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Foundational Issues (7) – Discussing Moral Issues in a Pluralistic Society

To briefly summarize what I have written so far: Christians believe that both physical and spiritual reality exist, that morality is a part of reality, and that only the Bible gives sure knowledge of morality. They believe that man is made in God’s image, but fallen. Government is therefore necessary to restrain sin, but it is limited in what it can accomplish and it cannot remake man. These assumptions are clear and easy to summarize, yet it is nonetheless difficult to talk through them.

To clarify this, consider the perspectives of Mr. A and Mr. B.

Mr. A believes that only matter exists. According to him, things like love and justice are concepts that have either evolved or been invented to help our species survive in some way. What is right or just is what keeps humans from harming each other. And these things are right and just because if nothing stopped us from harming each other our species would destroy itself. Given this, it follows that morality changes over time and place. For example, a hunter gatherer would need to be very distrustful of strangers and quick to use violence (against dangerous animals, for example) to survive, while a person living in a 21st century urban environment would need to regularly interact with strangers and therefore be very restrained in the use of violence to thrive. Mr. A assumes that there is no external Natural Law that binds us all, instead all laws are man-made. According to Mr. A, in order to judge whether a law is good or bad we should simply ask: “does this act bring harm in our current context?” If something does bring harm, it should be illegal, but if something does not harm anyone, individuals should be free to do what they want.

Mr. B on the other hand believes that God created both mind and matter. Things like love and justice were either made by Him or flow from His character; either way they are objective and unchanging and do not change over time. To know whether a law is good or bad we must ask: “what does God say in His written word?” As Christians we are free to do what Christ allows so long as we do it in and through and for Him.

Given these assumptions, consider how Mr. A and Mr. B would think through a contemporary question regarding marriage and sexuality. (Note: I choose this example not because I believe that issues of sexual morality are the only or even the most important issues of morality, but because I believe they are issues our culture is confused about so this will hopefully provide a clear example.)  

Mr. A and Mr. B sit down for coffee one afternoon and Mr. A mentions that Sokovia is considering legalizing same-sex marriage. He goes on to mention that he is in favor of same sex-marriage. When Mr. B asks him why, Mr. A explains. “Everyone has a right to be happy and romantic love plays a big part in a happy life. Some people love members of the same sex. I don’t see how two dudes getting hitched hurts you or me or anyone else, so I don’t think you or I or anyone else has the right to keep them from being happy.”

In three short sentences Mr. A is assuming, among other things, that:

  1. We have a right to be happy
  2. Happiness consists in getting what we want (this is something many of us may take for granted, but this view has not been held by the majority of people that have come before us)
  3. Morality is something we create, not inherit
  4. Morality is something that can be explained and justified (to wit, immorality is found in harm and therefore something that cannot be shown to bring harm should be permitted)

These assumptions may seem clear now, but they are very difficult to recognize in the middle of a conversation! I am sure we have all found ourselves in conversations like these. We know that something is wrong, but the logic seems all knotted up and it feels impossible to say the right thing. So we either say nothing and kick ourselves for not having the right words or say something in frustration that we later regret.

Next week I will lay out a few reasons as to why I think it has become so difficult to have these moral discussions. In the following week I will end this series by giving what I hope will be prudential advice in how to engage in these difficult conversations.