I’ve been plugging away on this thread here on my forum and the conversation has turned towards the question of objective morality and atheism. As happens so often, the atheists in question seem to think my point is that they would not be moral apart from God when in fact my point is that they are moral without their belief in God- but why should they be? That they insist that they are moral demands an explanation. And again, as so often happens, the question arises- don’t you think that you need religion to be moral?
I was painting my stairs and screwing in light fixtures when it hit me: they don’t really understand that I am a Christian not because it serves some utilitarian purpose but because I actually think it’s true. I have no interest in converting atheists to Christianity out of fear that they’ll become seriel killers otherwise. I want them to come to Christianity because they believe that in it is the truest description of reality and so that they can meet what lies at the center- Christ himself.
While I don’t think I could deny that there are a great many Christians wandering the Internet that don’t make this distinction very well, it is always useful to point to the great mass of agreement among Christians through the centuries on the matter. Here we will see the wisdom of consulting a position’s best and strongest advocates rather than it’s weakest apologists. I could draw from Augustine’s Confessions here, but due to the pervasive acceptance of CS Lewis across the denominations, an example from him will do.
In the beginning of Mere Christianity Lewis actually leads off with the phenomena of every man possessing some sort of moral standard. He does not use this to argue that apart from Religion there would be no moral standard- he uses this to argue that one particular religion, Christianity, is the best explanation for why this phenomena exists. Francis Collins, the head of the human genome project, has picked up on the same theme. Protestants have very much appreciated the distinction well back into its earlier days when it insisted that salvation was by grace alone, and not by works: in other words, the goal of life, according to Christianity, was not to be moral. It was to recognize that there was a moral code and none of us measure up to it and so have a desperate need for a savior. Lewis, Collins, and the Protestants did not invent this. I’ve just highlighted Romans 1 through 5.
Now clearly this does not mean that our behaviors our irrelevant. The Scriptures are filled with calls to be holiness. But it would not ever be religion that alters our behavior. According to Christianity, it would be the Holy Spirit that does this as it transforms us from the inside out. Not religion, but a new life in Christ. Thus Christians acknowledge that you can have a man giving to the poor (acting morally, you see) but giving out of religious legalism and this is no better then the one that does not give at all. That is because moral behavior is not the end all and be all in Christian theology.
Moral behavior… righteous behavior… is always described as a fruit of something else. ‘Synthetic’ moral behavior has little ‘nutritional value.’
But why go down this road at all? Paul makes it quite plain- if Christ has not risen we are of all men to be pitied. But if Christ has risen, our task is still not to ‘become moral’ as though this saves us or makes us any better than anyone else. It is to accept the gift of grace. And if that means anything, it certainly means that Man’s instinct that there is a moral code is explained but also that none of us measure up to it. If any of us were ‘moral’ there would be no room for grace and therefore no room for Christ.