Do Progressive Christians Have Any Moral Foundation? [Questions That Haunt]

Stephen asks,

I had a thought I’d be interested in your reaction to. It comes from having read social psychologist, Johathan Haidt’s new book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. He says that research has shown that Western and Educated people from Industrialized, Rich, Democratic countries (or WEIRD people) who self-identify as “progressive” (socially) use, almost exclusively two moral “foundations” as criteria for making moral judgments: Harm/care and Fairness/reciprocity. We progressive WEIRD people do not use the remaining 3 foundations: Ingroup/loyalty, Authority/respect, or Purity/sanctity – the 3 that conservatives do use, in addition to, and in a higher priority manner than Harm and Fairness.

But progressives then have a problem with the God of most traditional and especially Christian formulations – especially with retribution, punishments, curses, condemnations, as well as problems with the unfairness of the treatment of women, slaves, and other outsiders. This gives us a huge problem with the bible and the god it describes, which forces us to re-think everything. Thus our problem speaking much, or coherently about God. Where do we go for information? Obviously from the comments I’ve read, anywhere available to our tastes. I think this also maps up to your work on the non-violent atonement – same issues. (Haidt sums it up (briefly) in his TED talk and at several conference lectures available online.)

So, where do Christian progressives go for moral authority?

The way this works is that you weigh in now, and I propose an answer on Friday. You can read past questions and answers in the series here.

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  • Related question: What is a moral foundation anyway? And why would one need one?

  • I’ve always found this question starts in the negative, already assuming that progressive Christians have ground to make up. And I’m not so sure that is true. The Judeo-Christian tradition is pretty broad. Do progressive Jews get asked this question? Why isn’t the default of dealing with scripture assumed that we are to wrestle and argue and contend and grope for meaning? Do all progressives really have serious issues with God and scripture?

    Progressive Christians find moral authority in just as many places as conservatives do. We do get it from our communities of faith, even conservative churches that we might be a part of. We find it from outsiders, which scripture affirms over and over as a conduit for God’s voice. We get it from respect for the traditions of scripture and other followers of Christ who came before. Maybe some progressive Christians are more honest that moral authority is always a work in progress, always changing due to new data and perspectives from other voices.

    I suppose I am trying to say that there is nothing haunting about this question at all.

    • “We find it from outsiders, which scripture affirms over and over as a conduit for God’s voice.” Huh, I was not aware of that.

      • Tim

        Probably the best example is the Good Samaritan, an outsider and enemy who practiced love for a victim when the God People did not.

        Jonah and Ruth also feature righteous outsiders.

        There are a surprising number of biblical examples when you read it looking for this

  • Larry Barber

    As has been noted elsewhere on this blog, “For Christians the Bible is a message to be proclaimed, for Jews it is a problem to be solved”. I would suggest that progressive Christians are more like the Jews in this regard. We still go to the Bible for instruction, but it is the Bible that we and the church have wrestled with, recognizing that the Bible is a product of history and historical cultures and that all expressions of the gospel are culturally conditioned. Progressives don’t or can’t use a simplistic “literal” reading of the Bible (conservatives/fundamentalists don’t either, but that’s another discussion), scripture sets a moral trajectory, but doesn’t follow that trajectory all the way to the end, that’s up to us to figure out.

  • Personally, I think that I tend to look at the best (approximate) knowledge we have access to through science AND the best of religious traditions. The problem with limiting ourselves to science is that I think a consistent appropriation will lead to relativism/nihilism. But, of course, there are also many problems with limiting ourselves to only one religious tradition.

    But, I also think many of us would describe ourselves as “post-foundationalist.” I resonate a lot with the approach of Jack Caputo in Against Ethics, but I’m not sure how practical that kind of proposal is in the real world. Maybe Caputo needs to be balanced with Rorty’s pragmatism?

  • Charles

    I consider myself a VERY progressive Christian. My moral compass is probably the same as most all Christians – The Source of All Life. Most Christians name that source God; I think that limits our understanding due to the traditional church’s definition and anthropomorphism of “God.” That said, I view humanity as my family. I take the metaphorical aspects of Jesus’ teaching and try to apply them imaginatively; applying the greater truth by constructing an implication for my life. This often results in empathy for and acting on behalf of others. My 2 cents.

  • Curtis

    Moral authority is grounded in conversation and consensus with others.

    Where do we go for information? Start a conversation. Just as you have done.

  • Craig

    Christian progressives must go to where we all must go: to reason; they must engage in reasoning.

    In my experience, evangelicals seem to mistrust moral reasoning for two reasons: they are unpracticed at it, and it threatens to undermine their peculiar sectarian commitments. For the rest of us, the idea that we have to look to reason to deal with moral questions shouldn’t be all that scary. What, in general, is to reason about moral questions? This is helpful:

    Let’s be suspicious when anyone tries to supersede or blockade the reasoning process through an appeal to some authority–particularly when the “authority” commands the stoning of children alongside shellfish prohibitions.

    • Curtis

      That is what distinguishes Christian progressives from Christian emergents. Emergents leave some room to do and think unreasonable things.

      • Everyone leaves room to do and think unreasonable things, whether they intend to or not.

  • T.S.Gay

    Science speaks in the indicative mood. That’s where Jonathan Haidt does his research. When science seems to speak in the imperative mood it is saying that if you want to realize such and such an end, these are the means you must adopt. But it doesn’t command you to aim at such an end. If you want to be healthy, or if you want the species to survive these are the things which must be done. But if it is a question whether you ought to sacrifice your health in a cause, or whether it is good that a species( say of bacteria…lol) should survive……..about those things the most extensive knowledge of what has been, is, or will be cannot furnish the answer. Action is not only a matter of knowing what existence really is, but of bringing new reality into being, and you cannot act except by some decision regarding what ought to be, what is good, what has value.

    Jonathan Haidt has shown that a full spectrum of morals is what ought to be, what is good, what has value. Yes, some people do emphasize some and denigrate others. All kinds of people do this. We should learn a more holistic approach. Incorporate them all into a way of life.

    Personally, I find Jesus’ beatitudes what ought to be the human spirit, what is good, what has value. As a grandfather now, I progressed to noticing how people of every culture, race, religion, no religion, sexual orientation exhibit those virtues. I’ve noticed how people who often exhibit in their actions a high degree of those virtues, still they have blind spots. And I’ve noticed that people who grossly neglect them and slide more toward the seven deadly sins, still they exhibit virtues in specific areas.

    To me Christians go to the Holy Spirit for moral authority. Even though this has been almost treated as magic by Christianity. It sort of is some idea that salvation is a free gift, so therefore, you get these virtues the same way-otherwise it is a work. But it seems to me that they do become part of your being by concentrating on them, and doing little habits that ingrain them.

    I think you can directly compare Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundations to the seven Christian virtues and to the fruits of the spirit. And to me, if most humans would practice the beatitudes- courage, prudence, justice, temperance, diligence, peace, charity- it would facilitate a new reality. And I think this is my way of saying what Jesus said.

    • Yes, Haidt makes it clear that his work is “descriptive” that is, as you said, “indicative”. It’s not at all that people “should” think in these categories, but it’s that his team’s research (cross-culturally) has led them to the conclusion that these “are” the moral “foundations” people use. He uses the analogy of the 5 tastes we are able to experience (sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and savory); people in general use Fairness, Harm, Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity as moral categories. His observation is that the more WEIRD people are (Western, Educated, from Industrialized, Rich – by world standards, and from Democratic countries) the more they are likely (not that they should, but that they are likely) to use Fairness and Harm as relevant moral categories. There is no “should” here; only an “is”.

  • What an insightful question, Stephen!

  • I’ll answer for myself. I first started with Jesus. He seems to me to want to throw out the loyalty/in group one and the sanctity/purity one. So as a follower of Jesus I do the same. Then once I’m no longer loyal to an in-group and I’m not worried about getting dirty by association with the outcast then I start to see everyone as HUMAN. Then I just use my empathy. I treat others as I would want to be treated. Everyone. With Jesus as my starting point I use wisdom instead of rules to formulate my morality. It’s that simple. And that hard. =)

    • Nathan


    • Mandy

      This is a lovely way of thinking about it. Thanks.

  • sofia

    Great comments thus far.

    It seems that the morals of God would clearly pre-date religion as we know it. The more difficult way–the path to wisdom–is not to hold up a book written by men in one period of history and say, “This is how it is,” but instead to study the book and the person of Jesus, look to God in the Other and consider, “Where do we go from here?”

    The concept of the authority of God as finite and known, and therefore stagnant, is a limitation based in fear that, sadly, does attract many. As Jay Bakker often says, “Once you’ve figured God out, God ceases to be God.” The God you meet is not the true God, but an expression of your longing. If this God is not killed, he will only stand in your way. (Inspired by “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”

    • Sofia, I’ve heard many people say something similar to the quote from Jay. I guess my question becomes what is the point of using the word God at all, if there is no definition of him/her/it, if there’s nothing to be known? Why not just drop the word altogether?

      • sofia

        Good point, Rob, but I think the intention is to say there is an infinite amount to be known, so let’s not stop at some point and say we’ve defined God. Similar to the study of our universe and those beyond–as our knowledge expands, sometimes we have to recant prior statements and provide new knowledge, even as we’re aware that could change in the future as we learn even more.

  • sofia

    In case I didn’t fully understand your question, Rob, I’d also say that I don’t believe we have to stick with the word “God”, but that is one that works for me in my personal Christian tradition.

    • Thanks! Yeah, this is something that I’m always wrestling with. The potentially unnecessary usage of a word like “God.”

  • The Misfit Toy

    Not sure I qualify as fully progressive, but I am enough not-conservative as defined by this question to feel like I care about the question and the answer.

    First of all, I don’t think we derive authority from our community, or our traditions. We find many things in these places, but I don’t think authority is one of them.

    While it may be true that moral authority originates in God, that ends up being a meaningless statement which doesn’t actually convey any authority once two communities with different ideas about God are in conversation.

    I actually think that progressives get their moral authority from our own remembering of the evil that humans are capable of. Sure it would be nice if some things were true, life would be simpler and we could all just follow the simple guidelines of truth … except we’ve seen where that road goes. The sense of unshakeable rightness comes from the things which must be resisted, the temptations we must not give in to.

  • Mary Biedron

    Maybe I’m missing something, but it seems to me that there is a gigantic moral challenge given through all the prophets, from Samuel to Jesus, to “do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God” as Micah reports it. And without that, all the sacrifices and proper observances in the world won’t be what God requires of us. So the progressive position of care for persons of all sorts to me carries huge moral authority; perhaps greater authority than all the purity stuff and even specific theological positions.

  • Many progressive christians will root their ethic in love. Conservatives see that and accuse them of being soft on sin or being too touchy feely. To that critique, I say that if they think love is soft or simplistic or that it doesn’t exert an ethical demand on us, then I say they don’t understand love or haven’t taken love seriously enough.

    I think a lot of the problems we have with the Bible is that it’s been read as a propositional, moral document (an “instruction manual,” as some conservatives call it). I think that’s a flawed approach. Based primarily on Matthew 22:36-40 (greatest commandments) and the Sermon on the Mount, I think Jesus was trying to get us to understand that scripture is primarily a relational document – a text aimed at teaching us how to live in loving relationship with God and neighbor as self. All the laws, morals, guidelines, stories are there to help teach us how to live in loving relationship. When we see the laws and ends in themselves, we get into trouble. When we see them as signs pointing us towards how to live in loving relationship, new possibilities open up in the text.

    All that to say, I try to root my own progressive christian morals in a loving, relational reading of the text.

    I’ve written a bit about how a relational ethic plays out in the realm of sexuality here:

    “Given the vastly different social context we live in today (compared to that of the Bible), is sex before marriage still a sin? The answer is irrelevant.

    And it’s irrelevant because again, I’m arguing that the Bible is not a book about rules, it’s a book about relationships.”

  • BTW, if you want to see how you personally map up to the 5 Moral Foundations, (that is, if you are progressive, conservative, or somewhere in-between) you can take a short online questionnaire at Hait’s site:

  • Craig

    It would help to clarify what we mean by “moral authority.” The “moral authority” could be that from which we gain our knowledge or understanding of moral norms, or our confidence that our moral convictions are correct. As such, the authority would be epistemic. If this is what we mean by “moral authority,” then I’ll concede that Curtis is saying something right when he says that such authority depends (at least in part) on thoughtful dialogue with others, and interaction with others’ viewpoints. I may, for example, come to my own private opinions about moral questions regarding the LGBT community, but I’m not going to have a lot of confidence in those opinions if I’ve never discussed the topic with anyone personally familiar with the LGBT community.

    Alternatively, by “moral authority” we could mean the facts that ground our moral claims–the facts by virtue of which a moral claim is true. If this is what we mean by “moral authority,” then we probably should not say that, generally, the moral authority is the consensus of any community. To inquire about moral authority in this sense isn’t to ask about moral epistemology; it’s to ask about moral semantics, or ontology.

    Finally, by “moral authority” we could mean whatever it is that gives a moral claim its practical or normative force. Even if we grant that a moral claim is true, and that we know it, we can still ask what it is about a moral claim that gives it its grip upon us, or special significance to us. How do we account for the peculiar force of moral claims (in contrast to the claims of arithmetic, fashion, etiquette, etc.). It’s the question “why should I so care?, or “why must I so care?”

  • Ric Shewell

    “Do progressive Christians have any moral foundation?” I feel like I almost understand the question, but I think that set up a pretty rigid dichotomy of progressives and evangelicals (or conservatives) that doesn’t exist, at least, not in such a rigid form. But, anyway, lets just say I go with it and I place myself on the progressive Christian team, since I’m not an inerrantist.

    I can only answer this for myself, so not for all progressive Christians, but I see a need for a theology to begin a framework for ethics. One of the first questions you must ask in ethics is, “Why be moral?” For the answer, you must look outside of ethics (because your ethics hasn’t been built yet) for a reasonable foundation. As a Christian, a sound theology, is the prolegomenon to an ethic.

    So my answer is theology. That’s the foundation, for me, and I think many progressive Christians. Whatever your theology is, it’s foundational for your ethic.

    • Bill

      This is a hot item of debate? I don’t see how moral reasoning, whether “progressive”, atheist, Evangelical, whatever, should NOT begin with discursive reasoning about nature. If I know what something is, I know what it is to fully be and function as that thing. That’s what it means to understand the “nature” of a thing. It also happens to be where we inherit the very meaning of “ethics”. It might behoove some of us to welcome Aristotle to the discussion. Here he is ( You don’t have to agree with him, but he’s the reason we’re talking about this.

      The meaning of goodness didn’t come from the Protestant Bible, sorry to break it to any feisty theologians on this thread, and its meaning wasn’t dictated by divine lightning. If that’s your assertion, then it’s your assertion. It isn’t an argument. How can you objectively call something good and not know what good is? If it’s “intuitive reasoning” or it came by “revelation”, keep it to yourself. You don’t have an argument, because I can’t critique it. So, before all of our brilliant and philosophical minds engage in a discussion about “God” over brandy and cigars, we should probably investigate the history of human thought on the meaning of “goodness” and the concept of “God”. If you can objectively ground what it means to be good, you objectively know where to find God. You can understand God’s NATURE. Theology as a FOUNDATION for ethics??? Yikes! I hope I never run into you on an airplane.

      • Ric Shewell

        Right. You and I aren’t starting with same premises. This is about an ethic for progressive Christians. But anyway, I’ll play.

        Okay, Aristotle says that virtue is praiseworthy, but happiness is above praise in the Ethica Nicomachea. Happiness is that final and self-sufficient good according to the characteristics of a human. Then he develops virtues that bring about the best kind of happiness, but he can only get so far because there must be something better, in the end, his foundation is an approximation of a telos based on our “inherent” feelings when we value certain actions as more good than others. We can’t know an object and it’s telos, that’s not the foundation of Aristotle’s ethics, it’s the initial and inherent evaluation of actions relative to other actions. And you say this gut evaluation of actions relative to other actions is a good enough foundation for all ethics, Christian and otherwise?

        Kant says something similar, “Self-incurred is this tutelage when its cause likes not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use without direction from another. Sapere aude! ‘Have courage to use your own reason!’ -that is the motto of the enlightenment.” For Kant, the autonomy of the individual was but a correlate of the autonomy of ethics; that is, bout the individual and the ethics that established the moral dignity of the individual were assumed to be free of any historical and religious determination.

        Unfortunately, this type of ahistorical, autonomous epistemology and ethic is a pipe dream. It is fictional. The Enlightenment didn’t save the world through ahistorical autonomous and self-evident ethics like it promised. Nothing is self-evident. That is white western wet dream, that both Aristotle and Kant are guilty of. If such ethics were so self-evident by knowing the nature of things, then there would be no ethical debates. There would only be mathematical presentations.

        If you have a theology, and you do (you think something about God and the ultimate telos of the universe), whether you know it or not, it informs the way you value an action relative to another action. The values of actions are not inherent or self-evident, but are created by you the observer, who brings to the investigation your presuppositions about god, cause and effect, nature, purpose, courage, and happiness.

        As a Christian, I attempt to order my beliefs and presuppositions as coherently as possible, this is my theology. It must attend me when I start ethics. If I am ignorant of my theology, then my ethics will equally ignorant.

        Also, I’m a pleasant neighbor on a plane.

        • Bill

          Well Ric, I guess your gut happens to be functioning like the rest of everyone else’s organs here. Glad to hear you won’t be hijacking anything.

          I’m really mesmerized by this idea of an “moral foundation FOR CHRISTIAN PROGRESSIVES”. You have a special criterion for ethical/moral behavior? And, boy, I hope I didn’t introduce this type of discussion to “play”. The point wasn’t to reflect any specialized knowledge or brilliance on my end or treat the timeless pursuit of truth as a springboard for name-dropping. So forgive me if you think I wanted that type of discussion. I hope you don’t find this type of discussion fruitless. I’m saddened that modern Protestant Christians treat philosophy as a play-toy to exploit the circularity of human thought and the pointlessness of philosophical endeavors outside of theology. That’s why Protestants continue to write books that no one else reads.

          Well, I don’t recall saying that Aristotle was a sufficient basis for evaluating any kind of moral action. Glad you see that he’s an excellent source, though! And a damn better place to start than the latest spiritual guru’s personal opinions of Jesus’ “message”. I think you’re right. Aristotle and Kant’s approaches are doomed to some kind of moral relativism, as well, but they also wouldn’t like their success to be evaluated as science textbooks on how to “locate” virtue and morality. They believed in debate as a means to discovering truth. A subjective judgment doesn’t disqualify it from being true (thank you, Kant). It just means it’s up for debate. So of course we have debates on ethics, as we should! And it doesn’t make both sides cancel each other out. And it wasn’t a western pipe dream to have everyone under a unanimous consent on virtue or “morality”, especially for Aristotle. He didn’t have any dreams like that. He wasn’t obsessed with the “progress” of some empty social mirage with the title of “Enlightenment”. And in certain important areas, such as moral JUDGMENT, Kant didn’t have dreams of that sort at all.

          Judgment can be flawed, but truth is flawless. I hope you seek to find it, with the courage of maybe being flawed in your judgment. You can’t judge the value of Scripture without already having an informed understanding of it. I hope you find it, and I hope you don’t look to cowboy “theology” or “exegetics” to inform you.

          Whether you are progressive Christians, conservative Evangelicals, it does not bother the rest of the world. What bothers the rest of the world is when you abide by your own religious criterion to inform how you should behave, while proclaiming the “evils” of the world without any discussion the rest of the world can share in. You’re not just Christians. You’re members of the human race, with a responsibility to answer to the human race (especially, if you temporarily have to put your Bibles down). Perhaps I have misunderstood the entire nature of this discussion, but it smells like passive-aggressive fundamentalism. The scariest kind. I hope my sense is off or my gut is malfunctioning. I only wanted to point out that there is no such kind of “ethic” outside of universal ethics. There is no special kind of morality for a special kind of people. I know you’re not the Taliban, so I’m not worried about you blowing up my home. I AM worried about you thinking that you abide by special rules. I expect the rest of the world to know what is virtuous, good and moral. I expect that, because I know they have reason and reason has the power to discover truth. That’s all they need to know moral norms, and that’s all you should need.

          • Bill

            Oh, and I meant to say that you can’t judge the value of Scripture without an understanding of value.

            • Ric Shewell

              So, behind this question is the assumption that different types of groups form their ethics on different principles. The question is what are those things for progressive Christians. Bill, you seem to say that the question is the problem, since there should be one foundation for ethics across all types of people groups, and the fact that Christians find principles for ethics outside of this “universal ethics” bothers you.

              I would simply argue that this “universal ethics” or the categorical imperative, or whatever modernity wanted to call it was not universal, but merely western hubris. Even if there was a “universal ethics” what access do we have to it? The closest we get in Aristotle is “well somethings are better than others, so there must be a perfect good somewhere,” and for Kant it’s something internal to every educated person that they “just know.” Both fall apart. There just doesn’t seem to be a universal ethics available to all people. Ethics is relative to communities. Welcome to postmodernity.

              Also, I don’t poo poo philosophy at all! That was my undergrad degree! I love philosophy. I am also a Christian. I would however contend that many people who call for theology to be taken out of the academy ignore the importance in knowing theology to understand philosophy. While theology may never enjoy the status in the academy that it once had, we have to recognize its importance in any philosophical training from the middle ages to the enlightenment. We cannot properly know the philosophy of many scholastics, enlightenment, and post-enlightenment thinkers without knowing the theology that was often behind their thoughts.

              I also don’t mean to get into a name-dropping/pissing contest. However, I think there is a reasonable argument for theology’s place in the academy.

              • Bill

                I’ll keep it short, Ric. Here’s my fear, as it would be for any sane person (in academia or not): the idea that you can simply derive your morality from principles deduced from revelation and not from nature. You may disagree on your conclusions ethics/morality, or even the foundations (please do!) but it allows everyone to discuss the subject rationally if we all can have the same objective reference point. That’s why scientists do it, and everyone else does it every subject but Protestant and Muslim theology. Catholics and Orthodox don’t generally have that problem. It is my job to teach 12-18 year olds to think this way on a moral level. Plenty of disagreements, but no one is excluded from the conversation if they’re of a different religious narrative. And I didn’t realize many people still seriously considered themselves “moral relativists”! Hm… I’m fine with that, I just hope you don’t begin the argument with a guy claimed to be the Son of God.

                • Ric Shewell

                  “From nature?” What is that? And how does the observation of causes and effects inform someone on what they ought to do? Science and the scientific method do not tell humans what they ought to do. In order to better know the world around them, scientist must attempt to exclude human values and judgements in observations. This allows for better, less biased, science, and more accurate observations. Since science excludes human values, their findings are considered amoral, not ethical or unethical, just the way things work. It doesn’t tell us what we should do. However, if we have desired results, science can tell us how to achieve them, but we have to provide the desires. Where do our desires come from? They cannot come from the value-less data compiled by scientific observation. We make value, not the scientific method. So we might desire good for our children and a world free of pollution for them, and science will tell us how to do that, but it won’t tell us why we want that. And not everyone wants that. So we call those people immoral? Why? Because their desires are not similar to the most popular desires?

                  Science is great, but when it places inherent value on events or actions, it’s bad science.

                  I just don’t see this secular universal ethic that is available to all people. I see visceral reactions and gut feelings about things we like or dislike. For the most part, people from similar cultures agree on these likes and dislikes, but there’s hardly anything universal.

                  So Christians seek something beyond themselves for direction in what we ought to do. And this upsets you.

                  Here’s my beef with this issue, and it seems to come up a lot in my threads on this blog. When I say that I believe in God and that Jesus rose from the dead, I cannot simply engage the world as if I don’t believe those things. But you say that If I don’t put aside those beliefs, I am excluding people from a conversation. But to put aside those beliefs would be dishonest to my own epistemology. So, if I am to fit the bill of a good conversationalist, I have to leave parts of myself out, otherwise I have to take the blame for being exclusive. That’s weird. Everyone should be welcomed to the conversation, theists and atheists, and they shouldn’t have to leave their thoughts on metaphysics out simply because they are not universally shared.

                  Because I think God exists, I have to talk about God in ethics. If it truly offends someone, then I can avoid it and muse about other peoples’ thoughts, they just are not my own, and I cannot be fully present in the conversation, which is fine from time to time… I don’t know, ROB DAVIS, I’m curious to know what you think of that?

                  • Bill

                    You seem to have this idea that everyone has to agree on something to be universal, or maybe you think I am arguing the case. No one is linking ethics to science, here. Maybe Richard Dawkins is, but he’s not around for the discussion. For ethics to be universal I simply mean what anyone else means when they argue it – an ethical judgment is a universal judgment. The judgment itself doesn’t have to be indubitably true (that’s the point of discussion/debate); the judgment only has to be universal in nature. You can word it however you like. No one’s imposing their “rules” on you. It’s just what is meant when you are introducing “ethics” to a discussion. Otherwise you are talking about preferences/desires … wonderful… Talk about desires and preferences in a class on anthropology, but don’t masque it as a discussion about ethics. There’s nothing wrong with it. It just isn’t ethics. You are in a different arena of discussion.

                    Maybe you are sympathizing with Hume a bit when you criticize this Natural Law argument I seem to be suggesting? Hume’s “is” to “ought” skepticism had to do with an epistemology he very much took for granted. And Hume really didn’t give a crap about epistemology, to begin with. He simply wanted to develop an ethical theory that didn’t have to get caught up in debates about “nature”, or debates that would hinder scientific speculation. Sounds like Aristotle all over again, except oozing with pseudo-materialism, and a sentimental strategy to get people to get along. I’m not surprised. Hume was a party animal, and he was incredibly cordial. Probably one of the only likable people coming out of the Anglo philosophical tradition. But Hume lazily adopted Locke’s sloppy mess of an approach to epistemology (if you want to call it that). That is, nature became mute after Locke, at least for westerners obsessed with raping nature for all its capitalistic worth. Because of this, there was no “nature” really to speak of in ethics, because all we had were “impressions”. Impressions OF WHAT? We cannot really say. So how can you deem them impressions??? Locke’s idea of the mind was simply perceptual, yet with nothing to be sure of perceiving. Not many people have read Leibniz’s response, but it was a knockout punch (and an easy one). Unfortunately, he wasn’t one of the Anglo frat boys, so no one in the West gave two cents. Leibniz simply said “you’re reducing the mind to an immaterial eyeball. What do you do about concepts such as infinity that we comprehend but have no perception of?” So, is to ought? Where’s the causal link? Simple its in final causation (you’ve already talked about it). Just because we have bloody fights over it doesn’t mean its no different than having “faith” or, frightening enough, working from bold religious “presuppositions”. I am awe-struck by the person who calls herself a “presuppositionalist”. It’s like saying, “I’m an assumptionalist! I assume things! And I base my judgments off of how the world should operate by those assumptions! Obviously no one agrees on how we should behave, so why is my theory any different?” To that I say, “those are some lovely feelings you have! Not a theory, but they’re beautiful. You should write a song with John Lennon.”

                    A moral judgment is a judgment about how a person should act. Do you agree? Maybe you word it a bit differently? If you simply have a desire and create value from what you already desire, you aren’t talking about an “ethic” or “morality”. You’re talking human sentiment. I’m not saying Hume isn’t worthy of discussion about the subject. He very much is, because Human referenced nature to come up with the theory to begin with. He was hoping we wouldn’t have to, however, after he sealed the deal. He obviously didn’t, unfortunate for him. Whether it’s Derrida or Foucalt or some other nutcase, these guys still speculate about nature before they say “nature… what is THAT?” They don’t begin with a religious text. Talk about theology. Please do. Let it inform the way you live. I know I do. But I never begin with it. I can’t begin with it, because theology works off of the presupposition that the text is already true – which is fine, because it’s theology, not ethics or philosophy.

                    • Ric Shewell

                      For sake of brevity (ha!), I’ll just respond to the last paragraph. I agree that desire is merely human sentimentality. I would also say that for Aristotle and Kant, they believed these desires to be universals, or maxims, or virtues. However, they were merely desires, gut reactions that place values on actions relative to other actions, and as you say human sentimentality. Please show me a basis for ethics that does not reduce to visceral reactions.

                      I wasn’t asking rhetorically, “Nature, what is that?” I really am confused by what you mean by nature. So what do you mean, “nature”? And how does “it” tell us what we ought to do. How does it answer, “Why be moral?” I really just want to know.

                      Finally, when you said, “Talk about theology… let it inform the way you live. I know I do.” I thought you were agreeing with me, after all, ethics is simply how we ought to live, and it will always be informed by your personal theology. But then you said theology is no good for a starting point because it presupposes “that the text is already true.” I assume you mean the Christian Scriptures when you mean “the text.” And I don’t know what you mean by true. Regardless, you are incorrect. Theology does not presuppose the Bible to be “true.” There are many theologians that do not presuppose the Bible to be true. Much of theology is being critical of the Scriptures. A systematic or integrative theology uses and scrutinizes the Scriptures along with history, philosophy, science, to formulate coherent thoughts about metaphysics that necessarily inform how we think we ought to live — our ethics.

        • Ric, if you’re going to plagiarize from Hauerwas, at least spell it correctly. What he actually wrote was “both the individual” rather than “bout the individual.”

          • Ric Shewell

            Ouch! Ha, I just wrapped up and forgot to cite that! I moved on to my next paragraph without finishing that. But yes, that little paragraph with Kant’s quote was from Hauerwas and Wells’ Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethcs. Didn’t mean to try to pass that paragraph off as my own, sorry if it seemed that way. Anyone reading the things I write here can tell I’m part of the Hauerwas mafia, as Tony says. Thanks for calling it out!

    • Bill

      Ric, I think we have reached the minimal size limit of the reply box, so I hope you get this! Thank you, by the way, for a very passionate and educating conversation. It is not everyday that I run into a person like you. Maybe I need to get out more!

      I’ll first answer your snippets of questions about what I mean by nature. What I meant by “nature” was originally intended more or less as a placeholder for the “whatever-it-is” we universally and knowledgeably experience as human beings. If you argue that “there is no universal experience that we share”, then that is your universal claim. For the sake of rational discussion, I think it is a legitimate argument (although a boring one). If you said that, I would probably ask you, “who is the ‘we’ in that assertion?” Apparently, by the way, theology means something more to you than it does me. I should have been more careful as to how I was defining it. You’re right. Theology does not presuppose a religious text as true. It presupposes the religious text and religious literary tradition as the NORM, however. If it involves other things, then I would just call it sociology or “socioanthropology” or “theosocioanthropology” or “theosocioanthropologic philosophy” or maybe “historicotheosocioanthropologic philosophy”.

      How can nature tell us how we ought to live? I’m glad you asked. I’ll provide my personal argument. You can test it with reason.

      To understand the nature of a thing is to understand what it means to be a thing. I understand what it means, on some level, to be a rock or to be a bat. I know that a rock is a conglomeration of minerals and a bat is an animal that uses sonar (although I can’t experience sonar). Nevertheless, I know what it means, on some level, to function as that thing insofar as I understand it to be what it is. E.g., if a rock disintegrates into imperceptible molecules, it’s no longer judged to be a rock. A bat that loses sonar will probably no longer be considered a bat – maybe a “blind” bat, or a sonar-less bat, or something of that sort, but not a fully functioning bat. In the same way, I know what it is to be a human being. I share the same metaphysical categories with other humans. We experience free choice. We experience and understand, on some level more or less than others, sacrifice. Because I know that what it means to be a fully functional human, I understand human nature. I.e. I know the nature of being human. When I am not acting on free will, when I am not respecting the dignity of other human beings, when I am not sacrificing (the highest act of free choice), I am being less than human. I am not fulfilling my nature. Can theology inform the way I behave in a specifically religious way? I was wrong in saying that it is bothersome that some Evangelicals think they have “special rules”. I should have said that it is special rules that contradict the nature of being fully human (e.g. Muslims who treat the infidel as less-than-human). Insofar as it does not cause me to act unnaturally, such as withholding sacrifice or withholding love or not respecting the dignity of other human beings, yes, religion provides one with the direction as to how to carry out such moral behavior. Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, for instance, believe that participating in Holy Mass is the most important and valuable thing a human can do, because it is participating in the ultimate sacrifice of Christ.

      Thanks again, Ric.

      • Ric Shewell

        I think that’s pretty good, Bill. But I would say that the understanding that love and sacrifice is the fulfillment of being truly human is not derived from knowing human nature. I mean, for ethical purposes, I agree with you, that love and sacrifice ought to be our highest values when we create our ethics. But I come to the conclusion that Love and Sacrifice are paramount because it has been revealed to us by God, especially through the love and sacrifice of Jesus.

        I think that when we try to look at human nature, its not that easy to determine a goal for humans, or what humans fundamentally are and there for fundamentally should do. Neitzsche, I think, would agree with your method (looking at what humans truly are and then determine what humans ought to do), but his conclusions of what humans ought to do are practically the opposite of love and sacrifice. Instead, humans ought to will to power and dominate the weaker. He believes this is ultimately better for both the strong and the weak. Well, neither you or I go where Neitzsche goes, but I think that’s an example of where ethics can go if we are left with trying to decipher it from human nature.

        In fact, call me a little existentialist, but I’m not sure that there is an essence to being human, or a human nature to strive for. I don’t think there is anything solid to stand on and build an ethic down that road, so the most solid thing that I find is God revealed in Jesus Christ, which incidentally looks upholds love and sacrifice to be chief values in building an ethic.

        Thanks for the conversation, Bill!

      • Ric Shewell

        I think that’s pretty good, Bill. But I would say that the understanding that love and sacrifice is the fulfillment of being truly human is not derived from knowing human nature. I mean, for ethical purposes, I agree with you, that love and sacrifice ought to be our highest values when we create our ethics. But I come to the conclusion that Love and Sacrifice are paramount because it has been revealed to us by God, especially through the love and sacrifice of Jesus.

        I think that when we try to look at human nature, its not that easy to determine a goal for humans, or what humans fundamentally are and therefore fundamentally should do. Neitzsche, I think, would agree with your method (looking at what humans truly are and then determine what humans ought to do), but his conclusions of what humans ought to do are practically the opposite of love and sacrifice. Instead, humans ought to will to power and dominate the weaker. He believes this is ultimately better for both the strong and the weak. Well, neither you or I go where Neitzsche goes, but I think that’s an example of where ethics can go if we are left with trying to decipher it from human nature.

        In fact, call me a little existentialist, but I’m not sure that there is an essence to being human, or a human nature to strive for. I don’t think there is anything solid to stand on and build an ethic down that road, so the most solid thing that I find is God revealed in Jesus Christ, which incidentally looks like holding up love and sacrifice to be chief values in building an ethic.

        That’s how I get there.
        Thanks for the conversation, Bill!

  • I haven’t had time to read through all the responses, so excuse me if I’m repeating what others said. As someone who has found myself rather unexpectedly on the progressive side of Christianity, I have two responses. The first is that we are in an usually unsettled time. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I believe that we are headed towards a time where a more normal embrace of the 5 traditional concerns of morality are more settled and embraced. But we can’t pretend that authority hasn’t discredited itself left and right and essentially destroyed its right to claim respect. Or that in-group/loyalty thinking hasn’t lead to humans doing awful things to humans. Or that ideas about purity and cleanliness haven’t been abused as a means of oppression. So, I’m not sure that I buy the idea that WEIRD people don’t value these things. Rather I think they refuse to accept that what has been offered in those realms is worth embracing.

    As to where ideas of morality come from without those components, again, I think we need to accept that we are in a time of transition. We are rethinking what authority and respect look like in a world where claims to authority seem to be synonomous with being unworthy or respect. So, authority may have to come from the agreement of those who offer their loyalty based on having been earned and maintained, rather than automatically granted. Loyalty may mean loyalty to the best instrests of humanity rather than to my group over your group. Those who are willing to abuse others would be anatham based on their behavior rather than their membership in one group or another. Purity and cleanliness may be re-oriented towards that which is actually good for us rather than the rather arbitrary markers we have held to before.

    As a Christian, I can’t help but feel that despite some rather egregious errors we are making along the way, this destabilization of the established order is a good thing. The established order doesn’t go nearly far enough towards bringing God’s kingdom values into existance. The more we can re-orient ourselves towards the values of the Kingdom and away from what has passed for Ingroup/loyalty, Authority/respect, or Purity/sanctity. Conservatives (and I say this as someone who always thought of herself as conservative) seem to me to be in deep denial about the reality of the evils of this world. They by and large figure that the world basically works OK the way it is (or the way it would be if it weren’t for those meddling liberals). But once you become convinced that the world’s problems run too deep to just fiddle around the edges and reform while leaving the core intact, it becomes pretty clear (or so it seems to me) that what has passed for Ingroup/loyalty, Authority/respect, or Purity/sanctity needs to be radically re-oriented towards something better.

    • As always, I need an editor. And a babysitter. Hopefully the gist of what I’m saying gets through!

    • Rebecca, thanks for a thoughtful reply. The “WEIRD people reason differently” is about far more than moral reasoning, but it’s included. The argument is made by this paper:
      The Weirdest People in the World?
      Joe Henrich, University of British Columbia; Steven J. Heine, University of British Columbia; and Ara Norenzayan University of British Columbia, May 7, 2010, RatSWD Working Paper No. 139
      “Here, our review of the comparative database from across the behavioral sciences suggests both that there is substantial variability in experimental results across populations and that WEIRD subjects are particularly unusual compared with the rest of the species – frequent outliers. The domains reviewed include visual perception, fairness, cooperation, spatial reasoning, categorization and inferential induction, moral reasoning, reasoning styles, self-concepts and related motivations, and the heritability of IQ. “

  • Tim

    Read the Bible and life through the eyes of the Forgiving Victim, Jesus.

    He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

    So the foundation is the lifestyle, the understanding of reality, and the vulnerability of Jesus.

    Since the question is asked of a Christian (progressive), then the Source is Jesus. Period. Same goes for any kind of Christian

    • Bill

      I got it! We all just go to different sources. It’s a FREE FOR ALL!

      • Tim

        No. The Source is the Word made flesh, Jesus of Nazareth, crucified because he did not meet the moral standards of the political/religious leaders. Raised from the dead, he returned with forgiveness over against retaliation.

        We read the Bible from the Jesus point of view.

        It is not a free for all, unless you mean God’s love through Christ is free for all 🙂

  • I think moral authority for Christians has to start with the Bible. It doesn’t have to end there and it shouldn’t but if we are going to use the name of Christian we have to see the story of God working with and through creation as some source of authority. I’m not saying that we worship the Bible, but I am saying that it gives us a frame of reference, as well as an understanding of who we are.

    The Bible for me isn’t a rule book, but it is a Story that tells me about how God relates to Creation, from the beginnings of the world to the end of the age. As I read that larger story of salvation, I can see myself entering into the story facing some of the questions that those characters faced.

    We can talk about Reason being a source or Nature and that’s fine. But if our moral authority is not shaped by the “good book”, if our reason can’t connect with our biblical foundation, then all were are doing is learning how to be a good person, not how to follow Jesus and be able to say that Jesus is Lord and Ceasar is not.

    I know I’ve probably set myself up to look like some sort of fundy that worships the Bible. I don’t see the Bible as the perfect source, but even as troubling as scripture can be to us, it contains a story that is still taking place. And if we don’t have that as part of our foundation, then our theological house is really built on sand.

    • Tim

      Consider starting with Jesus. In John 8, they brought a woman caught in adultery. They asked Jesus what to do. They knew what the Bible said, stoning. Jesus knew what the Bible said, stoning. Jesus said: the one without sin casts the first stone.

      If you start with the Bible, then she’s dead.

      If you start with Jesus, she lives.

      Jesus is selective in his reading of the Bible.

      We therefore interpret through his eyes.

      • I knew I wasn’t explaining myself well when I wrote this. When I said start with the Bible, I wasn’t saying ignore Jesus. I would agree that Jesus is the starting point, but practically, we don’t know about Jesus unless we read the Bible. Christ definitely is and should be our moral foundation, but if we don’t understand why Jesus did what he did, if we don’t see the surrounding story, then we kind of lose the message. So, practically, the way we understand our moral authority is through this collection of writers who talked about the Story of God’s interaction with creation aka the Bible.

        • Curtis

          True, you don’t know Jesus if you don’t read the Bible. But you also don’t know Jesus if you only read the Bible.

          Jesus didn’t instruct his disciples to sit and read Scripture. Jesus’s clear calling was to “follow him”. Follow him to Jerusalem. Follow him in a ministry of hope and healing. Follow him in conflict to the cross and beyond. Jesus spent far more time making fools of those who relied only on Scripture than he did telling people to read more Scripture.

  • Doug Oliver

    Because Progressives often become Progressives by gradually challenging the prescriptive moral principals laid out by those motivated by political gain, they have rejected the notion that morality is to be defined by flavor-of-the month absolutism. Consequently, Progressive Christians seem willing to define morality against social mores, which are culturally defined. Most cultures share commonality in the mores that support their society’s health. Because they are culturally defined, morals that are different from another culture’s can still be respected and tolerated. It is my feeling that because we are more respectful and humanistic, we can resist fear and let humility inform our social choices.

  • Katherine Heller

    Progressive Christians base moral authority on the example of compassion set by the life example of Jesus, as well as his many parables. If we think of Jesus’ life as the lense through wich we view all of scripture and also of our life, the contradictions that exist in the Bible, both in Hebrew scripture and in the New Testament, seperate their moral lessons as wheat and chaff. The empathic wisdom woven through ancient scriptures is illuminated and the cultural and time embedded codes of control and power fade. Rather than make an idol of a man’s life and words, the path he tread is taken as the way to live a moral life.

  • Curtis

    Jesus, who was about a progressive as you could get in his time, answered almost the exact same question very clearly when it was posed to him:

    The basis of moral authority is these two tests:
    1) Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind.
    2) Love others as much as you love yourself.

    Jesus asserts that all moral laws are based on these two core principles. These are the foundation of a Christian moral authority.

    Jesus offers similar advice when he tells us we can discern the validity of a prophet simply by looking at the fruit of their work. Those whose work bear good fruit are representing the truth.

    Paul echos Jesus’ teaching later in his instructions to the church: All moral commandments are summed up in this one rule:“Love your neighbor as yourself.” And further, Love does no harm to its neighbor.

    The test for moral authority that Jesus provides is quite simple, and can be summarized in these points:

    1) Fully love God
    2) Fully love yourself
    3) With equal measure that you love God and yourself, love everyone else
    4) Do no harm to others

    This is the basis for moral authority and moral law provided by Jesus, and followed by all Christians, including progressives.

    • What does it mean to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind” or to “Fully love God”?

      • Curtis

        There is no clear answer. That is the journey we are all on. I think the fact that Jesus tightly binds love for God with love for self and love for others provides great insight, and is certainly part of the answer. Love for God must be simultaneous with, and be expressed through, love for self and love for others. Perhaps, Love originates with God, but is not realized until there is love for self which then, unavoidably, results in love for others.

        Where it goes after that is open for discussion. But this is where Jesus tells us to start the discussion from.

        • Perhaps, Love originates with God, but is not realized until there is love for self which then, unavoidably, results in love for others.

          I like this. God as the source of love. I just keep wondering what it means to solely love or “worship” God. It seems that it is so interwoven with love of self and love of others, that you cannot simply “love God.”

          • Curtis

            I believe they are interwoven. I read Jesus as saying the same thing. Jesus spoke of love of god, self and others as one, whole, response to the question. This was a spoken instruction, and passed verbally for decades before it was written down, so I wouldn’t put too much weight in the punctuation found in the Bible that might seem to separate love of God from love of self and others. I don’t read a separation in Jesus’ thoughts there.

            You are right, it is impossible to simply “love God”. A person can’t love God at all, of their own will. God first loves us. Love of self and love of others is a response to God’s love freely given to us.

            • God first loves us.

              This is interesting for me to think about as well. What does it mean for God to love us? What did he/she/it do? Create us? Give us the freedom to merely exist or to live/thrive? Beyond that, what? Show us a better way of being human? Better than what?

              I know that I’m good at over-complicating things. I just don’t understand what these statements are really “getting at” anymore.

              • Curtis

                Saying “God first loves us” can be used to get at lot of things. It is a central teaching of the New Testament (1 John 4:10, among others)

                The phrase has been used and probably abused by a lot of people.

                For me, it means that I realize love when I stop trying to love. If I want love, I have to stop trying to love, and allow myself to experience the love that is already there.

                Where is Love, exactly? Who knows. In the clouds, in the earth, in my soul, in some neural network in my brain. Who knows. But I believe love exists, and I believe I can only get it when I stop trying to get it.

                I guess that is more of an Eastern philosophy. But, from what I’ve heard, Nazareth was a real cross-roads between East and West at the time Jesus was living there, so it is not unusual to find Eastern views in his teaching. At least I like to think that is true. That is what “God first loves us” means to me.

  • Jonnie

    I think Curtis’ foundation is a great insight into what progressives (I think rightfully) DO with the testament of Jesus: they take this love ethic and drag it into everything, making it the foundation of their wrestling with answers. At least, this is what progressives are doing when they’re at their best. At their worst, they’re regurgitating the liberal political platitudes.

    The difficulty is in maintaining a thick, rich concept of love in the face of it’s being used so poorly and thinly as a concept for tolerance and niceness both in the church and outside (I’m thinking of the jabs Hauerwas takes at the world ‘love’ here). Its here, right here, that the privileged-ness of the weirdos makes them dangerous. Again, no wonder they often revert to platitudinal ideas of ‘fairness’ rather than ingroup of higher authorites. They are (we are) the most structurally empowered, in charge, fairly treated folks in society. They have no need to band together for survival and rights (ingroup), and not need for the archaic concepts of higher authorities and dictated rules. They have power, their needs fulfilled. Again, thin concepts and no action are the risk here.

    I think a good Jesus inspired love ethic takes a continual disruption with the self-effacing presence of ‘the other.’ Emmanuel Levinas is so helpful here. Jesus’ words must be experienced from below if they are to be vibrant. The more progressive one gets (maybe characterizable as the ‘the less they are drawing on any of the biblical witness outside of Jesus’ love ethic’), the more they need the experience ‘from below,’ from ‘the other,’ to ward off thin, dry, politicized moral foundations.

    • Curtis

      You are right that Love and Nice are not the same thing. That is especially hard for us Minnesotans to figure out! Love and Nice are almost opposites. Nice can co-exist with apathy. Love cannot.

  • JimA

    So much of this discussion seem somehow unduly intellectual and complicated. I’m drawn to Rob Davis’ question:
    What does it mean to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind” or to “Fully love God”? From that question, I am more drawn to a set of litmus tests for an action considered or undertaken, such tests perhaps typified by: “Is it kind? Is it restorative or redemptive? Is it respectful, compassionate, helpful and/or protective? Does it nurture, encourage, edify, or enable beneficially? Does it move toward a better justice? Does it move toward a better relationship or world, …toward a greater good?

    In short, I think of such litmus tests as a practical frame of reference, …a quick and accessible check as to whether “following the heart of the teachings and example of the Christ” is happening or not in this particular moment.

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