Lately, I’ve been struggling with morality. Not necessarily being moral, although we all struggle with that to one extent or another. I’m talking about morality as a concept. I’ve grown skeptical in reading and thinking about scripture, that in them God is giving us objective moral facts, and by that I mean, moral facts that stand over and against all moralities everywhere. I think I must use moralities plural, because different societies and cultures have developed different moral codes over time. In fact, we can even see very primitive moral types of behavior in the rest of the animal kingdom. Because of that I have no problem saying that morality evolved over time and continues to do so. However, that doesn’t tell us, in any ultimate sense, whether some cultures are more morally upright than others. How do we know that we have made moral progress? Have we made moral progress in some areas and regressed in others? Do some cultures have some things right, and other things wrong?
I am going somewhere with this, but first, why do I say the above about scripture? Aren’t the ten commandments giving us objective moral facts? To an extent yes, but not entirely. There is still disagreement to this day as to whether or not we are still obligated to honor the sabbath, and even if we are, what that could possibly mean. But I think we need to get into the weeds a bit more to really understand the point I’m trying to make. I am convinced that you cannot separate out any part of the law from any other of its constituent parts. You can’t try to break it down and say well there is the moral law, the civil law, and the sacrificial laws. It is all part of one law given to the Israelites that they were obligated to live out. How many of us would want to go back in time and live under laws where women are permitted as spoils of war, where you could be stoned to death for dishonoring your parents, or cast out (or considered unclean) for having certain kinds of diseases. There are good aspects of the law, but there are parts that none of us would want to live with. Our own morals, although in some ways rooted in ancient Israel’s law, are also very very different. We would not stone anyone to death today, especially for dishonoring their parents. We would not make someone pay a woman’s father to marry her because he raped her. We just don’t think like that about these issues, and that is okay. However, I do think there is a way to think about Scripture and morals and apply it all across time.
This is where I want to turn to ethics. Ethics is all about thinking through these issues. How do we know what is right and wrong, and what is, in an ultimate sense, right and wrong, good and bad? There are different kinds of ethical systems. There is deontological ethics, which looks at questions of duty; there is virtue ethics, which looks at what it means to be a good person; there is consequentialist ethics, which looks at the consequences of our actions to judge whether or not we should take those actions; and, amongst many others, there is utilitarian ethics, which trys to align our actions with that which brings the greatest good to the greatest number.
In Christianity, we have what I would call a telos thics (one could also say Kingdom ethics), which is similar to virtue ethics, and what has been argued before by others such as N.T. Wright. Telos means the end or goal. Our goal as a church, as Christians, as human beings, is to be a royal priesthood. That is what we are positionally, and what we will be in the age to come. We are forgiven and saved in Jesus for the purposes of being a part of his Kingdom, and in his Kingdom we will live as a royal priesthood.
The next question is that if we will be living as a royal priesthood, how will we live as a royal priesthood? There are a few answers we could give, but I want to settle on a three part answer. First, we will live by following the commandments Jesus gave love God, and love one another. Second, we will live out the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount. Third, we will live out the fruit of the Spirit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control, as well as the three virtues that abide, love faith, and hope. In the present, we are to be working, yes working these characterstics out through our actions. These are not rules to follow, but ways of living and being. Yes there are some rules given, especially by Paul, but these are more so ways of living out these virtues in their culture at that time. And there are other rules given by Jesus such as not lusting, or hating, but these go in support of living out these virtues.
Some argue that God doesn’t give us an ethical system. They will argue that it is about love rather than following rules, and I would both agree and disagree with that. No it is not about following rules for the sake of following rules. It is about loving God and loving others, and love is an ethic. An ethic doesn’t have to be a rule. Aristotle considered ethics to be the pursuit of living the good life, or being good. For him the highest good was the philosophical life, but for the Christians, the highest good is love. No, Jesus did not come to bring us a bunch of moral rules to follow. He came to bring us life and love, grace and mercy, justice and forgiveness, and he has pointed us towards living that way towards others.
What does that mean for us today? How do we know that as a society we have made moral progress? I think it comes down to how much better we are at living out loving our enemies, blessing the poor and the least of these, turning the other cheek, being meek and humble, thirsting for righteousness. In some areas we are definitely much better than we or the human race has been, and in other areas we still have much improvement to make. What is beautiful about these ethics is that it transcends cultural questions of morality. It applies to them all, and is narrow enough to guide the various moralities exercised in cultures and it is wide enough to allow various cultures to exist and live out these ethics in a multitude of ways.
- I want to add to this that I do not believe that Jesus came to make bad humans good, but to bring dead humans to life. In that sense he did not come for the purpose of giving us a new ethical system, but the ethics is part of living in the kingdom of God as those who have been redeemed.
- The point of original sin as I see it is that there is a corruption inherent within all of us. This corruption is Sin, and Jesus has come to rescue us from that. It is only by the power of the Holy Spirit that any of us can live this way, and that goes for those who claim to follow Jesus, as well as those who don’t.
- Yes, these ethics do include much of the Law of Moses. That is because there are objective moral facts. However, the ethics given by Jesus on the Sermon on the Mount and the rest of his teachings go beyond the law. And Paul points out about the fruit of the Spirit that “against such there is no law”, even though they are not explicitly stated within the law. Paul says elsewhere that the law points to Jesus. Jesus, who is the Lord of those laws, then gives us something better.