Where do we get our morals? By Peter Bellingham, Pastor of the Well

On 15 January 2019, the main lecture theatre at the University Centre in Shrewsbury was full with standing room only to listen to a discussion between Simon Nightingale, Chairman of Shropshire Humanists and Peter Bellingham, Pastor of the Well in Shrewsbury. This is Peter’s presentation. Simon’s will follow tomorrow.

It’s such a joy to be here in discussion with my friend and neighbour, Simon Nightingale. I love talking with Simon; we’ve spent many hours lively conversation – and I look forward to many more. My first contact with Simon was indirect. My wife and I lived in Honduras when my mother-in-law Jill was diagnosed with motor neurone disease. As her condition worsened, Simon went out of his way to arrange a place for her in the hospice. This wasn’t a one-time kindness. When I told an elderly friend I’d be debating Simon she said she’ll never forget Simon’s kindness in seeking her out at the hospital when he was treating her severely epileptic son. Humanists want to promote care for others and Simon shows the type of kindness worthy of the name.

Tonight we’re discussing where we get our morals from, or ‘how do we know what’s the right thing to do.’ Not as an academic exercise, interesting though that would be. But rather, to see if there’s something we need to realize so we can do a better job at running our lives and running the world.

Morality means the distinction between right and wrong. A moral person typically makes a distinction between right and wrong, and lives according to what’s right. An immoral person makes the distinction but lives according to what’s wrong. An amoral person makes no distinction between right and wrong.

Why do we make a distinction between right and wrong? Simon and I have different starting points on this. He thinks that morality is a human construct deriving from our evolution as social animals. In other words, consciously or unconsciously we make it up because we need to be able to get on with each other reasonably well. I think morality was given to us by God, who is himself moral. He created human beings to get on well with Him and with each other.

How can we tell the right from wrong?

Simon and I agree that morality helps people get on well with each other. To use more technical terms it conveys a community advantage (and therefore a personal advantage). So we could happily substitute the words “right” for “advantageous” and “wrong” for “disadvantageous”. “If it’s right, it’s advantageous, it works; if it’s wrong, it’s disadvantageous, it doesn’t work.”

The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, quoted on the Humanists UK website, says this, “Humanist ethics is… distinguished by placing the end of moral action in the welfare of humanity rather than in fulfilling the will of God.” But there’s no need to make a distinction there. In Christianity, the welfare of humanity and fulfilling the will of God are inseparable. I hope to demonstrate this evening that when God gets what He wants, mankind flourishes.

Are moral rules enough?

As we’ve seen, morals mean to distinguish between right and wrong, good and bad. Everyone does this – everyone has morals of some kind because everyone distinguishes between what they think is right and what they think is wrong.

As Simon rightly points out, most people agree on the basics – that it’s right to consider the needs of others and not just your own – the golden rule of “treat others as you would wish to be treated.”

But have you noticed we have a surprisingly well developed ability to detect other people’s moral shortcomings more than our own? This is why we get so easily affronted when we think someone else isn’t treating us justly. If we think someone should be treating us better than they seem to be doing, we move very quickly into criticizing them. The positive things about them flee into the background and their failure fills our view.

Just stand in line at a coffee shop and watch as the barista receives a tongue-lashing for serving Miss Perfect a broken piece of cake. It just doesn’t seem to matter to Miss Perfect that this barista is tired, working long hours day after day and still manages a smile for every customer. Or that broken cake is just as nutritious as unbroken. Or that it’s a privilege to even eat cake when half the world is hungry. Because what really matters to Miss Perfect is that she has paid £2.50 for her cake and not a penny less, and she expects her cake to be no less perfect than she herself is.

And there we go – I’ve just pointed out Miss Perfect’s faults. What about my own? I don’t have any. (Joke!). My wife kindly does my washing for me. I love my wife. I deeply appreciate all she does, and how hard she works. Typically, I’m not one to criticize her. Yet hey presto, the other night when I didn’t know where my clean t-shirts had gone after she’d washed them, I felt that sense of injustice rising up. Why couldn’t she have done a better job? I asked her where they were. She told me where she thought she’d put them. As I left the room to look, I didn’t give her a tongue-lashing. I don’t do that kind of thing. Instead, I withheld my usual heartfelt ‘thank you’ until I’d been to look, to see if they were indeed there. My silence was a jab at her. The problem is, once I’d found that they were indeed there, I knew I’d mistreated her, albeit subtly. My guilty conscience quite rightly kicked in. I knew that a late ‘thank you’ would ring a bit hollow – if not to her, then certainly to me.

Oh, we all have a sense of right and wrong. Whether we are husbands looking for clean washing, grown-up children screaming ‘it’s not fair’, or Hitlers stirring up national hatred towards whole people groups, we all agree that others should treat us properly. Maybe our washing should always be put back in the right place, maybe our cake should always be unbroken, maybe Germany was mistreated at Versailles, but that’s just not the point. How quickly we forget the golden rule – do to others as you would have them do to you.

We forget the golden rule because it’s a rule. Rules alone can’t change people. They just don’t have the power – because we just don’t have the power. Like the rules of physics or the rules of mathematics, on their own morals can’t actually do anything. They just describe what should happen.
In the case of physics and mathematics they describe what should happen based on observation of what usually does happen– or always happens, as far as we can see. We deduce the apple will always fall from the tree – whether far from it or near it. We don’t exactly know why, but we know gravity is a rule.

In the case of right and wrong, rules describe what should happen based on what we know (in general terms) to be best for human wellbeing. Community advantage. It’s generally better not to lie, steal, cheat, murder. We all know that. As we’ve seen we’re much more ready to invoke the rule when we’re being lied to, stolen from, cheated, or murdered, than we are when we are lying, stealing, cheating, or murdering. But at some point normally the pigeons come home to roost and we realize we’ve done wrong too. We may be pretty good at switching off our consciences, at firing up the engines of our self-justification, or just keeping them permanently ticking over. But our innate sense of right and wrong is ultimately impartial – like the law of gravity it doesn’t have favourites. For all the hundreds of varieties of apples Britain is blessed with, not one of them remains suspended in the air when it becomes detached from the tree. They all fall. And so do we. The rule book is there, written on our hearts. And it may be enough to show us other’s faults and even our own, but it’s not enough to make us good. In fact, it can do quite the opposite.

So where is that rule book from?

Where does that rule book in our hearts come from? Is it from religion? If so then the word, ‘hypocrisy’ leaps to mind. Why is it that religious people are often the best at pointing out others’ faults? After all, it was the religious leaders, the Scribes and Pharisees – who arranged for Jesus Christ to be murdered.

The Scribes’ day job was to teach the rules. To teach the Law of Moses. To make sure people knew what they should and shouldn’t do. The Pharisees’ day job was to apply that Law to absolutely every little detail of every day life. I say it was their day job because for the most part they failed spectacularly to actually apply the Law to their own lives. Oh yes, they did all the right ritual ceremonies. But they fell far short of the golden rule. They were the moralists of their day, and they mocked as they watched that man, Jesus, who had been tortured all night, die in agony, nailed to a piece of wood. Their sophisticated rule book clearly wasn’t anywhere near enough to stop them regarding themselves as angels while acting like monsters. They knew well their moral ABC’s – don’t lie, steal, murder. But they lied about Jesus, they stole his liberty, and they murdered him. All the while convincing themselves they were doing the right thing. It certainly was right – in their own eyes.

Ah- once again I’m pointing out other people’s faults. But I should remember it was the secular authorities – and the general population – that joined in to send Jesus to His death. Jesus had done great kindnesses for many of them. They all knew right and wrong. But clearly it wasn’t enough to know right and wrong. I too am part of the general population, and if the scenario was repeated today, how do I know I wouldn’t also be in that crowd calling out treacherously for this good man to be silenced? Having a moral sense, knowing right and wrong, clearly just isn’t enough.

GK Chesterton defined insanity as being fixated on one fact and thus ignoring the bigger picture. Yes, it was insanity for me to fix my mind on my wife’s apparent failure to properly locate my clean washing, rather than let it dwell on her incredible kindness and hard work in cooking for me, cleaning for me, and above all loving me throughout our 25 years of marriage. It was insane for me to forget, in that moment, that she was utterly exhausted, having recently spent herself taking care of unwell people and animals, both in our household and others from the church. It was insane for me to take my own view on what is good and what is bad, rather than take the bigger picture.

God has been trying to make this point to mankind from the very beginning. Whether you take the book of Genesis literally or metaphorically, read the first few chapters and you’ll find that the only tree God forbade Adam and Eve to eat from, out of the many, many He gave them in that luscious garden of Eden, was the tree of the knowledge of good and bad!

We’re told that from the start ‘they were naked and unashamed.’ This first husband and wife were enjoying pure, uninhibited, wholehearted intimacy of body and soul. Perfect trust and therefore perfect vulnerability. God wanted them to continue this way, to really LIVE. He didn’t want them focused on good and bad. He didn’t want them taking their own view on good and bad. He knew that would kill them and He told them so. They made that fateful decision to ignore Him and eat from it, and we’re told immediately their ‘eyes were opened and they saw they were naked’.

They quickly made fig leaves to cover up their newfound sense of shame. To hide from God, from each other, from themselves.

Then when confronted on their error, they began to blame each other – and even blame God for putting them with each other in the first place.

We can all relate, because the history of mankind – you and I included – has been the same ever since. Pretending, hiding, blaming. I’m not suggesting we dispense with our clothes. But it certainly would help if we could dispense with our masks and our pointing fingers. As the song goes: We learn to wear these masks so young, like a prison that keeps joy from getting through, and an angry silence grips our tongues, these weapons and these walls become our tombs. How can we drop those masks and weapons and come out from behind those walls, if we’re afraid of what being vulnerable will mean? Why would we want to look God in the eye if we think He is waiting to condemn us rather than to help us?

God is moral but he’s not a moralist. There are things that are right and things that are wrong. Adam and Eve knew they were not meant to eat from that one tree, but that they were free to eat from all the others. God had told them so. We all have a basic moral conscience. We know there is a right way to live and a wrong way. Whether God placed it there in us from the start, or whether He gave it to us through evolution, I will not contest. The important thing is that it’s there.

But it’s developed in completely the wrong way. We think our moral conscience is about figuring out what’s right and doing it, and figuring out what’s wrong and avoiding it. The knowledge of good and bad. But that’s not what it’s there for. It’s there simply to keep us oriented towards God. Like a compass drawn to North. The rest follows naturally, powerfully – and beautifully.

At the beginning there was only one negative command Adam and Eve needed to heed. The other commands God gave at the beginning would have – let’s just say – come naturally. “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth and subdue it”. In other words, “steward over this wonderful creation, enjoy one another, and enjoy having children who you teach to do the same!”

So why, later on, did God add another 600 or so commands by giving the Law through Moses? Thus providing the environment for moralists, like Scribes and Pharisees, to flourish? If you read the Bible through, and follow the development of the narrative, the answer is crystal clear.

The Law was NOT given to teach people to do right and to avoid wrong, but rather to show that a rule book is not enough! It just doesn’t go far enough. Moral rules can never ‘cover all bases’. And it’s not basic enough. Rules don’t give us the ability to keep them. They may be somewhat effective motivators, good clarifiers of which kinds of behaviour are beneficial and which aren’t. But principally the Law was given to show that we can’t keep it. It condemns us, it doesn’t save us.

We don’t need a rule book. We need something else – something much more basic, something much more natural, much more alive – we need a relationship.

I don’t need a rule book to tell me that when I deliberately withheld that ‘thank you’ from my wife, I was wrong. Deeply, horrendously wrong. I don’t need a rule book to tell me that she deserves much more than a thank you. I love her, and I know she loves me. We have a relationship of love with each other. That’s why I knew my error. That’s why I’ll make a point of acting differently next time. But I will need help.

Rule Book or Remedy?

Another tree is mentioned in Genesis that Adam and Eve had been free to eat from but sadly never did – the tree of LIFE. They and all their descendants ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and bad rather than this tree of life. That’s why the religious leaders- the teachers of the knowledge of good and bad – murdered Jesus.

Jesus had showed them that having tasted the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and bad, we are condemned to eat it all, and every bite brings death. Jesus showed them clearly just how far the law of good and bad goes –whoever hates his brother is a murderer, whoever even looks at someone else’s wife lustfully is an adulterer. No-one escapes that degree of scrutiny. Thus, morality rightly condemns even its own teachers to death.

They had to silence Jesus, because He came not to make bad men good, but to make dead men live. And so He was putting the teachers of the Law out of a job, ending their ministry of death. His words ring right across the ages: “I have come so people can have LIFE in all its fullness…. Because I AM the Life”

He would fulfil all moral law on our behalf (yours and mine), He would die our death for us, and be raised for us to New Life, thus undoing the effects of Adam’s sin and ours, and beginning a new species of people who would live not by the knowledge of good and bad, but by the power of God’s own Life.

Real Guilt and Real Grace

The Law of Moses – the Law of good and bad, that the religious leaders were tasked with teaching – condemned an adulterous woman to death by stoning. When the religious leaders brought her to Jesus to ask Him what to do with her, they weren’t puzzling over an apparent moral dilemma. They were trying to trap Jesus into contradicting the Law, so they could then have pretext to silence Him as a lawbreaker, just like they had caught this woman in bed with someone else’s husband, and wanted to silence her.

What did Jesus do? He had every right to say, “Yes, the Law requires her to be stoned. Let me throw the first one and let’s teach this woman and all the onlookers a thing or two about what is right and what is wrong.” Instead, He said nothing. He knelt down and wrote in the dust with His finger. No one knows what He wrote. But we can infer what He was trying to communicate. Jesus is described elsewhere as God’s Word, from the Greek LOGOS meaning not only a message, but also the governing principle in which all reality exists. The ground, the dust represents this planet and all that it’s made up of, including you and me. God was about to speak about what is important to Him. He was about to show how this poor woman’s situation should be seen in reality.

So when Jesus stood up, he said, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone at her.” Reality check. Stunned silence. They all dropped their stones and left.

The eldest went first. They’d lived long enough to know they had their own faults and couldn’t hide from them. The youngest went next. Yes, they too had a sense of right and wrong.

The adulterer was left standing there with Jesus – the only one with the right to stone her. And what did He say to her? “Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?” She replied that they had left. Reality calls on us all to drop our stones and acknowledge our own guilt. Jesus’ next words were a cataclysmic statement, that undoes all the millennia of death with which the fruit of that tree had poisoned our minds and lives: “I do not condemn you either”. The one man there who had the right to stone her, would not do so. He saw the bigger picture. God was more interested in her life than in her death.

His final statement to her was “Now go, and from now on sin no more.” Go your way. Live your life. Don’t commit adultery any more, in thought or in deed.

She knew she had done wrong. Adultery never pays off. It always breaks hearts, it always breaks homes, and it always contributes to heart-breaking trends in society. You don’t need me to point that out to you. When God decided to pronounce on her situation, he didn’t excuse her wrongdoing. Nor did he focus on it. Instead, he offered her a way forward.

How would it be possible for her to ‘sin no more’? Sounds like a tall order. It is a tall order. He didn’t tell her to go and relearn the Law. She didn’t need that. She needed something much greater. That something – that some one was standing in front of her.

She had met the Person who was the solution. As Jesus said elsewhere, “I have not come to condemn the world, but to save it.” He offered her LIFE. And that Life wasn’t going to be found in mere morals. It was going to be found in abundance, in Him.

Failing in Law or Falling in Love

God is not a finger-wagging, idealistic moralist. He is a lover. His constant call to mankind is, “Come to me. Return to me. Receive my Life. And thus know me. Know my love. Know one another. Love one another.”

Yes, ever since our ancestors chose to take good and bad into their own hands, we’ve needed correcting on our viewpoints. At times I’ve needed to remember Bible’s words: “Husbands, love your wives, and don’t treat them with any harshness.” Those exhortations, those rules in themselves can’t change us. They can help us focus our behaviour, and thus help us express the love we have for each other. It is that love which is the engine and the fuel of our relationship.

Most of all they remind us that we need God, every day we need God. They point us to the one whose love is what caused him to initiate the universe, and to give each one of us life.

They point us to the one whose power, if we will simply come to Him, gives us the free gift of new birth into a new life, transforming us so that we can truly live, and so we can live true.

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