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Is Christianity a System of Morals? (Part 2 of 3)

February 27, 2013

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).

Jesus is considered by scholars such as Weber ...

Jesus is considered by scholars such as Weber to be an example of a charismatic religious leader. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Anonymous permalink
    March 11, 2013 4:24 pm

    I would like to say that Christianity is a valid system for morals. I do Not think that it is the only way or even the best way to learn and grow with morals and values, but that it has stood a test of time (so to speak) as a working system. Being that Christianity is so widely accepted and popular it opens views and viewers to feel comfortable and willing to please. Children are a prime target for the opportunity of moral teaching that Christianity offers. Jesus in particular is a very warm, loving, father figure, as he is depicted in the Sunday school teachings. Youngsters want and deserve a model to whom they can be proud of and take after, Jesus is a good guy for the job. In my own experience I have a deep and personal compassion for the teachings of Jesus. Although I do not believe that I fit into the Orthodox requirements to call myself a Christian, I still will to give some name to my background beliefs. My parents did teach me right and wrong, I went to public as well as a Christian private (only for my third grade) school, I had other adults, peers, siblings, and friends to also influence and guide me to the morals I hold to this day. I understand that police officers are needed in our society, but do we also need moral police in our religious organizations? Individuals have to take personal responsibility at some point in time. I worry about the Christian teachings that are more isolating, like, ” if you are not a christian, then you go to hell and are not one of us.” Those are not moral values/beliefs that I chose to keep.

    • March 11, 2013 10:47 pm

      Thanks for the personal sharing and the good insights here. If you read my posts just after this one, dealing with the life and work of Albert Schweitzer, you will see just a glimpse into the biblical analysis and thinking of a brilliant and compassionate, self-giving man as to the teachings of Jesus. I think he is quite right in showing that Jesus indeed DID teach high ethics and morality, and within the Jewish system and thought patterns. He apparently (though it isn’t simple to discern this when looking through lenses mainly provided by Paul) did NOT at all mean to set aside or supersede the law, and did not see his death as an atoning sacrifice. However, he DID see himself as Messiah and expected to be the one to usher in God’s Kingdom VERY shortly… first probably thinking before his death, then switching to believing it would be after and through it (but not by way of an atoning sacrifice… that thought came after him). And yes, the “you must be a Christian”; one of “us”, etc. thinking is both harmful and wrong (fraught with so many logical impossibilities that it collapses of its own weight).

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