ABC Rel+Ethics (II)–Tony Payne: Is There Moral Truth Out There? A Response to Scott Cowdell on Gender and Identity

The upshot of the past two-hundred years is summed up by philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, who says that we find ourselves today in a climate of ethical “emotivism,” in which morality is mostly an expression of internal states of feeling and will. This has a range of confusing and negative consequences that I don’t have time to explore at this point, but which include the relationship of the individual mind to the world, and the great difficulty we have as a society in ever having a rational discussion about moral issues.

But back to the Big Question and its relevance: the Sydney Anglican Doctrine Commission’s recent Report on gender and gender identity belongs squarely in the Yes camp. The report is based on the conviction that the world does have a God-given moral shape and reality to it, including our human experience of sex and gender. The Report does not believe that this moral order is an arbitrary set of rules or declarations imposed on the brute stuff of the world by a sovereign divine Will (perhaps to assert control over us troublesome humans). To believe that would be to buy in to the No answer – that there is no objective moral order in the world, and that the only reason God’s version of morality prevails is that he is bigger and stronger than us.

On the contrary, the Report springs from the classic biblical conviction that a good, loving, righteous God has woven his goodness, love and rightness into the very fabric of the world that he created. Every time we see something genuinely good or right, we are recognising something that is working as it should (there’s another moral word we use all the time). We are catching a glimpse of the moral order that God has graciously created in the world. When fathers love and laugh with their daughters, it is good and right and beautiful, not simply because we feel it to be or because we might all agree that it is, but because it really, objectively is. And conversely fathers abusing their daughters really is “evil,” and would be in any time or place or culture, because it rips apart the good fabric of the moral world that God created.

Now, there is a great deal that could be objected to in Canon Scott Cowdell’s recent response on to the Sydney Doctrine Commission Report. To quote one observer, the article:

“skims over the substance of the [Sydney Anglican] document, summarising it in such a way as to misrepresent it. If one read his commentary without reference to the document he refers to one could conclude that the Diocese has a simplistic and negative attitude to the issue of Gender Dysphoria.”

We might also object to the typically modern emotivist mode of argument the article trades in, as it seeks to disparage the Report by attributing it to conservative sexual “anxiety,” as opposed to a “non-anxious alternative.” And we might look with bemusement at the attempt to recruit the hermeneutics of suspicion to the cause of progressive Christianity, and wonder whether the author appreciates just how deep the rabbit-hole of suspicion goes.

But the most disturbing problem with the article, from which its other flaws and (at times) bizarre claims stem, is that it seems to inhabit the No camp on the Big Question. It regards the “whole business of gender” as “our business to explore and to define and not God’s business to declare and to impose.”


Read it all.


Posted in Anthropology, Ethics / Moral Theology, Pastoral Theology, Theology