Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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God's Law

In the Western world, there is frequent talk of "doing the right thing". There's nothing intrinsically wrong with proclaiming and championing morality and right living. But on what criteria are our morals based? Who is to say what's right and wrong living? This is an important question because in principle law should be based upon morality rather than expediency. In pre-modern times it was argued that God's law is supreme. Today the pendulum has swung away from traditional Christian teaching.

Paul, being a Jew, came from a society which did not distinguish between religious and secular as many nations do today. He thought that man's law derives from God's law.

Most Christians recognise the concept of "God's Law" from the Old Testament and Paul's letters.

God's Law as Paul refers to it was believed to have been handed down to the Hebrews first in the Ten Commandments, given verbally by God to Moses on Mount Sinai; and then in the Scriptures (Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy). For the Hebrew, God's law is equated with the Mosaic law.

Roman law (ius civilis) in Paul's time was very different. Unlike Hebrew law it was not regarded divine in origin. It was originally built upon custom (ius non scriptum) in the period up to about 150BC.   Customary law was gradually codified into written laws (ius scriptum) passed by the Roman Senate and various emperors. Law was also codified according to precedent even, in some cases, precedent from non-Roman law (ius gentium).

The Christian Church adopted a dual-track legal system after it became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century. On the one hand was Roman civil law. On the other was the Church's Canon Law - the Law of the "Measure" or "Standard" (the standard for all human law being God's revealed law). The Medieval Church thought that Canon Law dictated civil law because the former is revealed by God rather than derived from the corruptible will of the people or its rulers.

In contrast to traditional Christian orthodoxy, most Westerners today think that laws regulating society should be based upon popular consensus. In many other societies, custom and the authority of inherited position, or of caste or of coercion may underpin law. 

In contemporary Muslim societies, religious and civil law tend to blend into a whole because all morality is is regarded as based on the Koran. The Koran in turn is God's revealed wisdom and therefore can't be subordinate to man-made laws.

Christian orthodoxy still accepts divine revelation as the source of morality and therefore Canon Law. God's will [1] has been revealed to the Church through the Bible and directly to some of its members by the Holy Spirit. Many Christian leaders therefore maintain that they have the right and duty to correct civil leaders on principles and practice of good law.

I don't intend to argue for or against revelation here [2]. I should point out, though, that those who accept the principle of revelation logically can't oppose laws based on it. Revealed laws are God's laws and therefore must be right. 

In common with many other people, I find myself unable to simply accept absolute moral maxims based on revelation. It seems to me that revelation is a fundamentally unsound basis for law governing right and wrong because the assumptions upon which it is based cannot be tested. They can only be accepted without question - an attitude often called "faith", wrongly so in my opinion [3].

If revealed law ceases to be a measure (that is, a "canon") might our only source of good law therefore be ius non scriptum and ius scriptum? Customs arise from social debate and usage. "The people" in a democracy pass laws through their representatives.

An interesting problem arises with the concept of law as a social contract. It is possible for a society to enact consensual laws which are not approved of by other societies. Examples in the modern era would be:

#  Anti-Jewish laws of the German government before and during the Second World War;

#  Racial segregation laws promulgated by the South African government from 1949 onwards;

Sharia laws of some Muslim communities when applied to non-Muslims.

In such cases it seems important to ask on what grounds should any law, even though the result of due process, be pronounced "wrong"? Why should a nation not kill Jews if a majority votes to do so? And why should non-Muslims not be subject to religious laws sanctioned by the Koran? If segregation laws are maintained by a powerful minority for perceived the good of a nation, according to which criteria are those laws pronounced intrinsically wrong?

It seems to me that if one wishes to avoid accusations of arbitrariness, law must be based upon some kind of criteria. To put it another way, laws can't be evenhanded if based on opinion or dogma.

Is it possible to find objective standards upon which to base morality and therefore law, given that revelation is no longer a satisfactory source of absolute truth?

Some claim that humanity should live by a single criterion called "love" (agape in Greek). This approach is apparently lent extra force by its occurrence in the New Testament as a summary by Jesus of Hebrew Law (Matthew 22.37-40; Mark 12.30-31; Luke 10.27). 

Joseph Fletcher [4] argues that provided a person has agonised over the rights and wrongs of an action in a spirit of goodwill, whatever is then decided is by definition loving. In other words, a loving action is one motivated by goodwill and chosen by reason. 

This is a powerful argument. But, strictly speaking, it merely pushes the search back a step. Euthanasia is an example of a case in which the killer may be motivated in every sense by goodwill. And yet there are strong arguments against killing someone just because he or she wants to die. We still have to ask, "Why should reason and an attitude of goodwill bestow rightness on human behaviour?"

Fletcher and others hold that the context of love is neither revelation nor consensus but the situation. Not only does this go back to Jesus himself, they say, but it has been enshrined in the Church's teaching. A notable example would be Augustine of Hippo's "Dilige et quod vis, fac" ("Love with care, and then what you decide, do"). Love is a process of weighing up the situation and then acting according to what seems best for all involved. Social justice is "love distributed".

According to modern theologians who take this line, love therefore shouldn't and can't be constrained by laws. The capacity to love is a free gift to be exercised freely. Love is concrete, immediate, reasonable and intensely personal. Law is abstract, distant, unreasoning and coldly impersonal.

Legalists, it is said, fail to recognise that no law can cover all situations. They are therefore forced into casuistry if they wish to act lovingly. That is, exceptions to otherwise rigid laws must be found if real-life situations are to be adequately addressed. A mare's nest of rules and exceptions to rules inevitably develops out of casuistry. In short, the law is an ass and only love is wise.

The question remains. On what grounds should anyone choose one action over another? Who is to say what is loving and what isn't? What is it about love which gives a dying person absolute discretion to demand his or her own death? And what is it about love which makes one act of euthanasia differ from any other?

Fletcher doesn't do away with law entirely. It remains in force - but if loving choice so demands, any law can be broken with justice. Human law can and should be set aside if "love" so decides because love is God's Law.

There are those who want to do away with law entirely. Antinomians propose that law stifles and eventually destroys freedom and autonomy. The best outcomes result if each of us is left free to choose without being forced into this or that action by law. Laws, and particularly any law claiming to come from God, is therefore of no account. Anarchists might well be classed as militant antinomians, dedicated to resisting by force all law and the authority behind it.

Some propose that traditional Church law should be superceded by the guidance of the Holy Spirit. This, by implication, is the only true revelation. Martin Luther, for example, rejected the notion that we can earn God's forgiveness by obeying the Church's rules about good behaviour. True law, he said, is spiritual - which implies that lives of grace and faith don't need law. In the new Christian order, says Luther, faith ultimately rises above reason and law.

Yet others claim access to special knowledge (gnosis) which guides them to behave as they should. Some religious sects say, for example, that their founders have received guidance from angelic or non-corporeal visitors sent by God. Their version of God's Law colours or replaces traditional Christian laws.

There are, not unsurprisingly, unwritten laws in all societies. They are usually enforced by exclusion of offenders or by extra-legal violence (such as lynching or other mob action). Despite the wide range of public morality in the West, some politicians who transgress unwritten laws of sexual conduct, for example, have felt the weight of powerful public sanctions. 

Even this cursory survey indicates a variety of approaches to law. The criteria upon which social laws are based vary greatly. Tradition that God's Law rules human law is rapidly fading. The present situation is confused and uncertain now that traditional Christian concepts of law are less acceptable. 
[1] See A Plain Guide to Knowing God's Will
[2] See A Plain Guide to Revelation 
[3] See A Plain Guide to Belief and Faith 
[4] Situation Ethics, Joseph Fletcher, 1965

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