Fideistic Morality: Responding to Adam Friended and Esther O’Reilly

Esther O’Reilly and Adam Friended recently had a conversation on evolution and morality which sparked some conversation within my online circles. After reading Paul Vanderklay’s response to the conversation, on his blog, I thought I would add my own thoughts the conversation. 

I believe there are four stages of morality, the greater your conception of reality, the more moral your pattern of behaviour can be:

  1. Nihilism
  2. Relativism
  3. Natural law/Pragmatism
  4. Christianity

Morality requires consciousness. A world without consciousness is a world in which there is no such a thing as morality. There is no good, no bad, no evil, no rightness, all just is. The world without consciousness is the world as a “place of objects,” it is the cool, objective world as described by science.

1. This world of objects, without consciousness is Nihilism: there is no truth, no goodness, no beauty, all is meaningless

However, when we add consciousness to the world, a different reality opens up. The conscious agent perceives the world and acts in the world, thus the world can, through consciousness, be seen as a “forum for action.” It is here, in this world of consciousness where morality “is.” Morality, is not a  “object” it is a “pattern of behaviour.”

2. This world of isolated subjectivity, of individual conscious agents is relativism: individuals decide what works for him or her self, the good is what works for the individual, this is radical self preservation. Each individual has his own pattern of behaviour.

Now, when we add the element of time to the universe, we see that some patterns of behaviour work to promote flourishing over time, others lead to death or sickness. The patterns of behaviour that lead to flourishing are described by the archetypes encoded in myth. The hero confronts the dragon of chaos and brings back gold to renew the tyrannical order. Moral laws are created by looking at the patterns of moral behaviour exhibited by isolated individuals over time, seeing what works, and abstracting out general laws. There can be exceptions due to the particularities of culture, society, ect, but generally, people who follow the archetypes or the moral law will flourish. Those who go against the archetypal way or violate the natural law, will not flourish.

This abstraction is Jordan Peterson’s God. To Peterson, God is: the pattern of behaviour abstracted from individual humans. Therefor, our knowledge of God grows as time passes. There is something Hegelian about it. We are aiming at the target of “goodness” and through our near hits or far out misses, we can get a better sense of what the good is. The more shots we take, the more data we have and the more precise our knowledge will be. (look up the “law of errors”)

3. This world of what works over time is natural law or pragmatism: Both theists and atheists can appreciate that some actions lead to flourishing over time, while others do not.  This is morality of immanence.

Perhaps this is where morality ends, perhaps it is not. So far, we have progressed rationally, step by step, and have added objects, consciousness, and time to our universe, however, what if there is also transcendence, a realm beyond the natural/physical/material, a “supernatural realm?” (to use a word that fudges) This realm lies beyond our immediate experience, and cannot be reached by rational analysis, it can only be trusted in, or be reached by a leap of faith.

The problem is, how can one be instructed by the transcendent? Since we cannot access the transcendence, the transcendent must come to us.

This is where Jesus comes in. As the God-man, Jesus in the unity of transcendence and immanence. Jesus as the Logos and the way, calls us to follow in his footsteps. Jesus followers are to be little incarnations, that is, they are called to unite heaven and earth in their radical discipleship. Following Jesus requires taking his commands seriously, despite the consequences for survival. Indeed, what Jesus demands of his followers isn’t exactly a formula for survival and reproduction: resist not evil, turn the other cheek, love your neighbour as yourself, love your enemy, do good to those who persecute you. A pattern of life starts to emerge, this is not about flourishing here and now, this is about bringing the goodness of heaven to earth, even at the cost of one’s life or happiness. Philosopher Charles Taylor explains that in the Christian conception, renouncing human flourishing now is not just about forgoing pleasure now for the sake of a future, heavenly flourishing, it is also about bringing flourishing to others. He is worth quoting at length:

In the Christian case the very point of renunciation requires that the ordinary flourishing forgone be confirmed as valid. Unless living the full span were good, Christ giving of himself to death could not have the meaning it does. In this way it is utterly different from Socrates’ death, which [he] portrays as leaving the [present] condition for a better one. Here we see the unbridgeable gap between Christianity and Greek philosophy: God wills ordinary human flourishing and a great part of what is reported in the gospels consists in Christ making this possible for the peoples whose afflictions he heals. The call to renounce doesn’t negate the value of flourishing. It is rather the call to centre everything on God, even if it be at the cost of forgoing this unsubstitutable good, and the fruit of this forging, is that it become on one level the source of flourishing to others, and on another level, a collaboration with the restoration a fuller flourishing by God. It is a mode of healing wounds and repairing the world… This means that flourishing and renunciation cannot simply be collapsed into each another to make a single goal, by, as it were, pitching the renounced goods overboard as unnecessary ballast on the journey of life, in the manner of Stoicism There remains a fundamental tension in Christianity: flourishing is good, nevertheless seeking it is not our ultimate goal, but even here we renounce it, we reaffirm it, because we follow God’s will in being a channel for it to others and ultimately to all.

Thus, Jesus following is an act of faith: it requires radical trust that this is the way, and that our “labor is not in vain.” It requires going against flourishing in the now and even going against the demands of the age and the demands of the state: only Jesus is lord. This will inevitably, as Jesus promised, lead to suffering. The pattern Christ sets out for his followers to imitate, will inevitably clash with all that is wordily. Hence, Jesus commands his followers to follow Him single-mindedly, without divided allegiance: to renounce the lure of money, the lure of power, the lure of violence, to even not let family and relationships get in the way. Kierkegaard writes movingly of one who renounces all to peruse the ethical, even at the cost of great suffering:

Let me be as if created for a whim, this is the jest; and yet I propose to will the ethical with all my strength, with utmost exertion, this is earnest; and I propose to will absolutely nothing else. O insignificant significance, O sportive earnestness, O blessed fear and trembling! It is a blessed thing to be able to satisfy the divine requirement, smiling at the demands of the age; it is blessed even to despair of being able to satisfy the divine requirement, provided one does not for all that let go of God!

4. This leap to transcendence through faithful Christ following is Christianity: This is the highest moral striving, it goes beyond the selfishness of relativism, beyond the immanence of  natural law and into the transcendence of self-giving love.


7 thoughts on “Fideistic Morality: Responding to Adam Friended and Esther O’Reilly

  1. Hi Julian,

    Just enjoyed this portion of your blog immensely. Your last quote from Kierkegaard reminded me of a blog entry I wrote in 2012. I thought I’d share it here with you.

    “I once asked myself if I wanted to be a part of the multitudes. How great would it have been to sit through the sermon on the mount, the beatitudes, and the Lord’s prayer? To be a part of the five thousand fed by Jesus, to see the blind regain their sight, and the sick pick up their beds and go home….whole again. Then I remembered that the multitudes threw down palms at Jesus’ feet when He rode into Jerusalem and the next day they demanded He be crucified. I realized then that I didn’t want to be a part of the multitudes. I was not even happy with the behavior of the Disciples, how they scattered and were afraid and denied Jesus. Right then I wished I was a dog. A dog that would follow it’s Master regardless of public opinion, regardless of the status quo. I even imagined this dog with it’s tongue hanging out in the hottest part of the day, waiting and watching to see what He would do next, where He would go and I realized that I wanted to be like that.

    Not blindly following, not stupid, but ever watchful, ever faithful, ever true to the Master I know. The Master who always has my best interest in mind even when I don’t know what that might be. Trusting, loyal and honest.”

    I think this idea of knowing God….really knowing Him is truly at the heart of Kierkegaard’s message. Always waiting, always willing, always ready to be used by Him, for His glory!


    1. Hi Shari,

      Thanks for dropping by. 🙂

      That quote by Kierkegaard is one of my favourite. It incapsulates something Kierkegaard has given me which I think is essential to Christianity: the absolute necessity of faith/trust.

      I love your quote! Christianity is just that simple and just that hard. 🙂 Can you share the link to your blog?

      I don’t think you’re too far our when you say that near the heart of Kierkegaard’s message is “knowing God.” Especially if you take “knowing” in the fascinating Kierkegaardian sense of the How instead of the What. How you are related to the truth, is more important to Kierkegaard than having all your doctrinal ducks in a row. To Kierkegaard, knowing, in this How sense, is connected with existence.
      We only truly, fully exist, we only fully become human to Kierkegaard, in relationship with Christ. How do we come to know Christ, who lived 2000 years ago? This is where your dog meets Kieerkegaard. Kierkegaard’s answer is that we must become contemporaneous with Christ. This is for me, the heart of Kierkegaard, and the heart of Christianity. To truly know (to know and to follow are inseparable) Christ, we must renounce all, strip away all the layers so that we can stand face to face with Christ and follow him like a faithful dog.

      That is so radical, so difficult, so beautiful, that I will need an eternity to live up to it.

      If you saw my most recent post, thats what I am somewhat provocatively trying to bring across: Christianity is contemporaneousness with Christ and none of us wants to see Him face to face.


      1. Hi Julian,

        Thanks for your insights into Kierkegaard. I haven’t really dug into Fear and Trembling yet as I am hoping to do a bit of a book club discussion with it and am still getting things organized. If it doesn’t work out that way then I’ll just have to do it on my own. I have however, listened to a few lectures on Kierkegaard and one really good BBC podcast, all on YouTube.The more I hear about his thoughtful insights the more intrigued I find myself. One commentator said that Kierkegaard believed that because we “see through a glass darkly” we can never be objective about anything…..there is just too much unknown. I personally believe that to be the case. I find that people , in general, like to have the feeling they are sure of something and so they construct theories and doctrines to give themselves a feeling of security. Somewhat resembling your idea of the Tower of Babel.( I love that, BTW) If you read through the gospels you will quickly see that Jesus spent most of his time smashing that sense of security…..found in religion. This seems to be Kierkegaard’s pet peeve as well…..Christendom. I find myself in full agreement here. I look forward to digging deeper into Kierkegaard and his wisdom and sharing these thoughts with you.

        You are so right about Christianity being contemporaneous with Christ. This is truly the heart of God…to be in relationship with us. Abraham, Enoch, Moses, Job, Peter, Paul, John,and so many more, all the friend of God!

        My blog address is I haven’t written anything in a long while. It was a form of therapy for me at the time. I am mostly making observations about life. I hope you enjoy it. I am getting inspired now though to continue on with it!

        You on the other hand! Keep writing Julian! I love to hear what you are thinking about.

        All the best, Shari


  2. A book club around Fear and Trembling! Good Luck! You’ll have to have a very engaged group to go through a text like F&T. I actually have done a few book clubs in my own community, so maybe we could share some tips. 🙂 One thing I’ve found is that the less organized, the better the conversation. (though total anarchy doesn’t work either.)

    Have you come across Gregory B Sadler’s Lectures? His series on Fear and Trembling is very helpful.

    “One commentator said that Kierkegaard believed that because we “see through a glass darkly” we can never be objective about anything…..there is just too much unknown. I personally believe that to be the case. I find that people , in general, like to have the feeling they are sure of something and so they construct theories and doctrines to give themselves a feeling of security.”

    I agree! I have thought that because we cannot have what Paul calls the monarchical vision, and because all of our theories and systems fall short… we need to have faith. Kierkegaard has this incredible line about going out over 70,000 fathoms, where no one but God can reach you, and yet, holding on to the objective uncertainty with infinite passion. I think that is the humility, the vulnerability required for faith. In many ways I think a person of faith, of real faith, not the dogmatic certainty that gets called faith, is actually someone who can explore without fear. One thing Kierkegaard has made me realize is how little I actually trust God. 🙂

    Have you seen my conversations with PVK? I have them posted on my blog, in my second one I actually bring up the Tower of Babel and connect it with Christ, we also talk about Kierkegaard, I think you would enjoy the conversation we had.

    I will definitely head over to your blog as well. If you do decide to keep reading Kierkegaard, I have a suggestion for you. You seem like a joyful person, I wonder if you could think about joy in a Kierkegaardian way. Given his melancholy, I wonder how Kierkegaard would reconcile that with Christian joy. Just a thought….

    Thanks for the encouragement Shari. 🙂


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