Category Archives: Faith and the Contemporary Moral Crisis

“Rules in a Knife Fight?” Or, the Roots of Today’s Moral Chaos

Reason is dead! Requiescat in pace! Or, at least it’s on life support when it comes to morality. Civil discussions of social or individual morality in the public square, in the workplace, in public schools and universities, in social media, and even in church have become impossible in contemporary culture. Moral chaos reigns not only between Christians and secularists but among secular people themselves and among people who claim to be Christian. People don’t discuss moral issues anymore, they fight about them. Discussions are about searching for truth and presuppose people’s desire to know and conform to the truth. Fights are about power, domination, and forced submission of one party’s preferences to another’s.

Believers in truth and reason could gather around reason’s grave and lament its death. We could withdraw into our homes, houses of worship and homeschools and wait for a miracle or for Jesus’s return. And any regular reader of this blog knows that I am not opposed to a strategic withdrawal, especially in contrast to assimilation to dominant culture. On that theme see my May 12, 2017 review of Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option. But I do not believe we ought to acquiesce just yet. To the contrary, I believe Christians should speak up for reason and truth. But speaking up for reason and truth won’t be as easy as asserting that reason is a necessary instrument for finding truth and truth is the way things are whether we like it or not. As true as this assertion is, to our culture it sounds like fighting words designed to exert power and demand submission. How do you reason with people for whom reason is dead, and how do you urge people to submit to truth when for them truth is just another word for preference?

First, I do not believe reason can ever truly die. Nor can anyone ever really abandon the assumption of truth. So, our first task is to probe the contemporary mind, seeking its most basic presuppositions and beliefs, which serve as the hidden foundations of its incoherent moral rhetoric. Where shall we look for these foundations? Every moral theory or rhetorical style of talking about morality presupposes beliefs about basic human nature and the nature and will of God. It is guided by beliefs about what constitutes human dignity, how happiness can be achieved, and what are the greatest threats to human dignity and the most sinister roadblocks to achieving happiness.

Here are three presuppositions that guide the modern mind, which is shared to one extent or another by everyone touched by the western worldview:

  1. Human dignity is grounded in human freedom. And human freedom is the power of the self to decide what it will do and become. Maximum dignity requires maximum freedom. Maximum freedom is achieved when we possess total control over ourselves, our situation, and our destiny. Any limit on freedom is a limit on dignity. And any limit on dignity is an insult.
  2. Happiness is achieved by exercising our maximum freedom to do and become whatever pleases us. What counts as a happy state is determined totally by the preferences of each individual. The modern mind acknowledges no general rules, such as “love God and your neighbor,” for achieving happiness.
  3. The greatest threats to human dignity, freedom, and the prospect of happiness are God and belief in natural law or traditional morality enshrined in law. Since the modern mind links maximum dignity to maximum freedom, the idea of being dependent on and responsible to God, the Creator of all things, is the most serious threat to dignity and freedom. Even people who say they believe in God will not accept any view of God that limits their maximum freedom. They assimilate God to their preferences. The second most serious threat to dignity, freedom and the prospect of happiness arises from other people who are inspired by their belief in God or moral law or traditional morality to impose their morality on others, whether through social pressure or state power.

The history of the last 350 years can be written as the struggle of modern people to free themselves from the “oppressive” forces of God and institutions that support traditional morality. One institution, social practice and philosophy after another has been exposed as “oppressive”. And indoctrination into this ideology has been so effective that the majority of our society can make no persuasive response even to the most radical and total rejection of all limits on the freedom of individuals to do and become whatever they want. We are close to becoming a nihilistic society, that is, of surrendering to the ideology that “all things are possible,” that there is no moral law and nothing real; there is nothing that cannot be or ought not to be changed and shaped according to our collective or individual preferences. This is the relentless logic at work in the hearts and minds of our neighbors and friends, and even in our own; and this is the pernicious logic that makes it inevitable that rational discussions will be replaced by knife fights. Our situation is captured by Harvey Logan’s famous line from the 1969 movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: “rules in a knife fight?”

That famous scene is a parable of contemporary moral discourse:

Hence the first step to addressing the moral chaos that dominates contemporary moral discussions is digging down to the ancient foundational beliefs that led to this chaos. The next step is to demonstrate the absurdity of these foundational beliefs. And the third step is to argue for, proclaim, and live on an alternative foundation, one that secures authentic human dignity, freedom, and hope for happiness. And that foundation is God, the creator and savior revealed in Jesus Christ.

Advertisements

Christian Morality—Arbitrary, Irrational, Outdated?

The Christian vision of the moral life is often ridiculed as arbitrary, irrational, or outdated. It’s too strict! It’s too serious! And it’s unrealistic about what human beings can do! We hear such things quite frequently in the media and from our secular friends. Sometimes the voice from which we hear such challenges comes from our own hearts. As I explore the specific contours of the Christian moral life, I will keep these accusations in mind, addressing them explicitly or implicitly in every essay.

Arbitrary

Before rushing to defend Christianity it is always wise to turn the tables on the critics to discover whether or not they can defend their criticisms from the very charge they make, in this case, of being arbitrary, irrational, or outdated.  What does it mean to assert that a moral rule is “arbitrary”? The English word arbitrary is derived ultimately from the Latin word for “will” or “willful.” The decisions we make should be informed by reason and wisdom gained through experience. But we succumb to arbitrariness when we ignore or suppress reason and follow fancy or prejudice. We become impatient and decide to “take a chance.” A moral rule is arbitrary, then, when it finds its origin in the whimsical impulse of a single will. Does any aspect of the Christian vision of the moral life fit the definition of arbitrariness?

Irrational

What about the charge of irrationality? The question of the rationality of a belief or action or moral rule concerns how the belief or action or rule is held by the one who asserts it. Is it held for good reasons or poor ones? One acts rationally if one acts for good reasons and irrationally if one acts for poor ones. The question of truth or falsehood is very different issue. It concerns the relationship between the assertion and the real state of affairs. Does it correspond or not? Critics often confuse the two questions.  Are critics saying that Christians hold their moral beliefs for reasons that should not count as evidence? Or are they saying that the moral belief in question is false? Or are they simply hurling thoughtless accusations that mean no more than “I don’t like what you are saying!” or “I don’t get it!”? I suspect that in most cases the last alternative applies.

Outdated

To say something is outdated is to depart altogether from moral categories and move into aesthetic categories. Clothes, hair styles, and carpet become outdated after a while, that is, they no longer appeal to our aesthetic tastes. The process of changing tastes is fascinating. Why do some old things seem outdated while others remain “classic,” or others make a comeback as “retro”? Clearly, fashion is based on some kind of social agreement, seemingly arbitrary in origin, but perhaps subtly articulating some wish or self-image of the age. However that may be, to speak of a moral rule as outdated assumes that it was at one time in style.  And “in style” is not a moral category any more than “outdated” is. Instead of taking the trouble to argue that a moral rule that was once thought to be right, just, and good, is no longer so, the critic misapplies aesthetic categories to moral issues. It’s much easier to dismiss something as “not in style” than to argue that it is wrong. The former appeals to the public’s subjective tastes and the latter can be substantiated only by appealing to a moral law that transcends subjective tastes.

Ends, Means, and Reason in Morality

Human beings act to achieve ends. Morality seeks to guide human actions toward the right ends and right means by which to achieve those ends. Often, a moral vision proposes an ultimate or highest end toward which all actions should be directed and by which they should be measured. All other ends and means should be subordinated to that chief end.  Almost all moral systems assume that individual human beings need to be directed to ends that transcend their private interests and momentary whims and passions. The long term health and happiness of an individual is a more worthy end than momentary pleasure, especially when the immediate pleasure damages the prospect of achieving the long term end. Since no one can achieve the human end alone, the good of the community within which one lives must take precedence over the private ends of the individual. Hence most moral rules concern interpersonal relationships, and seek to promote peace, harmony, and justice within the community by limiting individuals’ pursuits of their private interests when those pursuits seriously disturb the peace of the community.  Reason comes into play in morality through the necessity of making judgments about the relationships of ends and means to each other and to the supreme end of all actions.

Christian Moral Vision—Deliberate, Rational, and Never Out of Date

Christian morality also values reason, proposes a highest end, and subordinates and orders other ends to that chief end. God is the highest good and chief end of all things. And by “God” Christianity does not mean merely a supreme being but the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ whose character and purpose has been disclosed in Jesus. This God is the highest good toward which all our striving should be directed. The second highest end is the good of our neighbor. Our private interests must be subordinated to the good of others, and the “good” of others is defined by and subordinated to the love of God. By the “neighbor” Christianity means each individual we meet and the community constituted by those individuals. How can human striving after God, loving the neighbor, and seeking our own good be harmonized? Or can they?

Christianity envisions a universal community where the highest good of each person and the whole community are harmonized perfectly and directed to the supreme good. This community includes not only human beings; it includes God and the whole creation. God’s purpose in creating will be fulfilled in the formation of this community:

“ [God] made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, 10 to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ (Ephesians 1:9-10).

Jesus Christ is the perfect union of God and humanity. In him, the hostility and distance between God and man has been overcome. Sin has been defeated and death swallowed up in victory. The mystery of God’s will is that God will extend and expand the sphere of Christ to include “all things in heaven and on earth.” Fragmentation and disharmony will be replaced by unity. Given God’s plan to unify “all things” in Christ it should not surprise us that unity, peace, and love are at the center of Christian morality:

Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called;one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:3-6).

13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. (Col 3:13-15).

Christianity envisions a moral community that in the present age strives for the unity, peace, and love that will characterize the perfect divine/human community that God will bring about at the end. Every action that Christian morality forbids is forbidden because in works against this community. And every action it encourages promotes this community. And this ordering all things toward their end of union with God in Christ is where Christianity’s use of moral reason is most evident.

Conclusion

Perhaps a rational and thoughtful person could argue that the Christian moral vision is based on a false view of the highest good and ultimate end of human life. And we might wish to take seriously an attempt to argue that Christianity ranks goods in the wrong order. But the charge that Christianity’s moral vision is arbitrary, irrational, and outdated can be dealt with rather swiftly. Clearly Christianity’s moral rules are neither arbitrary nor irrational, since they are based on the Christian community’s experience of God’s revelation in Christ’s resurrection and its hope for a future perfect community. And, if they direct us truly to our chief end, they are certainly not outdated.

Next Time we will examine envy, covetousness, and jealousy, showing what they are, how subtly they touch all our relationships, and how they fail to embody the future unity of “all things” in Christ.

Idolatry—The Carefully Guarded Secret of Contemporary Culture

Perhaps there was a time when a catechism of the church could transition smoothly from discussions about what Christians should believe to how they should live. After explaining the doctrines of creation, atonement, sacraments, eschatology, and others, we could move right into morality, virtues and vices, duties and sins. But that time is long gone. Contemporary culture no longer holds presuppositions that make discussions of the Christian way of life understandable. And we have to face the unhappy truth that many people who think of themselves as Christian no longer hold them either.

The foundation and presupposition of biblical morality is God’s right and demand for our absolute loyalty:

“You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3).

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5).

God is Creator and Lord, the beginning and end of all things. He gives all things their existence and purpose. God’s will is the law of existence. And those who know and acknowledge this truth seek to know and obey God’s will. They do not claim a right to direct their own lives. Instead, they follow Jesus’ example and say to God, “Not my will but yours be done.” Even the Son of God, who loved his Father and acknowledged his goodness and wisdom, had to obey his God. He renounced all independence and autonomy in relation to God. We should relate to God in love, joy, faith, and admiration. But true test of love for God is obedience, because obedience continues to do God’s will even against inclination, even unto death.

But contemporary culture unequivocally rejects this presupposition. This rejection has roots that go back 300 years in Western history and beyond that to the Old and New Testaments. Christianity asks each individual to establish a relationship to God characterized by faith and obedience. Ultimately each person is answerable to God alone for the way they live their lives. The individual enjoys freedom in relation to God, to believe or not, to obey or disobey. The 17th and 18th Century Enlightenment and the democratic movements that followed applied the Christian view of the God/individual relationship to politics to argue for greater individual liberty over-against the political order. God’s authority trumped human authority, and the individual’s obligations to God trumped the individual’s obligations to the state. Hence human governments have limited authority over the lives of citizens.

However over the past 300 years, the individual’s sacred obligations to God evolved slowly but relentlessly into the sacredness of the individual’s own autonomous self. After the rights of the individual in relation to the state had been established, people forgot the original basis of that freedom. The individual became his/her own god, the source of their own rights and dignity. God became superfluous. Contemporary gods and goddesses reverse Jesus’ statement of submission to his Father. They say,

“Not your will, but mine be done.”

The First Commandment has now been inverted to say:

“I shall have no other god but me.”

The Greatest Command has been rewritten to say:

“I am the Lord my God, me alone. I shall love myself with all my heart and with all my soul and with all my strength”

Many of our contemporaries knowingly or unknowingly reject the presupposition of all biblical morality, that is, that God should be obeyed in all things. Perhaps there is no more offensive and counter-cultural word than “obedience.” It strikes at the heart of the modern view of the sacred dignity and rights of human beings. Our absolute obligation to God has been transformed from the origin and foundation of human rights and dignity into their greatest enemy. Our contemporaries display an intuitive resentment and a knee-jerk rejection of any moral assertion that suggests submission to any will other than their own, even to God’s will.

A catechism of mere Christianity for a post-Christian, post-denominational culture will be ineffective unless it recognizes and exposes the modern divinization of the individual as the root of modern culture’s enmity toward the God of the Bible. Popular rhetoric of freedom, justice, individual rights, and tolerance is too powerful for immature and acculturated Christians to resist. Its power derives from its deceptive resemblance to Christian morality. Though it sounds vaguely Christian, it is actuality idolatry in its most original form: self-deification and self-worship.

The first and most basic premise of the Christian life is that we should passionately seek God’s will that we might obey him in all things, no matter what the cost.

The Spiritual Dimension of Sex: Body, Soul and Sex (#2)

God created our world. Nothing in it is evil in its sheer existence apart from its use. Rivers, oceans, mountains, sun, moon and stars! From galaxies to fireflies, everything is good. Plants and animals are good. Human beings as God’s creatures are good, body and soul. As Genesis says, human beings are made in the “image and likeness of God.” The image of God refers not simply to the mind or soul alone, nor to the body alone. It refers to the whole human being. Because human beings possess intelligence they can “see” God’s character, perceive his will, and know his truth. And because they possess the ruling power of reason, they can do his will even against resistance.

But because they possess bodies they can make these divine qualities visible and active in the world of creatures. Human beings are meant to be the rulers and caretakers of the created world. As body, we share in the nature of all other creatures, but as soul we are open to the Creator of all things. As the union of body and soul, our God-given task is to reorient the time-bound, circular order of nature to the spiritual order, to integrate it and elevate it into this higher order. Everything praises God by its sheer existence and beauty. But in us creation becomes conscious of itself and God and finds itself praising its Creator. We are called to be the priesthood and choir of creation. What an amazing calling!

In our role as priests of creation, our bodies acquire a sacred meaning. The human body is the first sphere of created nature to be spiritualized and reorient to God. The body, like the rest of creation, is time-bound and circular in its ordinary order. Our task is to break open that futile order and make our bodies holy temples that ring with praise to the Creator and shine with divine light. We serve as priests for the rest of universe by making our own bodies the first fruits of a spiritualized creation, examples in miniature of the destiny of the whole creation. In spiritualizing our bodies—and through our bodies the whole creation—we do not destroy the created order of nature; rather, we direct the natural order to its supernatural destiny.

But what about sex? If God calls us to become priests of creation and to make our bodies into holy temples that anticipate the eternal destiny of the creation, how does sex fit into it?  We have many urges. Some urges move us toward things and some repel us away from things. We want to live, breath, eat and drink, and experience sexual union. We fear pain and death. We usually think of these urges as located primarily in the body because of their instinctual and unthinking nature and because we share them with other animals. Other desires and fears are associated with the soul, for example, desire for approval and fear of rejection.

But the strict division of body and soul is artificial, and this becomes obvious when we consider sex. The desire for sexual union is multidimensional. The obvious natural end of sexual union is reproduction. Though physical pleasure accompanies sexual union, it is clearly not its natural end. It is a means and motive. Higher animals usually take care of their offspring and nurture them until they can fin for themselves, but animal parents cannot understand that their offspring come from sexual union. They cannot consciously decide to mate in order to have offspring. Hence the physical urge for sexual union in animals is purely instinctual and irresistible. The end achieved by nature was not sought by the animals themselves.

Human beings, too, possess the physical urge for sexual union. But the rational and spiritual dimensions of human beings dramatically transform the urge for sexual union by placing it into a radically different context. For human beings, too, the natural end of sexual union is a child, and this end should never be forgotten or rejected. But human beings, in contrast to animals, know about this natural end and, hence, can consciously adopt it as their own personal end. Physical desire precedes union, but for human beings sexual desire is not purely instinctual, and it is not irresistible.

Physical pleasure accompanies sexual union, but the pleasure is not purely physical. Human beings can receive joy from giving pleasure to each other and hence raise physical pleasure, which is limited to each individual’s body, to a spiritual act of love and union. But sexual union in its spiritual dimension cannot be isolated from the whole relationship between the two. In sexual union one enters that most intimate and tender area of human soul where dwell our deepest needs for approval and presence and our equally deep fears of rejection and abandonment. Great care must be taken. For human beings, sexual union is a soul-damaging lie unless it is also a symbol of a life of self-giving.

The idea of reserving sexual union to a man and woman committed to life-long, loving marriage is not an ideological construct of a by-gone era. It is the life form love must take to realize itself fully in this relationship. It’s part of our task of spiritualizing and reorienting creation to its supernatural end. And it is the only way to elevate sexual union to a level worthy of human beings who are made in the image of God, body and soul. Only eternal self-giving love can make sexual union a means of transforming our bodies into temples of the Holy Spirit. Only by treating our bodies and the bodies of others as sacred objects can we fulfill our vocation as priests of creation.

To be continued…

Foolish Faith or Divine Light? Faith and the Contemporary Moral Crisis (#7)

Why do Christian teachers invoke divine authority to substantiate the moral rules they advocate? What does viewing biblical morality as divinely commanded add to the moral authority of the Bible considered as a deposit of the wisdom of a long-continuous community? The last post (#6) began to address these questions. As we observed last week history shows that human beings tend toward sensuality and violence both as individuals and as civilizations. And although it is possible to learn much about what is good for human beings from experience, most people are more interested in immediate pleasure than the truly good. Hence the moral traditions of whole cultures can become polluted and self-destructive or so marginalized that they have little impact on the mass of individuals. The Bible assumes that human civilization has become corrupt and it sees divine intervention as necessary. The story of the Old Testament includes divinely commissioned lawgivers and prophets sent to a degenerate culture to reveal what is good.

There is also a second reason Christian teachers invoke divine commands. Human experience is limited to life in this world. Experience can teach much about what promotes human happiness and flourishing in this life. But belief that God is the Creator of this world sets human life in a larger context, beyond the range of what can be learned by ordinary experience. If our sole end is living long and well in this life, then the good is whatever helps us achieve this goal. But if God created human beings for another end, then the good is whatever helps us achieve that end.

If we have a God-intended end beyond living long and well in this body, only God can tell us what it is and how to achieve it. We cannot learn this good from individual or collective experience. It should not be surprising, then, that Christian teachers view all the moral rules Christians live by as divine commands. This view makes perfect sense because in Christianity the humanly chosen goal of living long and well is subordinated to the divinely chosen end of eternal life in God. This shift changes everything. Life in the body as a whole is now directed beyond itself. Living long and well in this life alone is no longer the end that determines what is good. We need God’s help both to know and to do the truly good. Those who believe that Jesus is the risen Lord will gladly receive his and his apostles’ instructions about how to live in view of the true end of human life revealed in him.

There are two big reasons the moral life to which we are called in the New Testament seems strange and oppressive to our age: (1) even experienced based moral rules, which focus only on living well and long in this body, sound strange and oppressive to most people. Never in any society has the majority been virtuous even by Aristotle’s standards! (2) Unless one whole-heartedly embraces the Christian vision of the God-intended end of human life, living here and now in faith for that unseen end appears extremely foolish.

Up next: Souls, Bodies and Sex.

Adding Insult to Injury: Faith and the Contemporary Moral Crisis (#6)

In the previous installment of this series (#5) we learned that human beings discover what is good for them through experience. Each new generation must be taught the knowledge of the good acquired and tested by billions of individuals over thousands of years. The knowledge of what is good for us is communal and traditional. It should be obvious to any thoughtful person that no individual can acquire this knowledge from private experience alone.

Allow me to anticipate my final diagnosis of the contemporary moral crisis: the crisis was precipitated when modern culture abandoned the notion that human beings acquire experiential knowledge of the good as a community and transmit it through tradition. Simultaneously, modern culture adopted a romantic notion of the good as a feeling of well-being and an individualist view of how we come to know the good. Only by gross inconsistency, sheer arbitrariness and threats of coercion can modern culture assert a moral order that limits the behavior of individuals.

Not surprisingly, when Christian moralists appeal to the Bible to determine what is good and right they are met with incredulity and hostility from the dominant culture. Appealing to the Bible strikes modern people as strange for two reasons. First, the Bible preserves a view of the good learned by a community over many thousands of years and passed on in a tradition. Since our contemporaries don’t understand that communal experience and tradition are the only ways human beings can learn about the good, they reject our appeals to the Bible for this reason alone. They would reject the authority of any other community and tradition.

Second, Christian moralists don’t just appeal to the long-term experience of a community. They also equate the view of the good presented in the Bible with divinely revealed moral law. The rules and laws of the Bible present themselves not only as discoveries of what is good for human beings but also as divine commands. The consequence of not adhering to the good is experiencing something bad as a natural result. But the consequence of disobeying a divine command is divine wrath and punishment.

Perhaps this second aspect of the Christian moralist’s message is the primary reason for the hostility of the culture. It’s one thing to warn people of the natural negative consequences of their actions. It is another to invoke divine disapproval and threat of punishment in addition to the natural consequences of the bad act. The first may cause people to smile at our naiveté, but the second will be taken as an insult and will evoke anger. It adds insult to injury.

But it’s not just outsiders who experience difficulty reconciling the good with the right and comprehending the relationship between learning about the good in communal experience and learning about it from a divine command. Believers, too, are often disturbed by the thought of God punishing bad behavior with pain in addition the act’s natural consequences. Or, perhaps they are troubled even more by the thought that God might command something unrelated to any obvious good and punish transgressors even when natural negative consequences are wholly absent. The moral crisis touches the church more than we would like to admit.

I want to begin to address these difficulties by considering the issue of why a divinely commanded moral law may be needed above and beyond humanly discovered good. I am assuming for the moment that we at least understand the reasonableness of looking to the moral tradition contained in the Bible for instruction about the good. As I argued above, it is most wise for an individual to accept the moral authority of a long, continuous community and tradition above private feelings and experience or abstract theory. But why divine commands?

(1) In view of human wickedness and the human tendency to degenerate into sensuality and violence, we can see the value of divine guidance and inspirations to help lawgivers, prophets, religious and moral reformers formulate the truly good for the community. This is certainly how the Bible sees it. After the fall in Genesis, chapter 3, humanity keeps on its downward moral trajectory until there is only one good human being, Noah. From the biblical point of view the customs of the peoples surrounding Israel are evil and inhumane. The laws given by God through Moses, however, are good and wise (See Psalm 119!).

Even though most of the moral laws in the Bible could have been learned—and in some cases were learned—from communal experience, human beings are inclined to follow their immediate desires rather than reason. And this inclination can even poison the moral traditions of whole cultures, for example, Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18 and 19). Hence, from the biblical perspective, God’s decision to educate his people about the truly good by giving laws is a gracious and kind act.

Next week we will consider a second reason divine commands are necessary: God has good things in mind for human beings that extend beyond individual and even communal well being, and only God knows this good.

To be continued…

How Do YOU Know? Faith and the Contemporary Moral Crisis (#5)

To understand and deal with the contemporary moral crisis it is first necessary to get clear ideas of the good and the right. I think we’ve accomplished this in the first four parts of this series. The good is what is truly good for us in the most comprehensive sense and the right is what corresponds to moral law. But these concepts are still rather abstract. Perhaps it’s time to talk about how we know what specific things and actions are good for us.

The Good and Experience

We don’t come into the world knowing very much about what is good for us. As infants and small children we need adults to protect us from bad things and provide us with good. Almost immediately adults begin to teach us the difference between good and bad. Somewhere along the way to adulthood we learn from trusted others and from our personal experience enough to survive. We learn about what is good for our physical bodies. Fire, electricity and busy streets are dangerous. We need to eat our vegetables and drink our milk. We also learn social goods and evils. We don’t bite our playmates and we share our toys.

But all the adults in our lives were themselves at one time children and had to learn what is good and bad from the previous generation of adults…and that generation from the one before it. We can’t just keep resorting to the previous generation. From where did the knowledge of what is good and bad for human beings originate? Remember what we said in earlier posts: to say that something is good for us means that it enables us to flourish and achieve our end. The goodness of a thing or an act is revealed when it actually causes human beings to flourish and achieve their ends. It can’t be known theoretically. To say it another way: human beings learn what is good for them by experience.

Community and Tradition

But we cannot learn all we need to know about what is good and bad for us through our own experience! Indeed, by the time we can survive without constant supervision, we’ve already learned from others a way of thinking about the world and hundreds of rules about good and bad. We are born into a human community that is already heir to thousands of years of traditional wisdom. We inherit billions upon billions of years of human experience. Hence knowledge of good and bad comes to the individual in the form of traditional wisdom formulated in rules, maxims, advice, observations and sometimes in laws. And the best and most enduring parts of this wisdom are often preserved in fables, parables, and proverbs. In every age there are wise men and women who pay special attention to this tradition, collect it, organize it and write it down. We are all the beneficiaries of their work. (In the past, education consisted primarily of teaching this wisdom to the next generation…but that is another story.)

Notice that although experience is the original teacher of good and bad, the lessons of experience are mediated to individuals by language, the language of rules. Though the rules derived from the collective experience of the human race are not infallible, it seems foolish indeed for an individual to flout the lessons learned from billions of years of human experience in favor of their limited and as yet incomplete experience in living. Nor would a theoretical notion, such as autonomy or equality, suffice to overturn the authority of such a huge reservoir of experience. Traditional wisdom is derived from millions of completed lives, observed and assessed from within and without. Hence if we really desire the truly good we should acknowledge the limits of our individual wisdom and pay reverent attention to the wisdom of the moral tradition.

Where are We and Where are We Going?

We’ve learned some important lessons. Human beings learn what is truly good for them through experience and this good can be confirmed again and again by experience. But we’ve seen that we cannot discover what is truly good for us from our own private experience. We depend on the experience of generations of those who came before us. These lessons help us understand some things about the biblical vision of the good and the right that are often obscured in contemporary discussions. In anticipation of future posts consider this: given what we’ve learned about how human beings actually come to know the good, it should not be surprising that Christians look to the laws, parables, proverbs and direct moral teaching of the Old and New Testaments to learn what is truly good for them. Everyone looks to moral tradition in one form or another. We have no choice. But Christians understand the moral tradition contained in the scriptures to be based on more than mere human experience, and it is concerned with a wider horizon and a greater end than life in this world. Christians believe that this human experience was elevated and deepened by divine revelation and providence and by the working of the divine spirit.

To be continued…