Tag Archives: Christian ethics

Social Justice and The Great-Cause Fallacy

It seems that everyone who’s anyone these days has attached themselves to some great cause. In introducing yourself to another person you give your name, where you work, and the cause that drives you into the streets. You’re nobody if you’ve not founded a nonprofit organization or haven’t been arrested for chaining yourself to the White House fence or at least have “Activist” printed on your business card. You’ve gotta fight for something—for social justice for the oppressed, for the homeless, for the poor, for the trees, for open spaces, for endangered species, for the climate, for gun rights, for gun control, for children’s rights, parents’ rights, for women’s rights…for somebody’s rights! It’s “Up with…” or “Down with…” or “Out with… or “In with….”

No one presents their cause as evil. No one protests, “Down with justice, up with injustice!” Have you ever seen anyone carrying a sign that says, “Tax the Poor!”? No group occupies the halls of state capitols chanting, “Trash the environment!” No. We adopt causes we think are good, noble, and great; or at least causes we can present as good, noble, and great. Perhaps it should not escape our notice that by adopting a good and just cause I demonstrate to myself and others that I am a good and just person. I present myself as a defender of the defenseless and a champion of the oppressed. I set myself in opposition to the oppressors and polluters, the privileged, the greedy, and the selfish. I manifest my love for the beneficiaries of my zeal for whom I sacrifice an evening a week and a weekend a month. And I am righteously outraged at the evil doers who exploit those I love so much, and I am disgusted by those who turn a blind eye to such injustice. If such a self-presentation were a prayer it would go like this:

“God, I thank thee that I am not like other people—greedy, racist, unpatriotic, or lazy! I am a vegetarian, I recycle, I drive a Prius. I stand for the National Anthem and pay my dues to the NRA” (See Luke 18:9-12).

Am I being judgmental? Then let me bring in a witness. What about the great-cause activists’ claim to love those for whom they fight? The letter we know as 1 John has much to say about loving others and loving God:

“Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen” (1 John 4:20).

Many great-cause activists resonate with John’s critique of the religious hypocrite who claims to love God but doesn’t love other human beings. But the reverse principle is just as true. If you claim to love people but do not love God, you are a liar. If you claim to love some people but do not love all, you are a liar. If you claim to love some of the time but do not love always, you are a liar. 1 Corinthians 13 lists many great causes one could adopt and noble actions one could perform without loving God or human beings:

13 If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing (1 Cor. 13:1-3; NASB).

Identifying with a great and good cause for which one is willing to give up everything is no sure sign that one loves, that one is a good and just person. In his profoundly insightful book, Søren Kierkegaard reminds us of something we should keep in mind always:

Christianity teaches that love is a relationship between: man-God-man,  that is, that God is the middle term…For to love God is to love oneself in truth; to help another human being to love God is to love another man; to be helped by another to love God is to be loved (Kierkegaard, Works of Love, pp. 112-113).

In our relationship with other human beings, with God’s creation, and with ourselves, God is the “middle term,” that is, we must never try to love anything other than God directly. Nothing can be loved in the right way unless it is loved within the act of loving God and because we love God. If you think you are loving people by championing their rights and fighting against their oppressors but are not helping them to love God, you are self-deceived. You do not love them at all. Indeed you may be making them seven times worse off. If you think you can love yourself by asserting your rights and your dignity directly apart from loving God, you are dressing pride in clothing of justice. The greatest cause is learning to love God. The greatest act of love you can do for others is to help them love God, and the most loving thing anyone will ever do for you is to help you love God.

So, you are looking for a great cause? Be sure that your desire to serve a great cause is not secretly a desire to become great by associating with a great cause. We might begin by learning to pray the prayer of tax collector instead of that of the Pharisee:

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ (Luke 18:13).

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Sexual Harassment and the Morality of Consent

In recent weeks charges and denials of sexual harassment and assault filled the headlines and the “breaking news” interruptions. And if the accused party cannot plausibly deny that the incident happened, the issue then turns on “consent.” Was the incident consensual or not? If the act possesses a consent-like quality, that is, some form of silence or non-resistance, a further question arises: what is true consent? Must you say “yes” out loud in answer to an explicit request? Must you sign a letter of consent? Is later regret a sign of original non-consent? And how soon must the regretting party express doubts about their true consent? Hours? Days? Weeks? Years? These questions and distinctions could be multiplied to the point of absurdity. But I am interested in a more foundational issue.

Mutual consent and legal liability seem to be the highest moral standards contemporary society expects in personal interactions, especially when it comes to sex. Many people can’t think of another reason to judge an action wrong. Whatever self-destructive consequences an act may have for the consenting parties, all that matters is mutual consent. It is assumed that mutual consent removes the possibility of moral objection to an act because (1) there is no higher moral law that consent cannot override. Consent is itself the highest moral law because people have the right to do whatever they want with their souls and bodies; and (2) the mutually consenting action of two or more parties can be isolated from all other people.

[Both of these presuppositions are false to the point of absurdity. See note at the end of this essay for further thoughts on why.]

Don’t misunderstand me. It is a good thing that our society has not sunk to the point that it condones nonconsensual sexual violence and other forms abuse. But there is much more to morality than consent. And Christianity calls us to a much higher standard.

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.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law (Romans 13: 8-10).

Like you I am appalled at the abusive behavior of politicians, media moguls, and business executives that has recently come to light. However I am concerned that many people will take the whole affair simply as a warning to be more careful in their seductions and adulteries. But I urge us to attend to the root problem of such behavior. It’s not failure to get consent. It’s rejection of the God-originated, Jesus-modeled, and Spirit-inspired love that gladly and spontaneously fulfills the law. It puts other people’s needs above its own. It thinks always not of ways to seduce but of ways to bless others. It views power as the opportunity to serve others, not abuse them.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres (1 Cor. 13:4-7).

I hope you will teach your children a higher morality than mutual consent. You will have to do this yourself, by your example and words. And your children will need to see it practiced in a community of Jesus’ disciples. Contemporary society and its educational institutions will not do it for you. Mutual consent is as high a morality as it can imagine.

For an in-depth study of how consent replaced Christian morality in contemporary society see my essay from June 2014:

https://ifaqtheology.wordpress.com/2014/06/13/consenting-adults-body-soul-and-sex-4/

 

Is Social Justice Ministry A Substitute Gospel?

For the past two weeks I have been editing my blog posts of the past 13 months in preparation to publish the third book written in installments on this blog. The title will be A Course in Christianity for an Unchurched Church. As I worked through the chapters I paused at chapter 44 and thought about the state of the churches in the United States and, by extension, in other English-speaking countries. I see so many changes in process and on the horizon. In almost all cases, change is morally and theological ambiguous, that is, it includes some change for better and some for worse. The change this chapter considers is the change in evangelical and theologically conservative churches from emphasis on evangelism and soul saving to social justice works. The criticism of the soul saving model of outreach is that is treats people as disembodied souls rather than as whole persons. Of course, there is some truth to this criticism.

However, in my view, the shift to social justice as the church’s primary outreach to the world also distorts the mission of the church. I see three obvious ways this distortion takes place. (1) The social justice model possesses a strong tendency to play down the need for individual repentance, faith, and conversion. The evil it aims to address is socially systemic injustice rather than personal sin. It views the human problem as rooted in its racist, sexist, colonialist, homophobic, environmentally exploitative, plutocratic, etc., social structures rather than in each person’s idolatry, ignorance, and rebellion against God. Or, it engages in relieving poverty, homelessness, human trafficking, etc. without engaging in evangelism and establishing churches. (2) It tends to blur the line between the kingdom of God and the world. It allows the church to become an adjunct to the world, functioning as a social agency devoted to ameliorating the world’s ills. Christianity, originally understood as the present, supernatural manifestation of the future reign of God, is transformed into an ideology whose value is based on its usefulness in support of social activism. Christians working for social justice are tempted to root their identity more in a cause held in common with nonbelievers than with a cause exclusive to believers. (3) It tends to utopianism, that is, the naive view that we can bring about the kingdom of God on earth by dent of human effort. It seeks to cure human sin by reorganizing social structures or meeting bodily needs.

A Question for Social Justice Ministries

To what degree does the move from evangelism to social justice represent a loss of faith in power and truth of the gospel and abandonment of belief in the necessity of personal faith, repentance, and conversion? How far does it go to subordinate the body of Christ to the body politic of a nation? To what extent does it replace the cause of Christ with the cause of an interest group?

Hence today I want to re-post the edited version of an essay I posted some months ago. It will be published as chapter 44 in A Course in Christianity:

Is “Social Justice” a Christian Concept?

In a time of increasing emphasis on social justice in evangelical churches, colleges, and seminaries, perhaps we ought to reflect on the difference between seeking justice and doing justice. On almost every occasion in which the Old Testament uses the expression “seek justice” it  refers to seeking justice for others, for “the fatherless,” “the widow,” and the “poor” (Isaiah 1:17 and Jeremiah 5:28). Quite often these instructions are given to people in authority or with social status enough to advocate for others. A king, for example, should “seek justice” for all the people (Isaiah 16:5). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us to “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33). Micah informs us of what the Lord requires: “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (6:8). But neither the Old nor New Testament tells us to “seek justice” for ourselves. Advocating for the legitimate rights of others is counted a virtuous act. But seeking it for yourself is at best ambiguous; it is not condemned but neither is it praised.

Oversimplifying matters a bit, I see three different modes of enacting justice in the Bible: (1) seeking justice for the powerless against unjust powers; (2) seeking justice for yourself in matters where you believe you have been treated unfairly; and (3) acting justly in all your own relationships with others. Let’s discuss them one at a time.

 

Seeking Justice for Others

To engage in this mode of justice you must possess some qualities the oppressed do not possess. You cannot be powerless and oppressed yourself. You have to possess power or you cannot help those without it. And you cannot be a member of the oppressed group or you would not be seeking justice for others but for yourself. You cannot seek justice for the poor if you are poor or the vulnerable fatherless if you are vulnerable and fatherless. This distinction between those who have status to seek justice for others and those for whom they seek it makes the activity of seeking justice morally ambiguous. True, all good deeds are morally ambiguous because the moment we recognize the goodness of our actions we become proud of our goodness. And pride is wrong. But seeking justice for others adds another dimension. We must distinguish ourselves from those we aim to help. We have power, wealth, and status, and they don’t. Hence our compassion for the victim can easily transform into relief that we are not victims, not poor, not powerless. A root of disdain springs to life.

Additionally, it is easy to forget the people we are trying to help and get caught up in the noble, heroic cause of justice and the feelings of self-importance it engenders. It is often said these days that giving “charity” to the needy offends against their dignity but seeking justice for them affirms that dignity. But as you can see from the analysis above, seeking justice also distinguishes between those who have power, wealth, and status and those who do not. Seeking justice makes plenty of room for a condescending attitude on the part of the justice seeker. It would be ironic indeed if in seeking justice we grow to despise the very ones for whom we seek it.

One more irony: justice seekers often attempt to awaken and mobilize the oppressed to resent and hate their oppressors. We make seeking justice for oneself a holy task, a moral obligation, and a virtuous act. In so doing, justice seekers remake the oppressed in the image of their oppressors. It is an infallible rule that we become like what we hate.

 

Seeking Justice for Yourself

Seeking justice for yourself is not a noble or virtuous act. It’s normal and spontaneous for sure, but we have no duty to make sure other people treat us fairly. We enjoy a highly developed and finely nuanced power for detecting injustice when it is done to us. But we are notoriously bad at judging our own cause. Who feels that life treats them with perfect fairness? Does anyone feel like they get enough recognition or are paid enough for their work? Who is happy with a B+ when you know you deserve an A? Every 6-year old child says, “No fair” at least 5 times a day. Indeed, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus seems to discourage or even condemn seeking justice for yourself. It’s too easy to clothe envy and selfishness in the purple cloak of justice. No one is qualified to be their own judge. We need an objective standard and an impartial judge.

 

Doing Justice

Doing justice is at the heart of the issue. Seeming to seek justice for others does not require that you give up your supposed rights and privileges. You can seek justice for others for less than noble reasons and you can remain deeply self-centered while doing it. But doing justice is an altogether different matter. I do justice when I submit all my actions in relation to God and others to the test of the right. Doing justice requires that I renounce all self-judgment and reject all actions that privilege my desires, my supposed rights, over others. We do justice when we do the right thing whether it is in harmony with our interests or not. The foundation for doing justice is loving justice more than you love yourself; and the foundation for loving justice more than yourself is loving your neighbor as you love yourself. How can we claim to seek justice for others when we don’t act justly in all our relationships? And how can we seek true justice for ourselves when we turn a blind eye to the injustice we do to others? Perhaps, if we will concentrate our hearts on doing justice in all our acts, we will be better able to seek justice for others. And if we focus on doing justice we might not be so insistent on seeking justice for ourselves.

A Study in Vice

The Bible describes moral life in terms of virtues, vices, and actions. Virtues and vices have to do with dispositions of character. Actions concern movements from the self toward the external environment. The English word virtue derives ultimately from a Latin word that means power, that is, a learned skill that enables one to act appropriately. And the English word vice comes from the Latin word for fault, defect, or failing. A vice is not a power but a weakness, a lack of power. Virtues complement each other and together create harmony within the soul and promote harmony with others. Vices contradict each other and pull the soul in many directions at once and they set the vicious person against others. A virtue like courage or love is called a power because it enables us to act in a self-determined way regardless of the circumstances. Vices or weaknesses of character make us vulnerable to losing control of our behavior and becoming emotional slaves to our circumstances.

We cannot generate from within ourselves everything we need to survive. We are possessed with a desire for life. To live we need things that nature supplies. And to live well we need the companionship and cooperation of other people.  That is to say, we have desires and those desires are rooted in human nature. One of the four cardinal virtues is temperance. Temperance is the power to restrain and direct our desires so that they achieve their natural purposes but do not lead us into behaviors that are damaging to ourselves and others.

In many New Testament translations, desire (epithumia), when it is not moderated and directed by temperance, is translated “lust.” In older translations, it is sometimes translated “concupiscence”, and Christian moralists sometimes designate it “inordinate desire” or “unnatural desire.” Lust or intemperate desire is a very general concept. It is made specific by the type of object desired. Lust has come to mean inordinate desire for sexual gratification. Inordinate desire for money is called greed or avarice. Inordinate desire for food is called gluttony, and inordinate desire for rest is called indolence or sloth. Lust, Gluttony, Greed, and Sloth are four of the traditional seven deadly sins. These four are simple extensions of desire for physical things. The other three, wrath, envy, and pride, are more complicated and have a personal and spiritual component.

Envy

Now I want to consider vice of envy because it combines inordinate desire with another vice that intensifies its destructive power.  Envy is more than desire; it is desire for what rightfully belongs to someone else.  The envious person doesn’t simply desire the girl or boy, the car, house, or diamond. Envy is more than desire for recognition and reward. Envy resents the person who possesses something we want. As it grows envy becomes less about the desirability of the thing we want and more about the fact that the other person has it and we don’t. Why should you have the girl, the gem, or the money, and not I?  Why should you receive the honor and not I? Envy leads to all sorts of bitter thoughts and rationalizations, which in turn find expression in faultfinding, gossip, and lying. The cold wolf of envy often cloaks itself in the warm robes of righteousness, justice, and fairness.  He can call on God and all that is holy to justify his bitter judgment. And words can spiral out of control, producing anger, rage, hatred, and even murder.

The vice of envy illustrates well how sin against the neighbor is also sin against God. The question, “Why should he or she have that thing and not I?” is really an accusation against God. “God, why did you give the girl or boy, the money, or honor to that person and not to me?” If we trusted and loved God we would be satisfied with what he gives us. If we believed God loved us, we’d be satisfied with how God distributes his good gifts. And if we loved our neighbors, we’d rejoice with them over their blessings. Our tendency to envy others shows that we resent God and consider him unfair. If we believed that God is just, we’d leave judgment about who deserves what and who rightfully owns what to him alone.

Jealousy

The word jealously is often used as a synonym for envy.  In my view, we should reserve them for different vices; they have different objects. Jealousy like envy involves a desire, but in jealousy’s case the desire is to keep what one already possesses (or what one thinks he or she possesses) from falling into the hands of someone else. And the object over which one is jealous is almost always a person, not a physical object. It can be a spouse, friend or relative. I may think I am entitled to the exclusive attention of my friend or parent or spouse. A jealous husband or wife, for example, grows inordinately angry at the attention another man or woman pays to his or her spouse and resents the spouse’s apparent enjoyment of this attention.

Jealousy like envy has deep roots. If we feel insecure about the faithfulness of our spouse or friends, will we burn with jealousy when they give or receive attention from another person. Jealousy, too, is inordinate desire, not simply the desire for affection and faithfulness from the beloved, but selfish to the point of robbing the beloved of living their own life. The jealous person demands not only that the beloved love them but that she or he love no one else. From this description, we can conclude that jealousy also refuses to love and trust God. If we loved God above all things and trusted his love for us, we would not be so devastated at the thought of someone else robing us of our beloved. If we hold on to God, we will know that all good things come from God and that he will take care of us even if we are betrayed. God will be faithful even if the whole world becomes faithless.

Jealousy also violates the second greatest command. Jealousy as inordinate desire seeks to absorb the beloved and rob them of friendships with others. It is far from a jealous person’s thought to rejoice in the beloved’s joys and successes or to glory in his/her development toward maturity. Jealousy produces nothing good. Instead, it drives the beloved spouse or friend further away. Though on one level the beloved might mistake jealousy for love, on another level the beloved knows that they are not loved at all but only valued as a means to a selfish end.

The jealous person places the desire to be loved above the desire to love, and here the inordinate nature of jealousy comes clearly in to view. The proper order of love is to accept God’s love and return that love to God in praise, trust, and obedience. Jealousy can find no soil in such a heart. The jealous person loves no one but themselves, and even this self-love is an illusion because “to love one’s self in truth is to love God.” (Kierkegaard, Works of Love). If you don’t love God or your neighbor, you cannot love yourself truly. For you don’t desire or strive for the best for yourself.

Now we are in a position to see why the New Testament warns against such dispositions of the human heart. Envy and jealousy indicate disharmony in a person’s character. Hence when they are expressed and acted upon, they create conflict rather than promoting harmony among people. Whereas people that display contentment, self-control, gratitude, and love can live together in harmony, people who envy and are jealous cannot get along with each other.

I don’t think we can free our hearts of envy and jealousy by sheer will power. As I said above vices are weak, thoughtless, and defective. They are not things to root out but holes that need filling. So, instead of attempting futilely to change ourselves, we should contemplate God’s love for us, trust completely in God’s faithfulness, and meditate on the true order of love, which is God, neighbor, and self. At the same time, we must put the virtues into practice in our external actions. We will find that our hearts follow.

On the Difference Between Seeking Justice and Doing Justice

In a time of increasing emphasis on justice ministry (a.k.a. social justice) in evangelical churches, colleges, and seminaries, perhaps we ought to reflect on the difference between seeking justice and doing justice. On almost every occasion in which the Old Testament uses the expression “seek justice” it  refers to seeking justice for others, for “the fatherless” or the “poor” (Isa 1:17 and Jer 5:28). Quite often these instructions are given to people in authority or with social status enough to advocate for others. A king, for example, should “seek justice” for all the people (Isa 16:5). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us to “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness” (Matt 6:33). Micah informs us of what the Lord requires: “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (6:8). But neither the Old nor New Testament tells us to “seek justice” for ourselves. Advocating for the legitimate rights of others is counted a virtuous act. But seeking it for yourself is at best ambiguous; it is not condemned but neither is it praised.

Oversimplifying matters a bit, I see three different modes of enacting justice in the Bible: (1) seeking justice for the powerless against unjust powers; (2) seeking justice for yourself in matters where you believe you have been treated unfairly; and (3) acting justly in all your own relationships with others. Let’s discuss them one at a time.

Seeking Justice for Others

To engage in this mode of justice you must possess some qualities the oppressed do not possess. You cannot be powerless and oppressed yourself. You have to possess power or you cannot help those without it. And you cannot be a member of the oppressed group or you would not be seeking justice for others but for yourself. You cannot seek justice for the poor if you are poor or the vulnerable fatherless if you are vulnerable and fatherless. This distinction between those who have status to seek justice for others and those for whom they seek it makes the activity seeking justice morally ambiguous.

True, all good deeds are morally ambiguous because the moment we recognize the goodness of our actions we become proud of our goodness. And pride is wrong. But seeking justice for others adds another dimension. We must distinguish ourselves from those we aim to help. We have power, wealth, and status, and they don’t. Hence our compassion for the victim can easily transform into relief that we are not victims, not poor, not powerless. A root of distain is given life.

Additionally, it is easy to forget the people we were trying to help and get caught up in the noble, heroic cause of justice and the feelings of self-importance it engenders. It is often said these days that giving “charity” to the needy offends against their dignity but seeking justice for them affirms that dignity. But as you can see from the analysis above, seeking justice also distinguishes between those who have power, wealth, and status and those who do not. Seeking justice makes plenty of room for a condescending attitude on the part of the justice seeker. It would be ironic indeed if in seeking justice we grow to despise the very ones for whom we seek it.

One more irony: justice seekers often attempt to awaken and mobilize the oppressed to resent and hate their oppressors. We make seeking justice for oneself a holy task, a moral obligation, and a virtuous act. In so doing, justice seekers remake the oppressed in the image of their oppressors. It is an infallible dialectical rule that we become like what we hate.

Seeking Justice for Yourself

Seeking justice for yourself is not a noble or virtuous act. It’s normal and spontaneous indeed, but we have no duty to make sure other people treat us fairly. We have a highly developed and finely nuanced power of detecting injustice when it is done to us. But we are notoriously bad at judging our own cause. Who feels that life treats them with perfect fairness? Does anyone feel like they get enough recognition or are paid enough for their work? Who is happy with a B+ when you know you deserve an A? Every 6-year old child says, “No fair” at least 5 times a day. Indeed, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus seems to discourage or even condemn seeking justice for yourself. It’s too easy to clothe envy and selfishness in the purple cloak of justice. No one is qualified to be their own judge. We need an objective standard and an impartial judge. I addressed the need for an objective standard for justice in my post of November 28, 2015 (“No Love, No Justice! On the Difference Between God’s Justice and Ours”):

Human justice distributes goods according to merit and demerit as measured by a set of rules or law. Just laws embody the principle of justice that says, “each according to his due.” Just acts follow those rules. A just person lives by those rules with all sincerity. Clearly the question of justice is the question of the fitting relationship between two things: between a law and the principle of proper merit or between a rule and a behavior that expresses that rule. One serves as the standard for the other.

Doing Justice

Doing justice is at the heart of the issue. Seeming to seek justice for others does not require that you give up your supposed rights and privileges. You can seek justice for others for less than noble reasons and you can remain deeply self-centered while doing it. But doing justice is an altogether different matter. I do justice when I submit all my actions in relation to God and others to the test of the right. Doing justice requires that I renounce all self-judgment and reject all actions that privilege my desires, my supposed rights, over others. We do justice when we do the right thing whether it is in harmony with our interests or not. The foundation for doing justice is loving justice more than you love yourself.

How can we claim to seek justice for others when we don’t do justice ourselves? And how can we seek true justice for ourselves when we turn a blind eye to the injustice we do to others? Perhaps, if we will concentrate our hearts on doing justice in all our acts, we will be better able to seek justice for others. And if we focus on doing justice we might not be so insistent on seeking justice for ourselves.

Next time, I will start a miniseries on Jesus as Savior. From what does Jesus save and how?

Says Who? Faith and the Contemporary Moral Crisis (#3)

Last week (#2) we concluded that we call a thing “good” when we want to express the relation of being “good for” between it and something else. To say a particular hammer is good is to say that it is good for doing what hammers are meant to do. In analogy, to say a particular human being is “good” is to say that this human being is capable of doing and actually does what human beings are meant to do. In the same way, a particular human action is good if it does for human beings what human actions are meant to do for human beings.

Notice that hammers, human beings and human acts can be called “good” only if we know what they are meant to be and do. And the idea that human beings are meant to be and do certain things and not others implies that they possess natures and ends. Put as simply as I can, a nature (or essence) is the design plan or structure of a thing that makes it the kind of thing it is. Inherent in the idea of a design plan of a thing is its proper function and purpose. Just as a hammer’s design plan suits it for driving nails but not for threading needles, human nature directs human beings to certain ends and not others. And certain acts enable human nature to function properly to achieve its intended end and others do not.

The idea of the good is relevant to moral issues only if human beings possess natures that determine the conditions under which they can function properly to achieve the end at which their nature aims. Without the idea of human nature and its end, the “good” will always be reduced to the “pleasant”. And the pleasant is not a moral category. Whether you find a certain activity pleasant or not cannot by itself demonstrate whether or not it is good for you. As we will see in the course of this series, at the center of our contemporary moral crisis is the loss of faith or even the explicit rejection of the idea that human beings possess natures and ends. Human nature and its ends have been replaced by the arbitrary human will. (See the series on the God and the Modern Self for more on this shift.)

Philosophers from Aristotle onward attempted to describe the perennial and essential features of human nature and the ends toward which it is naturally directed. Aristotle’s work on this subject in Nicomachean Ethics exercised profound influence on western ethical thought, and it still commands respect today. Although I value such naturalistic ethics and I am happy that many thinkers engage in it, as a Christian theologian I cannot limit myself to examining human nature apart from my faith in God as the Creator of human nature, Jesus Christ as the perfect example of a good human being and union with God as the end of human nature.

For Christian moral thought, the idea that human beings possess natures and an ends is securely grounded in the confession of God as the maker of heaven and earth. God created human beings “in his image and likeness” (Genesis 1:26). Throughout the Bible God deals with human beings as if they were designed to function properly by doing certain things and not others. Certain individuals are set forth as examples of “good” human beings. Jesus Christ serves as the supreme example of a perfect human life. Certain commands direct us to engage in activities that show us the best of which human beings are capable, chiefly the commands to love God above all else and our neighbors as ourselves. The resurrection of Jesus Christ and our union with him in faith and baptism ground our hope of eternal life and union with God in the general resurrection.

In sum, the Christian understanding of the good is determined by the following convictions: (1) the most important characteristic of human nature is that it is the image and likeness of God, (2) human nature’s proper function is to image the perfect character of God in the world as informed by the example of Jesus Christ, and (3) human nature is directed by its Creator toward the end of eternal life and union with God. Nothing can be considered good or good for human beings that contradicts or inhibits these three principles.

These three foundational principles provide us with the lenses with which to read the Bible along with the church to fill out in greater detail the character of a good human being, that is, a picture of what the Creator intended human beings to do and become.

To be continued…

Words and Weapons: Faith and the Contemporary Moral Crisis (#2)

“Discussion of theology is not for everyone,” warned Gregory of Nazianzus in the heat of the late 4th century controversy over the Trinity. It is for serious minded and thoughtful people. It’s “not just another subject like any other for entertaining small-talk, after the races, the theater, songs, food, and sex: for there are those who count chatter on theology and clever deployment of arguments as one of their amusements” (Oration 27, Chapter 3).

Basil the Great describes the controversy of his day (late 4th century) as like a great naval battle:

“Imagine, if you will, the ships driven into confusion by the raging tempest, while thick darkness falls from the clouds and blackens the entire scene, so that signals cannot be recognized, and one can no longer distinguish friend from foe…Think of the cries of the warriors as they give vent to their passions with every kind of noise, so that not a single word from the admiral or pilot can be heard…they will not cease their efforts to defeat one another even as their ships sink into the abyss” (On the Holy Spirit, Chapter 30).

In a very different setting, Matthew Arnold spoke of his age as dwelling on “a darkling plain, Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, Where ignorant armies clash by night” (Dover Beach, 1867).

As I look out on the moral crisis that has engulfed our culture, I see the trivialization of the serious of which Gregory complained, the explosion of violent passion Basil describes and the ignorant, nocturnal clash that so troubled Matthew Arnold. My first inclination is to stay out of it and let the enemies vent their passions on each other. Recoiling from the combatant’s sword and the referee’s flag, I prefer to carry the medic’s bag. And yet, perhaps, there is something I can do even during the heat of the battle. For not everyone is enraged all the time. Some have not yet joined the fray, others are resting on the sidelines, and still others wish to stay neutral. And some, only a few perhaps, long to understand what is happening and why and what to do in response.

In riots participants use sticks, broken bottles and bricks as weapons. In moral controversy combatants use words. Words can convey information or express feelings. They can illuminate the mind or evoke emotion. And the emotions they instill can be positive or negative. Many—too many—contemporary discussions of moral issues consist primarily in expressions of emotion, approval or disapproval, in the absence of conceptual clarity and precision.

The Good

In this series I want to address this lack of conceptual clarity. I’d like to begin by reflecting on the concepts of the good and the right, two of the most basic categories necessary for conducting reasonable discussions of moral questions.

I find it interesting that even though the word “good” is very general and bland, it is indispensable for discussions of morality. The meaning of the word can range from weak expressions of esthetic pleasure to assertions of superlative excellence. It can be used to express personal preference or pronounce moral judgment. It can be (mis)used as synonym for the “right” or it can mean the “pleasant”. Given the wide range of meanings for the word good, it would seem important to be clear and specific in one’s use of the term in serious moral discussions.

Examination of all the ways the word good is used shows that in every case, except in reference to God or its misuse to mean the right, it is used in a relative sense; that is to say, something is declared to be “good for” something else. Apart from God, who is absolutely good, any finite good can be “good for” one thing but bad for something else: Salt is good for preserving meat but bad for snails.

A thing can be “good for” someone in two senses: it can give pleasure or promote well-being. Likewise it can be bad for someone in two senses: it can cause unpleasant feelings or reduce well-being. To say that something is good in the first sense is to express the connection between it and a feeling of pleasure. Examples are abundant: that was a good meal, a good show, a good experience.

But an experience can give momentary pleasure and not be “good for” one in the sense of promoting one’s well-being: “Overeating is not good for you.” And an experience can be “good for” your well-being but not be especially pleasant. We can readily offer examples: “Eat your vegetables because they are “good for” you,” “Moderate exercise is “good for” you,” and “Honesty is the best policy.” These assertions declare that possessing these goods, regardless of whether or not they give immediate pleasure, advances your well-being. We can distinguish these two meanings of the word good by naming one “the pleasant” and the other “the productive”.

Let’s draw a preliminary conclusion. To engage in fruitful moral discussions it is important not to confuse the two meanings of “good”, the pleasant and the productive. If one party uses the word good to mean the immediately pleasant and the other party uses it to mean that which is productive of long-term or ultimate well-being, the discussion will be futile.

We can hardly dispute a claim that someone finds something pleasant or unpleasant. The claim is the proof! Hence this type of assertion about goodness is not subject to rational debate—although feelings of pleasure or displeasure can still be expressed in reaction to such claims. (Example, “I find disgusting what you find pleasant.)  But a claim that something is productive of long-term or ultimate well-being is subject to discussion and dispute.

What is the difference? The difference is this: the assertion that X is productive of long-term or ultimate well-being is a claim about what our physical, psychological, moral or spiritual natures require for proper and optimum functioning. This can be true only if within these dimensions of human existence there are objective structures and inherent ends, subject to rational analysis; additionally, these structures and ends must remain constant regardless of our subjective feelings.

Analysis of the concept of the good has led us to the concept of human nature, its proper functioning and its ultimate end. Is there such a thing as human nature, and, if so, how can we discover what is “good for” it? Do human beings have a natural (and perhaps a supernatural) end, and do we know what it is? These questions lead us to our most basic beliefs about God and creation.

To be continued…