Deficiently Humanistic?

This from Ed Jones, concerning the recent post on Religion. He cites Schubert Ogden, once one of my intellectual heroes, from The Reality of God, 1967: 40-41:

The characteristic deficiency of all nonthestic moral theories is that they leave the final depth of morality itself utterly unilluminated. Although they may well focus our moral action and the immanent standards by which it is governed, they fail to render at all intelligible the underlying confidence and its transcendent ground in which our moral activity, as our life generally, actually has its roots.

Often enough, this failure is not lacking in a certain irony. Proponents of nonthestic moral theories typically pride themselves on their right to give a fully rational account of man’s moral experience. Nothing in this experience, they contend, is to be left merely at the level of unexamined belief or tradition. but must be raised to the level of complete self-consciousness. Ironically, however, this demand for rationality is not extended to the basic confidence that all our moral experience necessarily presupposes. Hence, for all their vaunted “Humanism” such theories are, in truth, deficiently humanistic. While they may cast a bright light on the foreground of morality, they leave what Whitehead calls its “background” wholly obscure. They allow the original faith in which all our action is finally based to remain a merely incompleteness, quasi-animal kind of faith.

The basic point Ogden makes here, it seems to me, is unarguable. The demand for a totally rational morality must either be grounded in some theory of the human person–which takes us into the vaporous realm of metaphysics–or in some pragmatic view of consequences for the person and society in the absence of moral conditions.

If for example we are speaking of “law” in a secular and civil context, it is pretty easy to conclude that it is grounded in the latter of these conditions (“If men were angels,” Hamilton famously said, “no government would be necessary.”) The coercive and restraining power of law is therefore based on consequences imagined to arise if law did not exist. But this makes it virtually clear that law does not arise from a view of human action as innately (if that word means anything any longer) virtuous or placid. It arises from the idea that human action is brutish and mean. But hearken: Law has a problematic relationship to morality, and most theologians and philosophers have thought that its role is not to make a man moral but to make him pay his taxes or get him out of the ditch.

But by the same token, religion has never regarded humanity as innately virtuous either. Quite the reverse. A virtuous creature does not need saving from original sin, does not need the counsel and prods of the church, does not need commandments or pastoral care, does not need the promise of heaven or the threat of hell.

Ogden does not of course take such symbols literally: his God is much too “real” (meaning much too misunderstood) for that. But it has to be acknowledged that religion–in the broadest sense–but the book faiths in particular–virtually invented the language of legalistic morality and penal atonement. Its main difference from more mundane law is that the laws of religion are forecast in relation to a personified divine being, a sovereign king and judge, who can be personally offended by the violation of his rules and who has established specific ways of coping with transgressions. In theology, mankind is caught between heaven and earth; the best he can hope for is to be free from sin. In secular law, he is caught between the state and his own instincts; the most he can hope for is to stay out of trouble. There is no virtue and no morality in either scenario, though in traditional Christianity, the rewards for being good are infinitely greater.

Thus when Ogden says a secular morality “fails to render at all intelligible the underlying confidence and its transcendent ground in which our moral activity, as our life generally, actually has its roots,” he is trading in obscurity. It is the denuded theological doublespeak of an era that rewarded vacuity. Especially since this transcendent ground appears to be a not terribly clever circumlocution for God. Moreover, why should this transcendent ground be given any consideration in moral decision making if it is in no sense personal, cannot be offended (or pleased, or pacified), has no stake in the outcome of our decisions and actions, and could do nothing about it if it did?

Secular morality–Ogden is right–is greatly deficient because its instruments are not mathematically precise, its premises are negotiable and its outcomes approximate. Given its evolution as a rebellion against theological certainty, it could be nothing else. It is true that the absolute “standard”–or ground if you prefer–has been sacrificed to modern consciousness of real rather than transcendental ends and means.

But secular morality is not humanistically deficient, anymore than a religious morality is theologically perfect. It’s merely human. And its theological deficiency is nothing to apologize for.

9 thoughts on “Deficiently Humanistic?

  1. ‘The coercive and restraining power of law is therefore based on consequences imagined to arise if law did not exist.’

    Well, up to a point, Lord Copper; this is a very old way of conceptualising law.

    Law is also something which can be, and is, marketed; for example, the law in England and Wales is used to govern contracts between entities which have no existence in England and Wales because it is old, and thus has precedent to cover almost any conceivable event.

    Consider two American banks suing each other in the High Court; neither of them imagine that Her Majesty will dispatch the Coldstream Guards to enforce the Court’s judgement. What they want is to use a body of expertise to resolve differences.

    This is not to say that judges do not consider morality in construing a contract; Lord Mansfield’s judgement in R v Knowles, ex parte Somersett (1772) 20 State Tr 1 is clearly based on his moral view that:

    ‘The state of slavery is of such a nature, that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political; but only positive law, which preserves its force long after the reasons, occasion, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory: it’s so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law.’

    Of course, at the time people from a wide variety of religions viewed slavery as far from odious; do we attribute humanistic values to Lord Mansfield in his Parthian shot to counsel?

    “Let justice be done though the heavens fall”

  2. Extract from “The Reality of God” p59:
    “On neoclassical premises God is now conceived as precisely the unique or in all ways perfect instance of creative becoming, and so as the one reality which is eminently social and temporal. Instead of being the barren Absolute, which by definition can be really related to nothing, God is in truth related to everything, and that through an immediate sympathetic participation of which our own relation to our bodies is but an image. Similarly, God is no longer thought of as utterly unchangeable and empty of all temporal distinction [“in no sense personal, cannot be offended (or pleased or pacified), has no stake in the outcome of our decisions and could do nothing about it if he did”. (Post on Deficiently Humanistic)]. Rather he too is understood to be contiually in process of self-creation, synthesizing in each new moment of his experience the whole of achieved actuality with the plentitude of possibiliy as yet unrealized.”
    (Preface X) “The theme of the reality of God is in the last analysis, the sole theme of all valid Christian theology, even as it is the one essential point to all authentic Christian faith and witness. In this connection, I would simply cite a statement of Charles Hartshorne’s which has seemed to me to atest this point wth as much clarity as any theological statement I know. “In its early stages religion means certainty about many things. But we now see that he is most religious who is certain of but one thing, the world-embracing love of God. Everything else we can take our chances on, everything else, including man’s relative significance in the world, is merely probablity.”

    • Steph,
      Of course this would be a reply to Schubert Ogden. Surely he has raised issues here that deserve some response. Simply by his scholarly status, omissions form judjments.

  3. Pingback: Deficiently Humanistic? (via The New Oxonian) « The New Oxonian

  4. This reprised piece is timely; I write from my hospital bed to confess that I too am deficiently humanistic. Had I sufficiently absorbed the values of the Enlightenment I should be delighted at the extension of our knowledge to the discovery that, if one coughs sufficiently violently, one can rupture a disc in the cervical spine.

    Instead I find myself wishing that if we had to discover it then it should have been someone else who was doing the coughing.

    However I can now at least read a bit, and write a bit, and thus hope to rejoin the fray sometime before the next decade…

  5. The picture above is not, in fact, of Schubert Ogden. It is Victor Furnish, Professor of New Testament Studies, both of whom I studied under while at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX in the late 70’s and early 80’s.

    • Although the image above in fact does not claim any identity, you are right – it is Victor Fenton, a respected and sensible Pauline scholar. I’ve just been reading his sensible discussions on same sex relationships (inspired to google him by your comment) in the NT (and Albert Mohler’s dismissal of them as irrelevant). Both Victor and Schubert though do have similar and very nice smiles. Here is Schubert and his wife Joyce, in a lovely snap. 🙂

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