Should we talk about morality?

102015120_univ_lsr_lgA while ago, I visited London to see the sights and go to a show, and as I surfaced from Oxford Circus tube station, I was handed a small magazine. On the front cover was a picture of a child charging through a crowd, clearly out of control and scandalizing all the adults around them. The headline beneath called out (accusingly?) ‘Whatever happened to discipline?’ I was struck by the unusual message, and wonder which moral or religious movement was asking such a question—and it turned out to be the Jehovah’s Witnesses. I am not sure whether this is their theme only for the current edition of The Watchtower, or whether it is a regular opener; a friend reported having just this conversation in a doorstep visit.

It is an unusual message, since in our culture it is an ever-present yet rarely articulated issue. A recent television series, ‘The World’s Toughest Jobs’, in each episode took three feckless, layabout young people, and gave them the opportunity to make money (usually a lot of money) if only they would forgo their previous lazy habits and step up to take on one of the toughest jobs on the planet, usually in some far-flung place. The jobs included cray fishing off Australia, washing windows on skyscrapers in the States, and planting saplings (2 million of them!) in the Canadian wilderness. The plot was not entirely predictable; it was not always obvious which of the three would bottle out, and which would discover a new inner discipline and make the most of the opportunity. But the implicit moral was impossible to miss: lazy British kids without any discipline from their parents are missing out on opportunities which those with more steel will make the most of. In Canada, the most committed tree-planters were making $500 a day!

What was more astonishing was the relationship between the parents and the young people depicted in the first part of each show. One young woman wanted to be a hairdresser, so her parents set up a business for her. But she could only be bothered to work two days a week—and so her mothered covered for her and ran the business the rest of the time!

Questions about indulgence and discipline are perhaps the most taxing issues for parents raising children through the different stages into adulthood. But they also underlie key policy issues in our national life. Children from poorer backgrounds still lag well behind others in academic attainment—but the biggest factor in learning is whether there is a disciplined and supportive home environment. And a common response to those who employ immigrant labour is that British nationals are not interested in hard work, so they need migrants to get the job done.

Christians and church leaders have mostly given up raising questions of ‘morality’, and it isn’t hard to see why. The moment the subject comes up, the Church is seen as moralistic and judgemental—and the judgementalism of Christians is consistently noted as one of the main things that put off the unchurched from attending. In this, Christians are not alone; the question of moral responsibility, parenting and marriage is mostly avoided by political leaders. Any who do mention it sound like they are living in the 1950s, which is political suicide—or worse. Charles Moore recently commented: ‘Socially conservative moral views are now teetering on the edge of criminality, and are over the edge of disapproval by those who run modern Britain.’

FE_2007_CaLivingTorah_002_pBy either using morality as condemnation or avoiding it for fear of appearing to, Christians seem to have forgotten the role the moral frameworks play in Scripture. When God led his people from slavery to freedom in the promised land, he did not say ‘I love you and have set you free—but I am really sorry, there are some annoying rules you will have to obey!’ Quite the opposite; the ‘law’ is consistently seen in the OT as a gift of God to Israel, a pattern of life to express the presence of God in their midst and the fullness of life that he has given them. Ps 147 is typical. It rehearses all the reasons why God is wonderful, all the gifts in creation, and the climax is…his gift of the law to his people.

He has revealed his word to Jacob,
his laws and decrees to Israel.
He has done this for no other nation;
they do not know his laws. (Ps 147.19–20)

Most Christians struggle with the idea that faith will lead to moral obligations or habits of life. Isn’t that just salvation by works? they ask, influenced by a popular distortion of a Lutheran reading of Paul. The problem is that Jesus seemed happy to affirm the moral obligations of OT law—or even, in Matthew’s gospel, to extend them. And whilst Paul contrasts the life of the Spirit with fulfilling the law, he seems quite happy to offer his own detailed lists of how this Spirit-led freedom should be expressing in specific moral commitments. The early church followed his lead in seeing commitment to Christ as requiring induction into a set of communal disciplines.

We need to find a way of presenting moral accountability as a gift; if we don’t, we are robbing people of something vital. A well-known psychology experiment offered young children one sweet now, but a second one if they exercised self-control and didn’t eat the first one for fifteen minutes. Those who were able to defer gratification and gain the extra reward were the ones who later succeeded in life. And in ‘The World’s Toughest Jobs,’ the challenge of discipline threw up a whole host of issues that the young people had been avoiding—family break-down, bullying, or issues with self-esteem. Forced to confront these proved to be life-transforming for many of them.

God accepts us as we are—but loves us too much to leave us as we are. And our encounter with moral responsibility can be just the gift we need to realise the potential that God wants to release in our lives. We do people no favours by hiding this.

(First published in May 2015)

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14 thoughts on “Should we talk about morality?”

  1. Interesting Ian – I was just preaching last Sunday on how obedience to God is our loving response to what he has done for us. God is not some kind of cosmic dictator, he is a loving King who made us, knows what is best for us and who gives us rules and boundaries for our own benefit.

    I do wonder if things have changed a little since you wrote this piece. The rise of the likes of Jordan Peterson makes me wonder if people have started to crave moral guidance. In a world where everything seems so crazy, maybe people are beginning to realise the good sense of some kind of moral compass?…

  2. Things that are moral are good by definition. Moral means good. Any ‘anti-morality’ stance therefore falls at the first hurdle.

    It is perfectly obvious that the reason people react against moral things is that they would rather not be moral, not because they have any intellectual case.

    As the article rightly says, it is merely *political* (and social) suicide to point out the ways the 1950s were much superior (this was so in important ways, rather than universally, of course), rather than intellectual suicide. *Intellectually* (as opposed to on campuses) it is suicide to *deny* it. The statistics could not be starker. By numerous measures there was a swift 400+% worsening in the period after the social/sexual revolution set in, as I lay out in What Are They Teaching The Children? ch10.

  3. In fact, the incoherence of being anti-morality proves the anti-moralitarians’ intellectual deficiency and/or dishonesty, or both.

    It is inconceivable that such a stance should even require refutation – or even mention – were it not that influential people who can claim an audience voice it and entice others with it. Example: I quote Leader of the House of Lords Baroness Jan Royall saying that morality should be kept out of the abortion debate. True – this confirms our suspicions – they have been morality-free for years, but normally that lands you in prison not at the head of the Lords.

  4. I don’t remember this article first time around but it is certainly worth republishing. The only problem is that any comment could easily turn into a bit of rant about the decline of moral accountability that seems to be a defining issue of the present time. But the final heading: ‘We need to find a way of presenting moral accountability as a gift’ seems to me to contain the key for unlocking an effective way of changing attitudes at least among us Christians.

    The point of a gift is that it makes life better for the person who receives it, whether for a short burst of pleasure (a special cake?) or a lifetime of appreciation (a lovely painting?). But what about the gift of paying for a son or daughter’s driving lessons on a significant birthday or in celebration of an academic achievement? The lessons themselves may be challenging, stressful, inconvenient to fit in; they may result in a failed first or second test. But the ability to navigate our busy roads as safely as possible is not to be sniffed at; it opens up new possibilities; it’s well worth persevering to achieve the full benefit of the gift (I’m sure the metaphor will break down if I go on, others may work better!).

    If we could get a grasp of the enormous but also essential benefits of God’s disciplines and expectations we would be taking a big step out of the spiritual immaturity that tells us he’s doing it to make us miserable (and that Christians who talk about moral accountability are a miserable bunch to be avoided!). And of course it’s mutually beneficial within the whole body of Christ, which in turn has so much to offer those who don’t yet know him. I do think there is a lot about this issue that preachers could unlock for sceptical congregations.

    But Paul says it all so much better in Ephesians ch.4

  5. Jordan Peterson’s Bible lectures are leading many fans into buying Bibles, because of the interest he’s awakened in unpacking symbolical moral messages. Worth a look on youtube. He seems to be scratching where many are itching.

    • I listened to the Daily Wire interviewing Prof Peterson. It really struck me that he was thoroughly acknowledging that Christianity has the moral answers. He was saying that we need structures to enable us to live in community and we cannot live in a state of victim hood and have fulfilling lives. He said that we need to accept discipline and structure to know true freedom.

    • Hi Chris H,
      I also like the way Peterson highlights the gulf there sometimes is between moral/immoral and legal/illegal – also the gulf there sometimes is between between ethical/ unethical and legal/ illegal.

    • Bishop Robert Barron was asked, on “The Word on Fire” podcast about Jordan Peterson. The Bishop didn’t particularly comment on Peterson’s theology, but did say that it rather put him and the church generally to shame that here was someone doing 2 1/2 hour sermons/lectures about the Bible on youtube and garnering almost a million followers. Clearly something to pay attention to, and perhaps draw encouragement from.

    • Please let the social backlash against postmodernism/relativism/sidelining-truth/1960s-revolution finally come; I don’t mind if it comes through nonChristians like Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro (if only the latter would shed the thuggishness which occasionally surfaces and his attitude to guns).

  6. The quotation from Charles Moore brought to mind the jurisprudential and criminal law Hart v Devlin debate on law and morals, which was rooted in philosphical and jurisprudential schools of thought, although it was of high profile in the 1960’s and homosexuality it continues to be relevant with relative and absolute morals, which encompass far more than sexuality, such as integrity, lies and truth, probity and much more.
    When considering law, the jurisprudential question is where they come from, how they are derived. One school of thought is “natural law,” that is law, that derives from God. The Christian view is that echoes scripture. I’d suggest however, that the decalogue is clearly not to be treated as a list , but as an outworking of the character of God, and are not to be consider separate from their fulfilment by, in and through the Good News of Jesus Christ and his sinless active, perfect obedience as our substitute, our sin his and his righteousness ours and from that indicative position in our union in him we may, albeit falteringly live out, walk in the Spirit, the moral scriptural imperatives which are a result, a consequence of the indicatives. of what God in Christ, the triune God has done, and will do for us.
    As has stated by Glynn Harrison – we have a better story in a world of expressive individualism with it’s tentacles reaching into social moral mores (of rights trumping responsibilities) of the day being turned into law, and putting us all on the wrong side of HIS-story.

  7. Before Jordan Peterson garners too many eulogies, can we please recall his angry outbursts, his attitude to women and his responses to disagreement. His is exactly the kind of ‘moralism’ we need to avoid – the kind where ‘we’ tell ‘them’ how to behave. His main purpose seems to be the promotion of an aggressive white male supremacy.

    Whilst I think there are some good points here, there is a risk of falling into the ‘superior Christian’ trap. The Church is as much part of the problem as it is part of the solution.

    Sorry, Jordan Peterson: rage isn’t a great look for a self-help guru

    • Following all the hype I watched that famous Newman / Peterson interview; there was plenty that Peterson said which I would agree with, but I heard nothing new or revelatory from either side in terms of ideas. Perhaps it was his confident manner of response which evoked the excitement at a time when those he opposes seem to have the upper hand.

      But I’m not a follower or a fan of gurus. Every other human being on the planet is flawed and, to some extent, will have feet of clay. So we Christians must be wary of mindless adulation and the kind of unthinking loyalty which lets our heroes off the hook simply because we’ve invested so much in their intellectual or spiritual invincibility. Is that cynicism or realism? For me it’s most definitely the latter. Facts are facts and truth is truth, and neither depends on the utterance of one superior intellect or brave public debunker of the latest popular fallacies. So we must beware our natural human tendency to look for a human leader who will guide us faultlessly into all truth.

      That may be disappointing but it’s also exciting because it sets us free to think for ourselves without guilt or unease at being out of step with majority opinion. And if we’re Christians it should set us free to be first and foremost guided into all truth by the Holy Spirit. How that works out in practice may vary (we can’t prescribe God’s ways for him) but I’d suggest that it comes through the application of our God-given common sense, observation of how things work, accrued intellectual wisdom, prayer and the teaching of other people to all that we read in the Bible.

      So we do of course learn hugely from other people, but it has to be tested alongside all those other inputs rather than bought in as the full and perfect package. I’d also add that the fact people are shown up to have weaknesses or fail conspicuously on occasions doesn’t mean they have nothing to tell us – brilliance in one area can also be packaged up along with crassness in another – it would be a pity to miss out on receiving the brilliance because of our displeasure at the crassness.

  8. Thanks, Liz, for derailing that Jordan Peterson train that was rather quickly building up steam on this page. I was wondering how many well-meaning comments I was going to have to scroll through about this man and his work before someone cleared their proverbial throat.


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