Thursday, February 19, 2009

... immoral?

in an offhand comment a couple of weeks ago in discussion with a work colleague about aspects of different faiths, i mentioned that one of the things i like about Christianity is that, in a sense, we not only get our cake but we can eat it too - and before we've had dinner! we are offered heaven on a stick and need do nothing before saying yes in order to receive it. (kind of true and kind of not, i know.) she remarked that she felt it was immoral.

it's a remark that's been bugging me a bit over the last few weeks while i've been trying to finish a zine about how i came to be a Christian. it's an aspect that i want to address in my zine, since it does form a part of my understanding of my salvation experience (if i can use the phrase), but every time i try to pin down what i think about it my word count blows out. i'm thinking maybe this would make a good issue #2...

that being said, i thought i'd voice a couple of things here and see if people had any thoughts.

i guess the thing that bothered me most is, in the absence of God, from where does a person's moral compass gain its direction? or, if the person does believe in God, or a god, then what do they believe God to be like and how does this, if at all, inform their own moral compass?

it seems to me that, absent God, there is no real need for a moral compass. one simply acts according to one's desires, weighing outcomes against risks and rewards, and considering the gains or shortfalls of long- or short-term investments in pastimes and relationships. if a person feels there is no God and they do not believe they will be caught and punished by authorities, then it truly is up to the whim of that person what they will do with their day - they might be a murderer or a meals-on-wheels driver for invalid shut-ins. they choose their own moral north.

social mores and norms vary with the group, obviously, but even if one does not consciously choose to adopt the moral north of their "developmental context" (shall we say), not consciously choosing an alternative may well yield the same result, albeit with less conviction of belief. however, in the absence of an unchanging moral north, immoral is merely a question of perspective. (see star wars - return of the jedi for more discussion on truth and disparate points of view.)

my faith in Christ is rooted in the Cross and in Jesus' resurrection from the dead. i take these as matters of historical fact, aside from their salvation-meaning for me and in the sweep of Bible history as a whole. that Jesus lived and was killed is corroborated by sources external to the Bible canon, with no vested interest in such corroboration and with far less reliable history/provenance of transmission from antiquity to now.

the Bible tells me that Jesus' death is a sacrifice that turns aside the burning anger of God towards me and directs it upon his innocent Son (mercy, where i do not get what i deserve) and that since i am now counted, according to what may be considered the legal salvation framework within which God deals with human beings, as entirely and completely innocent of any and all wrongdoing, i am accorded adoption as one of God's own children and entry into heaven and eternal life with God (grace, where i get what i do not deserve).

so, heaven is my cake and i can effectively eat of it immediately. there is, of course, a but.

if i claim to be a hawthorn football club fan but dress in essendon bombers red and black, go to training at windy hill and can sing every word to "see the bombers fly up!", people would be forgiven if they thought that i were simply saying one thing and doing another. likewise, if i become a Christian but make no change in the way i live my life, who can say if i'm a Christian at all?

i think that this is what was being thought of as immoral, this salvation-before-works mechanism, that is so alien to pretty much every other religion i've heard of. many seem to be variations on a theme: do this, do that, make enough converts, kill enough chickens, kill enough infidels, do enough good deeds and maybe you'll get into heaven.

maybe. there's no assurance that i can see. the idea popularised in movies like the siege, that islamist extremists believe there to be seventy virgins waiting for them in paradise after a successful suicide bombing attack, is something i don't know the truth of. i've not had any serious discussion about this kind of thing with any muslims. it is about as close to the tangible assurance that Christians are offered as i've seen or heard of anywhere else. the idea that annihilation is the best chance of escaping an endless cycle of reincarnation jells with me, since an eternity in hell and an eternity of reincarnating on earth might (tongue in cheek) not look terribly different.

so how much is enough? how good is good enough? and what yardstick is there to measure by? "i've never killed someone" holds little water if you've never actually wanted to and yet restrained yourself, but is the person who genuinely wants to kill somebody the kind of person you want to meet in heaven? this moral north is pretty wobbly, especially with a good so relative!

Christianity is a funny thing. it offers salvation at no cost to the consumer with a three and a half thousand year old manual on care and feeding of that salvation. God didn't say to the israelites in egypt, sacrifice ten thousand bulls and i'll get you out of there. nope. he said to pharaoh (the guy in power who'd enslaved the israelites), let my people go. once they were let go, then he told them what to do. he took them camping, fed them, their shoes never wore out! once they got to the promised land, conquering it was pretty easy - when they did it the way God said to do it. follow the manual because you have salvation, not in order to have it.

God loves human beings and God loves his creation. the Bible makes pretty clear throughout what it considers to be moral. basically, love God, love others. in many ways, to love is to serve, thus: serve God and serve others. loving someone doesn't necessarily mean agreeing with them, or letting them run riot, or letting them hurt themselves or ruin their life or the lives of people around them. restraining a child from running across a busy street might be a slam-dunk moral choice to protect the child - so why do we not automatically put convicted heroin addicts into that fast detox programme they have in israel, or bring that programme here? if market forces combine (if not conspire) to make medical care or pharmaceutical treatments expensive beyond the reach of people requiring those treatments, why should those forces be allowed to persist?

why should people starve or be homeless when there is anecdotal evidence aplenty, if not statistical proof, that the west produces more food than it can eat, and has unemployed people who could be employed building housing for those who have none?

when enough is as good as a feast, a few in this world stand on their right to keep the leftovers to themselves and despise their responsibility to feed those who have not eaten. this is what comes of having a moral compass that points due relative north.

i'm not perfect. i believe that i am being made perfect. the Bible says it and I believe it. what do you believe?

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