07 April, 2008

Can We Be Good Without God? Part 4

Theory and Practice

Much that reflects a high moral tone in the secular world is due to the influence of the Christian Gospel. Many people, even those who do not believe in God, have expressed an admiration for the teaching of Jesus about how people should live and deal with one another. There is, however, a limit to how much atheists can borrow from the teaching of Jesus.

This is because his ethical teaching was only one element in his Gospel. To take the Sermon on the Mount out of its context and treat it as no more than a set of moral maxims is to misunderstand its meaning. For it is part and parcel of his teaching about God and our position before him. We cannot separate theory and practice. His Gospel also affirms the sovereignty of God, His desire to rescue us from the plight into which our selfishness has led us and our need for His forgiveness and grace to restore us to spiritual health. It affirms that man is made in the image of God and is destined for eternal fellowship with Him.

If we do not accept these truths, then the morality which Jesus taught will not last long as the basis of our conduct. Once we begin to question the truth of one part of his teaching, then it is only a matter of time before we start to question every part. As the generations pass, the Christian element in morality will grow thinner and thinner. What survives will be an empty husk, a pale shadow, having ever less authority or force.

On a superficial level there are some aspects of humanist morality which resembles Christian ethics. For example, the Christian Gospel has always emphasised the control of human appetites and passions. Such things as gluttony, drunkenness and promiscuity were once as signs of bad character, in religious terms as sin. a barrier between an individual and God. In the modern secular society these things are still considered wrong, but only in so far as they are detrimental to health. Sexual promiscuity is considered unacceptable unless it can be practised 'safely'. So called 'safe sex' harms no-one, therefore it is all right. In other words, personal morality is founded on pragmatism, not on the authority of God. It is the baneful effects of overindulgence upon the body which determine whether an activity is wrong, not their spiritual effects.

The morality of the humanist exists solely on what we might call a 'horizontal' level, that is, it is concerned only with relationships between people or issues which concern human welfare. The Christian Gospel on the other hand, emphasises a 'vertical' dimension. It is concerned firstly with the relationship between man and God, our understanding of His character, will and purpose, our standing before Him. It is our knowledge of these things which inform us in our understanding of right and wrong and guides us in our dealings with our fellow men.

There is a world of difference between a religious ethic founded on the will and authority of God, and a system of right and wrong in which human need and welfare is the sovereign principle.

Humanist morality is incomplete Christianity. It takes seriously what Jesus called the second commandment, to love one's neighbour as oneself, but it ignores the "first and greatest commandment", to love God with all the heart, soul and mind. Jesus taught his followers to address God as 'our Father', and it is only when we acknowledge the reality of one Father in heaven that we can legitimately speak of the 'Brotherhood of man'. That lofty ideal has no real meaning, nor any power to unite men without the conviction that they shave the same Father in heaven.

The humanist has too facile a view of the moral depths to which human nature will sink. He is over-optimistic about its capacity for self-improvement. He imagines that people can be improved by education, by legislation or by a better social environment. In matters of personal morality the humanist can look to no higher authority than his own conscience or the shifting sands of public opinion. He lives by a moral code which can offer no hope to those who fall short, except an exhortation to try harder next time. His most lofty ideals and aspirations are powerless to save him from the certainty of death. He has no hope of any life beyond the end of this one.

In contrast the Gospel directs us to a power which lies outside human life—a power that can forgive, transform and raise the dead. That power is God Himself, without whom there can be no true goodness. He promises what the humanist cannot:
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled" (Matthew 5:6).

“So I find this law at work: when I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law but I see another law at work in the members of my body, wages war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death. Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Romans 7:21-25).
The Post-Christian Era

A tree needs roots to nourish and support it. If the roots are damaged or detached then the tree gradually withers and dies. Western society is like this. It has become detached from its roots, disconnected from those traditions, shared values and impulses which gave birth to civilization and sustained it for centuries. Since the 1960's there has been a change in western society, a cultural revolution. Like all revolutions it began with a questioning of long-standing assumptions, a challenging of authority and a discarding of traditional restraints. This included those shared values which had held society together for centuries but were now to be dismissed as repressive, outmoded and irrelevant. In their place was supposed to emerge a new moral code based on freedom of individual expression, the pursuit of pleasure and a relaxing of the rules governing sexual conduct.

It may have seemed to the liberals who initiated this revolution that less restraint in these areas would lead to greater happiness, freedom and a more fulfilled existence. Now we see the dire effects of this 'liberation', the dark side to the permissive society. The restraints on selfishness, greed and promiscuity have also been removed—things which were once held in check by former generations who drew on the Christian tradition for guidance. Now we are living in what one writer has described as 'the faint afterglow of Christianity'.

The effects of all this can be seen throughout western society, a society which has effectively cut its moorings from the true source of moral goodness. Now it is reaping a harvest of materialism, violence, promiscuity, drugs and a general breakdown of law and order. It is no coincidence that all this has gone hand in hand with a decline in religious belief and practice. The influence of the Christian faith has been weakened, sometimes even by the efforts of theologians and clergymen. They have tried to divest the Gospel of anything supernatural or miraculous and have openly questioned the validity of its central truths. It is no wonder then that churches are empty and that those who would once have gone to church now go to the supermarket on Sunday morning instead.

This is not to suggest that everyone who lives without religion abandons themselves to pleasure and immorality. There are many exceptions in our own society, as there were in the first century—people who have no faith in God, nor any hope of life beyond this one and yet still try to live by high standards and devote themselves to the pursuit of truth, to serving their fellows, to helping refugees and the victims of war, tyranny and famine. There is something both noble and tragic about this. After all, why should truth and compassion be of value if all human endeavour ends in oblivion? Why attach dignity and worth to human life if it is no more than an accident of nature?

The great civilizations of the world do not produce the great religions as a kind of cultural by-product; in a very real sense the great religions are the foundations on which the great civilizations rest. A society which has lost its religion becomes sooner or later a society which has lost its culture (Progress and Religion, Christopher Dawson, p.245).


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