Where does morality come from? Ken Ham and others like to tell us it comes from the bible and the Christian ‘worldview’ they say they find there. Those non-believers who profess or practise morality in any meaningful way ‘steal’ it, they say, from this Christian worldview. They argue that without supernatural beings to dictate, with wild inconsistency, how we should behave, we simply wouldn’t know how to. That we do, by and large, means we can only have ‘stolen’ our morality from Christianity.
Unsurprisingly, the evidence suggests otherwise; versions of morality exist in all cultures – the secular, the pagan, the alternatively religious. Some of these are similar to those traditionally and often mistakenly associated with Christianity, some are not – which tells us they are socially determined. We decide ourselves, collectively, what is and isn’t morally acceptable. We don’t ‘steal’, or even need to, from the Christian ‘worldview’. Some of our morality might coincide with that espoused somewhere in the bible, but that doesn’t mean its taken from it. It means we value some of the same principles that ancient cultures valued – ‘do not steal’, is fairly ubiquitous, for example – because they too lived communally and needed rules like this one, as we do, to facilitate social cohesion. Of course, the collective understanding of a principle does not necessarily mean that everyone adheres to it, just as in those ancient cultures. Nonetheless we can all understand morality insofar as our culture defines and experiences it.
But let’s take a closer look at that ‘biblical worldview’ morality, that evangelicals think is the be-all-and-end-all, shall we?
T.C. Howitt, curator of the Oil for Light blog and commenter here, argues that ‘God’s moral law’, as demonstrated in the bible, is the only true (‘transcendent’ and absolute) morality. I’ve asked T.C. if he’s talking about the ‘morality’ that promotes the keeping and beating of slaves; the stoning of couples who have sex when the woman is menstruating; the execution of men who sleep with men, uppity teenagers and those who worship other gods, and which forbids work on the Sabbath (Friday evening to Saturday afternoon, that is).
It turns out it’s not (and yet it is) because, this, you see, is Old Testament morality and Jesus did away with all that. But nonethless it’s still transcendent and absolute because it’s God’s Eternal Law. (I hope you’re following this so far.) However, in practical terms, what moralising believers seem to mean by biblical morality, is that which can be found in the New Testament. As I’ve pointed out to T.C., this is not the same thing as biblical morality.
So what does New Testament morality look like? Presumably it’s the morality promoted by Jesus, such as go the extra mile; sell all you have and give to the poor; turn the other cheek; give to everyone who asks; hand over your shirt when your jacket is demanded of you; don’t judge; love your neighbour as yourself; love your enemies; treat others as you like to be treated yourself, etc, etc.
If this isn’t what’s meant by New Testament morality then I don’t know what is. But forgive me – I don’t know many Christians who practise it, not even with an indwelling Holy Spirit and God’s personal support. That’s because it is an impossible morality. Consequently, Christians, like the rest of us, derive their moral standards from the culture around them, at the same time reserving the right to harangue the rest of us over our lack of ‘biblical morality’.
Doesn’t the bible have something to say about this? Oh my, yes it does. It goes something like this: attend to the log in your own eye, because it’s blinding you, and leave others to attend to the speck in theirs.
Now that’s what I call biblical morality.