Consoled by faith, prodded by reason

The Mystery of Incarnation - Godless Morality

November 5, 1999

Mary Warnock reviews two clergymen who, despite radical differences, agree that society must urgently rebuild a sense of shared values

In societies like ours, where freedom of choice has been too often elevated into an idol, the rediscovery of shared moral and spiritual values is essential if democratic freedoms and even the fabric of law and order are to be preserved. The task is a formidable one. It involves nothing less than a transformation of our culture." These words are taken from Basil Hume's The Mystery of the Incarnation . They might just as well have been written by Richard Holloway.

Both are concerned with the current widely perceived loss of any sense of shared values. Both are concerned with the urgency of the task of rebuilding such a sense. And both are aware of the difficulty of that task."By 'culture'," Hume writes, "I mean the sum total of those values which determine our ways of thinking and acting ... The task involves appealing to our common humanity. It means proclaiming ... the unique value of every individual and the interdependence of all human beings." Again, Holloway would agree.

Apart from this common and central issue, however, the two authors could hardly be further apart. Cardinal Hume's book is a series of meditations, each of them quite short, and loosely bound together by the proposition that God came down to earth and was made man. The incarnation was proof that God loves mankind; and mankind still has this same relation with God, namely to be loved by Him. Prayer is the means of maintaining communication with this loving God; and to effect the transformation of culture spoken of in the passage quoted above, it is necessary that people,and especially young people, should be taught to pray. Only if people return to religion is it possible that the moral evils of the world, both individual viciousness and national and political violence, can be remedied. Such, understandably enough, constitutes the faith on which Hume's meditations are founded. Equally understandably, he does not question it.

Hume, as everyone agrees, was a conspicuously good man. (I knew him as a fine headmaster of one of my children's friends.) His particular brand of moral goodness was undoubtedly grounded in his faith. His

book is, therefore, a testimony to, and an explanation of, his goodness. Almost the most moving part of it - especially since it was written so soon before his anticipated death - is the introduction, in which he meditates on the "seven last words from the cross".

"It is heroic to pray 'Into your hands, Lord, I commend my spirit'. That prayer brings peace. It does not remove the pain ... but deep down within we have found words to make us one with Christ in his agony ... Why it had to be thus I, for my part, do not know. Could not God have found some other means to rid the world of sin and its wages of death? I would have to be God himself to know how to answer that question. I am content to wait until I see God in vision to be able to see how his purposes have been at work in our best interests. But this I do know: God in becoming man shared the human condition." One would have to be the most unimaginative and tunnel-visioned

atheist to fail to admire and love the man who wrote these words.

And yet one has to ask whether it is sensible to base the hope of a moral revival on the supposition of a return to religion. Can one reasonably, or even ethically, ask people to believe things they cannot believe? Can it be the case that, before people can be morally good, they have to put to one side all the assumptions that they now make in their everyday lives about history and the nature of the universe? This is the question raised by the cardinal's confession of faith and by his recipe for the redemption of the world. And it is this question to which Bishop Holloway addresses himself.

He recognises the huge differences between our society and the societies in which the Bible was put together. It is not only that we have, on the whole, totally accepted a Darwinian account of our own human nature. Perhaps even more important to our assumptions, and thus to our culture, is the fact that we cannot but think historically. I believe he is right to give this conceptual change priority even over our Darwinian view of nature, which is, in fact, part of our imaginative grasp of history. We now know, without room for doubt, that the Bible was put together as an amalgam of writings dating from various periods in Jewish history. We cannot any longer honestly believe that it is the outcome of one single gigantic revelation.

It reflects different stages of social development. Nor can we believe that the New Testament, whatever deep interest we may find in the gospels, records a direct message from Christ. At the very least, the different gospels reflect different memories and oral traditions,legends and interpretations, rather than one coherent historical narrative.

Moreover, we accept the huge difference that St Paul made to the concept of Christianity, turning it into a religion on its own, distinct from the Judaism of which it was once part - albeit a dissident and revolutionary part. And once these historical perceptions become part of the framework within which we think of the Bible, we are bound to recognise, if we are honest, that the idea of God is a human construct, based on a variety of traditions, capable of being fruitfully developed, or, on the other hand, of being used as a restraint on human understanding and the human pursuit of truth.

Holloway distinguishes the concept of sin from that of immorality. Sin is essentially disobedience to a set of absolute commands,deriving from God's laws. The idea of immorality, on the other hand, is impossible to prise apart from the idea of harm to others. He uses the story of Abraham and Isaac as an illustration of the centrality of the idea of obedience to the Judaic morality, Abraham's obedience to the word of God being tested and proved by his willingness even to sacrifice his only son, when commanded to do so, despite the manifest wrongness of such an act.

Today, obedience is no longer regarded as the highest virtue. We cannot go back to the days when it was. We know too well the terrible consequences that obedience to a tyrannical or corrupt power may have; and we are, as post-Renaissance and post-Romantic people, too much devoted to our own discoveries, and our own imaginative freedom. Moreover, we might be well inclined to doubt whether a morality based on obedience and the fear of what happens to those who

disobey, can properly count as morality at all; we must aspire to behave well because we value it for its own sake.

Neither, as Holloway argues, can we possibly go back to the view of the role of women that was part of the culture of the first century, and for long thereafter. (One cannot but reflect how much agony and dissension within the Christian churches would have been saved, if only Christians had been able to take a properly historical view of the Bible.) Traditions work, he suggests, as long as the point of them is believed in. As soon as people have to justify adhering to a tradition simply on the grounds that it is a tradition, its days are numbered.

Holloway devotes chapters in turn to contemporary areas of moral debate: heterosexual and homosexual relations, the use and abuse of drink and drugs, abortion and the reproductive revolution. In all of these issues, he sees the inadequacy of absolute prohibitions, the need to recognise plurality in standards, and the still more pressing need to struggle towards some form of consensus in basic and humane moral standards.

In his epilogue, Holloway is optimistic in his belief that somehow we shall be able to recognise such shared values, before the whole notion of morality is eroded. And he suggests that perhaps an Aristotelian concept of virtue - that is of the kind of people we want to be and of our mutual interdependence within society - may be the way a consensus may, precariously, be acquired.

In all this, I believe he is right. And what is implicit in his argument is that it is dangerous not to talk about and to teach morality as something separate from religion. For it is impossible to go back to the days when, as Holloway puts it, "obeying was what people did", and when it was possible to think that the world was created in six days, or that there could literally be such a thing as the resurrection of the body, only for humans among animals.

If religion is seen as the only backing for morality, or if they are seen as inextricably linked, then those many who have rejected religion may feel they have thereby rejected the need for morality. If God is dead, all things are permitted.

There is at least a hint in Holloway's book of the possibility of regarding Christianity as speaking to people as a great system of metaphor,or of myth containing truth. I wish he had felt able to say more about this. I am convinced that it is possible to believe in a new source of morality, our common humanity, as Hume puts it, without rejecting religion in some form, perhaps as giving non-literal expression to deep human aspirations and desires.

It would be satisfying to have had some such account of faith of someone who is after all still a bishop. Nevertheless, while Hume's book will be a source of solace and an object of admiration to those who have religious faith, or can imagine having it, Holloway's book conveys a crucial message to those for whom religion is totally unknown. More important still, it should convey a message to the religious, not least to the clergy, who often make it impossible for their views on matters of morality to be taken seriously, simply because they have no language in which to discuss morality without reference to God.

Baroness Warnock was formerly mistress, Girton College, Cambridge.

The Mystery of Incarnation

Author - Basil Hume
ISBN - 0 232 52354 1
Publisher - Darton, Longman and Todd
Price - £8.95
Pages - 158

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