First published 14 November 2011
I’ve been writing recently about morality, and comparing non-religious concepts with the Christian source of morality. I am writing this series of articles for two reasons. Firstly, I have noticed the apparent paradox whereby many non-religious people, who seem to have strong moral repulsion to awful acts such as rioting, looting from shops or child abuse, also have a strong dislike of Christian morality. So I’m trying to point out why this is, and why Christian moral standards have much more in their favour than people think, even if they don’t like living by those standards.
Secondly, Christians, influenced by the pressure from the prevailing philosophy of our culture (thrust at us through every channel available – billboards, tv, newspapers, magazines, internet) have become timid in our reasoning about morality. That’s a big problem in our presentation of the gospel, the core of our faith, and the good news we have for the world. You see, without a conviction of sin, the news of salvation from sin makes no sense. My perception is that much of our evangelism makes no sense to the non-religious people who make up the majority of our population in the West, and it makes no sense because we do not challenge their faulty concept of sin.
Of course, this should not be any surprise to us, and it isn’t just that the non-religious have a faulty concept of sin. They also have a faulty concept of God, humanity, knowledge, science, and just about everything else. It shouldn’t be a surprise because the Bible tells us that in order to see the kingdom of God we have to be born again of the Spirit (John 3:3-5) – i.e. it is impossible without God’s spiritual intervention.
However, every age and every philosophy and every false religion have their own major blind spots and points where they diverge from the truth. It has been noted by evangelical commentators for many years that as generations through to 20th and 21st Centuries have passed, the influence of our Christian heritage and institutions has become less and less (see, for example, Telling the Truth, D.A. Carson (ed); The Supremacy of Christ in a Postmodern World, John Piper and Justin Taylor (eds); Above all Earthly Powers, David Wells; The Gagging of God, D.A. Carson). Whereas 60 years ago, when Christian assumptions were still influential, an evangelist could speak of the sinfulness of people and be more or less understood, that is not the case now in an age where Christian assumptions and beliefs have been largely rejected.
My conviction is that this is no reason to minimise talk of sin in our gospel presentations, and indeed our day-to-day conversation (which is what leads to personal evangelistic opportunities). It is instead time to recognise the need to press deeper into our culture’s philosophy. When we present the gospel, at almost every point we will meet with challenges and misunderstanding. And therefore the work of apologetics – answering objections – is now a more important discipline than ever, and something that all Christians should become proficient in.
So part of my purpose in writing these articles is to attempt to work through how we should, as Christians, talk about sin and morality. How can we engage with the culture in which we live in a way that not only tries to democratically prevent further descent into God-dishonouring behaviour, but also forces debate that allows us an entrance to share the gospel. After all, it is not politics but only the gospel that is the “power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16).
What our non-religious friends and neighbours need to see is that Christian talk about sin and morality, even in politics, is in actual fact our way of being kind to them. We want them to know what sin is, acknowledge it as sin in their lives, and have the opportunity to turn from it, and in turning from it and turning to Christ receive salvation. The church needs to have this explicitly in our rhetoric when debating in forums such as the Church of England’s General Synod (though I acknowledge that the media often portrays even the most loving rhetoric as hateful).
I have to admit to being more than a little concerned when I hear the language of outrage being used by Christian preachers and politicians speaking about homosexuality and abortion. The very fact that the worldly counter-rhetoric speaks in terms of phobias and religious hatred may partly indicate that we are not communicating in the right language. We are being misunderstood. I admit also that part of this misunderstanding is deliberate prevarication by the liberal intelligentsia and media in an effort to avoid the truth, but at least we ought to take care in the words we use.
At the same time I firmly believe that Christians ought not to stop talking about sin, specifically and generally. And should not pull punches when it comes to talking about its seriousness and serious consequences. We should not expect necessarily to remain friends or to be popular when we tell the truth about sin and morality. However, we should only fall out for the right reasons – because of the truth and not the harshness of the way we present the truth. “In your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.” (1 Peter 3:15-16)
So far, I’ve outlined the following:
- That non-religious people have moral standards, but the source of their morality is themselves. This is the reason why they get upset when Christians say that some actions are sinful that they do not think there is anything wrong with – even if they do not do these things themselves. They take it personally.
- That non-religious moral systems are therefore necessarily subjective, and have no objective basis. The logic of this is anarchy, unless sufficient common ground can be found to keep the peace in a democratic society.
- That non-religious assumptions either devalue humanity and make even their own moral standards pointless, or reduce to arbitrary emotional biases. Both situations militate against a peaceful and orderly society.
To summarise: non-religious people, even though their basic assumptions about life and the universe give them nothing on which to base moral standards and care for others, still get upset about the brutal killing of a child, the famine victims and AIDS victims of Africa, or terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre. This seems illogical, but it actually isn’t when you take into account that they see themselves arbitrarily as the final authority in matters of right and wrong. If something makes them feel bad, then it they define it as bad. As someone has said, non-religious morality is based entirely on “the yuck factor”.
In future articles I hope to probe other areas that demonstrate the emptiness of postmodern thinking about morality compared to the robust rationality and cogency of Christianity. I also hope to demonstrate further how Christians can talk about morality in clearly loving ways.