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Did God Create Us Equal?

Turning his attention now to human equality and its relationship to concepts of God, Professor Waldron offered the following alternative challenges:20150126_Gifford_Lecture

  1. Can there be a religious argument for equality which holds firm in the present day?
  2. Or accepting some original theological foundations for human equality, can the ‘jist of the argument be detached from its religious scaffolding’?
  3. Or can there be an elaborated account of human equality without any association with theology?

As a preamble to his assessment, Professor Waldron provided a quote from his book God, Locke and Equality (2002, 242-3), where he suggested that ‘the shape of the concept of basic equality may now be inexplicable wihout reference to the religious traditions’, warning that without it there is a ‘fragility’ through which the notion may ‘begin to fall apart, under pressure’.

What underlies our approach to the issue? Some have argued that God contributes to human equality by dint of divine command (‘simple fiat’), by the ‘conferring’ of dignity upon all humans, or by humans reflecting the inherent constitution of a Trinitarian God (imago Dei). Others, such as Kant and Dworkin, would posit that the first destination is moral theory and only thereafter might one compare concepts of God to our morality. Other possibilities include the opposites of a theology which opposes human equality in nature (such as Hastings Rashdall in Lecture 1), or seeing the basis of equality in nature itself without reference to God (Coons and Brennan).

Why might we crave a religious account? Possibilities include the knowledge that:

  • We must look for an ‘ultimate value’, the ‘rock bottom’;
  • The account must be ‘broad and comprehensive’;
  • It must be robust to trump moral principles; and
  • It must have ‘resilience to being modified and re-thought’- in religion, we are ‘more passively receptive’

However, even if we might crave its input, Professor Waldron suggested that religion ‘might not be bothered with equality’ if the concept ‘ is for this world’ rather than the next (citing Augustine), or it may be interested in equality for those baptised believers within the Church only (citing Galatians 3:28).

If theology has a role, for Professor Waldron it must be beyond the simple quotation of passages from Scripture, what he described as ‘mere Bible-bashing’ or ‘pieces of paper to nail to the underside of our convictions’. Instead, ‘substantial religious themes’ might be addressed, such as:

  • A warning against idolatry;
  • Inequality undermining humility and penance;
  • Concern and charity for the lowly;
  • That intellectual excellence is not a requirement to encounter God;
  • Deprecation of moral excellence in ‘the righteous’ through ‘original sin’;
  • Seeing ourselves in God and others;
  • A sense of special nature and calling;
  • Free-will; and
  • Destiny and immortality;

The first five are ‘negative’ in their rejection of ‘discontinuities’, and the last four are ‘affirmative’ in their ‘conceptions of distinctively high human dignity’. Professor Waldron very briefly mentioned other possibilities such as ‘a modicum of rationality to know our Creator’ (Locke) and the capacity to love.

He stressed that we may not need to conceive of such possibilities in competition, or to select one as a defining attribute: we may be seeking a ‘variegated cluster of properties’, attributable to whole lives and not ‘time slices’. The basis of human equality is ‘complex and dynamic’ and not ‘simple and static’, with ‘sparkle back and forth’ from the general to the particular.

Professor Waldron concluded the lecture by addressing John Rawls’ objection to the entry of any religious discourse in the political discussion of equality. Rawls argued that its presence is disrespectful to the secular world; an attempt to ‘hijack public property’ with ideas for which the secular has no concern. Professor Waldron’s response was that everyone should be allowed to ‘call it as they see it’ rather than impose ‘self-censorship’, and that religious ideas may still be worth exploring for the secular, ‘even with a sceptical eye’.

On this final theme of the potential exclusion of religious discourse, in response to a question at the close of the lecture which suggested that the practice of the Christian Church in exercising inequality might vitiate any consideration of Christian theology, Professor Waldron conceded that ‘you may wish to dismiss’ consideration of the theologies of the great religions as a result.

Some issues that occur from a stimulating lecture:

  1. What is your reaction to Professor Waldron’s suggestion that Christianity ‘might not be bothered with equality if it is for this world’? How would this square with ideas of Jesus’ incarnation and ministry?
  2. Was the breadth of the examination of ‘substantial religious themes’ adequate?
  3. If the fact that the practice of the Church may have run contrary to theological understandings of human equality thus invalidates a study of theology in this context, is the same true of examining any philosophical understanding? In other words, the secular, philosophical account has failed as compared to the human practice of inequality which stubbornly persists, and so therefore by that reasoning should it too be excluded?
  4. What might religions other than Christianity offer to the debate?

Please feel free to offer your comments to the debate, by clicking on the small ‘Comment’ link below.

Gifford Lectures 2015


1 reply to “Did God Create Us Equal?”

  1. Professor Waldron suggests that Christianity, or other religions, ‘might not be bothered with equality if it is for this world’. To support this he cites Augustine’s question ‘what does it matter how a dying man is governed?’ While I do not know the context of this particular line, it strikes me as a strange proof text given Augustine’s sophisticated account of overlap between divine and human ‘cities’. These are entities not merely institutional but a ‘mixed body’ composed of the character of love its constituent members display. Augustine’s account is echoed in Waldron’s later reference to Robin Lovin’s comments about the public being a ‘mixed bunch’ of ‘those who know and love God and those who do not’. Lovin sounds as though he is channeling the characterisation given in ‘City of God’.

    The question of governance brings up the place of the church, which is not coterminous with the city of God in Augustine’s understanding. Waldron asks if churches might be primarily concerned with equality among ‘the congregation of the baptised’, citing Galatians 3:28, rather than a broader populace. This is a questionable distinction to make, however, given the way the New Testament church is called to bear witness to onlookers precisely by acting as a community in which ‘sortal’ distinctions are challenged. That communal dimension, which Waldron explored further in this afternoon’s New College Gifford seminar, is crucial in honouring the complexity and dynamism that he rightly identified in his list of ‘substantial religious themes’.

    The church can thus offer vitality to the highly intellectualised final section of the lecture in which Waldron speaks of ‘public reason’, putting forward ‘religious ideas’ that include ‘the deepest thinking that we can muster’. His dominant public stance assumes a capacity that can be verbalised, but this is problematised by the next lecture’s topic of profound ‘disability’. So then: what is the often unrecognised political aspect of a group of people, of ‘all sorts and conditions’, kneeling at an even rail to be hand-fed bread and wine?

    I speak as a Christian. What equalising practices might other religious communities ‘body forth’?

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