We live in a unique time. The foundation of our economy, our families, our institutions, and our societal mores is shaking and I think all of us feel it. The question is not so much about whether or not our foundations are shaking. The question revolves around how to interpret these societal changes in order to make sense of it.
When it comes to the Christian, the changes in moral constructs can be frightening. We fear the consequences to come if we neglect objective moral truths because we believe the grounding of those moral truths in God Himself. Our relationship with God is what is at play. There is also a grieving process as we mourn what we claim to know to be true slipping away from mainstream acceptance. This grieving process is natural.
In recent days, the discussion has centered around marriage and whether or not it can be redefined. This turns out to be a significant moral discussion as it forces us to examine our sexual ethic. This happens to be an emotionally charged discussion that causes some to engage in conversations which quickly become defensive and shrill in tone. These discussions resemble a fight in which one side tries to prove the other side wrong and the tone is often flavored in arrogance and a spirit of anything, but love. When Christians move into these discussions in such a manner, people repel Christ and rarely moved toward Christ.
As a result, others just remain silent. They fear being labeled a hateful bigot if they voice a stated belief in objective moral truths. They see the danger of such violent conversations, which resort to using bullying as a tactic to win an argument. They know this is not reflective of Christ. So, they want to get along and the best way to get along in their mind, is to remain silent. Why take the risk of being marginalized? Yet, I would venture to say many in this category remain silent because as they have listened to the arguments, particularly among Christians supporting a new moral stance on an issue we have traditionally never questioned, they do not know what to think. The argument sounds appealing in part because it calls for love, peace, and unity. Those Christian virtues are noble and something we achieve to embody. In our heart of hearts and in the deepest places in our mind, we know the arguments presented in favor of the redefinition of marriage or homosexuality doesn’t seem quite right, but we cannot put our finger on exactly why. Therefore, we see those arguments couched in a call for love and conclude the argument itself must be valid because the call for love is a valid Christian virtue.
Having said this, I want to settle the question up front. I too prefer to be silent. I find myself fearful of being labeled a fundamentalist or bigot so my preference is to say nothing. Let me also confess that my rhetoric has not always been perfect. I have been in conversations where I didn’t reflect the love of Christ and in so doing, have had to apologize. I have learned that love is the better way. I am completely on board with the call for a posture of humility and a tone flavored with grace and love. At the same time, I do not believe a posture of humility and a tone of grace and love automatically mean we do not think critically about the issues at hand. Nor do I believe it means we can not have good reasons to disagree with those who are desiring to change our moral stance.
As it turns out, the hot button moral issues of the day are not the primary point of reflection I am having. The primary reflection doesn’t turn out to be about the definition of marriage or homosexuality. It has more to do with philosophical underpinning for which we view any moral issue. This, in particular, is what I want to camp out on. While I may reference the topic of the day, please understand I only do so because this is the hot button issue being discussed. However, we could replace this topic with any other moral topic.
Let’s first look at the issue of humility. Is it possible to be humble while possessing moral certainty about a particular act or lifestyle? The question I ask is this. Does a claim to know something is true, disqualify one from exhibiting an attitude of humility? If I say I know XYZ behavior or lifestyle is morally bad, does this automatically mean I am arrogant? It seems to me humility is defined in how I perceive myself in relation to others not in how I find myself in relation to truth. If I, in the Christian context, see myself as a steward of truth rather than the originator of truth, I recognize that everyone is subject to the Originator (God) of truth and therefore, my position with God is equal with all other people. With that understanding, humility would become a byproduct as I understand my rightful place in God’s economy and my place with my fellow man.
The one observation I have had in recent months is that in Christian circles, there is an argument in support of redefining marriage or accepting monogamous homosexual relationships. The argument, as I understand it, reaches a conclusion based on the following line of thinking. First, the Bible tells the story of polygamy and slave owners and seems to justify these positions. Second, the church has committed sins in the past and we have changed our position on issues like divorce, polygamy, and owning slaves. Third, we have been wrong about things we thought we knew were moral absolutes. Therefore, the conclusion from these three premises is that we have to concede that objective, moral certainty does not exist because we may be wrong on other issues such as the definition of marriage and homosexuality. Of course, this concession is the only path to humility and anyone that claims moral certainty is arrogant. Those who claim to have moral certainty are often viewed as being overly reductionistic in the approach to moral issues and unable to think critically about complex issues.
At this point we could chase many trails of which have merit but I will not do so here. Namely, I think there is an honest discussion to be had about the basic premises that are being presented regarding the Bible’s endorsement of polygamy and owning slaves. The truth is, there are many good responses to this point. Granted, not every answer is as tidy as we would like it to be and not all answers fit in a perfectly shaped box, but this does not mean there is not a reasonable explanation to understanding these issues in Scripture. For now, we will pass on this and look at the philosophical underpinning of morality.
When someone claims moral certainty this begs the question in the mind of one who does not make such a claim. Is it possible to know anything with certainty or do we simply conclude everything we have claimed to know in the past may be wrong? Is moral truth knowable with any degree of certainty? If so, HOW do we know it with certainty?
I am just reflecting on the basic premises presented above which seems to be based on the following syllogism. 1. If objective, moral truth exists we will have perfect knowledge of that truth. 2. We do not have perfect knowledge as demonstrated through history. 3. Objective, moral truth does not exist. Therefore, we conclude the only way to exhibit humility is to concede we cannot know anything with certainty. So, humility is only actualized in my life when I accept the basic premise that we cannot know anything with certainty, particularly from a moral framework.
Of course, if this is the case, the question we now have to wrestle with is, what other moral issues do we currently take a stand on and have not yet discovered that we are wrong? Can we be certain of any moral standard we adhere to? Or does our moral framework merely come down to our preferences (individually or collectively as a group of people)? If we cannot have moral certainty we are simply left with saying I believe XYZ position BUT my belief in XYZ position is not grounded in objective truth. Our belief in the position we hold may be grounded in my preference, my individual interpretation of faith, or an allegiance to an institutional position, but it is not grounded in objective reality.
For now, my questions, from the perspective of moral truth boils down to this. Is there anything wrong with anything? Forget homosexuality. Just plug in any moral issue. Is there anything wrong with anything (fill in the blank)? If so, on the basis of what will I know with certainty that it is wrong? These are important questions to wrestle with.
For me, this issue is the real issue we need to be discussing. We need to be talking about whether there is any grounding for morality and if so, what is the basis of that grounding? Homosexuality just happens to be the hot topic of the day. Until we answer these underlying issues we will never know how to navigate the complexities of any moral issue.
So, there is way more to discuss than time will allow, but let’s start with this thought. As Greg Koukl reminds us there is something called moral intuition and moral intuition is more than just a hunch. Unless someone is completely deranged, this moral intuition exist within each person. This is not something that can be validated empirically nor does it need to be in order to be considered a legitimate category. Our culture has come to believe the only thing we can know is that which is measured by our five senses in empirical testing. However, morality is not measured by empirical testing. Let’s demonstrate what this means.
Let’s suppose we took a random, on the street survey, and asked the following question. “Is it morally good to torture babies for fun?” My assumption would be that zero out of a hundred people would say, “Yes, torturing babies for fun is morally good.” I think you would agree. Why? What scientific data would inform such a conclusion? The answer is, empirical data is not needed to know that torturing babies for fun is wrong. We just know it. That’s moral intuition.
Here is a practical way to demonstrate this point. If I say, 1. All men or mortal; 2. Socrates is a man; 3. Therefore, Socrates is mortal; we would all agree. How did we know that to be true? The premise that all men are mortal and that Socrates is a man follows the conclusion that Socrates is mortal. It makes sense. I did not have to be taught this at school. There is something within me that just knows this is the case. This is akin to what moral intuition is.
Some will try to invalidate a moral stance by looking at the abuses of a specific group of people. This is the position of those who want to change the our moral stance on marriage. This line of reasoning argues that since we as a Church have committed sins in the past and have been wrong before, therefore maybe nothing can be known with certainty. This is a false argument. You never invalidate a moral system based on its abuses. Any system will have evidence of abuse. A moral system would more correctly be validated based on the evidential reality of from which it derives its grounding. More can be discussed later in regard to this.
However, may it be said that I think most Christians agree with the call for a posture of humility and a tone flavored in grace and love. Yet, the question remains. Does a posture of humility and a tone flavored in grace and love mean we can not have objective, moral certainty? My response for now is this. It is truth that gives love its substance. It just seems to me that Christian love has real substantive qualities only when it correlates with truth. Otherwise, my love without a commitment to truth is about as stable as the changing of the wind. My commitment to Christian love and my commitment to truth seeking must go hand in hand in order for it to have legitimate meaning. Truth without love is obnoxious but love without truth is meaningless and can reduce love to sentimentalism at best or indifference at worse. Truth becomes the skeletal framework while love becomes the muscle, ligaments, tendons and skin tissue that make the skeletal framework function. Imagine the contents of a physical body piled in a heap because there is no skeletal framework to enable actual movement. That is what I think of when I think of any attempt to love without a commitment to truth. In conclusion, it is my humble opinion that the most loving act is to seek the grounding for which we can derive moral certainty.