This is a follow-up to last week’s blog Why Nations Die. Arnold Toynbee concluded in his magisterial study on the rise and fall of world civilizations that people have stopped believing in morality. The natural question I would then ask is how do civilizations establish and maintain moral order? And can a nation be moral without God?
It is hard to believe, but Richard Dawkins once acknowledged, “It is pretty hard to get objective morality without religion.” Since he did not believe in God, it is only natural that he did not believe in objective morality. It could not exist.
However, we clearly have a hard time living without it.
Donald Miller, in his wonderful book Blue Like Jazz, shares this about one of his friends.
“I know someone who has twice cheated on his wife, whom I don’t even know. He told me this over coffee because I was telling him how I thought, perhaps man was broken, how, for man, doing good and moral things was like swimming upstream. He wondered if God had mysteriously told me about his infidelity. He squirmed a bit and then spoke to me as if I were a priest. He confessed everything. I told him I was sorry, that it sounded terrible. And it did sound terrible. His body was convulsed in guilt and self-hatred. He said he would lie down next to his wife at night feeling walls of concrete between their hearts. He had secrets. She tries to love him, but he knows he doesn’t deserve it. He cannot accept her affection because she’s loving a man who doesn’t exist. He plays a role. He says he’s an actor in his own home. Designed for good, my friend was sputtering and throwing smoke. The soul was not designed for this, I thought. We were supposed to be good, all of us.”
We were supposed to be good, but we’re not. This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be.
The social sciences in the modern world, such as psychology and sociology, help us observe the human condition and describe the relationship between man and society. They attempt to explain how people operate. Morality, on the other hand, prescribes the way things ought to be, the way people ought to live.
C.S. Lewis says that just as physical life is governed by the law of gravity, human beings are governed by moral law—the natural moral laws he calls them. The only difference he notes is that the individual has the right to obey or not to obey.
The Christian understanding is this: The world is designed a certain way, and God imparts to each of us the way things ought to be and the way we should then live.
Dr. George Mavrodes taught philosophy at the University of Michigan for thirty-three years. He said that though the reality of moral obligations might not be proof for the existence of God, it is very strong evidence for it. He said that if anyone believes in absolute moral obligations, this only makes sense in a world where God exists. He makes it clear that this is the only way to account for one of the most significant aspects of human life. He encourages people who might not believe in God to be open to the possibility that the theistic view of life is truer to reality.
Dr. Robert Coles is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, having written more than eighty books. He is both a prominent child psychiatrist and a literature professor at Harvard. He teaches literature to business majors instead of psychiatry to medical students, and the reason he gives is that we have systems to explain everything except how to live.
Coles has spent his lifetime interviewing and listening to people. What has he learned about the human condition?
“Nothing I have discovered about the makeup of human beings contradicts in any way what I learn from the Hebrew prophets such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Amos, and from the book of Ecclesiastes, and from Jesus and the lives of those he touched. Anything I can say as a result of my research into human behavior is a mere footnote to those lives in the Old and New Testaments.
I have known human beings who, in the face of unbearable daily stress, respond with resilience, even nobility. And I have known others who live in a comfortable, even luxurious environment and seem utterly lost. We have both sides in all of us, and that’s what the Bible says, isn’t it?”
Coles says that he receives a great deal of criticism from those in his profession because he speaks of human nature in terms of good and evil, light and darkness, self-destruction and redemption. He says, “They want some new theory, I suppose. But my research merely verifies what the Bible has said all along about human beings.”
Coles is telling us that God has dispensed His moral law through the written word. It keeps us from moral confusion. All laws and doctrine, in order to be just and equitable, must be objective and verifiable, without being overbroad or vague. This is why laws must be recorded; they must be written down. This is how any complex society maintains moral order and coherence.
God is the moral lawgiver and has declared there is a moral order that governs life. It is revealed in the Bible. God is telling us how life should be lived. He has given us a road map so we don’t get lost and a moral compass to avoid confusion. It ultimately keeps us from destroying ourselves.