Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of The Collegian.
This week Esther and I will continue our discussion of inclusivism and exclusivism.
Esther: Hello Cal! I’d like to start off by unpacking your concluding statement from last week, concerning our access to truth. If the best we can arrive at is “valuable approximations” of the truth, and “an authoritative account of the nature of God and good lies outside our reach,” then we will always be wrong in some way. Isn’t it dangerous for us to make any claims which, when transferred into practice, have the potential to cause massive human suffering?
History is full of people whose perception of right was supported by widespread agreement. They started from premises that were widely agreed upon. But ultimately, both the people and their society committed heinous acts of genocide, oppression and abuse.
What makes us different and morally superior to them? Categorically, I don’t think the modern generation has any claim to unique enlightenment or moral perfection.
Cal: Point well taken. If we don’t have access to an authoritative account of the good, we can’t know whether what we’re doing is good, or if we’re actually mistaken and doing something bad.
However, I don’t think that this criticism is fatal to my view. I think it’s just one of the challenges of trying to do moral philosophy. I don’t think that my framework, or your framework or anybody’s framework, is immune to this skeptical critique. One could be a nihilist and say that because we don’t have access to an authoritative account of moral facts, there is no point to anything and trying to approximate moral facts is pointless.
However, most moral theories simultaneously accept that an authoritative account of moral facts is unattainable and that it is important to try to approximate as best we can what they are.
Esther: This is where our views are categorically different and do not lead to the same nihilist conclusion. I believe we do have access to an authoritative account of moral facts through the Bible, so it is not pointless attempting to discover them. In fact, we already have them.
Given your belief in the inherently hidden and undiscoverable nature of truth and morality though, I would find it difficult to justify and maintain the quest for moral truth when faced with the impossibility of finding it.
Cal: Does an authoritative account of religious facts exist in the text of the scripture or in the Holy Spirit that inspired its writing?
Esther: “All Scripture is breathed out by God” (2 Tim 3:16), so I believe all of Scripture, including the text and the Holy Spirit who inspired it, is authoritative and infallible.
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Cal: Quakers are more mystical in the way that they approach the scripture. We believe that the Holy Spirit is authoritative, but that all of the methods that we discussed last week are useful but limited ways to gain access to the truth that the Holy Spirit holds. The scripture is the result of divinely inspired work, but on its own, it is of limited use. That’s why Sunday school teachers and secondary material explaining the Bible exist.
Esther: I don’t believe the Holy Spirit is capable of making mistakes in the work He inspires, or that any human could supplement or express God more perfectly than the Holy Spirit did through the Bible. Individually, we are each flawed and may deceive ourselves about what the Bible means. Therefore, theologians and group Bible Studies can help us understand the Bible’s meaning more fully and correctly, but no human can add to the Bible or improve upon it. Scripture is not lacking or limited in any way.
Cal: I will contend that the scripture can be perfect while still being limited. There is no better way to serve its purpose, but that purpose is not to be the only outlet through which we can learn about God. Because God is infinite, it is impossible to try to write down in a book everything about him.
This is where theologians and Bible studies come in. If the Bible were infinite and perfect, despite our flawed natures we would not need anything else. Since the Bible is finite and perfect, we need other things to step in to help out. I do not think it’s possible to contend that something is capable of performing an important function that the Bible does not and that the Bible is infinite and perfect.
Esther: Let’s shift gears toward understanding the inclusivist view of salvation. This will require assuming your basic premise: salvation is based on agency and specifically on the type of moral person (good or bad) we become through our choices. How would God determine whether someone is ultimately a good person?
Cal: I like to formulate the good vs. bad person distinction as a judgment about the type of person that someone is. A good person is the type of person who does good things. A bad person is the type of person who does bad things. Rather than looking at a catalog of what a person has done, I think the judgment should be based on the type of person they are now.
Esther: So it sounds like you’re saying God just wants us to do good things, and that God’s desire is not for us to know Him or submit to Him, but only for us to live morally. Would it be fair to say that this implies salvation is not about a personal relationship with God or about living with the purpose of glorifying God, but rather that salvation is about doing moral things, for their own sake?
Cal: My understanding is that the terminology isn’t important to God. Quakers are generally against ceremonialism. In Matthew 23:23, Jesus says “Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.” In this passage, tithing spices represent the ceremonies of religion, which are less central than justice, mercy and faith.
My understanding is that what label and terminology you use is basically ceremonial. You can exercise justice and mercy without the ceremony of thinking that it is to the glory of God. Whether you understand moral behavior as being in service to God or in pursuing the good or in pursuing the right, when you do moral actions, you are serving God.
Similarly, no matter how you formulate moral facts, when you have true knowledge of what is moral, you know God in an important way.
Esther: This is interesting, you said above that “we can’t know whether what we’re doing is good (moral).” This means that then we can’t have true knowledge of what is moral. The best we can do is have a belief or conviction about morality that might end up being mistaken.
If belief or conviction about morality is the best we can do, then would you say that belief about what is moral is sufficient? In this case, would any action someone does because they think it is a good (moral) action count as actually being good and lead to their classification as a good person and thus their sufficiency for forgiveness?
Cal: I believe that while we have trouble accessing them, there are objective moral facts. God knows these moral facts. We are all imperfect at knowing the moral facts and acting on our knowledge, but we are still judged based on how our actions and character align with the moral facts.
Esther: Interesting! I’m glad we were able to clarify the foundations of our beliefs more this week, and I’m excited to continue our conversation about the specifics of salvation and how we believe God interacts with his people on earth next week.
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