The proper distinction failing to be made in such matters is between the actual moral performance of people on the one hand and a reasonable justification for ethics on the other. There is no doubt that there are people who identify themselves as atheists who live morally exemplary lives, just as there are staunch believers in God whose behaviour is morally questionable… or worse. Still, unpopular though it may be, it is a live philosophical question (with much practical and political import!) whether the higher moral ideals of the so-called Western world—and the atheism with which we deal is pretty much a peculiarly Western and post-Christian phenomenon—are adequately justifiable in purely non-theistic or non-religious terms. Whether or not particular people are morally laudable is not the final answer to the question of the justification of morality. We can reasonably ask, What are the sources of our particular moral outlooks? What kind of moral behaviour can we reasonably expect from our fellow human beings in a culture that seems to have bought into the ‘death of God’? What vision of goodness can be sustained in a post-Christian society?
In such a society, the two main sources for ethics are either nature (a contested term if ever there was one) or society. ‘Nature’ is certainly not straightforward. We might be appealing to something called reason or to other ‘natural’ human capacities. If ‘reason’, then which ethical theory wins the day? Kantian duty-based ethics or perhaps utilitarianism? The philosophers continue to debate theories just as long and hard as any contentious religious argument over the proper interpretation of Scripture. Furthermore, the reduction of ethics to rationalistic maxims fails ot grapple adequately with the complexity of ‘the moral landscape’. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks comments:
“How bright were the hopes of the rationalists in the 18th and 19th centuries that the good life could be reduced to a simple formula. Treat persons as ends, not means, said Kant. Act so as to produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number, said Bentham. Forbid only the things that harm others, argued John Stuart Mill. These beautiful oversimplifications remind me of the snatch of dialogue from Woody Allen. “I’ve learned to speed-read. I read the whole of War and Peace in one hour.” “What’s it about?” “Russia!”
What aspect of human nature can be our guide? Is ethics some kind of realisation of human potential; a kind of commitment to excellence or particular virtues? But if so, which qualities are to be preferred above or instead of others? We have many different drives and desires, aspirations and appetites, cravings and compulsions. Outside of our permissive society, the wisdom of most philosophies and religions has urged discernment and discipline in resisting, delaying or even denying certain urges. Human nature, as we actually experience it, does not merely generate altruistic feelings. Honest self-knowledge recognises darker tendencies within.
In that case, the affirmations of some that ethics is largely explained by some benign biological impulses that give us an evolutionary advantage seems vague, inadequate, and even a little out of touch with history. But such affirmations are designed not so much to give genuine explanations as to merely to serve anti-religious polemics. They tend to give us stark (but false) alternatives: either we recognise the intrinsic biological roots of ethics or we rely upon the extrinsic pronouncements of God or the gods to tell us what to think and do: biological science versus a divine command caricature. ‘Religious ethics’ becomes, in this simplistic picture, an exercise in consulting some exhaustive index of arbitrary divine directives (or odd human rules masquerading as divine commands).
However, Christian ethics does not require a denial of the biological grounding of many of our moral impulses—Why would there be a problem with recognising that we feel deeply stirred in our bodies with compassion, empathy or love? Christian ethics does not deny that following the will of God—or pursuing any human cooperation for that matter—is in a deep sense congruent with who we are as physical beings. It does question—along with most other philosophies and religions—naïve accounts of human nature as simply an unfolding of the good, or the idea that simply reflecting on our desires will reveal to us which way to live.
Grappling with the complexities of human nature is a task we undertake with others. Human existence is social existence and so our co-existence with others requires much give-and-take in life; a recognition that we must curb ourselves at times—perhaps much of the time—to make space for others. We are shaped and in a sense ruled by social custom and conventions. Some new atheist apologists seem to think that pointing to this basic social need for reciprocity provides an adequate answer to the big philosophical question of morality. We need to live together as a matter of proper functioning, so what need to speak further of divine or religious contributions to morality? But what does reciprocity significantly tell us beyond the need for social cooperation? Does an appeal to reciprocity actually tell us what we ought to do? Does it provide serious guidance to the questions of bioethics, new technologies, questions of war and international competition?
We cannot appeal to the mere fact of sociality to provide a substantive account of moral life; but neither can we simply appeal to the particularities of our community and culture as a sufficient ground for ethics. To make our particular social arrangements and inherited judgements, embodied in tradition, the final standard for moral norms is to surrender the aspirations of morality to an acceptance of the status quo or acquiescence to moral relativism. Is slavery ‘moral’ in a certain place simply because it is widely practiced there? While the particular history of judgement, deliberation, and discernment of our community is important, it cannot be the final justification for action—there needs to be a higher court of appeal, higher aspirations or purposes to call us forward, and a higher authority to hold us to account. As important as community and tradition is, if it becomes the basis for ethics, we risk trading ethics for mere politics, and therefore morality for the exercise of power.
In his Ethics: SystematicTheology, James McClendon describes a fully-fledged Christian ethic as incorporating three strands: the body strand, the social strand, and the resurrection strand. Just as a rope is made up of several strands and no strand alone can do the work of a rope, so Christian ethics requires all three strands to function properly. Rather than being denied, the biological or organic aspect of humanity is affirmed but deemed insufficient as a final guide. Our desires are shaped in recognition of shared wisdom, social arrangements, and deliberations along the way of a shared journey in life together are all affirmed as legitimate and indeed necessary aspects of ethical life. But again, they are not the final word.
The story of each and all is itself hungry for a greater story that overcomes our persistent self-deceit, redeems our common life, and provides a way for us to be a people among all earth’s peoples without subtracting from the significance of others’ peoplehood, their own stories, their lives… Christian morality involves us, necessarily involves us, in the story of God.
God acts and speaks, creates and redeems, calls and commands in order to shape new life along the way of history. This resurrection strand of ethics is God’s revelatory and redemptive activity to do “a new thing” among us, to create new possibilities in response to the gospel of God’s saving action in Jesus Christ. Ethics is the shape of shared human life under the vocation of God in Christ. It also includes an openness to creativity and imagination in practical judgements about ethical cases.
If there is security and confidence to be had in recognising this third strand of ethics, there is also a need for us not to be triumphalistic apologists regarding Christian ethics. We must acknowledge the failure of Christians past and present to live in accordance with their own pronouncements. (The message of forgiveness is a great comfort but ought not be used as a pious veil over wilful wrongdoing.) But perhaps more importantly in questions of justification of morality, we cannot trumpet the good news of a deep divine source for ethics without also recognising the problems of living Christian morality. Grounding ethics in the character and purposes of God does not automatically lead to clear and discrete answers to complex moral problems. We still have many disagreements about the shape of our lives. Hermeneutical disagreements arise not only from poor use of Scripture, but also from the legitimate pluralism of moral judgements that arises from many people seeking faithful ways forward. Christian ethics draws upon a wide variety of resources: a compilation of wisdom, prophecy, testimony, parables and stories of divine and human interaction that provide an imaginative world in which to confront both persistent and new challenges in our lives together: but that rich variegated resource also lends itself to many possibilities.
Moral life is complex; moral problems are complex; and the resources we need to deal with them are also complex. We must resist the oversimplification of the apologists of atheism and Christianity to score easy wins in the argument over God and morality. Christians must remember that it is in the patient and gracious exemplification of moral reflection that Christian ethics gains a hearing in the wider world rather than an abstract appeal to a divine authority.
Can we be good without God? We are all troubled by others’ and our own behaviour, relieved at other times, and on occasion delighted. But we expect or at least hope for more from others and ourselves. Do we have good reason to do so reflecting upon the ambiguities of human nature within an ultimately impersonal universe or are we merely provided with excuses? Do we have good reason to expect more from our fellows if our society drifts in less charitable directions, with no higher authority than itself? There is ultimately only good reason to hope for more if there is Good News: a Higher Authority who not only exemplifies goodness, but surprises us with his call, care and companionship, to save us from ourselves and increasingly close the moral gap between who we have become and the ‘much more’ that we were intended to be. That indeed flows from the good news of Jesus Christ and in the end can only be the work of God.