Tish Harrison Warren on why the best morality rests on the words and deeds of Jesus

June 20, 2022 • 12:30 pm

The weekly New York Times lucubrations of Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren are anodyne and sometimes off-putting, yet I cannot resist reading them—for the same reason that you smell the milk when you know it’s gone bad.  This week, Warren interviews Rachael Denhollander, the first gymnast to publicly accuse team doctor Larry Nassar of sexual abuse. Denhollander is also going after the Southern Baptist Church because, it turns out, they’re as bad as Catholics regarding the sexual abuse by preachers.

Denhollander has done and is doing good stuff; my objection is that she seems to recognize sexual predation and its immorality only because Jesus says it’s bad (though I’m not sure he even deals with that issue in the Bible). Harrison and Denhollander seem to agree, in the end, that we must draw our morality from God because there’s something wrong with secular-based morality.

First, a small nit to pick. Warren’s questions are in bold; Denhollander’s responses in plain type:

Some brass tacks related to churches generally: If there is an abuse allegation in a church, what is the right response?

I think there are really two important parts to that question.

There is the policy question: On a very practical level, what am I to do? You need to report that allegation to the police if it is child abuse. As soon as the police have been notified and the alleged perpetrator knows that the police have been notified, you need to notify the church and protect the identity of the survivors.

One beef: in the U.S. we’re presumed innocent until we’ve been convicted by a judge or jury. (That’s why Denhollander says “alleged perpetrator”.) But she then goes on to mention the “survivors”, who really can’t be counted as “survivors” of a crime that hasn’t yet been established.  Using the very word “survivors” assumes that the people who are bringing charges in fact were victims of a crime. Sometimes that obvious, but sometimes it’s not, as the existence of a crime can rest solely on allegations.

But we needn’t dwell on that, for the main point comes at the end—about sources of morality.

You have been working alongside survivors in church settings for many years now. Why do you stay in the church with all the evil that you see there?

How do I know that the authority I’m seeing isn’t a good use of authority? How do I know that sexual abuse really is wicked and it ought to be treated that way? You can’t know a line is crooked unless you have some idea of a straight line. That is a paraphrase of a quote by C.S. Lewis, and it has really been a linchpin for me.

The reason I remain a Christian is because my faith is what allows me to say that what I’m watching right now is broken. These institutions and these responses to survivors aren’t right. And I know they’re not right because I have a perfect picture of what these things are supposed to be.

And so my allegiance is not to a church. My allegiance is not to a denomination. It’s not to a country. It’s not to a convention. My allegiance is to Christ. And when I look at my faith and when I look at the principles of Scripture, it gives me the ability to look at what’s happening and say, “This is not right,” and I know it’s not right because there really is a moral lawgiver, and there really is absolute truth. Because every other belief system outside of God leaves us essentially dependent on societal and cultural response to define right and wrong.

There are several things to “unpack” here, one being Denhollander’s claim that she’s a Christian because “her faith allows her to say what she’s watching is broken.” First of all, that’s just not true. Sexual abuse by clerics looks broken because it’s immoral by any standards: the use of one’s authority as a basis for sexual assault.  Do you need Christianity to see that? After all, the whole world (except for the Church itself) was horrified when the scandals of Catholic sexual abuse became public. You don’t have to be a Christian to see what’s “broken”!

Second, if Hollander had been a Christian several centuries ago, her faith would have told her that it’s the right thing to do to torture and burn heretics, engage in all kinds of acts that we’d find immoral today (using the Bible to condone slavery, for example), and perhaps ban books.

What has changed? Not Jesus or his words, but the secular world, whose morality evolves as Christian morality scurries behind to keep up. This alone show the verity of Socrates’s Euthyphro Argument: we don’t think something is right or wrong simply because God (or Jesus) tells us that it’s right or wrong, but because you’re using a social or secular morality to which one’s idea of God conforms.

An example of this is God telling Abraham to kill Isaac. Abraham, who apparently conformed to “divine command theory,” was about to do in his son, just because God said so. Most rational people find this horrible; they’d say “God wouldn’t order that” because he’s a good God. But God did order that, and our revulsion comes from the conflict between secular and “God-based” morality.

Religious “morality” changes from year to year not because we understand God’s or Jesus’s will better—the Bible is still the same—but because that we interpret theology in each era in a way that comports with our present morality.

Yes, Denhollander says that her allegiance is not to the law, or to a secular code of morality, but to Jesus, for the words of Jesus will show you what’s right and what’s wrong. This is the same Jesus who tacitly approved of slavery and told his followers to neglect their home and family and follow him. Of course nobody thinks that’s right any more.

The last sentence is assertive, but its thesis is dumb:

Because every other belief system outside of God leaves us essentially dependent on societal and cultural response to define right and wrong.

And what, exactly, is wrong with that? Should morality be absolutely constant as mores and facts change? With Jesus you get the former, with secular morality the latter? I know which one I prefer.

14 thoughts on “Tish Harrison Warren on why the best morality rests on the words and deeds of Jesus

  1. … my objection is that she seems to recognize sexual predation and its immorality only because Jesus says it’s bad (though I’m not sure he even deals with that issue in the Bible).

    Jesus’s Daddy had no problem with it in the Old Testament.

    THW and Ms. Denhollander would benefit from eavesdropping on the dialogue between Socrates and Euthyphro.

  2. If you read around the subject, the ‘absolute morality’ of the New Testament has changed several times over the centuries. Therefore it wasn’t an ‘absolute for all time morality’.

    The original message of Jesus (as allegedly recorded after his death) was ‘get yourself right with God because the end of the world is coming real soon now’. The Christian message has morphed over the years into ‘love your neighbour’. Not the same thing at all.

    1. He really (i.e., supposedly) did say “love thy neighbor” but he also said “But those mine enemies, which would not that I should reign over them, bring hither, and slay them before me”. So as always, believers are expected to emulate the Jesus that agrees with their own inclinations.

  3. There is an essay by Mark Twain in Christopher Hitchen’s ‘the Portable Atheist’ entitled “Bible Teaching and Religious Practice.” Twain says, “The texts remain: it is the practice that has changed. Why? Because the world has corrected the bible.”

  4. But at least the carton of milk we’re smelling is presumably a different carton each time. Your analogy only works if you expect Warren to change her tune.

  5. What’s more, the believers are always lagging behind “secular” morality. They are always the last to come around to accept homosexuality, denounce sexual abuse, or wanting to get rid of the death penalty. Find a person who still finds it acceptable when a husband forces himself onto his wife, and you can bet on it, that‘s a religious person. Find a person who believes a rape victim must carry her pregnancy to birth, and it‘s almost guaranteed a religious person. They are not even equals.

    They may mount a massive propaganda campaign afterwards, sometimes centuries late, to come off as really the Good People, but they truly weren’t. Even advances within religion, like seeing the amorality of selling indulgences often went against the religious establisment: creating another religious version was simply as far as people could think at that time, but should not count in favour of religion.

  6. I think her answer to the first question might have been better, but I read it as meaning: “you need to notify the church and protect the children”. That is, do whatever is needed to ensure the person, innocent or not, meanwhile has no chance to be in contact with other children as a necessary precaution. Innocent before proven guilty is all well and good, but meanwhile no parent would want to be left in the dark about ones’ suspicions.

  7. There is nothing in the Gospels’ version of morality that hadn’t been written down centuries before, as often as not by the Greeks, and usually much better formulated.

    The Christian adherence to what they think is the unique source of their moral truths is almost amusing. I think it was Hitchens who wrote about a conversation with a priest who was absolutely convinced that, were it not for his faith and trust in Jesus, he would instantly become a sinner, and be unable to prevent himself from committing the most unspeakable crimes. (That may, however, say more about the individual than about faith in general).

  8. I’d like to hear Warren expatiate on what, as Hitch described it, Abraham’s and Isaac’s “long and gloomy walk.” As well as Jeptha’s rash vow regarding the first thing he saw upon his return (his daughter), and Jesus’s apparent abuse of the withered fig tree, it not being the tree’s fault that at the time figs were out of season. As a ten year-old in a Southern Baptist church, I would definitely have had a problem with the aforementioned situations, but I was not in a particularly strong position to question The Righteous about that, and so kept my mouth shut in order to Keep the Peace. It was a few more years before I could (partially) escape Peyton Place.

  9. The point where the snake swallows its tail, isn’t it, is that-there “Because every other belief system outside of God leaves us essentially dependent on societal and cultural response” … because “God said it” IS a cultural response.

    [and where, exactly, is God’s guidance about priests sexing up non-related minors, anyway? Leviticus has all kinds of edge cases for defining incest, but it’s silent on this scenario.]

  10. I think there’s a typo in the paragraph about Abraham and Isaac. Shouldn’t the second sentence begin “Abraham”, not “Isaac”?

  11. Jesus thought that the world was going to end within his lifetime, and so did his followers. He is almost entirely focused on the imminent Kingdom of God, literally a physical kingdom on Earth. This was really his core message.

    The gospels, to the extent they are actually consistent (often they are not), are best understood in this light. This makes Jesus’ utter lack of concern about worldly matters, such as material possessions or social justice, much more understandable.

    Of course, the world did not end as Jesus or his followers thought it would. So instead of admitting this, his followers either deemphasized his core apocalyptic message, or invented a new definition of the “Kingdom of God”, claiming that the Kingdom actually came about but in a “spiritual form”.

    Therefore, the entire bloody religion is based on a rationalization of a failed prediction. No wonder so many Christians like Pish Warren are intellectually dishonest…it’s one of the founding principles!

  12. Such views as hers assume that Christianity invented the Golden Rule, which of course is false. And that there was a ‘historical Jesus’ who said and did the things of which she approves, which is doubtful at best. I recall when WEIT was peppered with discussion of this latter question that gave compelling arguments against this historicity. Yet if not a historical person, Jesus was and is a fictional character fashioned by others into a religion called Christianity–the principal author being someone who had never ‘met’ Jesus except as a phantom in the sky.

    The doctrines of, say, Presbyterianism have withered from a horrific and frightening Calvinism into a vague, almost weightless pretension to justice for the poor and disenfranchised. This feel-good-about-itself country-clubish institution demands nothing of the congregants beyond keeping the collection plate full, thereby to endow ever grander church buildings. . . and bigger parking lots for all the expensive cars. But those parking lots are not being filled these days.

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