Saturday, April 09, 2005

Judeo-Christian morality in an ethically pluralistic society

The Evangelical Outpost is hosting a symposium on Judeo-Christian Morality in an Ethically Pluralistic Society.

At the outset, a couple of observations need to be made.

The first is that ethical pluralism is not the same as moral relativism. Pluralism is a pragmatic decision made by a society that its internal differences do not warrant political disunity or civil war. Pluralism means that more than one position will be tolerated despite disagreement on which if any position is right. In contrast, moral relativism asserts that on questions of morality there are no positions that are objectively and absolutely true; we each have our own code of morality shaped by our unique personal experience, and nobody’s is better than anyone else’s. This is an application of postmodern philosophy, which doubts that objective, absolute truth really exists. So while our society has made the pragmatic decision to tolerate differences of opinion on morality and ethics, it does not follow that none of the competing positions on a given issue are objectively and absolutely right. Historic, orthodox Christianity makes truth claims –including statements on morality-- which Christians hold to be objectively and propositionally true regardless of who believes or disbelieves them. (For more on this, see Francis Schaeffer, The God Who Is There.) Thus, Christians legitimately believe in certain moral absolutes while recognizing that the society we live in might not hold them as the consensus view.

The second observation is that, while an ethically pluralistic society does attempt to respect differing moral viewpoints that are held by individuals, the formation of laws and public policies shows that this pluralism is limited in scope. Laws and policies define what is and is not acceptable behavior and thus cannot possibly be separated from any and all moral viewpoints. Someone’s ethical viewpoint will become imposed on everyone and actions based on opposing viewpoints will not be tolerated. For example, we might ask whether it is right to take money from one person and give it to another (i.e. using tax revenues for welfare programs). People disagree on whether such a thing is right or wrong under a given set of circumstances, but the law makes one of the competing viewpoints operative. People on the other side of the issue will be (to use a current buzzword) disenfranchised.

So how does a believer in historic, orthodox Christianity with its moral absolutes live in a society of limited ethical pluralism? Here are a few suggestions.

First, Christians should unequivocally and unconditionally support individual freedom of conscience and expression. The implementation of one view as public policy must not prevent individuals from personally holding and freely expressing other views. There is a pragmatic reason for this, because if laws may impose specific viewpoints or suppress specific ideas, then there is no objective limit; there is only the shifting sand of consensus as to what may be permitted. If we try to silence those we disagree with, then we may justly be silenced ourselves. Noam Chomsky said, “If we don't believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don't believe in it at all”, a message that all too many on today’s left are ignoring. Respect for individual freedom of conscience and expression also follows from the historic Christian view of human beings as uniquely created in the image of God and therefore possessed of inherent dignity (see James 3:8-10).

If freedom of conscience and expression applies to everyone, then it applies to Christians also. This seemingly obvious point takes on increasing relevance as the political left is more and more seeking to suppress dissent, using a range of “hard” and “soft” methods. Soft methods include use of name-calling and shame. For example, if you’re against affirmative action, it couldn’t possibly be because you hold certain moral or economic viewpoints that are at odds with such a policy; you must be a racist, even if you don’t know it. Now, many people don’t want to be thought of as racist, so it’s easier to just remain silent on the question than to voice opposition. People on the left also object to opposing moral views being given the weight of law as the imposition of some people’s morality upon all, but this is a false framing of the issue as discussed above. “Hard” methods of suppressing dissent are imposed most often upon the next generation, in college campuses. These include things like campus speech codes, skewed choice of speaker invitations,intimidation or vandalism of college newspapers, intimidation or assault on members of politically incorrect groups and banning of such groups, as well as orthodoxy within the various disciplines. We have already seen the beginning of generalized “hard” suppression of dissent with the implementation of hate crime laws, in which additional penalties attach to a crime if it is believed to be motivated by a certain viewpoint. And as Christians have already found out in places like Sweden and Canada, expression of verboten ideas is itself a punishable offence regardless of whether any other crime was involved. Christians need to be fearless in speaking up, both voicing our perspectives and defending the right of ourselves and others to do so. Ask not for whom the FCC bell should toll; it tolls for thee!

Another thing that Christians need to be doing is what Francis Schaeffer called pre-evangelism. It is no use to make a rational defense of Christian truth claims to someone who rejects reason and doesn’t believe that any claims can be objectively, absolutely true. We need to promote and demonstrate the concept that objective, propositional truth exists and is knowable. Here are some specific ways that we can do this:

· Become acquainted with some of the basics of logic, and use them in communications. If Christians were in the general habit of doing this, so that people who rubbed elbows with us couldn’t help but be exposed to careful, logical thinking, it should rub off to an extent and so have an impact on public discourse and private thought. Jesus’ statement “I am the Truth” is better understood by people who have at least an intuitive grasp of what “truth” is, as opposed to falsehood or mere subjective opinion. Also, not everyone has embraced the intellectual suicide of postmodernism, and we owe it to such people to demonstrate that historic Christianity is consistent with evidence and reason. I recommend Geisler and Brooks’ Come, Let Us Reason: An Introduction to Logical Thinking as an easy-to-follow introduction for lay people.

· Rather than countering other ethical conclusions with our own ethical conclusions, we should be in the habit of asking what the premises are that have led to each conclusion. Too many non-Christian moral conclusions are getting a free pass because their advocates depict as a troglodyte anyone who questions them. Since people who do this generally seem to have high opinions of their own intellects, we should be able to ask them to explain it slowly and carefully for us, from premises to conclusion, why the rectitude of their position is so painfully obvious. Let the premises be fully disclosed, and this in itself should win half the battles. If someone wants to be adamant about a position despite having only feelings that it is correct or preferable, this should at least be made evident to those trying to make their minds up, such as swing voters.

· Point out that postmodernism is not viable; it is inconsistent and contrary to human nature. In truth, postmodernism is a parlor game that people only play when the stakes are thought to be low. For example, someone who rejects belief in the historic Judeo-Christian God will find it much easier to advocate and practice moral relativism than someone who believes in a future Judgment Day. On the other hand, most people avoid the application of postmodern denial of objective truth in areas where their own well-being is more evidently at stake: for example, medicine, engineering, economics and civil rights protections. Few people are prepared to take a “your truth is true for you, my truth is true for me” line when they can see it affects them personally. After all, what if my morality says it’s OK for me to slash your tires… or your throat? You say that’s going too far because now I’m forcing my morality on you? What if my morality says it’s OK to do that? But seriously, it is my view that moral relativism must be preceded by a rational, objective disbelief in the Judeo-Christian God as Lawgiver and Judge, even if such a decision is made unconsciously. Nobody can be a consistent postmodernist and survive long.

· We must live out the truth we say we believe in. To use a word that has fallen out of fashion, we must not be hypocrites. Otherwise, if there is a disconnect between how we act and what we say we believe in, we are actually denying absolutes while ostensibly advocating them. Rationalization is no substitute either; it is arrogant and arbitrary to explain away our failures to live up to the moral standards that we say God expects from us all.

· We need to consider and embrace the necessary conclusions of the truths we say we believe in. For example, if we say that every human being is created in the image of God and is therefore possessed of inherent dignity and worth, then we ought to act like it in how we treat each one (1 Peter 3:15). Far too often, we don’t. Leftists sometimes love people collectively and hate them individually. Christians have a better way, but it must be demonstrated and not just talked about. It would be better, in the cause of truth, to admit our failures and ask forgiveness than pretend we have done nothing wrong.

· We should stop supporting all churches, ministries and parachurch organizations that don’t embrace the last two points. There are prominent ones that treat those with opposing viewpoints with disrespect or as enemies to be defeated; or which defame the truth and insult the intelligence of their hearers with silly, illogical arguments; or who are shady in their financial dealings, among other things. Now, some ostensibly Christian entities are adept at painting the situation as so dire and the enemies so dangerous, that (implicitly anyway) their “fighting the good fight” in an unchristlike manner is somehow justified or excusable. It never is, although it is consistent with postmodernism to think it might be.

· To the extent that we seek to have our moral positions implemented as public policy, the greatest care should be taken to examine the effects of such policy and whether such effects uphold the value and dignity of every individual, even those who disagree. A truly Christian society cannot be implemented by the coercive power of the state, for at least a couple of reasons. As Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson point out in Blinded by Might: Can the Religious Right Save America? politics operates on the basis of compromise but Christian truth cannot be compromised; as a logical necessity Christian witness must always be at least partly separate from government. And as Roger Williams pointed out, “the sword may make a nation of hypocrites” but true, biblical regeneration is beyond the power of the state to effect, and moralism without that results only in false appearances. It is heresy to confuse adherence to a moral code with the Gospel of Christ.

There will always be ethical pluralism to a degree, but biblical morality will be embraced by the larger society only to the extent that the Gospel is communicated with clarity, we demonstrate in our day-to-day lives that the historic Judeo-Christian tradition offers real, relevant, viable solutions to the problems that confront us individually and collectively, and people embrace it. Truth must be lived as well as spoken. And if we maintain our hope while confessing our faults, it might just suggest to people the biblical truth that we are ultimately saved by God’s grace and not by our adherence to a moral code.

Update: 4/13 While I advocate that we not be hypocrites, Ron Sider says that in fact we are:

"The heart of the matter is the scandalous failure to live what we preach. The tragedy is that poll after poll by Gallup and Barna show that evangelicals live just like the world. Contrast that with what the New Testament says about what happens when people come to living faith in Christ. There's supposed to be radical transformation in the power of the Holy Spirit. The disconnect between our biblical beliefs and our practice is just, I think, heart-rending. ...we have to face the fact that we're not any different from the world. And that's just incredible hypocrisy and it undercuts our message to the larger society in a terrible way."