Icon of Isaiah

The Old Testament scholar John Barton, in his Understanding Old Testament Ethics (Westminster John Knox, 2003, pp. 138-140), describes the moral philosophy of the 8th Century BCE prophet Isaiah:

Isaiah… begins with a picture of the world in which God is the creator and preserver of all things and occupies by right the supreme position over all that he has made.
The essence of morality is cooperation in maintaining the ordered structure which prevails, under God’s guidance, in the natural constitution of things, and the keynote of the whole system is order, a proper submission to one’s assigned place in the scheme of things and the avoidance of any action that would challenge the supremacy of God or seek to subvert the orders he has established. Such is the basic premise from which all Isaiah’s thinking about ethical obligation begins.
Sin takes its rise, therefore, in disregard for the order and in a deliberate refusal to see the world in its true colours… 
If this analysis of Isaiah’s ethical teaching is correct, we have in him an early example of that way of approaching ethics which begins with a hierarchically ordered universe whose moral pattern ought to be apparent to all whose reason is not hopelessly clouded, and one which derives all particular moral offences from the one great sin, a disregard for natural law. Of course, what we have in Isaiah is a theological form of natural law, as were most natural-law theories before the Enlightenment: one might perhaps speak equallly well of a theory of ‘general revelation’.

I can buy this. The world has been designed to work well in a particular way, humans have been given freedom to choose whether to live in accord with that way, and morality is about choosing the right way and resisting the wrong way. Our moral norms are not all the same as Isaiah’s, but on the level of moral philosophy – of how morality works – Isaiah’s vision makes sense. There is a desirable natural order which has been made possible, and it’s free human choices that determine how close we get to it.

But – what a contrast with the present state of society! Isaiah presupposed that the desirable order was not only natural but God-given. What makes the better world order seem a real possibility is that an intending divine mind made it possible. Translate this into the language of modern atheism (or a secularism which keeps God out of the way) and all we have left is that the world, society and human moral choices are all products of unthinking, unintending laws of nature. It is central to a God-free account of reality that the only purposes, the only visions of a better world, are the ones humans invent.

So from a God-free perspective there is no reason to suppose that a ‘natural’ world order is desirable, or that a better world order is theoretically possible, let alone that the human mind is capable of seeing what it would be like. Perhaps the present state of the world, with all its wars, poverty and oppression, is as good as it gets. Perhaps every time you and I make our own lives better, it’s always at somebody else’s expense.

If we are the product of unintending laws of nature, then only humans have intentions. It would seem to follow that human plans are better than no plans at all, so we may as well reorganise the world according to our own wishes. Currently the attempt to do this is concentrated on two processes: economic growth and new technologies. Either of these can, in specific circumstances, be of benefit; but we have turned them into oppressors, demanding ever-greater sacrifices to feed their infinite appetites, quite independently of whether they are helping to meet people’s real needs. At present we have no economic growth and our leading politicians are prepared to sacrifice real needs for the sake of regaining it.

What economic growth and technological innovation have in common is the complete absence of any equivalent to Isaiah’s natural order. Instead we have to be always on the move, always dissatisfied, always seeking to escape from the present into a different future. It fits the atheist idea that the only objectives are whatever society at any one time desires – or rather, whatever its leaders desire. We have thus created a 1984-type culture, in which a permanent sense of crisis is maintained to justify gross inequalities. The fact that people’s needs are not being met justifies the project of continual change, and the project of continual change justifies the refusal to meet people’s needs.

What we could do with is a new version of Isaiah’s vision: a more realistic understanding of both the potential and the limits of human life. We have to live within the limits set for us by the world and our bodies; but within those limits, if we have been made by the kind of god Isaiah believed in, it should be possible to live in peace and harmony, making sure everybody’s needs are met.