Where is the Line?: Christianity, Morality, and Changing Social Norms

A little while ago, I heard a story on NPR about the challenges confronting Evangelical Christianity in the face of a changing contemporary society. The brief story captured perfectly the dilemma I think religious people of all stripes are facing as the world becomes more sociologically and ideologically diverse. The nature of right and wrong has gotten increasingly blurry, and the lack of clarity has motivated some religious people to abandon faith altogether while others cling even more stubbornly to it. But few are able to remain with one foot in both camps. It’s either accepted that there is a fixed, absolute standard of “right and wrong” to which everyone should be held, or else “anything goes” and we might as well descend into a Nihilistic anarchy.

In the story, the conservative position on Christian morality is defended in these terms.

For  Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., the key question is “whether or not there is a binding morality to which everyone is accountable.”

Of course, conservative Christians believe–in various ways–that this “binding morality” is expressed clearly in the Judeo-Christian Bible. But, whatever we may decide the standard is, we certainly must have one. If we don’t, the thinking is, then people can do whatever they want. Rapists and murders will run rampant in the streets while the innocent victims of moral decline will be left cowering in their homes clutching their Holy books and longing for the good old days.

But here’s the curious thing about this whole concern. The issues being discussed in the article are primarily concerned with human sexuality. Namely, should non-repenting, unapologetic homosexuals be accepted as worthy human beings equal before God, or should they be condemned for their “sins?” Interpreted literally and without qualification, it seems that the sacred texts on which Christians base their morality would indicate condemnation as the proper approach (Lev. 18:22, Rom. 1:26-28, 1 Tim. 1:8-11, etc.). Therefore, increased sexual liberty in our society should be interpretted as moral decline–and we do have cause for worry.

Or do we? As far as I know, people who identify as homosexual or transgender are no more likely to be murderers, rapists, or terrorists than sexually “normal” people. And, I would go out on a limb and say that they would be equally appalled by such actions. No one wants to see more murder, rape, or terrorism. No one, not even those who argue for personal sexual liberty, wants to see more violence. Those sexually liberal people who are the cause of our moral decline in America–yes, they too have moral standards.

Increasingly, members of the LGBTQ community and their defenders are even appealing to the same sacred texts of Christianity to justify their freedoms–emphasizing passages about love (Gal. 5:14), acceptance (Gal. 2:28), personal freedom (Rom. 14:1-4), and the manner in which Jesus dealt with outcasts (Matt. 11:28). To some, tolerance of homosexuality, transgender identity, and other such “sins” is immoral. But to others, rejection of people for these reasons is an equally moral issue. Scientifically, it has been shown that homosexuals who are not supported by their communities are much more likely to commit suicide than their heterosexual counterparts. And it stands to reason that the hostility with which homosexuals have been historically treated would be, to put it mildly, quite stressful. They call it “hate.” They say it denigrates the value of human beings. Is that something God wants for people who were made in his image?

So, it isn’t the value of morality that is being debated in this “culture war.” It is its definition. What does morality mean? Although this is one of the oldest philosophical questions around, given the current issues at hand, it is also an incredibly practical one. How should we live, and how should we judge the lives of others? These questions have enormous implications for religious communities and public policy, notwithstanding our personal and social lives. So, I think they’re worth delving into…

Divine Command Theory: Where Does Morality Come From?

In Plato’s dialogue The Euthyphro, Socrates poses a question that has framed this debate perhaps more than any other in the thousands of years since.

Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?

In other words, does God make laws because they are right and just, or are those laws right and just simply because God made them? Does morality exist independent of God’s commands, or does God have to tell us that something is right or wrong in order for us to know its moral significance?

This is not a trivial question. I’ve seen this play out countless times in religious conversations. For example, a skeptic (or progressive) would say, “A good God wouldn’t send people to hell,” to which the believer (or conservative) would retort, “But God is the standard of good. If God does it, then it must be good.” In other words, when our proclamation that “God is good” collides with a God-approved activity that feels like a moral travesty, we should adjust our notion of “good” rather than adjusting our notion of God’s expectations.

The theory that morality does not exist apart from God has come to be known as “Divine Command Theory.” Right is right because God says it’s right, and wrong is wrong because God says it’s wrong. It’s as simple as that. However, there are a few problems with this idea. First, as already alluded to, it can often conflict with our moral sensibilities. Infanticide. Theft. Genocide. Even if we argue ourselves into believing that these things have moral justification, we still feel appalled by them. And yet these are all things that the Judeo-Christian God has, at one time or another, condoned.  (1 Sam. 15:2-3, Deut. 20:10-14, Josh. 10:40, etc.)

Apologists have ways of arguing themselves out of the controversial moral statements of the Bible, but the real problem with Divine Command Theory is its logical inconsistency. Repeatedly in the Bible, God is praised for his goodness (Ps. 86:5), justice (Job 34:12), and righteousness (Ps. 119:37). What sense would it make to worship God for such qualities if they have no meaning apart from God? Indeed, God is worshipped and praised in both the Bible and in religious experience because he is recognized as being “good” in some sense quite separate from his commands.

When we say that “God is good,” we’re saying that he demonstrates qualities that we associate with “goodness.” Of course, this means that the idea of “goodness” exists in our minds before God can measure up to it. Do you see the problem here? If we say that an evil act is “good,” because God commands it and “God is good,” it is much like saying that:

  • a weak act is strong if God performs it because God is almighty, and
  • a lie is a truth if God speaks it because God does not lie.

Clearly, that isn’t what we mean. We say God is almighty because he has demonstrated characteristics we identify with strength and that he is truthful because he has demonstrated characteristics that we identify with honesty. The same could be said for our moral conception of God. God commands things because they are good; things are not good simply because God commands them. Murder, for example, existed as a moral travesty (Genesis 4:8-10) long before the pronouncement of “Thou shall not kill” (Exodus 20:13). God’s command was simply making explicit a moral truth that was already in existence.

To Save Life or To Kill?

So, if Divine Command Theory is to be discarded, is there still a way of life for religious people–in particular, Christians? If the Bible is not the standard of morality but, rather, an expression of it, what is the basis on which we should make our moral judgments? Do we just throw the sacred scriptures out and go with our best guess about what is right and wrong?

I think this is the dilemma that many contemporary Christians are facing. The Bible is a moral anchor and, without it, we would be drifting aimlessly in a sea of uncertainty. Although following its decrees may lead to the unpleasantness of treating marginalized groups with what they perceive to be “hate,” it’s far better than having no standard at all. If people are hurt by our moral convictions, we tell ourselves, it is they and not us who need to change.

But, when you think about it, we don’t have to be so black-and-white in our thinking. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. There is a way for us to have our Bible and question it too. Rather than merely asking what God says, we can ask ourselves also why he says it. (However heretical this may sound, the practice is actually quite abundant in the scriptures themselves). In other words, rather than simply basing our morality on what the Bible says, we might instead ask for the meaning behind the commands. What moral standard does God himself use to develop his laws? When we understand the motivations behind the commands, it can dramatically alter how we faithfully obey them.

In Deuteronomy 10:12-13, right after Moses descends from the mountain (for the second time) with the Ten Commandments, God reveals to the Israelites  precisely the purpose of his laws…

12 “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways and to love Him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13 and to keep the commandments of the Lord and His statutes which I command you today for your good? (NKJV)

Why is God making people follow all of these laws? For their own good. Because, in doing so, they will be made better off. Morality, from God’s very own perspective, centers around human well-being. What is moral? That which makes people better off. What is immoral? That which makes people worse off. Of course, this is an extremely simplified definition but, for those who need a hard-and-fast moral standard, this is it.

It is entirely possible that that which benefits people may change over time. The command to “go forth and multiply,” for example, is probably not “for our good” in a world approaching a human population of 8 billion. I can just picture God shaking his head and saying, “Whoa! I didn’t mean that much!” My point, though, is this: commandments are contextual. As the context changes, so should our interpretation of the command. We uphold moral standards by continuing to do that which brings about good, not by blindly following commands regardless of whether their consequences remain good for us or not.

In the New Testament, there is a story In which Jesus makes this approach incredibly clear. Biblically speaking, we can break commands down into two different kind of morality:

  • Ritual Morality: Laws that govern how we ought to behave in relation to God but have a minimal impact on how we relate to one another.
  • Relational Morality: Laws that govern how we ought to behave toward one another.

Most of the time, it is entirely possible to keep God’s ritual laws (prayer, worship, sacraments, etc.) without harming our relationships with others. But what happens when these two types of morality collide? What do we do when keeping a ritual command of God causes us to mistreat a fellow human being? In the Gospel of Mark, at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry, I believe that very question might just be answered for us.

And He entered the synagogue again, and a man was there who had a withered hand. 2 So they watched Him closely, whether He would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse Him. 3 And He said to the man who had the withered hand, “Step forward.” 4 Then He said to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they kept silent. 5 And when He had looked around at them with anger, being grieved by the hardness of their hearts, He said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And he stretched it out, and his hand was restored as whole as the other.[a] 6 Then the Pharisees went out and immediately plotted with the Herodians against Him, how they might destroy Him. (Mark 3:1-6, NKJV)

It’s subtle, but do you see what Jesus does here? He tells us precisely what the standard for morality is. Very explicitly, he defines good and evil. Of course, he does it by asking a question, but his behavior clearly demonstrates it to be rhetorical. Without question, Jesus is saying that to do good is to heal and to do evil is to harm.

But what makes this story remarkable is that it accentuates the collision of ritual morality with relational morality. Keeping God’s law in this case would have meant leaving a man in suffering. Should Jesus have kept the Sabbath or helped the person in need–both of which were commandments of God? Jesus chose the latter path. When ritual morality and relational morality collided, Jesus chose the morality that saved rather than that which killed–the morality that upheld human dignity rather than that which relegated it to second class.

Is Homosexuality Wrong?

So, let’s come back to the issues of human sexuality that inspired me to write this lengthy reflection. Although I mentioned transgenderism, let’s stick specifically with homosexuality since it appears to be the more explicit issue when it comes to Biblical injunctions. In light of all we’ve discussed up to this point, let’s ask ourselves the crucial question:

Is homosexuality wrong?

I’ll freely admit that my coverage of the topic is minimal, and I’m just a lay person when it comes to philosophy, theology, sociology, and ethics. A vast amount of research has been done on this issue, and people much smarter than me have come to a wildly diverse range of conclusions. But let’s start by just reviewing what I’ve discussed in this brief reflection:

  • Although without much context and/or qualification, homosexuality is explicitly condemned in various passages of the Bible.
  • A large number of Bible passages also advocate tolerance, love, and acceptance.
  • God’s laws are not good because he gives them; he gives the laws because they are good.
  • The Biblical purpose of commands is to make people better off.
  •  Not every command is meant to be followed by all people for all time–but only to the extent that they continue to be “good” for humanity.
  • When ritual laws of God come into conflict with relational laws of God, the proper response is to follow the law that promotes human welfare rather than the one that merely promotes personal piety.

Rather than ask whether homosexuality is wrong, perhaps we should ask something else…

Does homosexuality cause harm?

and

Does condemnation of homosexuality cause harm?

I’m not going to tell you what to believe. I’m not even going to tell you what I believe. I am, however, going to make a suggestion. Perhaps, before rushing to judgment, we should pause to reflect on whether or not we’ve been thinking about morality the wrong way. In our crusade against the decline of morality, we may find ourselves to be the very enemies we’ve spent so much time and effort fighting against. If we really care about morality, we may want to stop and ask ourselves which side of it we’re really on.

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About Douglas E Rice

Douglas E Rice is just a guy who likes to learn stuff.
This entry was posted in blog, philosophy, religion, Social Issues. Bookmark the permalink.

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