The Straw Man of Theological Voluntarism

Recently, the Atheists, Humanists and Agnostics of Stanford (AHA) invited Greta Christina to campus to speak about atheism and sexuality.  Although I was not able to attend, I have heard Christina speak on that subject before, and unless she has drastically altered her talk, it will have been chockfull of mischaracterizations of religious approaches to sexual ethics.  With Exotic Erotic last weekend and Genderfuk the week before, I can’t think of a better opportunity to offer a few clarifications from a traditional Christian perspective.

First, I should emphasize that Christina’s straw-man arguments against religious ethics are by no means unique to her thinking.  On the contrary, I have found the same mischaracterizations—mostly out of ignorance rather than malice—to be rampant in the atheist community at Stanford, and elsewhere.  So although I will be drawing on the version of Christina’s talk that I heard, I hope my comments will be relevant even if her recent talk to AHA was significantly revised.

Most of these mischaracterizations spring from a conflation of a particular subset of religious ethics called theological voluntarism or Divine Command Theory with religious ethics in general.  In other words, many atheists seem to believe that all religious ethical systems, by virtue of being religious, are necessarily variants of theological voluntarism.

Theological voluntarism or Divine Command Theory holds that an act is rendered moral neither by its consequences (utilitarian or consequentialist ethics) nor by its nature (deontological ethics), but instead merely by virtue of its being commanded by God.  According to William of Ockham, probably the most famous proponent of Divine Command Theory, murder would have been moral had God commanded it; and moreover, it is hypothetically conceivable that God might “change His mind” and alter the moral order by deciding to start commanding murder.

By decoupling morality from rational analysis of the nature of acts and their consequences, then, Divine Command Theory implies that we cannot know moral truth except by divine revelation.

To many atheists, that is the sum of all religious ethics, especially religious sexual ethics: x is right and y is wrong simply because God says so.  Christina committed this error throughout her lecture, referring to various religious teachings on sexuality as random sets of taboos.  While atheists are free to ground moral judgment in human wellbeing, she explained, religious ethicists classify an act as right or wrong based on whether their sacred text tells them that “God likes it” or not.

That might not be such a mischaracterization of Divine Command Theory, and, in fairness, it is true that there have been prominent theologians who have embraced some version of theological voluntarism—the original Protestant Reformers, for instance, borrowed heavily from Ockham’s philosophy.

But to lump all religious ethics under the blanket of Divine Command Theory is simply ignorant—ignorant of theology, philosophy, and the history of religion.  Consider, for instance, Natural Law Theory, the ethical system that has long been the staple of Catholic philosophers from Thomas Aquinas to Pope John Paul II, is winning increasing support within Reformed Christianity, and has been taught by Islamic philosophers since Averroes, who predated and influenced Aquinas.  According to Natural Law Theory, God designed human beings such that certain ways of life lead to their flourishing, and His commands serve to remind or to reveal to us the truth about our nature.   When we act in accordance with that nature and the sort of life it demands, we act in a moral way.

For Christians, the deepest truth about human nature is the fact that we are made in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:26).   This truth is the foundation of the sexual ethic of Christian natural law.  Pope John Paul II published extensive work on sex and how it is designed as a manifestation par excellence as it were of the divine image in humanity; that is, the self-giving love among the Persons of the Trinity that is mutually free, total, and fruitful.  Any attempt to deny any aspect of this image and yet still wring pleasure from the sexual act will therefore be misaligned with the truth about human nature and cannot be directed towards integral flourishing.

My intent here is not to launch a defense of the Theology of the Body; I only wish to highlight how the sexual mores of religious natural law are grounded in a concern for human wellbeing.  One does not have to agree with the Judeo-Christian analysis of human nature in order to acknowledge this much.

And although Christians draw their philosophical anthropology from revelation, it is not immune from the support or challenge of science insofar as the human person is a material as well as a spiritual being.  Christian thinkers must always purify their faith in the fires of reason.  From neuroscience we can learn the meaning of the characteristics of rationality and freedom that in the abstract we believe epitomize the divine image, while evolutionary biology can shed light on the design and natural teleology of the human sexuality.

All of this testifies to a religious sexual ethic that is so much deeper than a “random set of taboos.”  Atheists are only shortchanging themselves when they tear apart all religious ethics under the straw-man of radical theological voluntarism—if they were really seeking the key to human flourishing, one might suppose they would find, if not an ideology with which they can fully agree, at least something to learn from religious traditions that have won the minds and hearts of some of the wisest thinkers in human history.

Charlie Capps is an officer in Stanford Students for Life and a member of the undergraduate leadership board of the Catholic Community at Stanford.

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