The Temptation of Christ(ianity)

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Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. [Luke 4:1-2]

What’s going on here in Christ’s temptation?  More than we can ever ask or imagine, I’m sure, but since I’m doing theology right now, my thoughts run to the temptations encountered there.  One job for theology is to explain, and herein lies a temptation, because there follows quickly on the heels of explanation the temptation to cast aside any mystery or paradox that gets in our way.

Indeed this is one of the temptations embodied in Jesus’ encounter with the devil in the wilderness.  In saying ‘no’ to the devil, Jesus refused to purge his existence of paradox. The Grand Inquisitor[1] was right in his accusation: Jesus is guilty-

…guilty of refusing the chance he had to make his divinity clear enough for all to see.  The Grand Inquistor performed at Chekhov International Theater FestivalMight we ask, along with the Grand Inquisitor, “Jesus, why did you not turn the stones into bread?  You could have fed the world.  You could have eliminated suffering. You could have solved the problem of pain.”  No.  “Jesus, why did you not take the glory and power which are rightfully yours? You could have brought justice and ended war for all time.”  No.  “Jesus, why did you not soar through the sky with the angels, for all to plainly see that you are divine?”  A third time, no.  “Jesus, you’ve left us in misery and doubt and paradox, and you are the greatest paradox of all.”

“The god has made his appearance as a teacher.  He has taken the form of a servant…   …this is not an idea that has arisen in any human heart.”

 – Johannes Climacus[2]

No indeed, this is not the way we would have invented god from our own hearts.  We can never explain this type of God.  He is the God who chose not to arise as a thought in human hearts.

It strikes me that this is exactly the temptation Christ faced in the desert-to reveal his divinity in such a way that the ambiguity and paradox would be wiped away.  Turn these stones into bread; i.e. eliminate suffering, both yours and all people’s.  Bow down and worship me; i.e., abort the Father’s intent to give his people true freedom to accept him or deny him.  Cast yourself down from the steeple top; i.e., make your heavenly identity crystal clear in a spectacle so that all can see and believe.  Had Jesus succumbed to Satan’s gambit and accepted any of these three opportunities, he could indeed have rescued us from the distress of ambiguity and paradox.  Why, Jesus, did you leave yourself a mystery to us?  Why did you leave behind a paradox that drives us in philosophical quests?  Couldn’t you see the impeccable logic of the Grand Inquisitor?  Then you could truly have saved us from that which nags incessantly at our souls-the despair of doubting and wondering how you could possibly be the one who was sent into the world to dwell with us, and die with us, and live among us.

… no philosophy (for it is only for thought), no mythology (for it is only for the imagination), no historical knowledge (which is for memory) has ever had this idea…[3]     – Climacus



[1] “The Grand Inquisitor”, a short story within a chapter of Dostoyevski’s The Brothers Karamazov, is the most famous allegorical literary treatment of the temptation of Christ.[2] Philosophical Fragments, written by Søren Kierkegaard under the pseudonym Johannes Climacus, translated by Howard V. Hong, (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1962).[3] Fragments, 109.

 (Evolutionary Ethics, Part II)

And I will place within them as a guide

My Umpire CONSCIENCE

                              – Milton, Paradise Lost (III: 194-5)

St Thomas AquinasWhat is Conscience?  And where does it come from?

Is it built into us, as a basic bit of human nature?  Perhaps Darwin got it right when he said, “any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts,… would inevitably acquire a moral sense of conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well, or nearly as well developed as in man.”[1] On this view, conscience might be merely a word we give to the natural feelings we have when we confront certain types of choices requiring us to choose between selfish behavior and behavior that cares more for other members of our species.

Or it could be that God deliberately stitched conscience into our human fabric, as Milton implied in his poem above.  Both these views have been around for a long time-Milton’s since before the rise of medieval philosophy, and Darwin’s since…, well, since before Darwin. 

In philosophy there is a long-standing tradition of presuming that conscience is built into our human nature, akin to the faculty of reason, and that conscience serves as a kind of moral compass which we use to discern the right direction from the wrong.  Aquinas (1224/6-74) gets credit for articulating this view.  He saw the conscience (conscientia) as a practical application of reason, a natural ability to make moral judgments based on our understanding of right and wrong.  For Aquinas, this conscience was not perfect; it could make mistakes, for example by faulty reasoning, or by relying on false beliefs.  The important thing for morality however, was to act in concert with reason; this was the function of conscience:

In connection with human acts the words ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are applied on the basis of a comparison to reason, because… a human being’s good is existing in accordance with reason, while what is bad for a human being is whatever is contrary to reason.

(Summa Theologiae IaIIae.18.5c)

This association of conscience with the judgment of reason remains very much alive among philosophers today,[2] for example Richard Swinburne sounds the same note in saying,

To be guided by one’s moral beliefs is to be guided by one’s conscience.[3]

This view of conscience seems pretty compatible with the goal of evolutionary ethics to explain morality in terms of evolutionary forces (see Part I, below).  The logic of evolutionary ethics says that morality must provide some advantage in terms of survival of the fittest, in order to give a competitive advantage to individuals having genetic instincts for moral behavior. Such an evolutionary force would naturally favor survival of those individuals who had an innate moral reason, in other words, conscientia.   Thus moral reason, conscientia, would become a genetically favored trait. 

Of course this was not what Aquinas had in mind 750 years ago.  Aquinas seems to have been more concerned with accommodating the Bible than with accommodating evolution.  The challenge he faced is that the word conscientia does not appear in the Bible; rather, the Bible uses the Greek word syneidesis in the New Testament, and this is the word most English Bibles translate as “conscience.”[4]  This biblical word for conscience is much more complicated than the philosophical ideal of practical moral reason represented by conscientia. In order to avoid the complexity of the biblical word perhaps, Aquinas stuck with philosophical terms.  He had to employ another Latin word not found in the Bible, synderesis, to explain his theory of moral reasoning. This word refers to the understanding of moral truth as universal natural laws.  By analogy, we could simplify Aquinas and the medieval philosophers who followed him by saying that synderesis is like knowing true north, and the human faculty of conscientia is like our ability to find our way in the woods.

For Aquinas, the absolute moral truths involved in the operation of synderesis came from God.  For evolutionary ethics, they come from nature.  Other than that, the philosophy of conscientia seems to work pretty well in both cases.  The basic premise is that there are fundamental ethical principles that lead to survival, and the built-in function of the human conscience (conscientia) is to make reasonable judgments about how to apply those fundamental ethical principles.[5]

Yet, there remains a disconnect between Aquinas’ view and the view of evolutionary ethics.  The problem is that Aquinas notices the tendency of moral reason to error.  He calls such an error an “act of  will against reason.”[6]  This happens when people act in ways that go against their conscience, whether in the sense of defective moral reasoning (underdeveloped conscientia), or in the case of misapplying moral truths (synderesis).  

These errors present a challenge for evolutionary ethics, in that such errors would presumably be eliminated from the gene pool over time.  Perhaps we have just not waited long enough for nature to take its course. 

[rev. 21/11/07]


[1] Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, second edition, John Murray, London, 1875, p. 98.

[2] This premium on reason seems to be an important idea for philosophers over the millennia, and I suspect this may be because they tend to be people who are quite good at it, or at least good at teaching it.  I have a nagging suspicion in my more cynical moments that this might be a bit like footballers teaching skill on the pitch as an ultimate good (of course, there is some truth to both these schools of thought.)

[3] Richard Swinburne, Responsibility and Atonement (Oxford: Clarendon, 1989), 13.

[4] For example, Hebrews 9:14-” How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death,?? so that we may serve the living God!”

[5] Unfortunately, Aquinas never fully explained how conscientia and synderesis relate to one another, as Swinburne rightly acknowledges, op. cit., p. 39.

[6] Summa Theologiae IaIIae.19.5.

 Part I

…the following proposition seems to me in a high degree probable-namely, that any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts,… would inevitably acquire a moral sense of conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well, or nearly as well developed as in man.’     – Charles Darwin[1]

Department of Moral Philosophy: a comely sign of a perennial questionIt is a truth widely acknowledged that every human trait has arisen through Darwinian natural selection.  Is any other conclusion possible if we are to think about human nature within the context of biological evolution?   If our nature resides solely and wholly within our genes and neurons, which seems to be the sentiment of modern neuroscience, then we had better look at evolutionary force as the “invisible hand” that has shaped our humanity.  On this view, the Darwinian process of natural selection has created our human psyches. The invisible hand of evolutionary force thereby also deserves credit for creating within us the psychological desire of our psyches to understand why we feel and behave the way we do.

Darwin himself showed crystal clear logic in anticipating all this, as he shows in the quote above. This logic has provided an eminently fruitful paradigm for biological science, as well as the more recent pursuit known as “evolutionary psychology.”  This logic also explains the efforts of so many modern psychologists, scientists, philosophers and even theologians, to explain morality in terms of evolutionary process.   After all, isn’t morality typically considered one of the signal attributes of human nature?  I would suggest we give this topic the name, “evolutionary ethics.”  The search for an explanatory theory of evolutionary ethics would seem to be the chief concern of many moral philosophers today, following Darwin’s lead.[2]

Whence comes the energy that motivates so many to pursue the project of evolutionary ethics?

I would suggest that this energy is motivated by a desire to deal with challenges to the doctrine of evolution.  These challenges arise in cases where human behavior seems not to operate in a matter entirely consistent with the theory of evolution.  By greatly oversimplifying the issue in this short essay, I can state the challenging problem in a word–“altruism.”

Here’s the challenge to be solved in evolutionary ethics-

If the source of power in the natural force of evolution is survival of the fittest, then what possible advantage could an organism obtain by self-sacrificial acts?  Prima facie altruism would seem to work exactly opposite to the ethos of evolution.  Aye, there’s the rub, for altruistic behaviors seem to be precisely the type of  attributes that set humans and other highly social species apart, and which tend to be the qualities most highly admired in literature, culture and personal relationships.

There are two fundamental ways of dealing with this problem: (1) search for explanations which employ evolutionary forces; or (2) admit that evolutionary forces are not the whole story.  This latter choice introduces an unpleasant possibility for many, and thus there is energy to avoid it.  Hence the source of energy in the project of evolutionary ethics.



[1] Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, second edition, John Murray, London, 1875, p. 98.

[2] To name but a few current writers seeking to contribute to the development of explanatory evolutionary ethics: Richard Swinburne, Daniel Dennett, Edward Wilson, & Richard Dawkins.