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Moral Coherence is a Premise, Not a Theory

27 February 2010

Forgive me if these thoughts seem poorly thought out.  They undoubtedly are.


Brueggemann has forced qb into a tight corner, and the only tactic that seems to hold any promise of extricating qb from the corner is to entertain the idea that the satan’s primary way of corrupting God’s creation was not in introducing sin per se, but in undermining any notion that the world is morally coherent – that is, that moral outcomes and moral behavior are predictably correlated.  Stay with me on this one; it ends up squarely at Calvary, as it ought.


We forget that moral coherence is not a theory that has been established by more fundamental premises, sound reasoning, and empirical data.  It is itself a premise, a given, a presupposition; it is one of the places we start reasoning.  But is there any obvious reason we should expect that consequences (e. g., prosperity, suffering, etc.) should be directly and predictably related to moral choices?  In fact, the book of Job ruthlessly mocks such silliness.  The Psalms of lament take up the derision, too, as does the prophet Jonah.


We have to read between the lines of Genesis 4 to come up with a satisfactory explanation for God’s discretionary rejection of Cain’s offering:  if Abel was said to have brought his first fruits and his fat portions, God’s rejection of Cain’s offering must imply that Cain’s offering was substandard in some way.  But by the time we reach chapter 4, humankind has already fallen.  God’s creation, beautiful as it is, is intrinsically sinful and weak.  Adam and Eve are already banished from the garden.

Is it possible that the garden represents far more than just the idyllic vision of a world without carnality?  What if it goes much deeper, to represent the naive vision of a world that is morally coherent?  And what if God at that piont begins to grapple with what it means to be the creator and ruler of a morally incoherent universe, one where sinners prosper and the upright suffer mightily?  What if that is what is meant when the biblical writers speak (e. g., Romans 1) of the world having been given over to the adversary, the satan?  When God’s good world, which begins by assigning punishments that correlate with sinful behavior, is corrupted by the perversion of human desire (freedom), can we say that God must now determine how to retain his sovereignty over a morally incoherent variation on his intended design?

And can we say that Calvary – incarnation – is this God’s final solution to such an intractable puzzle?

Can God be God if his creation does not reliably reward holiness and punish sin?  That is the question of Job, and Job’s four friends seem to offer up little more than warmed-over evangelical, pseudoCalvinist pap:  yes, only the wicked suffer, so if you’re suffering, you must be guilty of something that perhaps even YOU do not know about.


Brueggemann insists on an ancient reading of Job and the Old Testament in which the dominant setting is the lawcourt…and in which very often the complaint being brought is implicitly a charge against God himself for allowing injustice to befall an essentially blameless – and powerless – subject.  It is a daring proposal.  But its resolution is even more daring, because the defendant – YHWH himself – is also the judge.  Despite that profound conflict of interest, God declares the plaintiff to have been in the right, to have spoken truly.  God is tantalizingly close to admitting that he was guilty of moral arbitrariness in the first place; his accuser, after all, is right on both counts, first that he was innocent, and second that he suffered as a result of God’s choice.


It’s easy to fall into the tired, old groove of making excuses for God to make our simplistic, systematic theologies make sense to us and of us.  But what if the big scandal of Job is that he saw through the easy answers and concluded that, in fact, the world that God created is not morally coherent, that the innocent do suffer, that suffering is not a reliable predictor or indicator of sinfulness, and that “blessing” is just another way of hyperspiritualizing and distorting the more complicated reality:  sometimes the wicked actually do pretty well!


I said we end up at Calvary, and I meant it.  The NT writers make much of the fact that Jesus was blameless and perfect, and yet he suffered greatly at the hands of the Jewish elites and their Roman imperial patrons.  It is a story of a man sent by God to embody and express the moral incoherence of this corrupted world, to take that incoherence as the deepest reality that must be acknowledged so that it can be overcome.


The only answers available to us in a morally incoherent world are themselves senseless.  The first, as we have seen, is incarnation.  No simple declaration will do; no system of First Principles is adequate to make moral sense of this world.  The second is closely related:  forgiveness, which is the photographic negative of injustice and therefore also the antidote to it.

Like I said, these are not fully formed thoughts.  But I had to get them down on paper before I lose them.


12 Comments leave one →
  1. jds permalink
    28 February 2010 12:55 pm

    Interesting. It also occurs to me that God’s discourse with Job centers on the creation. Those words are telling us to look back at the time of creation to make sense of what is going on with Job, or to at least have a better understanding of God. Job certainly did not continue his argument after that discourse, and stated that before he had previously heard of God, but that he had then seen him.

    These thoughts are not fully-formed, either. But I think you are on to something.

  2. 3 March 2010 9:00 am


    While moral isomorphism–coherence and predictable consequences–do not always immediately and clearly follow, there is, in William Blake’s poetic phrase from “The Tyger,” a “fearful symmetry” in creation.

    The fact that all of God’s creation–Job, Jesus, Haiti, the rest of us–can lament, or scream in anger and hostility, “It’s not fair,” suggests OUR role in the midst of injustice and suffering. Job’s words, set to Delta Blues, can be “understood” if not stated. The world is in a minor key. Sometimes we sing along in that key. Sometimes in moments of transcendant awareness we are compelled to sing in a major.


  3. 3 March 2010 5:41 pm

    I appreciate you gentlemen weighing in on this.

    I suppose it’s reasonable to attach a time scale to the idea of moral coherence. In my air quality work, we do not conclude that a particular facility is out of compliance with air quality standards until the 24-hour average concentration exceeds a preset standard, even if shorter-term average concentrations blow the roof off the 24-hour-average standard, numerically speaking. So perhaps it is hasty for qb to suppose that moral coherence should be assessed on artificially short (i. e., human-natural) time scales.

    But such an idea runs headlong into problems right away. The first and most obvious problem is that many, many people live their full lives immersed in asymmetric evil, and the idea that “all will be put to rights if we just think long-term enough” is a hollow excuse for actual justice. Some of us don’t have to grapple with that.


  4. 7 March 2010 9:02 am


    We mortals have made and continue to make our world what it is. It is incumbent upon each of us as followers of God–individually and as a communion to not to get hung up in “religion” but to “let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” “Personalizing” our religion or railing against variants of the “social Gospel” allows us to avoid doing justice here and now with what ever means we have at hand. We belong to one another. Instead of continuing to foul our nest, we would do well, as we used to sing in Sunday School, to “brighten the corner” where we are–and anywhere else we are able.

    It seems to me that one thing Brueggemann does is to teach us to reframe questions of a low order and transform them into a higher order. E.g. I oppose abortion. A common question of lower order for me would be: “Should we legislate against abortion?” A question of higher order might be: “What can I or the church do to make our world (or parts of it) one where an unborn child and its mother will reflexively be valued and loved enough so that abortion will not be considered an option?”


  5. 11 March 2010 11:33 pm

    What book by Brueggemann are you reading? This sounds very interesting to me.

    Grace and peace,


  6. 14 March 2010 8:31 am

    Rex, it’s _The Word Militant_. Great read; provocative. I don’t think Brueggemann frames American ideals rightly or fairly; he draws a caricature and then blows it away like a straw man. But in the main, this is a fantastic meditation on the art of preaching as it could and should be.


  7. 14 March 2010 8:39 am

    Coop, I sympathize with much of that. But in the meantime, children are being killed, and transmuting the question to a higher order doesn’t deal with that aspect of evil at all. If we were to address poverty in an analogous way, we would focus our efforts only on the higher-order, structural and institutional questions, and not lift a finger to give a loaf of bread to a needy person.

    Of course you understand that. If I have a beef with Brueggemann, it is that he seems to put his head in the clouds on some issues (the red-state hot-button issues like freedom, about which the Bible has much to say, and which in many ways is a sine qua non for virtue) and insist on concrete, particularized action on other issues (usually the so-called blue-state specialties).

    Prof. Beck’s recent post on the cognitive aspects of liberal and conservative orientations is apt here.


  8. 15 March 2010 5:34 am


    Of course, if we deal with a Red state “higher order of freedom” as Texas does literally thousands of Texas children go without healthcare and the State Board of Education is packed with Perry’s clowns–thus adding to ignorance and illiteracy. The reality is that in the U. S. government hardly intrudes at all on “freedom”–concrete or abstract. Much more corporate intrusion. Reality my boy, reality. The only time most Americans face government intrusion is on April 15.


  9. Ben permalink
    15 March 2010 7:06 am

    With all due respect, your last post was utter nonsense. The intrusion of government into the lives of ordinary citizens has rocketed exponentially over the last 12 months. The US government now owns General Motors and now employs thousands of once private sector employees. As we all know, when the government asserts its position in a particular industry, the other related businesses all suffer (Amtrak anyone?). Big Brother also now has a stranglehold on Wall Street. You may find this important, but I, for one, find it an abridge of freedom. So dont lecture us on the virtues of Government control by suggesting that the current trend of statist hegemony (avg gov salary now significantly higher than private sector) is anything but an abridgment of freedom. Please.


  10. 15 March 2010 8:30 am


    Is that a whine I hear? How, pray tell, specifically, directly, does propping up GM (a person dontchaknow) affect your actual personal freedom? It only insults your idea of freedom. And yeah, Wall Street is choking to death. I can hear the wheezes all the way to Texas.


  11. Ben permalink
    16 March 2010 7:07 am

    Coop, like church, what shapes and hurts one of our members hurts us all. In our nation, the intrusion of government, as I’ve described above, into the private sector has meant the loss of jobs for the working poor. The poor I serve at the soup kitchen downtown on occasion or the members of my church who have lost their jobs and are forced to relocate. The isolationist tone you take in your previous post suggests a naivete and somewhat selfish worldview. In other words, your thoughts suggest that if what takes place in my nation doesnt change my personal circumstances then it doesnt/shouldnt matter to me. The reality, Coop, is that it does. It affects me emotionally as I see it hurt people I know and care for. As a Christian it should matter. Why doesnt it matter to you? Your suggestion that it insults my freedom has no bearing on this discussion. You seem to delight in the misfortune of others…even if that misfortune may, in your opinion, be deserved.

    Not so this born and raised Christian Texan.


  12. 16 March 2010 8:30 am


    You are putting words into my mouth and making, ahem, unnecessary inferences. Assuming that “government intrusion” takes funds out of the private sector and out of the mouths of the poor does not always follow . The private sector also intrudes into the public sector and throws its weight around as well–i.e. corporate welfare and sweetheart legislation which robs from those who can least afford it. Blaim the soup lines on derivitive ponzi schemes and other Wall Street shennanigans. And poor regulation since the Phil Graham and Bill Clinton repeal of Glass-Steagall in 1996.


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