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, 18-23 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 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.
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.