I’m no expert on morality and ethics, but then, who among us is? However, I have been paying attention. There is an idea about morality out there that seems to be not going away, despite the fact that it’s completely unhelpful to the discussion. It’s like the high fructose corn syrup of discussions on morality – self-serving people have put it in everything, even though it’s really bad for everyone.
I’m speaking of the idea that, regarding human behavior, if something is natural then it must be good; if an impulse is natural it must be in us for a legit reason.
May I delicately point out a couple of things about this idea that might be stupid?
First of all, what does that even mean – a “natural tendency,” or “natural behavior”? If we’re merely material animals, as secularists claim, how could anything we do not be natural? Maybe some of you can answer this for me, but I come up empty. I mean, if animals do it, doesn’t that automatically make it natural? Can we really say that killing other people is unnatural? Couldn’t I argue that it’s perfectly natural to make snow angels in a bed of poison ivy, or to rush off a cliff to my death like a lemming? How is this helpful in determining what is moral behavior? Couldn’t someone plausibly argue that it’s natural for the larger, physically stronger, and more aggressive sex to dominate the other? Or, on the other hand, I might look around at the world of nature and conclude that wearing clothing isn’t natural, since we’re the only animals doing it. I’m also pretty sure we’re the only ones cooking food, using electricity, and making art. I don’t get it.
Second, pundits seem to be using evolutionary theory as their basis for thinking this way, as if they actually know anything about our so-called evolutionary past. Evolution explains everything for secularists because they believe that it must. If we truly evolved from scum, then everything that is here is the result of natural evolutionary processes, whether or not it seems plausible. And yet, our evolutionary past is not observable or testable, and is therefore not falsifiable. Is this sounding familiar? This is what secularists say about God, whose existence is also not falsifiable. Nonetheless, we now have highly educated materialists, speaking as dogmatically as any Sunday School teacher ever did, teaching utterly speculative things like, “Men are more sexually promiscuous than women because, in our evolutionary past, sexually promiscuous behavior increased the odds of passing on one’s genes.” I can hardly imagine a worse basis from which to derive morals and ethics.
Thirdly and most importantly, the equating of what is natural with what is acceptable completely misses the point of what morality is. Here I must make the observation that moral behavior is always at odds with our “natural” tendencies – that’s precisely WHY moral behavior is revered and respected! Call me Master-of-the-Obvious, but isn’t a reason we value truth-telling precisely because we know we all have a natural tendency to lie? Do not stories of love and self-sacrifice move us to tears precisely because we know we all have a natural tendency toward self-preservation? Don’t we celebrate couples who have lived their entire lives together in marital sexual fidelity precisely because we know that people are naturally inclined to be sexually promiscuous?
Let’s stop there for a moment: In other words, marital monogamy is not natural – rather, it is the high bar for relationships. But in fact we are now hearing “marriage equality” secularists arguing precisely against marital monogamy in their quest to redefine marriage. Because monogamy isn’t natural. (See examples here, here, & here.)
Right. By definition, moral behavior is not natural. If anything, I’d say it’s…well, kind of…supernatural.
What it’s like to be a human being
Our polarized postmodern culture now carries two prominently clashing views of humanity, morality, and freedom – the secular view, and the biblical view. I find the comparison endlessly fascinating. Both sides see a problem within human beings, but both see the problem and solution in profoundly different ways. Both see human beings as split apart. But each understands this disunity differently:
1) The secularist believes only in the material reality. No spirit apart from the body. No mind apart from the brain. No truth apart from observable matter. The physical nuts and bolts of the human machine is all that objectively exists. Anything beyond that – values, morality, spirituality, culture; even gender and ideas of human worth – are fluid, squishy, subjective, arbitrary, illusory, and ultimately disposable. So within man, the secularist posits a separation between what can be observed as fact (the material,) and the unseen realm of values (the non-material.)
2) The biblical view understands human beings as creatures who were created to be a unity of body, soul, and spirit (1 Thes 5:23.) We were created to be relationally united with our Creator, who objectively exists apart from our physical reality. (Therefore, mind, personhood, and worth can all exist objectively apart from physical reality.) However, human beings now exist in a fallen state of spiritual separation from God; we’ve lost an essential part of what we were meant to be. So within man, the follower of Jesus sees a separation between God and man, which has consequently left man struggling to find the lost unity – body, soul, and spirit – that he was created for.
The secularist believes that the material universe contains the only pieces of the puzzle that exist. The follower of Jesus believes there are critical pieces missing that must come from outside of ourselves, and outside of the material universe, and that our loving Creator took it upon Himself to provide those pieces. So the goal of the spiritual rebirth of which Jesus spoke is about restoring us broken creatures back to wholeness and relational unity. It was never about religion, or “going to heaven.” (I welcome any argument from the whole of scripture that shows otherwise.)
Regarding social mores, both views can agree that morals are not natural in that they go against our natural impulses. But one perspective views this as negative and limiting, while the other sees it as positive and helpful
1) The secularist approach says that we accidently evolved by mindless, natural processes, and that “artificial” social constructs, such as religious moral codes, are tools of oppression that may keep our true selves from being expressed. Our natural impulses are what brought us to our present evolutionary state. Social constructs such as gender limit our choices and potential.
2) The biblical approach says we all bear the image of a loving God, but that our nature has been corrupted. “Artificial” social constructs serve as one imperfect way to keep our corrupted nature from spiraling downward, keeping our natural tendencies in check, and preserving societal order. Our fallen, natural tendencies tend to be selfish and destructive.
Clearly, a person’s ideas about freedom will be shaped by which idea of reality he or she buys into. It might come as a surprise to some that the teaching of Jesus and His apostles deals squarely with these issues of wholeness, freedom, and a unified life – unity between God and man, between man and man, and between man and nature.
A view of freedom that has been cutting-edge for 2000 years
In writing this, I am not advocating religion or politics or social mores as some sort of solution, nor does the Bible put forth this view. At best these things are more like a holding pattern. Personally, I am generally annoyed by religion, and I find some religions to be downright nasty and oppressive. Accordingly, in my last post I said that I don’t live by sex taboos at all, even as I was defending them. Secularist readers may be wondering how I can say these things since I consider myself to be a follower of Jesus. That’s a fair question. My answer is that Jesus is a person, not a religion, and that Jesus made possible an entirely new and better way to live, transcending cultural mores and religion. He opened the possibility for a life that couldn’t have existed before He came, and He was able to do this because He was more than merely a “great teacher.” Following is His good news, according to the Bible, as brief as I can make it:
The whole human being was created both a spiritual and a physical being, created for companionship with both God and men. God declared this relational unity to be “good.” When this relational unity with God was broken, humanity consequently experienced a spiritual death, or separation, and humanity slid into dysfunction and violence. With God’s covenant people Israel, God established a written body of “low-bar”, temporal social mores in the Torah. Similarly, all civilizations develop externally enforced bodies of mores, customs, and laws designed to maintain societal order. However, uniquely (and supernaturally) embedded within the Hebrew Torah and prophets was a promise of a coming freedom and salvation. God Himself took on human flesh in order to fulfill these promises for humanity. His salvation is total – freeing humanity from bondage to imperfect, externally enforced moral codes, but also freeing us from bondage to sin, death, and decay – the consequences of our fallen-ness. In making spiritual rebirth possible, Jesus uniquely made possible a real, internal change, and a new and better life in the Spirit as opposed to living under a written code (Ro 7:6&7.) All of this was an act of love on our behalf, and it comes with an invitation to everyone (Acts 13:47; Titus 2:11.)
This is not to say that the follower of Jesus is above the law, or that he is without law. God’s standard fulfills and surpasses the law. We see this illustrated in statements by Jesus such as, “You have heard it said, ‘You shall not commit adultery [Torah.] But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Mat 5:27,28.) Yet the Spirit-led person is no longer motivated by fear or guilt, but by the highest motivator, which is love – Love for God and love for people. If you are a parent, or were raised by one, perhaps you will agree that there is no greater motivator than love. Accordingly, Jesus stated that the greatest commandment is to love God, and the second is like it – to love one’s neighbor (Mat 22:36-39.) In keeping with this the apostle Paul stated that “Love does no wrong to a neighbor, therefore love is the fulfilling of the law/Torah” (Ro 13:9&10.)
This better life in the Spirit made possible by Jesus surpasses the mores of each given culture.
In contrast, the non-spiritual life of the secularist rejects the cultural mores to follow “natural” impulses.
Ironically, from a biblical perspective, the secularist can be said to have the right idea in recognizing the insufficiency, artificiality, and even restrictive nature of externally enforced mores. But to dump the mores without replacing them with something better, (such as spiritual rebirth,) would be to turn our corrupted selves loose against forces too great for society to bear. This is akin to putting the inmates in charge of the prison.
For several years now, Evangelicals have been accused, both from within and without, of “harping on social issues like abortion and homosexuality.” As if Evangelicals are simply interested in returning to a nostalgic 1950’s America. As if these issues are simply a matter of a lack of intelligence and education on the part of Evangelicals. As if the issues of human personhood, gender, and sexuality do not affect us all at the most fundamental level. But this is now no longer a theoretical debate. America currently has a presidential administration that is forcing the issue. Social and political engineers are now dumping cultural mores and actively attempting to use the force of government to coerce otherwise law-abiding citizens to violate their “fundamental religious beliefs” over the issues of abortion and gay marriage. I understand that the political left’s ostensible reason for forcing everyone to submit to its political views is that its agenda is correct, just, good, & better for everyone. But really? I wonder if other totalitarian regimes have ever thought that. (I’m kidding. I don’t wonder. The answer is “yes.”) Must we be reminded that it is not okay to force people to submit to our personal political views just because our intentions are good?
It’s hip and trendy now to accept the materialist story and its implications – that you have the heart, mind, and destiny of an animal, and that human life has no unique, innate, or transcendent value. If you call yourself a Christian and you are buying into these materialist ideas, I urge you to get your head in the game, because this stuff matters. To secularist and the Christian alike I offer a gentle reminder that there is no falsifiable evidence establishing as true the dogma of materialism. There is merely the same old pendulum of human bias and peer pressure, now imposing a materialist perspective onto reality. The issue for all of us is about the true shape of reality. Until that can be tested and proven in a laboratory, we had best cut each other some slack and err on the side of freedom of thought. Both sides of the worldview spectrum are going to have to find a way to respectfully disagree and co-exist, because neither side is going away.
“Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence, when it helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.” — Martin Luther King Jr.
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