Tony Jones, as part of his "Questions That Haunt" series, raised the following question the day: "Do progressive Christians have any moral foundation?"
I was immediately struck by two things when I read the post: First, the assumption that Progressive Christians don't have any moral foundations; second, the assumption that moral foundations are necessary. At first, this may seem a bit contradictory, since if I think that they might not be necessary, that might seem to imply that I don't have any. But I'd like to suggest that they are both true in different senses: Of course progressive Christians have moral foundations in one regard, but in another, the very idea of what constitutes a moral foundation is subject to fairly serious question.
Let me take those points in reverse order. Why would I think that moral foundations may not be necessary? A lot depends on what you think it means to have a moral foundation. The question implies that a moral foundation must be some sort of absolute, unchanging, and completely infallible guide to behavior. Morality, in such a description of a moral foundation, is simply a matter of checking your behavior against the list of rules provided by whatever your foundation may be.
Of course, almost nobody has ever held to that definition of foundationalism. Even biblical fundamentalists, divine command theorists, and Kantian ethicists understand that morality always involves ambiguity, interpretation, and application of principles to particular contexts. There is no reliable foundation, even the Categorical Imperative, that could serve as a reliable moral foundation in this regard. Nor would I think it advisable to try and construct one.
However, principles in the sense of rules or commands do certainly exist as a dimension of morality. But they are one necessary component alongside questions about what goals or ends are best or most appropriately sought, and what contexts we dwell in and how those contexts affect our relationship to both the principles and goals to which we refer. As I commonly explain it, morality has to do with the Right, the Good, and the Fitting, and all three of these components are involved in any moral decision we make.
But determining the relationship of the Right to the Good, and how they inform what we understand to be Fitting, will always be a question of judgement, which is to say that it always involves our subjective appropriation and deployment of principles and ends within particular settings and contexts, but then always must leave us in the situation of ambiguity as to whether our moral decisions are the right one, since even in the face of an infallible source of moral knowledge, we must understand and apply that source in our own partial, flawed, and fallible way.
So, in that sense, it seems to me, foundations aren't strictly necessary. But this does seem to put us into the Kierkegaardian position of being suspended over 70,000 fathoms of water -- are we in the midst of an undifferentiated moral sea, with nothing beneath us to keep us afloat? John Caputo seems to suggest something like this when he declares himself to be Against Ethics:
What I have in mind by saying I am against ethics is, unhappily, not a matter of concealing something more originary than ethics. It is a little more like confessing that the ground on which I stand tends to shift, that something that seemed to me hitherto to be firm and fixed is given to drift. My situation is to be compared to a man who discovers that the ground that he hitherto took to be a terra firma is in fact an island adrift on a vast sea, so that even if he stands firm he is in fact constantly in motion. Add to this the thought that the sea is endless, the sky starless, and the island's drift aimless, and you gain some measure of the level of my consternation.
For Caputo, this is a way of describing a moral situation into which we enter, and yet in which we find ourselves nonetheless obligated. "Obligation happens." He goes on to say. It doesn't happen because we conform our will to the Categorical Imperative or the Divine Command. We are surrounded by it irrespective of such things. Indeed, foundations are irrelavant to our sense of obligation. It. just. happens.
However, even in the absence of any infallible sense of certainty with regard to morality or any plumb line against which we can measure our moral duty, we are not totally without resources for moral discernment within the Christian community, even as we may disagree about what that discernment may imply.
The Bible certainly represents a resource for moral discernment for Christians. It is not, as the evangelical slogal has it, a set of "Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth" (ugh), but it is a testimony to the struggle of God's people in knowing, loving, and following God. It is is a record of, as William Sloane Coffin used to like to say, "a lover's quarrel with God." Thus it is not a matter of just opening the Bible to the right passage and reading what it says in order to figure out what to do, but reading it prayerfully in an attempt to discern the present leading of God in the midst of our situation. God speaks to us through the Bible, not with a megaphone, but with that still small voice that Eliaijah heard on the wind. It is not a command, but an invitation to participate in that lover's quarrel.
And of course much the same can be said about the church and the community of faith. The community carries on the Christian tradition, but even declarations of Papal Infallibility cannot disguise the fact that the church is nothing else but a community engaged in an ongoing attempt to love and know God. We can learn morally from how people have tried and succeeded -- and tried and failed -- before us. But it is no more an infallible guide than the Bible.
Nor can we point to reason and experience as infallible guides. Nevertheless all of these things give us resources to inform our own sense of judgement and discernment as to how we should be and act in the world, and crucially, how we should come to love and know God in our own lives.
In the end, the moral foundations that progressive Christians rely on are no different from the foundations other Christians rely on. The difference is that those foundations are not an infallible source of knowledge, but rather a guide to how we may act in an ambiguous world without any sense of ultimate or definitive certainty, even for those who approach the world from the stance of faith.