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Fulcrums (1) – Morality is not found in harm alone

About seven or eight years ago I distinctly remember a debate amongst a handful of my 7th grade students. They were arguing about whether or not people should be allowed to choose their own bathroom (i.e. whether a man that identifies as a woman should be allowed to use a women’s bathroom or if people should be required to use bathroom designations that correspond to their biological sex.) In the midst of this argument one of them confidently said, “my mom was in a bathroom and there was a transgender man in there too, and guess what, he didn’t rape her!”

Once I got past his crudity I was struck by how this student simply took it for granted that something that did not cause harm could not be wrong. Indeed, this assumption was held even by those that disagreed with his position. That is to say, they believed that people choosing their own bathrooms would lead to harm and for that reason it is wrong.

A similar line of reasoning was used to advocate on behalf of legalized same-sex marriage. In short, the question was asked: does marriage between homosexuals harm or threaten heterosexual marriage in any way? When no convincing harm could be produced, and it could be shown that a prohibition against same-sex marriage harmed homosexual couples, public opinion moved towards accepting same-sex marriage.  

I don’t want to get bogged down in the history of the sexual revolution or how this view of morality has changed the way we read the Constitution, as interesting as those things might be. I give these two examples because they are fairly clear, fairly recent, and significant in order to show that this idea is dominant in our society. But my concern is not with society. Instead, I would like to explore the question of how this view of morality affects Christian faith.

Our family has a young lady that lives with us that we talk to regularly. She was telling us about a series that her church is going through with young adults on dating and marriage. They recently had a session on sexual purity with multiple speakers and she said that every speaker talked about how they had committed fornication and how it had harmed them. To be clear, I think that fornication is harmful; I think that all sin is harmful both to the sinner and the sinned against. But I don’t think that the harm sin brings is the reason it is wrong or that avoiding harm is only reason we should flee from sin. I told the young lady that what she heard was true, but incomplete. A young couple that is in love and that is bonding emotionally and relationally is going to want to engage in physical intimacy and not connecting that way is actually going to feel harmful. In fact, engaging in what God calls sin may even feel less harmful than abstaining. So if harm is the only basis of their decision, they will probably fall into sin. After all, two consenting adults choosing to do something they want to do doesn’t seem obviously harmful.

But if a Christian believes that something must be harmful to be sinful, unless he or she has a fairly perceptive understanding of human nature and can thereby discern how every sin, including fornication, does in fact harm the soul, he or she is left with only a couple of options:

1) He or she can believe that God did not really prohibit things that are unharmful. In regards to sexual ethics, there are a lot of different ways in which people argue this. For example, (1) laws that deal with sexual ethics are in the same books that contain laws that deal with slavery, so how can we take them seriously? We have rejected the latter; it follows that we should likewise reject the former. (2) Sexual ethics are not as big of a deal as other things. I have literally had a conversation with the pastor telling me that he can’t imagine how God could be upset or care that ‘some guy slept with his girlfriend, because there are bigger things to worry about out there.’ (3) We can read our own philosophies into the Bible. I heard a highly intelligent and well-known professor using Existential categories to argue that what the Bible actually teaches about sexuality is that all of our relationships should be I/Thou not Subject/Object and that all sexual activity that is I/Thou is moral and pleasing to God, whether it is within marriage or outside of it and all sexual activity that is Subject/Object, even if it is within marriage, is sinful.

2) There are, however, other Christians that believe that God did in fact command these things, but they believe, even if they don’t consciously recognize it, that God has banned something moral. This leaves them with the question: Why would God tell us not to do something that brings no harm? Maybe God is not good? Maybe he doesn’t want us to have joy or to be happy? If we believe that something must be harmful to be evil and likewise believe that some of the things that God calls sin are not harmful, we will believe that God is arbitrary, that he calls things wrong that are not in fact wrong. If we don’t resolve this, this idea will undermine our faith.  

I think the solution is to train our children (and ourselves) to know and to believe that we cannot judge the morality of an action based on its harm. The moral law is something that is external to us, something that we are to submit to. It is grounded in God’s character and the purpose of His creation and is higher and bigger and deeper than we can fathom. As such, our finite reasoning cannot grasp the whole of it; all we can do is believe it because we believe its Author. Judging an action’s morality based on its harm may seem wise, but one would have to know every outcome, the consequence of every action, throughout the whole world and throughout all of time to be able to know whether a given action would harm someone before one could know whether or not an action was moral. No one has this ability!!! Because we cannot see the full consequences of our actions we cannot judge the morality of an action based on the harm we think it will or will not cause. Instead, we must live  in faith and obey what God has commanded.