Dost Thou know that the ages will pass, and humanity will proclaim by the lips of their sages that there is no crime, and therefore no sin; there is only hunger? “Feed men, and then ask of them virtue!”

Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

What Hath Morals to do with Orthodoxy?

It has become a sort of theological axiom that there is no inherent convergence between the orthodoxy of one’s religious profession and the moral or temporal health of that person. Yet we cannot help but acknowledge that Margaret Thatcher may have a point when she said: ‘No-one would remember the Good Samaritan if he’d only had good intentions; he had money as well.’ Somehow we feel that the rigours of one’s argumentation for the truth of one’s theological truth claim cannot compare to the charitable bread given with concrete money. As my own mother used to put it, if I pray to God will he drop bread from heaven?

Is it rightly said that moral and temporal benefits itself are evidence of the divine grace/favour, and as such, could constitute a form of evidence for the truth of one’s theological claims? Yet obviously this line of argumentation is problematic for it seems like a completely common sensical self-evident truth that morals and wealth are distributed without regard for one’s religious profession. As Christ would say, God causes the rain to fall upon the righteous and the unrighteous, and presumably by extension, causes charity be distributed amongst the orthodox and the heretics. The rest of this post is dedicated to discussing precisely this question.

Example: The Comfort of Death Cults

untitledSanta Muerte or St Death is a very popular cult (or religion depending on how legitimate you think it is) found predominantly in Catholic and Hispanic communities. The fact that it is not officially sanctioned by the Roman Church doesn’t prevent hundreds of thousands of Roman Catholics from invoking her name and flocking to her altars.


What is curious about this video is how much it corresponds to the standard Evangelical conversion narrative. Santa Muerte provides comfort to the depressed, the outcast, she helps people overcome drugs problems, and she is welcoming and accepts us “as we are”. It is all there. The question which confronts us is how are we to understand the divergence between moral/temporal benefits and a religion’s truth claims? As most Christians, not just Roman Catholics, do not believe in Santa Muerte, how should we approach the fact that Santa Muerte devotees derive real empirical and material benefits from invoking her name? This point could be generalised to include any other religion whose members have derived concrete moral/temporal benefits.

Truth Versus Pragmatism 

Now on the one hand there are “purists”, who thinks that religion should be a purely rational matter, a matter of strict and objective truth claims regardless of its empirical effects or benefits. A religion’s claims are either true or false; the fact that it provides empirical and material benefits should be peripheral, if not even outrightly antagonistic to the nature of true religion. What indeed hath everlasting life to do with creature comforts? What hath this world to do with the next?

On the other hand, there are the “pragmatists”, who thinks that religion should be purely a matter of empirical and material benefits. If it doesn’t work, it is simply not for me. If it has no empirical benefits or effects, it is simply irrelevant. The truth claims of a religion are not as important as the fact that it works and provides me with either moral reform or temporal goods.

Of course, life is a little more complicated then streamlined systems and simplistic principles. People believe or adopt a religion because of a combination of empirical effects and rational argumentation.

As much as I would like to believe that pure reason and deduction lead me to the Christian faith, I have to admit that my actual path to went through less than logically rigorous roads. As I’ve mentioned a few times, a large reason for my conversion to Christianity is not exactly the result of concluding that reason favoured the truth claims of Christianity. A lot of it has to do with the fact that it is simply Western or at the heart of Western civilisation. I would not have bothered with Christianity if I didn’t admire Western science and technology, Western rationalism, their triumph over the Chinese in the Opium War, etc. In some sense, this is a rather crass form of “might is right” thinking, the whole Chinese “Mandate of Heaven”. The God of that civilisation which has the better science or technology is the “right” God; Christ quite literally possesses the Mandate of Heaven because he gave the West Newtonian physics and cannons. On the other hand, some might say that my motivation is slightly “purer” than someone who converts because Santa Muerte helps that person to quit drugs or porn. Of course, there are many other factors which aided my conversion as well, the fact that Christianity has quite a low cultural barrier of entry, one simply needed to attend Church on Sunday and not Mosque on Friday, and one doesn’t need to adhere to strict religious customs or rituals, etc.

The fear which strikes the Christian is that such empirical effects are contingent. There is no necessary link or connection between the truth claims of a religion and its empirical effect. What if Islam instead of Christianity had started the scientific revolution and marched into China with modern cannons? Would I have converted to Islam? Would a Santa Muerte devotee convert to Buddhism if he or she receives the same benefits of being able to be rid of drugs invoking Buddha?

It is this implicit fear of the loose link between empirical effects which drives a lot of the apologetic activities today. Western religious discourse is heavily weighted towards the side of reasons and truth claims contra empirical/material effect because, paradoxically, they don’t actually believe that their God has any real link to the empirical material world. They try to, as it were, secure the faith by pure rational deduction alone to the exclusion of all empirical/material benefits. Reason and logic are pure and untainted by empirical and material motives as it were.

However, a purist approach normally would be too rarefied for the average person. Suppose we have an altar boy who has been sexually abused by his priest and who abandons the Roman religion as a result. In his damaged and traumatised mind, the Roman religion and even Christ will forever be branded together with this abusive priest, making his return to the Church extremely difficult. Would rarefied arguments about Petrine Primacy and office-person distinctions be of much help? In the language of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, can we not say that because of the overwhelming negative evidence, he had no way of knowing that Christ’s love exists in the Roman Church and is therefore “invincibly ignorant” that the Roman Church is the true Church? Are there not some cases where empirical effects do overwhelm truth claims?

So how are we to resolve this tension between truth claims and empirical/material effects?

The Material Grace of the Pelagians

First, there needs to be an acknowledgement that conversion is a matter of God’s grace. Now, by God’s grace, I don’t mean the Augustinian spiritualised internal grace which moves people subjectively to believe in God. I mean the Pelagian empirical and material grace whereby God literally gifts potential converts and us with the material and empirical means to draw people to Christ.

So, we must confess that God’s grace is not a mystical subjective immaterial thing; it is a material and empirical gift which God distributes according to his grace or good favour. Thus, if God wants us to convert a particular person, he would provide the empirical and material means for us to do it. If someone is broke, then God sends a wealthy and rich guy to help him out of his poverty as a foretaste of the goodness of Christ. If someone needs comforting or a friend, God sends a friendly guy and a good listener, etc, etc. If God wants someone to believe that he is real, then he would really answer his prayers when he invokes Christ’s name.

There is a prima facie assumption that everyone within our view is convertible and that all means must already exist in our hands. Since arguments and reasons are the most easily accessible means readily available to us, therefore we believe that conversion is a largely a matter of arguments and reasons and truth claims. However, we read in Acts that sometimes the Holy Spirit prevents the apostles from going to a place to preach the Gospel to them. Thus, not everyone is convertible or within our immediate ability to convert. We must wait upon God’s grace to give us the empirical and material means to do so as well as to act upon that person’s life in an empirical material sense. And of course there is also a very strong element of the division of labour. God equips some people to convert some type of people and other people to convert other type of people. Belief and conversion to Christ is quite literally a matter of “grace”, the contingent decision and gift of God beyond our immediate control.

Secondly, we must believe that God does, really, truly in a visible empirical way, punish false gods and teachings. Thus, in the cases of people who have received empirical/material benefits from false gods or whatever, if God wants to save that person, then God will remove the empirical/material benefits which they have received from their false gods that they might be open to receive them from Christians. Our reticence to acknowledge that God does truly punish in an empirical visible way cannot help but imply that neither does God benefit people in an empirical visible way, leading to the “purist” form of conversion apologetic.

Finally, visible and empirical and material effects on earth are but signs to leads us to the spiritual and everlasting Kingdom which we have not seen but which we will receive. Thus, while empirical and material comforts are important, they exists only within the framework that they are given as a foretaste of what is to come, not ends in themselves. Being sure and confirmed of the goodness of God preached in Christ and enacted by the Holy Spirit working in Christians, the convert maybe sure of his election and the greater rewards which await at the Resurrection if he perseveres.

Subjective Motivations and Objective Conclusions

However if we accept the realist point that people are moved by concrete deeds of charity, and as such things do motivate people to convert, the fact of the matter remains that ultimately such subjective motivations cannot be the ground or basis for one’s faith. Ultimately one’s faith still needs to be grounded upon the fact that the Gospel so preached is true and divinely revealed, not merely that one can derive moral or temporal benefits from it. The moral and temporal benefits, as it were, are like the rope which the Church throws to someone to pull them out of the quicksand of error. Once however they have been hauled out of it they cannot forever be hanging unto the rope. They have to eventually hand upon the firm ground of truth and a Holy Spirit inspired conviction of its truth.

As such a place remains for the rigors of logic and reason and for the use of evidential and rational arguments. Eventually not only must our bellies be satisfied with meat, and our hearts moved by the compassion and love of others, but our conscience, reason, and spirit must be convicted of truth of the Christian as well. It is here whereby a Christian is properly grounded upon the divine will even when the bread runs out and when charitable Christian friends turns traitors. It is this faith which properly endures with the passing of the winds of this world.


To conclude, the underlying theme of my argument is that conversion is a matter of God’s grace in the strongly empirical and material sense. Notwithstanding the goal of a Holy Spirit wrought conviction of the Christian Gospel in the conscience and spirit of man, God needs first grace us with the empirical and material means to fill the bellies and warm the hearts of man, and to preach and proclaim the Gospel. As such we should not presume to proceed until he has truly, really, and empirically, moved first. If we truly believe in a living God who truly and really can intervene and work in this world and time, then we must believe that God will empirically and materially provide us with the means to do his work and as well as materially and empirically show his love and grace to his creations. God’s grace did not end at the Cross and Resurrection, it continues to this day in his gifts of material and empirical things.

So how would I answer the question of, will God drop bread from heaven if you pray? I will answer, I’ll give you some bread now, but you should pray for more from God.

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