Sermons, etc.

As a Lay Preacher in the Episcopal Church I sometimes preach

 at the Church of the Savior in Orange City, Iowa,

 and other places.

To by converted by my own preaching
-saying of the Desert Fathers

Hurry Up And Wait! 1 Advent 1999

 A Space For Waiting: 1 Advent 2003

The Power of Distraction: 2 Advent 1994

Repentance: 2 Advent 2007

The God of Peace: 3 Advent 1993

Repent! 3 Advent 1996

God Inescapable: 3 Epiphany 1993

Laying Down The Law: 3 Epiphany 1999

 On A Mission From God: 3 Epiphany 2003

What’s Your Law? 3 Epiphany 2004

Get Poor Quick! 4 Epiphany 2002

Throwing Jesus Off The Cliff 4 Epiphany 2010

Vocation: 5 Epiphany 1995

  Victims and Villains: 7 Epiphany 2000

Forgiving God: 7 Epiphany 2001

The Last Word: Last Epiphany 2000

Self-Denial: 2 Lent 2006

Finding Jesus in the Dark: 5 Lent 2005

 How To Make God Mad: 3 Lent 2003

   No Deal: 4 Lent 2001

The Last Judgment: 5 Lent 2000

The Cross of Christ: Palm Sunday 1994

Who Cares? Palm Sunday 1999

Palm Sunday Homily: Palm Sunday 2002

Bad Dogs in the Kingdom of Heaven: 2 Easter 2007

Fish Naked! 3 Easter 2001

Beloved Betrayers: 5 Easter 2004

Looking For Jesus: 5 Easter 2007

Love or Death: 5 Easter 2009

Blessed Are the Cheese Makers? Six Easter 2000

 The Forgiven: Six Easter 2003

Where in the World is Jesus Christ? 7 Easter 2002

For The World: Seven Easter 2009

 Back to the Future: 7 Easter/Ascension 2001

God At Work: Pentecost 1999

No Loopholes: 2 Pentecost 1994

Doubting Disciples: Trinity Sunday 1993

Born Again: Trinity Sunday 2006

To Share God’s Life: Trinity Sunday 2010

Now We Know: Trinity Sunday 2011

Explaining the Trinity? Trinity Sunday 2013

Are You Putting Me On? 3 Pentecost 2004

 The Giver: 3 Pentecost 2000

 A God With Skin On: 3 Pentecost 2003

The Loving Father: 4 Pentecost 2002

Go And Learn What This Means: 4 Pentecost 2008

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? 5 Pentecost 2001

The Sword of the Lord: 6 Pentecost 2005

Gentle and Humble in Heart: 7 Pentecost 2005

 The Bread of Life: 9 Pentecost 2003

Jesus or Nothing! 11 Pentecost 2000

The Man Who Saw Christ: 13 Pentecost 1996

God’s Party: 13 Pentecost 2001

Doing the Word: 15 Pentecost 1994

Losers for Jesus: 15 Pentecost 2009

Of Kings and Kids: 17 Pentecost 1994

A Season in Hell: 17 Pentecost 2001

The Faithful Servant: 17 Pentecost 2007

Down and Out With Jesus of Nazareth: 18 Pentecost 1999

 It’s Not Fair! 18 Pentecost 2002

Saying Yes To God: 19 Pentecost 2005

Get To Work! 19 Pentecost 2008

A Leap in the Dark: 20 Pentecost 2003

The Ransom: 20 Pentecost 2009

The House of Christ: 21 Pentecost 2001

Beneath Contempt: 21 Pentecost 2004

The Badgered Judge 22 Pentecost 2013

It’s the End of the World as We Know It: 23 Pentecost 2000

Nothing for God: 23 Pentecost 2006

 Down from the Mountain: All Saints Sunday 2005

The Sheep, the Goats, and a Couple of Cats: Last Pentecost 2002

Fear and Loving in Las Vegas: Christ the King Sunday 1998

Some college chapel addresses and other occasional pieces:

A Prayer for Students

NWC Chapel Talk February 2007  

Restoring Family Values

What Does It Mean To Be Reformed?

NWC Theological Identity

The Sermon on the Mount and the Third Use of the Law

Only A Symbol?

God in the Hands of Angry Sinners

The God of the Bible and the God of the Philosophers

Christmas Meditation

I Was Just Wondering: What If Things Had Been Different?

Bearing One Another’s Burdens: NWC Faculty Meeting Jan 21 2010

Homily for Henry J. Halvorsen

As a participant in St. George’s Education for Ministry program I wrote a brief “Spiritual Autobiography

The Van Hook Tribute

Interfaith Dialogue

 St Gregory's

Responses for a Panel Discussion at Northwestern College

1. What are the dos and don’ts of conversing with people of other faiths?

Respect the context: is the aim mutual understanding, arguing, evangelizing?

Avoid cheap and lazy relativism: accept that if you are a Christian, then you believe that many of the other guy’s most important beliefs are false. It’s condescending to act as though we all really agree beneath some superficial differences.  Respect and toleration matter precisely where the differences are deep and important.

Assume persons who are not Christians grasp that the most interesting feature of Christianity is what it says about Jesus Christ. Try to talk about Jesus, not about some shared, generic belief in God.

Have the goal of being the best critic of your own beliefs, not those of the other guy. Don’t leave it to someone who does not share them to raise the questions you cannot answer.

If your goal is to help change the other guy’s mind and bring him to faith in Christ, then try to help him to see Christianity as something a rational, sane human being could hope is true. People rarely change their minds and start believing things they hope are false.

2. Many students don’t know a lot about other religions. How important is it to understand the basics of other religions for dialogue to happen?

More important than knowing about other religions is knowing your own faith: the particularities of the Christian faith, not a generic belief in God.  Let the other person explain his beliefs. You don’t want him to tell you what you believe; don’t do that to him.

Many people define “faith” as unjustified belief, i.e., as what we believe despite lacking adequate reasons to believe it.  They think that attaching the label “faith” to something we have no good reason to believe somehow makes it O.K., or even commendable, to believe it.  (Why would it?) If this is what faith is, then there can be little meaningful dialogue between persons of different faiths. There can be dialogue between faiths only if there is a common ground where different beliefs can be rationally criticized and the evidence, or the absence of evidence, for them can be displayed.  Otherwise, “I’m a Christian; she’s a Muslim” is not much different than, “I like coffee, but he hates it:” not much to dialogue about! I assume that meaningful dialogue isn’t mostly a matter of finding out what the other person believes, but why he believes it. If he has no reasons for believing it, then there’s not much to say.

It can be less challenging to discuss matter of faith with someone outside Christianity altogether than with fellow Christians who differ on relatively minor matters. If you’re Protestant and you find it hard to engage in dialogue with a Roman Catholic or RCA and find that you cannot have reasonable, friendly discourse with someone who is CRC, then you can’t seriously engage with a Hindu or a Muslim.

3. Explain the difference between exclusivism vs. inclusivism vs. universalism.

I don’t find these categories very helpful. If the issue is truth or falsity, then the truth is exclusivism: the essential claims of Christianity are true and those of other religions are false. The idea that religious truth is culturally relative is incoherent, as is the idea that all religions are objectively true. If the issue is salvation, then the truth is universalism, i.e., the salvation of the world by Jesus Christ, the unique revelation of the true God.  Well, some diffidence is in order on this matter, but universal salvation is the rational hope in light of Scripture.

An implicit assumption I reject is that anyone is ultimately saved or damned in virtue of his religion. I believe that we are all saved not because of, but largely despite, our religions, and this includes those of us who adhere to the Christian religion. We go down the wrong road if we’re asking whether that other religion enough like Christianity for its adherents to be saved too.  Religion, like morality, is a natural characteristic of the human species to which God condescends, using it for his purposes, but in a critical way: it’s always under divine judgment in light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  For human beings religion is inevitably where we manifest our rejection of the Gospel; it’s the principal context in which we seek to justify ourselves in God’s eyes, where we manifest our disbelief that we are made right with God by grace, through faith in the imputed righteousness of Jesus. All religions are good or bad in various other ways and it’s not obvious that the Christian religion is better in every way than all other religions. (As a technology for making people better, I suspect Buddhism does at least as good a job as the Reformed Church in America!) Various religions might well meliorate or exacerbate various bad human inclinations. Religions, including the true religion, bring out both the good and bad in people. As Christians we are often unsettled when we discover that adherents of some other religion are better human beings than we are, but we shouldn’t be. We should see what we might learn from them.

4. There seems to be a big jump between “we have a monopoly on truth” and “there is some truth and true values in other religions”…discuss the difference, and some specific things to learn from other faiths.

If you believe something, then you believe that it is true, and you believe that whatever isn’t logically consistent with it is false, unless we’re in the realm of relative truth, which we’re not, talking about religious beliefs; they are beliefs, true or false, about objective reality.

Christians have the great good fortune to have been entrusted with the truth about the God who became flesh in Jesus.  This hardly implies that we know more than, or even as much as, other people do about lots of important matters. What they know might be of value to us as seek to work out our faith in Christ.

Picture: The Dancing Saints at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church, San Francisco.


Questions for a Forum on Evolution


1. Explain the process of evolution

A story: There’s a group of creatures, about half are green, half white.  They migrate to a place covered in green grass. It’s easier for predators to find the white ones than the green ones. More white ones get eaten before they have a chance to have babies. When a green creature has babies, they are usually green too, though occasionally a green mother gives birth to a white baby. When a white mother has babies, they are usually white too, though occasionally a white mother gives birth to a green baby. Once in a while, a white gets lucky and lives long enough to have babies, and sometimes predators get lucky and eat a green before it reproduces.  But it’s no surprise when, after many generations, there are proportionally fewer whites and more greens. Eventually, almost all of them are green. It’s as though the environment, the green grass and the predators, have selected the greens for life and the whites for death.  But no one intentionally selected anything; it was just nature: natural selection.  Over many generations, these creatures have adapted to life in their green and grassy place.

The world does not stand still. At first, winter in the land of green grass was hardly noticeable. The climate begins to change and most years the snow lasts longer than the year before. The greens are easy to see on the white snow but the whites, of which there are just a few, are harder for predators to find. The greens’ chances of having babies begin to decline and the whites’ chances of reproducing start to go up. Eventually, snow covers the land all year, and almost all the creatures are white. Just a few greens remain.  The creatures have again adapted to their environment.

More time goes by.  The creatures have spread over a wide area. Things have gradually warmed up again; the snow is gone, and they are green again.  The melting snow causes the sea level to rise and a low lying area floods, cutting off some of the creatures from the rest. Conditions on the island, and on the mainland, continue to change, though in slightly different ways.  Both the islanders and the mainlanders adapt, so after a while they differ from one another. The predators on the island are sea birds that fly off with their prey. At first, just a lucky few of the creatures are too large to be suitable victims, but it’s no surprise that, eventually, almost all the island creatures are too large for the birds to capture.  They are now much larger than their mainland cousins. Things cool down again, the sea level drops, and the island is now a peninsula. The two groups now mingle.  But now they barely recognize one another as possible mates.  Island creatures tend to mate with similarly large island creatures, and the smaller mainland creatures tend to mate with other, smaller mainland creatures. The adventuresome few who ignore the difference in size find that mating attempts don’t go well.  (Try breeding a Great Dane with a Chihuaha; it’s biologically possible, but awkward.)  More time goes by and the two groups continue to adapt in different ways, and interbreeding becomes impossible, not just unlikely.  Temporary geographical isolation has resulted in permanent reproductive isolation.  What started out as one species has become two. And so it goes.

2. Explain how your field connects to evolution.

Philosophy connects to evolution in two ways:

First, the philosophy of science concerns itself with evolutionary theory as a part of science. We’re interested in how it comes up with its hypotheses, how it tests, confirms, or disconfirms them, and in the structure of evolutionary explanation. The latter gives rise to lots of interesting problems, e.g., what is the “unit of selection?”

Second, by providing knowledge about human beings, evolutionary theory bears, in some cases decisively, on traditional philosophical questions about such matters as the mind-body problem, skepticism, innate knowledge, and moral reasoning.

3. Micro vs. macroevolution?

Microevolution is evolutionary change within a species and macroevolution is change that leads to new species.  Speciation is not thoroughly understood, but it’s clear that micro- and macroevolution are not essentially different processes.  There is no known mechanism to prevent microevolution from causing speciation.  Under the right conditions, the changes we label microevolution result in the formation of new species. The “ring species” are famous textbook examples of this.

4.  Theistic v. atheistic Evolution?

Theists assert, and atheists deny, that what happens in accord with the laws of nature is God’s doing, i.e., what God does indirectly, by means of secondary causes.  All theists agree that God created the human species.  But we disagree about how God did so: some of us believe that he did it the way he has created most things, i.e., by means of natural causes, specifically, by means of the processes described by evolutionary biology. Other theists believe that God created the human species directly, by way of one or more miraculous interventions.  (Some who purport to endorse “theistic evolution” in reality reject the view that God created the first humans by means of entirely natural processes, claiming instead that God “guides” the evolutionary process, where guidance amounts to a number of unobtrusive, but still miraculous, nudges.)

5. Why do you believe in evolution?

If evolution by means of natural section were not to occur, we’d need to explain why not, because it’s predictable, given what we know about living things: they reproduce, making good but inexact copies of themselves, the copies inherit characteristics that can raise or lower the probability, in a particular environment, of their making copies of themselves, and environments change.  Starting with one relatively simple living organism, we should expect after billions of years to find a diversity of complex living things adapted to particular environments.  The empirical evidence could have defeated this expectation in many ways, but it hasn’t.  Indeed, support for it has been accumulating relentlessly for over 150 years. The evidence for the evolutionary explanation of the diversity, complexity, and adaptedness of living things, with natural selection as the primary causal mechanism, is now exceedingly good.  In general, science is our best way to obtain knowledge, and it is unreasonable not to believe well-confirmed scientific theories. The theory that the diversity, complexity, and adaptedness of life on Earth is the result of natural selection is a very well-confirmed scientific theory. 

6. How can I believe in evolution and Christianity?

A short answer:

The evidence for evolution is so good that it is unreasonable not to believe it.

The evidence for Christianity is good enough to make believing it reasonable.

There is no good reason to believe that evolution and Christianity are mutually inconsistent.

A longer answer:

Evolutionary theory’s account of the origin and by implication, the nature, of human beings coheres well with the Christian faith.  Here, as in other cases, what contemporary science tells us about the world is antecedently probable from the perspective of Christian faith, i.e., the world it portrays is what we should expect to find, given the truth of Christianity. In light of what God has revealed about his creative purposes, it’s reasonable to think he would choose to achieve his ends by means of natural processes of the sort science has uncovered.

7. How do I view Scripture?

The Bible is God’s infallible revelation; whatever it teaches is true, the word of God. In it we learn that God created the world; its basic laws and initial conditions are directly due to his creative action and answer to his intentions. The latter effects of that initial act of creation, the formation of atoms, galaxies, stars, planets, and the diversity of complex living things, are what God creates indirectly.

The scientific investigation of nature, and the interpretation of the Bible, are both reliable ways of finding out about God’s creation.  Neither is infallible, but scientific methods are obviously more reliable than those of biblical hermeneutics.  When apparent conflict arises, it’s generally more reasonable to suspect we’ve misinterpreted Scripture than that scientific inquiry has gone wrong.  Further, supposed conflicts between Scripture and science are often merely apparent and reveal, not the misreading of the Bible, but implicit commitments to dispensable philosophical theories. We should recall that our predecessors thought Copernicanism, lunar craters, and Newtonian inertia needed to be reconciled with biblical creation.

It is our good fortune to encounter conflicts between what science says and what we think the Bible says, since they push us to reconsider, and improve, our understanding of the biblical text.

Although tied to the real acts of God in the creation of this world, the Genesis creation stories are neither history nor science; they are theology expressed in poetic narrative.  Much mischief arises from the fact that in colloquial English the term “literally” has come to mean “really,” so some hear the statement that these texts are not literally true as equivalent to not really true.  On the contrary, they really are true, but figuratively, not literally. To take a figurative text literally is to fail to take it seriously. The not literally true story—the naked man named “Man,” the woman named “Woman” made from his rib, the talking snake, the trees bearing magical fruit—asserts the literal theological truth about the God who for our sake created the world.

8. What about the Fall and Imago Dei?

Evolution has no particular bearing on our being made in God’s image. The popular, traditional understanding is that our being made imago Dei consists in some kind of similarity of humans to God.  We are, e.g., made in God’s image in virtue of being persons.  Evolution is the scientific explanation of how human persons came into existence.  However, the biblically and theologically superior account is that to be made in God’s image is to be given a particular vocation, a calling to represent—image—God in creation.  Being God’s image is not a matter of what we are, but of God electing us to share in his life and work. God creates persons by natural, evolutionary means and then calls them into relationship with himself. The evaluation of hypotheses about how God created us should be guided by what God reveals about why he created us.

The Genesis story of God breathing the “breath of life” into the man-shaped being formed from the soil, i.e., the special creation of humans, cast in the vitalist framework of Ancient Near Eastern thought, reveals the special vocation humans have been given in God’s creation.  God created this world with the aim of there being creatures like us, persons invited to share in God’s triune life.  Special creation is properly understood in terms of God’s purposes in creating us, not the means by which he created us.

Traditional ways of understanding the Fall are undermined by the discovery of the evolutionary origins of human beings.  It is not true that human beings were initially morally perfect but became morally imperfect.  Our moral proclivities, good and bad, were present in rudimentary form in our pre-human ancestors.  Instead, the figurative Genesis story of the Fall as an historical event points to the theologically vital fact that sin is not necessitated by human nature.  Nor is it moral wrongdoing.  Human beings are sinners: this means that our relationship with God is impaired by our unwillingness to trust him, and our willingness to usurp his place in the world.  The truth of original sin is that we are bereft of God’s empirical presence, born into a world from which we have individually and collectively expelled God, who always intended to become incarnate as one of us.  Because of our fallen condition, God incarnate is also our crucified and resurrected savior.


Some  responses to a survey someone sent me on the subject of prayer:

What is prayer?

Prayer is speaking with God, i.e., speaking to God with the intention of listening for him speaking to me.

Why do you pray?

Because those who put their faith in Christ are commanded to do so, because communal prayer as a component of Christian worship helps to form and sustain the community of faith, and because at times I feel the need to articulate my hopes, fears, worries, etc., to God.  (I believe that God exists in some temporal fashion, and thus that our prayers actually do have an effect upon him. Even if God already knows what I need, my asking him for it gives him a reason to provide it he did not already have. The future of God’s creation is open, and how things go depends in part on what we and God work out together; our prayers are, I think, a significant part of that.)

How important is prayer to you, and why?

God created this world with the aim of it being inhabited by creatures he can invite to share in his triune life.  Now, prior the resurrected life when he will again be empirically present with us, our speaking with God, communally, and also individually, is the principal way to be living that life. Many times, to pray is to remind myself, in the face of the countervailing evidence, that there really is a God who listens, cares and acts.

I do not assume that God has the ability to know precisely what goes on in a human being’s mind, nor, if he has that ability, that he would exercise it in a systematic way, given the value he places on the integrity of persons distinct from himself.  I assume instead that what God knows of our inner selves depends to some degree on what we choose to tell him. The physicist Leo Szilard once told a friend that he was writing an account of his experiences, but that he wasn’t planning to publish it. The friend asked why he was doing it, and Szilard said he was writing it for God. The friend said, “But God already knows what happened!” To which Szilard replied, “Yes, but not from my point of view.” I believe that to pray privately is to invite God into my subjective world, asking him to see things from my point of view, and seeking help to begin to see things from his point of view.

How often do you think a person should pray, and why?

This varies greatly from one individual to the next. It’s analogous to, “How often should a person talk to his wife, to his best friends, etc.?” Because God is God, he is not everything; he wants us to live our human lives and not be concerned principally with religious matters.  But he does intend for our relationship with him to be uniquely important in our lives.

Have you experienced the impact of your prayer in your own personal life? If so how?

The most important prayer for me has been in corporate Eucharistic worship, particularly the “prayer of humble access,” in the (old) Book of Common Prayer, where one kneels at the altar to receive the elements. Praying that prayer, one finds oneself simultaneously alone before God and together with one’s fellow worshippers, all of us being shaped by God’s unconditional acceptance and love. I grew up within evangelicalism, which was for me in many ways a religion of condemnation and control, so this has been a decisive, transformative experience. Now when I pray I know I speak to a God who really does love me as I am, a God in whose presence I have no need to pretend to be more faithful, or wiser, more serious, more committed, or better than I am.

Tea Party Libertarianism and Christianity

A response I for some reason wrote to a piece by Jim Wallis: “How Christian Is Tea Party Libertarianism?”

No doubt the various things the Tea Parties and/or libertarians stand for can be honestly and rationally debated, but this is sophomoric drivel.

1. Is there anyone who actually believes that what’s at issue for the Tea Party movement is whether those in need should be helped, rather than whether an elite, comprised of those purporting to be better and more intelligent than the rest of us, should rule without constitutional constraint and without regard to economic or cultural consequences?

But in any event, the distinction between helping someone and forcing someone else to help him is not trivial.  Should the police powers of the state be deployed to force people to do what they ought to do?  The answer, I assume, is sometimes yes and sometimes no, and it takes some cognitive effort to discern the proper moral constraints on the state’s use of its coercive powers.

Do those who belong to the Tea Party movement actually give less to those in need than their leftist critics, or is this, like the accusation that they are motivated by racism, another invention out of whole cloth?

2. The Tea Party movement, like the founders of the republic, embrace “a political philosophy that holds individual rights as its supreme value and considers government the major obstacle.”  The defense of individual rights, and the attempt to devise and sustain a government which defends, rather than violates, these rights is, for many of us, the supreme political value.  I doubt that few Tea Party people regard this as the supreme value simpliciter.

Whether the political theory which regards this as the supreme value in politics comports with the Christian faith is a further question.  But the conclusion that it doesn’t, and that some form of statism does, cannot be established by such sophistic reasoning as:

(1) God wants people to help the poor.

(2) We can help the poor by using the power of the state to force them to.

Therefore, God wants us to use the power of the state to force people to help the poor.

Even if the second premise were generally and in the long run true—it isn’t— the reasoning would still be fallacious, analogous to:

(1) God wants people to go to church.

(2) We can get people to attend church by using the power of the state to force them to.

Therefore, God wants us to use the power of the state to force people to attend church.

3. Libertarians do not place “supreme confidence” in free markets, but we do believe that they are much more likely to promote justice and the common good than state action.  Also, for libertarians, the issue of the moral limits on what governments do is at least as important as whether they are “smart and effective.”

4. Rhetorical questions like, “Should big oil companies like BP simply be allowed to spew oil into the ocean?” are doubly disingenuous.  First, few of the people involved in the Tea Party movement are ideological libertarians, let alone anarchists.  They are not “anti-government” nor are they opposed to government regulation of corporations.  They are opposed to the attempt to empower and enlarge the Federal Government drastically beyond its constitutional limits.  Second, those of us who are libertarians do not believe that what it is immoral for government to do is ipso facto wrong for various individuals and institutions in a free society to do.

The political lie that the Tea Party is racist having run its course, it now appears that the left’s new strategy is to brand it as a libertarian. This is less egregious, since a visible, even if small, minority of Tea Party folks actually are libertarian.  Nonetheless, when the serious question is, “Should the US government spend trillions of dollars it does not have to do things a majority of citizens do not want it to do and which it is not constitutionally empowered to do?” it’s a sad departure from intellectual honesty to pretend that’s what at issue is whether offshore oil drilling should be subject to any regulation at all, or whether the civil rights legislation of the 1960’s should be reversed.  Trotting out the straw men might be effective political propaganda, but it’s not worthy of anyone who aims to discern “God’s politics.”

Some Obscure Natural Theology

Earlier (February 2009), as a reason to believe that God exists, I offered the fact that the universe existing as the result of the free choice of a rational, necessarily existent being maximizes feasible intelligibility, i.e., it is an account of the world at large which explains as much as we could reasonably hope to have explained.

This reasoning presupposes two things that might not be easy to believe. One is that we can sensibly ascribe necessary existence to things, not just necessary truth to statements. The other is that there is a necessarily existent being which has a distinct character.

This latter conflicts with the common supposition that matters of necessary truth are fundamentally straightforward, regular, bland, monolithic, predictable, uninteresting, etc., and that anything unique, individual or unexpected, anything with character, belongs to the realm of contingency. Yet this assumption does not survive an encounter with the domains of necessary truth we best understand, viz., logic and mathematics.  Here it soon becomes apparent that the realm of necessity is inhabited by things which have quite particular, unexpected, and often plain “quirky” natures. Consider the endlessly surprising discoveries in number theory, e.g., facts about the distribution of the primes, or the profoundly counterintuitive properties of cellular automata, the bizarre zoo of objects generated by a few simple rules from a simple beginning.  These are arenas in which what’s true is what must be true, yet what’s true is often very far from anything we find simple or obvious.  I don’t know how to put this sense of a connection between necessity and unique character clearly, let along construct a natural theological argument from it, but without it I would find it harder to take seriously the idea of a necessarily existent free person. I conjecture that these things we discern as the characteristics of such abstracta as sets, numbers, cellular automata, and so on, somehow are just a pale reflection of the concrete reality of the divine logos himself.

Obligation, Supererogation and the Welfare State

Disputes about the moral legitimacy of the welfare state often turn on the disagreement between those who believe that we have a moral obligation to come to the aid of those in need, and those who reject this, contending that helping those who are in need, while morally good, is not morally obligatory; it’s supererogatory, a matter of charity.

It seems to me that while sometimes one has no moral obligation to help and in doing so goes beyond one’s moral duty, this is not always the case. To take a typical example, if a child is drowning and someone could easily save him, then at face value he has a moral obligation to do so. If he lets the child drown he has not simply failed to do something commendable; he is worthy of condemnation for failing to do his duty.

Thus I think it’s a mistake to try to defend classically liberal–libertarian–constraints on the state by appeal to the general distinction between obligation and supererogation. The case that must be made is against using the police power of the state to force people to do certain things they are morally obligated to do.

We ought not to allow others to be harmed when we can easily help them. Obviously enough, here morality constrains our attempts to do the moral thing. When Marvin is in need, it does not prescribe that we do whatever it takes to provide him with what he needs. For some ways of seeking to bring about the goals morality prescribes are themselves morally forbidden. If Marvin needs a new liver, and the only one that will work for him is one already in someone else, we ought not to sacrifice her to save him. There are moral constraints on doing what’s right. Some ways of trying to do what’s right are morally wrong.

Further, morality makes “second order” demands upon us: we ought sometimes to try to influence others to do what they ought to do, and we ought to try to influence them not to do what they ought not to do. If Mary refuses to give Fred the help she ought to give him, it might be our duty to try to influence him to do what he ought to do. If Mitch ought not to treat Flora a particular way, then it might fall to us to try to influence him not to treat her that way. Here too there are moral constraints on our attempts to get others to behave morally. This is obviously true and almost universally accepted. Many of us think that someone can have a moral right to do things which are morally wrong. (Many of our basic rights. eg., the freedom of speech, become meaningless on the supposition that they apply only when others accept the moral propriety of our exercise of them.) If someone has a right to do wrong, then it may be morally wrong to do what it takes to get him to do what’s morally right. Irrespective of whether we think people have such rights, we all realize that the consequences of doing what it takes to get someone to do what’s morally right might be so bad as to make it morally wrong to get him to do it.

Fred ought not to steal daisies from Barney’s garden, but it would be morally wrong for Barney to try to prevent this by shooting him, even if this is the only effective method for getting him to stop stealing them. Barney might have no moral alternative to letting his flowers be stolen.

What is not universally agreed upon is the exact nature of the moral constraints on our efforts to improve human conduct.

In the political context, the crucial question is the nature of the moral constraints on the use of violence, including the threat of violence, as a means to bring it about that people do what they ought to do. What’s clear is that the mere fact that acts of the kind we want to prevent are morally wrong does not decide the issue.

There seem to be three main approaches:

1) Whether it is morally permissible to employ violence as a way to get people to do what they morally ought to do depends on a political decision procedure. E.g., if a democratic electorate favors doing so, and doing so is in accord with the forms of legality, then it is morally permissible.

2) Whether it is morally permissible to employ violence as a way to get people to do what they morally ought to do depends on the consequences of doing so. E.g., if the consequences of using violent means to get people to do what they morally ought to do are better than not doing so, then it is morally permissible to do so.

3) Whether it is morally permissible to employ violence as a way to get people to do what they morally ought to do depends on whether their wrongdoing involves violence. A principle of reciprocity implies that it is morally wrong to initiate violence and that only the wrongdoer’s initiation of violence morally justifies our deploying violent means in response.

The third approach is congruent with the classically liberal–libertarian–idea of the state. It is, I believe, a more plausible ground for it than the unlikely notion that we are not morally obligated to help one another. The reciprocity principle that figures in this approach might, in turn, be a specification of a more general egalitarian principle of reciprocity in human relations. It might also be construed as a principle calling for a kind of pacifism.