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Religion & Ethics


By Alice von Hildebrand | September 2005
Alice von Hildebrand is Professor Emerita of Philosophy at Hunter College of the City University of New York.

The relationship between religion and morality has a great bearing on man’s life, but the history of thought shows that it is open to some serious confusions. We shall try to clarify some of the most prominent ones.

Martin Luther denied that man’s moral values have any sort of importance for his eternal fate. This is a logical consequence of his claim that sola fide is the way to salvation. He writes: “so it [the soul] is justified by faith alone and not any works….” The thesis that man’s moral actions have bearing on his earthly life, but none on his salvation, is bound to have grave consequences for man’s religious life: Luther totally severs ethics from religion. He writes further, “Therefore it is a blind and dangerous doctrine which teaches that the commandments must be fulfilled by works.” This thesis is so crucial to Lutheran views that, inevitably, the Reformer had to reject St. James’s claim that “faith without works is a dead faith” (2:26). To reject an Apostle’s epistle (he calls it a “straw epistle”) is a daring thing to do, but is quite consistent with Luther’s conviction that his own doctrine was not to be judged by anyone, even by angels. Such a statement is a self-condemnation. For it is man’s glory to submit his personal judgment to God and to those to whom He has granted authority on this earth. Woe to the man who declares himself to be the ultimate authority.

This divorce between religion and ethics has gained more and more currency. There are contemporary societies that claim to have ethics without religion. There are “ethical cultural societies” which pride themselves on teaching moral goodness without any reference to God. The fashionable view is that religion and morality are two totally independent spheres that should be sharply kept apart. A popular argument in defense of this thesis is that there are atheists who are leading moral lives, and many religious men who are breaking the moral law. This claim calls for an explanation: It is true (as mentioned by St. Augustine in City of God) that some natural virtues can be found among pagans and nonbelievers. A pagan can be courageous and just. It is, alas, also true that there are Christians who offend daily against the Ten Commandments: Obviously they do not sin because they are believers, but because of weakness or rebellion; they fail to obey God’s laws, even though they believe that He exists.

It is now fashionable to reason as follows: To inject religion into ethics is to open the door to conflicts and disagreements. All reasonable men can agree on the validity of natural virtues, such as justice, courage, temperance, and prudence. Religion is something “personal,” and therefore essentially subjective; its validity depends upon the “psychological needs” of individuals and cannot claim universal assent or validity. This view finds its expression in what Dietrich von Hildebrand labeled — on the religious plane — ecumenitis: that all religions are to be viewed as equally valid, each being one of many ways leading to God. To proclaim that one’s own religion is the only true one is not only arrogant and triumphalistic, but will inevitably create discord and disharmony in any society. In other words, truth should play no role in religion. On the other hand, to recognize that religious beliefs are purely “subjective” will guarantee universal peace and reconciliation. Contradictory beliefs are equally valid because truth is relative.

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