Deus Ex Machina

"This is the generation of the great LEVIATHAN, or rather, to speak more reverently of that mortal god, to which we own under the immortal God, our peace and defense." -Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan

The Empirical Contingency of the Moral Life and Divine Grace

We usually do not attribute moral fault or praise for enterprises which are essentially beyond a person’s control and subject to contingent forces. For example, whether a person is rich or poor, successful or unsuccessful in the worldly sense is not a matter of moral judgement but a matter of literal “fortune”, the word itself being a testament to the close relationship between material wealth and its essential contingency.

Since worldly fortune is ultimately not a matter of individual will or decision but a matter of “luck”, “Fate” or even “the divine will”, therefore conditions of worldly fortune are not treated under the framework of praise or blame, righteousness or punishment, but it simply just is. One either has been blessed by God with wealth or not, but it is not a matter of moral judgement. This grounds the call to be compassionate and kind and good to the poor and the “afflicted” whose condition is the product of God’s hidden will and not a result of their own actions.

But what if indeed our own moral righteousness and blame were itself likewise subject to contingent forces? What if virtue and vice was also not ultimately a matter of individual will or decision, but subject to all too exterior factors and causes, like a good upbringing, comfortable homes and stable environment, sufficient wealth for one’s material needs, etc? I had a literature professor who once said, “The lack of money is the root of all evil”. What if indeed moral righteousness were itself also a matter of “luck”, “fortune”, “Fate”, or even… “divine grace”? That one has been literally “graced” with moral righteousness in exactly the same way one has been graced with beauty and good looks?

Herein the Christian faith ascends to a higher plane, it calls us to treat sinners just as we would treat the poor, the downtrodden, the destitute. They are merely corrupted by a fallen world, in the bondage of the devil, under the dominion of the Prince of this World who has disrupted the harmony of this world with its evil schemes, it is forces from beyond themselves impeding their moral growth and development. Their moral corruption is simply the result of contingent empirical factors not entirely of our own making. It is interesting here to note what Phil Robertson’s wife of Duck Dynasty said about her husband during the time when he was under the influence of alcohol and kicked his family out,

I told our kids, I said, ‘The devil is in your dad now. Your dad is made from God. He has a good heart and is a good man, but right now Satan is occupying him and his mind. Don’t hate your dad. You hate Satan and the forces beyond him.’

In a sense, despite some theological quibbles which one might have to believe that being “made from God” entails a “good heart” as opposed to the heart itself becoming corrupt, the sentiment behind this statement encapsulates the Christian faith very well. We are to feel sorry and compassionate over the wicked and the corrupt in the same way we feel sorry and compassionate over the poor, for indeed, “they know not what they do”. Moral righteousness itself is a result of “luck”, based upon contingent empirical factors beyond our control, not entirely a matter of an act of will.

But herein most moralists and many Christians would attempt to draw the line. How can we punish vice and praise virtue if they are simply the product of forces beyond ourselves, a fortuitous product of convergent empirical causes? There would be a “motivational deficit”, people would not be motivated to deny vice and strive for the good if they did not believe that it lay within their own power, their own “will”, to be able to attain unto righteousness and virtue.

Thus, to protect ourselves against the caprice of God, we devise philosophical systems and schemes which turns the contingency of the moral life, dependent upon contingent empirical facts, into necessary and absolute metaphysical facts determined by “freewill”, etc, thereby shielding it from the caprice of empirical contingency (or some might say, from the will of God!).

It is here that Protestantism, and especially Reformed Protestantism, firmly resists such metaphysical tricks. Human righteousness or the empirical moral life is a matter of the convergence of many contingent empirical factors beyond our control, as Luther puts it, we will sin while we are in this world, and that is because our wills are determined by all too contingent and empirical factors. But contrary to this human righteousness is revealed the divine righteousness of God which comes from above and beyond this world, unconditioned by the flux and flow of the empirical world. This divine righteousness alone holds all the forces in this world in its hand and who alone, in honour of his divine covenant with us and in response to our prayers in faith, can bring the threads of all the contingent factors together to bless us with the empirical conditions necessary for the moral life.

Thus, in contrast to the moralists and the metaphysical defenders of freewill who tells us to look within ourselves for the power to be righteousness, the Protestant tells us that the effort is in vain, and that we can only have faith in the divine righteousness, who has promised to honour his covenant with us, and plead for the gift of empirical righteousness that enables the sanctification of the faithful. This is all that has been granted the faithful, the everlasting covenant and priesthood of Christ, and faith in that divine “covenant righteousness”, and prayer without ceasing in the hopes that God would, literally, grace us with empirical righteousness. This is not product of a “grace infused human will” or “energised human will” or whatever, but this is literally the product of the divine will whereby he alone decides to hear, as and when it pleases Him, the prayers of the faithful made in Christ’s name and condescend to literally “grace” us with the good fortune of the moral life, of “sanctification”, or of righteousness.

But the idea of the radical contingency of the moral life frightens most Christians and moralists, and the fear that such a “literal” dependence upon the divine will who decides according to his sovereign decision whether to grace us with the empirical conditions of our moral righteousness continues to this day to inspire countless schemes for protecting the moral enterprise from the radical dependence upon God…

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This entry was posted on October 7, 2013 by in Uncategorized.
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