Reason to Believe: Christianity Calls for a Commitment to the Ideals of Respect, Dignity, Freedom, and a Quest to Emulate the Perfect Character of God. Morality, Then, Is Not Simply a Function of Biblical Authority or Human Nature, but Is Cultivated by the National Reflection Required to Live a Life of Objectives Goodness

By Ward, Keith | Science & Spirit, July-August 2006 | Go to article overview

Reason to Believe: Christianity Calls for a Commitment to the Ideals of Respect, Dignity, Freedom, and a Quest to Emulate the Perfect Character of God. Morality, Then, Is Not Simply a Function of Biblical Authority or Human Nature, but Is Cultivated by the National Reflection Required to Live a Life of Objectives Goodness


Ward, Keith, Science & Spirit


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In the hallowed halls of Britain's great universities, most serious philosophers are atheists, and when I began my university teaching career in 1964, I was no exception. My days as a teacher of philosophy at the universities of Glasgow and St. Andrews were spent rejoicing that I did not have to bow to the will of some tyrannical sky-god. I was free to revel in the wonder and luck of life without worrying about hell or repressing my desires in the vain hope of some future heaven. I could make my own moral decisions, and morality would be based on empathy or natural compassion or on the reasonable requirements of living together in security.

The trouble was that, as a professional philosopher, I suspected I was more intelligent than most people, and I preferred ideas to messy personal relationships. I had very little compassion; I could see every reason to pursue my desires at the expense of others if I could get away with it, and I probably cared more about stray cats in my neighborhood than I did about unseen human beings starving to death in faraway places. To me, morality was an accidental byproduct of successful evolutionary strategies rooted in the far past, which my own hardheaded reason might be able to overcome and set aside in the present.

Determining that my feelings of empathy were severely underdeveloped, I decided to seek help. Even the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who wrote that "moral seriousness" is actually a form of inauthentic human life, had changed his mind when confronted with starving children in Algeria. I realized that I, too, did not really believe I was free to decide that whatever I liked was good--to let people starve to death if I felt like it. Perhaps an objective standard of goodness actually did exist. Perhaps I really did believe in truth, honesty, and sincerity after all. Yet how could I justify such a belief?

So began my return to the Christian faith, a faith that I, the liberated philosopher, had rejected but now saw could support my moral weakness. I do not doubt that morality can exist without faith; fortunately, most humans do have a natural moral sense. But when intelligent humans begin to question the very basis of morality--what goodness truly is and why we should pursue it--it becomes vitally important to clarify our view of human nature, the value of our pursuits, and our place in reality. In the end, I found that clarity in religion.

First, however, choices had to be made. I certainly would not defend every doctrine that religious believers had uttered. Some religious views--for instance, the idea that God issues a set of commands that are to be obeyed, even against the promptings of conscience; or that morality is irrelevant to faith, since we are saved by grace; or that most people are condemned to eternal hell--seemed to me morally abhorrent. But the religious belief that the spirit of God could empower me to be good (or at least better) and that goodness will at last triumph over evil in the world, meaning my moral efforts were never in vain, offered a distinct basis for moral action.

Morality has always been a matter of reflection. In his writings, Saint Paul repeatedly insisted, "The written code kills, but the Spirit gives life." Anyone who thinks religious morality is simply obedience to the "code" has never seriously examined its history. When eighteenth-century Christians seeking moral guidance looked critically at the Bible, for example, they found it more confusing than helpful. Not only did the text justify genocide (in the invasion of Canaan by the Israelites), slavery, and vengeance, but it also said little about universal human rights or how to approach the major demands--liberty, equality, fraternity--of the day.

RULES OF ENGAGEMENT

Morality cannot be founded solely on appeal to biblical authority any more than the basic rules of life can come only from human nature and desires, which are often egoistic.

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Reason to Believe: Christianity Calls for a Commitment to the Ideals of Respect, Dignity, Freedom, and a Quest to Emulate the Perfect Character of God. Morality, Then, Is Not Simply a Function of Biblical Authority or Human Nature, but Is Cultivated by the National Reflection Required to Live a Life of Objectives Goodness
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