Weaponized Morality

Within the modern framing of the world, morality is understood as a human construct – a construct that is held in a perpetuated tension between pragmatism and sentimentality. And within this existential tension, a constant state of interpretation is taking place, following the transient curve of cultural ethos. So in short – morality is whatever we say it is, and can be shaped into whatever we need it to be at any given moment . . . as long as an existentially pronounced ideal is driving the perception of necessity, moving the needle of our collective moral compass. So is it any wonder that such an amorphous understanding of morality would inevitably become weaponized?

The principle is simple – in the absence of a morality held as immutably transcendent, a vacuum is created, where invariably, competing moral narratives struggle for supremacy. It’s a struggle of imposed wills, often driven by unlikely faith beliefs – as the faith of the irreligious can be just as devout as that of the religious . . . and can be just as perversely unyielding. Which is why the smug sanctimony found in secular dogma can feel as dispassionately cruel and oppressive as any religious order is capable of exhibiting.

This is why Nietzsche was so convinced that morality was an essential battlefield in the struggle of imposed wills. But Nietzsche recognized that first there would have to be a new ontological premise at the heart of this new moral narrative – so he declared God was dead. Notice, he didn’t declare God never existed, which was something he clearly believed, but rather — that the God we all thought was alive, was now dead. This is because he wasn’t really making an academic point about God’s existence, he was making a practical point about necessity. He was convinced that modern man no longer needed his teleological convictions found in the moral transcendence of God. Believing that modern man could now untether himself from such contrived moral constraints . . . if he only had the will to do so.

So this is where we find ourselves, having crossed the post-Christian cultural tipping point, where our transcendent appreciation of morality is being dragged off to the edge of town, to be thrown on the trash heap, with all of the other deconstructed socially unacceptable artifacts. Because they have already crossed the Rubicon with bridges burning behind them –so that now, like the Caesar before them, they have chosen to march on their own people, intent on displacing the old order of moral presuppositions with the bloodless pragmatism of the new order. Canceling one culture, so that a new culture can take its place. All hail the new order . . . or else.

This is what morality viewed as a power struggle invariably produces. Everything becomes a calculation, attempting to maintain the illusion that drives the perception of necessity that holds sway over the culture. And because such an authority must be absolute, forgiveness and redemption have no place in this new world . . . and the disenfranchised will either live in silent conformity or be socially reprogrammed. But you gotta hand it to Nietzsche, he was right after all – this is exactly what a godless morality looks like . . . even if it looks like a ring of hell that not even Dante could have imagined.

A Quixotic Moment

It could be argued that the whole of human history has been a story of man doing what he thinks is right in his own eyes. Therefore there have always been competing visions for what justice should look like, giving rise to competing narratives of how justice is achieved. Each narrative voiced in the political rhetoric of its day, each offering its rationale for why it should be given power to impose its version of justice on the rest of us. So historically our experience of human justice has been characterized by subtle shades of violence and oppression – because invariably each narrative becomes fully realized as just another iteration of an imposed will, indicative of Babylon.

God’s justice is understood, first and foremost, ontologically before it can ever be understood sociologically. So one cannot have a meaningful conversation about what justice should look like until they have answered the question – what is it that gives human life value? Either it is a value assigned immutably sourced in the transcendence of God, or it is a value oscillating in the transience of cultural ethos. Therefore we do well as Christians to remember that it is our confession of imago dei that animates our Christian understanding of justice.

There are those who entertain narratives of justice that appear similarly motivated, but are in all actuality nothing more than repackaged political rhetoric, fueled by existentially pronounced morality. Such purveyors of manufactured justice imagine themselves as heroically rising to the challenge of some quixotic moment in history, where they can finally prove their worth . . . and justify their own existence. Some take to the streets, using violence if necessary, to prove their commitment – while others simply virtue signal their lockstep conformity to whatever the latest version of culturally coerced dogma might be.

So the contrast between the two couldn’t be any more evident. One view, believing that justice is a malleable human construct, one that must be regularly reinvented as a sociological mandate imposing conformity. Which is why it must intimidate all dissenting views into silent compliance – because the subtext of such a belief sees fear as the prime motivator of justice. But for those of us who hold imago dei as an ontological starting point for understanding the value of human life, the role of justice is intended to remind us of who we are — like gravity constantly reminding us of what planet we live on. Everything about God’s creation is purposeful, ever drawing us back to him, ever calling us to live our lives as bearers of his image.

So yes, as a Christian I have an unflinching commitment to what is just, but not as some grandiose proclamation about how others should live their lives – but rather as a meditation on what pleases God most (Micah 6:8). I seek to walk humbly with my God, by doing what is just, and by loving mercy. And I invite others to do likewise, so that they may live at peace with God . . . and one another. To imagine that justice could be sought any other way, is to misunderstand why you even exist . . . because justice can’t really be understood apart from the perspective of being made in God’s image.

Let us pray that God would illuminate the shadows . . .

Being Good

My mother kept a note from my 3rd grade teacher that read: “Greg, was a good boy today. He didn’t bother anyone today and only hit one boy on the playground.” My teacher was apparently offering a rather generous definition of being a “good boy” – or perhaps just a definition, referencing the relative baseline of my previous behavior, comparatively speaking. And I suppose, relatively speaking, I was a good boy – at least that was my mother’s take on me, having shown me that note when I had become an adult . . . but then again, mothers aren’t really known for their unbiased opinions about their own kids.

So is that the way it works – being good is just a subjectively assessed value, subject to how we choose to interpret our culture’s mores or religiously held moral professions? Is being good merely an absence of being bad? Is it a legal formulation, where good and bad keep canceling each other out – except for the really bad stuff . . . whatever that it is? Is this not the very dilemma we created for ourselves in the garden – believing we could figure out for ourselves, what to deem good and bad? So isn’t our whole legal framing of morality, on some level, just a relitigation of that original sin?

If you have a toaster that no longer toasts, you might call it a bad toaster, because a good toaster is able to do the very thing it was designed to do. Good and bad, in this regard, is clearly not a legal matter – but would be better understood as an ontological matter. The whole reason for a toaster to exist, is to toast – if it can no longer do that, its existence is in crisis. This is because what a thing is and what it is meant to do, is inextricable.

Now, you might say “that this may be true of inanimate objects, but don’t humans have moral agency?” To which I say – all things have a reason to exist. So isn’t the whole point of having moral agency, to identify whether or not we are existing as we were intended to exist? If not, then what’s the point? Put philosophically, there is an innate symbiosis between our ontology (existence) and our telos (purpose) – they can’t be separated. Psychologically speaking, when we can no longer identify why we exist, this is precisely when we’re the most susceptible to making bad choices – choices clearly at odds with our own wellbeing.

In Mark 10:18 Jesus says “No one is good except God alone.” If we take Jesus’ words to be legally axiomatic – then not only will you never be good enough, you can’t be good at all! But if his words are taken ontologically – then being good is not only what God does, it is also who he is! Which is why, apart from God, being good is impossible. Therefore any legal measurement of being good, will only ever be misleading – just another attempt to pick forbidden fruit. We were meant to live in God’s presence – to be with Him. And every moment of our existence is inviting us to remember that this is who we are . . . and this what we do . . . and it’s pretty good.

It’s a simple life in a difficult time . . .

There Ought To Be A Law!

I was recently chatting it up with a self-described nihilist. But he didn’t really strike me as the type who had actually done any of the thoughtfully honest heavy lifting, usually associated with working through the philosophical implications of such a belief system. My take on him was that he was far more of the type, to maintain a meticulously coiffured beard for the woke crowd down at the local coffee shop, where he liked to pass himself off as the brooding intellectual who had bravely concluded that the meaninglessness of life was rationale enough for his hedonistic choices.

So in a dizzying display of cognitive dissonance, in the midst of our conversation, he was claiming to embrace a philosophy that thoroughly eviscerates moral significance, while simultaneously pounding the table with the certainty of moral sanctimony. No doubt, he imaged himself to be holding a uniquely nuanced opinion, when in fact, if you stripped his opinion of all of its self-possessed rhetoric, it was a rather pedestrian view, bent on self-justification.

When some people claim to believe in a “live and let live” world, it is very likely they are merely framing the argument for why they can’t be held morally accountable. But ironically, this doesn’t keep them from proclaiming “there ought to be a law!” in regards to the moral accountability they wish to impose on everyone else. The bottom line of such duplicity, is to denounce personally practiced religious morality as being too oppressive — while simultaneously promoting politically coerced limitations on behaviors they find unacceptable.

In Joshua 24:14-15, Joshua makes the case that it was ultimately up to the people to choose for themselves whom they would serve. They could live by the laws given to Moses and thereby serve God, or they could serve some other god and thereby live by whatever laws suited them. Joshua wasn’t saying that it doesn’t matter which path you take, rather, he was simply pointing out that we always choose the path of our heart’s desire, and what he and his household desired most — was God.  This is very different from the civil or statutory way we tend to think about law. Because to the modern mind, law is created out of a social/ cultural agreement we create in regards to behavior and obligation. So you don’t so much live by such a law, as you agree to comply with the prevailing culture’s expectations of how you should behave.

Law Concept Metal Letterpress Word in DrawerPsalm 1:1, 2 says “Blessed is the man . . . his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night” – can you even imagine someone saying this about a civil or statutory law? A civil law is, more often than not, grudgingly complied with – this is because we don’t so much live by them, as we obey them. In contrast — what we meditate on, and take delight in, are the things that mean the most to us. So we willingly choose to live our lives in accordance with what we value most – those things that animate love and desire within us. And I think this is what the psalmist is talking about.

The gospels juxtapose for us the Pharisees, as the self-proclaimed keepers of the laws of Moses, with Jesus, as the self-described fulfillment of those laws (Matthew 5:17). Given such a context, it would be conspicuously reductive to interpret fulfillment here as meaning that Jesus was merely a perfect keeper of the law (better than the Pharisees). Rather, it would be better understood that Jesus fulfilled the law of God, as it was originally intended, as the psalmist describes it — restoring our ability to delight our heart’s in the presence of God . . . reconciling us to a relationship that had long been broken.

So let the nihilist, who can only imagine laws as having value, as a means of enforcing the contrived purposes of his imposed will — be the one obsessed with law keeping. Because for those of us who walk in the way of Christ — we know better. For it is the law of love that bids us come live our lives in God’s presence, that we might truly know His grace and mercy — so that we might do what pleases Him most. But not out of some empty obligation — No! Instead, we willingly choose to walk in a way that only love can inspire . . . so that we might freely choose to do, what only love can do.

Morality without God is just a book of wet matches

Life at Market Value

Economically speaking, a good or service only has the value someone is willing to pay for it — this is the driving principle behind the economic law of supply and demand. This is likely because identifying the value of anything, economic or otherwise, is an evaluative process, one that on some level, requires a philosophical assessment of what constitutes value. So even if you’re the type of person to trust all of those serious people, wearing lab coats, to tell you if something has value or not – in truth, you’re only allowing them, by proxy, to do your philosophic assessments for you . . . because science is incapable of assessing value.

But this isn’t to suggest that science doesn’t play an important role in informing our philosophical assessments. For example: If they were to exhume your body a thousand years from now, not only would they be able to correctly identify your species and gender – but they would also be able to identify it as your body, because DNA is that specific an identifier. So scientifically speaking, DNA is inextricably tied to personhood. Begging the question – exactly when does this DNA distinctive first occur for each of us?

Turns out, our distinctive DNA occurs at conception. So whatever philosophical assessment process you employ for determining the value of human life, you will likely have to accommodate the specific personhood of the unborn – that is, if you’re actually interested in acknowledging the personhood of every human. And you’d think that would be the default philosophy of most people – but you’d be wrong . . . if history is any indicator. Because pronouncing certain people groups as sub-human is precisely how genocide and slavery have always been justified.

When asked if human life is valuable, most folks without hesitation will answer – yes. If asked – what makes it valuable? Most will offer an answer that is either based in pragmatism, or in sentimentality – which makes for a very interesting threshold. Because to this way of thinking, as long as a sub-group is viewed as pragmatically or sentimentally valuable, they have nothing to fear – but if the tide of cultural ethos and opinion should shift . . . then all bets are off. And given that the whole of morality is predicated on how we esteem the value of human life – it’s no wonder that a culture mired in the moral ambiguity of existential relativism, would end up balkanizing into identity group factions, arguing why their faction should be validated and valued as being specifically significant, compared with others.

imagesThis is what human life at market value looks like – each sub-group making its case for why it matters . . . which invariably leads to the de-valuing of some other sub-group, by comparison. But here’s the thing – if we’re to believe that all human life has an innate value, then it’s value must be a transcendently sourced assessment. Apart from such an assessment, human value is left to the vagaries of imposed will, each sub-group seeking to assume the role of arbiter . . . believing that you’re either the one calling the shots – or you’re the one being shot at.

It is the profession of the Christian gospel that “God so loved the world . . .” (John 3:16). And it is the bloodless conclusion of Nietzsche that humanity is locked in a struggle of “will to power”. One pronouncing us all as the beloved of God – an immeasurable value. The other believing we’re all hopelessly caught in a perpetual struggle, intent on determining who among us is worthy enough to evolve. I know this makes for a rather stark comparison – but apparently, until we’re willing to really embrace this contrast, then we’ll be tempted to believe we’re the ones who get to determine the value of human life.

. . . and just in case you’ve forgotten — God believes in you.

Contrary To Existence

Bob Dylan said “If you’re not busy being born, you’re busy dying”. Which I’ve always taken as – life begins and life ends, and in between life is never really static . . . it’s always heading in one direction or the other. Begging the question – so how are you choosing to live your life? In many ways, life is on a continuum, between choices that lead to life, or those that lead to death. Between what is real and what is illusion. Between significance and meaninglessness. So even though you may arise every morning, going through the normal paces of your day — like it was no big deal . . . you’re also oscillating between existence and non-existence.

For an ongoing bases now, I have been preoccupied with an ontological meditation – especially when pondering the implications of my faith beliefs. Because when I choose to believe that God exists, I am actually making a very profound claim about the very nature of existence, itself. Thomas Aquinas describes God as ipsum esse subsistens (the act of being, itself) – his point being, that God doesn’t simply exist, among other things that exist, but rather, in his existence . . . all things exist (Acts 17:28). Now, let your mind consider for a moment, that in creation, God spoke us all out of non-existence.

St. Augustine said – “Since every creature is made ex nihilo (out of nothing), it carries with it a heritage of non-being . . . a shadow of nothingness that haunts every finite thing.” Therefore, to move towards God, is to move towards existence, and to move away from God, is to move away from existence. At first blush this might strike you as an academic abstraction – but I can assure you, that it has a very profound presuppositional influence on how you understand everything. All that you believe to be good and meaningful, as well as, all that you believe to be bad and destructive.

Theologically, sin is largely framed as a legal matter of transgression – laws have been broken, so consequences must be meted out. But this strikes me as a reductive understanding of sin. Yes, sin can be seen as a legal matter, but when understood ontologically, it takes on a far more comprehensive dimension. Let me put it this way – if you run a stop sign you’ve broken a largely arbitrary law. Reasonable people might argue whether or not that stop sign should even be there — offering a logical and practical critique. So when sin is viewed as merely a legal concern, it quite often takes on this very same arbitrary legislative quality — as if God were simply being as arbitrary as a stop sign. Just giving us all hoops to jump through — for reasons that he alone understands?

todd-mclellan-disassebled-decontruction-art-photography-8But what if we related to the law of God in the same way we relate to the law of gravity? Gravity is just a given reality within the universe — it’s just the way things exist . . . so it’s necessity isn’t really a topic of debate. Therefore, sin is better understood as all the things we do that are contrary to existence – the things that we do that dissembles and denounces existence . . . all of the things we foolishly assume have nothing to do with God.

Isaiah mocks the folly of those who create idols, and then turn around and worship the very things they’ve just created (Isaiah 2:8). The premise of these idol worshipers is that existence is just a given — therefore, worshiping what they, themselves, have created is just a roundabout way of convincing themselves that they’re the whole point of their own existence. This is the very path that leads us into the darkness of nihilo, away from the God who purposefully spoke us all into existence. To be in relationship with him is why we exist. This is why worshiping God is so essential – he is our ontological point of reference . . . as we are inescapably contingent upon his inscrutable existence.

Let me be a little of your breath
Moving over the face of the deep

I want to be a particle of your light

Flowing over the hills of morning

The Seduction of Moral Ambiguity (4 of 9)

One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” – I can’t think of a more quintessentially existential statement. It assumes that no real moral distinction can be made, because it assumes that they’re simply competing morally equivalent opinions in conflict. This, of course, is just another variation on the theme of “Who are we to judge?”.

Interestingly enough, I have never met anyone asking this question who didn’t philosophically presume themselves to have this authority . For that matter, I never met anyone who objected to moral absolutes who didn’t seek to absolutely impose their moral presuppositions on all the rest of us. And whereas the question “Who are we to judge?” is more often employed as a rhetorical gambit intended to disarm, in an ironic attempt to claim the moral high ground – it remains a sound philosophical question . . . if we’re intellectually honest enough to pursue the answer.

The question of where moral authority resides has long been an open question — most especially in a culture that has charted its course into the vague and mercurial waters of relativism. Are we to view ourselves as authoritative moral agents? Are we to simply follow the anthropological tipping points of shifting ethics and mores as our authority? Or is morality affixed to a more transcendent source, pursuant to the purpose for which it was designed?

Nietzsche would say that morality is a struggle of “Will to Power”. Kant would say that morality is a simple matter of cultural pragmatism. Sartre would say that morality has an esoteric value found in self-actualization. Each one of them making the argument that morality is nothing more than something we make up as we go along – something to be ushered into existence by the existential pronouncements of the prevailing culture.

It is a very seductive notion to believe that morality could be that ambiguous – an ever morphing social contract vacuously insisting we comply and conform . . . a standard so tentatively constituted, that no one could ever take it seriously. With a wink and a nod, we can simulate conformity while still pursuing our own selfish agendas – because after all who’s to judge?

imagesBut still, intuitively, we believe that there innately exists a tension between what is and what ought to be . . . as if a pattern were being interrupted. This is likely because we instinctively know that every moral question is predicated on how we measure the value of human life. Which is to say, if human life is to be measured in the flux of the sentimentality generated by circumstance – then morality will be nothing more than a validating aspect of that sentiment. But if human life is to be understood as having an immutable value – then morality must have immutably transcendent moorings.

Being made in the image of God is the game changer – either all human life has an immeasurable value established by God . . . or human life is at market value, allowing us to haggle over its value, by way of our moral opinions. Without getting into the weeds over the specifics of what a transcendent morality might look like – let’s suffice to say, that it is God who must lead us into all understanding; that he is the final authority; and that we must defer to his judgements – humbly confessing that he is God . . . and we are not.

Here’s a great philosophical framing of morality