Sunday, April 2

Incredibly random and disjointed thoughts on moral awareness and responsibility

One thing I really dislike is when a preacher walks up to the pulpit, assembles his notes and Bible in a forlorn fashion, and says something like: “I’m here to deliver a warning.” From my experience attending Independent Baptist churches my whole life, more often than not the preacher really means to say: “I’m here to condemn all of you, exalt myself, and use any excuse to raise my voice as I speak.” Because people (like me) do not like to hear that they are lacking in certain areas and need to better themselves. Whatever proceeds from that preachers mouth will be met with a disconcerting sigh (whether justified or not), since the thing that disturbs a comfortable and careless existence most is a feeling that we are in some way inadequate to qualify as a good person.

The maxim that everybody would rather be indifferent to self-improvement and cold to the thought of moral inadequacy in themselves is shown in many aspects of personal life and the overarching cultural society. I will attempt to outline a few now:

In every country there is a set of black and white moral structures, indicating to the citizens of the country what is right and what is wrong (not just in the law, but commonly accepted cultural practices etc.). When enough individual’s morality conflicts with the states, a reactionary social movement will be formed. This social movement is made up of people who are doing what is considered immoral/wrong/strange by the state and society, and in an effort to change both public perceptions and institutional law they will lobby the government. There are plenty of contemporary examples of such movements, such as the Gay Rights movement, radical feminism, gun rights, pro-abortion, and religious extremism. Now, in all of these movements, you have people who would prefer to make what they believe in as accepted (such as that homosexuals deserve equal rights), as opposed to conforming their own belief and practice to external authorities.

It should be noted that I am not affirming either moral relativism or objectivity, or saying that any of these movements are right or wrong. The point is that inherent in the human condition is an averseness towards moral responsibility, accountability, and compromise.

In terms of practical living, this is seen in the practice of blame-shifting. Everybody does this a lot, whether people are conscious of it or not. Politicians in Australia blame the public service when they are accused of making an incompetent decision, businessman blame other factors for poor performance, when we wrong somebody making excuses will be our natural reaction, and in law criminal acts are exponentially being explained in terms of antecedent psychological factors as opposed to the depravity of their moral decisions. People aren’t willing to take responsibility in affirming their actions and following them through, rather we attempt to smother unrighteousness and show a stark disinclination towards finding fault in our self.

Perhaps an even greater example for Protestant Christians is the contemporary concept of “salvation” and “eternal security”, supposedly the centerpieces of our Christian faith. In them we find almost zero moral accountability once an individual becomes “born again” and is initiated into the fold. Since forgiveness is abundant in this saved realm of living, and the church does little to stop our apathy from exploiting forgiveness, Christians often have little motivation towards ever listening to the warnings that Jesus gave and the directives he expected his followers to keep. A Christian living under this theology could legitimately say: "Well I don’t live up to Christ’s standard, but I am most likely better than the unbeliever down the street that is going to hell. And since I am saved; when I continually fall short I can ask God for forgiveness and it'll be fine."

Christ’s words are turned from being a mirror and showing our humane weaknesses (and thereby improving on them), to becoming an excuse, and thereby the Christian successfully avoids all moral responsibility, accountability, and self-improvement.

Now that I have (hopefully) convincingly demonstrated the ways in which indifference and fear trumps a desire for moral righteousness, I will try and remind the church on something quite important. Christianity cures a sickness (the sickness of sin, which I attempted to describe in a few of my past posts), and if we did not have this sickness Christianity (and religion as a whole) would become irrelevant. If my self had no spiritual sickness, I would not need Jesus, and I would not need God. As erroneous as the doctrine of “depravity” is, it has a small merit in that it gives people an awareness of their unrighteousness.

The danger in Liberal Christianity is that it can so easily become one where the sickness is disregarded as okay (in the guise of toleration and non-discrimination), and thereby the cure becomes played down. Liberal Christianity still needs to keep a solid understanding of sin and how we need to strive for Christ-like character. All Christians in general need to take moral responsibility and accountability, and needs to be aware of themself as a moral agent. Without this, there will be no growth as a person, and Christ’s impact in our lives will be minimal.


Blogger Timothy said...

Just as a little add-on to that post:

I believe that humans aren't necesarrily depraved, and hasn't inherented a depravity from adam's original sin. I do believe, however, that this spiritual sickness that is kin to humanity is a natural response to a moral agent's freedom.

Coming to Jesus is seeking a recourse to this sickness and becoming a Christian is essentially dedicating to affirm the self by eradicating this sickness through the cure ascribed by Jesus. I will delve into this idea in a later post, but essentially what i wanted to point out was that despite what this post seemed to indicate im not a "fire and brimstone" kind of theologian (if I count as a theologian).

6:34 PM  
Blogger Luthsem said...

Good post Tim

I think this is similar to what Dietrich
Bonhoeffer, Paul Tillich and Karl Barth would say. They were not fundamentalists but they did not deny the evil inclination that is in all of us. Neo-orthodoxy's critique of a "positive thinking type Liberalism". I'm not saying that neo-orthodoxy doesn't have its weakness but it was right on its critique of modernist liberalism and fundamentalist theologies.

9:48 AM  
Blogger Jay said...

I think this is very true of some streams in liberal Christianity. The importance of the individual's moral responsibility disappears in light of the focus upon social structures and formative power of culture. Immoral behavior becomes excusable and the blame is place on this intangible and vague dominating force. Though I do agree that societal structures do shape our actions (I think they have a very powerful affect on us), we are still beings with the freedom of choice and we must take responsibility for decisions.

9:05 AM  
Blogger quarendum said...

I just stumbled across your website and appreciate what you are trying to do here. First, I agree that there is a dangerous tendency towards relativism in liberal forms of Christianity that does not square with the Christian tradition. On the other hand, the hackneyed moralistic rhetoric spewed from conservative pulpits is equally as misguided. Kudos on these aspects.

One problem seems to be a slippery use of language. One the one hand, you declare the doctrine of depravity to be "erroneous," yet when you attempt to describe the need for moral accountability/responsibility, you use the concept of depravity to make your point. You write, "Liberal Christianity still needs to keep a solid understanding of sin, depravity..." Why would you cite them for not keeping a doctrine that you yourself above described as "erroneous."

The problem seems to be that you are conflating the concepts of "moral responsibility" and the doctrine of "depravity" for functionalist reasons. One need not be depraved, however, in order to recognize their moral accountability/responsibility before God. How often did Jesus teach on the depravity of humanity? Never, so far as I can tell. Yet his message was one of incredible moral/ethical responsibility that he laid upon all of humanity. This, I should think, is sufficient reason in itself for your argument. My point is that you use your language loosely to express your concepts. Obviously you disagree with the notion of depravity, so abandon it. You do not need it in order for someone to recognize their sinful nature.

I would agree with you about the "spiritual sickness" of humanity. It seems that humanity is severely flawed. We are limited, uncomprehending, self-oriented, et alia. I believe that if you abandon the language of the traditional concepts you can reach more who are willing to think on these issues yet might otherwise be turned off by such language uses. Continue what you are doing here. Thinking on these issue via Kierkegaard's concepts is always a good idea!

3:38 AM  
Blogger Timothy said...

erm... It was a typo more than anything. But thanks for pointing it out, I can see why it caused confusion. I'll edit the post later.

9:30 AM  
Blogger julieunplugged said...

Hi Tim.

Julie (Jazz) here from TD. Just wanted to read a bit more of where you're coming from.

My reading of liberal theologians today (are you going back to 19th century or are you in the postmodern era when you say "liberal"?) is that they understand "sin" but that they are less concerned with personal moral failure and more interested in how human failing produces/causes suffering. Sin writ large, as it were.

Where I see the 19th century liberals erring is that they assumed that humankind was on the fast track to self-matery and improvement (the pair of world wars successfully nuked that ideal) whereas fundamentalists located the root of sin inside one's personal scope (how I have sex, whether I lie to the tax collectors, how I transact my personal business). These may be important, but what the liberals of the late 20th century emphasize is that the real mission of the church ought to be around how our "sin" oppresses the other, marginalizes the other.

So I wouldn't see liberals as being opposed to the concept of sin, but instead emphasize how our actions collectively translate into suffering.


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