship."

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