God, goodness and morality

Sometimes I find myself tempted to heresy by the way some people express their orthodoxy. The tenth of the Church of England’s articles leaves me feeling just so tempted. There are a great many people who hear or mishear such expressions of doctrine as this, and are repelled by what can all too easily look like smugness.

X. Of Free Will
The condition of Man after the fall of Adam is such that he cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and good works, to faith, and calling upon God: Wherefore we have no power to do good works pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God by Christ preventing us, that we may have a good will, and working with us, when we have that good will.

First, let me clear up a couple of potential linguistic confusions. In talking about “free will” the debate does not seem to be the one later associated with that term: the article is not talking about freedom and determinism as a philosophical problem, but about the freedom or ability to perform moral acts. Secondly, that word “preventing” is an archaism for “going before.”

In a nutshell, we might paraphrase the main sense of this article as saying not simply: “You can’t pull yourself up to heaven by your own bootstraps” but more precisely: “You can’t do anything that makes you more acceptable to God.” It is, however, all too easy also to paraphrase it as saying “you can’t do anything good without God” which is heard (and sometimes intended to be heard) as an insulting dismissal of non-believers.

Positively, and in line with the mainstream of Christian tradition, the article affirms the absolute priority of God’s initiative in creating and sustaining the world. Negatively, it can easily be read (perhaps misread)  to suggest either that we are not ourselves capable moral agents, whose works can be good in themselves, or that there are categories of good works that aren’t pleasant and acceptable to God.

I have a double problem. First, I interpret the Fall as mythological and ahistorical, so that I have to speak about the human condition in ways somewhat different from the article. Secondly, I think that we have to talk about moral acts as free acts, and so that however we speak about grace it can’t be something that coerces specific acts, or makes them any less our acts. In fact, I have problems with the way in which we speak about grace as some kind of reified substance, rather than a fundamental attitude in, or attribute of, God’s own being.

I want to affirm that we are in the process of becoming human, and the world on its way to becoming good creation, and that this is initiated, sustained and will be completed by God’s acting graciously. That gracious activity of God is focussed, revealed and given shape in created existence by the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus. God created (creates) and re-creates the world in such a way that he might enter into its estranged otherness, in order to bring it to completion. In that sense, our very existence, never mind our individual acts, depend on the prior gracious initiative of God, and his desire for our good.

Learning to become moral actors depends on being tuned in to that loving activity of God, which frees us from being constrained only to act in accord with nature, seeking our own benefit, or that of our immediate people group, according to the “morality” (to anthropomorphize) of evolution. If, in Richard Dawkins’ most successful anthropomorphism, genes are selfish, becoming human is learning a morality other than that of the genes. It is to respond to the workings of creative grace, rather than being left to the survivalist instincts directed by the evolutionary drive of our constituent parts.

In that fairly carefully delineated sense, it is only with the grace of God that we can act morally at all. But naming it as the grace of God comes from being able to see and experience that grace more fully in knowing oneself in relationship to God. The affirmation that we can do no good act without God’s gracious loving involvement is an affirmation only possible to the one who has come to believe. It is only once we have come to see ourselves as existing because of, and in fulfilment of, an underlying and all-encompassing love that we can understand the frame that creates the possibility of moral action.

What the article affirms is probably useless, if not repugnant, when taken as a statement to hit others over the head with in debate, especially in evangelistic debate. But if we see it as a way in which we are invited to tell our story, and see our lives in relationship with the one “in whom we live and move and have our being,” then it becomes a celebration of our calling into true moral capacity and God’s enabling power to lead us into a life of love.

(Part of a series on the 39 articles of religion)

One Reply to “God, goodness and morality”

  1. I’m still enjoying this series. By which I don’t mean I agree with everything – though, as it happens, mostly I do. And when I don’t it’s more about a direction of view rather that substance. Good stuff, thanks!

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