Monthly Archives: January 2009

Are all truths equal?

REPOST: (I wrote this some months ago when I first considered starting a blog). 

I was reminded this weekend of a conundrum that Art Linsley, one of my seminary professors, presented to me some years ago: Is God above the law or beneath the law?

It was an old Duke Law Journal article written by Arthur Allen Leff in 1979 (Unspeakable Ethics; Unnatural Law) that got my mind spinning on the subject. Leff was a professor of law at Yale Law School. His article focuses on whether a ‘normative morality’ or sort of universal law can exist without God. Interestingly, Leff was an agnostic and asked the question of whether there is some “findable” law that “ought” to dictate human behavior. The implication is that the point of human law is to find and point to a law that pre-existed. I am fascinated by and continue to struggle with some of Leff’s arguments but I am also awed by his intellectual and philosophical honesty. It seems Leff struggled with a sense of absurdity in humans dictating rather than finding law—and presenting a made law as the “Great Ought To.”

Leff’s conundrum would read something like: If law is not from a supreme source, then can it be a supreme law? Or if there is no findable law then don’t we make ourselves “god” in dictating a law? Leff did not assume God (quite different from Linsley).  I sense he is arguing for God’s existence through of a shared notion of universal “rights” and “wrongs” across time, but he winds up concluding that there really can be no rights and wrongs! My conclusion is different, but I think Leff builds a strong intellectual platform on which to build the case–if not for the existence of God–then at least for the consequences his absense.

***

So….Is God above the law or beneath the law?

I realize this question presupposes a proper God, but for the purposes of this discussion, “god” can be thought of in non-specific terms—i.e. a higher power/intelligent designer, etc. You will probably see there is a problem with both of the options presented. On the one hand, if God is above the law, the law is, in a very real sense, arbitrary. That is, should the designer have chosen other things to be ‘right’ instead, they would be. Or, he could change his mind and something that was right yesterday might not be right tomorrow. The natural conclusion here is that nothing is actually True in a cosmic/permanent sense, except at the whim of their god.

On the other hand, if God is below the law, then God is himself subject to the law. But if that being is subject to the law then isn’t it the law itself that has become God? For in this event, the rules would rule the ruler, becoming themselves the ultimate ruler. You might still posit an intelligent designer, but its hands would be tied by a Law that supersedes. We are left with a cosmic Truth, but a toothless god—an omnipotent Law with a weak chief executor. Further, we might wonder whether the law is “good” or if it “has our best interests in mind” for it would be faceless, nameless and somewhat cold to the feel I think.

It’s interesting to note that in either event, something is True, a salient point in a world that has become definitively relativistic. If we accept some sort of Supreme Being, it’s hard to reason that such a God would have no view of right and wrong. If above the law, He might change right and wrong over time, but it would be His discretion, not our own. If beneath the law, there is an inalienable, faceless truth that would be unchanging. So in order to conclude the absence of some unassailable truth at any point in time, one, I think, has to argue that there is no God—regardless of the fashion in which it exists.

As Leff argues, one of the great ironies of life is that humans seem to yearn so strongly to be free, and yet cannot deal with the consequences of absolute freedom. We want to rule our own lives and define our own truths and yet find the implications terrifying. Post modernism suggests the notion of Absolute Truth is archaic—that we have ‘progressed’ to higher philosophical grounds. Relativism rules the day. Relativism is appealing because it allows us to define our own truth. It allows us to be politically correct and to embrace others and their beliefs without any uncomfortable questioning. But I think we realize that in so doing, we are letting go of one of our greatest hopes—that something is True, that something is Good. Or perhaps even more importantly, that there are things that wrong.

For in the absence of such an Absolute, we are forced to conclude that we cannot apply standards to others. Relativism suggests that what is right for any person or group, is right for that person or group and what is right for me is right for me. The one thing a person cannot do, though, is to apply her own sense of right and wrong to the others. Therefore, if I accept relativism, can I really say it is wrong to kill? Can I say Hitler was wrong, the 9-11 hijackers? Can I say that rape is wrong? I would argue that I cannot. The natural conclusion of relativism is that everything is true and therfore nothing is True.  I find this to be a terrifying conclusion and I think relativists must often reach into the abyss searching for some laws that are inalienable, even if they can’t describe from whence those lswa might come.

The Biblical answer to the conundrum is that the Biblical/Judeo-Christian God is, in and of himself, the Law. This means that God is Truth and that Truth is unchanging–that the Law is not arbitrary but is, rather, an expression of God’s character and very essence.  It follows that in understanding what is True, we understand God Himself.  And to the extent we can know God, we will know what is True and right.  If you follow this out a bit, we arrive at a God whose character defines a spiritual universe  (that is subject to that spiritual law), just as his actions created a physical one (that is subject to physical law–think Newtonian Physics). As there are physical truths (e.g. you will hit the ground and hurt yourself if you fall from a window) there are also spiritual truths (e.g. you will damage your relationship if you lie to a friend). God did not make it so, he has expounded on it for us so that we know it is so. And we know that the Law is Good because it expresses God’s own character. He is not above the law, having decided that you should not lie. Rather, it was always wrong to lie, before the dawn of time, but God allows us to know that law. God’s law then is not to arbitrarily rule over us, but to help us live more fulfilled lives—jump from windows less, if you will.  It’s an instruction book, not a to-do list.

Leff begins his article:

I want to believe —and so do you— in a complete, transcendent, and immanent set of propositions about right and wrong, findable rules that authoritatively and unambiguously direct us how to live righteously. I also want to believe —and so do you —in no such thing, but rather that we are wholly free, not only to choose for ourselves what we ought to do, but to decide for ourselves, individually and as a species, what we ought to be. What we want, Heaven help us, is simultaneously to be perfectly ruled and perfectly free, that is, at the same time to discover the right and good and to create it.

He concludes:

All I can say is this: it looks as if we are all we have. Given what we know about ourselves, and each other, this is an extraordinarily unappetizing prospect; looking around the world, it appears that if all men are brothers, the ruling model is Cain and Abel. Neither reason, nor love, nor even terror, seems to have worked to make us “good,” and worse than that, there is no reason why anything should. Only if ethics were something unspeakable by us could law be unnatural, and therefore unchallengeable. As things stand now, everything is up for grabs. Nevertheless:

Napalming babies is bad.

Starving the poor is wicked.

Buying and selling each other is depraved.

Those who stood up and died resisting Hitler, Stalin, Amin, and Pol Pot —and General Custer too— have earned salvation.

Those who acquiesced deserve to be damned.

There is in the world such a thing as evil.

[All together now:] Sez who?

God help us.

Welcome to inklingz

Thanks for visiting Inklingz.net.  I am a seminary dropout currently working in finance, with a lot of interest in politics, music, fiction and long-distance running, so anything could happen here.  My hope is that we can have an exchange in this space on these topics and others–maybe even some issues of real consequence–and some fun as well.  

I do not believe all views are equally true, but I do believe in respecting the views of others.  Some of you may be experts on topics addressed here, so you may know far more than I.  I hope that you will offer your viewpoints, will disagree with me, correct me and discuss with me (and with one another through use of the comment section). I believe the exchange of thoughts and ideas is very important and probably too infrequent for most of us.  

The title of this blog is derived from the name of a group of friends and authors known as The Inklings who met together throughout the 1930s and 40s.  They gathered for drinks regularly to review one another’s writings.   Two of my favorite thinkers were central to the group: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien once wrote of the Inklings, “Had an outsider eavesdropped, he would have thought it a meeting of fell enemies hurling deadly insults before drawing their guns.” (Letters, p.103).  Honest exchange and critique can be daunting, yet these men came together as friends week after week to clank their glasses together as well as their minds.  Partly through that exchange, they produced great works still prized by readers a generation (two?) later. I believe that in the clanking, we are able sharpen one another ‘as iron sharpens iron’ (Proverbs 27:17).  I am most grateful for the friends in my life with whom the clanking of minds and ideas does not preclude the repeated clanking of glasses.  

Since you have made it this far, I encourage you to catalyze the conversation by commenting on posts that interest you.