Just Because You Can’t See It, Doesn’t Mean It’s Not There – O’Donovan on Ethics

moral orderA great joy of mine is finding out that I’m not dumb. By that I mean, I love running across sections in works by legitimately brilliant people articulating something that I’ve been thinking for a while, but haven’t taken the time to write out anywhere, or I haven’t seen laid out clearly before. Reading Oliver O’Donovan’s brilliant piece of Christian moral theory Resurrection and the Moral Order has afforded me a number of those experiences. (Note: that wasn’t an intentional humble-brag, just an accidental one.) For instance, in one exceptionally helpful passage, he highlights the importance in separating out the epistemological questions involved in knowledge of the moral order and the ontological question of its existence.

What am I talking about? Well, in a nutshell, some moral thinkers, particularly in the Natural Law tradition, have made the point that if a rational God has created the world, he must have done so with a certain order to it, particularly a moral one consistent with his own nature, that ought to be intelligible (readable) to human agents within it. Indeed, there seem to be some self-evident truths about morality and life that transcend culture which give testimony to this indelibly-written law on the heart of humanity.

Others have pointed out that moving from culture to culture, and even within the same culture, there are large areas of dispute as to the moral character of the universe. Much of the content of our moral judgments that are “self-evident” to us in the West are largely rejected throughout the world and therefore seem merely cultural values, or perhaps, adaptively-advantageous norms, such that a real skepticism about framing any sort of moral judgments based on the natural order is a chimera. Indeed, on this basis many of them doubt that there even exists some order of this sort.

Into the confusion steps O’Donovan. While he argues quite forcibly for the necessity of grounding any ethical system in the created order, he acknowledges and explains the theological root of the non-obviousness of that moral order:

There is, however, another side to the matter which has to be asserted equally strongly. In speaking of man’s fallenness we point not only to his persistent rejection of the created order, but also to an inescapable confusion in his perceptions of it. This does not permit us to follow the Stoic recipe for ‘life in accord with nature’ without a measure of epistemological guardedness. The very societies which impress us by their reverence for some important moral principle will appal us by their neglect of some other. Together with man’s essential involvement in created order and his rebellious discontent with it, we must reckon also upon the opacity and obscurity of that order to the human mind which has rejected the knowledge of its Creator. We say that man’s rebellion has not succeeded in destroying the natural order to which he belongs; but that is something which we could not say with theological authority except on the basis of God’s revelation in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We say that this, that or the other cultural demand or prohibition (the prohibition of incest, for example, or of racial discrimination) reflects the created order of God faithfully, but that too is something which we can know only by taking our place within the revelation of that order afforded us in Christ. It is not, as the sceptics and relativists correctly reminds us, self-evident what is nature and what is convection. How can we be sure that the prohibition of incest is not yet another primitive superstition? How can we assert confidently that Bantu and Caucasian races belong equally to one human kind that renders cultural and biological differentiation between them morally irrelevant? The epistemological programme for an ethic that is ‘natural’, in the sense that its contents are simply known to all, has to face dauntingly high barriers. But we are not to conclude from this that there is no ontological ground for an ‘ethic of nature’, no objective order to which the moral life can respond. We may only conclude that any certainty we may have about the order which God has made depends on God’s own disclosure of himself and of his works.

-Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and the Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics, pg 19

O’Donovan insists that keeping our epistemological judgments and our ontological judgments straight is imperative if we’re going to understand the nature of our moral situation. Admitting that the moral order isn’t obvious should not betray us into concluding it isn’t there. To do so would constitute a gross denial of the doctrine of creation and the moral character of God.

Instead, an acknowledgement of the Fall’s distorting effect upon our moral knowledge leads us to be humble in our judgments, and seek the truth of the universe as it is revealed in Jesus Christ. Not because Jesus points us to a moral order that was never there prior to his advent, although his coming does bring about a new moral situation, but because he points us to and renews the one that has been there since the beginning. Also because repentance (metanoia) must form part of our quest for moral truth. In repentance we reconsider our relationship to God’s created order which, in sin, we have rejected and misunderstood. Jesus Christ is the one who grants repentance by the power of the Holy Spirit to confused sinners whose moral judgments stand condemned alongside of them. Once again, even our knowledge of the moral reality we have violated comes down to the grace of the one who instituted it and redeemed it.

Soli Deo Gloria