God of Many Names:

An Introduction to Dialogue with Other Religions

Robert C. Brow

Morality and Certainty

As a result of our work so far we have failed to find a way out of relativism. But in the process something has emerged which is of far greater value. We have identified five areas of religious or ideological faith where moral evaluation might be possible.

Our first chapter showed that another persons' choice of metaphors or names cannot logically be proved false. But we thought about the man who looked at an astonishing scene in the Rockies and said it was just a pile of rocks with water at the bottom. In one sense his description might seem more objective than his wife's words like beautiful, lovely, and glorious, which can have no place in a strictly scientific description. Nor can we prove by any logical argument that he is wrong. But it is hard to avoid the conviction that he is a clod who is totally incapable of sharing what we want to enjoy and value. We certainly have every moral right to enjoy the scenery and use all the names that suit us to express our appreciation.

We also noted that whatever humans choose to value will force them into using metaphors. And as soon as someone chooses to use one set of metaphors and reject another we have a clue to his or her personality. But our value judgment about another's choice of metaphors still does not enable us to escape from relativism. All we can say is "He or she is different, but I don't intend o abandon my own values." That is the position many ordinary believers adopt when they encounter those of another religion.

But even those who say nothing can make a moral statement. If parents look out from their home and see an old man in a wheelchair painfully moving up the street, we cannot tell whether or not they have a sense of human compassion. But their children rush to tip the old man out, kick him when he complains, and then begin pushing each other in the wheelchair laughing up and down the street, a moral situation emerges immediately. If the parents do nothing, most of us would be horrified because we assume they have declared their moral stance. "I do not consider my children's game of tipping over an old man to play with his wheelchair in any way wrong."

We could of course be wrong in our assumption, and there might be good or bad reasons for being unable to do anything about their children. The parents might be mentally deficient and unable to give a reason for anything, and we cannot blame them for that. Or cowards who are too terrified by their children to say anything. If the parents were consistent anarchists who believe we would all be better off if there was no legal intervention or constraint of any kind, then they are ready to give their kind of explanation. Existentialists believe one should be free to act or not act without being limited by reasons of any kind. But that is also an explanation.

A person who treats handicapped persons, or employees, foreigners, or adherents of another religion with disdain may use metaphors like dogs, trash, vermin, "wogs", etc. In that case moral discussion of the implications of using such metaphors might be possible. If the reason for treating others with disdain is volunteered then we can use the method developed in chapter 2 and chapter 3 to analyse the logical model that is in mind. That gives us another area for moral evaluation.

We might begin with the simple fact of giving an explanation. We suspect that most of those who refuse to give an explanation of any kind are refusing to submit themselves to the moral evaluation of their peers. "I have a right to do as I please and I do not have to justify myself to anyone." That seems to imply that such a person considers himself as god, or at least as supremely important, and all others as having no value except as means to his own glory. We surely have a right to make that assumption until the person chooses to explain himself.

If however we accept any kind of obligation to give an explanation for our commitment and ultimate values, we immediately define ourselves as moral beings. And if we accept the responsibility of at least hearing what others have to say about our explanation, and possibly changing it, we view others also as moral beings. Those who take that stance cannot prove that they are in any sense logically right. But without taking that stance it is nonsense to make moral judgments of any kind, and equally illogical to give any kind of moral reasons for our own commitment. That at least gives us some bedrock on which we can begin building our moral certainty.

We also assume that in choosing a supreme value, or at least adopting some kind of value, we are free to change our mind and adopt another. Even our longing for some kind of certainty that we have made the right choice implies that there are alternatives. And evidently we did not invent this freedom. It is a given of our humanity. But if our freedom is given to us, we must assume that inherent in the energy or chance matter that brought our world into being there is this ability to produce humans with moral freedom.

Since it seems hard to imagine mindless energy or chance matter bringing into being our ability to choose among moral alternatives, most people give the name God to the originator of our moral freedom. God may have used a long evolutionary time frame, but at least in achieving the final result we assume that God must be supremely creative.

The power to create our personality also requires that God is not an it or an impersonal force, but must be at least as personal as we are. That makes us question one form of Vedanta in which the ultimate goal is an absolute in which personal differences are to be merged and lost for ever. Similarly one kind of Buddhism longs for a nirvana where there will an absence of human desire, which also implies an end of human personality. In both cases the conclusion is that personality is an aberration from which we must escape. Evidently the difference between these alternatives presents us with a moral choice. If this moral implication is rejected either the model must be amended to include the ultimate value of our personality, or the person must change his or her explanatory model to another.

The procedure we have used to force out the moral implications of believing in God, and adopting theistic or monistic metaphors for God, could be used in the case of every explanatory model of any form of religion or ideology. This shows that our explanatory models are not value neutral. Every explanation by any believer has huge moral implications.

A third area for moral evaluation is the relationship of our moral commitment to the scriptures which nourish us. Say for example we have committed ourselves to love as our supreme value. As we saw in chapter 1, the word love, like the words beauty or God, is empty of content until we qualify it with some metaphors. Let us say our word love included these metaphors: unconditionally welcoming, accepting, forgiving, more loving than the most loving parents we could imagine. Then inevitably we have to evaluate parables or stories or explanations of what God is like in our scriptures that appear to deny our moral commitment. We could excise them from our scriptures, or try to see if there is any other way they could be explained, or in some cases we might say that God must have an explanation that we do not yet understand.

Fourthly, we have to evaluate the moral implications of the doctrinal pronouncements and discipline of the denomination that we belong to. If we insist that our denomination must agree in every detail with the explanatory model that we use, and the moral conclusions that we have arrived at, then we are condemned to a perpetual process of separatism. Most of us have to accept very grave deficiencies in the official pronouncements and rules of our denominations. Roman Catholics practice birth control. President Clinton bucked his own denomination on the question of abortion and gay rights. Martin Luther had to say "here I stand" on the immorality of indulgences. In our day many reject the official statement of their denominational doctrine that all who fail to be baptized, or join the right church, or make the right decision, are certainly going to hell.

Fifthly, it is possible to evaluate what seems to be a common experience of believers in our scriptures. Among Christians who nourish themselves from the Bible we noted among all denominations large numbers who have an experience of God as Father, and of the Spirit as inspirer, originator of prayers in their heart, and giver of various spiritual gifts. They also talk every day to the Son as friend, leader, forgiver, shepherd, sacrificial lamb. How would we evaluate such an experience for its moral implications?

If the ultimate origin of our personality could be proved to be impersonal or indifferent to us, then such an experience would be merely subjective. But if such believers lived their lives with a merely subjective experience, would unbelievers be harmed or would the world be any worse for it? In a democratic society there are no laws against adopting a model in which God is personal and intends us to be free personal beings.

If on the other hand a group of people decide that the ultimate origin of their own personality is impersonal or uncaring, then they have to assume that impersonal forces such as matter or energy or chance can create personality. The only hope is to learn to manipulate those forces for an end that they as part of an elite group have defined. This occurred in a totalitarian state like the U.S.S.R. It can also appear in a democracy where those who control our media, schools, and universities assume the right to define how we should be moulded. In either case the faith of those who pray to God above, beside, and within them is not only ignorant but a hindrance to progress. Both forms of materialism puts humans at the mercy of those who deny the ultimate value of human freedom and personality.

On the other hand those who experience a loving God above them, beside them, and within them, can explain that such a God treats them as responsible beings. He permits differences of personality, the freedom of expression, and the right to refuse such love. The moral implication is that we should do the same. They can also explain that the eternal nature of God's love must require the kind of inner relationship of love that is expressed by a Trinitarian model. If a very simple atom needed an electron, a proton and a neutron held together by astonishing atomic force, surely the loving creator of our universe must be more than a mathematical digit. This kind of moral argument was powerfully used in Leonard Hodgson's, The Doctrine of the Trinity, 1943]

Finally we note that every one of the moral arguments in this chapter could be questioned. We are not arguing the rightness of this or that argument, only showing that in religious and ideological differences serious moral conversation is possible. The whole point of moral conversation is that before we can begin we must admit we could be wrong, and we are open to correction by others. Those who assume they are totally right and the other wrong may pretend they are engaging in a dialogue, but all they are doing is a monologue.

We conclude that having failed to find a logical proof to give us certainty, we have gained a far more important victory for human freedom. There are many things we are not free to be and do. But no amount of logic can prevent us from taking a moral stand. Logic can later give reasons for what we have already decided to be and do. And we can imagine people who give illogical or ignorant explanations for very strong commitments. But it makes no sense to say that the choice of another religion or ideology is illogical per se.

Our analysis has confined logic to the inner structure of each system. One encouraging result of this is that no one can be forced by superior intellect at the point of ultimate moral freedom. If God had planned that people could be converted by logic then the most intelligent would all be saved. Which would put computers as prime candidates for the kingdom of heaven. We might add that if there is a God who loves us, and longs for us freely to choose loving, logical certainty would not achieve his purpose.

The conclusion of this chapter is that God, or nature, or chance, or the big bang, or whatever we choose to believe in, has made us into moral beings. It is in that sense that the first chapter of the Bible offers us the powerful metaphor that we are in the image of God. That is the bed rock certainty from which any religious or ideological discussion must begin. If we are not moral beings there is no point in committing ourselves to any religion or ideology. And atheists should note that if they are not moral beings there is not point in committing themselves to any system of values. And there is even less meaning to denying or despising the faith commitment of anyone of any religion whatever.

That leaves me free to look at various religious and ideological options, commit myself to one of them, and give the moral reasons for my choice.

Chapter 7...