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Having, at least for the moment, exhausted my store of general interest geology I am risking venturing onto the theological thin ice of moral certainty. I was prompted to write this piece by the death in March of John Habgood, former Archbishop of York. He is remembered as an intellectual giant spanning the perceived chasm between theology and science, as he was widely acknowledged as both a world class theologian and an accomplished scientist. He gained a Double First in Natural Sciences at Cam-bridge But perhaps he should be remembered particularly as a humble man for whom questioning and doubt, rather than dogmatic certainty, was the route to understanding. As Archbishop of York in the 1980s he was criticized by Margaret Thatcher who regarded his preaching as lacking sufficient moral certainty. His reply was along the lines –Yes, but do you not think that moral certainty could be a sin?

He certainly had a point. There is a litany of atrocities stretching over the centuries where moral certainty, generally religious but sometimes social or economic, has lead to what we would now recognize as crimes against humanity or genocide. To list but three - Catholics and Protestants taking it in turn to burn each other at the stake in the name of God in the 16th and 17th centuries; the extermination of millions in the last century in Russia, China, Cambodia in the moral certainty that communism would perfect society and the continuing scourge of Islamic Fundamentalism. So when we weigh vice and vir-tue on the balance of justice the scale pan seems very heavily loaded down on the side of vice.

The problem seems to be:- how can we be sure that we have properly heard or understood the Word of God ? Voices emanating from burning bushes and whirlwinds may be difficult enough to interpret as personal guidance, let alone be extrapolated to a universal moral code for the whole of mankind in all circumstances. Eric expressed this doubt nicely in his Lent Talks based around his trek in the Himalayas. “God why did you ask me to do this?” and then perhaps more tellingly “God DID you ask me to do this?” Doubt is always nibbling away at our certainties. Another example was given by Bishop James Jones, former Bishop of Liverpool in his “Thought for The Day” immediately following the massacre of Christians in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, by those no doubt convinced that they were doing God’s bid-ding. He was leading the singing of “Thine Be The Glory” in his own village church in Yorkshire just as the news of the atrocity was filtering in. He confessed that he struggled with the line in the third verse - “no more we doubt thee”.

But there must be some case for moral certainty. The Ten Commandments are widely regarded as universal principles by several faiths and to a lesser degree even some of no faith and they have the add-ed legitimacy of apparently being carved on tablets of stone, dictated by God to Moses on Mount Sinai. But do they confer absolute moral certainty? “Thou shalt not kill” sounds morally unambiguous, but does it apply in all circumstances at all times? The moral purist would probably say yes. However, whilst I can find no support for an alternative stance in Christ’s teaching I suspect that there are many (myself included) who believe that in exceptional circumstances it may be a necessary evil to kill in order to prevent even worse bloodshed. The incidents of gunmen armed with assault rifles running amok slaughtering innocent terrified school children are too numerous to recount. Sacrificing one’s own moral purity by disobeying the 6th commandment in order to save innocent lives, when no other option is available at that moment, would seem to me to be the morally right choice even if not the morally righteous, choice.

Then there is the even more fraught question of the “Righteous War”. I would have relegated this one to my “too difficult pile”, except that at the time of writing we and many other nations are commemorating the 75th Anniversary of D-Day and the beginning of the liberation of Europe from an evil oppression – an example of the above dilemma played out on a global scale and involving the inevitable death, injury and displacement of millions of non-combatants. Was it the right thing to do?

I imagine that the majority of us would, with a heavy heart, say yes. It was a necessary evil in order to purge an even greater evil. Those who sacrificed their lives to achieve it should be regarded as demonstrating that most exacting of virtues – Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends (John 15 v.13). So whilst we might equivocate about where to place the principle of a “Righteous War” on the scale pans of moral certainty, the actions of millions of those on the ground should be placed on the virtue side.

So where does the balance lie? There appears to be an inherent bias in “Moral Certainty” which gener-ally results in more harm than good. But it does not need to be so. There is another kind of moral certainty which is, of necessity, less headline catching because it is less dogmatic, less assertive, does not seek to coerce others to comply. It consists of innumerable quiet acts of kindness, compassion, and for-giveness. In the course of writing this piece I have come to the conclusion that the virtuous face of moral certainty turns out in most cases to be simple, unassuming, steadfast faith ; faith to put one’s trust in God and to try to walk, however falteringly, in the footsteps of Christ. This is encapsulated in Matthew 5 v.16 from the Sermon on the Mount – Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven. That is an onerous enough task for any mortal, but if just occasionally it gives comfort or hope to a despairing soul it is indeed a virtue.

John Chatten 

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