Divine Judgement And The Ethics Of Authenticity -Unsettling Thoughts On The Covid-19 Virus (Paul Tyson)

The very idea of divine judgement expressed in natural disasters seems outdated and, at the least, unpleasant to us. There are three basic reasons for this: science, ethics and theology.

Thanks to modern science we have a pretty clear idea about the natural causes of droughts, floods and other disasters. We no longer think of any natural event (bad or good) as an act of God. Even such unprecedented events as last summer’s super-heated Australian bush fires are comprehensible to us in entirely natural terms when viewed in the light of climate science. That is, our scientific naturalism has no role for God in nature, so the idea that bad events could have a divine cause seems preposterously pre-scientific.

The way our theology and ethics makes the idea of divine judgment unpleasant also seems easy enough to grasp. It seems offensive to any notion of a loving and good God – a parental God – that natural disasters should be divinely attributed. That would be to view God as a vindictive, arbitrary tyrant who indifferently inflicts suffering on vulnerable people, apparently out of a sense of offended patriarchal honor.

For these sorts of reasons probably the only traditional Christian theological notion more offensive than connecting natural disasters to divine judgement is connecting personal sin to Hell. We seem to have scientifically, ethically and theologically judged that we will not believe in a judging God to whom we are morally accountable, any more.

But perhaps we are being too hasty. Perhaps our reasons for judging against a judging God are not as obviously valid as we assume. In this little piece I am going to look at all three of the reasons why we reject the very possibility of the notion of divine judgement in natural disasters, but I am going to hone in on ethics in particular. For our ethical reasons for rejecting any natural judgement of God are much more complex and unsatisfactory that they seem.

There is something very unusual – from a historical perspective – about how we now typically understand ethics. In modern times our moral reasoning has moved out of a set of broad cultural assumptions that recognize the claims of objective moral truth, and into a broad set of cultural assumptions that upholds subjective moral authenticity.

This is explored in an amazing book by the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, titled The Ethics of Authenticity. The transformation of our moral consciousness is connected with a broad cultural shift towards what Taylor later described as “the immanent frame” in his massive tome A Secular Age. In these two books Taylor describes the long and deep transition in Western culture from understanding created reality as overshadowed by an intimately active divinity and objective moral truth, to a world of an entirely immanent nature and a constructed and internal conception of ethics.

We now tend to understand moral consciousness itself as entirely subjective, entirely personal. That I have deep personal moral convictions, and that I authentically hold to my convictions, is what makes me a moral agent, rather than my conforming to any objective criteria of moral truth. Value itself has shifted from a frame of transcendent meaning above my own self, and has become internalized within my own personal convictions and choices. This transition in the way we understand the meaning of morality makes perfect sense if, in cultural terms, we no longer believe that the imminent material world is embedded in a real spiritual transcendence.

One of the striking consequences of this development in our moral consciousness is that the idea of divine judgement becomes pretty well incomprehensible. That is, God – if God is even considered in our moral universe – is now part of my own personal and religious inner landscape of moral authenticity, rather than the source of truth that stands over my moral consciousness and judges it.  

My commitments and convictions are no longer right or wrong as measured by any criteria outside of my personal belief and value choices, but are only more or less authentic on the basis of whether I firmly and freely hold them or not. God is now – in a manner of speaking – within my convictions and a function of my freely chosen commitments; not above or outside of me.

Any moral realist Christian conception of divine judgement is now almost impossible for us to conceive of. God has become a personal religious idol within our consciousness that is there to endorse our own value choosing freedoms, and to support our own self-actualizing authenticity. It is not surprising, then, that I have heard no Christian voice seriously wondering if the Covid-19 virus might be a divine judgement.

Of course, any disaster and any suffering should elicit compassion and costly acts of service from the Christian. Equally the Hebrew and Christian scriptures are richly spiced with cries for help and with complaints to God in the face of unjustly suffered calamities. Indeed, the cause of suffering is anything but a simple dichotomy where the good are rewarded with wealth, safety and health and the evil are punished with poverty, insecurity and death.

The opposite is often the case – think of Job, Jeremiah, and supremely, Christ himself. The last thing I wish to suggest is that anyone who suffers with or dies from the Covid-19 virus has been dealt a personal blow of judgement from God. Given how the notion of God’s judgement has often been vindictively abused, there are good reasons why no-one is rushing to proclaim that the terrible suffering caused by this virus is the judgement of God.

We have mapped out this sort of argument so far.

  • Our prevailing moral and scientific consciousness cannot contemplate the very notion of the judgement of God via any natural disaster.
  • Moral realism – the notion of objective moral truth – is incommensurate with the ethics of authenticity.
  • The biblical notion of divine judgement is complex and readily vindictively abused.

Let us now try something challenging. Let us not simply assume that God is entirely discrete from natural goings on, and let us not simply assume that traditional Christian conceptions of objective moral reality are impossible to believe. If we can hold these two alternative possibilities as credible – that God is sovereign over nature and that there are objective moral truths – then there really might be good reasons to think that the global Covid-19 virus pandemic is a divine judgement. If this is a credible possibility, then it is very important for us to ask what are we (at least potentially) being judged for in this global pandemic?

At this point I want to introduce the environmental theologian, Michael Northcott. (See Northcott: A Moral Climate [2007], A Political Theology of Climate Change [2013], Place, Ecology and the Sacred [2015].) Northcott points out that the Old Testament has a lot to say about land care, economics and politics, even though such topics are not what we now typically think of as religious matters.

Further, contrary to our modern assumptions about science, ethics and theology, the Old Testament shows almost no interest in personal religious belief freedoms, is largely unconcerned with deeply held personal convictions, and does not seem to have heard of personal authenticity. To the contrary, these are the sorts of things the Law and the Prophets talk about: the land should be regularly rested; property should be return to traditional owners every 50 years; interest should not be charged; the alien should be safe; the poor and vulnerable should be looked after by the community; the law of God should be honored by all such that the king and the priesthood are under the law of God.

God owns the land and is the final ruler of heaven and earth. Further, God requires Sabbath observation from his covenant people – they are not to think of themselves in reductively economic, consumer or physical terms. There are restraints on power, restraints on natural exploitation, restraints on personal lifestyle, leisure and profit making pursuits, and restraints on what is right and wrong as judged by the Law of God.

It is a feature of our times that we have done as much as we can to remove every moral and sacred restraint in the pursuit of personal freedom, profit, luxury and power. Most of all we pursue self-actualization (authenticity). Individual freedom and self-affirmation are sovereign in our moral and religious landscapes, and those landscapes are held functionally discrete from the realms of power, profit, commerce, work and consumption (where personal freedom is also sovereign, but amorally and non-sacrally so). The ethics of authenticity, the moral constructivism and the amoral pragmatism that goes with the assumptions of an entirely immanent reality frame have much to do with this casting off of moral and sacred restraint. What, we now wonder, has the ancient Law of God got to do with us?

For the past 40 years – since the neoliberal globalizing reformations of the 1980s – we have been building a trans-national system of profit making and environmental exploitation that has become increasingly vulnerable to massive cascading collapse. In Australia this past summer we saw the most devastating bushfire season on record which our scientists warned was coming because of hotter and drier conditions produced by global warming. But we did not heed the warning and we continue to export enormous and increasing amounts of coal.

This coal will fire the power stations of Asia that will increase particular carbon in the atmosphere and worsen the fire devastation in Australia for our children. We are sacrificing our children’s future to our present greed. We saw how vulnerable the global financial system was in 2008. The casino finances of derivative and currency trading – now, again, orders of magnitude larger than the real global economy of actual goods and services – combined with the central role of tax havens for the super-rich, makes the real world a derivative of alchemical financial power. Under social distancing preparation for the Covid-19 virus we have seen many workplaces simply collapse in a matter of weeks in Australia with the unemployment rate almost doubling in that time.

This is because a very large part of the urban Australian workforce is employed in retail and luxury services rather than in manufacturing, food production or anything that people really need. We rely on the global South and industrial food production for all of that. Our lifestyle is bought at the expense of exploited labourers in the global South, at the expense of sustainable farming and sustainable energy, and at the loss of large skill and labour sectors in the Australian workforce.

This – over the past 40 years – has produced a two speed economy and widening wealth and opportunity inequality. In our post-1980s economy we have an upper gear where the nimble have adapted to the new globalized luxury service, massive retail chain and trans-national corporation work environment in Australia, and a lower gear where the rust-belt non-adaptors sour on resentment at their loss of meaningful work and financial security. Our politicians shamelessly harness this resentment by manufacturing ‘job robbing’ ‘queue jumping’ outsiders to blame, such as Islamic asylum seekers whom we lock up indefinitely in sub-human offshore detention.

If one has anything like a moral realist biblical view of what God requires in terms of justice, respect for the alien, land care, and economic and political reverence for the Law of God, then it seems highly likely that we have been accumulating the wrath of God for some decades now.

At this point we should consider what the bible has to say about natural disasters and the judgement of God. In the Deuteronomic Law God sets the ways of life and the ways of death before the people. The Promised Land that the Children of Israel are to inherit is semi-arid; should they follow the laws of God, God will ensure that the land is fertile, that they do not have drought, and that they have safety on their borders. Should they neglect the ways of God they will have trouble within, war without and the land itself will spew them out. God says to his chosen, “today I set before you life and death, blessings and curses… therefore choose life.”

Which is to say that the Hebrew and Christian scriptures – like Dante and Shakespeare – uphold the notion of moral law as a feature of the natural world. Fear of the Lord leading to diligence in abiding by what God reveals as right and good results in sustainable social and environmental flourishing and the peace and rest of God. Flouting God’s law results in the demise of human flourishing. Yet in important regards, God does not impose judgement, we bring it upon ourselves.

The incredible stress we are putting the earth under with our rapacious modes of natural exploitation, as well as the highly lubricated channels of transport, travel and financial flow that defines our global wealth and power re-distribution networks, carries the seeds of its own destruction. The Covid-19 virus is a symptom of the kind of world order we have produced. Perhaps if we saw this as a judgement we would think seriously about our need of repentance and would seek to re-build after the virus in a different way.

If we were to repent we might then aim at a way of life that takes in moral and sacral reality, a way that is kinder to the earth and the vulnerable people of the earth than our current global order is. But, if we do not take these disasters as warnings of unsustainable relationships with creation, with our neighbour, and with our Creator, then judgement will only ramp up. And if – through a determined and hubristic clinging to our own moral authenticity – we refuse to even countenance the objective immorality of the very life-world in which we global elites now live and move and have our being, then we are beyond repentance and this can only end very badly indeed.

Judgement is linked to redemptive hope in the Christian scriptures. But only if it is met with humbling and repentance. A defiant hardening of the heart against divine judgement leads only to destruction. Let us, then, be glad to recognize when we are judged and in humility, repent.

Dr Paul Tyson is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, at the University of Queensland, Australia. He works across Theology, Sociology and Philosophy. His research is mainly operative in the arena of science and religion.

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