Monday, July 09, 2012

Christian Morality?

We attended the Sunday morning service of a congregation in our new town Sunday. We're trying to get to know the congregations in the area and figure out what communities and settings each is ministering in. Before I go any further, I do want to say that this particular congregation is doing some amazing things. They've really got a focus on being a positive presence in the community and helping the poor.

That being said, the whole experience was a vivid example of one of evangelical Christianity's major problems: a lack of definition. Let me be more specific - a Church that teaches and models generic morality, rather than anything specifically Christian.

The entire service was well planned and executed; it was clear the leadership had taken great time and care to present something that people would feel comfortable participating in. At the same time, they didn't seem to ask much about what their presentation said about God. There was no evidence of theological reflection. There were some catchy spiritual songs and a pretty lengthy scripture passage, but I can't recall Jesus actually being mentioned more than once or twice and only in passing.

The sermon was from James chapter two and focused on putting faith into action. There wasn't much theological depth here - other than to say talk is cheap. The majority of the sermon was an explanation of the ways in which this congregation helps people and an encouragement to be involved.

What seemed off to me was that the entire message was advocacy for generic morality. I don't know a soul on the planet, Christian, Muslim, atheist or anything else, who would have objected to this sermon. Your faith should have actions - please help people. That was the takeaway: be a helpful person.

Is there anything specifically Christian about that? Not that I can see. Certainly the Christian message is to be self-giving, but a Christian morality involves a radical giving of self - more than "being helpful," it's being entirely others focused. It's not a choice we make to help others, but a slavish commitment to love without end.

I thought it an interesting coincidence that one of the lines of one of the songs during the service said something to the effect of "if I have to lose this life, I will." My understanding of scripture is that Christ said losing our lives is a prerequisite. I wonder how many Christians associate losing their life only with martyrdom? Jesus was pretty clear that losing your life really just means giving up the capacity to make your own choices - it's total obedience. Losing your life means not caring if you have enough to eat or live another day - so long as you can love others.

Yes, it's a radical claim and a radical call - one far beyond my humble abilities. Yet what point does it serve to weaken the challenge of Christian morality to something we see as doable? Certainly I can fit some extra helpfulness into my busy schedule without sacrificing my quality of life. That's a message of generic morality and not anything specifically Christian.

There's a lot of nuance and complexity in our understanding of Christian morality - as its lived out in our world, especially in light of the grace and provision of a loving God. It's not so simple as working yourself to the bone and dying off in the name of love. There's more to it than that - more than I can cover here, now. But if we don't present the challenge to begin with, we never get to those questions of ethics and reality.

As part of the sermon, the pastor used the illustration of Abraham as an example of someone who put faith into practice - being willing to sacrifice his own son for the sake of obedience. Three times the pastor calmed the crowd by saying, "I'd never do that and you wouldn't either, but..." Doesn't that sort of miss the whole point? Yes, God called us to care for the people around us, especially our children - but providing our kids with a healthy, happy life is a generic morality; it's not explicitly Christian. The challenge would be - what if God calls you to sacrifice your kids happiness for the sake of the Kingdom?

We never got that message - and despite the great intentions and devout hearts, at least on this Sunday, I'm not sure we saw Jesus.


Odist_Abettor said...

Okay, Ryan. Normally, you have me all the way, challenging and encouraging me in ways that expand my heart and mind but with which I ultimately agree. Here, however I just gotta call out what I think may have been a very sudden turn in differing perspectives.

Whether or not morality is explicitly defined by the religious and theological bureaucracy of mentioning Jesus, how one specifies the meaning of giving one's life up, or from where one's charity derives, good still comes from God. I've heard too many Christians say that all the good a parent does for their child is ultimately sinful unless that parent has asked Jesus into their heart. That makes some religious sense, maybe, but no real sense and certainly no Christian sense. You haven't said that, and I assume you wouldn't, but it is important to remember that God is love and the basis for good and morality in human hearts stems from that we are all God's creation.

Now just as what is good for one species is different for another, there are some differences in secular morality and Christian morality. As believers in God being God, though, it follows that true morality derives from God. Selfless sacrifice, such as what Jesus showed on the cross, and reckless faith, such as what Abraham showed with Isaac, are exemplified all over the world and all through time by those who don't know those stories.

What sets Christian morality apart, from what I can see, is that it walks right in line with a hope and a purpose.

I'm sure you didn't mean to make it seem like just another Christian elitist here, because I know you aren't. I rarely see Jesus in church on Sunday any more or less than I do in most places and on most days. However, maybe it's important to remember a quote from Les Mis "To love another person is to see the face of God."

Ryan said...

Yeah, perhaps in my rush to define a Christian morality I didn't necessarily deconstruct the idea of generic morality enough.

Philosophically, an admonishment to do what people would generally describe as good or moral is really neither. That good is really just what people expect from each other - to be helpful, to be good.

The fact that lots of people (read: all people) don't live up to that standard doesn't make it some higher form of action; it's still just "normal" for lack of a better term.

The idea of Christian morality is that it's constantly challenging us, not to be generically good, but to go above and beyond what people expect or how culture defines good. That's the extra mile stuff.

Defining "good" as actions which anyone would tell you are general expectations for behavior - doesn't actually makes them good, it just lowers the bar for everyone.

If I decide that from now on you only have to get a 65 to get an A, I've made what was merely a minimum requirement into something greater.

In another way - it would be like saying that when Jesus tells us to love one another, we do that by loving our children. Sure, it's technically true, but only deranged individuals aren't going to love their children anyway, whether its good or not.

Certainly all good comes from God and being "good" is better than being "bad," but those generic distinctions don't get us anywhere.

Odist_Abettor said...

Decent points, surely. My problem is ultimately when the church condemns that which really is good because it's not under the label of Christian. Whether it be certain kinds of media not being produced through a "christian" company or label or even truly selfless acts not being done explicitly in the name of Jesus. The idea that Christianity is this club and anyone not wearing the right jacket is inherently evil goes directly against the idea that "they will know you are my followers by your love."

Ryan said...

True enough, but you have to remember, I was in a Christian worship service. This is the Church talking to itself, without mentioning anything specifically Christian. That was more my point.

I'm completely against any labels - I won't go into Christian bookstores and I abhor Christian music, because the labels almost assuredly mean they have nothing to do with Christ. In fact, most things that carry the Christian label are really just a general morality.

Christ is something bigger and deeper than "being a good person." Being a Christian really means being a person in some ultimately true sense of being. We can debate and discuss how that works all we want, but the proof is in action - which is, I think, where you were going originally.

I think we're in the same boat - upset at the labels, when the labels don't actually mean anything.