A regular article written by Phillip Jensen in his role as Dean of Sydney at St Andrew's Cathedral.
23rd October 2009
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A famous Australian politician once defended his anti-racist views by saying his father had taught him that because God was his father all men were his brothers.
It was an illuminating comment on a radio interview. He had said that we needed to remain on good terms with our international neighbours because of the financial benefits of dealing with them. This sounded a less than adequate basis for a relationship. It was classic utilitarianism where we actually have no concern for our neighbours other than what we can get from them. It sounded, and is, morally vacuous. But then utilitarianism is generally empty of any real morality.
So he moved to a better basis for morality – God. Here he was on stronger ground. God’s purposive creation of all humanity gives a basis for morality. We do not simply deal with the world that accidently happened but the world that God intended. He had a purpose and intention in his creation that gives to us reason, meaningfulness and morality.
Furthermore, because God created humanity in his image - to fill, subdue and have dominion over his creation – we share in the purposes of God. The animals may not knowingly fulfil or seek to fulfil God’s purpose, but humans are given the responsibility to implement God’s will. Thus, we do not ask the dog or the goldfish to make moral decisions but require humans to act morally. We do not require the cow or the dolphin to take any responsibility for our world’s ecological vulnerability but we expect humans to care for the world that God has committed into our hands.
If we commence as the “accidental collocation of atoms” that one day must “perish beneath the debris of the universe in ruins” as Bertrand Russell so colourfully put it – there is no basis of morality other than the fertility of our minds. And post-modernity has debunked that morality by showing how our fertile minds use words and ideas to manipulate people to our own ends.
So our politician, needing a stronger moral basis than self-interest, turned to God. God was by creation, the father of us all. So we are all siblings. All humanity is one and to be treated as family. It is not right to treat people immorally just because they come from a different nation or a different race.
This teaching lay behind Christians defending the first peoples of Australia and New Zealand in the nineteenth century. The Christians of the time used the phrase “one blood” to describe the unity of all humanity under God. They stood defending the Koori and the Maori against colonialist exploitation and inhumanity, but they were roundly condemned for this stand by some journalists and intellectuals of the day.
As the non-Christian historian Robert Kenny recounts:
Having for most of my life believed that our acceptance of equality – racial, class, gender – was the result of the overthrow of past superstitions and prejudice by reason, I was perplexed: why had the fight against slavery, and the concern for aboriginal peoples, been so overwhelmingly the province of religious? … Hume, Voltaire, and Kant saw the African – the non-European, generally – as beyond the category of human to which the European belonged; race concerned them (particularly Kant) only to the extent that it could show the superiority of the European. It was not the philosophes of Paris or Edinburgh or East Prussia who fought slavery, but the evangelical Christians and Quakers who drew their inspiration not from philosophy but from “superstitious religion”. It was from the Evangelical Revival that the loudest claims for what we now call racial equality came. (The Lamb Enters the Dreaming. Scribe 2007 p74).
The politician was right to recall his father’s teaching. It is because of God’s creation of all humanity in his image that we bestow on all humans certain fundamental rights – such as the right to life. Without this understanding of creation, it is possible to follow the atheist Professor Singer in questioning the right to life for certain categories of people.
However, our politician had a problem. He had previously made known his doubt, if not outright rejection, of his father’s teaching about God. He had become, at least an agnostic, if not an atheist. He did not believe in God, but he had no other basis for his continuing Christian ethics. He did not see that the plug you pull out in one generation lets the water out in another. Without God he only had the self-interest of treating our neighbours well so that we may gain mutual financial benefit - and self-interest is not a sufficient moral basis to oppose racism.
The second great commandment to love our neighbour as ourselves flows from the first and greatest command to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength (Mark 12:29-31). The love of the “accidental collocations of atoms” is a fantasy of disordered synapses. The love of the creatures of the heavenly father is the joyous expression of being created in his image.