By David Baggett and Marybeth Baggett
Connecting God and ethics nowadays often invites amusement at best, disdain at worst. “Religious nones” are on the increase, yet society seems to be holding together tolerably well. Add to that the number of stories about religiously affiliated folks behaving badly, and for many, it’s just not clear what the purpose of throwing God into the moral equation is. Perhaps nothing more than an authoritarian party-pooper whose rules are inscrutable, and a life spent following them, bleak. Ned Flanders from The Simpsons is the posterchild for such a posture—religious, affable, yet perpetually clueless. “I don't drink or dance or swear, I've even kept kosher just to be on the safe side. I've done everything the Bible says! Even the stuff that contradicts the other stuff!”
It’s commonplace today to think morality is on better footing without religion’s involvement, which usually just taints and ruins it. All manner of human strife, critics declare, stems from faith convictions—the Crusades, religious persecution throughout history, and contemporary terrorism and unrest in the Middle East. And the Judeo-Christian deity is no better, so the argument goes. After all, Richard Dawkins writes, “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
As we said, moral apologists are facing a bit of a publicity crisis these days. Still Dawkins’s bluster helps us understand why moral considerations are now often taken as evidence against God’s goodness or existence, as in the classical problem of evil. Moral arguments in favor of God’s existence—even though they’ve been advanced by thinkers as notable as Immanuel Kant, John Henry Newman, and C. S. Lewis—usually tend to push listeners beyond believability, sometimes even beyond civility. “I don’t need God to be moral!” comes the retort. To suggest otherwise is on par with accusations of offensive body odor or, even worse, forcing the premature cancellation of Firefly. What kind of monster do you think I am?
Duly admonished, most proponents of the moral argument walk back their claims, profusely apologizing and distancing themselves from any implication that unbelievers can’t uphold fine values and sport strong characters. Yes, yes, they say, we appreciate Mulder’s devotion to Scully, thoroughly irreligious as it is. And they dial back their claims, set aside questions of conversion, and start with common ground, exploring the best explanation of moral agency or rights, duties or knowledge. Such care and judiciousness is admirable. It’s also effective in building a bridge between believers and nonbelievers, and heaven knows the more bridges constructed in these divided times the better.
Nevertheless, despite the provocations associated with the claim, it is difficult to blithely accept that we can somehow achieve radical moral transformation of our own devices. A quick glance at human history or literature removes any lingering doubts to the contrary. Maybe there’s something to this God/morality connection, at least something worth thinking a bit about rather than dismissing it out of hand. It is an idea we find compelling ourselves—that anything like realistic hope for moral perfection is possible only if God makes it happen. In fact, we lay out such a case for readers, along with a number of other considerations for the moral argument, in our recent book, The Morals of the Story: Good News about a Good God.
Once everyone’s hackles are down, cooler heads will often acknowledge that, true enough, this world is a mess, and not even Dr. Horrible can save us. Consensus is that something does have to give. We have heard this sentiment expressed in Sarah Silverman’s recent plea for a better world after her friend Louis CK confessed to abusive mistreatment of women; we heard it in victim statement after victim statement in the sentencing trial of convicted child molester Larry Nassar. In light of these horrific wrongs, we can see that the cursory and superficial manner in which morality is often treated in this era of soundbites and social media is just not cutting it. The very issue of moral transformation is often overshadowed by a rather shortsighted and watered-down account of what morality is all about. It’s not simply conventions and negotiations to ensure we get along; it’s not merely knowing and avoiding social taboos and staying in the public’s good graces. It’s much deeper than that, more solid and foundational to reality itself. It features traditional and authoritative obligations with attendant guilt for wrongdoing; it’s a call to a life of virtue with talk of a coming reckoning and promise of forgiveness for sins. To think about it otherwise is to domesticate it beyond recognition.
Take an analogy. There is a crucial difference between genuine health, on the one hand, and merely treating conditions, on the other. A Tylenol might give relief for a few hours, but only a root canal will eradicate the underlying problem. Rather than seeking the cure we need for our moral disease, it’s tempting instead to alleviate a few symptoms, settle for a few incremental improvements along the way, thank our lucky stars for a modicum of palliative therapy, and deny we’re really that sick after all. Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography provides a memorable example of just this approach. As a young man, he once set himself to the formidable task of attaining moral perfection. He outlined his plans to conquer all that either natural inclination, custom, or company might lead him into; however, unsurprisingly, this strategy failed to achieve its ambitious goals: “I soon found I had undertaken a task of more difficulty than I had imagined. While my care was employ’d in guarding against one fault, I was often surprised by another; habit took the advantage of inattention; inclination was sometimes too strong for reason.” Having failed to reach his lofty aims, Franklin settled instead for the mere appearance of virtue.
As John Hare deftly explains in his important work The Moral Gap, without divine assistance to bridge the chasm between our ethical obligations and capabilities, we find few options other than exaggerating our capacities, lowering the demand, or forging secular substitutes. But as Kant and Lewis have pointed out, and as we so acutely recognize, that approach—psychologically appeasing as it might be—cannot rescue us from our moral dilemma, obligated to a standard that, try as we might, we cannot meet, called to a sublime vocation of which we’re unworthy. At least on our own finite and meager resources.
Malcolm Muggeridge famously wrote that the depravity of man is at once the most empirically verifiable reality but at the same time the most intellectually resisted fact. Babylon Bee put a humorous twist on this serious subject with the story of a 29-year-old mom who believed that people are basically good—at least until her daughter grew up a little. “Now that Charlotte is two—hoo boy. That innate depravity is shining through with the brightness of a thousand suns…. She’s like a Category 5 hurricane with a cute face.”
Lewis said that there are two facts that are well-nigh undeniable: the existence of moral truths, and that we invariably fall short of them. Lewis thought these two truths provide the most important clue to understand this world in which we live. They constitute our diagnosis; God’s overtures of love offering forgiveness and transformation is the prescription. The life that awaits us, Lewis proclaims, is about so much more than implementing a moral regiment or diluting the standard: “The people who keep on asking if they can’t lead a decent life without Christ, don’t know what life is about; if they did they would know that ‘a decent life’ is mere machinery compared with the thing we men are really made for. Morality is indispensable: but the Divine Life, which gives itself to us and which calls us to be gods, intends for us something in which morality will be swallowed up.” God can do more than merely ameliorate the symptoms of our chronic moral malady. We are to be remade—a glorious prospect indeed. In the face of our urgent need to become not just better people, but new people, for a revolution of the will, for radical moral transformation, the death and resurrection of Christ is indeed “good news.”