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Who What Why Wednesday: Morality

Todays topic: By what standard to you judge morality if not from the God and the Bible?

This is probably the single most common question I get from Christians. I’ll be charitable today and assume that most people are asking honestly in hopes of gaining a better understanding and not as a means to spark a debate that flies headlong into either Pascal’s Wager or the C.S. Lewis Trilemma before careening into the kalam cosmological argument. I will also grant that it is one of the hardest to answer, but not for the reason that believers assume.

The problem is that it is not one question. Packed in are several assumptions and thoughts that need to be dealt with individually. First, we must define morality. The believer will assume that morality is both universal and knowable, with a should or should not answer to every hypothetical scenario. Second, we must deal with the existence of God and whether he can be defined coherently. Third, we must decide whether or not God and morality intersect and the mechanism of such intersection. The theist generally assumes that one defines the other, but it is important to separate them, for they are not necessarily the same thing. Finally, we must determine whether the Bible can be a source of knowledge of God, morality, or both.

When I was in Bible College, relativism was one of the scariest concepts. How could there be different standards of right and wrong for different people in different times and places, or for the same person in two similar, but not identical situations? In our minds, morality was treated like the answers to a sum, either 2+3=5 or it doesn’t (base 4 connoisseurs excepted). I certainly believed this was at least possible going in, but I was quickly disillusioned when I found red-faced, heated arguments nearly coming to blows over simple doctrinal points such as whether or not it is okay to baptize an infant if the parents so wish. The student body was more or less evenly split on the issue, and proponents of each side wondered whether the other were even reading the same Bible. (I didn’t take a side on infant baptism, but I sure was opposed to the pumpkin carving going on come October!) One wonders how such hot-heads could handle truly complex issues. It is a trivial matter to short-circuit the logic chip of a binary mind. Who does get the last life vest, the mother of two or the pastor of many? If human embryos really are people and the fertility clinic is on fire, do you save the thousands in the freezer before worrying about the coughing pregnant woman who is about to succumb?  What is the acceptable number of civilian casualties when dropping bombs on a leading terrorist? These are not trivial deflections. Even perfect foreknowledge fails to lead to universally acceptable answers, and these are relatively simple questions.

Point two, the existence of God, is something of a first principle. To the believer, literally everything is proof of God and to the atheist nothing is, at least not so far. So let’s just go ahead and posit that a perfect being exists and that it is absolutely and inalienably without flaw—omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, and, most importantly, omnibenevolent. This is where this initial question comes to a head. Quickly now, define omnibenevolence. I find perfect power, presence and knowledge to be conceivable, if unlikely, but I am at a loss as to define perfect goodness without resorting to tautology. I struggled with this for literally decades. Two pastors agree and say “God cannot lie.” And I say “why not?” The first says “if God said ‘your shirt is blue,’ your shirt would turn blue the instant he said it.” The second says “no, no, God cannot lie because it is contrary to His nature. God cannot say ‘your shirt is blue’ when it is plainly not so.”

Point three derives from this very paradox. In the first case, God defines what is right by virtue of his power—might makes right—and in the second, there is a standard of goodness apart from God, to which He is also beholden. The Bible seems to support the first case, though I as a believer I always tended toward the latter. It is certainly possible that God and goodness exist apart from one another. Some gnostic sects believed, for example, that the god of the Old Testament was cutoff from the perfect Aeons, existing in his own realm, believing himself to be all powerful and good for wont of evidence to the contrary, when in fact he is quite flawed. This is, of course an oversimplification of a complex and nuanced religion with many variants, but the point remains—what makes God good, and why would I follow God instead of whatever it is that makes him good? If He is merely good by default, then could not another sentient entity lay claim to goodness by other means, perhaps by laying out a more logical form of ethics? After all, God is at once jealous (the First Commandment) and against coveting (the Tenth Commandment). It is the first form of “okay for Me, but not for thee.”

All of brings us to the Bible as a source of morality. It isn’t. No doubt many future pages will delve into deeper and more specific answers, but when it comes down to it, virtually no one, anywhere, is actually getting his or her morality from the Christian Bible. Those that come closest are the hardest to deal with, living with such extreme rigidity as to be outsiders at best and hatemongers at worst. They either wind up on a hippie commune after reading Acts Chapter 3:44-45, where the first converts held all possessions in common or as hateful bigots after reading Leviticus 18:22 (and maybe Genesis 19). It is easy to say that you can’t pick and choose which parts to follow but it’s quite another to come up with a cohesive form of ethics without doing just that.  The Bible has everything from the oral traditions of Bronze-Age nomads, to matter-of-fact tellings of military conquest to poetry to letters from early church leaders that could not agree on finer points of whether or not to circumcise men, let women speak, or eat certain foods. You’ll have to excuse me if I question the perfection of a being that expects me to reach a sensible system of ethics from such varied literature.

The reality is that my source of morality is no different than those who pose the question in the first place. I picked it up through myriad sources from my upbringing to the culture at large to countless hours of self-reflection and many complex experiences that shaped me into the person I am today. I fervently opposed universal healthcare—until I was sick without insurance despite working hard full-time at one job and sometimes keeping a second on the weekends to make ends meet. I was anti-homosexual—until I made goods friend with one. I also tried to turn the other cheek no matter what—until it came down to whether or not my kids were protected from an awful situation. I always opposed torture and mistreatment of others, but nothing drives that home like actually standing at Auschwitz and taking in sheer immensity of the horrors that took place there.

There is no shame in nuance, nor is there weakness in moral agnosticism. Personally, I think “God” is the name some people give to their own imperfect understanding of morality. Funny how jihadists and religious pacifists can both claim the same inflexible inspiration, each thinking the other is truly deceived. It may feel more justified when an all-powerful deity agrees and is there to back you up, but it is no more valid. That does not mean that I’ll put up with injustice, intolerance, hatred, bigotry, inequality oppression as “to each his own.” I know some things are right and others are wrong, I just stop short of pretending to have the universe’s largest bully in my corner in case you disagree.