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The Reality of Moral Imperatives in Liberal Religion

48 Pages Posted: 8 Jan 2011 Last revised: 29 Jan 2013

Howard Lesnick

University of Pennsylvania Law School

Date Written: January 23, 2012


This paper uses a classic one-liner attributed to Dostoyoevski’s Ivan Karamozov, "Without God everything is permitted," to explore some differences between what I term traditional and liberal religion. The expansive connotations and implications of Ivan’s words are grounded in the historic association of wrongfulness and punishment, and in a reaction against the late modern challenge to the inexorability of that association, whether in liberal religion or in secular moral thought. The paper argues that, with its full import understood, Ivan’s claim begs critical questions of the meaning and source of compulsion and choice, and of knowledge and belief regarding the specific content of religiously grounded moral norms. Liberal religion views knowledge of the "Will of God" in ways that pervasively tend to emphasize the place of human discernment of that Will, finding clarity in ambiguity and complexity, in a focus on process as well as outcome, in an openness to questioning as well as honoring tradition, and in a willingness to go beyond the propositional aspects of a text in seeking its "meaning." In all these ways, it may seem to dilute, even to dissolve, the imperative quality of moral norms. One’s attraction to or wariness of a liberal approach is to a significant extent grounded in non-theological preferences, and reflexive condemnation of liberal religion because of these differences fails to engage with the question whether they are better calculated to serve the task of achieving moral knowledge.

While it would therefore aid the process of coming to grips with that question for traditional religion to resist the tendency to dismissal, caricature and polarization, adherents to liberal religion need to take on a greater responsibility for articulating their own theological position more fully. I undertake briefly to take my own advice.

Keywords: Religion, morality, moral imperatives, traditional religion, liberal religion

Suggested Citation

Lesnick, Howard, The Reality of Moral Imperatives in Liberal Religion (January 23, 2012). Journal of Law and Religion, Vol. 28, Forthcoming; U of Penn Law School, Public Law Research Paper No. 13-2. Available at SSRN: or

Howard Lesnick (Contact Author)

University of Pennsylvania Law School ( email )

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