Letter to a Friend

Dear friend, 

I cannot believe we have known each other for so long! I am happy we have had a few opportunities to catch up recently, and that you are doing well. I am praying for you and for your family through these uncertain times. Truth be told, I have been praying for you for much longer, and it is not that I think you need prayer any more than I need prayer. 

I know you have always been a good person. You make many good choices, you do well in life, and your family is proud of you. I am proud of you. You have a strong sense of right and wrong, and you always try to do the right thing.

I am curious, though, if you have ever given thought as to where your sense of morality comes from or even what morality is? I am curious also to know why morality is so important to you and why you feel so obligated to do the right thing? Or when something is morally good to do, and is perhaps something you are obliged to do, if you’ve ever wondered why some choose poorly? You might expect me to open my Bible and read a verse or two from Scripture to you, but I am not going to do that because I know you do not trust the authority of Scripture. While you acknowledge belief in God, you tend to be more of a “good people go to heaven” kind of person who believes there are many paths to God.

Would you mind if I shared with you a little bit of what I learned during my recent graduate studies?

I would like to start with where morality comes from or what is known as the source of morality. I know you are quite fond of the Dalai Lama so I wanted to share a quote of his I read recently about the commonalities, or lack thereof, between the major world religions. Did you know that he once stated, “Among spiritual faiths, there are many different philosophies, some just opposite to each other on certain points. Buddhists do not accept a creator; Christians base their philosophy on that theory.”[1] So, one faith says God is impersonal if He exists, the other argues that God is personal and can be known. This is a good place to start because it brings up a very important question on the topic of morality: If there is no creator, no God, then what is our source of morality?

An argument could be made that morality is passed down from one generation to the next. Like you, I have a dad who is an extremely moral man. That is the way he raised me, and that is the way his parents raised him. He was taught to have strong morals and to honor his promises and obligations. His teachers further instilled these in him when he was going to school. His grandparents taught his parents, and his teachers were taught by their parents. And each previous generation taught the next generation.

This certainly seems to make sense, and it appears to be a defensible response. But does it answer the question as to the source of morality for mankind? Whether one believes in the truth of the creation narrative as described in Scripture or whether one believes in the theory of evolution, there was a first man. I guess my follow-up question would be to ask how his morality was shaped. If we assume naturalism and the belief in the impersonal randomness of creation that often goes with this worldview, did morality simply evolve as man’s brain became more complex? Was his morality shaped by means of survival of the fittest? This does not seem conclusive, especially if we reflect on what it might take to survive in the natural world. If we believe that morality has evolved, do we somehow assume that the brilliant minds of the enlightenment period are less morally upright than we are because they are at some midway point in history between homo sapiens and us?

It seems simpler somehow to assume the first man had a heavenly Father, God, who is the source of morality and who has communicated those moral laws to mankind for their good, so these laws could be passed on to each new generation. If we don’t accept that God exists yet accept the “person teaches person” source of morality hypothesis, why do we jump the rails from our hypothesis when it comes to who instilled moral values in the first person? Is it an inability or an unwillingness to acknowledge the presence of God or to accept what that might mean for our lives?

Here is another thought. If we accept there are certain moral standards of what is good and bad which are passed down from generation to generation, can they be established as moral facts? That is to say, must they be objectively good or bad, or are they subjective, relative to a person’s culture, their peer set or to extenuating circumstances? For example, is there ever a situation that it would be morally good to murder or to steal? Certainly, within their peer set, the Nazis would have agreed that murder, even genocide, was morally good, or at the very least, necessary to establish a “superior race” for the future of the world. Yet as the world came to an understanding of what had happened, it rightfully wept and became outraged at the moral evil that had come to pass.

Another example might be the individual who has grown up in a legacy of poverty who steals food in order to provide for his family because he knows no other way. Would his actions be considered morally bad? For some, there might be a reasonable explanation for his actions-making sure his hungry family is fed. Certainly, an individual in an impoverished nation might better understand his actions than a middle-class American with no understanding of poverty (although admittedly, he or she might consider stealing okay in other circumstances). Moral facts must be objective standards not relative to a unique culture, experience or desire. I would suggest it is arrogant on our part to declare we are less morally bankrupt than others, and therefore, we are better able to establish objective morality without deferring to the existence of an ultimate moral authority in God. 

This brings me to the last point I would like to talk about, that of moral obligation. If you allow there are certain moral facts, those things that are objectively right or wrong regardless of circumstances, and even allow for the possibility of a divine moral authority, what obligation do we have to act morally and is our willingness to do so relevant to having the obligation? I would agree with American philosopher George Mavrodes when he says, “a person’s being unwilling to fulfill the obligation is irrelevant to having the obligation and is also irrelevant to the adverse judgment in case the obligation is not fulfilled.”[2] What is the motivation to do right if there is no divine moral authority? Is it to please our leaders, culture, peers or immediate tribe? What if they disagree or are quite simply wrong (gasp!)? History bleeds human blood because of people groups who lost their way and made devastatingly wrong choices. It is often only in hindsight which is said to be 20/20 that we gain altitude to see wrong actions more clearly.

So if there is no creator God-one that passed on a framework for morality-how does morality exist? If there are no objective morals or no impending judgement for the things done in this life, how can we consistently make good moral decisions, especially in light of the broad array of opinions communicated to us daily? Are we obligated to act morally regardless of whether we understand that there exists an objective morality in the truth of Scripture? What happens when we crash and fall into shame and self-condemnation for some wrong done?

There is one God who so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son for us (John 3:16). He loves you and He loves me, so much so that He also provided a framework for and a purpose in right living. Our own morality points to a Creator, not to some random, impersonal Big Bang that launched an evolution of the species. I trust this Creator, the goodness of His character and His moral authority in my life. Living by the practical guidelines for what is morally good and right as outlined in Scripture makes decision-making easier and life eminently more livable. While there are still some not so great days and I can often miss the mark, I have abounding joy in difficult circumstances and an unshakable hope for my future.

I pray you hear these words with an open heart and mind, and I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts as we continue this conversation. Sending hugs to you and your family.

All the best,

Ali

Photo credit: Ekaterina79


[1] Paul Copan and Kenneth D. Litwak, The Gospel in the Marketplace of Ideas (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014), 56.

[2] George Mavrodes, “Religion and the Queerness of Morality” in Rationality, Religious Belief and Moral Commitment: Essays in the Philosophy of Religion (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986), Robert Audi and William J. Wainwright, eds., 581.

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