“Without the tommyrot”

In the current issue of First Things, Joseph Bottum writes:

In 1948, as he completed his draft of the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Canadian law professor John Humphrey went home and noted in his diary that what had been achieved was “something like the Christian morality without the tommyrot.”

That seems a nearly perfect phrase: Christian morality without the tommyrot. Humphrey meant, of course, all the unnecessary accretions of prayer and miracles and faith and sacraments and chapels. But the phrase might be the motto of all who answer surveys by saying they are “spiritual, but not religious.” It might be the motto of all who have a vague and unspoken—indeed, unspeakable—feeling that it is somehow more Christian not to be a Christian.

Questionis disputanda: how is it possible, or how is it impossible, to adhere to the morality on display in the Universal Declaration without “the tommyrot”?

26 Responses

  1. Perhaps we view Christianity as a useful fiction. Perhaps Christian Theology can be viewed as a myth that gave us moral insight into the universe. So we follow the path of Strauss or Bultmann, and demythologise.

    Can we have Christian morality without the Christian practices that bring the necessary solidarity and aura of reality? Furthermore, can we have a Christian ethic that ignores Eschatology?


  2. graham:

    The position you describe, without necessarily adopting, in your first paragraph is the position of many liberal Protestants I have read or otherwise known. I’ve never found it credible. My reasons for not finding it credible are best given by stating and explaining my answers to your questions.

    My answer to your first is “no.” To “have” Christian morality, as opposed to just approving many of its precepts, is to adopt an entire, Christian way of life that includes but is not limited to observing moral precepts. Without a vision of what such a life is, and a concrete, culturally sanctioned milieu in which to embody such a vision, Christian morality becomes deracinated, secular, and relativistic, first in practice and eventually even in theory. That’s exactly what’s happening in the “mainline” Protestant churches, including the bulk of the Church of England.

    My answer to your second is also “no.” There is no Christian morality without acceptance of Christ as the definitive revelation of God and of God’s relationship with humanity. That includes “eschatology,” which has many aspects, the most pertinent of which is the recognition that our true home is not in this world but in the fully-realized Kingdom of God, which we cannot bring about by merely human effort. That should definitely affect one’s “morality.”


  3. Seventy-seven years ago, Thomas Stearns Elliot, a devout Catholic Anglican, eloquently rebutted the notion of a moral civilization “without the tommyrot,”

    The Universal Church is today, it seems to me, more definitely set against the World than at any time since Pagan Rome. I do not mean that our times are particularly corrupt; all times are corrupt. In spite of certain local appearances, Christianity is not and cannot be within measurable time, “official.” THE WORLD IS TRYING THE EXPERIMENT OF ATTEMPTING TO FORM A CIVILIZED BUT NON-CHRISTIAN MENTALITY. THE EXPERIMENT WILL FAIL; but we must be very patient in awaiting its collapse; meanwhile redeeming the time: so that the Faith may be preserved alive through the dark ages before us; to renew and rebuild civilization, and save the World from suicide.

    — T.S. Elliot, Thought After Lambeth (1931)

  4. how is it possible, or how is it impossible, to adhere to the morality on display in the Universal Declaration without “the tommyrot”?

    Both the “possible” and the “impossible” have the same answer: by self-delusion in thought and deed.

  5. Reminds me of something I once read: how typical of a man, and men, to try to strip everything down to its bare functional essentials without any regard for the womb and sensitive environment in which something should work and flourish––like asking for “sex without all the tommyrot” (i.e., romance, courtship, ritual, commitment, etc.).

  6. Michael
    I agree with yur answers, as you anticipated. I find it odd that Geertz and Durkheim have led many Liberal’s to value religion for it’s social role – yet assume that religious communities can exist without metaphysical beliefs that ground their moral values.
    It’s also relevant that Christian morality cannot exist without eschatology. Many Christian moral beliefs are founded on the Created order, and that would imply that some of Christian morality can be inferred from the natural order. Yet the doctines of Eschatology would imply that the created order is not static, but moving towards an end. Here, I think, we become dependent on Revelation. (I can’t see how the ethics Kingdom of God could be inferred from nature, although surely they are consistent with the created order).
    I wonder if you agree with this, and if so, how much of the Declaration depends on Christian Eschatology?
    And surely Eschatology cnnot be divorced from Christology?

    Graham Veale

  7. Does it have to be “Christian” morality? How about Hindu, Buddhist, or Jewish or Islamic morality? Don’t they too have a valid point?

    Why the focus on just Christianity when other religions also exist?

  8. Graham:

    The notion that “religious communities can exist without metaphysical beliefs that ground their moral values” has always struck me as untenable on purely psychological grounds. And philosophically, it seems to me to incoherent. But then again, I doubt that many members of such communities really accept that notion. It seems to be the conceit of an educated élite, and not even of all members of that élite.

    Distinctively “Christian” morality of course presupposes some sort of Christology. Most Christologies in turn have a clearly eschatological dimension. But it does not follow that people like John Humphrey—or, for that matter, Thomas Jefferson—are wrong to think one can arrive at something like the morality of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights without Christology. For if certain versions of Christianity are true, then the voice of conscience is partially constitutive of our very humanity, so that there are certain moral norms that (in the words of J. Budziszewski) “we can’t not know.” Given the content of those norms, which is what C.S. Lewis called “the Tao” for convenience, it is logically possible to affirm the content of the UDHR just by following the dictates of conscience and taking account of some easily known facts. In other words, it is possible to know much of “the law” without knowing “the lawgiver” or his intentions.

    But not, I think, all of it. E.g., there are certain moral norms that make sense only on the assumption that we will live forever as God’s friends or God’s enemies. Moreover, it seems to me that even the limited possibility I’ve conceded is not often realized in practice. Humanity in general needs active divine guidance, in the form of revelation and grace, to know and do even what reason alone could, in principle, tell us we ought to do.


  9. “Does it have to be “Christian” morality? How about Hindu, Buddhist, or Jewish or Islamic morality? Don’t they too have a valid point?

    Why the focus on just Christianity when other religions also exist?”

    The particular post was on Christianity. That’s why the focus on Christianity: because that’s what the post is about, that’s what the quotation that sparked the post is about, and that’s what Christian thinkers, interestingly enough, often do–talk about Christianity. That’s my guess, anyway.

  10. In addition to what byronicman said, it should be noted that no general answer can be given to the question how much of the moralities embodied in non-Christian religions can be preserved in a non-religious morality. The answer will vary according to the religion, and depends on generalizations that would be reasonably contestable by good representatives of those religions.

    All the same, it is noteworthy that Hans Küng, who was de-certified as a Catholic theologian in 1981, has tried to fashion a “global ethic” out of a putatively common moral ground among the world’s major religions. I believe that such a project is possible in principle, along the same lines that CS Lewis pursued with his idea of “the Tao” or that Jefferson pursued in the Declaration of Independence. I just don’t believe that most people are reliably motivated to be moral, never mind spiritual, by such a least-common-denominator approach. Most people undergo moral and spiritual growth within the context of a particular religion: a synthesis of thought, value, and action which, under traditional sanctions, helps people define their place in the scheme of things. Atheistic morality works as either an indulgence of the few or a prelude to horrors.

  11. “Can we have Christian morality without the Christian practices that bring the necessary solidarity and aura of reality?”

    I should think that a look at the contemporary situation would be enough to find the answer in the negative. No man lives according to something he knows is a fiction. The useful fictions are invented by the man who stands above the polis, as theoretician conceiving theory. The fictions themselves are always for someone else to believe.

  12. (1) American Colonial English Culture (with a dollop of Continental Europe mixed in) was built on the foundation of Christianity. Indeed, our Culture is so intermingled with Christianity, no substitute will do. (2) The present divorce process will inflict great damage to both our Culture and to the Church militant in America. Christianity shall survive the divorce, either her or abroad, but our Culture will not, unless its returns to its source.

    This is the great insight of Elliot and numerous other profound thinkers. We ignore them at our grave peril.

  13. How much of the ‘Christian morality’ in question depends on special revelation for our knowledge of it? Catholic philosophers tend to acknowledge it as a potential problem for the Catholic view of natural law that, at the end of the day, there might not be anything ‘distinctive’ about Christian ethics. That’s extremely unlikely for many of the reasons cited here — eschatology featuring prominently among them. But it seems to me that consistency with the Catholic view that human beings are capable of attaining knowledge and understanding of fundamental moral truths without aid from special revelation should lead to the view that it is indeed quite possible to have much of the substance of ‘Christian morality’ without the so-called ‘tommyrot.’ To what extent one thinks that it is possible to live well and virtuously without the tommyrot will depend on one’s views of nature, sin, and grace. But one can be at least as orthodox as Aquinas and maintain that people with complete ignorance of revelation can excel in the human virtues.

    Perhaps I’ve missed something here, but I don’t see these points being reflected in this discussion. I’m also a bit uncomfortable with the idea that Western society has only recently become morally degraded and used to be in some sort of excellent condition because Christianity had an important cultural place. I suppose a highly selective reading of history could make that view about as plausible as the radical atheist’s alternative view, that we’ve only just recently begun to flourish because everything was just so terrible when religion was around. But I’m more interested in what people have to say about the problems I’ve raised above.

  14. “I’m also a bit uncomfortable with the idea that Western society has only recently become morally degraded and used to be in some sort of excellent condition because Christianity had an important cultural place.”

    For my part, I shouldn’t wish to say that the moral problems we face to day, in and of themselves, are new and unprecedented. What has disappeared is the public consensus about what moral and ethical norms in fact are, about what the Good is, about what are proper human ends. As Alasdair MacIntyre has so famously noted, our moral debates take place within such a woefully degraded common framework that we simply haven’t the tools in existence, as a matter of public consensus, to answer the questions of most pressing concern. In past ages we were not so impoverished. What the western civilization was becoming in the 13th century, a civilized and humane society, it is no longer becoming. It’s progress was interrupted, and it has not yet resumed. We are rapidly devolving into barbarism, a barbarism of a highly sophisticated and technically proficient kind not unlike the Roman empire as Christ found it in the 1st century A.D.; a barbarism anesthetized by affluence to it’s own impoverishment of soul and humanity. The Roman world was rescued by Christianity. What will rescue us now, in this age, now that Christianity has been finally debunked as so much tommyrot? The Enlightenment is a failed replacement for the ancient faith. What new religion comes from beyond to bind us together in universal brotherhood? We placed a last, great hope in Marx, and some in national socialism, but our hopes were dashed. Pluralism cannot be the answer, since it is pluralism that is precisely the problem. Not to put too fine a point on it, our world must simply be reconverted to the ancient faith. There is no other hope. We might begin by learning just what is the nature of the cathedral that we have been in the process of tearing down for half a millennium. Perhaps then we could start to understand that our hoped for world of pluralism and tolerance is a thing that could only ever flourish within a fundamentally Christian social framework. Tolerance and pluralism, as values ungrounded in the God a Christ has taught him, cannot be sustained. What will happen is precisely what is in fact happening, a devolution into bondage. It’s a mistake to view Christian natural philosophy as offering a hope for a just polis divorced from the Christian faith. Such an idea would have been unthinkable to the scholastic masters of old. Man is capable of knowing a great deal of saving truth without the aid of revelation, but he is not capable of living it without conversion.

  15. I agree with Byron in this respect: propounding a “Christian morality without the tommyrot” is an attempt to enjoy the moral capital of Christianity without that which makes it possible to live the morality. It doesn’t work, and the Muslim world sees as much.

    Of course I still believe that it is possible for “ethical monotheism” as a philosophical idea to provide the basis for the moral legitimacy of the polis. That’s what the American Founding Fathers believed, and they acted accordingly. That’s what John Courtney Murray believed, and his ideas affected Vatican II. But such a monotheism, as a matter of historical fact, is an abstraction from the Judaeo-Christian tradition. And such a polis is sustainable in the long run only if its citizens do, by and large, profess and live by this-or-that form of Judaism or Christianity. Most of the Founding Fathers recognized that too.


  16. Just out of curiosity, has anyone in this discussion read WITHOUT ROOTS The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam ? It’s a book containing two speeches, one by Marcello Persa, President of the Italian Senate; and Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. It also contains an exchange of letters between the two on the subject of a possible “Christian civil religion.”

  17. As “there can be no compulsion in religion,” pluralism is what we are left with. Catholics cannot see religious pluralism as an unqualified good, but it is a contingent good. But as a result, not a first principle. Pluralism is a result of the condition we find ourselves in, where men do not agree in creed, code, and cult. Pluralism is a by-product or result of that understanding, at least in the good society. It’s what we come to when, seeing the world through a Christian lens, we take stock of the situation as it actually exists.

    I am very much in agreement with Murray’s main thesis to which Mike obliquely refers, and also with Murray’s modest hopes for the future. The Enlightenment was a Christian idea exaggerated out of proportion, but as someone has said, we suffered a much more conservative version of it here in America. As a result, we seem to be about 50-75 years behind the European secularizing trends. As a matter of public consensus, Christianity is dead in Europe. The consensus which would otherwise be possible here in America, due to the vast majority of Americans who still self-identify as Christian, is so diluted and compromised by sectarian strife both religious and political, such that it is effective only in fits and starts, and that only in limited ways on certain looming social issues. Otherwise, we have become a nation neatly divided up into mutually exclusive and warring constituencies. Lacking a consensus as to the true nature of our religious heritage, and therefore our civil patrimony, there is a vacuum created that is increasingly filled by a secularized American statism, which takes both “liberal” and “conservative” forms. But secularized statism it is, nonetheless. And the concerns of this sort of statism will be, I think by the nature of the case, primarily economic. This is the way back to barbarism.

    When Mike says, “I still believe that it is possible for “ethical monotheism” as a philosophical idea to provide the basis for the moral legitimacy of the polis,” I’m certainly in agreement. So is the holy father. The forces that assail the republic stand increasingly against this idea. They define freedom in terms of abstractions that have been turned into unqualified and ungrounded goods (tolerance, choice, pluralism), because the first principle is that there can be no ultimate ground of morality, no universal human end, so that each individual must shape his view of the world according to his own subjective understandings, goals, desires, etc. How then can we negotiate with them under the principles of natural law, when (if JC Murray is right and I suspect he is, when he speaks of Protestants in this regard) not even all Christians are disposed to sympathy with the idea that the Catholic natural law tradition can serve as a basis for public discourse?

  18. “has anyone in this discussion read WITHOUT ROOTS”

    Sure, of course. The thoughts of both writers are so highly relevant, to say the very least. Here’s a quote from Cardinal Ratzinger’s portion of that work which expresses so well my own position, when he speaks of the current phenomenon of a ” …a peculiar Western self-hatred that is almost pathological,” and goes on to say:

    “Multiculturalism, which is so constantly and passionately promoted, can sometimes amount to an abandonment and denial, a flight from one’s own heritage. However, multiculturalism cannot survive without common foundations, without the sense of direction offered by our own values. it definitely cannot survive without respect for the sacred. Multiculturalism teaches us to approach the sacred things of others with respect, but we can only do this if we, ourselves, are not estranged from the sacred, from God.” (pg. 79)

  19. Mike (or anyone else),

    Regarding Hans Kung’s GLOBAL ETHIC AND HUMAN RESPONSIBILITIES, to which you linked, this one aspect strikes me as a fatal flaw in his outline:

    “But at the same time I am against moralism (morality in the negative sense)…Moralism manifests itself in a one-sided and penetrating insistence on particular moral positions (for example, in questions of sexual behaviour, contraception, abortion, euthanasia and similar issues) which makes a rational dialogue with those of other convictions impossible.”

    Now I don’t take Kung, of course, at face value here at least, to be implying that he thinks the aforementioned are questions on which he has no opinion, or convictions. Kung may very be convinced that abortion, euthanasia, et al are bad things which ought to be, ideally, under moral disapprobation. My question, however, is this: in lumping in abortion and euthanasia with other “questions of sexual behavior” and contraception, does Kung undermine his entire proposal? If one is convinced that abortion and euthanasia are fundamentally questions of human rights, how can they be considered under the category of “moralism” a category which clearly falls under disapprobation? If by definition the insistence that abortion/euthanasia is an issue of fundamental human rights is something “one-sided,” (by which I take it to mean that Kung thinks such questions admit no solution which can be grounded on publicly verifiable truths–the common secular view), then it seems that no faithful Catholic can be included in the conversation to establish a public ethic, since the Church herself is excluded from the conversation, as she cannot agree that abortion and euthanasia fall outside the “necessary minimum of common values, standards and basic attitudes” which would comprise the Global Ethic. Or can she? It seems to me that the way the question is currently being argued by what I would consider orthodox Catholic ethicists, e.g. Tollefsen and George, not to mention Paul VI and his successors, that the Church’s stance on abortion is primarily a matter of reason, not revelation, it’s impossible to sign on with Kung on that point. As ElliotBee says,


  20. Elliot:

    I have no doubt that some of the specifics of Küng’s proposal are flawed in the way you suggest. My main concern was with the general idea of a universal ethic that requires no appeal to the distinctive doctrines of any particular religion. I believe such an ethic is possible in principle. I just don’t think it’s useful in practice without true religion.


  21. Thinking over Michael’s comments about CS Lewis and Budzisewski, it occurs to me that their approaches to the natural law are somewhat different.
    Lewis, like a good Protestant (I’m a Presbyterian, so I don’t hold that against him) seems to lean towards a Stoic interpretation of natural law – moral laws are apparent in the precepts common to all nations, once we have subtracted the laws enacted in selfish interest. At least, this seems to be the methodology that produced the tao.
    However I think Budzisewski is moving beyond an inductive inference to the “Tao”. Budzisewski seems to be arguing that a “law written on the heart” is a necessary presupposition for all moral inquiry and discourse. He points out that philosophical ethics often relies on thought experiments that show a particular moral system or theory leads to counter-intuitive results. This presupposes that our moral intuitions are reliable on some level, and this sounds very like a “law written on the heart”. We must presuppose there are some things that we can’t not know if we are to think about morality at all.
    Where this gets interesting is when we try to give content to this law, and Budzisewki’s essay “Revenge of Conscience” in First Things is a good place to start. If Budzisewski is trying to infer to Christian morality in this essay, it reads like special pleading.
    However I take it that he is arguing that only Christian morality makes sense of our moral experience – and the ravages of conscience.
    Which leads me to my questions 1) Have I read JB correctly? 2) If so how much Christian morality is written on our heart? Just enough to make Christian revelation sensible once we encounter it? Enough to infer the bulk of Christian morality without reference to Revelation (in theory at least)? Or something in between?
    3) Which is to say, can a non-believer be persuaded of explicitly Christian moral teachings (that depend on, say, eschatology) as they are written on the human heart.

    (Sorry if the questions are poorly formed – I just teach Religious Education at High School, and I have to type these between classes)


  22. graham:

    Like Aquinas, Budzisewski distinguishes between “what we can’t not know” (see his book of that title) and those moral tenets which require additional premises drawn from divine revelation. Catholic academics have debated for centuries the question where the line is to be drawn. Nowadays, as is well known, the salient for that debate is sexual morality.

    We live in a post-sexual-revolution age. People in general find it difficult to believe that sex ought not to be treated primarily as recreational pleasure. With easy contraception widely available, the natural connection between sex and procreation now seems purely optional, and the possibility of pregnancy a risk mostly not worth taking. Many still see the desirability of restricting procreation to marriage, but even that is seen increasingly as an option rather than a moral requirement. In such cultural circumstances, how is one going to “persuade” non-believers even of the natural law, never mind “explicitly Christian morality?”

    Somebody whose personal morality is pretty well aligned with what JB calls “deep conscience,” which is relatively rare today on matters of sexual morality, will not, on that account, see distinctively Christian morality as nonsense. But they won’t necessarily see it as “sensible” either. They won’t necessarily react by saying, “This is just good common sense.” They will see it as sensible only if they also find divine revelation credible. I believe they are more likely to do so if their moral judgment is relatively sound to begin with; but that is no guarantee. As the Pope says, Christianity is primarily “an encounter with a Person,” and many have yet to experience that deeply enough to find distinctively Christian morality sensible.


  23. Am I correct in thinking that a “law on the heart” is a necessary presupposition for moral thinking in JB’s thought? (We have no need to “prove” a natural law?) And it’s also necessary for an individual to be able to receive Divine Revelation?
    The effects of conscience that JB points to in his essay seem to indicate that Christian sexual morality is written, in part, on the pagan’s heart.


  24. Graham, I think your questions are best answered by reading JB’s book What We Can’t Not Know. What I would say is likely to distort his view through my prism.

  25. I’ve read WWCNK; I’m wondering if my own prism is obscuring my reading.
    (I’m certainly not trying to lump him in with Evangelical Presuppositionalism – which is a very odd school of thought indeed.)
    Thanks for your thoughts


  26. I don’t think JB is going quite as far as the “evangelical presuppositionalists.” But you can always go to his faculty home page, get his email, and ask him.

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