It has always been a bit of a strange thing to me how followers of Jesus came to be seen as collectively ‘holier than thou’. How over the millennia we serially get caught up in elaborate morality systems, measuring others by how much they share the same code and punishing those who do not.
It is not as though this was the model for life that Jesus gave us. As far as we are able to understand his way of teaching, way of living, he seemed to react against those in his time who lived this kind of religious life. Remember all those exchanges with the Pharisees, who had a rigid rule to measure everything against. By total contrast, Jesus seemed much keener for his disciples to live deeply and fully, opening themselves up to the wild ways of the Spirit and subjugating all sorts of rules to the overarching principle called love.
Having said that, let us not pretend that morality has no place within the life of faith. It is not as if anything goes. Choices we make in life have consequences – even passive choices. But those outside the holy huddles will often accuse those inside of rank hypocrisy, suggesting that we do not live according to our principles, let alone live up to the life of Jesus. Remember these words attributed to Ghandi?
I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ. The materialism of affluent Christian countries appears to contradict the claims of Jesus Christ that says it’s not possible to worship both Mammon and God at the same time.
Or these, which he wrote in his autobiography;
I heard of a well known Hindu having been converted to Christianity. It was the talk of the town that, when he was baptized, he had to eat beef and drink liquor, that he also had to change his clothes, and that thenceforth he began to go about in European costume including a hat. These things got on my nerves. Surely, thought I, a religion that compelled one to eat beef, drink liquor, and change one’s own clothes did not deserve the name. I also heard that the new convert had already begun abusing the religion of his ancestors, their customs and their country. All these things created in me a dislike for Christianity.
All of this starts for me to highlight the fact that although shaping our souls towards love may involve a constant processions of moral choices, morality itself should not be the starting point.
There was a story in The Guardian yesterday that made a rather different point about morality- suggesting that there might be an inverse relationship between highly developed ethical/moral belief and ethical/moral action. In other words, perhaps those who have rigid moral belief might be LESS likely to act on these beliefs.
Ethical philosophy isn’t the most scintillating of subjects, but it has its moments. Take, for example, the work of the US philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel, who’s spent a large chunk of his career confirming the entertaining finding that ethicists aren’t very ethical. Ethics books, it turns out, are more likely to be stolen from libraries than other philosophy books. Ethics professors are more likely to believe that eating animals is wrong, but no less likely to eat meat. They’re also more likely to say giving to charity is a moral obligation, but they were less likely than other philosophers to return a questionnaire when researchers promised to donate to charity if they did. Back when the American Philosophical Association charged for some meetings using an honesty system, ethicists were no less likely to freeload.
One take on this is that ethicists are terrible hypocrites. As Schwitzgebel points out, that’s not necessarily as bad as it sounds: if philosophers were obliged to live by their findings, that might exert a “distortive pressure” on their work, tempting them to reach more self-indulgent conclusions about the moral life. (And there’s a case to be made, after all, that it’s better for people to preach the right thing but not practise it than to do neither.) But another possibility bears thinking about. It’s plausible to suggest that ethicists have an unusually strong sense of what’s right and wrong; that’s what they spend their days pondering, after all. What if their overdeveloped sense of morality – their confidence that they know what’s what, ethically speaking – makes them less likely to act ethically in real life?
Hmmm, what if our churches carry a similar kind of ethical corruption? Later the article describes something called “moral licensing”, the deep-seated human tendency that leaves us feeling entitled to do something bad because we’ve already done something good. It explains why people give up plastic bags, then feel justified in taking a long-haul flight, obliterating the carbon savings. It’s also why, if you give people a chance to condemn sexist statements, they’ll subsequently be more likely to favour hiring a man in a male-dominated profession.
How might this play out in our religion? A focus on those parts of us that are good so we can blind ourselves to those parts of us that are not? A compartmentalism that means we can live externally moral religious lives whilst compromising on some of the most basic ways of loving our neighbours.
One reaction to this (a very common one in our churches) is the call from the pulpit to be MORE moral. The call to purify, to get our moral codes sorted and organised. The degree to which this ever works is rather doubtful, to my mind at least. We are all of us a complex mess of aspiration and failure at the surface and subliminal levels; old sinful habits die hard in me.
What we need to do then, we followers of Jesus, is to return to trying to understand his relationship with morality. We have to remember that the moral leaders of his day clearly regarded him as immoral. He drank, he mixed with the unclean and ungodly, he broke religious rules, he disrupted churchyness, smashed up tables, upset good people and seemed to prefer low-lifes.
Morality was something to be challenged, to be tested, to be subjugated towards love. Morality was not to be seen as the goal, or the most valid measure, not even of righteousness.
Just as well, otherwise we are all screwed.