Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Convictions and Moral Discernment, 1

Recall the chart of 4 dimensions in moral discernment:  https://levellers.wordpress.com/2009/04/13/critical-variables-in-moral-discernment/  We begin with the lower-right hand box:

Basic Convictions or “Ground of Meaning” Beliefs:

God  and Human Nature

Justification and Sanctification (or Forgiveness and Discipleship)

Love and Justice

The Mission of the Church in the World

Now, longterm readers may recall that, following the late theologian James Wm. McClendon, Jr. and his sometime writing parter, philosopher James M. Smith, I argued here  that we should distinguish between those beliefs which are mere opinions and those which form our basic convictions.  Opinions are easily formed and easily changed.  We usually know when and how we came to particular opinions, too.  Convictions, however are different.  They are not easily formed, we often do not remember forming them and they cannot easily changed.  Further, convictions are so self-involving that we cannot change them at all without becoming significantly different.  If an individual or community changes one or more convictions,  then, in a real sense we are not talking about the same person or community.

Example:  Differences between those who hold that lethal violence is sometimes justified (“non-pacifists”) and those who believe that it is never morally justified to take the lives of human persons (“pacifists”) are fundamental differences of basic conviction.  As a former soldier who is now a pacifist (for 20+ years), I can testify that turning from a belief in “just wars” to gospel nonviolence is more like conversion from one religion to another (or from unbelief in any faith to faith in a particular religion) than it is like correcting an error in logic.  And, in a sense, I am not the same person that I was before I laid down my rifle and refused to don my uniform.

Well, this first dimension of moral discernment doesn’t contain EVERY conviction, but those which my teacher, Glen Stassen, found were “critical variables.”  Differences in these 7 Christian theological convictions (or analogues in other belief systems) lead to very large differences in moral discernment.  (I will formulate this primarily for Christians, but try to indicate it’s adaptability to other belief systems.)   The first 6 of these critical convictions are paired because they tend to affect each other in noticeable ways. (Yes, every conviction affects every other, but these are not idly paired together as we will see.) 

God  and Human Nature.  How we understand God is a huge factor in our moral discernment.  Obviously, if one is an athiest or an agnostic, that also affects one’s moral judgment greatly.  But suppose one believes in God.  How one understands the character of God (Primarily loving, compassionate, merciful, forgiving, or primarily judgmental, wrathful,  capricious–or an impersonal Unmoved Mover disinterested in individual lives, etc.) is a major variable in one’s ethics–especially if one’s religion teaches that one should emulate God’s character.

  Also important is how one understands the way that God works in the world.  Someone who believes that God is removed from the world, that history and nature are closed systems will approach  things very differently than someone who believes that (in one way or another) God is dynamically active in history and the created order.  Example:  One reason Martin Luther King, Jr. was able to keep his followers nonviolent in the face of police  and mob violence was that so many shared his faith that they had “divine companionship in the struggle” (in his words), that “the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  Imagine how different things  would  have been if most of those struggling in the Civil Rights movement had believed instead in a Deistic God that, watchmaker like, set the universe in motion, but left everything alone to impersonal forces.

Paired with our views of God are our views of human nature.  The ethics of someone who holds to the behaviorist views of B. F. Skinner, for example, in which humans simply respond to stimuli will have a different ethic than one who holds that most of our behavior is genetically determined.  Similarly, one can contrast those who think of people as mostly good with those who think of people as mostly evil or sinful.  (My own view is that we are mixed.  The best of us  are deeply flawed, but the worst of us can rise above our baser tendencies.) And someone who believes that humans have freewill will approach things differently than someone who holds to any form of determinism.

Now, someone who holds to a harsh, judgmental view of God and a view that humans are mostly evil will be very pessimistic and distrusting of people and desire strict laws with harsh enforcement to keep people in line. (So might an athiest with a pessimistic view of the world and people.) A person who views God as mostly loving and humans as free agents  who are mostly good will have a very different approach to things.  And so it goes–along nearly infinite combinations.

Next time: we’ll discuss justification and sanctification.

April 15, 2009 - Posted by | convictions, ethics, moral discernment, theology


  1. This is interesting stuff. I look forward to future additions.

    The terms “convictions” and “opinions” seem to mirror Wainwright’s use of the terms “dogma” and “theology” or “doctrine” and “theology.”

    Comment by Josh | April 15, 2009

  2. Welcome, Josh. I think Wainwright’s distinctions are more like the distinction McClendon makes between “primary theology” (what churches teach in creeds, confessions, hymns, sermons, etc.) and “secondary theology” done by academics. I am drawing from McClendon and Smith’s Convictions: Defusing Religious Relativism (as I discussed here) which is a revised ed. of their Understanding Religious Convictions. This series builds on my series on Theology as a Craft. You might want to check that out.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 15, 2009

  3. Michael did you ever investigate Fritz Perls ??

    Comment by Paul | April 15, 2009

  4. Paul, who?

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 15, 2009

  5. […] and Moral Discernment 2 Continuing our series begun here  and here on moral discernment.  The second pair of “critical variables” in the “basic […]

    Pingback by Convictions and Moral Discernment 2 « Levellers | April 17, 2009

  6. Friedrich “Fritz” Perls (1893-1970). He coined the term “Gestalt therapy”.

    Comment by Paul | April 18, 2009

  7. Ah, never heard of Gestalt Therapy. Could you tell me how it relates to this discussion, please?

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 18, 2009

  8. […] the lower right box, the dimension on basic convictions, we have discussed the critical variables here and here. In so doing, we have discussed how differing views of God (or whether God exists) and how […]

    Pingback by Convictions and Moral Discernment 3 « Levellers | April 21, 2009

  9. […] Convictions and Moral Discernment 1 […]

    Pingback by Index of Posts on Moral Discernment « Levellers | April 27, 2009

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