The unprincipled God

For Christmas, the Archbishop of Canterbury remembers Karl Barth who preached in 1931 about the action of God which is not based on principles but on unconditional love.

Williams writes:

Christmas is supremely the story of a God who is not interested in telling us about principles. First comes the action – God beginning to live a human life. Then comes the appeal: do you love and trust what you see in this human life, the life of Jesus? Then the implication: everyone is capable of saying yes to this appeal, so no one is dispensable. You don't and can't know where the boundary will lie between people who belong and people who don't belong.

The 20th century built up quite a list of casualties around "principles" in Barth's sense. Various philosophies solemnly assured us that the human cost is really worth it, because history will vindicate the sufferings and sacrifices of the present. Keep your nerve, don't be distracted by the human face of suffering, because it will be all right in the end; we know it will because the principles are clear.

Fortunately the Western world has not for a long time seen the real horrors that this entails in terms of brutality and devastation. Yet we are not completely immune from appealing to "principles" in order to help us avoid some of the harsher consequences of our policies and preferences. They may in themselves be good and positive principles, not like the destructive ideologies of the past century. But we're bound to be uncomfortably aware at the moment that what looked like a principled defence of some of our economic assumptions (this is what real wealth creation means and there is no other coherent way of defending it) seems more ragged and vulnerable than it once did.

The unprincipled question won't be silenced: what about the particular human costs? What about the unique concerns and crises of the pensioner whose savings have disappeared, the Woolworths employee, the hopeful young executive, let alone the helpless producer of goods in some Third-World environment where prices are determined thousands of miles away?

People react impatiently to this, asking why religious believers should be taken seriously when they talk about economics. Fair enough. But the whole point is that the believer doesn't want to talk about economics, only to ask an "unprincipled" question – to make sure that principles don't simply block out actual human faces and stories. How we make it all work is vastly complicated – no one is pretending it isn't. But without these anxieties about the specific costs, we've lost the essential moral compass.

So Christmas doesn't offer an alternative set of economic theories or even a social programme. It's a story – the record of an event that began to change the entire framework in which we think about human life, so that the unique value of every life came to be affirmed and assumed.

Whether we realise it or not, the reason we are shocked by the mass killings under Hitler or Stalin or Pol Pot, by the indifference of a Mugabe to raging poverty and epidemic, is because this story has made a difference to how our civilisation thinks about universal human dignity.

The God of the Christmas story (and the rest of the Gospels) doesn't relate to us on the basis of any theory. but on the basis of unconditional love and welcome. That act of free love towards the entire human race changed things – even for those who didn't and don't share all the beliefs and doctrines of Christianity. And for those who do share those convictions, loving God and one another is a defiance of all programmes and principles designed to preserve only the wellbeing of people like us.

Read it all.


Comments (3)

But is not principle precisely how lgbt persons have been generally approached by this Communion? By which we were treated at Lambeth? And by this archbishop?

Oh, how the man goes on and on...suddenly, in the middle of this saga, I´m thinking about all the everyday gangrapes and murdering and massacres in Africa...the exclusion, the instigating, the greed, the fear, the exploiting, the demonizing hate and daily degradacion of other human beings, Anglicans and others..surely the ABC ought hookup with the Pope and get out more amongst the decaying REALITY of their hurting flocks instead of swoshing around Palaces and cook´n grandiose/intellectual stuff up!

Yes, precisely, the ABC tells the liberals in the UK, the Episcopal Church, and the Anglican Church of Canada they should sacrifice equality/dignity of persons to keep the failed Anglican Empire together. It is unclear whether he is asking them to abandon a principle of decency or to overlook the singularity of each individual.

I am concerned that throwing principles or values out would be to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I believe a church very much must stand for the dignity of the human person, for equal protection before the law. One needn't be religious in order to work for equality. In fact, often those who don't do belief are more ethical than church leaders.

As a theologian for an established church, however, his job is to bless inequality and, in a larger context, try to justify the continued establishment of the Church of England.


Gary Paul Gilbert


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