D.I.Y. Morality

12.07.2014        Preaching Text: “…What sort of person ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God…?” (2 Peter 3:11-12)

The other day I went onto the website of the Massachusetts Conference to look something up. At the top of every page there’s a header that serves as a kind of advertisement, or branding, for church. In most cases a picture of one or more people is featured, suggesting the church’s diversity, along with an accompanying quote of some sort.

This one particular header, however, really got my attention. It was a photo of a young woman smiling into the camera, which alone is hardly remarkable. What was remarkable were the words emblazed on her shirt.

“NORMAL IS BORING” it blared in big capital letters. While still trying to absorb the meaning of this little tidbit of dubious wisdom I saw the accompanying text, which read: “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome to experience your faith with the 70,000 members of the United Church of Christ in Massachusetts.”

Unless, of course, you’re boring.

It occurred to me how far we’ve come from anything that smacks of tradition. I thought of my own adolescence, of how anything passed down from the older generations was innately “square” and “uncool.”

It reminded me also of the Danish philosopher/theologian Søren Kierkegaard’s three “stages” of life: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. The worst sin for an aesthete, Kierkegaard famously concluded, is “boredom.”

“NORMAL IS BORING” thus struck me as not only bad theology, but all-around bad advice, despite the frequency with which this attitude is held today.

Consider, for instance, how outdated the Oxford Dictionary’s definition of “integrity” seems today: “soundness of moral principle; the character of uncorrupted virtue, esp. in relation to truth and fair dealing; uprightness, honesty, sincerity.”

In The Seven Deadly Virtues, a book I discussed a few weeks ago, a group of writers is challenged with tackling the thorny subject of ethics and virtue today.

David Thunder, an Irish philosopher, lists 5 types of integrity, ranging from the lowest to the highest. The lowest has to do with merely maintaining an internal consistency with one’s desires, whether they be good or bad. Integrity, in this sense, simply means always following your own desires.

“A person may be committed to evil causes or principles,” Thunder writes, “and they may adopt principles of expediency or even exempt themselves from moral rules when the rules stand in the way of their desires.”

Thunder’s highest type of integrity, that which once was considered the only kind of integrity, is desiring to do the right thing in all circumstances – despite the human tendency to fall short due to free will.

Noted also in the book the derivation of the word “hero,” which comes from the Greek heres, which means protector and defender (those who seek to do the right thing at great personal expense).

Knights once represented this mythic ideal, striving to do the greater and harder sacrificial good to protect the vulnerable. Later in the Middle Ages, a more widespread notion of chivalry developed, which included rules of honor based on a set of external ideals, even those of divine justice.

The hero, as one of the book’s contributors, Jonah Goldberg, observes, “clung to a definition of ‘good’ that was outside himself, and therefore something he had to reach for.”

“Now, everyone reaches inward for his own vision of integrity.” Not the external ideal, mind you, but the individual’s own personal, subjectivized, inner code.

Goldberg cites example after example of pop culture’s disdain for external morals and traditional notions of the good, which, I might add, do have an effect.

He points out that the creator of the comic book, Superman, originally fashioned his hero after Friedrich Nietzsche’s übermann, the man who “breaks from the herd to create his own set of values independent of an allegedly dead God.”

“To Nietzsche, reason and traditional morality were for squares.”

Though hardly the first to say it, Goldberg laments “the triumph of Nietzsche” within a contemporary culture where “do-it-yourself morality, informed by personal passion rather than old-fogey morality, is the new norm.”

“According to Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra,” he continues, “the death of God and the coming of the übermaensch was going to require the new kind of inner-directed hero to become his own god. As a result, anything society did to inconvenience the heroic individual was morally suspect, a backdoor attempt by The Man to impose conformity.”

Which, when you stop to think about it, is not too far from the commonly held view today that we should “follow our own bliss” or “be true to ourselves.” Any talk about a moral code beyond ourselves seems, at best, quaint, if not, dare I say it, boring. At worst, it’s a malevolent attempt to control us, to repress us, to take from us the animating joys and freedoms of life.

In studied contrast, during Advent season we are reminded of the importance of discerning God’s will in properly ordering our lives. The purpose of the Christian life, we are told, is to live in accordance with that which comes from beyond us.

The implication is that the only path leading to genuine self-awareness and, yes, joy (paradoxically enough) comes from doing God’s will. Because God made us – and everyone and everything around us – only God knows what we need to experience true happiness and wholeness.

At minimum, two objections immediately arise. For one, what about those instances where “objective, traditional” values have proven false? Civil Rights comes to mind.

My response is that humanity, and especially the church, is continually tasked with discerning between those values that are merely time and culture-conditioned, and thus false, from those that are time-tested, eternal, and thus true. Because certain values over time have proven false hardly recommends jettisoning – in juvenile fashion – every bit of wisdom and truth from the past.

The other obvious objection is that because we routinely fall short of achieving these highest of goals, any such attempt is mere hypocrisy. If the ideal is too great, shouldn’t we simply accept our human limitations and let it go at that?

This line of reasoning denies, of course, the central role within traditional Christianity of forgiveness. For while it is true that the God we worship is indeed a demanding God (precisely because God wishes all people to know justice, peace, and goodness), this same God is, above all else, merciful.

Just as a parent’s love vastly exceeds his or her child’s misbehavior, that same loving parent never turns a blind eye to the child’s weaknesses or sins. Why? Because love requires seeking the best for our children. And a rightly ordered life is, whether we want to admit it or not, a necessary component toward achieving that best.

2 Peter asks, “What sort of person ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness,” as we wait for and hasten the coming of the day of God?

I would add one other question: what, as the church of Jesus Christ, should we be doing to minister to the world around us toward achieving this very same end? Amen.