Late in his most recent book, Seven Types of Atheism, John Gray quotes Schopenhauer identifying what he sees as a major problem for Christian apologetics: “A religion which has as its foundation a single event, and in fact tries to make the turning point of the whole world and of all existence out of that event that occurred at a definite time and place, has so feeble a foundation that it cannot possibly survive.” Both Schopenhauer and Gray fail to consider that this might actually be one of the greatest assets of Christian apologetics. Yes, Christianity has its foundation in a single event, and sees this event, occurring at a definite time and place, as the fulcrum of all creation. And so much the better for Christianity. Here is precisely the particularity that Gray notices is disastrously absent from the modern political religions whose provenance he traces (in Seven Types of Atheism and in a number of previous works) to Christianity. If you’re searching for a pragmatic explanation of why Christianity has in fact survived, you could do worse than point out that as a religion it achieves an unprecedented combination of the general and the particular; its moral claims are universal but still firmly rooted in history; it caters in a single stroke both to our need for objective order and to our awareness of ourselves as historically situated subjects. As a way of thought and life, orthodox Christianity, uniquely, concedes nothing to either rule-fetishism or moral anarchism.
I won’t be elaborating on that proposition here, but let it suffice as an intimation of the revolutionary character of Christianity with regard to moral thought which Gray, despite the centrality of Christianity to his account of the historical evolution of ethics, overlooks. For Gray, Christianity (which owes more to the dogmatic evangelism of St. Paul and the latent Manicheism of St. Augustine than to anything in the extant teachings of Jesus) has shaped the moral lives of us moderns as nothing else has, but it has wrought great destruction in obscuring a more nuanced pre-modern understanding of the plurality of moral values and the insolubility of many conflicts of value. Gray believes that “there are many moralities” because “values often conflict with each other.” “When individuals and groups choose between conflicting universal values, they create different moralities.” I don’t wish to rehearse a tired critique of moral relativism – there’s some truth in what Gray says. However, it’s worth registering some pressing difficulties with Gray’s account of morality, and the best way to do that seems to be to juxtapose (with a specific example in mind) the relativist impulse to which Gray is sympathetic and the missionary impulse, which is one of the chief targets of the anti-humanist polemic that has occupied Gray’s late career.
Do the North Sentinelese feel remorse for the killing of John Chau? Our inability to answer this question shouldn’t prevent us from a detailed consideration of the question whether the North Sentinelese ought to feel remorse for the killing of John Chau, or from arriving at a definite answer to that question despite our near-complete ignorance of North Sentinelese culture. The emotional realities of being human provide us with enough moral data to give an answer to the latter question before we know anything about the cultural realities of the situation. The spears that fatally tore into the body of John Chau could only have been thrown by other human beings, which are creatures capable of reflecting on the significance of ending another’s life.
Fixating on the apparently colonial nature of John Chau’s intentions, seeing this as the most relevant moral detail in his death, is a way of declining to take an interest in the humanity of the North Sentinelese. Standing on their beach shouting “Jesus loves you” at them is a much more humane way of treating the North Sentinelese than casually exonerating them for the murder of an idealistic young man. It’s no mystery how a man can go about forfeiting his life in the eyes of the North Sentinelese, but explaining this fact doesn’t come close to an exhaustive moral account of the death of John Chau. Of course, in saying this I assume that one unassailable moral fact is the sanctity of human life. This assumption is part of what Gray sees as responsible for “the doctrinal violence that has ravaged western civilization”. The onus is on Gray to show that our apprehension of the innate preciousness of human life is the product of an ethical postulate rather than vice versa, that the ethical core of humanism is a deontological conjuring trick. He would need to argue that if a missionary falls with a spear in his heart on North Sentinel Island he does not, morally speaking, make a sound, not until someone else with a mind polluted by Christian doctrine comprehends what has happened.
I’m not suggesting that these xenophobic tribesmen ought to be hauled before a court. My point is that the supposed moral superiority of Gray’s brand of moral relativism is purchased at an exorbitant cost. There is, indisputably, a conflict of values to be observed: the islanders value the inviolability of their sovereign borders, so to speak, while the missionary values the saving power of the Gospel, and these values violently collide. But if all that you see here is a conflict of values, then you miss the tragedy.
It’s all well and good for Gray to say “Some values may be humanly universal – being tortured or persecuted is bad for all human beings, for example.” But the moral claims that the facts of torture and persecution make on us are not simply the kind that oblige us to refrain from torturing and persecuting and to prevent wherever possible the torturing and persecution of others. Often the moral challenge we face with regard to these immoral actions is not the challenge of maintaining an individual and social prohibition but of living in the wake of the perpetration of profound immorality, living amongst torturers and the tortured, persecutors and the persecuted, and even encountering both in the same person. Moralism is too easy a response to this challenge, and so too is the kind of sceptical historicizing of moral dramas that Gray practices. What’s required here is an ethic that can hold justice and charity in balance, the kind of ethic that’s concerned not with exonerating murderers but with forgiving them.