The unease that comes with moral flexibility
Some religious leaders have howled about the moral relativism of our contemporary culture, pointing to this as the slippery slope that ultimately will lead to our collective downfall. In some respects, this can be argued successfully, I suppose, but it’s generally assumed we’re always talking about trending toward more liberal values than the other way around.
The recent raids of the polygamist compound in Texas raised a new awareness of this for me. Some ideals we now hold would not have jibed with those maintained back in so-called “biblical” times. Particularly, they might view some of our takes on sexuality as unnecessarily restrained, while others are unabashedly exploitative.
For example, the notion of polygamy itself challenges my sense of propriety, but there are plenty of stories in the Bible about men taking more than one wife. Now, back in the day, it was customary for a brother to marry the wife of his deceased sibling to help protect and provide for the departed one’s family. Also, childbearing was held in such high regard that if a couple could not bear children, a husband was within his right to use a concubine or slave to carry on a man’s bloodline.
With high infant mortality rates, low life expectancies, constant war, famine and disease to contend with, a family had to work to ensure it persisted from generation to generation. They didn’t have the advantages of antibiotics, emergency rooms, vitamins or even balanced-diet options to help increase their chances of survival. So does this mean that a practice that once was considered acceptable must be considered in context?
Consider girls being impregnated at age 13. Who doesn’t shudder at the thought of some 50-year-old guy using a barely-teenage girl for personal satisfaction and for proliferating his genetic line? But consider Mary, son of Jesus, who bore the Son of Man at or around that age, and she wasn’t the only one! As soon as a young woman could do so, it was her familial and spiritual duty to bear as many offspring as possible before her number was up, or she became “barren.” There were no fertility doctors, and childbearing years did not span nearly as many decades back then as they now do.
So was it wrong then? Is it wrong now?
The list of taboos today compared with common practice then is not a short one, including slavery, and, some might argue, capital punishment and war. On the other hand, how many of us today cringe at the thought of tying knots on the Sabbath, or mixing the fibers of our clothing? Do we guys consider shaving our beards as an affront to God, and how many of our wives still sleep in red tents in the back yard when they menstruate?
All of this suggests to me that, yes, given current knowledge, social conditions and the like, morality indeed should be considered in context. Such arguments even have been waged over the Mosaic commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” Some maintain this means all killing of any kind is against God’s law, while others suggest this speaks specifically to human murder only. How can such a seemingly direct handful of words be construed with such a broad brush?
Keep crying about the dangers of moral relativism if you must, but practically any search for absolute right and wrong will meet up with a confounding counter-argument. Most, if not all, of us could join together in condemning acts of rape and genocide, though the ranks would thin a bit, evidently, in opposition against polygamy and marrying young girls. Even fewer would argue passionately about the importance of keeping kosher, but there are those who believe fervently that this is a critical part of living a godly life.
So who’s right and who’s wrong? Who can pump his fists in self-righteousness and who ought to hang his head in shame? The answer changes from time to time, but I think I’ll add this to the growing list of questions I have to ask when God and I have a little sit-down.