Tag Archives: ethics

I am delighted to feature a post that says what needs to be said, and says it very well.

What Happens when your Worldview is Built Upon a Free Lunch

Ben Woodfinden is a graduate student at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada working towards an MA in Political Philosophy. His research interests include the origins of modernity and the relationship between religion and politics. Ben holds a Bachelor of Arts from Carleton.

Culture, Morals and Laws

Culture, Laws and Morals

The Barna Group recently released a study of a number of questions surrounding marijuana. The most important comment was not about a specific question. Rather, it established the environment of an era. The comment said, “Research points to the continuing ascendancy of personal and individual rights over legislating a shared sense of morality.”


This comment is an important expression of a cultural trend. Facts reveal that US culture has changed dramatically since the era from which Norman Rockwell pulled his images. US culture during colonial and revolutionary times, through civil war and two world wars, has been dominated by the shared morals of Christian teaching. The culture hotly debated what those values were, but the culture in general behaved and spoke with a common intent to do “the right thing,” the thing God would approve. There was little argument about the existence of God, and there was little argument that his way was the right way. Even people who never paid any attention to God behaved as if his opinion mattered.


The whole idea of law as an outgrowth of common morality is an element of civilization. In fact, in most ancient civilizations, common morality grew out of common religion, which often automatically considered the religious law governing behavior to be the law of the community. There was no necessity for a conversation about whether to have a law that agreed with religion. It was understood that the religious law was the law. The Revolutionary War which separated the colonies from Britain also separated them from Britain’s state church. This war introduced to the world a state with no state religion. The law could be anything. Yet the Founders and Framers generally agreed that the nation needed to have moral values embodied in law. Because Christians constituted the majority of the population, Christian moral teaching dominated US law.


In the twentieth century, coinciding in time with the beginning of the civil rights movement, citizens who claimed either that no god existed or that they themselves were not subject to any god began to express a sense of the rightness of a set of behaviors that were in direct conflict with Christian teaching. It certainly was true that some of these behaviors had become popular earlier, some were even timeless, but community agreement considered many of them as things that could be tolerated as long as they did not attract attention to themselves. The turmoil of the civil rights era stirred up other turmoils that had simply been awaiting the opportunity. Drugs and sex were at the center of a whirlwind of change. During and immediately after World War II, it was normal for an adult to consider marriage with someone of the opposite gender. Words like family and parents had quite specific meanings, but all those meanings have been tinkered with in the intervening years. Today it is considered well within normality to ask what those words actually mean. In 1964, the idea of legalizing marijuana would have been unthinkable, but in 2014 two states have already done it.

Individual rights trump common morality, even though community values are believed to trump individual freedom of religion

Today, the most fractious discussion of public morality surrounds the issue of same-sex marriage, an issue that would be a non-issue if not for public perception that homosexuality is normal, rather than an aberration, and a public perception that religion is out of touch with reality rather than the most powerful and important source of guidance for human behavior. If everyone actually agreed that individual rights trump common morality, then individual religious values would trump the culture shift that considers homomsexuality to be normal. There would be no question of the right of a Christian businessperson to reject participation in same-sex marriage.

However, the culture increasingly considers religion to be a power that intrudes rather than a power that sustains. As a consequence, when an individual chooses to submit his behavior to a religious standard, that choice is not respected. If the religious standard conflicts with the community standard, the community attitude is that the individual has looked to the wrong authority. The community can respect a person for looking within himself or for looking to the community for standards, but the community resents a person who looks to God for authority. The community does not so much try to hijack a God-given right to exercise religious faith as the community rejects the very possibility that a God exists who can grant that right. Hence, a choice that is constitutionally viewed as a personal right is seen as the unjustified expression of religious authority on non-believers. That individual has dragged into the community an unwanted authority, and the community rejects it. This is the basis for the allegation that there is no room in a civilized community for people who do not consider homosexuality to be normal.

The Barna Group says that increasingly, Americans are comfortable with both recreational and medicinal use of marijuana. The culture wants laws surrounding the use of marijuana to be relaxed. Likewise, the whole concept of human sexuality has been redefined, and the culture is pressing for changes in the law, changes with no reference whatsoever to religious values and religious authority.

The discussion is not over, but the terms of the conversation have changed dramatically. How does a Christian live faithfully in a culture that operates on these new terms?



Christianity is All About YES!

The culture of the USA in general believes that Christians love the word NO. People believe that being a Christian is about thinking you are perfect and everyone else is a bad person in God’s eyes.

This misconception about Christians and Christianity is one example of the disinformation that has come to be accepted as the truth about us. We do, of course, believe that some behaviors are good and some are not, and we are all guilty of behaving badly, even by our own standards, so none of us appears to be a good example of being Christian. As a result, the culture often concludes that we are complete frauds. The fact that some people pose as Christians and perpetrate real fraud on people does not help our image.

Complicating our issues with image and reputation are cultural changes that have nothing to do with us. The mix of ideas and religions in the culture of the USA has undergone massive change in the past fifty years. As a consequence, the number of people who accept Christian ideas as normal and desirable has declined dramatically. In 2012 many more people doubt the existence of any god whatsoever than would have claimed that viewpoint in 1962. In 2012 the proportion of people who claim to be Christian is much reduced since 1962, alongside an increased proportion of people who claim to be Muslim, Hindu or humanist. Many who claim to be Christians because of their upbringing no longer practice their faith in any public way and even claim to believe that it ought not to be expressed publicly because of the possibility of offending people who believe something different. This sort of generic dismissal is coupled with widespread disinformation about Christianity.

A Christian who speaks and acts on Christian faith principles is likely to encounter real opposition to Christianity because of a public notion that Christians are hate-filled bigots. They further believe that we think all non-Christians are wicked.

And they are right! What they do not understand is that we know Christians are wicked, also. As a bumper sticker once reminded me, “Christians aren’t perfect–just forgiven.”

We have a real challenge when we try to tell people the good news that as Paul wrote, “In Christ, all of God’s promises are YES!” We don’t live in mournful gloom and doom. Living redeemed, living in relationship with Christ, is a resounding YES to life and love and fulfillment.

One way to demonstrate that truth is to rescue the Ten Commandments from the King James translation of the Bible. The culture hears “Thou shalt not” as a big NO, and interprets it as a harsh judgment intended to suppress and devalue human beings. That misconception thrives on any focus on “Thou shalt not.” It is biblically true that our God expects us to put boundaries on our behavior, but the best way to establish a boundary that shuts out unwanted behavior is to understand the mandate for desirable behavior.

Take for example, the first commandment Jesus said it in a very positive way: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” (Matthew 22:39) Jesus put the focus on God’s expectations, but even the word “expectations” must be understood in the context of the fact that it is Jesus speaking. Who is Jesus? Jesus is God in the flesh, come down to earth, accepting the limitations of a human body in order to suffer and die a humiliating death because of his love for humankind. He stands there in the flesh, the living evidence of the depth and strength of God’s love for us, and he asks us to love him back with the same fervent commitment. That makes the first commandment a loving invitation to a relationship in which we will absolutely receive more than we can possibly give. Will that relationship be exclusive? Yes, but who cares? How is it negative for a person to love and serve this God exclusively? Why would you want to make any room for some fake god, some second-best option?

Try another. Jesus spoke the commandment often stated as “Thou shalt not bear false witness,” in a positive way, too. He said, “Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No.’” (Matthew 5:37)  He gave this statement to refute a Pharisaic legal view that taught people it was bad to swear to a lie. Jesus said people ought not to swear at all, because swearing proved nothing. His point is that when we speak, we should speak truth. Our words must be truth. We expect God’s words to be truth, and we should expect nothing less of ourselves. When people live by the standard “Speak the truth,” then swearing or not swearing means nothing. After all, we all know that people can swear to lies. If they are going to lie, why would they fear to swear to a lie? You know without my saying it that our world would be a very different place if everybody spoke only truth.

People accuse Christians of being bigots and hate-mongers because they look at the behaviors we reject and think that we are defined by what we reject. If we live by Christ’s positive restatement of the commandments, we can refute that misconception without saying a word. I paraphrase the two great commandments Christ gave us this way: Love God more than anything else, and love your neighbor as yourself. If we live this way, people will see a lot more of Christ’s YES to life than they will ever see of the ancient “Thou shalt not” that sounds so negative to them.

Have you ever tried restating each of the Ten Commandments as positive directives?