Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun

Trust and the Holy Spirit

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This morning, I watched a debate on the BBC’s The Big Questions programme. During a debate about faith, one panellist claimed that he had remained faithful to his wife for 15 years, not through his own agency but because the Holy Spirit had ‘moved in him.’ Later, he claimed that he’d been moved, again by the Holy Spirit’ to give to a homeless charity. I found these claims deeply troubling for several reasons.

First, the claim that he only acted morally because the Holy Spirit compelled him is troubling because it amounts to a denial of free will and agent-responsibility. If the reason we do good is because a spirit moves us to do good, then we don’t do good because it is right, but because we are compelled to do so. It’s possible that the gentleman intended making a weaker claim than he did – perhaps that he is commanded rather than compelled by the Holy Spirit. Which brings me onto my second concern.

If someone says that they did good because they were instructed to by a spiritual being, then there’s that worry there’s no moral judgement being made by the individual.  It’s very hard to call obedience to command a moral theory. Indeed, if we only do right because we are commanded, then we’re not really moral beings at all. The concern is that they’ve subscribed to Divine Command Theory – that what is good is what God says is good. This means that the person receiving commands would obey whatever they believe comes from the Holy Spirit without assessing rightness (because rightness is assured by the fact that it’s a command). And, if someone does whatever they believe to be a command from the Holy Spirit moving within them, then they would be as willing to torture children as they would to remain faithful to their wives or give money to homeless charities. That’s pretty alarming.

I suppose that the gentleman on the panel might reply that he doesn’t always act on command of the Holy Spirit, and that he usually acts on an assessment of the moral worth of an action. But then I would question whether he would be prepared to refuse the command of God – if not, then he doesn’t really act morally when he is ‘moved by the Holy Spirit’, he merely acts obediently. If this is true, then others around him will never be quite sure whether he’s currently acting morally or on what he believes to be the will of God. All this means that he could act on a perceived command to do something terrible in the sincere belief that he acts rightly, or he might act in the belief that his will is not his own.

All in all, this makes it pretty hard to trust someone who claims they act on command of a spiritual presence that makes itself known to them. Would you trust someone who claims to be receiving spiritual instruction or control, and would not question the morality of acting according to whatever the voice in their head commanded? I don’t think I could.

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Author: Steve Cooke

I work in normative ethics, specialising in animal and environmental ethics and political philosophy.

One thought on “Trust and the Holy Spirit

  1. No doubt you’ve pricked a vein in your thinking of what some in the West call ‘radical capitalism’–a god-inspired ‘greed boogieman’ who’s trampled human rights in the name of progress and profits since the Crusades, at least. Reminds me of a family story, yes, which I wrote once in the early ’80s while working as managing editor of a small daily in Texas’ Dallas-Fort Worth metro area (THEE buckle on the Bible Belt). One summer in the early ’50s when about nine I think, my cousin Baldy, 11-12 then, told me of a certain dream he’d had in his sleep early that morning–with the purpose of course of getting an interpretation. The rascal! He ‘trusted’ my connection to God as being closer, and clearer, than his. The dream concerned a vacant lot 2-3 blocks away next to some railroad tracks. Once a service station was there; a tornado swooped it up spilling money from the cash register ‘all over’ the lot. “Wadda’ya think it means?” Baldy asked. “First of all, you’re stupid!” I answered. “God knows we’re poor and was trying to lead us to some money! Come on!” Sure ’nuff less than an hour of searching later in Texas’ hot sun he came across a wadded-up, dirty $20 bill buried amongst some weeds. Which of course (half being his; half being mine), we promptly went downtown on our bicycles and spent. ‘Manna from heaven,’ it was. Mom had trouble buying it though. As soon as Baldy’s parents and a visiting step-brother (home on leave from the Army) all returned home later that evening from visiting relatives up in Fort Worth, she grabbed me by the ear and led me over next door to their house–to explain the ‘appearance’ of the $20 bill ‘God’ had shown us. The older step-brother, named Bill, sat quietly while I told the story (all the time decked out in my new jeans and shirt, of course); and then, at the end, promptly got up and went into the back bedroom he was sharing with my cousin Baldy. A few minutes later he stormed back out, his face as red as the gates of hell itself. “Baldy, there’s $20 missing out of my duffel bag! You STOLE IT, didn’t ya?!!” Hee, hee. In the South, doing great things while on ‘missions’ from ‘god above’ once was as common as fleas on ol’ dogs. Still is in some places, no doubt. The ‘New Right’ first caught the Sunbelt wave in the ’70s to bring back the latest version of ‘radical capitalism.’ Did a thesis on it for my M.A. in Political Science degree.They feverishly enlisted the Moral Majority throughout the South to “turn the country around”–now even toward what’s become an extreme right-wing conservatism–beginning with the 1980 elections. Thus it’s still good advice to wear your boots when coming off down here. “Trust and the Holy Spirit” sometimes can get you into a mess of trouble. Thanks for the memory!

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