In Galatians 5:5-6 the apostle Paul proclaims that Christians, who have been rescued from this present evil age yet nonetheless find themselves still inhabiting it with their decaying mortal bodies, are “eagerly waiting for the hope of righteousness” by faith and through the Spirit. Another way of saying this is that “should” and “want” still frequently exist in conflict for Christians in this world, and one aspect of our hope is to long for the day when “ought” and “desire” will once more kiss and exist in harmony. Indeed, we tremble in longing for the (re)marriage of heaven and earth themselves, which have been torn asunder by human sin. This recognition has enormous implications for the well-lived Christian life, caught in the middle of the thrilling “already” but the heart shattering “not yet”. As Richard Neuhaus wisely wrote, “In the Christian tradition being true to yourself means being true to the self that you are called to be.” Notice the universe of difference the phrase “you are called to be” (future tense) makes in this proposition. Over the next few days, I’ll highlight a few Christian thinkers who have helped me to approach this tension in a coherent, life-giving way. Here’s the first, from Oliver O’Donovan’s wonderfully lucid Resurrection and Moral Order, in which he speaks to the (apparent) contradiction between voluntarism and rationalism, and the deontic and teleological ethics that flow from these approaches to morality:
“The value of the voluntarist emphasis lay in its perception that the dialectic between reason and revelation rests not on an accidental deficiency of human reason but on the aboriginal metaphysical fact that human reason is not transcendent. Thus human judgments are always, and as such, susceptible to divine criticism. Human reason itself, by its own critical self-understanding, tells us this, and points to its own supersession. In the divine-human encounter trusting obedience is the only appropriate reaction, and the only properly self-critical reaction on man’s part. The risk of Abraham cannot be avoided. But once its dangerous tendencies have been thus corrected, rationalism too can instruct us. If obedience is to be ‘trusting’, it must be hopeful. The disciple who obeys the divine word in defiance of his own limited perceptions of right is genuinely trustful only if he believes that the paradox is not an ultimate contradiction in reality. He must hope to see the moment of critical confrontation finally resolved by the elevation of his reason to grasp God’s action as a coherent whole. Otherwise he is acting not in faith but in cynical despair. ‘Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen’ (Heb. 11:1). Rationalism was not wrong to promise an ultimate scrutability in the divine purpose; it was wrong only as it attempted to empty that promise of its eschatological character and hurry forward to a premature fulfillment by the route of a reductive immanentism…
By way of postscript to our digression we may comment on a question that has troubled thinkers of recent generations perhaps more than it should have done, that is, the relation between ‘deontic’ and ‘teleological’ forms of moral language…The polarity certainly has its source in the antithesis of voluntarist and rationalist understandings of morality. Deontic ethics has its source in the voluntarist conception that morality is a matter of command and obedience. (The word ‘deontic’, coined from the Greek deon, points to the prominence of ‘ought’ and its equivalents.) It suggests that morality is a kind of burden laid upon us, which cuts across our natural aspirations and purposes…The point [is] that the moral claim is encountered apart from any perceptions about the subject’s fulfillment or welfare which might compromise the absolute obedience which it elicits for its own sake. ‘Teleological’ ethics, on the other hand, derives from the ontological conception of God as the summum bonum, in which it was the task of moral reasoning to recognize and respond to the ordered structures of being and good. ‘Teleological’ is not meant to be understood narrowly, as speaking only of a calculative, consequentialist morality, but in the way that we have ourselves used it, pointing to any kind of propriety or order within the world. There are, of course, consequentialist interpretations of teleological ethics. Utilitarianism is an offspring from this rationalist root, and shows its ancestry by its confidence in a self-evident and unarguable idea of happiness which does in fact, and should self-consciously, govern all human conduct as an end.
It is sometimes suggested that faced with this dichotomy we have only two possibilities open to us. We can claim, on the one hand, a strict interchangeability between these two forms of moral language; on the other, we may suppose that they point objectively to two different kinds of morality. The latter course, which has proved the most popular in recent discussions, can itself lead in two ways. It can suggest a grading of the two kinds as higher and lower, a measure which will probably indicate a Kantian kind of preference for the ‘ought’; or it can result in a simple pluralism…However, it would appear that the alternative is wrongly posed in the first place. We are not compelled to think the two languages interchangeable (if that means without loss of sense) in order to say that they point to the same objective moral reality. There is evidently a difference in sense between saying that one ‘ought to’ do something and saying that it is ‘good’. Yet any actual moral claim can be expressed either in terms of obligation or in terms of the good; and it would be merely doctrinaire to insist that in choosing the second form of expression one must fail to appreciate its true moral force. What the two languages do is to draw our attention to different and complementary aspects of moral claims as we encounter them. The deontic language emphasizes the critical relation of moral authority to natural authority and of divine authority to all created authority. We say ‘ought’ when we need to stress the contradiction between this overriding claim and what we should otherwise have thought or felt…On the other hand, the teleological language draws attention to the rationality of moral and divine authority. It drives us to express, as best we can, the meaning of that authority within the ordered universe, even when that expression is the expression of a hope for a resolution that we cannot yet comprehend.
Kant, for all his commitment to deontic ethics and his dependence on the notion of law, understood that the distinctive character of the ‘ought’, its expression of the ‘imperative’, arose from the relation of constraint between the objective law of reason and a will not subjectively determined to it. A holy will, like the divine will, would not encounter the law as imperative or as ‘ought’. The strong antithesis between the concepts of happiness and duty is the constant theme of the ‘Analytic’ section of the Critique of Practical Reason, where classical ethics is subjected to criticism for its approach to moral law by way of the controlling concept of the summum bonum, which inevitably, Kant argues, left their moral thought heteronomous and at the mercy of the principles of happiness and pleasure. However, in the ‘Dialectic’ section the notion of the ‘highest good’ is reinstated in Kant’s ethics as the object, though not the motive, of the pure practical reason, and we learn that the Christian eschatological hope of the kingdom of God, complete with the idea of happiness, is, together with the immortality of the soul, a necessary ‘postulate’ of practical reason.
We may say, then, that the tension between the two moral languages reflects a necessary dialectic in the perceptions of moral agents for whom moral insight is still a task and not yet an achieved fact. In moments of grace we may be given the perception that our duty and our fulfillment are one and the same, and we may speak of that unity in hope and faith; but we cannot ask that we should never be challenged to further thought and conscientious struggle by an awareness of the divergence of inclination and duty.” (Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order, pp. 136-39)