What is the relation between moral goodness and intellectual insight?
The modern assumption is that there is no connection, that ethics inhabits a different realm altogether from knowledge.
This view would have been incomprehensible to the great sages of both the ancient West (whether “Ecclesiastes” or Socrates) and the East (Buddha or Confucius).
In the Hebrew Bible, for example, “the fool” is a moral category more than an intellectual one.
History is littered with examples of brilliant scientists, mathematicians, artists and musicians who inflicted deep misery on those who had to live with them and whose chauvinist or racist beliefs would shock us today.
The Royal Society or the Nobel Committee do not look at the moral character of the individuals it chooses to reward for their intellectual achievements.
A mathematician’s proof of a theorem is weighed on its own merits and not by any financial corruption or marital infidelity that may have given him his academic position.
His personal character and relationships are fitting subjects for his biographer, not for evaluation in professional math journals.
We can gratefully receive, as gifts of God’s common grace, the artistic creativity and scientific genius of men and women whom we would not care to present as moral exemplars for our children and societies.
However, can the absence of moral goodness leave unaffected any person’s claim to be a great theologian or moral philosopher?
This question was raised in a paper, written some 40 years ago, by the Cambridge theologian-philosopher, Donald Mackinnon.
He begins his paper with the examples of the outstanding logician Gottlob Frege – who was not only “a racialist of the most bigoted sort,” but “obsessively anti-Catholic as well as anti-Semitic” – and Gerhard Kittel, initiator of the widely used “Theological Wordbook of the New Testament” and a noted authority on the text and historical context of the New Testament, who had no qualms about developing a theological apologia for the Nuremberg racial laws. He showed no remorse for his support for the Nazis after the war ended.
But the occasion for Mackinnon’s reflections was the “deeply disturbing” revelations concerning the celebrated German-American theologian, Paul Tillich, stemming from the pen of his wife, Hannah, and his personal friend, the psychiatrist Rollo May.
Tillich fled to the U.S. as a refugee from Nazi tyranny and established himself after the war as perhaps the most famous philosopher-theologian of the Anglo-American world.
He emerges from his wife’s book as a man who used his intellectual charisma to attract women into his orbit and seduce them.
He comes across as coldly cruel toward his wife. His children were also the victims of his willful promiscuity.
When Hannah, in desperation, sought divorce, he threw himself on the floor, begging her not to and enlisting his friends to tell her that it would ruin his career. This was the author of a best-selling existential classic, “The Courage to Be.”
Mackinnon notes wryly: “Sadly, we must conclude that at that time the ‘courage to be’ of which Tillich wrote did not extend to risking his career, his status, his reputation, his security.”
Colleagues of mine in Singapore recently told me of how they had invited a well-known evangelical theologian from the U.S. to visit Singapore for some public meetings that they planned to host.
They were shocked when this man demanded $2,000 as his fee for each talk, plus a business-class airfare. They had to revoke the invitation, as they could not afford it.
I was incensed when I heard this. My last “experience” with the same theologian was in a conference on reconciliation in South Korea, when he flew in just before the talk he was to give and flew out again after he had finished, not waiting to hear responses, let alone listen to other peoples’ talks.
I remember thinking at the time, “Typical academic prima donna.” I lost all interest in reading his books anymore. Am I wrong to feel this distaste?
No doubt he continues to have interesting and important things to say. And I don’t doubt that God continues to use us despite our moral flaws.
But if theological and moral positions are not embodied in the lives of those who advocate them, why should we take them seriously?
I feel the same distaste over the cult of “apologetics” books and courses emanating from conservative American circles and marketed worldwide.
More than the simplistic arguments, what troubles me is the profoundly un-Christian style – inattention to context, caricatures and stereotypes of other viewpoints, self-promotion, the reduction of Christian witness to winning arguments and so on.
Knowing a preacher’s political stance and what he does with his fees tells me more about his “Christianity” than any of his theological arguments. And I think I am not alone.
It is why secularized young people are more likely to listen to Pope Francis explain what it means to be a Christian than to clever evangelical “apologists.”
In the early church, before the onset of Christendom, those seeking baptism were given moral instruction (how they should live as Christians) before they were taught the doctrines of the faith. I reflect on this in the last chapter of my book, “The Recovery of Mission.”
Church leaders assumed that people don’t think their way into a new way of living; rather, they lived their way into a new way of thinking. Some truths can only be perceived by people who live in a certain way.
Were they – and I – wrong? If so, I would welcome correction. But, if not, what are the implications for theological and spiritual formation?
Vinoth Ramachandra is secretary for dialogue and social engagement for the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students. He lives in Sri Lanka. A version of this column first appeared on his blog and is used with permission.