In a thoughtful article in the New Spectator, Matthew Parris argues that in contemporary European society there is no authoritative answer to this question; in fact, he raises two issues:
- Who is my neighbour?
- Who can give me an authoritative answer to this question?
I want to take the second, first.
Matthew Parris gives the example of the pre-reformation Catholic Church as the kind of authority he means. Now, I think that as a gay man who has endured the consequences of the authoritarian homophobia of the Catholic Church, Matthew ought to be careful what he wishes for. Of course over the centuries the community of the Catholic Church has fostered much sound moral thinking and behaviour; but it is precisely the authoritarianism of its doctrinal system which has led it into its worst errors, as for example, over birth control. An outdated view of what is ‘natural’ and the decision of a respected Pope to categorise all modern methods of contraception as unnatural has imposed an evident nonsense on the Catholic believers who would most benefit from family planning, and resulted in the farce of Catholic priests and nuns upholding the teaching with one hand while handing out condoms with the other. I am not saying that the Catholic view on this matter is simply wrong; indeed it represents an important tradition of thought. The problem is that when it has been imposed with such authority, it cannot be revised without bringing that authority into disrepute.
One of the real benefits of a God as the source of goodness is that divine authority is ultimately a mystery, able to be characterised by human virtues such as love, peace and justice, but not to be defined by any particular version of these. If believers agree that an event has taken place which alters their characterisation of God, then their views of love, peace and justice will also change. For the Judaeo – Christian tradition, the life of Jesus is such an event, the discoveries of modern science another.
This places the moral authority in a living God, as transmitted through a living tradition, which has to respond to the knowledge and the conscience of a living community. Any authority that might be more absolute than this, such as that of an infallible Pope or inerrant scripture, is an arrogant intrusion on the authority of God, and may indeed be idolatrous.
My answer to the second question therefore is that moral authority belongs to a community and its traditions with which we freely identify, and to which we contribute our lived experience. Who wants an authority with which we cannot argue and to which we cannot contribute? I am always impressed by the Dalai Lama’s ability to transmit the tradition of Mahayana Buddhism, with an authority which involves a reappraisal of that tradition and a readiness to listen to people from other traditions. I don’t find him less authoritative because he has reviewed his Tibetan tradition in the light of his exile from Tibet and his experience of the wider world. Wherever a living tradition has originated, it cannot hold authority today unless it is prepared to be ‘ecumenical’ that is, open to the lives of people from all parts of the inhabited world. At their best many religions strive to be open in this way, as do the sciences and European rationalism. Moral authority is exercised by the ecumenical community to which we choose to belong; it is directive for its adherents but requires critical participation as well as obedience.
The specifically moral content of each tradition is unique, reflecting its history and beliefs. These should not reduced to slogans like ‘loving your neighbour’ (Christianity and Judaism) or ‘what goes round comes round’ ( Buddhism). Their teachings have specific contexts within their traditions.
For example when Jesus was asked the question about neighbourliness, the context was that of Jesus having defined the duty of human beings to love God and their neighbour. When his questioner asked , who was his neighbour, Jesus set aside a whole history of debate about the limits of that obligation, and told a story about how a Samaritan ( heretic!) rescued a Jew when the official representatives of his own faith had passed him by. We can smile at Jesus’ shrewd portrayal of the negligence of clergy and the kindness of a stranger. But we must also see how Jesus changed the terms of the debate. The questioner asked about the limits of his neighbourly obligation. Jesus put him in the position of a man in terrible need, and asked him, who, in that situation, was his true neighbour. There could be only one answer. When we are in need our true neighbour is the one who helps us.
Jesus is not saying we have to run about madly trying to love everybody. He is saying that, based on our experience of the kindness of others, we should not duck the responsibility of responding to the need that presents itself to us, by holding exclusive definitions of who our neighbour is or isn’t. Our neighbour is the one who is kind to us, says Jesus; now go and be a neighbour to others!
I doubt if Jesus would respond to Matthew Parris’s request for a list of priorities. That’s exactly what he refused to do. Just be a good neighbour, he advised, and don’t pretend you don’t know what this means. You react to the need that you encounter personally by your personal kindness, which may also include guiding the needy person to where relevant help is to be found. When we become aware how much relevant help is provided by charitable agencies, we should, if we are able, make a commitment to support one or more of them with our money. When we become aware of how much relevant help is provided by the state, we should commit ourselves to paying reasonable taxes so that these provisions can be funded adequately. That might involve trenchant criticism of a government which has pretended we are poor in order to underfund our common provision for neighbours in need.
For me, the authority of this teaching is God, Jesus and the whole Judaeo- Christian tradition mediated through the world church. I have freely chosen to belong to it and believe that I should contribute to that tradition by my own thought and action. I don’t know what Matthew means when he says that Christianity has failed. If he means that its adherents, like me, often fail to act on its teachings, I would have to hold up my hand, while asking him to look to the lives of our saints. But I don’t think he means that. He says he wants to be told what to do, in detail, and with total authority. If so, I would want to advise him that the Christian tradition is one of several which can offer him a collection of practical wisdom and clear pointers in the direction of goodness, without asking him to deny his own intelligence, creativity and commitment, qualities I know he possesses, because they are evident in his Radio programme, “Great Lives.”
He is a man capable of contributing to a contemporary understanding of morality, so why does he yearn to be told what to do and think?
Angela Merkel, Time Mag’s woman of this year, famously said of restricting access of refugees to Germany, “A Germany that does not welcome refugees is not my country.” She was articulating a Christian obligation she had learned in her youth and finds no difficulty in acknowledging as a political leader. She doesn’t think that her moral tradition has failed, and she is determined not to fail it.
Here is the link to the New Spectator article