Friday, July 12, 2013

CHRISTIANITY AND MORALITY

Those who seek to present Christianity to people who don't believe do so in various ways.  One advantage of Christianity that is often proclaimed is its superiority as a moral system.

Now I agree that Jesus' teachings as described in the Gospels do challenge us with a superior code -- the Sermon on the Mount, the Greatest and the Second Greatest Commandments (Love God, Love your neighbor).  But somehow I feel uncomfortable with using these as evangelistic tools -- especially the way they are often presented, as though simply having this code is enough.

How can we argue the superiority of Christianity as a moral system, when those who profess to follow Christ don't seem to be practicing this system?
·       Child molesting priests and those who cover up for them.
·       Adulterous preachers; greedy preachers.
·       Sports stars and politicians who parade around with their thick black Bibles when they are caught in some crime or sexual sin.

Then of course, there are all those surveys and studies which demonstrate that the behavior of Christians in various areas doesn't differ that much from the behavior of other groups studied.

For most of my life as a follower of Christ, I've heard this stuff and sometimes had my face rubbed in it by my unbelieving friends.  It's humiliating!

Apparently this sort of disjunction is nothing new.  The Old Testament prophets had to deal with it; Jesus had to deal with it; the New Testament writers had to deal with it.

The Apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans gives what seems to be the most scathing attack on those in his day who felt that possessing a moral code made them somehow superior to those who did not possess it.

Please note that Paul is not giving an "anti-Semitic" tirade.  Paul himself was a Jew (as was Jesus).  He is speaking to the Jew as the one who possesses God's Book (the Law).  Perhaps we could grasp his argument better if we'd substitute our own particular denominational label.

"But if you are called a Jew (Christian, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, ________?) and boast in God ... being confident of yourself that you are a guide to the blind, a light to those in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of infants, having a form of knowledge and of the truth in the Law.  You then who teach the other, don't you teach yourself?  You who preach not to steal, do you steal?  You who say don't commit adultery, do you commit adultery? ... For God's name is slandered among the Gentiles (i.e., unbelievers) because of you ..." (Romans 2:17-24)

A bit before this Paul makes a radical claim.
 
"For not the hearers of the Law are right before God, but the doers of the Law will be counted right.  For whenever the Gentiles who don't have the Law do by nature the things of the Law, these who don't have the Law are a Law to themselves, such ones as show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their consciences testifying together and their reasonings between each other either accusing or defending" (Romans 1:13-15).

Paul appears to be saying some things that contradict the preachers of a superior moral code -- that there are some who don't have a biblical code whose morality is superior to some of those who do!

But Paul's argument in these first chapters of Romans is not about who has the superior moral code or who has the superior moral behavior.  His point is that there is no one who measures up whether to a God-given moral code, or even their own conscience, that " ... all sinned and are coming short of God's glory" (3:23) and that we can be "...justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus" (24).

Christianity is not primarily a moral code.  It is a religion of rescue for those who can't live up to a moral code.  Yes, it has a moral code, but this code is not given in order to impose it on others.  It is presented as the way of life for those who find forgiveness for their failures.  And there are many who do attempt to live by that code -- and they find forgiveness when they fail.
 

9 comments:

Canadian Atheist said...

Bill said: Paul appears to be saying some things that contradict the preachers of a superior moral code -- that there are some who don't have a biblical code whose morality is superior to some of those who do!

Indeed. In fact, studies show that atheists are underrepresented in the jail system.

I have to say that I agree with your post (besides the biblical portions of course) in an overall sense. The hypocrisy that is rife throughout organized religion is amazing. For example, the Catholic Church is worth billions of dollars. They say they want to feed the poor etc, while their priests walk around in gold trimmed robes. How many people could that sort of wealth feed and house?

You also touched on the pedophilia...something that really angers me.

It was a really interesting read. Thanks for typing it, Bill!

Bob McCollum said...

Hi Bill,

Appreciate the post, as always.

The culture wars that so many Christians are occupied with make no sense to me. Paul lived in a dissolute culture and yet in 13 books made no reference to cultural reform. When I mentioned this to a friend who seems to be concerned with the sins of the world (someone I admire greatly), he said the reason Paul didn't address the sins of the Roman and Greek culture was because Paul didn't live in a free society. We do, and therefore our obligation is to engage. Astonishing. The logical extension of such a thought is that if Paul had lived in a free society, we'd have a totally different Bible.

Don't misunderstand, I believe that if a country (or an individual) follows God's principles, it can only benefit them. But God is not in the business of moral reform. He's in the business of creating new creatures in Christ Jesus.

Sin surely causes death, and God warns about that. Jonah warned Nineveh that in 40 days their sins would cause Him to destroy them. The Canaanites' sins had reached the point of destruction during the time of Moses. And Sodom and Gomorrah had clearly reached the saturation point (though for reasons other than what we've often been taught).

But what sense would it make for God to prompt a culture to moral reform without the message of eternal life? It seems clear (at least to me) that his warnings were given so that people would remain alive to hear about His grace.

However, we can't warn of impending doom because we're not God. We have no idea, for example, where the United States stands on God's spectrum of sin (though we hear about it all the time).

Best for us to leave such matters to God and to concentrate on sin as expressed in our own lives.

Hope you and Uni and all those you love are fine and happy.

Bob

Canadian Atheist said...

Bob said: However, we can't warn of impending doom because we're not God. We have no idea, for example, where the United States stands on God's spectrum of sin (though we hear about it all the time).

Sounds extremely superstitious to me. Some of the happiest nations on Earth have a majority of citizens that do not practice Christianity. It's no accident that secular nations are the most prosperous.

If you think that Christianity is the most direct and undefiled expression of love and compassion the world has ever seen, you do not know much about the world's other religions. Take the religion of Jainism as one example. The Jains preach a doctrine of utter non-violence. While the Jains believe many improbable things about the universe, they do not believe the sorts of things that lit the fires of the Inquisition. You probably think the Inquisition was a perversion of the "true" spirit of Christianity. Perhaps it was. The problem, however, is that the teachings of the Bible are so muddled and self-contradictory that it was possible for Christians to happily burn heretics alive for five long centuries. It was even possible for the most venerated patriarchs of the Church, like St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, to conclude that heretics should be tortured (Augustine) or killed outright (Aquinas). Martin Luther and John Calvin advocated the wholesale murder of heretics, apostates, Jews, and witches. You are, of course, free to interpret the Bible differently--though isn't it amazing that you have succeeded in discerning the true teachings of Christianity, while the most influential thinkers in the history of your faith failed?-Sam Harris

In short, there is no spectrum of sin. In my opinion, we should stop with the superstitious claims of religion, none of which come with an iota of evidence, and start concentrating on making the world a better place for all.

Bob McCollum said...

Note to Canadian Atheist:

It might be difficult to defend historical secularists when it comes to torture and murder. Mao, Stalin, Lenin, Pol Pot, and many others managed to slaughter millions without the benefit of religion.

However, I don't support crazy religionists either. Could it be the problem lies within the human heart and not in external issues?

BTW, no matter how bad you think I am, I'm worse. You ought to see me from the inside.

Best to Wiarton Willie, the albino groundhog.

Bob

Canadian Atheist said...

Dear Bob,

Bob said: It might be difficult to defend historical secularists when it comes to torture and murder. Mao, Stalin, Lenin, Pol Pot, and many others managed to slaughter millions without the benefit of religion.

That's true in some ways. However, most of those built a religion around themselves, which they usually call a cult of personality. They believe they are god-like.

Also, there is no doctrine associated with atheism. It's like pointing the finger at a bad guy who doesn't believe in elves, and saying his non-belief in elves made him a bad guy.

For example, I could be religious and still be an atheist. I could practice Buddhism, humanism or visit my local unitarian church on a regular basis. I could believe in their dogma as divine (or nearly divine) truth.

That's what religion has going for it. If they can make enough people believe they're acting by divine will, then they can do atrocious things, like the inquisition. You won't get many people to follow you or believe in your cause because you lack belief in elves or God.

Bob said: Could it be the problem lies within the human heart and not in external issues?

That's an interesting question and one that would take a long post. In short, I'd say it's a little of both.

However, Sams point is that for centuries, Christians believed their God wanted them to burn witches. Funny that so many Christians now (despite their greatest thinkers saying otherwise) say that it's wrong.

Bill Ball said...

Looks to me like Atheism has the perfect way out: when evils are committed by Atheists they're not really Atheists - they're religious! It's the "cult of personality."
Hmm.

Canadian Atheist said...

Bill said: Looks to me like Atheism has the perfect way out: when evils are committed by Atheists they're not really Atheists - they're religious! It's the "cult of personality."
Hmm.

They are committed by atheists but not in the name of atheism. Nobody fights a war in the name of no-God.

Just like evils are committed by people who don't believe in elves all the time, but they don't commit those evils in the name of their disbelief of elves.

It just so happens they didn't believe in elves.

Sherry Ball Schoenfeldt said...

Dad, I think your final paragraph is the most beautiful paragraph you've ever written.

Bob, I agree with your comment too.

Bill Ball said...

Thanks, Sherry.