“Individual Morality” = Oxymoronic half-truth

A recent NY Times editorial exposes the reality that emerging generations have almost no sense of ethic and morality because, as they’ve been taught by our culture, “morality is a personal, individual matter.”  It appears that, aside from the most obvious moral issues, such as the wrongness of rape and murder, 18- to 23-year-olds have no consensus on issues like cheating on a test, driving drunk, or cheating on one’s partner.

When asked about the rightness or wrongness of situations that, in other times, would leave little room for moral ambiguity, here are some of the comments offered:

“It’s personal.” 

“It’s up to the individual.  Who am I to decide?” 

“I would do what I thought made me happy or how I felt.  I have no other way of knowing what to do but how I internally feel.”  

“I mean, I guess what makes something right is how I feel about it. But different people feel different ways, so I couldn’t speak on behalf of anyone else as to what’s right and wrong.”

These comments, taken together, mean that our fragmented culture is on the fast track towards moral anarchy, reminiscent of the days in the book of Judges when “every man did that which was right in his own eyes.”  This is the way it is, but the notion that individualistic and privatized moralities can create a sustainable and vibrant culture is patently absurd.  Doing our own morality has created two big problems:

Culture Wars – It surely looks good on paper to be a pluralist society in which divergent values and ideas coexist, (as the bumper sticker so graphically portrays) peacefully.  McCarthyism, thought police, book burnings, all give evidence to the dangers of “group think,” and our shrinking world is a world that demands, at some level, we find a way to get along as people of divergent views.  But history teaches us that the marketplace of ideas is never a morally neutral shopping mall where virgin minds carefully consider the merits of various moral and religious constructs before making the wise, truth seeking, purely objective decision.  Instead, it is always becoming a battleground, whether it’s Europe fighting for it’s Christian heritage against the realities of Islamic immigration, or our culture’s historic division over slavery, or our present fragmentation that makes civil political discourse impossible, even among normal citizens, never mind the absurd entrenchment of the political pros.  The reason cultures, and even subcultures, rise and fall is because moral constructs exert influence.  After all, somebody needs to make the rules, and the competition for who gets to do that makes a culture war.  The more fragmented a culture becomes, the more intense the wars.

Consequences of Moral Decay – Without a transcendent moral authority we are, in fact, reduced to doing that which is right, each of us, in our own eyes.  We’ll draw upon our family’s values, either embracing or reactively rejecting them.  We’ll draw upon our peers, who reinforce an ethic.  Or, as referenced above, we’ll simply do “what makes us happy.”  Ah, but there’s the rub.  What makes me happy might not be best, either for me, or for others, in the long run.  If we lack both a commitment to the common good and a transcendent outside source for our moral structure, we’ll make our own rules, as best suites us.

The result:  Absent fathers, corporate greed, domestic violence, divorce, sex as a substitute for committed intimacy, isolating individualism, skyrocketing addiction maladies, political corruption across all party lines, a pandemic of passivity, and more.  Taken together, the results of this moral anarchy have created a culture of dysfunction that is paralyzing to more and more people.  Homelessness, mental illness, lack of access to basic necessities, illiteracy, fear, and anger.  This is our world – in spite of a vision where everyone’s morality is a personal choice.  I know the right blames evil big government, and the left blames tea party totalitarianism – but the reality is that we’re fragmented, and spending more time fighting for turf than solving problems.

The Truth:  Every person MUST choose their moral construct

Yes, morality is personal. Each of us must decide for ourselves what foundation we’ll build upon, and then we’ll need find a way to live there as faithfully and consistently as possible – both enjoying the benefits and paying the consequences.

But just because morality is personal doesn’t mean that it need be private.  Yes, we need to decide what we’ll believe and how we’ll live, but what sets people of faith apart from the Richard Dawkins of the world this simple belief:  GOD HAS SPOKEN.   We can’t prove it scientifically, any more than Dawkins can prove that God hasn’t.  But we’re choosing to believe it, because we’ve seen the fruit of it, somewhere along the way.  We’ve seen people living joyfully, generously.  We’ve seen marriages sustained and healed.  We’ve seen people sell all their possession and move to a different part of the world to paint hope there, entering a bigger and better story than just surviving.  We’ve known, some of us, just how critical God’s Words and power have been to sustaining our lives, offering hope in loss, guidance in confusing times, and strength when we don’t feel the capacity to go on.

Because we believe God has spoken, the words of God matter.  Yes, people who believe that God has spoken surely do differ at times when it comes to understanding what God has said, and meant.  But at least we’re appealing to an authority outside ourselves, looking for answers about what it means to be spouse, parent, worker, neighbor, citizen of a nation and planet, steward of the earth, and everything else.  We’re not making up our morality, we’re trying to unearth it from what God has spoken.

The belief in an absolute moral authority doesn’t solve every problem or answer every question.  But it does shift the conversation from, “this is how ____  feels to me” to “what has God said?”  When the latter question is asked with humility and honesty, good things happen – in lives, in families, in churches, in our world.  This is why the church MUST be teaching ethics, and wrestling with questions of economics, just war and what it means to love enemies, sexuality, marriage, vocation, environmental stewardship, what it means to be a good citizen, and so much more.

Beyond all the white noise about our culture’s demise, and our economic woes, my prayer is that there will be people who have the courage to listen for God’s voice and follow it, because that’s where life is to be found.

 

About Richard Dahlstrom

As Pastor of Bethany Community Church in Seattle, Richard teaches with vision of "making the invisible God visible" by calling people to acts of service and blessing. It's working, as a wilderness ministry, homeless shelter, and community meals that serve those living on the margins are all pieces of Bethany's life. "We're being the presence of Christ" he says, "and inviting everyone to join the adventure." Many have, making Bethany one of the fastest growing churches in America in 2009 according to Outreach Magazine.

  • Megan

    Yes, ethics and morality must be taught to and modeled for our youth and society at large. And yes, the teaching of ethics and morality belongs in churches and homes (and I would argue schools as well). But I must say quoting Judges gave me pause. Isn’t Judges the book that describes how God ordered the Israelites to war against and evict from the “promised land”? And wasn’t the each man doing what was right in his eye about “tolerating” the original inhabitants and their customs? Hasn’t the book of Judges been used many times in history to justify the murder of “pagans” and others who fail to live according to someone’s “Christian” ideal? No other book of the Bible “challenges” my faith more and I find its violence very hard to swallow or reconcile with a God who teaches love, mercy, and justice. What could be more unjust than to violently attack others in order to appropriate their land and destroy their “inferior” culture?
    I hope I do no offend. And I’m glad I finished reading your post (once I took a breath).

  • raincitypastor

    You’re asking great and important question and yes, the Bible, especially Judges, has been used to justify genocide and other horrific acts. I thin, though, that actually reinforces my point. The opening verse to which i referred, the link to “God has spoken” is taken from Heb 1, where we’re told that God has spoken in many times and ways, but that God’s fullest and clearest revelation of God’s intent and character are found in the person of Jesus. If we look at the character of Jesus, we come to see that, far from advocating that His followers destroy others, he taught us to live in the midst of those whose values are different, and express genuine love in spite of differences. Since the notion of a theocracy died (or should have) with the teachings of Jesus, we can’t draw on the values of Old Testament nationalism and imposed uniformity of culture. On the other had, Judges continues to reveal the challenge that unfolds when we’re all living by different values. I hope this helps clarify – and thanks for commenting.

  • http://chev.as Chevas

    We are seeing the decline of Christendom in western culture. The fruits of this decline are moral decay in the population, but it provides more opportunity for the believer to let their light shine before all people.

    While Christendom reigned in strength, we had more of the population who were morally conservative church-goers (and this is still prevalent in the South), but unregenerate within their souls.

    While we can mourn the degeneration in our culture, the contrast between the truly regenerate Christian and the unregenerate person will continue to sharpen and I believe this will lead to a reduction in nominal faith among those who profess Jesus as Lord and Savior.

  • Sandsworth

    I like what you mention about how morality is very individual in that each person must make decisions for his or her own life and deal with the consequences. The second part is key. We all have freedom of choice to do what we feel or think or want or whatever. We don’t have freedom to choose the consequences. There’s an illusion that all consequences are the same whatever morality we choose, or that consequences can be controlled. But the consequences are unavoidable, good or bad, and I think your list of some of the bad ones is very insightful:

    “The result: Absent fathers, corporate greed, domestic violence, divorce, sex as a substitute for committed intimacy, isolating individualism, skyrocketing addiction maladies, political corruption across all party lines, a pandemic of passivity, and more.”

  • Vicki

    I find this post troubling for two reasons. I think what you are proposing is foundational to some very harmful moralities. I want to be clear from the start however, I don’t mean to suggest that I find your morality harmful. I go to Bethany so clearly I’m generally a “fan.” I object to your line of reasoning, not your conclusions and I certainly am not trying to mount a personal attack.

    First, the idea that “bad” behavior will be the result of not grounding morality in God leads to the obvious conclusion that atheists will be terrible people. As your idea about the importance of grounding morality in the authority of God is common, it isn’t surprising that polls show atheists as among the most hated groups in America. Do you have any data to back up your claims? I certainly haven’t seen any. In fact, as those who claim no religion rise, crime rates are declining. Nation level studies show a NEGATIVE correlation between religious adherence and a variety of metrics of social health. And relative to the general population, atheists are under represented in prison. Atheism is, of course, the extreme from your position, but your claims could also be used to denigrate people of other faiths. Isn’t this attitude the motivation behind many hate crimes?

    Secondly, the idea that your moral views are not the views of a fallible human but the perfect command of God gives you the right and even the duty to not question them. There are many social ills that we have left behind because people were willing and able to question their moral beliefs and not simply take them on faith. There are a many vile and despicable moral stances that were once seen to be upheld by scripture. The reality is that your own moral views are your own moral views. When the Bible says that women should be silent in church, you interpret that in light of your own moral views. And when the Bible says homosexuality is against nature, you interpret that in light of your own moral views. And when the Bible says slaves should obey their masters, you interpret that in light of your own moral views. If you are deciding how to interpret the Bible through the lens of your own moral views, it is your personal morality that is foundational – not the Bible. Unless you are prepared to stone disobedient children to death and force rape victims to marry their rapists – the Bible is not actually the foundation of your morality. I’m not saying that this is good or bad. I’m saying this is how it is. What I think is bad, is pretending that your moral views are backed by the authority of God because this erroneous belief is foundational to the Fred Phelpses of the world.

    I completely agree with what you said about the need for the church to talk about ethics. But, I think this discussion needs to be based in the realities of how we make moral judgments. We are empathetic beings. We construct models of the minds of others in our own minds so that we can think about what others are thinking about. We have neurons that trigger feelings of pain when we see someone else hurt. It is this, not fear of retribution or even loving obedience to the will of a creator, which makes me not want to harm others. Moral education should be aimed at teaching how others, in other cultures and circumstances, feel about how they are treated. This will encourage our natural empathy to expand. The Bible and meditations on the will of God are great frameworks for thinking about ethical issues and for trying to view others through the eyes of a loving father.

    In short, we need to hold our morality with humility. If you don’t think it is possible that an atheist could have a superior morality to your own, you are on dangerous ground.

  • Paul

    Vicki – I think I see your point, but I am having a difficult time accepting your premises. At a base level, I would argue that because Jesus died for our sins we don’t have to worry about stoning (receiving or giving) or forcing rape victims into marriage. I might have the semantics wrong, but we are freed from the law, it has no power over us, we are free to go. What we are left with are explicit instructions to love the Lord and love our neighbors as ourselves. I would argue that it is those who base their morality on the sacrifice of Jesus and his call to turn around and love as He loved that have moved society on from serious ills when it wasn’t easy or popular (Wilberforce and abolition in England comes to mind, hopefully that’s the right guy…). In that vein, I think that those who use scripture to defend vile behavior are basing their morality on their own views… you just can’t treat people poorly and defend your actions with the Bible, we are not called to be judge and jury… even for the really, really bad people (like, atheists! just kidding…)

    Speaking of atheists, it doesn’t surprise me that there would be no correlation between atheists and crime (or even a negative correlation) if only because I would assume that atheists in general are more educated and have higher incomes and those also tend to track negatively with crime… yes that is unsubstantiated because it’s late, but I have a feeling Google might back me up on that one… So, they might not be criminals, and they might be high minded, but I’m not quite willing to concede the moral high ground either. That said, to be honest, aren’t we all terrible people? We really shouldn’t be ranking in the first place, and if you realize you are no better than the next person, that puts a crimp on your hate crime planning (and pride issues, etc).

    I suppose this is a round about way of saying that really, I’m quite comfortable with morality coming straight from the Bible. Yes, we should ask questions and have discussions, but if we always come back to the Bible and grounding our decisions in God… great! Only problem is we’re only human, and we don’t always like what the answer is (the whole loving our neighbor as ourselves thing can really ruin a good pity party or some righteous indignation). All that said, I do like your conclusion as I think we end up in a fairly similar place (humility!).

  • Ryan

    Paul says:
    “I would argue that because Jesus died for our sins we don’t have to worry about stoning (receiving or giving) or forcing rape victims into marriage. I might have the semantics wrong, but we are freed from the law, it has no power over us, we are free to go. What we are left with are explicit instructions to love the Lord and love our neighbors as ourselves…
    That said, to be honest, aren’t we all terrible people? We really shouldn’t be ranking in the first place, and if you realize you are no better than the next person, that puts a crimp on your hate crime planning (and pride issues, etc.).”
    Paul, you hit it right on the head. We are all imperfect beings attempting in our humanness to discover and portray the perfect will and character of Christ. But at our essence, we are utterly selfish and prideful and fail to demonstrate the love to humanity that we ought to. And moral decay is not always represented by crime rates. Most of the crimes perpetuated in our society are financial and not illegal: using more resources than needed, supporting forced labor in other countries through the purchase of imported goods, the lending/investment practices of major financial institutions which continues to destroy the economies of the world, etc. Atheists, Christians, and everyone in our society is guilty of these offenses. But that is not the point of this discussion. The problem with our society is our inherent selfishness, which, combined with our unwillingness to have discussions WITHIN THE CHURCH about morality centered on what is found in God’s Word. Paul is right:
    The “Only problem is we’re only human, and we don’t always like what the answer is (the whole loving our neighbor as ourselves thing can really ruin a good pity party or some righteous indignation). All that said, I do like your conclusion as I think we end up in a fairly similar place (humility!).”

    To Megan’s point about the Israelite’s in Judges, what if it was a morally inferior society? I definitely think there are societies that have been historically morally inferior. The colonializing of the Americas by Europe, the Nazi regime (both ironically using Jesus as a figurehead for their conquests), Japan during WWII to name a few. Did these societies deserve to continue thriving? If they had, then history would have been put on a much different path.

    Getting back to Judges, how do we know that the people in the Promised Land were peaceful societies? Should we feel bad when the Egyptians, who brutally enslaved the Jews, get swallowed up by the Red Sea? It comes down to whether or not you trust God’s judgment. I look around at the beauty of the Earth, see how the DNA of the world fits so perfectly together and think to myself that God has done an amazing job designing life and its functions. When He steps in and alters history, it must be for a good reason. If not, why believe in Him?


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