A morally dubious God

Clive Wilkinson, 7th Apr 2016 2 comments

Clive Wilkinson discusses “Godless Morality: Keeping Religion Out of Ethics” by Bishop Richard Holloway.

Is blind obedience to a set of dogmas anything more than moral cowardice? Have we the courage to do the right thing even if it flies in the face of official morality?  If we stop believing in the doctrines of the Church, does that mean we lose our moral compass? These are some of the questions posed by Richard Holloway in his searching book on Christian ethics: Godless Morality: Keeping Religion Out of Ethics.

God is not the micro-manager of our moral lives

One thing is clear, if we merely base our view of morality on the traditional understanding of God we are on very dubious ground indeed. After all, the God of the Bible tells his people to perform acts of great savagery and wickedness. Much of the Old Testament is a bloodthirsty account of the ethnic cleansing of the land the ancient Israelites considered God had promised to them, acts of barbaric cruelty carried out in direct obedience to his commands. The biblical God is a morally dubious God.

How then can we trust either the Bible, God, or religion to tell us what is right and wrong? Of course we cannot. The sole criterion, suggests Holloway, for testing the morality of any act must be whether it harms others. So he tells of a man who nursed his wife faithfully, through years of Alzheimer’s disease, even ‘though she had long since gone into that far country that is the tragic fate of those who suffer from this disease’. Eventually he and a female friend, who had been assisting him in this arduous task, became lovers. The strength they both gained from this relationship enabled them to carry on caring for the woman against whom they were theoretically sinning. What possible grounds could there be for condemning?

God in the mess of life

A similar story is told in Rebecca de Saintonge’s ‘One Yellow Door: A Memoir of Love and Loss, Faith and Infidelity’. Presented with the diagnosis that her husband was suffering from an incurable disease that would cause his mind and body to disintegrate, slowly and inexorably, Rebecca de Saintonge had two immediate reactions. First, she ‘would have to dig deep and find the resources to squeeze out of life all possible joy and delight’. Second, she would ‘monitor just what God was going to do about it all. Where would he be in all this mess?’

Digging deep is how we work out the rights and wrongs of a situation. There is no rule book. God is not the micromanager of our moral lives. Morality is not a science, it is an art. It is like the jazz musician playing infinite variations according to the mood of the music. We cannot and should not rush to moral judgements.

Living with contradictions

But that is exactly what the Church so often does. Its particular problem is with sex, which it sees as ‘uniquely constitutive of human sinfulness’. Simply by being born we apparently inherit a sinful, fallen nature, like a congenital virus. This interpretation of an ancient myth that was never intended to be taken literally is a blot on Christianity and countless millions have paid the price in misery and guilt. Mature people, suggests Holloway, must ‘learn to live with contradictions rather than insisting on neat solutions’.

God does not come out of all this well. ‘The brutal reality’, de Saintonge concludes, is that an all-powerful, all-knowing God could have stopped her suffering, but chose not to. So God too is helpless. We have been lied to. Holloway agrees with her. We must think of a very different kind of God from the one the Church has taught us to believe in, and come up with a human-centred, rather than a religion-based ethical system.

About the author

Clive Wilkinson has taught in schools and colleges, both in England and Africa, specialising in religious studies, and later Third World Development. No longer affiliated to any specific denomination, he continues to read widely on theology and is currentlfy working on a memoir about his early experiences of fundamentalist Christianity.

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  • Anonymous, 12th May 2016

    What huge relief to read a Bishop’s words that strip away the ‘straight-jacket’
    in which religions have constricted both mankind and God. Refusing to
    pander to what a past vicar of mine (Rev. Graham Shaw) described as “the
    lust for certainty”, that religions all too often demand.

  • Anonymous, 27th May 2016

    A nice article and well written Clive. You still seem to be fighting old Christian
    myths. I suppose after your upbringing it’s very hard to pull away from years
    of indoctrination. Even with the little instruction that I had as a child I found
    the old Christian stories put me off religion altogether for years. I think the
    bible is useful for people like you and I as a negative point that we can
    proceed from. As you know I have dismissed Christianity as a religious way
    point altogether and I am sure I miss out because of this.
    I liked the “thought for the day” I mentioned because it was about us being
    hard wired in our brains into being part of a society, we are not solitary
    individuals and the search for God is a search for completion.
    Looking forward to our next lunch whenever that may be