Radical Preaching

Can preaching again have something to say?
This blog marks the attempt to bring the theological vision of Radical Orthodoxy into the worship and preaching of the local church.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Can Morality Be Christian: The Five Marks of Morality

In The Word Made Strange, John Milbank crafts what I believe is my favorite RO essay. The title is "Can Morality Be Christian?" He responds by stating,
"Let me tell you the answer straightaway. It is no. Not 'no' there cannot be a specifically Christian morality. But no, morality cannot be Christian... Christian morality is a thing so strange, that it must be declared immoral or amoral according to all other human norms and codes of morality" (219).
This is a bold statement since so much of the language of Christian praxis is nothing more than the language of some moralism of the left or of the right. In the Church of the Nazarene, our doctrine of entire sanctification is quickly being replaced by the cheap grace of the church growth movement appended with the comfortable morality of the neocons. In other words, it is increasingly easier to be considered holy simply by being "right" on abortion and "right" on homosexuality. Many mainline denominations today are equally paralyzed by a leftist morality that deems righteousness along the same philosophical lines, though with different answers to the above issues. Alasdair MacIntyre describes these approaches to virtue as incommensurable, since only extended arguments without any connection to tradition, to narrative, or to standards of excellence. The end is a religious morality consisting solely of values (what "I" value and believe to be true). It is this type of morality that Milbank declares is antithetical to the Christian gospel. In the essay, he identifies the five marks of morality and the five notes of the Gospel. In this post, I will address his critique of morality in light of this week's reading from the Gospel of St. Matthew. Tomorrow, I will address his vision of the five notes of the Gospel. The five marks of morality are Reaction, Sacrifice, Complicity with Death, Scarcity, and Generality.

The First Mark: Reaction
For Milbank, morality fails to be Christian because it is reactive. Morality assumes that the world is agonistic and adopts an ontology of violence. As a result, morality can only be reactive. He states,
"Virtue... always secretly celebrates as its occasion a prior evil, liv[ing] out of what it opposes... Here, at the beginning of every virtue, lies a failure to turn the other cheek" (221).
Morality is thus onto-theological in that it assumes some being before the gift of God. Creation ex nihilo is replaced with the notion that order was imposed upon some primordial chaos. Virtue, then, is possible only if there is a war to fight or an enemy to overcome. Virtue comes solely in reacting to the events that threaten death.

The Second Mark: Sacrifice
As a solely reactive process, a person must sacrifice. Specifically, an individual's sacrifice begins simply by making any moral judgment. Immediately, an inner sacrifice takes place as the "cruel foregoing of something" (222). This is the offering up of an alternative position that one secretly desired to hold. At the same time, there is also an outer sacrifice. Virtue comes about in the resistance of some evil or in the fighting of some war. In resisting this external threat, there is the risk of one's life, and one must be prepared to sacrifice one's own life. As a result, Milbank concludes,
"In morality, there is no love for the other nor opening to the other, but always and everywhere a principle of self-government, whether of the soul or of the city. In order that the totality may be, and be the site of a principle, it must rule itself, divide itself from itself, sacrifice itself to itself. Thereby it repels the intruder predefined as evil" (223).
Morality presupposes a sacrificial economy that is the result of reactive ethics and is ultimately complicit with death, the third mark of morality.

The Third Mark: Complicity with Death
Milbank states,
"If Reaction requires Sacrifice, then both concern death: in fact a threat of death repelled by a willingness to die... Death for death to secure life against death: this is 'morality', this is 'ethics'.. So ethics must covertly celebrate death, for only our fragility elicits our virtue" (223).
Morality's presupposing of reaction and sacrifice require death for there to be any conception of the good. If there is no death, there is no threat adequate to compel one to be good. Death must be a potential outcome, or there will be no desire for one to be good. Thus, morality secretly celebrates death as the underlying premise of moral virtue. The mover of morality is not the Triune God and the end is not charity. Instead, the principle mover is death, and the end of life is nothin more than the avoidance of death by being good. To which Milbank states,
"Yet all these triumphs [overcoming death through sacrifice and reaction] are enabled by the continuation of death which is the only factual form that sin can take, its one mode of actuality, although it is always in reality the termination of the actual, since every isolatable being is already at an end, already is not, is 'known as dead.' And to hold death back, to perpetuate life for a while, is also to perpetuate a life which must in the end die all the more..." (224).
Thus, morality's complicity of death makes life "scarce", which is the fourth mark of morality.

The Fourth Mark: Scarcity
Milbank states,
"Because life is in short supply, because it might run out on us, sooner or later, we must invest, we must insure" (224-225).
Morality becomes a method for us to stave off death that we might maximize our enjoyment of life. Thus, in an economy of sacrifice and scarcity,
"Ethics is not written philosophy, it is banks, it is sexual jealousy, it is the sacrifice of self-realization for the sake of others, it is insurance companies, mortgages, and the stock exchange. For in fearing that there will not be world enough or time, we insist on our own identity, our truth, our space, denying that of others" (225).
The fear of not having enough is really nothing more than a lack of trust in the plentitude of God to provide for his creation. Milbank turns to Luther, who surmises that stealing comes as a result of "the fear there will not be enough for us" (225). Milbank further declares,
"Do not steal means, for the Gospel, positively 'be generous', and as Luther says, 'faith is the master workman and the motivating factor behind the good work of generosity' . Generosity or true not stealing acts out of the assumption of plentitude, our confidence in God's power" (225).
Morality, then, can offer again only a view of life as a scarce commodity. Thus, it very quickly shifts away from participation in the life of the Triune God, to the vain attempt to grab enough of God's grace and power to insure survival. Thus, rather than "pure" faith that emanates from a plentitude of charity, the moral person falls prey to the temptation to secure "enough" to guarantee survival.

The Fifth Mark: Generality
Generality is the Kantian requirement that any moral act should be one that is universal. In other words, if it is the moral thing to do, one is bound to perform this duty regardless of the cost. Generality becomes necessary to morality in order to sustain unity, albeit in an abstract form such as law. Milbank states,
"And it is precisely because of this abstract character of the law that, as Paul realized, the law is a letter that can never be fulfilled. Not in the sense that love can never be fulfilled, since this follows from the inherently excessive, self-exceeding character of love, but in a sense which follows from law's presumption that something is lacking, and that something will resist it. The abstractness of law ensures that we will never have sufficiently accorded to its demand which can always be more perfectly embodied" (227).
As with the other marks, there is a sense of attempting to enclose morality, to define laws so as to "secure a finite, spatial catalogue of virtue, an exhaustive list" (227). Morality is an attempt to insure against the idea of a bad infinity. Thus, generality, expressed in the form of moral laws, seeks to close the loop of the moral universe and to end the uncertainty brought about by faith. Trusting in God is much more difficult than by not adhering to a law that demands us to stop stealing, and then abstracts the definition of stealing to a much lower level than Luther, for instance, considered in a previous example.

The Five Marks of Morality and the Debate between Jesus and the Pharisees
After silencing the Saducees, the Pharisees come forward in an attempt to "put Jesus to the test." They send forward a lawyer who attempts to trap Jesus with a question, "Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" Jewish scholars identy 613 separate commands from the law of Moses. 613 laws to govern the faithfulness of daily living, and to trap Jesus into identifying which was the most important. Jesus, though, gives an interesting answer. He quotes the Shema, "Love the Lord your God, with all your heart, soul, and mind. He then adds to it, "And love your neighbor as yourself." He adds that the entire Law and Prophets rest on these two commandments. Jesus refuses to reduce the faith passed on by the saints to be reduced to moralisms and morality. Instead, he reveals that the purpose of the law is love- love of God, love of neighbor, love of self. The Pharisees, who view themselves as the caretakers of the Law, have sundered their relationship with God, instead wielding the Law as a weapon against God, their neighbor, and ultiamtely even themselves. Once doxology ceases, the Law is easily used to draw lines, creating insiders and outsiders, the holy and the profane.

Once the Law is severed from love, it becomes just another form of morality. The question posed by the Pharisee's lawyer is indicative of what has happened. The Law has been reduced to the level of "values." If Jesus singles out one particular commandment as the greatest, that will leave room for much criticism as to why he chose that one and not this one. Ultimately, that debate would prove incommensurable, as it would revolve solely around what each person/group valued most at that given time. Indeed, the Pharisees obviously reconstruct a different image of God to support their reading of the Law.

There is much more I want to say about this, but I want to stop for now and wait until I work through Milbank's five notes of the Gospel, because I think it will be more complete at that point.

Grace and Peace,


Blogger Eric Lee said...

Scott, thanks for working through this text. I have only read Milbank's Theology & Social Theory, and he touches on the notion of sacrifice quite a bit in that tome as something that social science has failed to accurated describe in generalities about Christians. I don't remember any of the specific authors he wrestles with in this regard, as I can really only distinctly remember the last couple chapters, which were excellent.

Now that my engagement plans are all executed, I am just now catching up on these posts!



October 23, 2005 4:28 PM  

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