Religion and Ethics

In his recent book Jesus of Nazareth, Benedict XVI discusses the parable of the Pharisee and the publican (Lk. 18:9-14), saying that it “sheds light on the tension between ethics and grace.” This clears up some matters in my own mind as I think about the philosophies of the ancient world. As much as one may esteem them, it is clear that any purely ethical system has its limits. One thinks of the agnostic Epicurean “moralizing” of La Rochefoucauld’s Maxims. Even the Stoic notion of virtue (“it’s own reward”), however noble, is not enough to answer the fundamental question of why we should submit to God’s laws. Recalling the parable, Benedict says

The Pharisee can boast considerable virtues; he tells God only about himself and he thinks he is praising God in praising himself. The tax collector knows he has sinned, he knows he cannot boast before God, and he prays in full awareness of his debt to grace. Does this mean, then, that the Pharisee represents ethics and the tax collector represents grace without ethics or even in opposition to ethics?

One strand of religion, espousing an antinomian view, believes that grace supplants human nature. Hence there is no need for the moral law. But Benedict stands by the old axiom that grace must build on nature.

The real point is not the question “ethics: yes or no?” but that there are two ways of relating to God and to oneself. The Pharisee does not really look at God at all, but only at himself; he does not really need God, because he does everything right by himself: He has no real relation to God, who is ultimately superfluous—what he does himself is enough. Man makes himself righteous.

That was the failing of the pre-Christian thinkers who believed in the possibility of man achieving a kind of perfection or divinity in this life. It led to a great deal of pride, presuming upon one’s limited powers in overcoming evil. As Pascal put it, “They conclude that what has been done once can be done always, and that since the desire of glory imparts some power to those whom it possesses, others can well do likewise” (Pensées, 350).

Benedict explains how the publican manages to avoid the self-righteousness of the philosopher and the Pharisee, without denying the need for the moral law.

The grace for which he prays does not dispense him from ethics. It is what makes him truly capable of doing good in the first place. He needs God, and because he recognizes that, he begins through God’s goodness to become good himself. . . .

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