Monday, October 24, 2011

Our Moral Universe

Nicholas Wolterstorff said something I had never heard before when he gave a lecture here in Belfast during the summer. Without knowing the exact quote, he said something along the lines of, Why do we think that God has to punish every wrong deed?

Without presuming to know what he was getting it, it struck me as I was reading on the nature of grace that at the control centre of the universe we have placed punishment in the hotseat. Punishment is the default divine response to wrongdoing. Punishment gets the first word. Punishment is primary. Without this arrangement, we live in an immoral universe.

So the story goes.

But what if grace is in the hotseat? What if grace is the default divine response to wrongdoing? What if grace gets the first word? What if grace is primary?

In Christian discourse, grace is mostly talked about in punishment's shadow. Grace is what happens when the primacy of punishment is foregone. God must punish us to bring balance to a moral universe. God has no obligation to be gracious to us.

But the moral universe is not subject to an adapted form of Newton's third law of motion, with grace as the occasional exception to the rule. Rather, the moral universe is subject only to the rule of God.

And at the core of this rule is not lex talionis, but love.


  1. I've always taken it that punishment (more precisely justice, which inevitably demands retribution) is Grace's shadow. But Grace approaches us with "a light lit from behind the sun" to butcher something CS Lewis once wrote. Hence the shadow falls before grace and arrives at us first.

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  4. I may be entirely wrong, but I very tentatively think that justice inevitably demanding retribution is what Wolterstorff is working against.

    Justice inevitably demands that injustice be restored to justice. That this can involve retribution is a given. What is perhaps not a given is that this inevitably demands retribution.

    To veer off track a little bit, I remember after his lecture, someone asked Wolterstorff about how the cross works out his understanding of justice. He simply said that Calvary is actually a place of injustice, where an innocent man was wrongfully executed.

    Interesting, but far too simplistic me thinks.

  5. "I may be entirely wrong, but I very tentatively think that justice inevitably demanding retribution is what Wolterstorff is working against."

    I get that and I see that everywhere at the moment and I am thinking about it a lot but I am still struck by the afternoon in the old Maynooth college canteen spent reading The Abolition of Man. Lewis writes that when rehabilitation takes precedence over punishment in justice, a great injustice is revealed. If you imprison a man for a crime you are punishing him. If you medicalise a man for a crime, you are doing somethng far worse.

    If the Cross is a place of injustice FULLSTOP, what the hell are we doing Declan? Let's go set up an advertising firm and sell ads of solar powered salt shakers to the hungry masses!

  6. I completely agree, though I think Wolterstorff has a point in so far as talking about Calvary as a place of injustice can shed light on what it means for Calvary to be a place of justice.

    St Peter's short exploration of Isaiah 53 might be instructive on this. There is the tension of suffering injustice at the hands of man and bearing just chastisement (at the hands of God?) that musn't be flattened.