T. F. Torrance and Michael Polanyi on Moral Inversion

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Editor’s Note: I’ve been reflecting on the theological implications of recent societal debates involving matters as disparate as homosexual rights, BLM, and the confirmation hearings of a certain nominee to the US Supreme Court, and the notion of moral inversion has come to mind.  What I did not realize is that the term moral inversion was coined by philosopher Michael Polanyi, whose insights are used to great effect by the Scottish theologian Thomas F. Torrance in this excerpt from an essay in Torrance’s Theology in Reconciliation (1975). It provides a rather remarkable description of the state of our contemporary moral discourse.

2 . The Church must learn again the meaning of justification by grace
A few years ago Fr Jock Dalrymple, sometime Roman Catholic chaplain at St Andrews University, remarked, mainly with Edinburgh in mind, that some of our young men being trained for the ministry seemed unable to distinguish between helping a person therapeutically and leading him to Jesus Christ. Such a shrewd evangelical critique of the Church of Scotland, coming from the Roman Catholic Church, seems to indicate that the tables are being turned on the Reformation! It is certainly the case that Protestant Churches everywhere today appear, and want to appear, highly meritorious, giving themselves out as the great patrons of goodness: that is, precisely what Jesus warned his disciples against at the Last Supper. How has this come about?

Some of the sharpest thinkers in modern times, coming from Eastern Europe, see us in the West in a way that we cannot easily manage ourselves, and have been warning us against the moral inversion of the guilty intellectual. That is, I believe, the insidious infection that has been afflicting western, and particularly Protestant, Churches. Moral inversion (Polanyi’s phrase) is a hybrid of idealism and scepticism, of high moral demands on society and individualistic naturalism. It comes about when moral passion is uprooted from its authoritative ground through rationalistic critique of transcendent moral obligation, and becomes embodied in a tangible realm of socio-moral objectives regarded as less open to destructive philosophical analysis. ‘The morally inverted person,’ Polanyi says, ‘has not merely performed a philosophic substitution of moral aims by material purposes, but is acting with the whole force of his homeless moral passions within a purely materialistic framework of purposes.’ 1 It is distinctive of moral inversion that it carries with it a strong sense of righteousness and moral superiority, evident in passionate moral indignation against prevailing evils, social injustice, racial discrimination, overpopulation, etc. These are all of course very right and highly laudable causes, but the inflamed moral passion for social betterment that lies behind this, appears to go hand in hand with a guilty detachment from an objective and divine source of moral obligation and a replacement of a personal religious ethic with a naturalistic ethic of self-determination in which man assumes absolute responsibility for himself. This is often accompanied by bitter denunciations of explicit expressions of personal religious morality as hypocritical and dishonest, together with an inverted moral fervour in the alleged ‘honesty’ that characterises such denunciations. Moreover, this whole approach finds not a little support in the moral nihilism of modern sociology, that is, its deliberate suspension of value in the explanation of human behaviour, without reference to its rightness or wrongness, and therefore apart altogether from moral motives.

There is another important aspect of moral inversion that must be noted. The uprooting of moral passion from its creative source in Christian faith and therefore its lack of Holy Spirit, makes it quite helpless unless it can secure centres of power, from which it can move and change society. Hence it moves into the political arena where it can develop pressure groups and forge the kind of instruments through which it can exert force upon every area of life until its ends are achieved. But this is to move into an area of operations in the technological society where the achievement of social perfection is committed to a political machine which develops its own ideological rationale and generates its own functional momentum, so that inevitably moral motives are submerged in a struggle for power: self-determination is converted into collective power and moral persuasion is replaced by force. In the nature of the case, change one way or the other can take place only through violence of one kind or another. Thus the high moral demands for society geared into a naturalistic concept of man lead paradoxically into inhumanity: that seems to be the case whatever kind of government is in command.

The vast slide of Church leaders in recent times into something like an obsession with socio-moral concerns reflects (does it not?) a nagging sense of guilt over their own personal Christian convictions, which over-compensates for itself, not merely in public demonstrations and loud protests of ‘involvement’, but in passion- ate moral extravagances and drives which our modern critics have sometimes described as pathological moralistic excess. Whether that kind of language is justified or not, we must certainly be ready to face up to the criticisms they direct at us. But what concerns me here is that moral inversion of this kind has so infected the Churches, especially Anglo-Saxon Churches, that our evangelical convictions are persistently submerged if not replaced by consciously meritorious involvement in socio-political issues, which is associated with a serious degeneration of genuine ethical substance and indeed a widespread moral laxity of the individual in our society. Thus the moralistic externalisation of life in the Churches is concomitant with a fatal loss in spiritual depth. Or perhaps it should be put the other way round: it is an atrophying of the soul, a deep inward emptiness, that forces people outward where they become absorbed in externalities on the surface of existence, but where, as every true pastor knows, the flock of Christ grows weary with the husks of morality and. hungers for the sheer grace of God.

I would not like to be misunderstood, for I am not asking for the slightest curtailment of concern for any genuine human, moral or social need anywhere in the world. But I am more and more staggered at two things: first, the astonishing volte-face that has been taking place in the Churches of the Reformation, in that they reveal a serious lapse from the centrality of the Gospel of Christ, together with a failure to understand that it is justification by grace alone which creates the ethical disturbance that turns the world upside down; and secondly, the growing contradiction that the western Churches exhibit to Jesus’ total rejection of every value-system based on power, and his proclamation of the new order which cannot be brought about by any form of force, together with a failure to remember that Jesus was crucified by contemporaries who bitterly resented his refusal to have anything whatsoever to do with their political theology.

Let us perform a double thought-experiment. First, let us put the Church of today in the place of Jesus in the wilderness where he was tempted of the devil, and ask how it would be able to stand up to those temptations. Would we be able to resist the temptation to turn stones into bread, in face of the vast hunger of mankind? And what of the temptation to have a compelling demonstration of divine, supernatural power in the temple—could we withstand the seduction which religious prestige like that would bring? And the ultimate temptation of political power which would bring into the Church all the kingdoms of the world and their power and glory? Jesus resisted that temptation too and chose instead the way of the servant, with complete renunciation of all power, in order to fulfil his mission in the utter weakness of the man on the Cross.

Then, let us project the Church of today forward to the last judgment where it will meet Jesus face to face, as he divides the sheep on his right hand from the goats on his left, in the way which he anticipated for us in the parable of Matthew 25. The meritorious Church of today could hardly be placed with the sheep on Christ’s right hand, for they did not know that they had cared for the hungry and the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick or the imprisoned. That is after all a parable of justification by grace, for grace always takes us by surprise.

1 See The Logic of Liberty (Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1951), p. 106; Personal Knowledge (Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1958), pp. 232 ff.; Knowing and Being (Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1969), pp. 14, 16 ff., 21 f., 44 f.; and ‘Science and Man’, Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine (1970), vol. 63, pp. 971 ff.


From T. F. Torrance, “The Church in the New Era of Scientific and Cosmological Change,” in Theology in Reconciliation: Essays Towards Evangelical and Catholic Unity in East and West (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), 275-78.