The Good and the Good Book- Samuel Fleischacker

What would a religion look like that is both ethical and grounded in textual revelation? Samuel Fleischacker is back with a new book The Good and the Good Book: Revelation as a Guide to Life (Oxford 2015) that seeks to answer that question.  It is a shorter, more tightly argued version of his prior tome Divine Teaching and the Way of the World (Oxford, 2011).

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Fleischacker’s voice has been heard before on this blog in a past interview when the latter large book appeared. In that interview, he explained why he is engaged in this project, what the role of rationality in religion is and how he sees Orthodoxy. He also wrote a two part critique of those who think revelation is ineffable on this blog- here and here.

Fleischacker’s arguments in this new volume are clear and accessible to the educated non-philosopher allow one to use this as a starting point for discussing the entire topic. The current draft is only 138 pages of text , almost a quarter the length of the prior tome. Even if one differs strongly about the thesis or corollaries of one of his chapters, his formulation in contemporary thought is still valuable.

The thesis of the book is that for morality of what to do in daily life, one can and must follow rational morality. But for aspirational ethics of a higher morality, of grounding ethics in a transcendent source, and for a good life, then one needs revelation that is supernatural as a guide.

In order to get this this point, each chapter lays out his thinking on a given building block. First, in a post-Kantian age where one cannot prove anything in metaphysics, then religion is giving a way to live a good life, not metaphysical knowledge. (Here is chapter one.)

Second, ordinary morality is best when from humanistic and rational sources, but higher aspirational morality is from religion.We need both a faith in the divine and in the text of revelation. Third, naturalism does not give us a value or meaning to life, revelation does. One cannot prove that secular morals cannot give meaning just that it is rational to turn to revelation for these issues.  Fourth, we should now use the humanism and revelation together to guide our lives.  Fifth, verbal revelation needs be passed down and received by a community and to thereby pass through our moral sense as part of the process of receiving revelation.  The Bible is to be read as God’s word and not as a human product. And finally, he argues that we should be open to the fact that other communities use different revelations.

To give a contextual example of where Fleischacker is useful, let us look at the recent book by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks Not in God’s Name. Sacks decries violence from religion looking for a solution. He finds his solution in the secular tolerance from the 17th century classics of Hobbs and Locke, a non-religious basis for morality. But in the same book, Sacks asks us to learn from aspirational figures like Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama about how religion can make the world a better place.  Sack’s approach could be seen as falling into Fleischacker’s presentation.

One final point: the book speaks often about the need to combine reason and revelation lumping together many figures with diverse approaches. Fleishacker surprising places himself in the Kierkeguardian fideist camp because his religion is beyond naturalistic reason. Far from me to argue with a philosopher about his self-identity, but the ideas in this book about working with reason and also giving a rational argument for revelation seem to my eye more similar to the ideas of eighteenth and nineteenth religious rationalists who justified revelation rationally. His approach is not an absurdist leap but a rational argument for making a reasonable choice.


1)      What does it mean to say that the Bible is true?

We ordinarily think that “true” means scientifically or historically accurate:  a book is true if the events it describes happened.  I suggest that we look to a different meaning of “true,” to be found in the way the Torah itself uses the word “emet.”  Abraham’s servant looks for a derekh emet, a “true way,” when seeking a bride for Isaac, and then asks Laban and Bethuel if they will deal with him in “kindness and truth” (hesed v’emet);  Moses looks for anshe emet — “people of truth” — to be his deputy judges.  “Truth” here seems to mean “reliable” or “trustworthy.”  I suggest we see the Torah as itself “true” in this sense:  a reliable guide to how we should live (when reasonably interpreted:  see below, under 6),  regardless of whether it is factually correct.

We needn’t see only the Torah as true in this way – other sacred books can be reliable guides to how to live for other peoples.  I do not try to argue here for a Jewish way of life in particular:  just for the value of revealed religion in general.

  2)      Where do we get our morality and ethics from?

I distinguish between morality and ethics.  Morality concerns our interactions with other human beings:  the sorts of things (honesty, nonviolence, kindness) that enable people to live together in society.

Ethics includes morality but goes beyond it:  it adds to morality a comprehensive vision of how to live, a vision of what makes life worth living, of our highest good.  We don’t need revelation for morality.  Morality arises from a variety of purely human sources:  our sentiments, our instrumental reason – the sort of reason by which we satisfy our selfish desires – as well as what Kant calls “practical reason,”  which tells us to respect every human being as an end in him or herself.

Indeed, not only do we not need the Bible, or any other sacred book, for morality:  it is better for us to have a purely humanistic morality.  That way we have moral standards we can share with all other human beings,  and a moral baseline to use in interpreting (receiving) our sacred text. What we need a sacred text — revelation — for is ethics:  for a vision of our highest good.

 3)      Why do we need revelation to find our highest good? 

I find secular conceptions of what makes life worth living overall – what makes for our highest good – deeply unsatisfying.  Knowledge, helping other people, building a just society:  all of these things that are commonly described as making life worth living seem instead to me means to a good life, rather than good in themselves.  As for love, art, and other experiences that are supposed to be intrinsically good, it is easy to come up with skeptical arguments, of the same kind that are used to debunk religion, to suggest that the value we see in them, over and above the pleasure they give us, is an illusion.  And a life in pursuit of pleasure alone seems utterly shallow.

We have had over two centuries of secular ethical philosophies that have tried to show us how life can be worthwhile on a purely secular basis, but they have not been very convincing.  After decades of teaching them, and writing about them, I still think they have little to say to some of the most basic human worries:  the disappointment most of us feel in our central professional and political projects, and in our romantic hopes, the boredom we increasingly feel even in pleasure, and of course the finality of death, and the fact that death seems to rob everything else we do of significance. The

We turn to revelation, if we do, precisely because we find naturalistic attempts to answer the question about our highest good hopeless.  That suggests that there is something about “nature” – which I take to mean the empirical world as construed by science – that bars us from seeing it, or our lives in it, as worthwhile:  it may indeed be essential to the scientific approach to things that it bars us from making sense of the idea that things might have “intrinsic worth.” (I’ve just been reading Durkheim, who makes the point about the link between “nature” and science nicely, and there are also obvious affinities between the suggestion I just made about intrinsic worth and Weber’s conception of science as rendering the world entzaubert).  But if these things are true, then it is essential to revelation that it transcend nature, or enable us to transcend nature:  that it be, quite literally, “super-natural.”

I don’t think one can prove that secular conceptions of our highest good are incapable of answering these challenges, or that religious conceptions of that good improve on them.  What I try to show instead is why it may be reasonable to turn to religion if one takes secular conceptions of our good to fail.  I suggest reasons for thinking that there may be deep problems in the very idea of a purely secular – which is to say a naturalistic and rationally graspable – approach to the value of life.  Perhaps our highest good is intrinsically obscure and non-natural (“super-natural”).

The obscurity and non-natural qualities of our good might also be related.  Our highest good might be obscure because it is somehow “out of nature”:  fully achievable only in a life beyond the one we know, or in some state in which we see through the “veil of illusion” that is nature.  Or it might be obscure because of something about our nature:  because we are too selfish or too wrapped up in material things, perhaps, to grasp it properly.  Each of these possibilities has well-known exponents in religious traditions.

And any of them would provide us with a reason for seeking that good via revelation instead of secular argument, precisely because revelation is non-naturalistic and mysterious.

Revelation also calls on us to submit to it, and learn from that submission, rather than suppose we can figure out everything we need to know about our good on our own.

4)      What are the five qualities of a good revelation? 

Five criteria for a revelation – marks of a writing or teaching that indicate it can plausibly serve as a guide to our highest good – are 1) that it takes the form of a poem (a form of writing that enshrines and preserves mystery), 2) that it purports to have a super-natural source, 3) that it offers us a path, a way of living, by which to discover our highest good, and/or express that good in what we do, 4) that it fits in with what else we believe about goodness (our moral beliefs, especially), and 5) that it offers us an explanation of why we cannot locate our highest good naturalistically.

And the Torah, as I see it, meets the criteria well.  It is an epic poem, telling a grand mythic tale of the origins of a people and their relationship to God, and issuing in laws informed by that tale and couched in elevated and gnomic language.  It of course purports to have a supernatural source, and offers a path of life.  Much of the time, and sometimes very powerfully, it fits in with what else we believe about goodness (where it does not do this,  or seems not to do it, we need to interpret it against its literal grain:  I’ll say more about that when we get to the reception of revelation).  And, as I understand it at least, it provides explanation of why we cannot find our good naturalistically:  because our nature is suffused with a stubborn temptation to idolatry (Pharaoh is the model for this, but the Israelites then show, again and again, how susceptible they are to it).  We need to struggle against that temptation constantly:  it is essentially the temptation to self-worship, which is deeply ingrained in human nature.  With the Rambam, I think the discipline of the Torah is primarily meant to control, and ideally break us, of that temptation.

It’s worth noting that on my view revelation must be verbal:  because it takes the form of a poem, because it gives us directives for action, and because it fits in with, while also correcting, beliefs (linguistic representations) we have about the good.  I’ve defended verbal revelation against what I call “wordless encounter theology”  on your blog, of course:  here and here.  But I wrote that after finishing the book.  The specifically Jewish implications of the book are something I have just begun to work on. In the book, I give Hindu and Jain, as well as Jewish, examples of what coming to a revelation looks like, but of course for me personally the Torah is the prime example.

5)      What is Ethical Faith? 

“Ethical faith” is a phrase I use for a slight revision of what Kant called “moral faith.” Kant argued that even though we can’t know that there is a God, believing in God helps us make sense of our moral life and that is enough reason to hold the belief:  enough at least for a reasonable hope that there is a God.  I see belief in God – or in other religious notions, like nirvana or the tao – as helping us making sense of our ethical life rather than our moral life:  as needed to make sense of our highest good, rather than our relations with other people.  So I talk of ethical faith rather than moral faith.  But otherwise I think Kant is right (and I take Kierkegaardian faith, which is an important source for my own views, to be based on the Kantian model).  We can reasonably hold religious commitments as a frame for what we do in life, not on the basis of science or pure reason.  But, thus understood, religious commitments can indeed be reasonable.  And they can lead us to understand the ultimate author of our revealed texts as God — or whatever we take to be the source of goodness — rather than the human beings who wrote them down.

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6)      What does it mean to receive revelation? What are the three implications?

“Receiving” revelation is what we do when God speaks to us:  revelation is not complete until it is accepted, interpreted, and turned into a way of life by a group of people.  (Basically, reception is what Jews call “oral Torah.”)  But that reception has to be appropriately suited to a text that is, after all, supposed to give us access to our highest good.  That means that it must fit in with what else we believe about goodness, and provide us with a livable path (the third and fourth marks of revelation).

So our reception of the text must ensure that it accords with morality, interpreting apparently immoral passages (e.g., the command about killing stubborn and rebellious sons) such that they mean something other than what they seem to mean., and that the path it lays out can be lived by a community.  At the same time, we need to preserve the mystery and sublimity in the text:  only that can sustain our hope that it can lead us to our highest good.

Consequently reception 1) is always communal, 2) can vary from community to community, and 3) is always open to moral challenge:  if we come to think that our ancestors wrongly allowed for slavery or the subordination of women, for instance, we will need to revise their ways of receiving our text (and yes, this is a pathway to halachic change:  but as something that involves a shift in oral Torah, not a rejection of the divinity of written Torah).

7)      How can we show respect for a variety of revelations?   

To respect people with a different revealed religion is not merely to tolerate them:  respect implies that we admire them and think we can learn from them.  On my account, we may do that because, independently of our strictly religious beliefs, we share morality:  we can admire people in a different religion for their high moral standards, and learn from how they act morally.  We may also learn from them religiously because their answers to what makes life worthwhile respond to the same questions as ours do:  the questions about disappointment and boredom and death sketched above.  So we should expect to find that we share at least the same kinds of spirituality, the same sense of what is moving and awe-inspiring.  And in fact Jews and Muslims and Christians and Buddhists often do find this, in one another’s religious traditions, even if they remain committed to their own traditions.

I draw again on Jewish sources for examples of how to learn from other religious traditions:  Moses taking advice from Jethro, a priest of Midian, and the Jewish community taking Nineveh as a model for repentance, when it reads the book of Jonah on Yom Kippur.  If religious traditions are essentially communal, then it makes sense that we will generally remain within the religions of our parents. We cannot be part of their mystery, but we can still learn from other religious communities – and, at least on moral issues, from secular people as well.

We also of course share the questions that lead us to our religious views with secular people, but the division between us over how to answer those questions is deeper than the one we have with members of other religion.  Respecting one another morally is enough, however, to make for a society in which religious and secular people can work together harmoniously, and carry out peaceful and fruitful conversations over their differences.



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