Is Christianity a System of Morals? (Part 2 of 3)
Everybody needs some guiding system to be a moral person, right? It doesn’t come automatically, many say. To be moral that is.
Christianity may well be the biggest and strongest pusher of the idea that we all are prone to do the wrong thing faster than the right thing, and to propose the solution. “Total depravity” is a term you hear a lot if you delve much into Christian theology. It doesn’t mean everything a person does naturally is depraved (or wrong, evil). Rather, that all aspects of our human being (our “nature”) are tainted by evil, including our will and reasoning abilities.
I think many progressives, me included, wouldn’t have much argument with that idea if it weren’t surrounded by other related concepts which quickly got Christianity into trouble, continuing till today within “orthodoxy”. I can’t go into detail on that here, but “original sin” is a key part: the idea that we all bear the guilt of “The Fall” of Adam/Eve, or original man/woman. Thus we are separated from God, the theology goes, unless we are reconciled with God by faith. (That is, faith in Christ, but the specific content and consistency of that faith and its relation to good works introduces all kinds of complications… not for elaboration now.)
Back to our capacity to be moral and how we obtain and improve it. (I think there is pretty broad agreement humanity needs to improve it.) Christianity clearly builds on the general moral guidance of the Hebrew Scriptures it “inherited”. The specifics of this guidance developed over time, as quickly seen in comparing the prophets, especially the “minor” or later prophets’ writings (such as Amos, Joel, Malachi), with the Torah (or “law” in the first five Old Testament books).
The Apostle Paul records several key elements of Christian theology beyond what Jesus taught. These were probably mainly his own, per claimed revelations from God, taken from very early tradition, or developed with a handful of colleagues. (This included details of the spiritual/moral dilemma of humanity, as touched on above.) Within and around these he taught principles of ethical, moral and compassionate behavior…. Paul is an enigma to most of us who’ve studied his works… capable of soaring language on love (as in I Corinthians 13 — and probably heart-felt and generally practiced by him). In other places, Paul is aggressively competitive, defensive and name-calling; capable of things that many would consider duplicitous. (What strong evangelist and creative leader is not most of these things?)
None-the-less, in Paul we have some good moral guidance. He is not lawless or against “law” for all purposes, but clearly against keeping “the law” (Torah) as a means of salvation. (Many Christians believe he went wrong in going beyond Jesus’ teachings as presented by Matthew, Mark and Luke, to a requirement of difficult-to-define faith in a divine cosmic savior… again, a related subject, for a separate discussion.)
We certainly also have ethical and moral guidance in the Epistle of James, which many take as written at least somewhat in reaction to the “faith alone” salvation concepts of Paul…. The two, however, seem not to differ over moral issues per se (and in fairness to the variety of Christian views, many see James as not in conflict with Paul’s theology at all).
And what of Jesus, the person at the center of Christianity as it grew out of and fairly quickly separated itself from Judaism? (It is certainly debatable whether Jesus ever intended such a new religion. Or did he only promote a new perspective and attitude toward application of the moral and civil laws of Judaism, interpersonal relationships and access to God — direct and with powers we often consider “charismatic” in the sense of wonder-working, profound healing, etc. )
Well, in all of this I think we see that a concern for moral action as well as the spiritual transformation of individuals and societies was in view for Jesus, Paul and the other early leaders of what became Christianity. Just how much this moral concern, and the power to effect it wasted away as Christianity grew and spread, especially after about 315 CE, with the first Christian Emperor of the Roman Empire, Constantine, is another issue.
This question arises: Is Christianity (or Christian faith) the best or even the only valid system of morality? Not just in its teachings, but in the moral inspiration and empowerment it gives to its followers (or cultures surrounding it)?
If you’ve read much by me, you know I’m absolutely not going to be absolute! However, I do feel it is important that Christians stop viewing their faith system, their theology as the only valid way to find or fulfill a moral vision and practice. (And I say this as a person raised Christian, having distanced himself for a time, and now willing to identify again as Christian — of progressive theology and practice, but with morality always carefully in view.)
What are your views and experiences in this regard?… And for one important question, is “moral intuitionism” a sufficient guide, perhaps combined with supports such as parental teaching, humanist values, universal “human rights”, etc.?
Do we need some “authority” to teach and implement these, whether church institutions, government, humanist groups or whatever?
Next in this series will discuss whether Christianity is mainly a way of salvation and whether this helps or hinders the cause of morality.