Can We Recover a Common Moral Language?
I once was talking with a highly-educated friend about the basis of morality. She commented to me that many atheists are ethical, honorable, and moral. I agreed, but then said if there is no God Who has revealed His moral will to us, there is no basis for doing anything other than what we feel in the moment.
She said with sudden clarity and surprise, “Oh — you mean that if there’s no God there’s no basis for being moral!”
That moment has stuck with me for more than 20 years. My friend, at that time just shy of her Ph.D. in psychology, had apparently never realized that no set of ethical standards can only be objectively true if there is no ultimate moral law-giver. She lived a very noble life — she was loving and engaging, a wonderful wife and mother, a loyal friend and active in her community. But she could not give a good reason for why.
In 1944, Gallup polling indicated 96% of Americans believed in God. Today, that percentage hovers at around 80%. These statistics do not explain what kind of God Americans believe in. While at one time in our history the substantial majority of our fellow citizens would identify the Deity as the One described in the Bible, in an era when mysticism, the occult, Eastern religion, and de facto self-created faiths based on personal preference, this is no longer a given.
The implications of this massive shift in religious faith are troubling. If God is only a malleable concept, one defined by subjective desires or chosen from a buffet of equally palatable religious options, His interaction with our lives becomes largely therapeutic instead of authoritative. Morality becomes negotiable, a matter of your divinity and you deciding what’s best for your preferred style of life.
Is it any wonder why we are living in an era of social incoherence? From transgenderism to the suppression of religious liberty, from pitting extreme autonomy (abortion at will) against the right of unborn persons simply to live, our once common moral language is now more like the confusion of Babel.
So: what should Christians do?
First, we herald truth by living according to the commands of Scripture. We practice the ordinances of the one true God. In a fallen world, doing this is inherently and always countercultural and, as a result, will make us stand out. And by standing out, we encourage questions: Why do you live that way? Why don’t you do what most others do? Where do your beliefs come from?
This kind of questioning is not always benign. It can produce as much hostility as curiosity. Regardless, living faithfully creates a platform for us to share the gospel and, thereby, transform people who need both hope in this life and the assurance of eternal life.
Second, we herald the truth by listening and asking questions. We show empathy and make ourselves available, demonstrating compassion to people struggling with all manner of personal issues. By being willing to listen, we gain a right to be heard and thereby share the love and holiness of Christ.
This is not a nice, neat formula. Sometimes, even mentioning Jesus can end a conversation or even a relationship. Yet compassionate concern need not stop with rejection. And as we continue to display it, those who often are most resistant see that there’s something real behind our kindness and commitment to the God of the Bible.
Third, we herald truth by making arguments for the good, the true, and the beautiful in the public square. When we uphold human dignity in defending and advancing life, religious liberty, racial justice, family, and healthy sexual ethics though legislation, we bear witness to the biblical teaching that all persons bear God’s image and likeness and merit protection in, from, and through government policy.
We also can make an appeal to the conscience, “the work of the law written on the heart” (Romans 2:15). Even militant, radical leftists love their children and abide by traffic laws. Even if our appeals fall on deaf ears, they might penetrate into the depth of the soul.
Rob Schwarzwalder, Ph.D., is Senior Lecturer in Regent University's Honors College.