Somebody said that we will not survive the 21st century with the morals of the 20th. Arnold Toinby studied twenty dominant civilizations in history and concluded that Western civilization is the first with no agreed answer to the meaning of life and this means that we have no agreed basis on which to build our morality. No God, no maker, no meaning, no ethics.
In 1936, Unwin wrote his famous book called, Sex And Culture, and he did a study of ten civilizations in over two hundred tribes and discovered that high cultural achievement always goes with a certain sexual discipline and restraint. Israel’s strict sexual codes account for the enormous cultural energy in their society. Even more recently names like Disraeli, Einstein, Fraud, Marx; they weren’t practicing Jews but they came from the Jewish tradition and what was released in the way of cultural creativity, whether we agree with them or not, was enormous.
Unwin goes on to say, “Only one generation will be able to eat their cake and keep it. They live on their parent’s’ cultural capital, like perfume from an empty bottle. The cultural deterioration begins as sexual discipline disappears.” And, of course, Unwin’s study about sex is true on all the other ethical frontiers that we are engaging at the moment.
I have about eight points scribbled down here and I will go through them one by one.
1. Ethics is the new battlefront for the Church. With the rise of liberal theology in the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, particularly among Evangelicals, was a battle for the Bible. And fortunately we threw lots of great scholars into the fray and in many senses we won that battle. Growing seminaries and growing churches around the world are evangelical charismatic institutions. However, the battle today in the latter part of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st is not about doctrine but about ethics. The battlefront has changed. In the 16th century, if I was an Anabaptist I could be imprisoned and executed for my view on baptism. That is very unlikely to happen in the 21st century but very likely I could be imprisoned for my views on sexuality.
Somebody said that we move from the unthinkable to the debatable to the acceptable. And, of course, that is true in areas like abortion, homosexuality, euthanasia, genetic engineering,
bestiality, and so on. From the unthinkable, to the debatable to the acceptable. And in fact, now here in the States there is the National Association of Man/Boy Love encouraging sexual relationships between adolescent boys and men. Recently I discovered that Amazon.com carries three books advocating bestiality. Some of them even giving intimate details about sexual activity between people and animals. And so all of these things that were unthinkable are now moving into the area of the debatable and many, in deed have reached the level of acceptability.
It is interesting also that one of our cultural icons is that of autonomy, coming from the two words “auto” meaning self and “nomos” meaning law. So it is simply “self-law” because we have forsaken biblical absolutes, “every man is doing what is right in his own eyes.”
Some time ago a study was done on practicing lawyers and doctors and they were asked if whether they, when they were in graduate school, they ever cheated on a major examination and 63% of the lawyers said yes and 68% of the doctors said that, yes, they did indeed cheat. Which you may not want to think about next time you go into surgery!
So, number one, ethics is the new battlefront for the church not that the battle for the Bible has disappeared but, certainly, we have gained a lot of traction on that front. But it seems now that we are called to fight very aggressively in the arena of ethics.
2. Ethics and morals are not the same.— Ethics is what is called a normative science and has to do with foundations, imperatives, oughts, what one ought to do, and basics. Morals is a descriptive science to do with mores, customs. Not what ought be done but what is being done. Now ethics, the “oughts”, the oughts to do—ethics always determined morals. Now things have got flipped upside down. Now morals, mores, what is being done determines ethics. In other words, we discover what people are doing and then we construct our ethics. If it is “normal” it is okay.
When the Kinsey report came out, which was so influential in the sexual revolutions that began in the 60’s, 73% said that they believed that premarital sex was okay. Therefore, it is okay. If it is normal, it is okay. And we are reduced, really, to statistical morality. The opinion of the majority is the only alternative to biblical absolutes. So ethics and morals are not the same. It used to be. It used to be that ethics determined morals. Now morals, mores, what is being done is determining our ethics and statistical morality is ruling the day.
3. Ethics and law are not the same.—Ethics is the obedience to the unenforceable whereas law is obedience to the enforceable. Perhaps just a small illustration will help. Let’s say I am going grocery shopping and I notice that there is one grocery cart left and there is a little 90 year old lady tottering towards it. I start running and sprint towards the shopping cart and reach it just before her and take it for my own needs. Now that’s unethical but it not unlawful. Law is obedience to the enforceable. In other words, one would have to have a total police state if that everything that was unethical was also unlawful. However, when we lose our ethical consciousness, basic decency and kindness, the amount of litigation in a society increases. Perhaps that is why today in the States we have become the most litigious society in history. Normally, things are solved with basic neighbor love, decency and kindness. And that is an ethic that pervades a society. When that breaks down we have to bring in more and more law because we have lost our basic ethical consciousness and the amount of litigation in a society just explodes.
4. Ethics is now leveraged by technology.—(And indeed, somewhat obscured by technology) The knowledge of the useful is preferred above the knowledge of the good and the true. And, in fact, we now confuse means (technology) with the ends. Technology, which comes from the word technique, is a means and we are in danger of confusing means with ends. But the fascinating thing for me is that how today, uniquely, ethics is leveraged by technology. It amplifies ethical decisions and they get megaphoned into world consequences; whether they be human cloning, genetic engineering, nuclear technology, and so on.
Somebody asked, “If you were living a hundred years ago how much damage could you do in one night?” Now I suppose you might be able to dynamite or shell several hundred homes that would be about it, the amount of damage you could do in one night. But on April 26, 1989 in the Ukraine reactor number six at Chernobyl went into meltdown. There were six alarms systems that had been deliberately overridden and there were valves that were padlocked in the open position. We don’t know quite was going on in Chernobyl that night whether there was some sort of very dangerous experimentation but it was not a simple accident and researchers say that there has definitely been some sort of cover up. It was an ethical decision that led to the meltdown of reactor number six. Now that ethical decision that night, of course, is so leveraged by the technology involved. In fact now the reactor is encased in concrete and it will be radioactive for
as long as the pyramids have existed. And so now we are living in an age where not only where ethics the new battlefront but it is very much being leveraged by technology. Decisions can be made that have consequences for millions of lives and indeed for generations to come.
5. Ethics are not globally relative—Of course everybody says they are but, indeed, they are not. The mantra in the sixties was that “it is forbidden to forbid.” In other words, you can do anything and everything but you can’t do one thing, and that is forbid me to do it. It is forbidden to forbid.
There is an institute for global ethics in California, which is a kind of high-octane think tank. They do a lot of work globally and they published, a couple of years ago, the results of their work having studied hundreds of societies around the world. They came up with five common denominators that they found in every society. Now there might be more than five but these five were always there. 1) compassion and caring, 2) truth, honesty and integrity, 3) justice, 4) responsibility and accountability 5) respect and human dignity. Now the interesting thing, of course, is that it is very easy to parallel every one of those five to the commandments. 1) Compassion and caring anchors in simply to loving one’s neighbor as one’s self. 2) Truth, honesty, and integrity anchors into commandment number seven, don’t commit adultery and commandment number nine, don’t give false witness. 3) Justice anchors into the Sabbath commandment four and again in commandment number nine about not giving false witness. In fact, in Exodus 23:12 and Deuteronomy 5:14 the Sabbath is spoken of as a mechanism of social justice. In other words, you pay somebody for seven days but they only work for six days. So that they can have time to rest and to be with their families Particularly in Exodus and Deuteronomy it is speaking about hired labor or slaves. 4) Responsibility and accountability that anchors into the tenth commandment about not coveting, being responsible and accountable. And number eight, not stealing. Of course, nobody takes their five year old to school and says to the teacher, “please teach my child to steal”. It simply isn’t done. In any society we might steal but we know that it is wrong. 5) Respect and human dignity anchors in commandment number five, honor your father and your mother and number six, not taking human life, not killing because we respect human rights and human dignity. And so indeed the law is written on the hearts and however much we might be told that ethics are completely relative the empirical data shows that
indeed they are not. People may break all these things but deep in the heart embedded in society is the belief that human behavior should be guided by these ethical principles.
6. Ethics is the new opportunity for the Church—Having said that ethics is the new battlefront for the Church it is also new opportunity for the Church. A couple examples; let’s look at the growth of the Mormon Church. Now Mormon doctrine is bizarre and very few people becomes Mormons because of their doctrine. Why do they become Mormons? Because their neighbor or their colleague at work or a relative is such a good person, such an ethical person, such a compassionate person. And they are using ethics, the breakdown of ethics, as an opportunity to advance the cause of Mormonism.
In the first century, when somebody asked, “How do I know the gospel is true?” they often had a very simple answer. They would often say, “Look at the lives of the Christians.” And the way they lived was their apologetic. Henry Chadwick, the historian concludes that the practical application of charity was the most potent single cause of Christian success in the ancient world. This was not surprising as alms giving was virtually not know among the Greeks. The German theologian, George Critchmeyer said that in the final analysis it was not the miracles of the early church that impressed people. Miracle workers were a familiar phenomenon in the ancient world. But it was the conduct of the Christians, the propaganda of the deed that had such impact. Christians were unbelievablely generous with their money and in their compassionate acts for the needy and disenfranchised.
Now I think that Critchmeyer is over stating the case because we certainly learn from Church history that it was not only their compassion for the poor, but it was also signs and wonders and indeed also the blood of the martyrs. But having said that, Chadwick and Critchmeyer do indeed have an important point. In the fourth century Basil the Great was so moved by the needs of the poor that he built a city on the outskirts of Caesarea, devoted to providing medical care for the sick, shelter for travelers, clothing for the poor, and work for the unemployed. In describing Basil’s work Gregory instructs his friends to go a little way forth from the city (that’s Caesarea) and behold the new city, the storehouse of piety, the common treasury for the poor. That which
was superfluous to the wealth was stored so that they could minister comprehensively and holistically to the poor of their age.
And so, ethics is the new battlefront but it is also the new opportunity for the Church. That, again, our lives become our apologetic, our lives speak forth the truthfulness of the gospel. It doesn’t mean to say that we abandon conventional apologetics but people are somewhat world weary and they want to see it incarnated in a community of people. And that indeed what the early Church did.
7. Ethics and behavior are as important as data and doctrine in underpinning our witness before a watching world—Tragically we have separated belief from behavior. Now, here in the States the divorce rate among Evangelicals is higher than the population at large. What has happened is that we have separated belief from behavior. The Jews have often criticized Christians, saying that, “you (us Christians) have a belief, whereas we have a way.” A lifestyle, what they call a halakah. And yet of course we know when we read the book of Acts and that the early Christians, before they were ever called Christians, were simply called followers of the way because they were those that did not separate belief from behavior and sought to be imitators of Christ in the way that they lived and walked.
Now our data beliefs must become our control beliefs. You are probably aware that many sociologists have made this distinction between what they call control beliefs and data beliefs. Control beliefs are volitional, having to do with the will; whereas data beliefs are cognitive, having to do with more of the mind. Control beliefs are motivational, to do with behavior, whereas data beliefs can be simply positional. Control beliefs might be what we call visceral; they are our gut level beliefs whereas data beliefs can be simply intellectual. Control beliefs we might say have to do with our hands and feet, how we behave, how we live, whereas data beliefs have to do with the head and heart. Not the hands and the feet but the head and the heart. Not so much behavior, but belief in that cognitive prepositional sense.
Often as Christians we say that, “he believes that in his head but not with his heart” and that’s not what they are saying. Data belief is something you believe in your head and with your whole
heart. In other words, some Christians believe with all their hearts that fornication is wrong. They believe with all their hearts that fraud is wrong. However, they don’t necessarily live without ever getting into fornication and fraud. They still believe it, that it is wrong with all their hearts, but they simply don’t practice it. At a point of temptation it is not what controls them. When they are under pressure they are not their control beliefs. Control beliefs have to do with action; data beliefs have to do with intention. It is what we intend to do but, tragically, often we don’t do it. And the critical factor, because ethics is the new battlefront, is to close the gap between control beliefs and data beliefs. There should be no gap between them. Of course, as we look into the life of Jesus, the two are perfectly fused. As we look in the life of the early church, the early church wasn’t perfect, but there wasn’t the yawning gap that is so big that even sociologists have spotted it between control and data beliefs in our own day. So this gap must be closed.
8. Meal time has always been the moment of ethical discourse—In Deuteronomy 6, speaking of God’s commandments it says that you should talk of them with you sons and daughters, when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, when you tuck them into bed, when you rise up, and so on and so forth. And what it is saying is much of what we believe ethically is passed on informally. Of course we want Sunday school classes and etc, but so much, from one generation to another is simply absorbed by these informal moments of ethical discourse of around the meal table. We will simply unpack the events of the day, that happened at work or happened at college or happened in the school, and we are really making ethical judgments about those things. But having said that the average highschooler in the States now eat an average of two meals a week with their parents because usually both parents are working, the kids are out at sporting events or they are working after school. Less and less is a family actually physically together to have a meal together. So that crucial moment of ethical discourse is being lost and we need to regain it.
Well that was a little bit rambly but we are all aware of the tremendous ethical pressure we are under in the West as Christians. I wanted to pass on that miscellaneous thinking and you can add your own to it and if you would like to add anything I said, you can contact me. I would appreciate it.