Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

Convictions and Moral Discernment 1

Recall the chart of 4 dimensions in moral discernment in this post.  We begin our discussion of the critical variables in moral discernment with the lower-right hand box, the dimension of:

Basic Convictions or “Ground of Meaning” Beliefs:

God  and Human Nature

Justification and Sanctification (or Forgiveness and Discipleship)

Love and Justice

The Mission of the Church in the World

Now, we should distinguish between those beliefs which are mere opinions and those which form our basic convictions. (I will say more about this is in a future series on “The Craft of Theology.”)   Opinions are easily formed and easily changed.  We usually know when and how we came to particular opinions, too.  Convictions, however are different.  They are not easily formed, we often do not remember forming them and they cannot easily changed.  Further, convictions are so self-involving that we cannot change them at all without becoming significantly different.  If an individual or community changes one or more convictions,  then, in a real sense we are not talking about the same person or community.

Example:  Differences between those who hold that lethal violence is sometimes justified (“non-pacifists”) and those who believe that it is never morally justified to take the lives of human persons (“pacifists”) are fundamental differences of basic conviction.  As a former soldier who is now a pacifist (for 20+ years), I can testify that turning from a belief in “just wars” to gospel nonviolence is more like conversion from one religion to another (or from unbelief in any faith to faith in a particular religion) than it is like correcting an error in logic.  And, in a sense, I am not the same person that I was before I laid down my rifle and refused to don my uniform.  Yesterday, I debated the pacifism vs. just war question at a Christian high school. I doubt seriously that either myself or my JWT counterpart changed any minds–at most we could raise questions. Convictions are not changed just by logical argument–though one hopes that plays a point. It is a far deeper, more difficult matter.

Well, this first dimension of moral discernment doesn’t contain EVERY conviction, but those which my teacher, Glen Stassen, found were “critical variables.”  Differences in these 7 Christian theological convictions (or analogues in other belief systems) lead to very large differences in moral discernment.  (I will formulate this primarily for Christians, but try to indicate it’s adaptability to other belief systems.)   The first 6 of these critical convictions are paired because they tend to affect each other in noticeable ways. (Yes, every conviction affects every other, but these are not idly paired together as we will see.) 

God  and Human Nature.  How we understand God is a huge factor in our moral discernment.  Obviously, if one is an atheist or an agnostic, that also affects one’s moral judgment greatly.  But suppose one believes in God.  How one understands the character of God (Primarily loving, compassionate, merciful, forgiving, or primarily judgmental, wrathful,  capricious–or an impersonal Unmoved Mover disinterested in individual lives, etc.) is a major variable in one’s ethics–especially if one’s religion teaches that one should emulate God’s character.

  Also important is how one understands the way that God works in the world.  Someone who believes that God is removed from the world, that history and nature are closed systems will approach  things very differently than someone who believes that (in one way or another) God is dynamically active in history and the created order.  Example:  One reason Martin Luther King, Jr. was able to keep his followers nonviolent in the face of police  and mob violence was that so many shared his faith that they had “divine companionship in the struggle” (in his words), that “the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  Imagine how different things  would  have been if most of those struggling in the Civil Rights movement had believed instead in a Deistic God that, watchmaker like, set the universe in motion, but left everything alone to impersonal forces.

Paired with our views of God are our views of human nature.  The ethics of someone who holds to the behaviorist views of B. F. Skinner, for example, in which humans simply respond to stimuli will have a different ethic than one who holds that most of our behavior is genetically determined.  Similarly, one can contrast those who think of people as mostly good with those who think of people as mostly evil or sinful.  (My own view is that we are mixed.  The best of us  are deeply flawed, but the worst of us can rise above our baser tendencies.) And someone who believes that humans have freewill will approach things differently than someone who holds to any form of determinism.

Now, someone who holds to a harsh, judgmental view of God and a view that humans are mostly evil will be very pessimistic and distrusting of people and desire strict laws with harsh enforcement to keep people in line. (So might an athiest with a pessimistic view of the world and people.) A person who views God as mostly loving and humans as free agents  who are mostly good will have a very different approach to things.  And so it goes–along nearly infinite combinations.

Next time: we’ll discuss justification and sanctification.

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March 12, 2010 - Posted by | blog series, ethics, moral discernment

3 Comments »

  1. […] and Moral Discernment 2 Continuing our series begun here  and here on moral discernment.  The second pair of “critical variables” in the “basic […]

    Pingback by Convictions and Moral Discernment 2 « Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People | March 13, 2010 | Reply

  2. Solid beginning. I’ve seen the latter point more and more lately. One of the assumptions I’ve seen so much lately (on the ground) is that our desires as presently constituted can be trusted as a reliable guide to moral action. It often goes hand in hand with the idea that the church is here just to “love people” in some vapid content-less sense. But I don’t want to jump ahead; I see that the mission of the church will be discussed shortly.

    Comment by Michael DeFazio | March 13, 2010 | Reply

  3. […] the lower right box, the dimension on basic convictions, we have discussed the critical variables here and here. In so doing, we have discussed how differing views of God (or whether God exists) and how […]

    Pingback by Convictions and Moral Discernment 3 « Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People | March 15, 2010 | Reply


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