THIS IS PART III OF A 3-PART SERIES.
Where do we go from here? Faith.
Because of these flaws in the liberal framework of ethics, most liberals I know ultimately rely on natural law to embellish their moral universe when reason and consent do not suffice. They accept moral principles despite not having a firm explanation as to why they are true. As I described above, liberals certainly acknowledge that humans have greater value than other forms of life around us, but there is not a clear logical reason as to why this should be the case. So in practice, liberals accept that reason is not sufficient.
So if you follow my argument, then we agree there are moral realities that are not based in consent or logic. In such cases we are all making a decision of faith. We are acknowledging there is something else out there, something we cannot explain with reason, but which we know exists. You may think reason will explain these things eventually, but I disagree, as do careful philosophers like MacIntyre and scientists (consider Marcelo Gleiser’s The Island of Knowledge). Knowledge of material causes can be known through reasoning, but knowledge of value and purpose cannot. That is an epistemological reality.
Eventually all moral foundations require a leap of faith. You must decide what determines value and meaning for all things in the universe, and more immediately, in your own life. You may find purpose in pleasure, self-actualization, power, humility, sex, or even nihilism (as some combative atheists suggest). Or you may find it in God, or other religious approaches.
However you explain your existence to yourself, you accept that explanation on faith. When you get to the core questions of value and purpose, logic does not suffice. Reason provides knowledge of one kind, and faith another. They are both needed, but in my view, faith is the more essential for politics, because politics is a moral field first and foremost. It requires wisdom more than intelligence.
On Christian Faith
At this point I think it is important to refocus on the fallacy I have been aiming at throughout this article. When we arrive at irreducible realities that cannot be explained by science in principle, I look to God as the source of such realities. But I am often asked how I can argue for morality based in something as arbitrary as religion, or even more so, one particular interpretation of one particular religion. I have been trying to show that all moral foundations are “arbitrary” according to pure reason.
I understand the concern about the uses of religion, but when one realizes that all moral frameworks are ultimately founded outside of pure logic, then religion actually becomes the most reasonable of choices for moral foundations. After all, until the Enlightenment, all of human history has validated religion as a legitimate source of morality. I absolutely do not think this morality has always been well-applied, nor do I think the American government should become a theocracy. But for millennia reasonable people have turned to religion to understand questions of purpose, meaning, and value.
Regardless of where we base our moral thinking, our morals will make their way into our political actions, and I would much rather be clear-headed about the fact that my morality cannot be explained by pure reason than be deceived about that reality. I would rather risk the misapplication of a moral foundation that can in fact function as a moral foundation (religion) than try to deduce morality from something that cannot possibly serve as a moral foundation (reason).
I cannot give a full treatment here of why I have chosen Christian faith above others, but there are a multitude of reasons, including the moral inheritance I have received from my family, my personal and communal spiritual experience, my examination of different faiths and what I see as their moral codes (and how well they align with the natural law of my intuition), the testimony of wise men and women who have come before me, and historical reasoning (in particular, see the scholarly work of NT Wright). But this is much too vast a topic to tackle comprehensively here, and much abler writers have gone before and done a better job than I ever could (see CS Lewis, Mere Christianity, as a great non-academic starting point).
This has been a long piece, so let’s step back and quickly summarize the key theses of my argument:
- All political action is moral action.
- All moral questions ultimately reduce to questions of value and purpose.
- Liberal frameworks for ascribing value and making moral decisions (based on ideas of consent and rationality) are inadequate by themselves.
- The framework we each use to ascribe value is chosen on faith.
- Thus, Christian faith is a reasonable foundation for political discernment and action.
In today’s Western culture, reason as seen as the supreme arbiter of all things. In such a climate, those who base their worldview even somewhat in religion are often viewed as reactionary and thoughtless. Religion is seen as an arbitrary tool often used in purely self-interested ways.
I do not deny the importance of reason. But I wrote out these thoughts for both my liberal and conservative readers who espouse such views, to argue that reason is not sufficient for morality. While reason can help us think about morality, reason ultimately cannot answer the most fundamental moral questions. So we are left with faith – faith in God, ourselves, or something else.
The ultimate question is not if faith will determine your morals and drive your political thinking; it will. The question is what you will choose to place your faith in.
As a reminder, I will continue to explore many elements of my Christian faith as they relate to politics in future blogs. Hopefully you will see that in practice, a Christian moral foundation has a lot to offer. And hopefully I will also show that the tradition of devotion, scholarship, and reflection in the Christian church continues to improve our understanding and application of Christian ethics in everyday life. We all have the right and necessity of choosing our own faith, but it is my contention that a humble personal choice for Christian faith is the best of outcomes for the individual and community.
If you, like I, have arrived at Christian faith, I would argue not only that Christian faith could be a foundation of your politics, but that it should be, which will be the topic of my next post.