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Right and Wrong

Robert Traer

Scripture Readings: Leviticus 19:15-18, Matthew 7:1-5, 12

In a short sermon can anything helpful be said about knowing right from wrong? It seems foolish even to try, but I hope to pique your interest. Let's see if I'm right!

The church preaches what's right and wrong by quoting from scripture and Christian doctrine. In the scriptures for today Leviticus reports that Moses said "love your neighbor," and the gospel of Matthew records that Jesus said "judge not." These commandments state what's right and wrong, yet questions remain. It is not obvious that loving a neighbor who is harassing you is the right thing to do, and justice requires making judgements about what people have done. When we try to apply these commandments to complex circumstances, what is right and wrong is not so clear.

In fact, knowing right and wrong is only easy when we reason deductively. If it is right to love my neighbor, and you are my neighbor, then it is right for me to love you and, by implication, wrong not to. Inductive reasoning, however, is less certain, for it requires reflecting on diverse experiences to discern what a commandment, such as loving our neighbor, really means.

Deductive reasoning knows what's right and simply applies the rules to new situations. Inductive reasoning begins without assuming to know what's right, but follows a method of considering and evaluating experience to work out what seems to be right. Both approaches will probably agree that we should love our neighbors, but each justifies its conclusion differently. Christians who deduce moral conclusions from scripture claim that God has decreed what is right and wrong, whereas Christians doing ethics inductively argue that a commandment or teaching in scripture should be followed because it makes good sense of our experience.

The deductive approach to ethics represents traditional Christian teaching and is also common in other religious traditions. Here religion is in conflict with science. If truth is simply revealed, then what is right and wrong can be known deductively. However, science pursues inductive reasoning to explore the truth of our world. Scientific thinking, whether in the natural or social sciences, draws inferences from experience and tests these in order to come closer to the truth.

Certainly, religion and science are different. Religion is about meaning and purposes, the "why" of life, whereas science is about "how" things work. Moreover, science must reason inductively, and religion need not and often does not. But for religious folks who think inductively about moral as well as spiritual issues, there is no inherent conflict between religion and science. In both science and religion those who think inductively aspire to know more fully what is true, but do so knowing our present knowledge is always less than the whole truth. This is as true of nature and society as it is of morals. The fundamental principles may be crystal clear in science and also in religion, but in the details of living there are many questions to be clarified

The well-known parable about blind men describing an elephant will help to illustrate the point. We see immediately that each description will be partial and different. Yet, the men will only be wrong, if they claim that what they know is all there is to know. Moreover, by sharing what they know, even though they are blind, they may come close to a true description of the elephant.

In religion, as well as in science, we are like these blind men. Our knowledge is partial, but by sharing our perceptions and the lessons we've learned we may come closer to the truth. This means we need to read scripture inductively rather than deductively. For us, the commandments in Leviticus 19:15-18 and throughout the Bible deserve careful consideration, because they represent the moral wisdom of a long tradition of faith. But we should not accept the claim that these commandments come directly from God and thus simply specify what is right and wrong.

Similarly, we should not read the words attributed to Jesus in the New Testament as literally the words of God, but rather revere these teachings as the core of the early Christian witness "that God was in Christ." In scientific language we might say these teachings are strong hypotheses that have been supported by human experience and reason for a long time. If we now question some of what we find in the Bible, we should do so in dialogue with others in order to guard against our "blindness" (whatever that may be).

Thinking inductively about biblical passages will often confirm the wisdom of the past. The commandment to "love your neighbor as yourself" is the foundation of all moral life, for we know from experience that we can expect our neighbors to respect us only when we respect them. Similarly, although we ignore the commandment not to judge whenever we pass judgment on those who break the law, we know the commandment is true, for we often judge others unfairly and so may also be judged for our unfairness.

There are, however, teachings in scripture that inductive reasoning will lead us to reject as simply reflecting the bias or blindness of an earlier era. God's command to the Israelites to slaughter the inhabitants of the "Promised Land" is a self-justifying excuse for abhorrent human conduct, and its use by American settlers to justify devastating the Native Americans also deserves our condemnation. Similarly, the Bible's support for slavery and the oppression of women cannot be justified and certainly must be resisted.

In the Bible we find passages that justify violence and other teachings that condemn violence. Church tradition has concluded that national self-defense may be justifiable under certain circumstances, so Christians generally distinguish between violence breaking the peace and violence limited to restoring peace. Following this inductive argument now will lead us to conclude that pre-emptive war not only violates just war principles, but also sets a dangerous precedent making all peoples less secure.

The great chasm in the world today is not between East and West, or North and South, or even between Christians and Muslims. The great divide now is between those who reason deductively from commandments they claim are revealed by God, and those who test the claims of revelation and all other claims through inductive reasoning. Knowing right from wrong now requires that we admit what we do not know, and then share with one another what we do know, so together we might come closer to knowing and living the truth. Amen.

23 February 2003

 
 

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1 in Faith: A Christian Bible Study Copyright 2000 by Robert Traer