Notes from our October meeting

Godless morality image

We are currently reading Godless Morality by Richard Holloway. In October Maureen Partington shared her thoughts on the introduction to the book and the first two chapters. Here are her notes and the questions she asked which kicked off the discussion. Next month we will take a look at chapters three and four.


Do we have to be religious to be moral? Do we have to believe in God to be good?
Unbelievers point to crimes, wars, guilt & misery caused by religion
Religious leaders say Xian ethics expression of Xian doctrine - loss of belief underlies moral confusion of today (patronising)
‘Can the ethic not stand on its own as something likely to commend itself to people who want to try to live well & believe in the importance or morality for healthy human commitment?’

Distinction between sin & immorality –
Sin religious idea, disobedience to God’s (?) rules often used to reinforce current power structures.
Background dualism perfection of heaven/fallen creation (requiring rescue)

Distinction between ritual piety & morality –
Tradition but not universal law (Lev 18:22 re lying with males uses former word)
‘Jesus used the vocabulary of sin but he refused its identification with the breaking of external codes …Sin came from the selfish heart’

‘Morality tries to base itself on observed consequences, not on beliefs… A wrong act is one that manifestly harms others or their interests’
‘Our search for basic moral principles, if we are wise, will always allow for situational variations’
e.g man whose wife has dementia begins affair with close friend – mutual help

Good moral systems frequently compete – inescapable pluralism, so leave God out of it!

Q Do you agree we should leave God out of the debate? And can we, as Christians?

Chapter 1: Ethical Jazz

Is moral life more like playing from written score as in classical music or improvising as in jazz?

Need to praise/blame – superficially easy, complicated in fact :
Gillian Slovo - daughter of ANC leader neglected by father in greater cause. Knowledge may change verdict :
Killers of Jamie Bulger – victims of own circumstances

Believers committed to moral system as permanent will of God depend on ancient texts – must deny results of historical study of these texts, seen as inspired but not divine in origin

Sources of current moral confusion :

1. when environment changes, tradition no longer carries weight - tradition not good enough reason for obedience to prevailing moral code
2. crisis of authority – no longer imposed, must be earned by its intrinsic value

‘We must do what we can to construct moral agreements that will have the authority of our reason and the discipline of our consent.’
‘If we reject the idea of God as a micromanager of human morality… we shall have to develop a more dynamic understanding of God as one who accompanies creation in its evolving story like a pianist in a silent movie.’

Q Is morality always dependent on circumstances or are there any absolutes?

Chapter 2: Unhappy bedfellows

Human sexuality often feels like a runaway car – needs control

Connection between sexuality & romantic longing – sex can become symbol for other kinds of union (as for mystics)

Unbridled sexuality
breeds tragedy as well as joy, pain as well as pleasure
all cultures develop sexual ethic
most see sexual act morally neutral, problem is tendency to excess

Schopenhauer – species’ self-interest (‘will-to-live’) mistaken for self-interest; has no morality

Early Christian fathers –
before the Fall sex not associated with pleasure so not a problem
after – humans inherit sinful nature at birth
woman cause of Fall & means of transmission of sinful nature

Classical Greek –
sexuality potentially excessive –
morality – control of self over self (as in anything else)

OT – mirrors its times & customs, no particular line on sex, records all kinds of relationships – love stories
Daughters of Lot, unmarried, no prospects, determined to preserve father’s line.
Incest, but note children become important :
Moabite tribe (Ruth becomes ancestor of David)
Ammonite tribe (Namaah bears Solomon’s successor)
Tamar, single, childless woman - incest guarantees her security. Children ancestors to David, Solomon & Jesus

NT – no systematic ethic
Paul expected start of heavenly reign so no point in addressing worldly ethics

Church keen to apply sexual restrictions from Bible, ignoring greater restrictions on wealth
comes from Gnosticism (body sinful)
& possibly spread of venereal diseases in Roman urbanisation - ironically controlled male thus protecting female

Today society moving from rules to values morality –
requires new definition of sexual harm to deal with complex relationships

Women released from reproductive dependence & financial dependence – See Christianity as instrument of hierarchy & guilt

(Some) young people separate sexual act from relationships –
Sex without commitment ok
If/when relationship develops, fidelity becomes important
Infidelity, causes harm so is wrong

Need to find balance between abnegation & over-indulgence
guidelines must apply to gay & lesbian as well (‘inalienable part of the human community’)

Q Should the Church agree a new sexual ethic or can it tolerate a variety of views?

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