Semon: Are we imposing our morality? (Sunday, July 10th)
“[The command of the Lord]
is something very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts; you have only to carry it out.”
How are we supposed to live? It’s a question constantly on everyone’s mind. What’s the right thing to do? How do we live the best life possible?
If we advertised that we were having a talk on “how to live the best life possible” (or, in 2022 language: “How to live your best life!”), people would be interested. But if we announced that we were having a talk on morality, the turnout wouldn’t be nearly as good.
How did morality get such a bad reputation? Really, they’re the same thing. Morality is all about living in the best way possible. Probably in part because “living your best life” usually refers primarily to pleasure, the basis of human existence for most people who go through life without reflecting on the deeper meaning of things. But even more so because morality makes us think about all the judgy people who want to impose their morality on other people. Many of us wonder: I know that I should follow Christ’s teachings. But is it fair to apply those teachings to others? Who am I to impose my beliefs on other people, Christians or not? And what if people accuse me of being one of those terrible people who impose their beliefs on others? A greater social insult in the year of our Lord two thousand twenty-two can hardly be imagined.
We have an important answer to these questions today in the Book of Deuteronomy. This passage in today’s Old Testament lesson is from the final book of the Torah – the books of the law. It is Moses’s farewell discourse to the people he has lead for the past forty years in the dessert before they cross over into the Promised Land. So these are very important words, words that he meant to be remembered.
Before we look at those words, though, we need to clarify something important about the Old Testament. We have a tendency to see the Old Testament as the place where we find the bad, angry God who makes up a lot of senseless rules for people – like how many times per day you have to wash your hands – as opposed to Jesus, who just tells us to love one another. This was actually the first heresy condemned by the Church (Marcionism), and it is not the Christian way to read the Bible. It’s also certainly not how Jesus read the Old Testament scriptures, which He honored and respected in many different ways throughout His life. The Book of Deuteronomy – which seems to modern readers just to be made up of a bunch of senseless rules – is one of the three most commonly quoted Old Testament books in the New Testament (the others being Psalms, the Jewish prayer book, and Isaiah, the greatest prophet of Christ). So we should definitely take Moses’s words seriously.
At different points in the Israelites’ journey through the dessert, Moses went up a mountain to talk to God face to face and bring back God’s revelation to the people. Now, though, preparing the people for his death, Moses tells them that they do not need to rely on divine oracles to know God’s will, because God’s law is “not too mysterious and remote for you. … No, it is something very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts.”
First, let’s say what this does not mean. Moses does not mean to tell the Israelites that if they just “follow their hearts” they’ll be okay. What he means is that God’s law is knowable and doable. It is knowable through what Christians have traditionally called, “the natural law.”
This is the essential difference between Judeo-Christian morality and any other religious system’s moral teachings. The basis of what we know to be right or wrong can be found in our human nature through the use of reason. Look at the Ten Commandments. It is not necessary to be Christian or Jewish to believe that stealing and lying are wrong, that cheating on one’s spouse is wrong, that parents are to be honored and obeyed, that God exists and deserves honor, that a day of rest is important for healthy people, etc.
Right reason can also help us to recognize other truths: Human persons have a fundamental equality and right to life regardless of age, race, or socioeconomic status. Marriage is a free, faithful, total, and fruitful union between one man and one woman. Sexual activity is intrinsically ordered to the generation of new life and it is wrong to use it in a way that does not respect this intrinsic ordering. And many other truths that might be controversial in 2022, but are in fact knowable through reason.
Again, this is a unique aspect of Judeo-Christian morality. Take, for example, fundamentalist Islam, whose moral code explicitly rejects the use of reason and bases morality solely on divine command. And this is the essential difference between a Western legal system inspired by the truths taught in the great Judeo-Christian tradition and the Sharia law of Islam. The former is based on right reason, the latter merely on divine fiat.
This, then, is the Christian answer to the charge, vociferously renewed in our own day, that we are attempting to force our morality upon others. We can say that we are not forcing our morality on others because the goal of Christians in public life is that the civil laws conform to the natural law, knowable by reason. To put a fine point on it: that an unborn child is a human being is not a religious belief – it is a scientific fact. And that innocent human beings enjoy an inviolable right to the protection of their lives is a truth knowable through the use of reason alone. So protecting that right to life is not to impose anyone’s religious beliefs on anyone else, but rather to ask that the State perform its most basic and essential function: to protect the lives of innocent human beings.
So if Christian morality is knowable through the right use of reason, then why does God give commandments, and why do we so often do what is wrong? This is where we do need faith to understand the complexities of the human heart and will. God commands what we could know through reason because of the imperfection of the human intellect due to sin. That is, sin impacts our ability to reason correctly.
So while it’s true that we can know what is right through the use of reason, and so enshrining right reason in law is not imposing our morality on other people, it’s also true that people whose minds are darkened by sin are much less likely to recognize the truth of the natural law.
To the problem of sin there is always one clear solution: the Son of God, Jesus Christ. St. Paul tells us today, “Christ Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. … He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. … He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things he himself might be preeminent.”
Paul’s insistence on Christ as the center of everything, as the absolutely unique Image of the Father, emphasizes that Christ is the way to the Father, the only path to salvation. Just as with the moral law, to insist on this is not to impose our beliefs on others. People are free to recognize Christ or not as the true path to righteousness. But it does mean that for those who believe in and follow Him, Christ offers a way back to the Father, a way back to that condition in which the moral law is written upon our hearts and we can more clearly discern good and evil.
In Christ, we discover not only who God is, but also who we ourselves are. Christ reveals the face of God to us, and in His perfect human nature, He also reveals authentic humanity. It is in believing in and following Him that our sinful humanity can be restored to follow the moral law He has written into nature and written on our hearts. It will not be until the world has been converted to Him that the law written by God into nature will be fully respected by the countries of the world. If we want the laws of the State to conform to laws of nature, then we must also work unceasingly to convert the world to faith in Him through Whom and for Whom all things were created.
We saw in the Good Samaritan parable that morality is not optional if we want “to inherit eternal life.” Since the natural law is written our hearts, able to be known through right reason, then just as private morality is not optional, neither is public morality. And to insist that the laws of the state conform to the law of reason is not to impose our morality on others, but to insist that the State live up to its most basic and essential function: protecting innocent life.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
15th Sunday through the Year, A.D. MMXXII