Yet again, that bastion of the liberal secular humanistic press, the Guardian, has given me something to write about.
This week, it relates to the morality of man, and why, despite humanity’s moral superiority over the whole of the natural world, the religious keep telling us we are bad.
The article can be found here:
Here are a few thoughts on the subject.
It is interesting to pit an Naturalistic-Darwinian worldview against a Reformed Christian one. I think that this paragraph is the most insightful on the subject:
“From an evolutionary perspective, considering other social species on this earth, it is remarkable that a bunch of unrelated adult males can sit on a plane together for seven hours in the presence of fertile females, with everyone arriving alive and unharmed at the end of it. We could be a lot worse than we are, according to our common notions of right and wrong. We have certainly come a long way towards becoming a co-operative, sympathetic, even loving species.”
It is interesting because the two viewpoints are moving in the opposite directions (kind of…). The Darwinian sees humanity moving in an upward tragectory: man started as a primative creature with no morality, and through the progress of evolution, in which selfishness and altruism worked in tension for the goal of selfpreservation, morality develops to make society worth living in. This is a basic Humeian model for morality in society. Thus, the writer notes that for an evolutionist, you notice how far we have come as a species, as evidenced in the above quote.
As a Reformed Christian, however, I agree wholeheartedly with his Calvinist dad. And here is why: man has not improved morally on what he once was, but instead has fallen from what he was meant to be. The story of the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2 and most importantly 3) tells of how man was made in the image and likeness of God, moral and righteous, only to fall into a life of sin. The morality that exists today, and by that I mean the true morality - our displeasure at murder, theft, adultery (though that displeasure is quicklly disappearing), injustice e.t.c. - are not shining bastions of how far we have progressed, but shards of the people we were made to be: perfect image bearers of the almighty God.
Turning to his airplane example, it is wonderful that the situation exists as such, that we can sit on a plane without acting like animals. But it is the grace of God alone that holds us in that state. Look around at the world and tell me: is this a universal situation? Murder still happens. Rape still happens. Even in situations analogous to the airplane example above. That dark center of man’s soul may be momentrarily restrained by social circumstances, but remove those constructs which would punish a man, and the darkness will explode into the world. Tell a man that he can get away with something, and that thing he has wished to do for a long time will become a reality.
The writer makes an interesting observation about the role of religion in morality. He points out that verses such as the words of Isaiah proclaiming that man’s best efforts are but filthy rags do a good job at pointing out our deficiencies as moral beings (see the last paragraph).
This is interesting because it does actually point to the law that God gives. The law is, of course, the high expectations God has for our moral behavior. But it also points out to us our deficiencies, and as a secular man, Lahti recognises this quite well. His response to this is that we see our flaws and are pushed on to be better people, as individuals and as a society.
I think most Christians will agree with this. The problem is that trying harder, seeing all the areas we fall short does not in itself drive us to be better.
Ravi Zacherias has often pointed out, in the Garden of Eden, there was only one law, by Sinai there were 10, and beyond that there were 600: the breaking of one law necessitates the creation of thousands to restrain our lust for evil. And even the most moral of us mere humans cannot keep all of the laws, if any.
Lahti’s argument is that the nature of man is neither essentially good or bad, but that society and morality is develping to make us increasingly better, and religion is good and effective only at trying to push us forward to be better. I quote:
Furthermore, we can extend our moral consideration far beyond what was beneficial to our ancestors – to humanity as a whole, even to the natural world… We can do this on our own, but it requires that familiar battle between what we feel like doing and what we know we ought to do.
His point is that we can push forward to live up to our own expectations for morality: that as the human race has developed, we have been able to extend our altruism beyond the basic necessities of evolutionary survival into genuine benevolance, and that in this truth we can become better people by just working harder to latch onto our ambitions of morality.
But, as a secular man, he misses the utter importance of the Christian Gospel, and why it is needed. It doesn’t matter how much you may have progressed in morality in your own personal life, you are not at any point morally neutral. We cannot become better people by merely aiming high in terms of morality. And I would argue that most people don’t aim nearly as high as they think they do. So they may feel empathetic to the pain of a friend, yet they insult those they don’t like behind their back. They may be all for women’s rights, yet they will still think impure thoughts in the darkness of their own minds. Often we pass over our deficiencies, being more inclined as humans to see our successes above seeing our failures.
The law doesn’t merely show us our shortcomings in order to push us to be better. It drives us to Christ. The laws of true religion are not merely there to ensure guilt and get us to be better, they are to point us to Christ who fulfilled every one of them. All those laws that God set because we couldn’t keep one in Eden, Christ kept in his life on earth. The only hope we have at seeing moral growth in our lives is not aspiring to a set of rules, the achievement of which is our goal, but instead clinging to Christ. It is our union with him that enables us to grow and that declares that there is no condemnation of us for our sins. We are justified and sanctified in Christ. Many Christians see our moral improvement in terms of gratitude to God for our justification in Christ, but even this isn’t enough, for we can never be grateful enough. It is only by being unified in Christ, declared righteous and being freed from the slavery of sin that we can grow. It is only in looking at the person of Christ, and not looking at our own satisfaction of the law, that we can begin to be obedient to the laws. More than that: it is only when we are united with Christ that we even want to.