Tag Archives: morality

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.

.

Advertisements

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.

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…

God and The Modern Self: The Me-Centered Self (Part 1)

In this post I will address the theme developed in Chapter 1 of God, Freedom & Human Dignity, entitled “How the Me-Centered World Was Born.” I begin by quoting from the introductory comments to that chapter:

“As children we never questioned our identity or wondered about our place in life. Nor did we think of our “selves” as distinct from our relationships, activities and feelings. We just lived in the context we were born into and followed the natural course of our lives. But as we grew older we were encouraged to discover our own unique blend of preferences, talents and joys and to create an identity for ourselves through our choices and actions. In contrast to previous ages, modern culture denies that one can become an authentic person or experience fulfillment in life by conforming to natural or socially given relationships and roles. Instead, we are taught that our self-worth and happiness depend on reconstructing ourselves according to our desires. And the project of redesigning ourselves necessitates that we continually break free from the web of social relationships and expectations that would otherwise impose an alien identity on us. I am calling this understanding of the self “me-centered” not because it is especially selfish or narcissistic but because it attempts to create its identity by sheer will power and rejects identity-conferring relationships unless they are artifacts of its own free will. It should not surprise us, then, to find that the modern person feels a weight of oppression and a flood of resentment when confronted with the demands of traditional morality and religion. In the face of these demands the “me-centered” self feels its dignity slighted, its freedom threatened and its happiness diminished…

“How and when and by whom did it come about that nature, family, community, moral law and religion were changed in the western mind from identity-giving, happiness-producing networks of meaning into their opposites—self-alienating, misery-inducing webs of oppression? How was the “me-centered” world formed?” (pp. 17-18).

The modern “me-centered” identity, like the Christian God-centered identity, has a history. Ignorance of this history constitutes one of the greatest challenges to engaging with our contemporaries on moral and religious issues. If we don’t know this story we won’t understand how they think, and if they are ignorant of it they won’t understand themselves. Hence it is imperative that we answer the question in the italicized part of the above quote.

It is impossible to assign an absolute beginning to any era in history. Nevertheless, we won’t be distorting history too much if we say that the modern view of the self began around 1620 and reached maturity by 1800, at least among the educated elite. As articulated by Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) and Francis Bacon (1561-1626), a new scientific way of thinking (the scientific revolution)  inspired a different view of humanity’s relationship to nature and a new optimism about human reason’s power to shape nature into whatever form it desired. René Descartes (1596-1650) brought this new attitude over into philosophy, placing human freedom and reason at the center of philosophy’s agenda. John Locke (1632-1704) applied the new human-centered thought to morality, politics and theology. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) and the Romantic poets and philosophers who followed him gave human feeling and desire a central place in human self-understanding. Gottfried Herder (1744-1803), expressed a view that people today utter as if it were self-evident and indisputable. “Each human being has his own measure, as it were an accord peculiar to him of all his feelings to each other.” In other words, each individual is so unique that there can be no moral and religious rules that apply to all individuals: “Find yourself.” “Do your own thing.” “Question authority.”

The history of the formation of the me-centered identity can be summarized by saying that every rule and law, every power and right, and every ideal of what is good, true and beautiful was moved from outside the human being—from nature, God, moral law—to inside human consciousness where it could be brought under the power of free will. Human dignity became identical with the power to decide for yourself what is good and right. And human happiness became attainable only by following the inclinations of your individual self. The modern self evaluates every moral and religious idea by this standard. These ideas are accepted or rejected according as they enhance or detract from the individual’s immediate sense of self-worth and well-being.

Unless we understand how the me-centered self was formed we will find ourselves at a loss to understand or communicate with people immersed in modern culture. And we will be unable to help them understand themselves enough to gain the distance necessary to criticize the modern human self-understanding. If we are not careful we too will be swept away by what Augustine called the “torrent of human custom” (Confessions, 1.16; trans, Chadwick).

 Questions for Discussion

 1. To what degree and in what areas does Chapter 1’s description of the me-centered self fit people of your acquaintance or resonate with your self-understanding?

2. In what ways do you think a review of the history of the formation of the me-centered identity reveal modern identity’s limits and flaws?

3. What light does this chapter shed on contemporary culture’s knee jerk criticism of Christian faith and morality as oppressive, intolerant and judgmental?

4. If this chapter’s description of the modern self is accurate, how can we begin to engage people who have this self-understanding in productive discussions?  What strategies should we employ and which should we avoid?

Next week we will look at the first of three common attitudes toward God taken by the modern self: Defiance.