Worship and Moral Autonomy

The argument in this paper is that worshiping God entails abdicating one's moral autonomy and judgment. "In saying that a being is worthy of worship, we would be recognizing him as having an unqualified claim on our obedience." (53) Is it true, therefore, that there is "a conflict between the role of worshiper, which by its very nature commits one to total subservience to God, and the role of moral agent, which necessarily involves autonomous decision making"? The formal argument is this:

1. If any being is God, he must be a fitting object of worship.
2. No being could possibly be a fitting object of worship, since worship requires the abandonment of one's role as an autonomous moral agent.
3. Therefore, there cannot be any being who is God. (54)

In other words, Rachels thinks that worshiping God entails obeying His decrees blindly. There is a certain weak connection here; e.g., here is St. Thomas on what we owe to God as our Father:

1. Honor.

  1. In reference to Him, we should honor God by giving Him praise.
  2. In reference to ourselves, we should honor God by purity of body.
  3. In reference to our neighbor, we should honor God by judging him justly.

2. Imitation.

  1. by loving Him, and this must be in the heart;
  2. by showing mercy, because mercy is bound to accompany love, and this must be in deed;
  3. by being perfect, since love and mercy should be perfect.

3. Obedience.

  1. because of His dominion, for He is the Lord;
  2. because of His example, since His true Son was made obedient to the Father unto death;
  3. because obedience is good for us.

4. Patience.

We own God patience under His chastening: "The discipline of the Lord, my son, do not spurn; do not disdain his reproof; For whom the Lord loves he reproves, as a father, the son he favors." (Prov 3:11-12) (Aquinas Catechism, 2.II.B)

But this loving Father-child relationship of Christianity is not at all the master-slave relationship in which the slave's fear is predominant.

Note that the Rachels' argument has nothing to do with the divine command theory of ethics which says that whatever God commands morally ought to be done. Rather, it suggests that robotically following God's commands, regardless of their moral status, is inhuman. And I agree that there is a grain of truth to this observation.

But what if it's contrary to God's explicit design of the universe for Him to bark orders at people? The nature of this world precludes God's commanding us to do things. Matters might be different in a different world, but in this world they must be this way and are therefore not contingent. It may be the very essence of God's human project to make us good not by God's goodness but by our own that we earn in part by learning and acting on moral truths. That's why God has laid down natural law to interpose between Himself and creatures. God is then the author of the operation of nature not of any individual. It is not God but nature that is the source of morality. Some knowledge of the law or duty may be innate; some learned through moral reasoning; and some infused through grace.

I admit that a divine command might seem to undermine human nature by turning a man into a machine that obeys God's decrees mindlessly. But it is not God's aim to destroy our nature but to build it up. This goal would be frustrated if God retained any intention of issuing divine commands as copiously as the US Congress issues its outrageous "regulations." Just as Socrates is necessarily rational, so the universe necessarily requires God to adopt a laissez-faire attitude toward us.

It may be objected that worshiping God involves conceding that if for whatever reason God asked Smith to do X, then Smith would have to do X. It's a change in Smith's character, as he becomes the sort of person who stands ready at any moment to "abandon his role as an autonomous moral agent" upon divine demand. Isn't this an unfitting self-abasement?

First, perhaps worshiping God involves nothing of the sort; but on the contrary devotion to wisdom and virtue obtained usually through a massive heroic personal effort. The best way to worship God may be to imitate His glory within one's own self, including by becoming an expert at moral reasoning and a saint in living a moral life.

Second, consider miracles which apparently happen from time to time. If we take miracles to be some sort of "violations of laws of nature," then too many miracles will probably destroy the law-bound nature of the world and therefore God's own creation. In particular, humans might no longer be able survive in such a chaotic world. But an occasional miracle might serve a useful purpose, such as to remind the people that God "lives," that would outweigh the threat to the integrity and autonomy of nature.

Similarly, suppose that on some unique occasion, God did ask Smith to do X. Smith, being a religious person, does X blindly. Perhaps he trusts that some important good will come out of it. (It may even be that if God explained His purposes to Smith, then Smith would obtain an adequate reason to do X willingly and autonomously; it's just that the divine providence is too complex to be grasped by a mere mortal. In other words, the human power of prudential judgment is very limited; e.g., we may try to be good utilitarians, but our ability to calculate the consequences of our actions is depressingly poor; God, however, is omniscient. Perhaps obeying God, when He does talk to us in our most private moments, is rational.) If such commands are exceedingly rare, then that does not entail that Smith can from then on rely on God to tell him what to eat for dinner. Smith's nature as an autonomous moral agent is not destroyed as a result of a once-in-a-lifetime divine command. The benefit of a lone divine command can outweigh its negative influence on Smith's character. So the commitment to obey need not be vicious at all.

Finally, the divine command to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac (Gen 22) was a sacrament of the unique future event: the incarnation of God the Son; further commands to the nation of Israel can be interpreted as continued preparation for this, as well. Hence, they cannot be used to demonstrate God's normal everyday modus operandi.

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