Category Archives: morality

“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.

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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.

A Good Human Being is Hard to Find and Finding a Good Christian is Even Harder

 

Jesus summarized our duty to God in the command to love God with our whole being and our duty to other people in the command to love our neighbors as ourselves.  But what does it mean to “love God”? And what does it mean to “love your neighbor”? Sadly, many people within our culture are so alienated from the Christian way of understanding human life that they do not know the answer to these questions. Some even reject the idea of there being a right answer. In the previous two posts, I began to explore what it means to love our neighbors.

Paul charts the course for us in his ethical teaching. In last week’s essay,  I quoted 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, where he lists 7 things love does and 8 things love won’t do in relation to others. In Romans 13:8-10, Paul does something similar; but here he relates the love command to the negative provisions of the Ten Commandments:

Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

Paul makes it clear that love should never be defined in a way that makes breaking the commandments the loving thing to do. Never! In coming weeks I plan to explore in detail some ways in which the Bible’s moral commands show us how to love our neighbors.

Today, however, I want to pursue a related set of questions: is the Christian moral vision recognizably “good” by all people of good will and sound reason? Is there a universal moral law? Or, is there such a thing as “a good human being”, and would a person who lived according to Christian moral vision be “a good human being”?

The New Testament writers clearly assume that to a certain extent everyone recognizes the difference between good and evil and right and wrong. And there is a huge overlap between the Christian vision of a good human being and the pagan vision of a good human being. I shall quote a few examples:

For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer (Romans 13:3-4).

Paul speaks here of the Christian’s relationship with those responsible for maintaining the civil order. No society can tolerate murder, robbery and theft, lying under oath, armed rebellion, and other anti-social behaviors. Consequently, everyone recognizes an honest, truthful, faithful, peaceful, self-controlled, and helpful person as a “good human being.” The angry, murderous, thieving, lying, out-of-control person is universally condemned as a “bad human being.” In Paul’s view, Christians have even more reasons and more power to be “good” in the area of social virtues than pagan do. Clearly, pagans do not think the distinction between a good person and a bad one is arbitrary. The virtues and behaviors that make a good person good are recognizably good and beautiful.

Peter also assumes that the difference between a good person and a bad one is universally recognizable, and pagans know the difference:

11 Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. 12 Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.

13 Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, 14 or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. 15 For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people (1 Peter 2:11-15).

13 Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? 14 But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed (1 Peter 3:13-14).

As did Paul in the earlier quote, Peter assumes that everyone recognizes the difference between behaviors and attitudes that contribute to the stability and welfare of a society and those that do not. The “good lives” of Christians refute the false accusations of some pagans. Indeed, Peter envisions Christians as model citizens that outdo the pagans in embodying the highest social virtues.

Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Marcus Aurelius, and other Greek and Roman moralists agree that a good human being should possess the virtues of prudence, temperance, courage, and justice. These virtues are also praised in the New Testament along with many others that are implicit within them or consistent with them. I think one can argue that Jesus calls his disciples to a higher standard than even the highest pagan moralists do. But the most pressing issue in morality does not center on its ideals but on our failure to live up to those ideals. The pagans have high ideals but fail miserably to live up to them.

Hence the first imperative of the Christian moral vision is to become good human beings in the universally recognized sense. Christians don’t live by a totally alien and weird morality. We should at least live up to the best pagan morality, displaying prudence, temperance, courage, and justice. We should be kind, helpful, trustworthy, gentle, compassionate, honest, peaceable, faithful, patient, and generous. How can we rise to the heights of loving our enemies and doing good to those who hate us if we’ve not internalized the more basic virtues? By all means aim to become a good Christian, but understand that you cannot be a good Christian unless you are also a good human being.

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