Paul’s Letter to the Romans
A good toe-nail is not an unsuccessful attempt at a brain: and if it were conscious it would delight in being simply a good toe-nail.
– C. S. Lewis (1898 – 1963),
In a previous post I made the point that the idea that we are made in God’s image does a lot to explain our intuitive moral sense. If he is, and is good and we are wired to reflect his character, then human guilt (or the lack of it) is not merely a feeling, but the result of actual moral knowledge. Such knowledge may need refining, but it is not our invention.
One comment I received in said, “If knowledge of morality is granted by a morally perfect god, the feeling of moral disgust at his actions should not be possible. This necessitates an alternate method of attaining these feelings …”
We might reword this into a collection of questions something like these:
“If our understanding of morality is based on our being made in God’s image, then why don’t we always agree with him? How is it even possible for me to disagree? Why do I even have moral questions? Further, why do people ever disagree with one another in areas of right and wrong?”
These are great questions, but not particularly vexing, at least not from the biblical position. Speaking as a Christian, these tensions are not only explainable, they are exactly what we should expect. This is what I see in myself and what I see in others – and it is true for at least two reasons: 1) Our inborn need to grow in understanding, and 2) Our regrettably clouded vision.
There is ample opportunity to change this state of affairs. We need to be taught and our fairly steep learning curve begins by getting into a right standing with him. Again, that implies growth and a change of heart. Karen Swallow Prior sees the right place as one of wonder, “Even the ability to doubt him, to struggle against him, to wonder at his ways is rooted in him. Certainty seems bigger than me, skepticism smaller. Wonder is just right.” (Booked, p. 191)
I just checked the news. Ten years ago a California man kidnapped his girlfriend’s daughter and has held her against her will since that time. He mentally, physically and sexually abused her, forced her to marry him and she bore him a three-year-old daughter under duress. This is wrong. Two landscapers in New Jersey duct-taped the mouth and eyes of one of their clients, a 41 year-old mother of two, and then buried her alive. So wrong! A rich, important man was recorded making distressingly racist remarks. He was wrong to hold such views, whether or not he expressed them. Finally, a woman’s dog went missing, but it turns out someone stole it. She found it for sale the next day in an ad on Craigslist. This is all sad – and simply wrong.
These are not preferences. It’s not only that we don’t like stealing, murder and various kinds of abuse. It is wrong to do these things. This is not merely cultural, decided by society. The genocides of Nazi Germany, Cambodia, Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia were wrong, even though many in those societies had actually learned to view them as necessary. Getting a certain critical mass of people to favor genocide will not make it morally right.
Black widows can eat their mates and presumably feel no twinge of conscience. Wolves and hyenas have been known to eat their young. It may be repulsive to us, but that’s just what they do.
Jeffrey Dahmer, sexual predator, serial killer and prominent Milwaukee cannibal, might only have been guilty of violating a number of elaborate herd instincts, products of natural selection, kept for their survival value. In that case, his behavior may have even been the result of a positive genetic mutation. He did, after all, outlive every one of his victims.
But wait. We know that just isn’t true. What he did was bad. Period.
Of course, we most clearly feel the presence of a moral issue when we are the victims of an offense. Nonetheless, we can see one even if the case has zero impact on us. In the political realm we argue the fine points; we don’t question the basic assumption.
The existence of God and the possibility that we are made in his image does a lot to explain this. If he is, and is good and we are wired to reflect his character, then human guilt (or the lack of it) is not merely a feeling, but the result of actual moral knowledge. Such knowledge may need refining, but it is not our invention.
A good reminder from our old friend C.S. Lewis:
It is, of course, quite true that God will not love you any the less, or have less use for you, if you happen to have been born with a very second-rate brain. He has room for people with very little sense, but He wants every one to use what sense they have. … God is no fonder of intellectual slackers than of any other slackers. If you are thinking of becoming a Christian, I warn you, you are embarking on something which is going to take the whole of you, brains and all.
– from Mere Christianity
“’Vanity of vanities’ says the Preacher, ‘vanity of vanities! All is vanity!’” begins the Bible’s book of Ecclesiastes.
“History is the nothing people write about a nothing,” wrote Sir William Golding, the English novelist, in Darkness Visible.
Finally, Shakespeare, in MacBeth,
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
We humans desire significance. Incurably so. The thought of a meaningless life is enough to crush us. It is distressing or dispiriting if it is not maddening or all of the above and more at the same time. If we only have some significance, we can taste hope.
But consider, if we or anyone and everyone and everything are ultimately a crowd of meaningless things, the paraphernalia of a meaningless universe, driven by meaningless forces to no significant end, then why should our meaninglessness even matter? Why should we find that the least bit disheartening? Do clouds care that they come and go without anyone even noticing? Does the grass contemplate its fairly modest existence? How about dolphins? They may be fairly intelligent, but do they care about their place in history, their porpoise, that is, purpose in life? (Sorry!)
Yet we self-centered, species-centered humans want to matter, even if we only matter because we devote our lives to the betterment of other species – which implies that they matter, which means the universe ultimately matters. And here we go again, trying to see significance in the whole thing. If that significance is not really there, if we are only kidding ourselves, then it’s all pointless and we have no real reason to care. At all. About anyone or anything.
On the other hand, we may be made in the image of God, for reasons known best to himself. And he may be willing to reveal these plans and purposes to us little by little, in his good time, especially if we seek him with all our heart. He may have his very own sagacious motives for giving us life and we may have a bottom-line reason to be. In that case, our lives do have meaning and will retain meaning, and perhaps even increase in meaning throughout all eternity. Everlastingly significant. Every last one of us. And hard-wired to want our lives to matter. Such a state of affairs would not only begin to explain our significance, but explain why we so badly desire significance in the first place.
First put this put this up about 4 years ago, and got to thinking about it again. The key point is the title has to do with “decline and fall. Not hoping for that by any means, just noticing a similarity.”
I recently stumbled upon this and thought it sounded a lot like the USA. It’s from Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. I, ch. II:
“The policy of the emperors and the senate, as far as it concerned religion, was happily seconded by the reflections of the enlightened, and by the habits of the superstitious, part of their subjects. The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful. And thus toleration produced not only mutual indulgence, but even religious concord.” (Emphasis added.)
In the yet-to-be-written The History of the Decline and Fall of the American Empire, vol. I, ch. II, it will state:
“The average American was vaguely religious believing that it didn’t matter what one believed as long as one was sincere. The devotee of science was convinced that all religion would become unnecessary if only people knew better. Most politicians identified themselves as, ‘Christians who support Israel’ (but didn’t always give convincing evidence of either), and knew that Islam was undeniably a ‘religion of peace’ (while uncertain that religious knowledge even existed). These points of view (though on the face of it contradictory) actually harmonized well enough in the public mind that the most of the diverse population managed to somehow get along with itself.”