The onslaught of progressive ideology in Western culture has left many of us Christians cowering in the corner. Despite holding to God’s views on morality, we feel increasingly timid about speaking about biblical morality in the public sphere. We often find ourselves in the minority in political debates and academic dialogue. We may even question whether speaking about morality is actually important. Surely each person is entitled to their own view of morality; who are we to tell someone who doesn’t believe in God that they are wrong because he says so? Can we as Christians be certain about what is right and wrong? And is what we believe anyone else’s business?
In this episode, our new Director and host, Chase Kuhn, sits down with our former Director and host, Tony Payne, to chat about the difference between moral realism and moral relativism, the problem with moral relativism, and the issues moral relativism raises for Christians in our day and age.
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Runtime: 40:38 min.
Chase Kuhn: Christians are increasingly timid to speak about biblical morality—as if it had any relevance to or grip on the wider world. Why should it have such pertinence after all? Who are we Christians to tell somebody that doesn’t believe in our God they’re wrong, because he says so? The onslaught of progressive ideology in Western culture, which is nothing new, of course, but it seems to be intensified and increasingly hostile in this information age, has left many Christians cowering in the corner. They dream of a better day—some golden age of the past when their beliefs were more societally acceptable. Today, they’re the minority in political debates and academic dialogue. In fact, traditionally Christian values are increasingly shunned as not only old-fashioned, but hateful—ultimately something detrimental to society.
So Christians feel pressure either to capitulate to the spirit of the age in a spirit of political correctness, or to hide their morality and beliefs and treat them as a private code of conduct.
Today on the podcast, we consider the reality of morality in the world. When the culture around us thinks that each person is entitled to their own view about morality, can we as Christians be certain about what is right and wrong? And is what we believe anybody else’s business? That’s what we’re considering today.
CK: Hello. I’m Chase Kuhn. This is the Centre for Christian Living podcast coming to you from Moore College in Sydney, Australia. My guest on the podcast today is Tony Payne, a dear friend of mine and former colleague, and also the former host of this podcast, so it’s strange to have Tony back this time around to be a guest on the podcast. But we’re welcoming him with glad hearts today.
Tony Payne: It’s great to be back, Chase! [Laughter] Behind the—on the other side of the microphone!
CK: And great to be back as in, I think, it was a month or so ago that you were here [Laughter], so it’s great to have you back, Tony!
TP: Quite so! And I hope I—hope to be back more often as well.
CK: That’s great! We’re looking forward to having you around. Today we’re talking about what has been called “moral realism” and I want to be able to distinguish that from “moral relativism”—
CK: —which seems to be the predominant view today. If you’re trying to help somebody understand moral realism versus moral relativism, how would you help them come to grips with those ways of thinking simply?
TP: Yeah, I would say when you look at a park and you see a tree, would you say, “The tree is really there and I’m seeing it”, or “I’m just projecting almost like a hologram or something in my head—I’m projecting that there’s a tree there. And we all might agree that there’s a tree there if we just happen to agree that there’s a tree there”? In other words, we—when we look at a tree, we think of it as something real—as having a tangible reality, whether I’m there to observe it or not—whether I identify it correctly or not. I might be inexperienced and identify it as something entirely different. I—my vision might be bad. That’s a realist view of reality—that something is there and that we perceive it and discover it, even if we don’t always discover it accurately.
A relativist view of reality would be that there isn’t really a tree there; we just have different views that, in our perception, we project upon the world, and our descriptions and our projections on the world are just what we ourselves perceive and they’re not objectively out there for us to discover; they’re something that we kind of project—like a projector projecting on a screen.
And that’s the same with morality: some people believe that there really is something called morality out there—that certain things actually are good—really—whether or not we happen to perceive that or not. That’s a moral realist view—that morality is a real thing that exists—that we discover or perceive in some way, and experience. And a relativist view is that actually, no, morality isn’t something that exists out there; it’s just something we project onto the world. It’s a set of values and opinions we have that we—whereby we rank certain things as being good or evil and—and that’s all that morality is is our projection out, not something that’s out there. That makes sense?
CK: Yes, absolutely. I think this so defines our time in my mind, in that it—we’re all very afraid of telling somebody else that they’re wrong. And, in fact, if somebody were to tell me I’m wrong, I would usually say, “How dare you!” And that has become really the spirit of our age. How do you think we’ve got here, Tony? Is there anything you think we can account for in terms of—it doesn’t have to be a detailed analysis of culture or history, but what—how have we come to where we are?
TP: Oh, I think, Chase, to some extent, it’s because humans have always been really strange, confused creatures. Like—like I—when I look at the morality of the New Testament, for example, I mean, there is this specific historical story about how we came to think the kind of things we particularly think today—and we can come—we can get to that. But I think it’s a symptom or a species of the way that humans have always been: we’ve always had this strange mucked up kind of mentality about morality in our heads—that, at one level, we perceive it and we know it’s there: we all know it’s there. We all know that certain things are evil and certain things are good. But we also behave as if that’s not really the case and we can just make it up ourselves, and we’ve been—people have been doing that forever—ever since Adam and Eve.
In Romans 1, it’s a classic example, it seems to me, where it says there—when Paul says that the human perception of God and of what is good and right in the world does exist; we know that God’s there. And we even know that certain things deserve God’s condemnation, it says at one point in Romans 1. And yet, having rebelled against God, suppressed that knowledge, our thinking gets all junked up, and we end up finding ourselves practising and approving of stuff that we actually know deserves condemnation. I mean, what is that if not this weird relativism: we—we kind of know that morality’s real, but behave as if it’s not. We behave as if it’s just up to us to make it up.
CK: Yes. It would be worth us hearing this passage, actually.
CK: Listen to Romans 1, beginning at verse 18 from the ESV:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
And it goes on further just at verse 24 to say,
Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonouring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
I’m guessing this is what you’re talking about here, Tony—of this overturning of something that is perceived as real—it’s known as real—God has made it known to us as real—and yet we choose a lie rather than reality to live by.
TP: Yeah, totally, and it’s because we want to—we make it an exercise of will to live a certain way. We rebel against God, we suppress that truth, we—we want to go a different direction, we want to assert ourselves. And that leaves us in the position where you’ve—you’ve got to make sense of your decision. You can’t exist in a meaningless world. I’ve got to—I’ve got to rationalise what I’ve done, and so I rationalise what I’ve done by changing—by tipping upside down my whole version of reality. And—so it’s no longer God who’s in charge, making the world and making certain things real; it’s me who’s in charge, the creature is what I worship, and I decide what’s good and what’s not, and I come up with my own little system. And I—I think that’s what humans have done kind of forever: we—we’ve known that God is there and that moral—that he’s made the world a certain way to be good—and yet we—because of the choices we make and because of our rebellion against that, we end up with this funny mixed up idea.
And you get that at the end of that passage too: by the end of Romans 1, after this long list of the consequences of—of how this pretty decisive rejection of God’s moral order ends up in everything that’s terrible that happens in society, where is it? He finishes up by saying, “Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practise such things deserve to die”—so they perceive that these things are worthy of punishment and they realise that—yet at the same time, “they not only do them but give approval to those who practise them”. It’s kind of perverse, but that’s who we are: we’re perverse.
CK: We are perverse. And again, we’re afraid to call perversity perverse, because we know that’s who we are, and if we point it out in somebody else, we condemn ourselves, in a sense, don’t we.
TP: Yeah, yeah, true.
CK: You said something earlier about the way that the self perceives the world and there’s been a move, I think—especially in the last few hundred years—that’s been well accounted for in terms of the history of ideas. But—but the movement to the self—to be the centre and—and the authority for what is real and what is known: how—how do you see—let me give you a little snippet here just from something that Charles Taylor wrote in his book, The Ethics of Authenticity. He says:
the relativism was itself an offshoot of a form of individualism whose principle is something like this: everyone has a right to develop their own form of life, grounded on their own sense of what is really important or of value. People are called upon to be true to themselves and to seek their own self-fulfilment. What this consists of, each must, in the last instance, determine for him- or herself. No one else can or should try to dictate its content.1
How do you think this typifies our—our day-to-day—this individualism and where we’ve got to morally?
TP: Well, when you were reading it out, I felt like saying, “Hey, that’s just like Adam and Eve, right?” [Laughter] It’s this assertion—
CK: Classic move!
TP: —assertion of my—our autonomy and our—our desire to be the centre of the universe and to know everything on our terms and to grasp and hold onto that, and to seize it when we know we shouldn’t and when being told we shouldn’t. Just classic.
So on one level, I kind of—I like to—I like to—I like to look back and say that humanity has had this—we’re just like this and it—we’ve been like this forever. But it comes and goes and gets expressed in different ways in human cultures: we find—that’s what human culture is, in a way: human culture is our way of expressing that impulse. That’s what human culture is.
And the culture—our western culture went through this phase that you’ve alluded to in what is often known as the Enlightenment. In truth, there were several Enlightenments of slightly different kinds. It’s a very broad thing, but generally speaking, it was a movement in the 17th and 18th centuries, it was known around then to—to throw off the idea—deliberately, rationally and intellectually throw off the idea—that reality was to be understood because God made it and revealed its nature to us—that the answers—that the answers came from upstairs, as it were, and that we lived in a made world and we had to rely on God’s revelation to tell us, ultimately, who we were and what we were like. That idea—we’ve always hated that idea. It’s in the Bible how much we hate that idea—that—the hatred of it in the—in that period was expressed in a—in intellectual throwing off and rebellion against the authority of the G—of God, Scriptures and the church, and a desire to understand the world entirely from the perspective of humanity—from our own rationalism, from our own ideas—what we could think—and from our own experience—what we could see and test and—and understand.
And so, from the Enlightenment onwards, there was this very strong impulse to—to understand everything—including morality—from first principles with what we’ve got here. Let’s—let’s close off that staircase to upstairs. Let’s just not even think about whether there’s anybody up there. Let’s just figure out everything from the ground floor with where we are. And so, the story of the Enlightenment is, in many respects, the story of different key thinkers trying to figure out different ways to anchor morality if there’s no objective morality out there for us to discover and no God to tell us what that morality is.
And—and they came up with different solutions. So for some, the answer was passions or feelings: what you feel to be true is really just that’s what morality is. Morality is just another language for what I feel to be right. That was David Hume. For other thinkers, like Kant, morality was something rational that I can figure out by reasoning my way towards it. For others like Kierkegaard, for example, morality is what I choose it to be, and the act of choosing something and authentically grabbing it and expressing it was what—was how they got in touch with what was truly moral. So all these different fingers came up with different sorts of ways to express the same impulse—that Taylor summarises really neatly, which is “We’re going to figure this out on our own—on our own terms and from our own point of view.” Which inevitably leads to a degree of individualistic relativism. And by relativism, he means, “What you come up with and what I come up with may be different. There’s really no way for us to adjudicate that. There’s nothing external for us to appeal to. You’ve come up with your version and theory of how things are moral, and I’ve come up with mine, and that’s all there is—competing individualities.”
TP: So it is—that’s very much how we’ve—and you’ve—and I’m sure our listeners can say, yeah, that is the society we live in, where what Ipersonally express and understand to be moral and good and true—my values are mine, and you can’t dictate them to me and we all have our own. And that’s very much where we are now. That’s why it’s so hard for us to have a moral discussion about anything that’s—that’s real in our culture, ’cause there’s no—there’s no common basis—there’s no common language for us to discuss and work out. It’s just lots and lots of individual subjectivities.
CK: Yeah. Alasdair MacIntyre, I know, in his book, After Virtue—very very popular book in terms of moral philosophy—talks about the loss of an end—a purpose. So we have no purpose because we have no way of knowing that purpose through rationality or through the sciences, and so, without that loss of purpose, we sort of wander aimlessly, and because we then don’t have a criteria, without the purpose, for making judgements about morality, there is no common end, if you would. Then what we end up doing is just yelling at each other.
CK: And that’s sort of, I think, really grabs hold of where we are today: we just yell and yell and yell. And that depicts, I think, politics—
CK: —if you look at the front page of the newspaper, who’s yelling the loudest, and even sometimes in our homes or on our neighbourhoods, or our school councils, whatever it may be.
CK: As we have a quick break from our conversation about moral realism, I’d like to tell you about a couple of opportunities at Moore College for you to connect with us a bit more. The first is that you might like to consider our Advanced Diploma in Bible and Mission and Ministry. It’s a one-year flexible course that’s accredited and prepares you to serve Jesus in any place. It’s flexible—it can be done part-time or full-time—and it offers you an opportunity to learn on campus with us, interacting with the community, and gives you choices of tracks for you to focus on—be it lay ministry, women’s ministry, mission or music ministry. You can find out more information online at our website: moore.edu.au.
The opportunity I would like to tell you about are the Open Events that we hold here at Moore College throughout the year. These provide you an opportunity to come and visit our Newtown campus, experience an actual lecture, and meet faculty and students. You’ll be a greeted by a student who will take you on a tour, introduce you to other students and take you to class. You can come for a day or be part of any day during the weeks that we hold these Open weeks, and attend regular classes and meet with students and faculty. You could, of course, come to my class, if you’d like—on ethics or any of the subjects that I’m teaching at the time, and I’d be very happy to meet you myself. So please consider finding out more information at moore.edu.au/events/.
Now let’s get back to our conversation.
TP: One of the ways you can tell that moral relativism doesn’t add up is that no one actually lives by it. So on the one hand, our culture and our intellectual leaders would insist that morality is relative—that nobody can impose their morality on someone else, for example, because we each have our own values. There’s no God, you know, to dictate to us what is objectively really true in morality. And yet, have we ever—have we lived in our—have we ever lived in a more censoriously moral age, where people are piled upon and shamed for their transgressions? We’ve constructed a common community morality and if you step outside those strict set of tenets, well, woe betide. We’re as moralistic as we’ve ever been—as the Victorians or—or any sort of other era—and yet we—we’re relativistic moralists. [Laughter]
CK: It’s true! It’s—there’s such an irony about it, because we—we claim all these things in the name of freedom and individualism, and yet all we keep coming back to is a collective identity, and right now, what has won the day is tolerance, tolerance, tolerance—until, of course, you’re intolerant; no one tolerates you.
CK: And so there’s this strangeness about our culture where there is an irony of what we keep saying we have, or don’t have.
TP: It’s the—it’s the crazy irrationality of Romans 1: it’s—or of the Garden of Eden. It’s the—it’s that strange thing that we do as—perverse thing we do as humans—
TP: —where we say one thing, we do another; we believe something really to be true, but we reject it, and so have to construct a different truth.
CK: Which is why it’s so exposing to look in the mirror of Scripture.
CK: Because it shows us our condition. And it shows us the condition of—not—not just us, but the society that we live in. And—and the perversity of it in living in God’s world.
Yeah, there’s this—there’s this quote, again, here, another bit from Taylor. He says,
the dark side of individualism is a centring on the self, which both flattens and narrows our lives, makes them poor in meaning, and less concerned with others or society.2
So even though our—we’re developing this kind of community identity—even in the name of protecting the rights of others, there is still this flattening and this levelling, because we say we actually have no absolute values, and we have no purpose for our lives, other than “Be yourself”. But being ourself, when we think about it, really can’t be that great, can it.
TP: Yeah, it’s not very conducive to community—a “Be y”—not help me or love me, but “Be yourself”. I mean, the Christian—the Bible’s picture of morality focuses on and—and finds it culmination, Paul says, the chief virtue—the one that crowns all the others and binds them all together—is love. It’s—it’s Jesus’ first comm—you know, his great commandment to his disciples—that they love. Which is the polar opposite of “Be yourself”.
CK: Because love isn’t necessarily “Love me on any—any terms—any conditions”. Love actually has a shape.
CK: Love actually has an end. And so, sometimes, the most loving thing you can do is tell somebody, “No. That’s wrong. Or unhelpful”. So we—we think about this—I mean, the ways we circle around these things in sexual ethics in particular is “Do whatever you want that makes you feel like you”. But of course, if we see somebody that’s in destructive tendencies in any other life—any other way of their life—if they’re an alcoholic, for example, we’re not going to say, “Just keep drinking, because it makes you feel like you.” We’re going to say, “No, don’t do that.” And so, in the realm of even sexual ethics, then there’s somebody’s doing something misguided, whether that be with their—their partner that they’re not married to or whatever else it may be—for us to say “No” might be the most loving thing for them, because we’re actually bringing them back to truth.
TP: Most people would agree, I think, that love is important—love is central—love is all your need, as The Beatles said—love, it’s—even as much as a pagan as John Lennon thought love was important. But love without—this is getting back to our topic—love without a morally realistic vision of what is good, it’s very hard to actually define or make any sense of what love is. ’Cause that is—that is what love is: love is me wanting good for you. It’s not just sentiment—me feeling good about you or even me just kind of pushing warm vibes towards you, or me helping you just be whatever you are. It’s—love is wanting what’s good for you, and you can only do that if there is such a thing as good—if there is some end—if there’s some purpose or some goodness that—that I, because I—I want what’s best for you, I—I desire the best for you—that I want to help you get there. That’s what love is.
TP: Love is—is doing good to the other and—without a—a real good—a good that’s actually there, it’s very hard to love.
TP: Impossible, in fact.
CK: Absolutely. Again, I’ll come back to Taylor, here, because I think this really helps us. He says,
Once society no longer has a sacred structure,
—that is, there isn’t an ordering to the way that we exist together—
once social arrangements and modes of action are no longer grounded in the order of things or the will of God, they are, in a sense, up for grabs. They can be redesigned with their consequences for the happiness and well-being of individuals as our goal. The yardstick that henceforth applies is that of instrumental reason. Similarly, once the creatures that surround us lose the significance that accrued to their place in the chain of being, they are open to being treated as raw materials or instruments for our projects.3
CK: Now, that’s devasting, actually. It’s devasting to the relativist position, because if we just think about people in terms of the ways that they want something or if—if it’s shifting all the time what love is or what good is, then we actually have no structuring for moving our lives forward together in society. And so then we just settle for instrumental reason: “How can I use you?” Or—or “How can I use this thing for you?” Which then becomes quite a self-determining way of living.
TP: Or how can I impose, in a sense, my vision of the good on you?
TP: ’Cause in the end, a—a morally relativistic love, in the end, can only do that: it can only start with my own personal vision of what’s good and great and moral and worth having, and want that for you. But what if it’s—what if I’m wrong? And what if it’s not what you want?
I read a lot of Bonhoeffer over the last few years in the—the course of the research I was doing, and one of the cool things he says when he talks about what we’re like as people is that because we’re this kind of person—because we’re—because we’ve made this decision to commit to ourselves first of all before anybody else—because we’ve curved in on ourself and become selfish self-enclosed kind of people, other people tend to be either—either a threat to me and my purposes and what I want and my values, or they’re an object—an object that could be useful, possibly, to me. So it’s an—I guess he’s saying there—they become an object that is either a threat or is of use, for me and my purposes and my values. And it’s hard to avoid that—
TP: —in a morally relativistic world.
CK: Yeah, and the solution for him, then, isn’t it, is—is looking at Christ—
CK: —as our mediator and the basis of objective reality—that we actually see real goodness and we see real love as we look at Christ and we bring our lives in Christ and—and live unto Christ and unto one another.
TP: Absolutely! And this comes back to kind of your opening—your introduction, where you’re saying, “It’s tricky for us as Christians, ’cause we get caught up in this, right?” We
TP: —we swim in this world and we get influenced by it, and it influences us because it’s what we want anyway, deep down. Like the—the sinfulness that’s still within us as Christians loves relativism—loves individualism—loves shaping things my way. And so, we’re—we’re suckers for it and we—we take it in, we get influenced by it, because it pushes us back to that position, where it’s all about me and my values and the—and you’re just one of the planets that orbit around me, and are hopefully useful for me in some way.
Whereas what Christ does, and this is where—what Bonhoeffer—how Bonhoeffer’s formulation of this is so powerful—what Christ does, he draws us out of that—takes us out of our s—little self-enclosured cage that we’re trapped in, and sets us in a right relation to God again, and therefore in a right understanding of ourselves again, and a right understanding of other people for the first time. We—we come to see other people for who they really are as God’s creatures—as loved by God—as important as having a destiny and an end—and in Christ, we can love them towards that end. We—we get pulled out of ourselves and set on our feet and, through him, we actually have a way to love other people genuinely, knowing who they really are, who we really are, who God is. It’s a great liberation—great—
TP: —it’s a great setting free isn’t it.
CK: Yeah, that’s right. And in the culture that has pursued freedom and the way that they’ve thought we get free is we break free from structure. Actually Christ brings us back into structure: he brings us back into a right ordering, if you will, of God over us, us under him, and us then in right relationship with him and with the world, and it’s in that actual structure of reality that we find real freedom for living. And it’s—it’s wonderful.
So I guess this leads me to another question that, then. I mean, it—in the spirit of moral rel—relativism that’s around today, can you be a moral relativist and a Christian? Or does the gospel demand realism?
TP: I think what I’ve—the answer I—well, what I was just saying a few minutes ago kind of says, I think—I think we are moral relativists at heart—I think it’s part of what sin is—to try and construct my own world—but it’s utterly incompatible with—with what the gospel is, which is the announcement that something is true. I mean, the gospel is a—is an announcement of the goodness of God in Christ—that—that God’s goodness, which is both faithfulness and truth and grace and mercy all sort of mixed up beautifully together—his goodness revealed to Moses at Sinai—his goodness revealed in Jesus—shows us what truly is good and sets us free to be part of that good. If that’s not actually good, then what’s the point of it?
It’s—so it’s—yeah, it is impossible to be a—a thorough-going or a consistent Christian and a moral relativist, because we live in a God-created world with a God-created moral order to things. There’s—there really is a morality out there, if I can put it that way. It—it exists—independent of whether we take notice of it or not—or agree with it or not. It doesn’t cease to be there and to be the shape and order of things, depending on our opinion of it. And I think that is pretty fundamental to a Christian view of the world. Would you think so?
CK: I think so. And it’s terribly offensive. I mean, not to me personally, but it is also to me personally [Laughter], because here’s—here’s an absolute standard. I mean, this is true: Jesus—“I am the way, I am the truth and I am the life. No one comes to the Father but through me” (John 14:6). That’s an absolute claim. And as soon as you encounter that, that’s an offence to everything that I have previously been living unto. And even the ways you explained before, I mean, I personally love to justify my sinfulness. And so, if there are ways for me to make a story that seems to cohere with my existence—for how I can keep on in this way of life—and somebody’s offering me that story, like moral relativists are, then I’m very tempted to say, “Yeah, that sounds good to me!”
Not only that, but I also like being accepted by people. And when I feel pressure from public opinion to do something else, I want to give in. But the gospel’s offensive to that: it says, “Sorry, you can’t do whatever you want. There actually is something good. There is a right way to live, because there is a God who made the world and a God who loves you and calls you to repentance and faith.” And now that—that is then something that we have to appropriate in our lives and recognise, then, if I side with this truth, I am not siding with the world and public opinion. And I think that’s where Christians feel so conflicted today. Increasingly so, in our society, I am now off-sides with the majority of people around me. How do I live?
TP: It’s—it’s because of that—that—exactly right—it’s because of the slightly unusual circumstances Christians have found themselves in, and I don’t mean now; I mean over the past 200 years—300, 400 years—in Western society, or however long we might—we might take it back—where the gospel had a profound shaping kind of influence on the West and the kind of culture and society we became. We—we never ceased to be sinful place—it never ceased to be imperfect in all sorts of deep, profound ways. But the gospel spoke into the structures of our culture in such a way that it—it shaped some of the cultural expectations. It—it shaped the intellectual atmosphere of our culture in various ways—such that—such that just the cultural and social shape of what was regarded as being good was to some significant extent influenced by the Christian vision of the good. And so you could agree with those things and not be so out of step with our culture.
But we’re kind of reverting back to normality, it seems to me, if I can put it that way—that is, we—we’re reverting back to the way it is in most cultures and for most of human history. And certainly how it was in the New Testament, where, if you embraced what the gospel and the Word of Christ revealed around—about the truth of moral—morality and moral goodness, it put you profoundly out of step, because you were calling evil what this culture called good, and vice versa. And you read the New Testament and what it was like to be a Christian in the New Testament, and what Paul describes in Romans 1—this inversion of all these practices that are—are so counter the way that God has set up the world to work, and yet which are routinely practised by the culture and approved of by the culture that was—that’s Romans 1 culture and that’s kind of what we’re experiencing more and more today, it seems—to us. So that is difficult for us: we got to come to terms with that. But we’re really coming to terms with is being a New Testament Christian. It’s in that sense: we’re not living in some outlandish, strange environment; it’s—we’re living in a time when, if you embrace the truth of Christ and stand for it and testify to it, you’ll—you’ll really feel it: you’ll feel how completely off-side you are with your family, your culture, your society, your—your school, your workplace—and you’ll probably cop it as a result.
TP: Situation normal. Situation New Testament.
CK: Yeah. And where I guess we’ll have to get used to that being the norm. Which is something that we’ve seen throughout history, which is why it’s good for us to be students of history and seeing Christians down through the ages battling for faith in the world. But it also, I think, then has to renew for us a call to be well grounded in the doctrines that we hold dear—that is, we have to be firmly establishing what we believe about the world and the way that the world works and the way that God has engaged the world. I’ve got a few quotes—I—I have a quote here again—I prepared just a few quotes to weave in as we were talking today: this is from Dorothy Sayers, writing in the mid-twentieth century. She says,
It’s worse than useless for Christians to talk about the importance of Christian morality, unless they’re prepared to take their stand upon the fundamentals of Christian theology.
In other words, we can’t just talk about morality just freely without ever grounding it in a deep, deep, deep theology—a foundation for that. She goes on and says,
It is a lie to say that dogma doesn’t matter. It matters enormously. It is fatal to let people suppose that Christianity is only a mode of feeling. It’s vitally necessary to insist that it is first and foremost a rational explanation of the universe. It’s hopeless to offer Christianity as a vaguely idealistic aspiration for of a simple and consoling kind. It is, on the contrary, a hard, tough, exacting and complex doctrine steeped in a drastic and uncompromising realism.4
CK: That’s powerful. She gets it. She says there is so much that we can offer the world, but it’s—it’s woven into and it’s—it’s fundamental for us to grab hold of these foundational truths that we believe—that come to us, of course, from Scripture. We have from Scripture a presentation of what is real—the truth about reality—and we must cling firm to those foundations if we are to have a hope for presenting a moral case in the world.
TP: That is powerful. It makes me think that the relativism that’s be—that’s been becoming more explicitly and broadly accepted in our culture over the last 50 or 60 years has, in some ways, been a—a temptation for us as Christians to find an easy place in that. So in a relativist world, moral relativism—at least, you would think, they—that Christianity should have a place. You have your values; I have mine. We’re going to agree not to impose them on each other. We just all have our own values. And so I’ll have my Christian values. And you’ll leave me alone to have my Christian values, and I can affirm you can—you can go your way. And I might make a polite suggestion occasionally that I think you’re mistaken. But look, it’s okay: we all have our own place. But it’s become apparent more recently that that’s not how relativism goes.
TP: And that the—the—that if we were content to think that all we needed to do as Christians is just have our place, you know—put our head above the parapet occasionally and say what we thought—but that we would have our place to—to present Christianity as an option that you might consider among all the different other relativistic options—
TP: —maybe that we’d say, “Look—sure, there’s lots of options. But isn’t ours maybe a bit better than all the others?”
TP: Or “Isn’t ours maybe the best option?” That that approach has been—as tempting as it is, has been shown to, I think, be a failure.
CK: It’s so true! I mean, taking Sayers and taking what you’ve just said, have we taken the gospel to be Jesus says, “I am a way, I am a truth and I am a life”?
TP: Or possibly—or yeah.
CK: And if I—if I suit you, then you can choose me. Otherwise, maybe you’ve found something else that works for you and you can live in your own reality.
TP: Or maybe “Jesus is the way, the truth and the life for me”.
TP: But—but, you know—
CK: But what if—
TP: —I hope maybe you might think that too.
CK: Yeah, what if we italicised “the”? I mean, “I am the way”.
TP: Yeah, yeah.
CK: “I am the truth”.
TP: Yeah, of course.
CK: And “I am the life”. There—I mean, there is no other.
TP: “Way to the Father except through him.”
CK: No other way!
TP: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I—I think Sayers points out really really nicely that there’s no—we can talk about morality as Christians, and we can testify to what is good. But we’ve—we’ve got to do that hand in glove with preaching the gospel of the cross and the truth. And I think those of us who were around in the 1970s and 80s—unlike, maybe, you, Chase—
CK: I was around for a bit of that! [Laughter]
TP: —remember—remember that there was—that there was this moment in Western culture when Christians were standing up for Christian morality and pushing really hard, and there were political movements that were standing for Christian morality. It was like the last dying kind of fight of the losing cultural culture wars. And it—I can—and it’s really understandable why that happened, and a lot of people were very brave.
But what was often communicated was that Christianity is fundamentally a morality—that we’re—we see fading, and so we want to fight for. And it’s terrible if that’s what—if our engagement with our culture comes out like that. We believe in moral relativism—we believe there is a morality—but we believe in Christ crucified, and that’s our access to all of that. And you’ve got to lead with the—the doctrine of Christ.
CK: Yes. So the moral realism that we have has to be coupled with the reality of Jesus as well—that our morality is actually grounded in him. And—and knowing the truth in and through him.
TP: Yeah. And we’ve got no access to understanding it except through him.
CK: That’s right. That’s right. And I think that’s probably a future podcast episode is Jesus and morality: I think that would be good for us.
As we go from here just today, I think it’s important for us to realise that if we are going to hold for anything in the public sphere, we can have confidence there as much as we have confidence in the gospel itself. And what we should believe, I think, is that irrespective of what people come to believe about Jesus, his ways and the ways that God has actually ordered and structured the world, are the way for existing . They actually indicate to us true goodness for all the world, and we have to be creative and thoughtful about the ways that we bring those things to bear upon the world. Again, which is a very complex and difficult thing to do, but something we must do prayerfully, no doubt.
Tony, I think our time is up. I’m so grateful to have you back this time as a guest and I’ll look forward to having you back again very soon, I hope.
TP: Thanks so much, Chase! It’s my pleasure.
CK: Thanks. And thanks to all of you listeners. We’ll look forward to being with you again soon. Bye Bye.
1 Charles Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity, Harvard University Press, London, 1991, p. 14.
2 Ibid., chapter 1: “Three malaises”.
4 Dorothy L. Sayers, “Creed or Chaos?” in Letters to a Diminished Church: Passionate Arguments for the Relevance of Christian Doctrine, W Publishing Group, 2004, p. 49.