For those who didn’t read McKaiser’s article or know about the debate, McKaiser, as an agnostic, asserts that we don’t need God to know what is right and wrong. Of course I cannot speak for all Christians, but there are several problems with McKaiser’s attempt to put Christian ethics on the “backfoot” in an “800 word article” that are at least worth thinking about. (By the way, it was 1278 words – I say cheekily.) The main problem is this: I think he may be barking up the wrong tree.
McKaiser’s sentiments appear well-founded but I think he is ignorant of Christian theology and philosophy which has addressed the problem in many ways. So much so, that in many respects, Christian theology actually agrees with McKaiser’s analysis.
Really? Yes. McKaiser says he was “shocked that Lennox’s main response” to him “was that he partly agrees” that God is not needed for morality. I didn’t find it shocking but consistent. Christian theology forces Lennox to do so. The book of Genesis says that God didn’t want Adam and Eve to eat from the “tree of knowledge of good and evil”. Many people don’t think about that. It wasn’t a tree of sin or of pleasure or even of just knowledge, but knowledge of good and evil. This is why Christian theology asserts an interesting philosophical point: our knowledge of good and evil is actually core to our problem.
We know what’s right but we repeatedly fail to do what’s right. We constantly judge others by standards we believe in but can’t even live up to. We live under guilt and try to justify our actions to get rid of it. We’re an inherently self-righteous and prideful bunch to be honest, and Christian theology teaches that God didn’t want us to live by good and evil but in a trust-filled relationship with Him.
Many miss the relational aspect of the Christian God, which is why they are confused about what Christians really mean by faith. Sure, we all know it’s all about a “personal relationship with Jesus” but many just don’t make the link as to how that looks. Many Christians don’t even know, thanks to decades of prosperity name-it-and-claim-it nonsense.
McKaiser says he can “communicate sensible rules to children: ‘Don’t hit your sister, Johnny! It’s wrong to go around just hitting people for no reason my boy!’. He is right and Christian theology actually agrees with him. But atheists and agnostics hardly ever address why Johnny needs to have this communicated to him if he inherently knows it. Most of us know that even though children know right from wrong, they still often choose the wrong. We do it too. All the time. But why?
According to Christianity it’s because we ultimately have a heart problem not a knowledge problem or even an ability problem. (The fact that Christians believe no one has an excuse for not knowing right from wrong actually gets people’s backs up.) The heart problem limits our ability and distorts our knowledge, but those are just symptoms of the real problem.
Agnostics and atheists don’t like this kind of language because it comes close to speaking about a soul or acknowledging a spiritual problem. But that doesn’t mean that we can be accused of thinking what McKaiser and / or others accuse us of thinking. Let’s reiterate: for the Christian, the issue of whether or not we need God to tell us if something is right or wrong isn’t the issue. What is the issue is whether we need God so that we will do what is right. Can anyone be moral without God?
As far as the Christian is concerned, the answer is yes on the one hand but no on the other. “Yes” because we can all be moral to a certain degree, “no” because even when we do what is right our motives and our pride and self-righteousness still come into play. Many an outwardly righteous person is inwardly hateful and full of themselves. We call them hypocrites. And we’re all one.
Jesus was all about this in Matthew 5 – 7. And this is where Christian theology differs from other religions in that it states that we are saved from our propensity to evil (we are saved from sin) by faith (trust in God) because of grace (God’s love for us) instead of works (doing what’s right). Furthermore we can grow morally inside (grow in perfect love) which results in outward action – not by principles or laws or religious codes, but ultimately by God himself living in us (the Holy Spirit). For those wondering: I’m speaking beyond just Protestantism here.
If a society continues down the path of self-righteousness, it eventually ends up not being very righteous at all. All religion faces this problem and this is also my personal problem with modern liberalism. Left to our own, morality goes one of two ways: either to horrific licentiousness or to oppressive legalism. And so the question isn’t whether or not we need God to know right from wrong, it’s whether we need God to live it out consistently.
Does mankind need a parent or not? Christians say we do but others say we don’t. McKaiser says we don’t, but I wonder why we need to teach children any morality at all in his framework (they know it already, why do we have to guide them?) and I have questions around how he doesn’t fall into some kind of moral relativism when he says humankind is learning how to be more moral over time. (“…flowing from social and psychological truths we have come to know about human beings over time like a general negative preference for being beaten up…”). I also think he is speaking beyond epistemology and ventures into ontology here, and such a statement puts his moral realism into a quagmire. But it was only an 800 (1278) word article, not his thesis, and I don’t expect him to lay it all out in this forum.
You’ll have to make up your own mind – just make sure you have good reasons to do so that go beyond, “I just don’t like someone else telling me what to do.”
Ryan Peter is a writer, journalist and ghostwriter from Johannesburg, South Africa. He writes fantasy, sci-fi, inspirational fiction, and on faith. Ryan is also part of the New Covenant Ministries International (NCMI) translocal team.