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It is a striking oddity of our modern circumstance that the subject of morality and ethics is assumed to be a matter of public significance, while the subject of God is thought to be an esoteric matter of interest to theologians and “people who go in for that sort of thing.” It was not always so, and it is very much worth asking how we arrived at this present circumstance, and what might be done about it.

Today’s public talk about moral values is usually framed in terms of a search for a moral consensus that is no longer self-evident”indeed that to many people is not evident at all. The search for a moral consensus based on a common human nature has, for some time now, replaced the social function of religious belief, which was long thought to be the indispensable foundation of social peace. For most of history, unity of religion was deemed essential to the unity of society and culture. That assumption was shattered in the religious wars in Europe of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. As a consequence of the wars of religion, precisely the opposite conclusion was drawn: Social peace requires that religious beliefs, and disagreements over religious beliefs, be determinedly disregarded. Although established religion continued for some time in most of Europe, religion no longer served its earlier function. In the place of religion, concepts of human nature became fundamental in theories of society and public culture.

Among German thinkers, it was Wilhelm Dilthey who, toward the end of the nineteenth century, underscored the ways in which, beginning in the middle of the seventeenth century, human nature had replaced religion in European thought. Building on the reformulation of natural law by Hugo Grotius and on Thomas Hobbes’ social contract theories, conceptions of natural morality and natural religion became fashionable and were increasingly pitted against revealed religion and morality. Nonetheless, for some time concepts of morality continued to employ a belief in God as the origin of moral norms and final judge of human behavior. The necessary connection between God and morality was preserved, for instance, in the thought of Herbert of Cherbury and John Locke. With Anthony Shaftesbury, however, the moral sense was treated as autonomous. Even in his case, however, while the moral sense was independent from religion, his ideal of harmony finally required harmony with God and the order of the universe.

The eighteenth century witnessed different approaches to whether there is human autonomy in morals or whether the moral sense depends on belief in God. David Hume argued the autonomous character of moral feeling, while Rousseau took the other course. While Rousseau thought conscience is the source of our knowledge about the duties of natural law, he also thought the conscience of man is in a bad way. In Rousseau’s Emile , the Vicar of Savoy argues that the voice of conscience has almost been extinguished in most of us because of the overwhelming experience of human perversion and injustice. A purification of conscience is required, and that is possible only if we believe in God. If God does not exist, the vicar contends, then only the wicked are acting reasonably. It makes no sense to be good. In that event, the success of the wicked in this life would undermine the moral sense also of the good. This can be prevented only by the belief that there is a final recompense beyond this life in which everyone receives his due. Religion is therefore of public importance in Rousseau’s Social Contract , although it is not revealed religion. Rather, he proposed a “civil religion” with only enough articles of faith to motivate moral behavior”belief in God as the origin of social order and law, in divine providence, and in a future recompense.

Although it is sometimes downplayed, Immanuel Kant was an admirer of Rousseau, and in his Critique of Pure Reason he adhered to the idea that moral conduct presupposed religion. Kant affirmed the autonomy of reason as the only source of our consciousness of moral law, but in his view the motivation of moral conduct presupposes a moral order in which each person will ultimately receive the measure of happiness or unhappiness appropriate to his merit. For this to be the case, there must be a harmony between the moral order and the course of nature, and that can be guaranteed only by a creator who, in his capacity as highest reason, is also the source of moral obligation. Without the existence of God, reason would be compelled to conclude that its intuition of moral law is a mere fiction.

This view of things posed the problem for Kant that it makes our moral sense dependent upon the existence of God, which contradicts the claim for the moral autonomy of reason. In his later years, therefore, Kant felt forced to attenuate the importance of religious belief in the sense of moral obligation. He now argued that religion is a consequence of moral consciousness, not a presupposition of moral obligation. In this case, belief in God and immortality only play the role of reconciling the demands of the moral law with our natural desire for happiness. This, however, looks an awful lot like eudaemonism—the theory that the highest moral goal is happiness—which was otherwise abhorrent to Kant. It is little wonder that Kant’s philosophy of religion was soon considered the weakest part of his thought, while his principle of the autonomy of reason in moral philosophy was hailed as an epochal breakthrough.


In our situation today, there is little chance that the appeal to autonomous reason will bring about a broad consensus on moral norms. Even Kant would not expect that to happen, since he assigned to religion the task of introducing the moral principles of social conduct. He insisted only that the moral law should be the hermeneutical principle in transmitting religious belief, with the result that moral philosophy would take the lead in forming the moral consensus of society. Whether as Kantianism or as some form of utilitarianism, moral philosophy in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries did in fact replace religion among the intellectual elite and those whom they influenced. Both the Kantian and utilitarian forms of moral philosophy continued to affirm the public authority of moral norms, as well as their rational power to convince. 

The authority of moral philosophy was dealt a severe blow, however, by Nietzsche’s psychological analysis of the genealogy of moral values. What we call moral values, Nietzsche contended, are in fact in the service of deeper inclinations, propensities, and desires, especially the will to dominate others. The history of culture is the history of a struggle between different sets of moral norms. As a result, moral norms are relative, and the voice of conscience is in fact the voice of cultural context. This way of thinking was popularized and powerfully reinforced by Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis, where we encounter the doctrine of the superego as the source of moral consciousness. 

The relativizing of the formerly absolute authority of moral norms converges today with the emphasis upon individual freedom as the final authority in the conduct of life. In John Locke’s philosophy, freedom is rooted in the concept of law. Today, freedom and law are pitted against each other. Moral and civil law are viewed as limits on the freedom of the individual. This is evident, for instance, in the constitution of my own country, Germany. There the freedom for self-realization is said to be limited by three factors: the justified claims of others, the moral law, and the order of positive law. Note what has happened, however, and I need not add that it has not happened only in Germany. Of the three limiting factors, the concept of moral law is no longer usable because there is no agreement about its content or obliging authority. It follows that “the justified claims of others” cannot be unequivocally asserted either, since we do not know what is and what is not justified. The end result is that the only limits on the exercise of individual freedom are the requirements of positive law. Morality and law are conflated, indeed equated, so that what is not illegal is not immoral. If it is not proscribed by law, others are expected to tolerate what the individual considers necessary to the exercise of his freedom. An unsurprising consequence of this is that positive law is often viewed as an arbitrary limitation of personal freedom. 

Moral philosophy does not offer much help in this situation—not since 1903 when George Herbert Moore in Principia Ethica reduced moral judgment to intuitions that can be neither demonstrated nor refuted by rational argument. If that is the case, it is reasonable to view moral norms as emotion-driven preferences rather than the proper subject of rational argument. This is the intellectual and cultural circumstance brilliantly depicted in Alasdair MacIntyre’s book of 1981, After Virtue, in which he shows how intuitivism and emotivism have caught up with Nietzsche’s deconstruction of moral norms. 

All that being said, however, we need not despair of the future of moral consciousness and moral argument. They are not going to disappear. There are several reasons why this is the case, not the least being the invincible propensity of human beings to judge the conduct of others. We are not going to stop judging, in private and in public. This is not due simply to our inclination to be “judgmental.” Moral judgment is inextricably entangled with our very nature as social beings. We have no choice but to judge how people should behave in different situations. Situations demand it, whether we want to judge or not. It does not matter, at least at this level, whether the normative ideas presupposed in our judgment of the conduct of others are correct or fair. It is enough that such normative ideas are employed, and there is no getting around them. 

Reflection on how we judge can lead to basic concepts of natural law. Our judgment, for instance, evidences a demand for some form of mutuality in social relations: pacta sunt servanda—both sides should keep their promises. This is the “golden rule” of mutuality: What you don’t want others to do to you you shouldn’t do to them. Of course, the rule calls for further specification with respect to how people are differently situated, but in one way or another the principle of mutuality underlies our judgments of others. Human beings have a common interest in the basic requirements of social life, and mutuality is the basis of the basics. 

This is not to suggest that people always act according to the golden rule of mutuality. Far from it. It is obviously easier to judge the conduct of others than to judge our own conduct. With respect to our own situation, we are marvelously adept at claiming exemptions from general rules. This is not only because we tend to be self-serving creatures. It is also because individual situations are indeed unique and do not always fit the general rules, and each of us can more easily perceive the uniqueness of our own situation than the uniqueness of the situation of another person. This is not a fault. It is natural. We should not be surprised that a person can have a strong sense of the general rules while, at the same time, being inclined to claim an exemption for himself. The temptation, of course, is to overstate the importance of individual particularity. Our knowledge of the norms observed by the majority can function as a condition for successfully claiming an exemption for ourselves. After all, none of us is the majority.

Precisely at this point the dissolution of the absolute authority of moral norms percolates into the conduct of individual lives. The crisis of moral consciousness is not that people no longer know about the general conditions and requirements of life together in society. The crisis comes in applying such knowledge to individual cases, and especially to our own. This includes the question of how the formulation and observance of general norms can be made subservient to individual preference. As a result of the inability to agree on the connection between general rules and individual cases, there is no consensus on the idea of justice. Justice requires that each person or group receives and contributes according to their placement within a social system. There is a cacophony of claims to justice, typically articulated in terms of “rights.” But there is at present no consensus about the requirements of justice. In the absence of such a consensus, cries for justice appear as empty and self-serving moralism.


Conflicting claims about justice are not uniquely modern. There have always been such conflicts within societies and between societies, with the result of social disruption and wars among nations. In the biblical vision, the condition of lasting peace is a settlement of conflicting claims, a settlement that can come only from a higher authority recognized by all the parties in conflict. In Isaiah and Micah we have the vision of a pilgrimage of all the nations to Mount Zion, where the God of Israel settles their conflicting claims and establishes eternal peace. Of course the vision has to do with the last days. At present, the nations of the world do not seem inclined to have their claims adjudicated by the God of Israel. Some might appeal to the President of the United States, and a few might appeal to the Pope, but even those nations that share a Christian heritage do not acknowledge the authority of the God of Israel to settle their differences. Nor can the secularized societies of the West be expected to resolve their internal conflicts by recourse to the authority of God.

It may well be the case that the moral crisis of modern secular societies is attributable to the fact that God is no longer publicly recognized as the source of moral norms. As long as such a recognition was intact, the absolute validity of moral norms and the individual sense of obligation to those norms were secure. Historical experience demonstrates that, for societies and for individuals, the autonomy of reason cannot successfully replace the authority of God. In this respect, Rousseau is fully vindicated. As is Dostoyevsky, whose Ivan Karamazov observed that, without God, “everything is permitted.” In a 1970 interview, the Marxist philosopher Max Horkheimer declared that, at least in the West, everything related to morals is ultimately traceable to theology. We may want to qualify that by noting that the tradition of moral philosophy goes back to classical Greece and therefore does not have all its roots in the Judeo-Christian faith in the God of Israel. And qualify it further by noting that a disposition to benevolence, a benevolence that takes pleasure in the happiness of others, is part of human nature. Nonetheless, the sense of moral obligation as it was cultivated for the last fifteen hundred years is hardly conceivable apart from faith in the God of the Bible. 

The fact remains that in our Western and secularized societies the public authority of religion, meaning mainly Christianity, will not easily be restored. The more promising prospect is for a renewal of a specifically Christian morality within the Christian community itself. Here attention must be paid to a Christian way of living that is clearly distinguished from the conventional ways of the surrounding culture. There are important objections to what seems to be a turn inward that focuses moral reasoning on the development of a distinctive ethic for the Christian community. The most important objection is that morality, by its very nature, is related to what is universally human. There is something inherently wrong with a sectarian ethic. Moral discourse in Christian theology, as in philosophy, attends to human nature, the needs and aspirations of all. It does not attend only, or even in the first place, to the special concerns of Christians. In the history of Christian ethics, Christian ethics is not only for Christians.

This universal concern is overwhelmingly evident from the time of the early Church Fathers. Christian ethics addresses all human beings as creatures of the one God; all are involved in the fall of Adam, and all are called to reconciliation with God, liberation from the bondage of sin and death, and final glorification in communion with God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This understanding of the nature and history of mankind explains the missionary imperative of Christianity. It is grounded in the belief that all humanity and the entire universe is created by the God of Israel who revealed himself definitively in Jesus Christ. True, this understanding is no longer shared by everybody in our societies, and it therefore does not characterize the spirit of our public culture. It is viewed as an understanding peculiar to Christians. But it is nonetheless a Christian understanding that embraces all human beings.

Christian ethics, then, is not limited to Christians but is related to the moral situation and calling of all. This is the connection between the particular and universal in Christian thought, and it is a connection that must be honored also today in Christian moral reasoning. There can be no turning inward to the Christian community that excludes Christian claims and Christian concerns about the universal condition and destiny of human beings as such. As the early Church integrated the classic catalogue of virtues into the Christian doctrine of virtue that culminates in the Pauline triad of faith, hope, and love, so Christian ethics today must comprehend all that is true in moral reasoning beyond the formal boundaries of Christianity itself. We dare not forget that John 3:16 begins with, “God so loved the world . . . ” Christian ethics that is worthy of the name understands itself to be a moral account of and for the world. 

We have now addressed the first objection to a Christian ethics that addresses itself specifically to the conduct of the Christian community. A second objection arises from the peculiar history of Protestantism. While Roman Catholic moral teaching has traditionally been articulated in tension with modernity, Protestantism has understood itself to be working in tandem with the development of the modern world. This is notably true of liberal Protestantism, what is often called the “cultural Protestantism” once dominant in much of Europe and North America. This Protestantism is reluctant to differ from the prevailing values of the general culture. Indeed, it feels it has a proprietorial interest in those values. This attitude can be traced to the Reformation, and especially to Luther’s doctrine that the Christian is fulfilling his divine vocation by doing the work he is called to in the secular sphere. This was in sharpest contrast to the Roman Catholic view that there are, for instance in monasticism, special vocations to holiness. Moreover, and very important to our discussion of moral authority, Protestantism took credit for the development of modern ideas of liberty and human rights. As a result, Protestants viewed adaptation to modern culture not as a course of moral compromise but as a course of fidelity to their heritage. 

Examples could be multiplied to illustrate the ways in which Protestantism identified with the general culture, even when it also attempted to transform it. That identification appears to be jeopardized when Christian ethics turns its attention to the community of faith rather than the general culture. Such a turn to the community is suspected of sectarianism, especially when the accent is on Christian separation from the ways of the world, or when the commandment to love one’s neighbor is understood chiefly as a responsibility to Christian brothers and sisters. Yet we must entertain the possibility that a seemingly sectarian turn to the community, and away from a general culture that is alienated from its Christian heritage, may contribute very significantly to the moral renewal of that culture. In the early Church, Christians lived a very different morality from that of the surrounding culture, and their courage to be different became one of the powerful attractions of Christianity. People recognized that the Christian ethic was superior and worthy of emulation. We should not discount the possibility of that happening again. 

A third objection to the proposal that Christian ethics should turn to the community of faith arises from the Christian idea of love. Does not the call to unconditional love require us to accept people just as they are? That unconditionality seems to be compromised if we discriminate between Christians and non-Christians or make demands of people. In the name of love, the apostolic admonitions not to have fellowship with people who live in violation of apostolic teaching are easily disregarded. But Christian love has a critical edge. It cannot be equated with unconditional “acceptance.” Love is ready to accept everyone, but also calls everyone to change. To the adulteress of John 8, Jesus said, “Go, and sin no more.” When, in telling the story of his acceptance of the woman, we omit that admonition, we break the connection between the commandment to love our neighbor and the prior commandment to love God. One cannot love God without obeying his will, and in the teaching of Jesus the love of God is both the source and criterion of our obligation to love others. People are to be loved in light of the destiny intended for them by their Creator. 

In the Old Testament, the love of God is expressed in his electing a people for himself and in his persevering in that act of election. This is the source and criterion of all moral obligation. Because God wants his elect people to flourish, every member of that community is required to observe the minimal conditions of the community’s flourishing. This explains the correspondence between the second table of the Decalogue and the truths of natural law that are essential to communal life. No human community is possible where people murder one another, steal one another’s possessions, violate their marriages, dishonor their parents, or injure one another by slander. 

The moral teaching of Jesus was also derived directly from the authority of God and his love, not from the authority of the tradition’s legal and moral teaching. In Matthew 6, for instance, the love of the Creator for his creatures is evident in that “he makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” Thus are we to follow God’s example, loving not only our friends but also our enemies. Again and again, Jesus taught that, as the love of the heavenly Father is expressed in his forgiveness of us, so also are we obliged to forgive others. Thus he taught us to pray, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” God’s forgiveness is prior, as the source and criterion of our forgiving. 

This understanding of love is the Christian contribution to ethical discourse and universal morality. Christian love enriches and strengthens the natural inclination of human beings to benevolence, which is always in desperate need of being strengthened. This is the most important Christian contribution to moral life in general, also under the conditions of modern secular societies. But Christians also need to point out that benevolence and the joy that comes with it are evidence of a deeper longing of human nature for the good. The good for which the human being longs is not limited to the moral good. It is the good understood in the Platonic sense, meaning the good that is the source of happiness. It is, in short, a longing for God, the source of ultimate and lasting happiness. In benevolence, there is a glimpse of that ultimate good, accompanied by the experience of happiness. It is a hint of the kingdom to come.

Our sighting of that kingdom, however, does not lead to indifference to the quotidian conditions of human community. On the contrary, where mutual benevolence holds sway, those conditions are met without further ado. In the words of Paul, “Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.” If Christian ethics attends to the living out of this new way”a new way that is the fulfillment of our nature from the beginning”the world may again take note. Then, at last, we may overcome the striking oddity of our modern circumstance that the subject of morality and ethics is assumed to be a matter of public significance, while the subject of God is thought to be an esoteric matter of interest to theologians and “people who go in for that sort of thing.” Then, at last, our culture may be renewed by understanding that we do not need to choose between nature and religion, and that freedom, far from being limited when ordered to moral authority, is not possible without it. 

Wolfhart Pannenberg is Professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Munich and founding director of the Institute of Ecumenical Theology.

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