There is a strong “feeling” among many people that Christianity has overstated its case.
The best way to describe this “feeling” is to try to describe a typical middle class family living, say, in Idaho on a family farm. They are good people. Oh, they make their mistakes, of course. We all do. But they’re the salt of the earth. They live in a highly ethical environment, at least locally, and they truly treat their neighbors with respect and care, have strong family values and bring up their kids well.
If this family is not a “Christian” family, then Christianity would claim that these good people are lost – that they are headed for hell and that the wrath of God rests upon them.
The Great Delusion
Everything within us rebels at the thought that this could be so. If these good, moral people are lost, then there is no hope for any of us.
Exactly. Now we are getting somewhere.
This is the myth of human moral autonomy.
This is the Great Delusion that the human race has bought into. We should not be surprised that people rebel against this truth (that our morality is a myth – that even the best of us are simply not good enough) with every fiber of their being. To be honest, it should shake us to our core because this “truth” tells us that there is no hope for any of us if salvation is about “morality.”
It isn’t just that our morality is not enough. It is more than that. It is the realization that even the limited morality that we manage to produce is impossible without divine help.
This is the Divine Perspective and we do not share it.
The truth is that there is no autonomy from God. Perhaps on a conscious level we can maintain our autonomy (or at least the illusion of it) but not on a “creational” level. God supports us in every way so that we live and breathe and have our being only in the context of His detailed, ongoing support of our existence.
The message of the Bible is that our salvation is not about “morality” but about “relationship.” We were created to have a symbiotic, real, day-by-day relationship with God first of all, and from that relationship, morality and godly character and virtue would grow.
In the same way that love isn’t first of all about marriage but rather marriage is an expression of that love, so our love for God isn’t first of all about morality but rather morality is an expression of the relationship with God.
That is a fundamental truth of all relationships, even more so of our relationship with God.
Morality as an Expression of Character
This myth of human morality goes further than we are comfortable with. The truth is that even our “goodness” is not really a result of our character or virtue so much as it is of opportunity (or lack thereof) and rewards or punishments. Not always, of course, but far more than we like to admit.
The real question is not only who we are when nobody is looking, but rather who we are when nobody is looking and we are under stress. That is when character and virtue show up – and the truth be told, we are all disappointed in what we find within ourselves in those moments.
It is almost impossible for someone who is not committed to and transformed by the divine perspective to appreciate, but the truth of the matter is that we can do nothing, physically, morally, or spiritually without divine support.
There is mystery here because we must respond to the divine initiative and there is responsibility for our response (or lack thereof), but the truth stands. The very nature of the existence of God and our utter dependence on him in our very natures are the grounds for this fundamental realization.
Morality as an Expression of Our Natures
The myth of human morality in essence is the belief that we can take credit for our individual acts of morality as if those individual acts represent our character or, more profoundly yet, our natures.
It simply isn’t so. Without God, left to our own devices, without His restraint, His support, His “intervention,” our egoism would dominate our lives (and it often does anyway). We are not as selfish as we could be or as selfish as another might be but not because our natures are better than other people’s natures, but, rather, because we were protected, provided for, given different opportunities, given a different context in which to grow.
“There, but for the grace of God, go I” is the honest truth.
So it matters not how you measure up to other people but rather how you have handled the opportunities you have been given to demonstrate sacrificial love in the real world in difficult situations when every fiber of your being wants to be prudent and safe and think only of it´s own needs and desires.
It is about our nature and about choosing against our natural dispositions and for the transcendent power of love without regard for personal gain.
Without a symbiotic relationship with God in the very depths of our natures, any individual acts of morality or even steps towards virtue are external (and supported) rather than intrinsic to our natures and therefore they are a result of God’s “intervention” in our lives. Period.
Are you and I involved in this process? Yes.
Do we make real decisions with real consequences? All the time.
But if our actions or behaviors are an expression of our natures, we have nothing to be proud of. We must choose to act contrary to our natures, contrary to our natural inclinations, contrary to the expediency of our perceived self interest based on our felt needs.
Why would we do that? What motive would we have? What stirs us, what inspires us to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of others, to think of others more highly than we think of ourselves, if only for a moment?
If you dig deep enough, you will find the mystery of divine intervention even in people who are not Christians (but only in terms of morality not salvation).
After all, morality and salvation (or a new relationship with God through Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit) do not have a cause and effect relation (except in reverse).
Morality does not create a relationship with the Divine. A relationship with the Divine creates morality (out of the gratitude of love empowered by a conscious relationship with God).
To Know Yourself is to Humble Yourself
A fundamental understanding of our true natures, an evaluation of our human ontology, our primal guilt, the priority of the prudence of self-interest, our commitment to the expediency of perceived self-interest based on our felt needs, is essential to a true understanding of our moral agency.
We are truly able to choose good but only in the context of God’s intervention in various ways and on multiple levels to prevent our “egoism” from expressing itself in full form.
When we have a new relationship with God, he still “intervenes,” or better said, he “enables” or “empowers” us to pursue the good. Intervention suggests that it is against our will. Empowerment suggests that it is with our permission and active involvement. He is now an integral part of our natures, as was the original intention of our creation, and we are what the Bible calls a “new creation.”
We are still involved. His “enabling” is not against our will – we must respond and pursue, as he enables and guides.
Whether through “intervention” or “enablement,” from without or within, whether as a temporary prodding or a permanent involvement in our lives, there is no human morality (as an expression of character/nature) without God. Period.
Autonomy, Choices and Responsibility
So why, exactly, do we want to take the credit for it?
And why in the world do we think that a few individual acts of morality are enough to satisfy a God who is more interested in our natures and why we have sunk down to the level of the prudence of self-interest just because we no longer trust his protection and providence.
The truth is that we only judge ourselves in comparison with others while God judges us according to his original intentions and on the basis of our primal relationship with him.
That primal relationship is essential for the development of morality, virtue and true godly character in human beings whether Christians or not.
And yet, philosophers and thinkers of all persuasions want to protect our moral autonomy at all costs.
Immanuel Kant spends a significant amount of energy in showing that moral autonomy is essential for moral effort to mean anything to the moral agent. Read that again. Moral autonomy is essential for moral effort to mean anything to the moral agent. “To mean anything” For moral effort to be significant…..for it to mean anything….to become the foundation for meaning in life, it must be based on moral autonomy. What a strange thing to say when the form and content of morality is essentially relational….our moral effort has to do with how we relate to each other as humans being within the context of a dangerous and difficult world. If morality is relational in human terms, and if God exists, then the ground of morality must also be relational in divine terms. Moral autonomy by definition does not exist for sentient, self-aware beings that are by nature, social and relational and therefore NOT autonomous. Moral autonomy by definition does not exist, neither among humans (we need each other for motivation and clarity in our moral effort as well as to create joint efforts for synergistic results) nor between humans and God (if God, in fact, exists and has created us to be relationally, and therefore, morally interdependent on Him).
Without providing anything more than a general response on a basic level, it is also suggested that “taking credit” for moral advancement in the real world isn’t anywhere near as important as philosophers make it out to be.
In the real world, humans are interested in outcomes, results and benefits of moral behavior (in terms of protecting one another and providing for each others needs in the context of sacrificial love).
Mother Teresa was an example of humility, not pride, in her “moral” activity with the lepers on the streets of Calcutta. She would have been the first to admit that her efforts on behalf of the poor were nothing more (or less) than God working through her to express his love. She was nothing more than the hands, the feet, and most importantly, the heart of God to the people around her.
Moral autonomy is a myth in a world where God exists.
Thank God that He is willing to have a new relationship with us through Jesus Christ so that we become new creatures bound together with the Holy Spirit and empowered to act on God’s behalf in a suffering world.
Morality isn’t even an issue for those who walk in humility with God.
It isn’t about morality but rather about the relationship, about staying in step with God, staying connected, because, the truth be told, God allows our choices and our actions to matter. It’s about enjoying the relationship and enjoying the benefits of the morality He expresses through us. He created us to be his children, with the ability to choose to respond and follow or to rebel and run away. His guidance and enabling is an invitation not an obligation. Even his born again, new creation children can choose to “grieve” him or to “walk in step” with him.
Our choices matter. Our immorality is obviously our own responsibility, an expression of our “egoism” and lack of trust and relationship with God, but our morality is also our responsibility (even if we can’t take the credit for it).
It is our responsibility because we have been given the “ability to respond” and must choose to submit to the guidance and loving authority of our God. Still it is not to our credit because it is the power of the Holy Spirit within us that motivates us and stirs us up to pursue the good, to act out of love and thankfulness and to act as God’s representatives in a lost world.
That is the truth – at least from a Christian worldview. And it makes a lot of sense.
The Metaphysics of Morality
Look at what Peter Byrne, noted philosopher, says about morality in his book The Moral Interpretation of Religion. He says,
Moral beliefs differ but morality has a typical content as well as form. It deals with what is right and wrong, good and bad from a perspective independent of self-interest or expediency, with how one should act qua human being.
Not everyone believes that.
To claim that morality is “independent of self-interest or expediency” is to claim that morality has a binding force on humans, that there are moral facts that are “normative in force.”
Here we are talking about the epistemology and metaphysics of morality. Is morality nothing more than personal or societal preference or can we say that something, some act or behavior is binding to the human will either to do or to avoid doing “independent of self-interest or expediency?”
This is an essential question. If moral facts exist, then on what basis do they exist? Who is to say what a binding moral fact is? What is the standard? Where does it come from? The best explanation for the existence of a moral standard beyond the physical world is a personal God.
Virtue, Disposition and Relationship
In addition, says Peter Byrne,
Morality also promotes the virtues. Virtues are broad traits of character, habits of choice, which at once arise out of practice in acting upon judgment, rule and principle and also lie behind such practice. The just person is not one who is merely aware of the judgments, rules and principles with (sic) delineate justice. He or she is one who has a disposition to act in certain ways.
A “disposition” to act a certain way? Why? How was that “disposition” developed, or was it always part of our character or our nature? Our innate understanding of human ontology would suggest that we are not “prone” to virtue but rather to evil. That is our default “disposition” growing up in a dangerous world.
Peter Byrne goes on,
This disposition is a compound of belief, emotion and perception. Belief is there in the ability to deploy judgments, rules and principles about what is and is not just. Emotion is present in so far as one who is just will feel, for example, distaste at the contemplation of unjust acts and states of affairs. Perception is present for unless someone is schooled in forms of insight, understanding and sympathy, he or she will not be able to see when the demands of justice arise.
It is the dynamic relationship with God and the continued presence of the Holy Spirit within us that schools us, trains us, prepares us to be able to see when the demands of a particular virtue is needed. There is a flow to the Spirit that enables, inspires, motivates on the level of mind, emotions and will to accomplish the excellence of virtue in the context of loving obedience to our God.
Faith, Hope and Love
All of this material is interesting and helpful to a person who is a new creation. God’s intention is for his people to develop this disposition, to deploy judgments, rules and principles, to gain a divine perspective and to express emotions in line with those beliefs, perspectives and overall disposition. But never without his direct involvement and joint moral agency.
The exact relationship between his agency and ours may be shrouded in mystery but the general outlines are clear. It is about faith, hope and love, and, as Paul points out, the greatest of these is love.
These are relational categories and to that extent we have reasonable analogies in other human relationships such as between a husband and wife or a parent and child. All of our relationships take faith (or trust) which is rooted in love and expresses itself in hope – especially in a fallen world.
Hope is teleological. It is purposeful. It has a goal. There is self-interest in that hope, but it is a healthy self-interest. A self-interest that is natural to the relationship. There is nothing wrong with the desire for protection and providence in a dangerous world. The question is whether or not we can trust God for it and do so in a practical, day-by-day manner by focusing on and prioritizing the needs of others. It doesn’t get any more real than that.
But whether we are protected or not, whether we are provided for or not, in the way and manner in which we want to be protected and provided for, whether we get the benefits and blessings that we want or not, the “hope” is not ultimately focused on the benefits but on the person himself, on God himself.
Our “hope” is in him, in his character and nature which is the source of his promises. At the end of the day, whether we live or whether we die, we belong to him and that is enough for us. Why? Because of love. His love for us and our love for him. And love expresses itself in faith. We trust him with our lives. Death is no longer a threat. Suffering and pain, evil and sin can still hurt us but not defeat us. Now we are willing to suffer and endure pain, to face evil and conquer sin by proactively depending on his power within us so that we can be an example to the rest of the world of what it means to be a child of God. Faith, hope and love but the greatest of these is love.
Excellence through Virtue
Finally, Peter Byrne argues for the priority of virtue and of “excellence through virtue”as the goal of morality. He says,
It can be argued that the virtues should have pride of place in any full account of the epistemology and psychology of morals, for ethics is essentially a practical science and art and other forms of moral cognition (such as an awareness of moral rules) can never, singly or collectively, be a substitute for the insight that consists in possession of the virtues. The aim of the moral life should be the acquisition of the virtues”(italics mine).
No argument there, so long as one thing is understood.
Morality is like happiness, the more you focus on it, the more elusive it becomes. If we pursue our relationship with God, if we submit ourselves to his training, to his guidance, to his authority, He will create in us the priority and posture (the meta-ethic) of loving obedience and develop us into the image of his son, Jesus Christ.
It isn’t just about virtue, it is about obedience. Morality is relational. It isn’t just about the intrinsic value of morality for morality’s sake. It’s about the intrinsic value of a relationship with God (and others) for the relationships sake.
When that is our focus, we give God the freedom to eradicate “egoism” (often called the “flesh” in the Bible) from our lives by developing faith in his protection and providence.
When we focus on our relationship with God and pursue Him, we give God the freedom to create gentleness, long suffering, self-control, kindness, and other virtues (often called the “fruit of the Spirit” in the Bible) through our interaction with circumstances and people.
It is, by nature, a supernatural experience, acquired by faith as we follow the Way of the Cross (confession, repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation).
The Abundant Life
When we pursue God, the power of temptation diminishes. When we pursue God, proactively making Him our main concern and our number one priority, evil looses its power, a renewing of our minds, a divine perspective, a godly set of priorities, agenda and purpose take over and we enter into what the Bible calls “the abundant life.”
This quality of life takes training and effort and commitment. It takes a single-minded, purposeful and submitted will. It can only be accomplished with the help of God through the Holy Spirit from within. The abundant life is a relationship with God in which the Holy Spirit is free to move, free to empower and lead and you are actively and immediately following with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. It isn’t about morality, any more than marriage is about physical intimacy. And yet, it is moral through and through, just as a marriage is a bond between two lovers and physical intimacy is a natural and wonderful part of the whole.
Human morality is a myth if you think that it is something that you can do (or even want to do) on your own, but it is a beautiful reality when it is part of an ongoing “new creation” relationship with the God who created us to be His children and wants to be an integral part of our lives.
That is why the love of God can transform even the most immoral dredges of society into true godly men and women who live totally and proactively dependent on the power of the Holy Spirit, focused on God, demonstrating their love through their obedience and leaving their specific moral development in behavior, character and virtue in the hands of God even as they proactively respond to his guidance and empowerment.
This transformation is the natural result of a born again, new creation relationship with God through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. That’s as real as it gets.
“But I thought you said that they were deceived?”
“They were deceived. They were led to believe that I had ulterior motives.”
“So it’s not their fault,” I ventured.
“Not their fault? Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” He looked at me, his eyes deep and mysterious. “I wrote that, you know.”
“Yes, I’ve read it.”
“All they had to do was love me, to trust me enough to come and talk to me and find out from me what that deceiver was talking about. Love communicates. Instead, they accepted his accusations as truth and chose to act on that belief in direct contradiction to what I had told them. In the end, at the very least, they should have respected the fact that I am their Father and their Creator and obey me regardless of what anyone says.” He sighed heavily. “Now they have put me in an impossible situation.”
“But you were the one that put that tree in the middle of the garden – the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Didn’t you set the whole thing up yourself?”
“Yes, I did,” he said. “The tree itself is symbolic. There was no magic in the fruit. The question was one of obedience rooted in love and trust or disobedience rooted in fear and disbelief. They chose fear and disbelief – and now they are in danger and they have cut themselves off from the only help that can save them.”
“But I don’t understand,” I said. “Why do it in the first place? You could have avoided the whole problem right from the start.”
“Avoided, no. Perhaps postponed it for a bit. But they were ready and I was ready and it was time to ask them.”
“To ask them what?”
“Whether or not they loved me enough, trusted me enough, to obey me even when they didn’t understand what was going on or couldn’t see the consequences of their choices. Sooner or later, they had to face that question.”
“But look at the trouble it’s gotten everyone into.”
“Don’t blame the original two. You confirm their choice everyday of your life, multiple times and in multiple ways. You simply face that question in a fallen world, while they faced it with every advantage I could give them in a world without sin.”
“But couldn’t the whole thing have been avoided in the first place? Did you have to test their love?”
“But that is the nature of love, my son. It must be tested in order to grow. In the furnace of choice, it is refined like pure gold. When the best is separated from the good, when personal freedom is limited simply and completely by a choice rooted in love – there, at that point, is the glory of my image in you revealed.”
His eyes began to wrinkle mischievously at the edges. “Otherwise, you would be nothing more than mere lap dogs – affectionate, certainly, but not much to talk to.” Then he smiled a wide grin that was entirely infectious and we both laughed.
Tears of the Desert Warrior by Bert A. Amsing
Copyright © 2012 by vanKregten Publishers. All rights reserved.
Footnotes and references made in the original manuscript.