When journalists and politicians join preachers lamenting the loss of ethics in America, it’s time to take note! Weighing in on the topic, William Murchison, a syndicated columnist, has recently published Reclaiming Morality in America (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., Publishers, c. 1994), a well-written, cogent, up-to-date reading of the nation’s moral temperature.
As a caption for the study, note the words of Ann Landers: “Let’s face it. America is sick.” Murchison agrees, arguing the sickness stems from failing to know the truth of our own moral nature. Embedded in human nature there’s an abiding reality, an ethical realm. When we do right we live according to its structure; when we do wrong we violate its intrinsic properties.
We all share a common humanity, for we all have a “common origin” (p. 14); we’re designed by our Creator, and we’re created to obey Him. Without religious roots, human morality erodes quickly away, which is precisely what’s happened in this century, wherein we’ve witnessed its replacement with “an amalgam of individual insights and judgments” which have made it “one of unprecedented bloodshed and brutality” (p. 18).
Citing data and dramatic illustrations, Murchison sketches a dismal portrait, covering such issues as illegitimacy, homosexuality, family fractures, crime, euthanasia, abortion. One of the keys to understanding what’s been happening may be found in the values which emerged in the 1960’s. “It could be said actually that the sixties were about little else but sex and rights–specifically, how to get more of each” (p. 55).
Since then, we’ve been swept along by an avalanche of collapsing moral standards. In some ways this process is best illustrated by sexual behavior of a man named Gaetan Dugas, the airline steward who played a prominent role in spreading AIDS. In the decade before the disease burst upon the nation, Dugas averaged 250 sexual liaisons a year. In his words, “‘It’s my right to do what I want with my body'” (p. 86). His “right,” of course, cost him his life–and poisoned thousands of others. Unless we begin to deny individuals some of their “rights,” insisting we all do right, we’ll continue our plunge into a moral quagmire.
Having assessed the situation, Murchison turns, in part two of the book, to suggesting steps we can take “toward moral recovery.” First, we must intentionally teach moral standards. This means those “teaching institutions,” schools and churches, must reclaim their rightful tasks, wresting them from TV talk shows, movie stars, politicians, and street gangs.
They must recover a moral source higher than the opinion polls and momentary personal feelings which prevail in many parts these days. As Murchison wisely says, “There can be no plebiscites on morality any more than there can be an election to choose the highest mountain in the world” (p. 125). Moral standards resemble mountain ranges–they’re absolutely there, they’re measurable, they have an arched pattern, and we ignore the absoluteness of their nature to our own discomfort or destruction.
It’s time, in short, to recover traditional Judeo-Christian moral standards, for the time is short!
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Murchison’s concern is shared by the various contributors to In Search of a National Morality: A Manifesto for Evangelicals and Catholics, ed. William Bently Bell (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, c. 1992). Bell, a Catholic, is a noted constitutional lawyer who’s argued a number of landmark cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. He invited eminent Protestant and Catholic scholars and politicians to address the issues which form the chapters of this book. Contributors include Carl F.H. Henry, Henry Hyde, Paul Vitz, Norman Geisler, Russell Kirk, and William May–an impressive gathering of gifted minds.
Bell himself keynotes the volume by arguing we Christians now live in an “occupied country.” It’s been captured by principalities and powers, most notably the media, which have systematically engaged in “normalizing evil” (p. 10). The authors cite persuasive data and credible authorities to show we’re now living in a time when “barbarians” have seized control of our culture and are dismantling the foundations of civilization.
For example, 60 years ago Harvard University’s Pitrim Sorokin, a sociologist, warned that the “sensate culture” then emerging in this nation would incubate egoists concerned solely with their own pleasures. “‘Through their scandals, indecencies, erratic exploits, and through the actions of robbery, murder, sacrilege, and the like, they ruin themselves and the society of which they are a part'” (p. 61). Still more, when too many of these “overfree” individuals are tolerated, society must either “bridle” them or allow itself to “disintegrate.” It would seem that we’ve reached the point when the lawless among us must be constrained. Now is the time for righteous men to rise up and resist, to recover standards of righteousness for this land.
The topics addressed alert one to some of the cataclysmic shifts which have transformed this nation. Secularization has succeeded in driving religion from power. Moral standards have dissipated as individualistic relativism has incubated social anarchy. The clear intent of this nation’s founders–that our republic be suffused with Christian principles–has been upended (through a devious mis-representation of their views) to create a polity devoid of religious guidance. Human life and family stability are no longer revered and protected as sacred. Educators have wrested children from parents and isolated them from God. Government has turned from being non-religious to being anti-Christian. The clamor for “rights” has banished responsibility for being righteous.
The foregoing litany of decadence generally covers the concerns of a growing number of Americans. This volume, by bringing together Evangelicals and Catholics, enables one to see what they have in common when addressing moral and constitutional issues. The essays are short, readable, and illuminate some of the quandaries we now face.
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Taking a similar stance, Tim and Beverly LaHaye have published A Nation Without a Conscience (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, c. 1994). They cite some impressive authorities to indicate the dire straits which threaten to crush this nation. Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s National Security Advisor, says (rightly, I think) that our century must be labeled “mankind’s most bloody and hateful century” (p. 27). We are, Chuck Colson declares, surrounded by barbarians–“new barbarians” who have emerged from our own ranks–which threaten the very existence of Western Civilization. Illustrating this, even high school students, Barbara Walters says, “have no sense of discipline. No goals. They care only for themselves. In short, they are becoming a generation of undisciplined cultural barbarians” (p. 19).
At the heart of this crisis, as Alexander Solzhenitsyn saw, is this: “Men have forgotten God” (p. 53). As one examines various sinkholes in the cultural landscape–families, schools, media, government–there’s a great vacuum of transcendental awareness. Man craves a Holy Other, an ultimate reason for being which gives the here-and-now meaning and direction. When God is shoved aside, banished from classrooms and courthouses, conscience evaporates and anarchy ensues.
The LaHayes present a dismal portrait, unleashing something of a jeremiad. They have–at least they claim as much–hope for America, though it’s muted in this treatise. Their hope, as one might expect, lies in a religious revival which will restore the America of yesterday.
A Nation Without a Conscience reads easily and presents dramatic data detailing various ills in America. Readers on the conservative side of cultural issues will applaud it, while those of more liberal views will find it abrasive. I share many of the LaHaye’s concerns, though I resist their resolute pessimism. Western Civilization may be collapsing, but Christ’s Church will prevail!
For me, the real value of the book is found in its many quotations–documented statements drawn from folks as diverse as Ted Turner and Curt Cobain, C.S. Lewis and Dan Quayle. (The notes I made in the flyleaf of my copy of this book nearly all point me to such quotations!)
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Evangelicals interested in Catholic ethics should carefully read Pope John Paul II’s The Splendor of Truth–Veritatis Splendor (Boston: St. Paul Books & Media, 1993). This is one of several significant encyclicals issued by John Paul II, proving him to be a gifted theologian. In a thoroughly biblical way, he calls God’s people to live “the life of holiness” (p. 129.
Toward the end of the encyclical he sums up his message: “We must first of all show the inviting splendor of that truth which is Jesus Christ himself. In him, who is the Truth (cf. Jn 14:6), man can understand fully and live perfectly, through his good actions, his vocation to freedom in obedience to the divine law summarized in the commandment of love of God and neighbor. And this is what takes place through the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth, of freedom and of love: in him we are enabled to interiorize the law, to receive it and to live it as the motivating force of true personal freedom: ‘the perfect law, the law of liberty’ (Jas 1:25)” (p. 104).
John Paul begins his presentation with this declaration: “Called to salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, ‘the true light that enlightens everyone’ (Jn 1:9), people become ‘light in the Lord’ and ‘children of light’ (Eph 5:8), and are made holy by ‘obedience to the truth’ (1 Pet 1:22)” (p. 9). Given that reality, “No one can escape from the fundamental questions: What must I do? How do I distinguish good from evil?” (p. 10).
Those questions are answered, conclusively, by Jesus Christ, who is the answer to all of man’s deepest hunger for truth. Thus the Gospel account (Mt 19:16) of the rich young man who came to Jesus illuminates the entire human condition. The young man asked: “Teacher, what good must I do to have eternal life?” Here, says John Paul, ” we can recognize every person who, consciously or not, approaches Christ the Redeemer of man and questions him about morality. For the young man, the question is not so much about rules to be followed, but about the full meaning of life” (p. 17).
Responding to the young man, Jesus reminded him that “there is only one who is good,” God Himself. Revering and serving God is basic to all morality. Then one is rightly oriented to obeying His commandments–both the commandments inscribed in the natural law, rooted in God’s eternal law, and the divine law revealed on Mt Sinai, which (as St Thomas said) encapsulates the natural law. To that one adds the righteous attitudes and motives prescribed in the Beatitudes, which enable one to follow Christ, who is “the essential and primordial foundation of Christian morality” (p. 32).
Through the grace given us as believers, the presence of the Holy Spirit enables us to live conformed to Christ’s likeness. Law and grace work together. “Faith working by love” (Gal 5:6) is the final formula for the Christian life. There’s a synergy to the Christlike life. Faith is more than mental assent. “Faith is a decision involving one’s whole existence. It is an encounter, a dialogue, a communion of love and of life between the believer and Jesus Christ, the Way, and the Truth, and the Life (cf. Jn 14:6). It entails an act of trusting abandonment to Christ, which enables us to love as he lived (cf. Gal 2:20), in profound love of God and of our brothers and sisters” (p. 111). As St Augustine declared: “‘The law was given that grace might be sought; and grace was given that the law might be fulfilled'” (p. 37). Saved by grace through faith, we are enabled by the Holy Spirit to live out the New Law, which incarnates–in our hearts–the statutes of Sinai. Or, as St Cyril of Alexandria said, Christ “‘forms us according to his image, in such a way that the traits of his divine nature shine forth in us through sanctification and justice and the life which is good and in conformity with virtue…. The beauty of this image shines forth in us who are in Christ, when we show ourselves to be good in our works'” (p. 92).
Christ’s Church, therefore, has one perennially compelling commission: to make disciples. By bringing sinners to salvation, by affording them means of grace, they are then enabled to live righteously. The high standards of Christian morality are for Christians, men and women willingly transformed by the supernatural workings of God’s grace. Such is possible only for free moral agents, so freedom must be treasured in order for morality to exist. It is in fact possible to live rightly, for God does not command us to do what we cannot do!
One’s conscience, then, is to be respected and followed. “Saint Bonaventure teaches that ‘conscience is like God’s herald and messenger; it does not command things on its own authority, but commands them as coming from God’s authority, like a herald when he proclaims the edict of the king. This is why conscience has binding force'” (p. 76). There is an objective pole to our conscience: God. The “natural law” is imbedded in our nature by God Himself. Living ethically means heeding its truth.
Consequently, there are various behaviors which are clearly right and others which are manifestly wrong. There is an objective reality to moral acts which makes them intrinsically right or wrong. This eliminates various consequentialist or utilitarian ethical judgments, for Christians should be focused not simply on evident outcomes of an act. Yet, as St Alphonsus Maria De Liguori said, “‘It is not enough to do good works; they need to be done well. For our works to be good and perfect, they must be done for the sole purpose of pleasing God'” (p. 100).
God has called us to live rightly, pleasing Him as we allow Him to conform us to Christ. “This is what is at stake,” says the Pope: “the reality of Christ’s redemption. Christ has redeemed us! This means that he has given us the possibility of realizing the entire truth of our being; he has set our freedom free from the domination of concupiscence. And if redeemed man still sins, this is not due to an imperfection of Christ’s redemptive act, but to man’s will not to avail himself of the grace which flows from that act” (p. 125).
As a moving meditation on Scripture and the teaching of the Church Fathers, this encyclical rewards the careful reading of anyone concerned with Christian ethics.
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The importance of Scripture for Christian ethics gains clarity in Reading in Communion: Scripture & Ethics in Christian Life, by Stephen E. Fowl and L. Gregory Jones (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, c. 1991). Their thesis is simple: “The vocation of Christians is to embody Scripture in the various contexts in which they find themselves” (p. 1). They cite with approval the words of St Augustine, who believed one “‘speaks more or less wisely to the extent that he has become more or less proficient in the Holy Scriptures'” (p. 34). Though Scripture principally reveals the Reality of God, not moral imperatives, it still contains vital precepts which should challenge Christians to follow certain patterns.
Scripture, however, must be read and interpreted with others–in communion. The authors openly discard what some Protestants take as their birthright: the “private interpretation” of the Bible. Communities–particularly communities suffering persecution of some sort–clearly hear and heed biblical injunctions. To a degree, at least, this is because, the authors contend, the text itself does not contain abiding truth–rather we come to truth as we “encounter” Scripture (p. 31). In community, in church, we encounter Scripture as hearers, differing from the more critical, detached approach taken by academicians. Here St Athanasius wrote wisely: “‘For the searching and right understanding of the Scriptures there is need of a good life and a pure soul, and for Christian virtue to guide the mind to grasp, so far as human nature can, the truth concerning God the Word. One cannot possibly understand the teaching of the saints unless one has a pure mind and is trying to imitate their life'” (p. 63).
Biblical scholars have their role to play, but all too often today the character of the scholar, the devotional life of the scholar, has no bearing on his professorial career. Though scholars may attain acclaim in the professorial guild, the Church must always insist that the text cannot be mechanically reduced to history and philology.
Reading Scripture in communion, following its teachings, we should become “people of character” as the Holy Spirit enables us to live out its message. To rightly hear the truth of Scripture, however, one must also hear the voices one’s contemporaries, especially “outsiders,” groups such as homosexuals, Jews, and non-Christians. We should, Fowl and Jones say, carefully listen to them, empathize with them, respect them, and open our arms to friendship with them.
A modern model for listening to strangers, the authors contend, resides in Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who turned from studying Scripture as a university professor to seeking its guidance and obeying it as a disciple. He turned from reading Scripture “for himself” to reading it “over-against himself” (p. 140). In a 1935 letter to his brother, Bonhoeffer wrote: “‘The restoration of the Church must surely depend on a new kind of monasticism, having nothing in common with the old but a life of uncompromising adherence to the Sermon on the Mount in imitation of Christ. I believe the time has come to rally men together for this'” (p. 143).
To this end Bonhoeffer worked to establish a seminary in Finkenwalde wherein men joined together to pray and read Scripture. As persecution and pressure mounted, he found the Bible more and more powerful, giving direction to their communal life. He became, Fowl and Jones say, “a performer of scripture” (p. 157), what we’re all called to be.
Reading in Communion is a thoughtful treatise, calling us to root our moral standards in God’s Word. Ironically, though the book calls us to read Scripture its notes reveal far more references to contemporary scholars than to the Bible itself! Equally ironic: while we’re encouraged to listen to contemporary “outsiders” such as homosexuals, the “outsiders” we most need to hear–the saints and martyrs of the Christian tradition recommended to us by St Athanasius–remain largely unheard. The book’s central argument, I think, is sound, though I find it seriously flawed in some of its assumptions.