The (in)applicability of "Euthyphro", part II

So: gods as moral arbiters is the question. We've tossed out Socrates' complaint against the Greek pantheon for its internal divisions and disagreements as inapt to the Christian God. What is pious is also not impious. What God loves, God does not also hate. Des that make it apt to say that piety is what is dear to God, and impiety what is loath to Him? Is this the idea of piety for us? Would we say it, even before we get to judging whether it is an apt idea? Is Barth saying it? I don't think so. But he also isn't saying the opposite, Socrates' position that, grammatically, we can distinguish what God loves from what is pious.

The ethical implications of dogmatics already imply that we have accepted a covenantal act from God which makes claims upon our lives. Or received, at any rate; it impinges upon us, and ethical implications fall out of that contact. We are responsible to it because we respond to it, and our ethos corresponds to it. We are the normal force of God's action upon creation, modulo the effects of sin as resistance and dissipation of force. Piety and justice are what accord with that act and its consequent duties. They are gospel obedience, the performance of Christ, the Word of God.

The good is not what God loves; it is what God does (II/2). The pious is beloved of God, but only as an attribute; it is what Christ does -- which is also who Christ is as the man of God (III/2, III/4).

We are not loved because of our goodness/beauty, nor are our actions. On the contrary, Christ alone is kalos k'agathos. As Socrates will object, God receives no benefit from our actions. As Barth says, we are in God's service, and that may be a critical twist on Euthyphro's suggestion that we serve the gods. "Piety is the part of justice concerned with attending to the gods." (I am tempted to say that justice therefore consists of leitourgia and diakonia.) And if that is indeed not benefit to God (even though I can easily do without the impassivity notion), but service of God, then it produces the thing which it is God's goal to produce. Euthyphro turns at this point, reverting to a notion of mutual benefit, of client-patron relationships which are inevitably evoked as analogies here. But it is a crasser notion of benefit, of exchange rather than of koinonia, patronage toward a purpose which the patron desires and the client pursues.

We have wandered afield here from the command of God, which may be Socrates' point. To the extent that we believe in a notion of receiving the Word of God as ethical command, rather than attempting to self-derive our ethics from religious sources, we must insist on an Euthyphrian point rather than a Socratic one. But we cannot be so ignorant about it as Euthyphro himself.

Is this "the Euthyphro dilemma" as typically posed? The notion that if ethics is what God says it is, then it could be anything? I still think the answer to that question lies in the particularity of the deity in question. A generic, hypothetical deity could indeed command anything, because there is no character involved. Socrates clearly and typically disbelieves in the Greek pantheon, but the only way to do ethics from such disbelief is to posit a non-theological ethos. The Christian atheist will likewise be obliged to ethics on a priori principles, because s/he disagrees with the nature of the Christian God as moral arbiter. But the commands of this God are not unknown, or of unknown provenance or type, to either side, even if determining appropriate application of the Word of God to the situation requires serious and sustained engagement. That would be the question of what the command of God is, and how you know which action to take in a given situation. It presumes the metaphysics Socrates will not concede, and which cannot be proven to him. Two believers may debate the rightness of a course of action on Barthian grounds, just as Euthyphro might have a very different debate with a like-minded henotheist. A believer and a nonbeliever familiar with the deity in question might debate the justification of a given action, as well. But the modern, theistic "Euthyphro dilemma" or "Euthyphro objection" involves none of these. It attempts neither to discuss metaphysics, nor to presume a common metaphysic and discuss judgments, but rather to judge a metaphysic by voiding its contents and pretending nothing substantial has changed.

Barth's answer to "Euthyphro" is Anselmian. The goal of dogmatic theology is not apologetics, as though theology were incredible tout court; it is catechesis, the making-credible of the system of beliefs in order that they may be useful to the believer on their own grounds. Gaunilo may be a fool, but he isn't an atheist. The Church Dogmatics isn't for convincing the unbeliever. Barth's best answer to the sort of atheism that insists that the faith is self-contradictory and inconsistent is the demonstration of its internal self-consistency, and that means ethics right down the line as consequent of the substance of belief. You may argue whether the result is what the church actually demonstrates, and Barth will not disagree with you there. Dogmatics also judges the church in its failures. You may argue about Barth's "failure" to provide a codification, casuistic or otherwise, of normative behaviors. I think that's a feature, in the Nietzschean sense of ethics. But you cannot argue that what the Word of God means for human actions has not been explained, or that the command of God remains morally ambiguous and undefined. You may disagree with it, you may disavow it, you may ignore it, but it is not subject to the "Euthyphro dilemma" as commonly framed. The dilemma is to choose God, on the one hand, or your own ethos, on the other.


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