The last remnant of my Christian faith came unwound when I started to confront the question of how we determine right from wrong. I knew there were various approaches to ethics, yet I was taught that we had a moral code straight from an objective moral source. How could there possibly be a better option than a morality that comes from an entirely objective and pure being, who simply told humanity what to do and how to live?
In my previous post I described the story from the book The Brothers Karamazov where Ivan tries to reconcile the suffering of the world with what he had been taught about God. His eventual conclusion was that there could not be a God, but once once he reached that conclusion he could not establish any basis for living morally. But Ivan may have found relief if he had realized that there is there is more than one viable way to determine right from wrong .
I have heard throughout my life that if you do not have a Christian basis for morality, then you don’t have morality at all. Albert Mohler, head of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, puts it this way: “If human beings are left to our own devices and limited to our own wisdom, we will invent whatever model of ‘good character’ seems right at the time. Without God there are no moral absolutes. Without moral absolutes, there is no authentic knowledge of right and wrong.”
There are a couple of problems with his comment. One problem, which strikes me as humorous, is that he doesn’t even realize how absolutely right he is about human beings inventing models of good character. Mohler assumes that humans are not able to do this difficult and nuanced work, yet this is what humanity has been doing for millennia. Even those who chose to establish their moral code by interpreting their religious texts are ultimately deciding on what they think those texts say. And like other religions, Christianity doesn’t exactly have a flawless track record when making those decisions about what should be considered right or wrong (slavery is one glaring example).
The other problem with Mohler’s statement is that it assumes he is on the side of those who have “authentic knowledge of right and wrong.” This is an arrogant viewpoint, especially in light of the fact that he is in the same boat as the rest of us who are just doing the difficult work of determining what ethical standards give us the most fulfilling lives as a society and as individuals.
The fact that it is difficult and ever-evolving doesn’t mean there must be a God (or gods) somewhere doing all the dirty work for us and determining what is considered good. While I do still believe it is possible that there is a transcendent presence in the world and beyond, I don’t see anywhere in human religion a consistent and undeniable presentation for what is good.
Whether or you are religious or not, everyone has to wrestle with difficult issues and make the final determination about what we believe is right and wrong. Christianity and religion in general can provide some support in that effort, but it is not dependent on religion.