"Only a madman could maintain that the distinction between the honorable and the dishonorable, between virtue and vice, is a matter of opinion, not of nature."    --Cicero in de Legibus

 

A Societal Shift

The last 40 years or so has seen a dramatic shift in the way people view moral truth. It has been a move away from the idea of morality as a set of objective and universal standards, to the view that moral codes are merely the synthesis of popular opinion. Consider the Episcopal cleric who supported the ordination of homosexual priest, Gene Robinson, as bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire. When asked by a reporter how he could back an action that was at odds with the bible, the cleric responded that the movement of the spirit in community takes precedence over scriptural revelation. In other words, moral truth is based on the collective feelings of individuals within a people group, rather than on the timeless standards of the Revealed Word. But how did this shift come about?

 

Emboldened by the advances of the Enlightenment, the ideologues of 20th century modernism envisioned the inauguration of a utopian age through the wonders science and technology and the evolution of human reason.  However, after two world wars, the Cold War, Vietnam, enduring poverty, corporate corruption, and the growing rates of crime and human rights atrocities, modernity failed to deliver on its promissory note. As society became increasingly disillusioned with the modern vision, cynicism soon replaced optimism giving birth to a post-modern mood. It is a mood in which morality is more about feeling good than about being good, making the very mention of moral truth a boorish and arrogant breach of good manners. And nowhere is this "code of civility" more evident than in our growing hesitation in identifying evil and calling it out by name.

 

Naming Evil

Addressing a national conference a while back, UN General Secretary Kofi Annan stated "Unquestionably, very evil things happen in the world...the difficulty is to know where to draw the line...If we are intent on naming evil, then let us name it intolerance."   Mr. Annan's ambivalent sentiment captures both the mood, and the inherent self-refutation of postmodern thought. For if evil is intolerance, then one must be tolerant of even intolerance, lest he be labeled evil. That could partly explain why the UN has had such a disappointing record in executing and enforcing international justice. For according to the chief spokesman of international law, such actions would be intolerant, and therefore, evil.


Then there is
Dr. Robert I. Simon, clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown Medical School, who remarked in the New York Times, "Evil is endemic, it's constant, it is a potential in all of us." But having a hard time leaving it at that, Dr. Simon went on to note that such distinctions have little value, because evil is ultimately in the eye of the beholder; a product of cultural, political and religious influences. Did you catch the self-contradiction there? If evil is inherent in all of us, as Dr. Simon suggests, then contrary to his apologetic postscript, evil cannot be a subjective construct that lies "in the eye of the beholder." It must be something that is truly wrong, against an objective, systemic moral code.

 

Unfortunately, such confused notions of morality are not limited to the secular mind. The belief in an unchanging moral truth is held by only 32% of born-again adults and 9% of youth. This emasculated Christianity has created a generation of moral eunuchs who embrace an accommodating faith that increasingly gives way and seldom takes stands. Remarking on this phenomenon, New York Times editorialist David Brooks observed that "Americans have tended to assume that all these [religious] differences are temporary. In the final days, the distinctions will fade away, and we will all be united in God's embrace. As a result, evangelical churches, writes sociologist Alan Wolfe, 'are part of mainstream American culture, not dissenters from it.'"

 

Observations such as those should shake the very foundations of Church. They are evidence that, contrary to Jesus's admonition, the Church has been subsumed into the very culture that it has been commissioned to transform. But how could the Church have gone so far adrift of its countercultural roots?

 

Judge Not?

In the effort to avoid the pitfalls of bigotry and judgmentalism, many Christians have either privatized their faith or accepted the growing view that Christian love is synonymous with ideological tolerance. There are also those who, because of instances of church hypocrisy and abuse, view any moral teaching as a tool to exalt self and exploit others. For them, the problem of "truth abuse" is with the concept of truth itself, rather than the heart of man; and the solution is to dismantle truth and reconstruct it into something less restrictive and more inclusive.   Taken to its logical end, this project leads to the ethos of existentialist Jean Paul Sartre who challenged all moral codes with, "It is forbidden to forbid."

 

The cultural acquiescence of the Church is also due to the common misunderstanding of Jesus's warning to "Judge not, that you be not judged." An example is the case of the university professor who, in reluctance to call the 9/11 terrorists evil, explained "After all, we've sinned too."

 

Contrary to what many, like the good professor, have come to believe, Christians are not instructed to be silent about the beliefs and behaviors of others. Neither are they expected to be sinless before counseling others and speaking out for moral truth. Rather, in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus instructs his disciples to remove the blinders to their own moral conduct so that they can clearly see the truth about their own behaviors AND the behaviors of others. It is in that context that Paul exhorts believers to "demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God" and coaches believers in restoring a brother "caught in a sin."

 

The Truth that Liberates

In contrast to the self-based pietism that Jesus continually condemned, the hallmark of the Christian life is radical Other-centeredness: first toward God, by ordering one's life through the prism of God's word; and then toward fellow man by giving aid, encouragement, and counsel to those afflicted in a morally anorexic world. By modeling this radical way of living, Jesus's daily bread was to do his Father's will while pointing the Way to life-giving water to all who sought him.

 

Paul tells us that in Christ "are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge," and that in the present age this "manifold wisdom of God might be made known by the church." In view of Paul's teaching, the "keys of the kingdom" given Peter is the revelation that Jesus is the Christ, the source of all truth. As such, it is only Jesus who can "loose" us from the tyranny of popular opinion by showing us how to live in line with our design and our Designer. And that is true freedom.

 

But in a "feel-good" culture where folks are intent to "go along to get along," St. Augustine observed that truth is loved when it enlightens and hated when it accuses. Accordingly, our reticence in naming the actions of others, evil, is our aversion to acknowledge a standard to which we too may be bound and against which we too may be accused. For those unwilling to admit moral accountability, much less personal guilt and the need for redemption, the very possibility that such a standard exists can be a troubling notion indeed.

 

"If anyone chooses to do God's will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own...If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free."

--Jesus Christ