Can Christians Be Moral?
Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the lord, and on his law he meditates day and night (Ps. 1:1–2).
When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, he said that the entire Old Testament, both the Law and the Prophets, can be summarized in the following two commandments: (1) love God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and (2) love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:36–40). There’s much more to Christian ethics than loving God and loving your neighbor, however.
The Bible is full of commandments, but for Jesus, these two are the most important since from them, the rest necessarily follow. That is not to deny that secular philosophy cannot help guide Christians toward ethical behavior but rather that Scripture is the main authority for Christian ethics.
Considering these two commandments, it may come as a surprise to any reader of history that Christendom has such a bad record at behaving morally. It seems that Christians misunderstood the loving message of Jesus. Or did they?
If we are to analyze the morality of Christianity today, we have to accept that it is clearly different from the morality of Christianity in the medieval ages and even more so from its morality in the time of Jesus. This morality is nothing close to what Aquinas or Luther thought it was. They would hardly recognize a Protestant living in America. It is debatable whether they would call for his burning at the stake for heresy. These distinctions will help narrow the scope of the analysis in this blog post (I continue on this topic in my book).
I remember my shock when coming to Canada and witnessing the Christianity here in my late teens compared to the much more serious Christianity of my Slovakian friends back home. I can imagine that the difference between Calvin and ourselves is much more significant. As Kenan Malik writes, “moral codes,” whether they are religious or secular, are the result of “social structures and needs.”
Today many of us vocally desire rights for women, justice against police brutality, and equal treatment. In medieval Christendom, these concerns would not have had any light of day.
With those premises out of the way, let’s look at the morality of the Christian right. Christian morality, first and foremost, as Christian apologists claim, is a set of universalizable behavioral principles. As Paul writes, every person has the law “written on their hearts” (Romans 2:15). In other words, Christians believe that our morality is entrenched within us, or hard-wired into our brains by God.
Along with this, however, God has also revealed commandments in the form of divine command (the Ten Commandments, the Prophets, etc.). It is not only that God’s divine revelation reveals commandments, but instead that this morality is apparent to each one of us without revelation, according to Paul. There are problems with this assumption, of course, but let us accept it to be able to move on for the time being.
The Christian philosophical assumption is that our comprehension of morality relies on our understanding that both good and evil exist within society. Good and evil are directly related to the existence of moral law because otherwise, there would be no “objective” or “universalizable” principle to establish morals with. This argument can be seen in the form that Ravi Zacharias presented it in:
If there’s evil, then there’s good.
If there’s good, then there’s a moral law.
If there’s a moral law, then there must be a moral lawgiver.
If there’s no moral lawgiver, then there’s no moral law
If there’s no moral law, then there’s no good.
If there’s no good, then there’s no evil
If there’s no evil. What was your question?
Why do I have to assume a moral lawgiver? Every time that question is raised it is either raised by a person or about a person. Therefore, its premise is that there is value to the person. But naturalism does not provide value to personhood.
This is usually the way Christian apologists defend objective morality. First, they point out that evil exists and that if evil exists, then good must exist in conjunction with it. Otherwise, it would be impossible to know how to define good, they insist. Then they claim that moral laws must be objective, above society and time.
The argument for objective morality has been defended to the extent that the Gospel has been preached. Timothy Keller, when discussing objective morality in his book Making Sense of God, explained:
“If there is no God . . . it creates a great problem in that there doesn’t appear to be an alternative moral source that exists outside of our inner feelings and intuitions.”
Similarly, John C. Lennox writes: “I am not suggesting that science cannot help us to make ethical judgments. For instance, knowing about how much pain animals feel can help shape judgments on animal testing. But the judgment is made on the basis of a prior moral conviction, that pain and misery is a bad thing.” In other words, outside sources can help in establishing moral right and wrong, but the moral convictions have to be separate from our intuitions. In the words of Wayne Grudem, “[T]he Bible is our only absolute authority for defining moral right and wrong.”
The point all these Christian thinkers are touching on is that there is an ambivalence to justice in naturalism. The solution to that ambivalence is objective universalizable morality that can only be given by God. They claim that we cannot have any morality without a justice that is above this fallen world.
Christian apologists further claim that the objective morality presented in the Bible will be able to give us moral agreement amongst each other. Thus, Keller writes:
Hume, Kant, Kierkegaard, and others sought to provide justification for objective moral claims. But they all failed, and this is why our society today is driven by polarized, irreconcilable, alternate universes of moral discourse, none of which can convince the others in the slightest.
The idea Keller presents is, however, slightly misleading. In fact, it misrepresents the broad agreement that many philosophers have with one another. Yes, moral philosophers will disagree in philosophy classrooms because they usually discuss controversial moral issues. Otherwise, there would be no point in their contributions and discussions. The moral questions that we have largely settled are rarely discussed because they are not philosophically-interesting. A. C. Grayling explains, “I would be surprised to find fellow humanists disagreeing very greatly, or about much.” There is some utility to Keller’s argument, nonetheless. It can show how Christians often believe that secular thinkers are divided because there is no “objectivity” or objective basis for their philosophical arguments concerning morality.
“I would be surprised to find fellow humanists disagreeing very greatly, or about much.” — AC Grayling
If you want to read more, here is a link to my book: Up in the Air: Christianity, Atheism & the Global Problems of the 21st Century. Let me know if you choose to read it! My email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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I write to keep you thinking and to keep me thankful and reflective. Cheers and until next time,