by Regis Nicoll | Despite the fashionable heroism of embracing the absurdity of our existence, we have an irrepressible sense that there are objective standards of right and wrong, that justice should prevail, and that our choices matter for something supremely significant. (image: James Chan from Pixabay)
From days of old, mankind has wrestled with the question of ethics. In ancient Israel, after fifty years of Babylonian captivity had all but erased God’s providence and law from memory, the Jewish community wondered aloud: “How now shall we live?”
The very question presupposes a standard and a purpose. Even the early Greeks, influenced by Plato and Aristotle, believed in a purpose-driven ethic—a universal ideal of “goodness” that could be known and toward which all men should strive.
But that all changed in the seventeenth century when René Descartes became the father of modern philosophy. Descartes introduced a method of systematic doubt that became the springboard to the radical skepticism of later thinkers. Pivotal was the influence of David Hume. Hume constructed a wrecking ball of skepticism that, among other things, reduced to rubble the notion of a universal moral standard.
Although it took a while to finish the job, once complete all that remained after the demolition was the dust cloud of relativism. During the last century, no one darkened that cloud more than the existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre.
A Paralyzing Gospel
In post-WWII France, Sartre spoke to the anguish of his countrymen who were reeling in despair in the aftermath of the German occupation. Promoting the gospel of personal responsibility and choice, Sartre helped turn the mood of the nation from fatalism to optimism. But while autonomy and free choice can be liberating, it can also be paralyzing—as one young man realized after seeking Sartre’s advice.
During the war, a French student, agonizing over whether to join the resistance movement or stay home with his mother who was totally dependent on him, asked Sartre what he should do. Sartre’s answer: “You’re free, choose!”
I can imagine a choked “Huh?” from the young man as those pearls of wisdom rolled off the tongue of the famed philosopher—and a head-down, hands-in-pockets amble back home, as he strained for some moral scale with which to weigh his choices.
Thanks to Sartre and his sophistic forbears, classifications of “right” and “wrong” have been blurred if not obliterated, leaving us, like that French student, to wonder what it means to be moral.
Engaging a “Bright”
A while back, I discussed this very issue with a fellow named Bob. Bob is a rising star in the Brights Movement—a network of free thinkers who embrace a worldview “free of supernatural and mystical elements.” Notable luminaries in the movement include the likes of Michael Shermer, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett.
Our dialog began after Bob read an article I wrote critical of the moral “wholesomeness”—a term the Brights fondly use to describe their worldview—of philosophical naturalism.
In response, Bob denied the need for God to determine what is “good” or “bad,” asserting that ethics are based on common human concepts. He characterized Christian morality as “easy”—a “follow-these-rules-to-be-good” excuse to avoid thinking deeply about real-world ethical questions. He went on to ask whether I thought that biblical morality was moral only because God deemed it so.
My response went something like this:
Bob, you said that the moral capital of law is based on human concepts of justice, peace, and harmony. But that really doesn’t help, does it? If law derives from nothing higher than what has evolved in our collective psyche, then law is law, not because it’s right, but because it’s law—a contrivance of the ruling class. Some cultures care for widows, while others place them on the husband’s funeral pyre. Without a standard that transcends such “human concepts,” who’s to say which should be legal or illegal, not to mention moral or immoral?
While you dismiss Christians for their “cookie-cutter” approach to morality, you admit to struggling with “being a good, ethical person” because, for you, the real answers are difficult to find. You ask, “Is the only reason that it is wrong to steal, murder, or rape because God said it was wrong?”
Sadly, I suspect that if you took a poll of professed Christians, some would answer, “Yes.” Yet, Christian morality does not originate from God’s commands; it derives from his ontology (i.e., his nature, who he is). In accordance with his ontology, God created a world of order, intelligibility, and beauty governed by laws that include physical and moral dimensions. Simply stated, morality is aligning ourselves with those principles so that we can experience all the goodness for which we were created. In essence, morality is a purpose-driven set of operating instructions necessary for human flourishing.
It is the same for any engineering product, like a car. Cars are precision-made to provide owners the benefits of efficient and reliable transportation. But to enjoy those benefits, an owner must operate his vehicle within the bounds of its design, and maintain it according to the manufacturer’s specifications. Failure to do so guarantees poor performance and shortened life. It is no less true for us.
Take sexual morality. While God has said that sex outside of marriage is wrong, it is not wrong because he said so; it is wrong because it conflicts with our design. Fifty years after the Sexual Revolution, witness the burgeoning rates of divorce, out-of-wedlock births, single parent homes, abortions, and sexually transmitted diseases with all of the concomitant problems of abuse, poverty, and emotional trauma. By disregarding our design, Freudianism defaulted on its promissory note of self-fulfillment through free sexual expression, despite more social acceptance and education than at any time in history.
Still, the Christian must ask himself, “Why be good?” If all he cares about is avoiding negative consequences, he might just as well adopt the hedonistic aim of “maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain” or the utilitarian “greatest good for the greatest number.” However, neither conforms to the Christian ethic.
You suggest that Christian morality is “an excuse not to think more deeply about ethics”—an easy way out, as it were. No one who has actually read and grasped Jesus’s hard sayings could seriously think that.
A cursory read of his Sermon on the Mount will dispel any misgivings that Christianity is easy. In a series of “You have heard it said … but I tell you,” Jesus raises the bar of morality to breathtaking heights. Even the Golden Rule of “love neighbor as self” fades to a penumbra with the dizzying directive: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” He concludes his discourse with the Herculean challenge: “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”—a standard that even Mother Theresa would not have claimed. All of this is bad news for those who take Jesus at his word. It forces us to ask what that “looks like” and whether there’s any good news in his message.
Jesus answers the first part of that question in the Gospel of John: “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”
To a non-Christian, this may sound like nothing more than doing good things for each other. But for the Christian who believes that Jesus answered the second part of that question with the Cross, our duty is nothing short of staggering. Out of gratitude for what Christ did for us, we should be willing to do likewise for all, including the “least and the last.”
Little wonder that G.K. Chesterton once quipped, “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.”
We do good not because the Bible says so, or out of fear of consequence, or for a utilitarian end—though, sadly, some Christians are motivated by those very reasons. We do good out of love for God who not only created all persons in his image, but humbled himself so that all could have community with him. For Christians, the Word made Flesh is the standard of ethics and morality that informs our Western concepts of right action, justice, equality, and human dignity.
I went on to explain that deep inside we all know this. Despite the fashionable heroism of embracing the absurdity of our existence, we have an irrepressible sense that there are objective standards of right and wrong, that justice should prevail, and that our choices matter for something supremely significant. It’s a truth that even Jean Paul Sartre, who shaped the thought of a generation with his God-denying philosophy, could not extinguish.
Shortly before his death, in the spring of 1980, Sartre made a startling disclosure: “I do not feel that I am the product of chance, a speck of dust in the universe, but someone who was expected, prepared, prefigured. In short, a being whom only a Creator could put here: and this idea of a creating hand refers to God.”
It appears that the dying philosopher had an illuminating encounter with a real Bright—“the true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world” (John 1:9).
Regis Nicoll is a retired nuclear engineer and a fellow of the Colson Center who writes commentary on faith and culture. His new book is titled Why There Is a God: And Why It Matters.