Of all the assumptions that people make about how to live their lives, this one is the deepest, most strongly held and least examined - I have the right to determine what’s right and wrong for me. No-one has the right to be my moral judge!
So what is morality and culture?
A good summary can be found in a 1992 ruling of the US Supreme Court, “the heart of liberty is to define one’s own concept of existence, of the meaning of the universe”. The whole marriage redefinition debate is couched in exactly these terms - If two people of the same sex want to have a permanent monogamous relationship and call it marriage, who is anyone to object?
So where does this thinking come from? It is part of a deep revolution in thinking and feeling over the last 60 years objecting to the idea that what’s right and wrong comes from some external authority. In the pursuit of human flourishing the only way to enhance my flourishing and prevent the erosion of freedom is eliminate external morality claims. If who I am is a product of my inner desires and passions, then I have the right to determine how that pans out for me. Why is this so?
The first reason is to do with power. Our contemporary culture has woken up to what is really behind the idea of objective morality – it is really a power claim, an opportunity for one to claim power over another, thereby restricting his or her freedom. Truth claims are power plays; when you claim to have the truth, what you are really doing is trying to get power over others.
But the problem is that to pronounce that all truth claims are power plays, then so is such a pronouncement! You’ve explained away your explanation. Do you see how it works? It claims too much.
Which leads to the second thing about moral truth, which is that the fewer moral restrictions there are, the more free I am. But you don’t have to think too hard about it to realise that it doesn’t really work. Many things in life are a choice between more than one option. For instance, love brings the freedom of security and companionship. But the only way to be really free with someone, deeply connected to the person you love is by restricting your affections, so that you can make this connection in a unique way. The freedom of love comes only if you surrender all sorts of other smaller freedoms. Freedom and constraints, or at least the right constraints, go together.
So where do we actually see that people really do believe in an imposed or external morality?
The first is the outrage that we see in our conversations. It is everywhere. For instance, earlier this year, an American dentist named Walter Palmer paid $50,000 for the thrill of killing Cecil the lion with a bow and arrow. What subsequently happened? His business became a target of online rage which meant he had to close his surgery down. There were calls for him to be deported, and even calls by the animal rights group PETA for Palmer to be hung.
Isn’t this ironic? It demonstrates that we just can’t do without objective, external standards, which everyone should understand and comply with, and that’s worth exposing. When the outrage surfaces it gives you an opportunity to ask, ‘where does that come from? Why are we still like that, when we are supposed to be a live and let live culture?
The second point we can press our culture is the actual personal yearning all of us have to be the best versions of who we are. Unfortunately, just deciding for yourself what’s right and wrong won’t cut it. Only the transforming power of grace will do this.
Consider the story of the woman caught in adultery and brought to Jesus in John 8. The Pharisees want a pronouncement from Jesus. They know she deserves death for her sin (as presumably the man with whom she committed adultery, who though is notably absent). Even she knows that she is condemned by the law.
But she experiences the transforming grace of God. First, there is absolutely no doubt in her mind that she is a guilty sinner. She has nowhere to hide, she has no where to run, she has no excuses or explanations, she is as spiritually naked as her sin presumably found her. And it turns out that is a good thing. Because of that awareness, she hears the words of Jesus - neither do I condemn you. And that changes her life. Sadly, the Pharisees are the ones who walk away unforgiven, even though they too come to realise they fall short of a moral standard outside of themselves.
So what do we learn from this forgiven woman? It is simply this: the only thing that will stop you and me from being a moralist – i.e. someone who looks down on others from a position of moral outrage without examining their own hearts – is the transforming power of the grace of Jesus.
The thing is that all of us, whether we believe in objective truth or not, are really moralists at heart. Only grace can change that.