Aaron has a particular agitation about circular arguments in theology. He sat down for our discussion of chapter 1 of Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be repeating an argument he had already made via email. “Sin is anti-shalom and shalom is the absence of sin? This is like saying 2 plus 2 is 4, and then you take away a 2 and you are back at 2. You haven’t done anything.”
Plantinga is tasked with providing the reader An Answer, so he shies away from the more nuanced issue of just how sin as a classification of things related to conscience and as a classification of things related to ethics works, or doesn’t.
The good stuff is hiding in a list of references in end-note 20. In this following discussions I lean on the end-note 20 references, but also in particular on British author Iris Murdock’s Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals.
Using conscience as a higher form of self to deal with sin as a higher form of ethics seems to conveniently wrap up the issue. It maintains the personal connection with God while at the same time making sin a type of ethics (presuming our consciences will come to roughly similar conclusions about right behavior) measurable through reason. You can measure this level of intent against the level of outcome and come to some legalistic conclusion about the measure of sin- a model Plantinga walks the reader through in chapter one. This isn’t a uniquely American moral approach, but it is a particularly American approach.
In this model, judging is wrong because your measuring sticks are imperfect, not because there may be something intrinsically nonsensical about judging sin. Plantinga acknowledges there is some kind of mismatch between the measure and the thing- despite being lost we still make the measure because “we fear the softness of self-deception more than the hardness of accusation.” (p. 24) Christian anarchist Jacques Ellul presents a less forgiving take on the argument in The Technological Society: Once you hand the measure of your relationship to God over to the economic machinery you will never be able to get it back.
If you create a structure where sin is a matter of conscience, which is inarguably the mode of Christianity in the United States, you must also create a rule-bound structure to preserve ethics. Perversely, the more you lean on conscience the more rules you need to protect the world from the boundlessness of ego. Are we all existentialists now? Murdock comments on existentialism: “I wouldn’t call that bravery, it’s just an egoistic gamble.” (p. 232)
Also, the more sin leans on conscience for definition, the less religion differs from non-religion. The philosopher Brian Leiter has seized upon this fact, recently publishing a book making the argument that the conscience of the religious person should count for no more than the conscience of a non-religious person (and that both should be subject to rule). From a civil perspective it is difficult to formulate any argument against that, though the idea of conscience being subject to law is heart-breaking.
Those similar conclusions about the right behavior? Not so frequently the outcome. Consequently, Plantinga is moved to state that “serious Christians” view these rules as primary to conscience (p. 17) despite returning later to the primacy of conscience for one’s connection to a personal God.
Conscience as a particular development from Christian cosmology? A person making positive moral choices is no more driven toward Trinitarianism than anyone else. Using Bertrand Russell, one of the leading peace activists of the last century, as an example of someone with no ideals highlights the hollowness of that argument.
These are some of the roadblocks in relating conscience to sin. The route around those roadblocks discussed by the authors referenced in end-note 20 will be the subject of the next blog post on chapter 1. Meanwhile, because I am an existentialist even though I don’t believe conscience is that special for being right with God, check out this BrainPicker post on how to form a conscience that works for you.
We are reading one chapter per month, starting with chapter 1 in February. Read the kick-off post for this series.
Endnote 20 references:
A long work by Marilyn McCord Adams is referenced. Here is a 15 minute interview with her on Philosophy Bites.
If you have JSTOR access, you can get these referenced articles:
Attfield, D.G. (1984, June). The morality of sin. Religious Studies. 20(2):227-237
Mitchell, B. (1984, June). How is the concept of sin related to the concept of moral wrongdoing? Religious Studies. 20(2):165-173
Dalfoerth, I. (1984, June). How is the concept of sin related to the concept of moral wrongdoing? Religious Studies. 20(2):175-189
11FEB2012: Added link to kick-off post.