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CURMUDGEONRY
Adjustable Ethics
The will of God by majority vote.

by Barnabas
August 6, 2003

Adjustable Ethics_Barnabas-The will of God by majority vote.
I intend to. I mean to. See? I never made up my mind to do a thing yet that I didn’t bring it off. That’s the sort of man I am.
—Boss Mangan in Heartbreak House, by Bernard Shaw.

You are beneath the dome of heaven, in the house of God. What is true inside these walls is true outside them.
— Captain Shotover in Heartbreak House, by Bernard Shaw.

There’s going to be a lot of things you won’t like.
—My sister-in-law, answering the complaint. “Don’t like!” stated by her tiny daughter.
This column is not about the ethics of homosexuality; I had my say on that subject a few weeks ago. It’s about the modern obsession with getting our way—the assumption that if our desires are so strong that they seem to us to be a natural force, we have the right to follow them. When enough people, or the right people, want what we want, we alter our ethical perspectives to include the satisfaction of these desires. Self satisfaction replaces self-discipline as an ethical standard.

We have the right; but we do not concede it as a universal right. We see to it that racists and kleptomaniacs, to cite two examples, are forbidden by law to follow their desires - and we deny any parallel between their desires and ours. Our desires are wholesome, natural, and God-given; theirs are perverse and unholy.

Sometimes wholesomeness and God-givenness have nothing to do with it. It boils down to “we have the power, and you don’t.” That is Boss Mangan’s position in Heartbreak House. He plans to marry a woman less than half his age. Captain Shotover tells him he can’t, which leads to the contrary summaries stated in the epigraph. To Mangan, the truth is whatever he wants it to be in relation to whatever he wants to do. To Shotover, the truth is unyielding no matter where it is said or by whom. We are all under the dome of heaven.

Even churches may yield to the insidious persuasion of Mangan’s philosophy, as the Episcopal foofaraw in Minneapolis is demonstrating this week: anything goes if other people can’t stop you and the relevant majority does not object. The real issue for the Episcopalians is the locus of authority, not the practice of homosexuality. The Episcopalians decided that issue several years ago, when they began to allow their priests to live in homosexual relationships.

To those of us in congregational churches, the ethical content of the controversy is sadly comic. To us, what is unholy for a bishop is also unholy for a priest. It seems to us that the threat to walk out if a practicing gay becomes a bishop is a trifle late in the game — barn doors and horses and other such conventional wisdom appears to apply.

I’m with the old pagan Captain Shotover, and my sister-in-law, on this one. While mercy and forgiveness may adjust to circumstances, truth does not. There’s going to be a lot of things we won’t like.

About the Author:
Barnabas has lots of Episcopal friends, too.


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