|EXPLORING CHRISTIANITY - MORALITY||
LIFE AFTER DEATHChristianity's Hope & Challenge.
A Christian view of morality
We live in a world that appears to have lost its moral moorings. Fifty years ago Omar Bradley said:
The world has achieved brilliance without wisdom, power without conscience. Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants.
Ten years later Robert Fitch, in Christianity in Crisis, put it like this:
We live today in an age when ethics has become obsolete. It is superseded by science, deleted by psychology, dismissed as emotive by philosophy. It is drowned in compassion, evaporated into aesthetics and retreats before relativism.
Things have not improved in fifty years and today even the whole idea of right and wrong seems to be up for grabs. Ravi Zacharias, in A Shattered Visage: The Real Face of Atheism, sums up his analysis of the situation today:
The logic of chance origins has driven our society into rewriting the rules, so that utility has replaced duty, self-expression has unseated authority, and being good has become feeling good. These new rules plunge the moral philosopher into a veritable vortex of relativisations. All absolutes die the death of a thousand qualifications. Life becomes a pin-ball game, whose rules, though they be few, are all instrumental and not meaningful in themselves, except as a means to the player's enjoyment.
Having come loose from our moral moorings in the brave new world, we find ourselves adrift in uncharted seas and have decided to toss away the compass.
Not so long ago the Times Literary Supplement referred to a society that has never made a movie of Leonardo da Vinci but has produced three about Joey Buttafuoco - famous only for having had a teenage love, Amy Fisher, who shot his wife!
One wag has expressed the vagueness that exists about moral values today in the following verse:
It all depends on
where you are;
Ian Hassall, New Zealand's former Commissioner for Children, was recently interviewed by Kim Hill on radio. He raised concern about the loss of values in this country and their replacement only by free market instincts. He placed a link squarely between the rise in suicide, particularly youth suicide, and the absence of values to live by. He cited the sociologist Durkheim, who over a hundred years ago noted a rise in suicide, violence and mental illness when a community loses its values base and therefore meaning. Durkheim called this condition 'anomie' and considered it the worst condition of society.
The growing crime rate in many countries is one of the consequences of this lack of moral values in society. In the 1950s, psychologist Sharon Samenow and psychiatrist Samuel Yochelson, sharing the conventional wisdom that crime is caused by environment, set out to prove their point. They began a 17-year study involving thousands of hours of testing of 250 inmates in the District of Columbia. To their astonishment, they discovered that the cause of crime cannot be traced to environment, poverty, or oppression. Instead, crime is the result of individuals making, as they put it, wrong moral choices. In their 1977 work, The Criminal Personality, they concluded that the answer to crime is a "conversion of the wrong-doer to a more responsible lifestyle." In 1987, Harvard professors James Wilson and Richard Herrnstein came to similar conclusions in their book Crime and Human Nature. They determined that the cause of crime is a lack of proper moral training among young people during the morally formative years, particularly ages one to six.
The lack of moral values in society, and the need to do something about it, is becoming increasingly recognised. In a speech which attracted a good deal of media attention (and some flak), our Governor General, Sir Michael Hardie Boys, deplored the lack of values in society and appealed for a return to some basic moral values. He quoted a report commissioned by UNESCO on Education for the 21st Century. It contains, surprisingly, the following statement:
Often without realising it, the world has a longing, often unexpressed, for an ideal and for values that we shall term 'moral'. It is thus education's noble task to encourage each and every one, acting in accordance with their traditions and convictions, and paying full respect to pluralism, to lift their minds and spirits to the plane of the universal and, in some measure to transcend themselves. It is no exaggeration to say that the survival of humanity depends thereon.
The situation in North America is such that, according to columnist Douglas Todd, "More than four out of five North Americans believe a decline in morals is the continent's gravest problem and that ethics should be taught in the schools." One result of this concern is that entire new specialities have grown up overnight. Today medical ethics, business ethics, environmental ethics and legal ethics are not only serious endeavours but required curricular studies in respected professional schools across the land. Ethics has been spoken of as a "growth industry".
Where do we start?
If these examples accurately describe the problem, then the question is, where do we look for the answer? Where do we find a solid basis for teaching morals, even if we can agree on what those morals should be?
It is significant to note the extent to which some people, who believe that we are the chance product of an evolutionary process in which God has had no say, go to find some basis for 'moral' behaviour. Well-known writer, Philip Yancey, in a recent article in Christianity Today, describes today's evolutionary psychologists as society's new prophets. He quotes Robert Wright, one of the best-known expositors of evolutionary psychology to the general public:
We believe the things - about morality, personal worth, even objective truth - that lead to behaviours that get our genes into the next generation...What is in our genes' interest is what seems 'right' - morally right, objectively right, whatever sort of rightness is in order.
Such people would describe all behaviour, even a mother's love or the sacrificial life of a Mother Teresa, in terms of our genes' programming for survival. As Yancey comments:
Carry the logic far enough, and any notion of good and evil disappears. In essence, the evolutionary psychologists have devised a unified theory of human depravity that would make John Calvin blush. Hard-wired for selfishness, we have no potential for anything else.
Hitler was being realistic when he said, "I cannot see why man should not be just as cruel as nature." As an evolutionist with no belief in God, he had no basis for saying anything else. Artificial-intelligence guru, Marvin Minsky, likes to say that we are just machines made out of meat!
Some evolutionary biologists cheerfully acknowledge the problem. Wright himself says, "The question may be whether, after the new Darwinism takes root, the word moral can be anything but a joke."
Communism has nothing to offer in this respect. The sight of top Russian officials appealing to Western Christian evangelicals to fill the moral gap left by seventy years of atheistic teaching in Russia has highlighted only too clearly the moral bankruptcy of this system.
New worldviews and ways of thinking that have been around over the past generation, such as New Age and postmodernism, don't seem to be much help either, as they differ amongst themselves as to whether there is any basis for morality at all*. Does it all depend on our personal feelings? Ernest Hemingway, in Death in the Afternoon, defined morality this way: "What is moral is what you feel good after, and what is immoral is what you feel bad after."
*I have given a brief summary of New Age and postmodern views and compared them with Christian views in the booklet What Is Truth and Does It Matter?
The human rights movement is limited in what it can offer us here. Disenchantment with what has been done in the name of human rights since the United Nations issued its Declaration on the subject 50 years ago has led an international committee, headed by former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, to draw up a "Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities". A particularly strong paragraph states:
No person, no group, no organisation, no state, no army or police stands above good and evil; all are subject to ethical standards. Everyone has a responsibility to promote good and to avoid evil in all things.
The problem is, however, who decides what is good and what is not? And to whom are we accountable?
The Greek philosophers focused on deciding what they considered to be the "Good Life" and then sought to promote those qualities and virtues that would result in this good life. They relied heavily on their faith in human reason, as did the Enlightenment in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in order to determine what this "Good Life" and these virtues should be. The problem with this approach is that you will never get everyone to agree on what that good life is and what virtues we need to get it.
Any view that is based on human reason alone takes us back to what we think the good life is meant to be. There are no ultimate criteria by which our view can be judged. Many philosophical ethicists have noted this. Nowell-Smith, for example, concluded his lengthy treatise on ethics with a blatant acknowledgment that his ethical reflections in the end bring him back to the individual human person:
What sort of [ethical] principles a man adopts will, in the end, depend on his vision of the Good Life, his conception of the sort of world he desires, so far as it rests with him to create. Indeed his moral principles just are this conception.
To rightly use the term "moral", then, it is important to decide who we are ultimately accountable to. The very fact that we appoint judges and courts (though some, no doubt, wish we didn't) points to the fact that we are not happy with the idea that everyone should make their own rules about what is right or wrong. However, if we don't approve of that, there are only two alternatives: either we are accountable to other human beings, which usually, though not always, means the majority (Marshall McLuhan has suggested that ethical norms could be established by a computer which would record simple majority decisions), or, if God exists, and if he is interested in our behaviour, we are ultimately accountable to him.
The purpose of this booklet
This booklet is written on the premise that God does exist and that he is interested in our behaviour and that any ideas of "morality" that do not take him into account are doomed to failure. Robert Kane, a secularist, in Through the Moral Maze: Searching for Absolute Values in a Pluralistic World, recognises the problem:
We simply do not know enough to ground ethics necessarily in human reason and knowledge alone; and centuries of failure in trying to do so have led many to relativism, scepticism, and nihilism.
However, if God does exist, if he has created us for some purpose, and if he is ultimately going to judge us by some criteria of his choosing (more of that later), then it is obviously important to find out what he thinks about it all. The purpose of this booklet is to spell out clearly the Christian view as to why it matters how we live, as it is presented to us in the Bible. This book has always been regarded as the authoritative revelation on what Christianity is all about*. I won't be looking at specific issues that society is wrestling with today, such as justice, poverty, care of the environment, homosexuality, abortion - all of which, though important and pressing issues, would need a booklet in themselves. Rather, I will be looking at more basic questions, such as: Is there any firm basis for deciding what is good and what is bad? Will it matter if I decide to be "bad" rather than "good"? What happens if I try, but fail? What is life meant to be about, anyway?
*If you have doubts about the reliability of the Bible to give us a true picture of who Jesus is (the founder of Christianity) and what he did, may I commend to you the titles Can We Trust a Book Written 2,000 Years Ago? and Did the Writers of the New Testament Get Their Picture of Jesus Right? in this series.
You may be sure of one thing. What you will find in these pages you will not get from the TV, the newspaper or the movies. We are told that in this modern world we receive something like 16,000 value messages a day from one source or another. It is very unlikely that many of these will correspond clearly with what is taught in the pages of the Bible. It is very likely (unless you are one of the minority of people who read the Bible regularly, listen to Radio Rhema, or attend a church regularly where these things are clearly taught) that you will have distorted ideas about what Christian morality is all about.
My challenge to you is to read this with an open mind. If you don't like it, can you come up with a better reason for expecting people to behave in a certain kind of way? And just one point for clarification - I make no distinction between "morality" and "ethics". Some might do so, but I stick with popular usage which generally does not.
C. S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, gives a very helpful illustration. Imagine we are a fleet of ships sailing in formation to a particular destination. Now if the fleet is going to arrive safely without mishap, three things are necessary. First, the individual ships must be seaworthy. Their insides must be in good working order so they can keep afloat, steer well and have the motive power to make the journey. Second, they must be aware of the other boats so they don't bump into one another and so cause harm to themselves and others. Third, they must have some idea about where they are heading - why they are afloat in the first place. It will be of no used if, after a good journey, they end up in Calcutta when they were supposed to get to New York.
The first of these we could describe as individual morality - virtues, vices and character building, which we don't hear much about from our modern ethical philosophies. We have got to keep ourselves shipshape for the journey. The second we could call social ethics - how to get along with one another and help, rather than hinder, others on the journey. The third issue is - why are we here at all and where are we supposed to be going? Many modern philosophers avoid this issue as they have no answer to it. And yet this is the most important question of all. For morality to be of any use there must be some point to it all. We have got to know our destination.
Christianity, rightly understood, provides the answers to these three basic questions. It gives clear guidance as to how to keep ourselves in good working order. It gives very clear instructions on how we should relate to one another and why. More than that, and most importantly, it gives us a clear purpose for making the journey in the first place, a purpose that reaches well beyond the confines of this brief earthly existence. In addition, it tells us how to get aboard the fleet and how to deal with calamities along the way. In this journey, no shipwreck need be final. Finally, it gives the motive power to see the journey through to the end, an end which is only a greater beginning.
A Christian view of morality