What do clerics contribute to moral debate?
A Church of England cleric, with an ecclesiastical rank surpassing any Jesus managed to obtain in his life, asked an important question. He wanted to know what purpose clerics serve if they do not speak out on moral issues. It is a good question and one I would like to tackle.
First, I believe morality needs debate, discussion and investigation. But remember that these are different from merely “speaking out”. The assertion of a revealed morality closes debate, investigation and discussion. As so many Christians are ready to remind us: “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.”
The problem I have with clerics is that far too frequently they make bald assertions that are intended to close off debate. When one claims to have revelations from the creator of the universe, and inserts those revelations into an ethical debate, the function of doing so is to end the conversation.
What is there to debate if Jehovah has laid down the law? Or Allah? Or Jesus? Or Zeus for that matter.
if clerics admitted that they are just men without any inside track on what is moral and what isn’t then their input could be of some use. But to the degree that they are theologians they don’t contribute to the discussion but are assassins sent to strangle it.
When we debate moral issues we debate how certain actions impact the individual, his family and the larger community that surrounds him. Those are at least issues which we can talk about rationally. We can define what we mean and point to the results which are either desirable or undesirable. And we can specify what about them makes them desirable or not.
But with theology we can’t really do that. Listen to any religionist and they eventually start talking about “mysteries” and the “unknowable” aspects of a god and his ways. We are led down a blind alley. There is nothing at the end of it but darkness and obtuse comments. There are no answers there.
Consider the following moral issue. An elderly woman is riddled with cancer. It is eating her body away and beyond anything the physicians can do. The pain is agonizing. She is losing control of her bodily functions and her mental faculties are deteriorating. She drifts into comatose states and out in painful, horrific consciousness. She hates every second of it. She is alive but ceased living long ago.
She discusses the situation with her loved ones and the physician. All agree that her time is short and what little time she has will be pure torture. Everyone wants to end the suffering. That is a moral issue.
The rational world debates it by looking at the consequences of policies allowing such actions as terminating her life. What are the benefits? What are the hazards? Can the hazards be avoided? If they can’t do they outweigh the benefits? How would one construct safeguards? What lines need to be drawn and how do we draw them? Who makes the decisions? These are all rational and practical questions.
Into this quandary steps a cleric who lifts his hands and says: “Stop! In the name of God. Stop!”
He will acknowledge that this woman is suffering horribly and that there is nothing we can do to help her. He might even acknowledge that death would be relief to her. But he will assert that God has spoken and life does not belong to man but to the deity. You might plead with him: “Does God want grandma to suffer?” “How can a loving God wish a good woman to endure such torture?” He might try to give some answer but eventually he retreats to the dark cave of theology. Eventually he tells you: “Who can understand the ways of God? His ways are not our ways. His understanding is now our understanding. He has his reasons that we can’t understand.”
He babbles on about mystery but never says anything of substance.
And because he has played the “God card” on the table you are supposed to stop. If you go on you are challenging God and questioning the creator of the universe. So the discussion is over. He has equated crime with morality, and morality with theology. He is thus free to make any assertion he wishes and cover it up with mumbo-jumbo and incomprehensible statements devoid of any real meaning.
Here is where the cleric becomes a danger. Not only does his theology cut off debate but it gives him supremacy over all others. His arguments are the arguments of the deity hence his arguments are superior. Surely the word of god exceeds the debate of philosophers or the wisdom of scientists or the “common sense” of people?
The “God card” is one that grants moral superiority to the person who plays it. If God says X and you stand for X then your position is God’s position and to challenge you is to challenge God. To claim that you are defending God’s views is to claim that your views are the only views worthy of consideration. It is not just a claim to moral superiority but to authoritarianism It is a claim that it’s God’s way or the highway. Follow the rules or get out and if you don’t leave expect the punishment that God wants handed out.
This sort of thinking leads inherently to totalitarianism. The great classical liberals of history frequently spoke of the tyranny of king and priest, of church and state. Why have the two so often been connected? Why is it today that the fundamentalists of all stripes wish to gain political control over nations?
They do so because both church and state are means of subjugating people to the ruling class: to the politicians or the clerics. They ally because both inherently seek the same thing -- the control of others.
Those who believe they speak for God have to seek power. After all who has the right to disobey God? No one! God is God. His rules are supreme. And his representatives, his priests his church, must make sure his rules are obeyed.
So state power always appeals to such people. The Republicans once spoke of limiting government in the United States. That was the Goldwater-Reagan tradition. But the Republican Party became the party of fundamentalist theocrats. So what happens when the new Theopublican Party gained power? They expanded government massively.
They did not end the programs they despised, they converted them into propaganda arms of the church. Did the Republicans end the welfare programs they despised? No they gave them to churches to run with tax funding. They created an alliance between church and state. They have not abandoned the big government of the Left at all -- they have embraced it and merged it with their theology.
And that is the problem of theology. Once you bring God into the equation the only consistent thing to do is to merge more and more of human life into theology. Law ceases to be law but a branch of theology. Science that questions theology is abandoned. Philosophy that is not god-centered is discarded. The moral claims of theology must always seek supremacy. If they are claims from the throne of God what else can they do but seek supremacy? By their very nature they would be supreme to all else.
Theology that claims supremacy eventually must claim power. And it must suppress that which promotes the ungodly. It will creep into authoritarianism because it can not go anywhere else.
So if the cleric speaks on moral issues as a man asserting no divine knowledge, who leaves his discussion in the realm of the earthly and real, he may then have something to contribute. But the moment he starts making assertions based on “mysteries” he is closing off debate and leading us down the road to tyranny. Unfortunately that is what most clerics do. The cleric by his nature tends to speak as a theologian and not as a man. And that is why he ought to shut up.
In the end the unfortunate answer to the Church of England cleric is that clerics not only serve no beneficial purpose but for the most part their presence is malevolent. In the realm of moral debate we would all be better off if they stood silently on the sidelines contemplating the mysteries that can’t be understood instead of opening their yaps and claiming that the nothingness of theology gives them knowledge denied to the rest of us.