Saturday, March 14, 2015

Faithfully Valuing the Limits of Scripture (PART 4 - MORALITY & EVIL)

So far we've discussed the impact of our (extra-Biblical) worldview on our approach to Scripture. We've used progressive revelation as a practice engagement with the tricky complexities of honest Scriptural interpretation, and being willing to challenge our worldview. We've explored the nature of relationships, and discovered the cognition and communication fall short of defining 'relationship' because of their very nature, and not just because we humans can only handle them imperfectly. In addition, it seems as if God - technically capable of using 'perfect' communication and cognition - seems to have deliberately utilised bias in these things in His pursuit of what really matters to Him - a relationship of love.


A discussion of morality flows naturally from our discussion of communication, because it functions very similarly. Morality refers to the pattern of our behaviour. Like communication, it is inherently cognitive - we consciously decide what to do, and so it is a window into another person's cognition, but also suffers similar interpretation inaccuracies as communication. And just like communication and cognition, morality finds its true purpose in relationship. It is meant to be person-based, not abstract. We are meant to want to be like Christ and to please Christ, based on our flawed cognitive understanding of Him through our relationship. 

Because cognition cannot reach a static full encapsulation of a person, our morality will never be able to fully encapsulate them either. For this reason, some argue that we are meant to disengage our morality from cognition, and just follow the rules God has set down without question or interpretation, because this is the only reliable way to reflect God. I don't think this is the case, because the only way morality can reflect anything, is through people's interpretation of it - and they interpret it by trying to see through to the person that produces it. We reflect God by being a person that people see God in, and by behaving in a way that springs forth from this person. This cannot occur if our morality is disengaged from our cognition - it actually makes the reflection of God's character less accessible, not more accessible. Besides, the very nature of relationships and people means that things like morality and cognition could never capture a person, even if we disregard the link between morality and cognition. Relationships are meant to be dynamic processes that engage with the other person, and so a static cognition and a static morality cannot fully capture this. 

In other words, you cannot legislate the kind of morality God is after through fixed laws. They could never be nuanced enough, and there is always the possibility of life situations bringing together multiple conflicting values and unique considerations for the relationship which could NEVER be exhaustively described. No doubt God has a preferred way to behave in each situation, but we can only know this if we know God through relationship. So instead of prescribed living, there has always been a need for prioritisation, flexibility, and pragmatism BASED upon the right living relationship with God. I'm not advocating a liberal lifestyle - the relationship I'm advocating includes a desire to submit to God, and also a recognition of the complexity of applying God's values to real life situations. 

But God still legislated morality - if this was not for 'prescribed personal morality', then what was it for? We can argue for some specific purposes behind the OT law e.g. Societal coherence, which was difficult to maintain in a largely 'religious' society where God was never-the-less rarely relationally known, and where cognitive understanding of God was incomplete. But a big reason - the one that applies to ongoing legislation even in the NT - ties back to the purpose of communication. God wants us to see a prioritised understanding of His cognition THROUGH the commandments, and then base our morality on the relationship, which will include submission to our cognitive understanding of Him. Our morality will often look 'prescribed', but the different emphasis allows for deviations that please God when situations arise that aren't covered by the legislation with enough contextual relational nuance. 

Because morality is cognitive, it will change with progressive revelation and an evolving cognitive understanding of God. It needs to be emphasised that God does not want us to take the burden upon ourselves to guess / determine the 'next phase' of morality and progressive revelation. Its also worth mentioning here that morality (and to a lesser extent, communication) DOES have non-cognitive influences, which could potentially reflect non-cognitive aspects of the relationship. These are, however, much less precisely expressed and are readily overwhelmed by cognitive influences.

You can see that morality behaves much like communication and cognition - dim but important reflections of the underlying important spiritual love relationship. The intrinsic biases of morality must also be deliberately designed by God as they are natural consequences of deliberately designed cognitive biases. And just like we don't need to properly cognitively understand the God we love, we also don't need to legalistically and un-critically 'submit' to any particular legislation from God in order for the love to be real - but we DO need to engage in the process of submission. 

Evil 'Gaps' in the Relationship

I've talked a lot about what a relationship intuitively means to us, and about how our modernistic mindset can cause us to wrongly perceive many 'normal healthy' aspects as imperfections. But we all know that there ARE real cognitive deviations and gaps in our relationship with God, things that should not be considered healthy. And often it can sure seem as if its the 'healthy aspects' of normal relationships that become the culprits. Using our example of progressive revelation, it is often the intrinsic bias in communication and cognition that leads to problems in our relationship with God - and yet we've discussed them as natural and healthy, and something God has deliberately designed. What is it that makes some 'imperfections' normal and healthy, and others problematic? What is God's purpose behind allowing 'gaps' in the experience of Him through relationship, when He knows they will often cause problems? If modernism is wrong and many gaps are actually healthy and good, can we find another way to talk about the reality of bad gaps, ones that are real deviations from God's ideal relationship?

I think we can :) Lets start with some definitions - these are entirely my own definitions, which I think are supported by Scripture, but they're open to debate in the comment section! 'Good' and 'Evil' are terms which describe the quality of the experience of God through relationship. God is intrinsically 'good', and everything else is 'good' to the degree that it brings about the experience of God. 'Evil' is any lack of 'good' i.e. any gaps in the experience of God's goodness. This makes sense from a more Jewish perspective as well, where 'good' and 'evil' refer to something close to 'function' and 'dysfunction'. If God's fundamental aim is for us to experience Him in a relationship of love, anything which fulfils this function (i.e. our experience of God's character through His expression) is 'good', while anything that does NOT fulfil this function is 'evil'. Evil is intimately linked to sin, because sin harms our experience of God through relationship. Because these things are tied to relationship, you can see that 'good' does NOT refer to an attainable 'full' end outcome, but rather to an ideal uninhibited experience of a process (the ongoing relationship). Even from an eternal perspective, the 'good' all things work toward is an ideal ongoing relationship with God. Likewise 'evil' refers to the inability to have this ideal uninhibited experience of the process of relationship.

Note that both of these terms are dependent on your perspective. From an eternal perspective, we know that ALL things work together for 'good' i.e. are functioning (ultimately) to enhance our experience of God through relationship, even if it is 'evil' from a temporal perspective. And this makes sense, since ultimately all things are in some way an expression of God and Christ, even if you think He is merely 'permitting' their existence. God says that He Himself performs 'evil', where the experience of God in relationship is clouded or confused in a temporal sense - and yet he also says that all His actions are 'good' in an eternal sense. Also, both of these definitions are dependent on our interpreted experience of God from various perspectives, NOT on how well God is actually expressing Himself (I'm sure He is never actually limited in the expression of Himself, even temporally). This is why some 'normal' aspects to relationships, like incomplete cognitive understandings and varied and incomplete expressions of God, can be perceived as 'evil' when occurring in specific contexts. Its not these healthy normal aspects that are the culprit per-se, but the entire context has led to an impaired experience of God, which means the whole situation can rightly be called 'evil'. I believe 'evil' will not exist in heaven, but this is not because I think relationships will fundamentally change - I still think God will express Himself in varied and incomplete ways, and that our cognitive understanding of God will be incomplete and growing. Evil ceases to exist in heaven, because God will express Himself in ways that He KNOWS we will experience clearly (in a temporal sense). In this life, 'evil' exists because God chooses to express Himself in ways that He KNOWS we will NOT interpret clearly, even though they ultimately work toward enhanced experience of relationship.

Scriptural 'gaps'

Its obvious at this point that Progressive Revelation ties into our discussion of 'evil'. From many perspectives it enhances our relational experience of God, and is clearly 'good'. But from some perspectives progressive revelation can also be called 'evil'. You've probably felt this already yourself, when considering the implication that God has deliberately introduced bias into our cognitive understanding AND into our morality . As I've discussed earlier, much cognitive bias is a normal part of healthy relationships, but in some contexts it can also function as an 'inhibition' of our experience of God through relationship, especially when we can sense the spirit-wrought ache in our hearts for a more accurate cognitive understanding. It is thus sometimes a temporal 'evil' designed by God as part of the 'good' of progressive revelation. The 'good' of progressive revelation becomes more obvious as the revelation accumulates to produce a more accurate picture, and as we learn things from God that would not make as much relational sense if not for the previous 'unbalanced' cognition, and as we realise the limited role cognition and communication can play in relationship anyway. We should experience these unbalanced views of God as part of the ongoing expression of our relational God - simultaneously acknowledging the 'evil' this can encourage / allow from our temporal perspective AND the 'good' from other perspectives.


Reality is not as idealistic as I've been suggesting in the series so far. 'Evil' refers to NON-healthy gaps in our experience of God through relationship. But its not a simple division between gaps which are 'evil', and gaps which are normal and 'good' (i.e. the nature of relationships and cognition and morality). These descriptions depend on your perspective, and since there are usually multiple appropriate perspectives, there is usually a mix of recognising 'good' and 'evil' in these gaps. And some apparently 'evil' aspects may in other contexts be considered normal and 'good' aspects to healthy relationships, and continue to exist in some form in heaven. Importantly, all forms of 'evil' are ultimately 'good' and serve to enhance our ultimate experience of God, because permitting their existence is still itself an expression of God, and He is ultimately good (which is why He works all things work together for good). Progressive revelation demonstrates this nicely, as this variously biased revelation - with all its 'problems' - is still 'God-breathed' and good and trustworthy as part of the expression of His character. 

Do you agree that morality should be relationship-based, and thus more flexible / pragmatic than mere legislation? 

Do you agree with my relational-experiential definition of 'evil' and 'good'? 
What do you think of the assertion that 'evil' is ultimately good (from an eternal perspective), and an expression of God? 
Would life or Scriptural interpretation be easier / better if things could be definitively  divided into 'good' and 'evil' categories, instead of being both from different perspectives?

Coming Soon...

  • Next I'll explore how relationships deal with the 'evil' gaps we've just discussed - through 'faith'. This will open up some more possibilities to discuss, regarding what God is doing by deliberately creating / allowing these gaps (especially those we find in Scripture).  
  • After that, I will have (almost) finished my defence of the bias God has created within Scripture :) And I can work toward positively addressing how God wants us to approach His Scriptures, given its divine inspiration, purpose, and 'gaps' / biases. 
  • Then we'll  explore this in more detail over some of the phases of progressive revelation. 
  • And then onto the practical implications of a  proper vs improper approach to Scripture.

The series so far:

1 comment:

  1. Another great write up in this series Josh! I hadn't realized you had posted the next one up!
    Ha, I just finished giving a presentation along a very similar line looking at ethics in Social work and comparing them to Christian ethics. I also presented how they could potentially be reconciled, through seeing Christian ethics as more like guidelines rather than abstract absolutes.
    What needs to happen, is a greater realisation that context gives rise to the necessity to prioritize values. We need to follow Christ's example and see "laws" as being for people rather than people being made for laws. (Think about his treatment of the Sabbath etc)

    One approach to ethics I like is the Human rights approach as opposed to a moral rights approach. Human rights looks at the practical well being of people, whereas moral rights address smaller issues in the grand scheme of things.
    For example, it is a moral right for a parent to be a guardian over their children, but if this is abused, then the child's human right overrides this moral right.
    It doesn't fix all ethical dilemmas and complexities, but cuts it down and awful lot and makes it easier to look at the needs of others rather than following abstract "rules".
    I am not saying that Christian ethics don't have very specific ideas around what contributes to human well being (sometimes conflicting), but if one prioritizes these according to the needs in a given context, one can rest easier at night :)