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Metaphysics and an ‘Evangelical’ Ethic

August 30th, 2010 | 2 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

From Oliver O’Donovan (broken up to aid understanding for internet-conditioned readers….like me):

Any attempt to think about morality must make a decision early in its course, overt or covert, about these forms of order which we seem to discern in the world.  Either they are there, or they are not.

This decision, which will shape the character of the whole moral philosophical enterprise, forces itself as much upon secular as upon Christian thought.  Secular man can observe the same indications of order as anyone else.  He can see that vegetables are ordered to serve animal life as food, and he can see that human beings stand in a generic equality alongside one another.

And so secular man, if he becomes a thinker, has the same decision to make.  On the one hand he may interpret these relations of order as part of a universal world-order, a network of interrelationships forming a totality of which mankind is a part.  If he does so, he steps, despite himself, on to theological ground, and will find himself required to specify rather carefully how he conceives the relation of cosmic order to the presence of mind and reason within it.

Alternatively, renouncing the pretensions of ‘metaphysics’, he may turn altogether away from the apparent objectivity of order.  Dismissing the immediate and pre-critical supposition that order could be ‘perceived’, he will maintain that it was ‘imposed’ upon the raw material of expereince by the will-to-order within the observing mind.

For moral philosophy, this means that all our moral beliefs, such as that every human being is the equal of every other, are not ‘beliefs’ at all but mere ‘commitments’, claiming no correspondence with reality.  They are the ways in which the will projects the pattern of the mind upon the blank screen of the unordered world…

For a Christian believer it would seem that there could be little hesitation over this decision.  For only if the order which we think we see, or something like it, is really present in the world, can there be ‘evangelical’ ethics.  Only so, indeed, can there be a Christian, rather than a gnostic, gospel at all.

The dynamic of the Christian faith, calling us to respond appropriately to the deeds of God on our behalf, supposes that there is an appropriate conformity of human response to divine act.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.