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Grace and the illusion of the ‘moral compass’

JamesKnight300Regular Network Norwich and Norfolk columnist James Knight looks at where a person's moral compass points to when faced with repulsive situations.

When it comes to the controversy in the Old Testament, I do not hold very high regard for what polemicists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris and Peter Atkins have to say about it, because I do not think they are brilliant men.  But another famous man had this to say about it:



"Whenever we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and tortuous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we call it the word of a demon than the word of God."


That famous man ‘is’ someone I consider to be brilliant - Thomas Paine, who could in my opinion justifiably be called the greatest Englishman and the greatest American, and I do care what he has to say about the Bible. The problem he has is a problem that many sceptics seem to have – the Old Testament verses in which God is perceived to be condoning slavery, and ordering the marriage of a rapist to his victim, and things of that nature.  We have seen in previous messages that in order to replace any idea of a God-inspired absolute we have had to talk of internal sources for deriving moral instincts.  This often takes the form of an evolved intuition that acts as a sort of moral compass, and it tells us that we ought to feel revulsion at such verses, like the one in Deuteronomy 22 in which the writer interprets the situation to be that God instructs a rapist to take responsibility for his crime and marry and care for his victim. 


To many a 21st century mind that sounds preposterously obscene.  But once we pull out the lens of contemporary judgment we use on that sort of writing we see that in fact God hasn’t acted badly – rather He has introduced some responsibility that the offender must take for his actions, and He has done it in a time where this sort of behaviour was rife.  But what if that wasn’t a direct instruction from God, but a decision was made by the writer of Deuteronomy as an interpretation of how Divine goodness might intervene in such a situation?  Given the crudity of his environment, inspired by what he believed to be a profound step in the right direction, that man’s calls for an offender being accountable for his crimes, and for him to take to heart the severity of that crime and how it hurts others, may in the context of the ancient Hebraic tradition have been on a par with something spoken by Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King or Gandhi over two thousand years henceforward.


It sounds crazy at first doesn’t it – comparing an injunction for a rapist to marry and take care of his victim with a piece of moral wisdom spoken by Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King or Gandhi?  But ask yourself why you think it is absurd and you’ll soon find it is because your response is an overly emotional one or an overly simplistic one, as it has failed to consider the context of culture and time.  The sort of improvements on a crude civilisation that had no formal penal system or democracy or welfare system or laws of the land were, in the context of their civilisation, a huge leap forward.  They were thought up by the Jewish writers and recorded in the Pentateuch under God’s inspiration, and they seem understandably primitive when seen through a contemporary lens, but what else do you expect?  Of course you will naturally hold Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King or Gandhi in much higher esteem, but there is not one element of their virtuous pronouncements that isn’t found even more virtuously in the teachings of Christ – yet ironically most sceptics miss the point that Jesus has superseded the very Law they have set out to condemn.  It is peculiar that they never measure Old Testament standards up against Jesus (as He asked us to do), but instead they choose contemporary men who distilled their morals from Jesus and measure it up against them – or even, heaven forbid, against their own personal moral standards. 


Here’s an even further point of note; the whole purpose of the Old Testament law was to put the Jewish people in a position where they could go on to further their numbers - and as we see in the genealogies, produce the bloodline from King David that would bring to birth the very saviour from whom Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Gandhi and every other great moralist would distil their wisdom.


So in attacking the Jewish people’s first efforts at scrambling to their feet in their attempts at being moral people (or at least working towards it with God’s guidance) sceptics are pulling the rug from under their own feet.  The criticisms that are so readily employed are about as ill-conceived as writing your own definition of an event or time period and then attacking that definition – just as Richard Dawkins often does with his strawman arguments.


Let’s use another example to bring further clarity to this – there is every reason to believe that our evolution of morals has run concomitantly with our response to food we find distasteful.  Our levator labii muscles which control facial expression are shown to react in the same way to unpleasant foods as they do to moral revulsion, and the same goes for the area of the brain stimulated by the two.  Now consider the different kinds of animals that humans find it acceptable to eat and the variations in revulsion that differ according to culture and religion.  Practicing Hindus wouldn’t eat roast beef; practicing Jews wouldn’t eat roast pork – in both cases because their culture and religion have conditioned them to accept this revulsion as the norm.  I am repulsed by the thought of anyone in this country eating their pet dog or cat, yet in many parts of Asia my repulsion would be seen as unusual. 


Now a very young child with English descent born in Britain has no way of differentiating between which animals and which parts of those animals one should eat; his parents will plant those assumptions in his head so that when he is older a chicken breast in gravy will seem like the norm when it is served on his plate, and dog’s liver on toast will seem repulsive. 


So this ‘moral compass’ that naturalists are happy to impute to an increasing ethical prosperity in evolution is not best seen as a carefully constructed set of systems that best allow us to listen to what we call our ‘conscience’ - it is more about suppressing some aspects of what our psychological evolution has conditioned to be a ‘moral compass’ and accepting those that accord with the culture in which we were born and raised.  To that end the moral compass in an illusory pathway to objective success – and given that no human can practically construct anything absolute, it calls into question just what (if anything) can be confidently asserted as being unimpeachably right or undeniably wrong, and on what grounds such assertions could be made.  Culturally there is no undeniably true fact that it is wrong to eat pork or beef or dog or cat, yet different people are repulsed by them in different cultures. 


Now I’ve set the scene, let’s consider again the verses in the Old Testament that trouble sceptics.  Firstly let’s consider why the division between the group that finds them all so repulsive (the sceptics) and the group that can deal with them much more rationally (the Christians) falls so easily into the two categories. 


1) Is the Christian suppressing his revulsion because he knows that he should see those verses in the context of the age, and if so, is he right to do so? 


2) Equally is the sceptic not suppressing his revulsion enough by unwisely trying to judge the behaviour of more primitive people with his own 21st century moral compass, and if so is he rather foolish to do so? 


To the first question I would answer an unequivocal yes!  The Christian ought to feel revulsion at a rape victim having to marry her attacker, because in this day and age we would expect a rapist to be imprisoned, and a rape victim to be given professional care, tender medical support (possibly counseling), and love and support from family and friends.  But as I said, unless a man is so parochial and narrow in his thinking that he cannot imagine what those crude and primitive Old Testament times were like in the day when the Law as given, he should see that God’s instruction for a rape victim having to marry her attacker is one of many laws that were instilled to improve on the decadence of the day, and the first precursor in what would eventually lead the human race to things like social care, systemic governance, democracy, penal systems, judiciary systems, welfare, health care and the many charities that focus on helping people in need. 


Thus the second question ought also to be answered yes, because the sceptic is being quite unwise in trying to judge the behaviour of more primitive people with his own 21st century moral compass, just as it would be absurd to charge a three year old child with assault when he struck out at his mother.  The child hasn’t reached the stage at which disciplined schemata has affected his moral sensibilities, and to the extent that social care, systemic governance, democracy, penal systems, judiciary systems, welfare and health care and charity have affected ours, the same is true of the Old Testament folk.  Using these analogical terms, the Old Testament folk are to us as the three year old child is to his mother, and sceptics who are repulsed by the Old Testament laws are forgetting their own human nature in condemning them.


But this has further connotations, because let us imagine that we visited Asia and were invited to be dinner guests by an indigenous family in a country where eating dogs and cats was considered the norm.  Should we be expected to suppress our revulsion like the sceptic should regarding his views about the Old Testament?  That is a question that is impossible to answer definitively because it connotes many further questions about whether the ‘should’ attached to the ‘suppress’ is valid, and also whether one nation’s cultural nuances are more right or less right than another’s.  And to make a further point, the instinct for human equality is sometimes thought to be synonymous with interchangeability or sameness, but if these cultural observations tell us anything, it’s that equality is not about sameness, it’s about treating people as though they are different – so different, in fact, that we all have the same basic rights despite those differences. 


Whichever way we cut the cloth we are faced with the reality that our virtual inaccessibility to any absolute moral standards forces us into subjectivism, and it is the very same subjectivism with which we recognise the cultural differences regarding which animals certain humans decide to eat.  But even that isn’t wholly satisfactory: all right, it shows the infelicity of the position of the atheist who foolishly reviles some of the Old Testament laws, but doesn’t it then undermine the notion that right and wrong aren’t merely subjective things (like tastes in food) but are actually absolute truths in the universe?  The answer is yes and no. 


The answer is no in the sense that the Christian who has faith that we have seen God in the person of Jesus has no trouble believing that He exemplifies an absolute goodness found in God and not to be found in anything else in the universe.  And such a man would also trust that the Holy Spirit would guide his conscience in faithfully assenting to the teachings of Jesus.  But the answer is also yes in the sense that other than in Christ absolute truths aren’t to be proffered as a justifiable proposition, and there are echoes of this in the fundamental mathematics of the universe which, thanks to Gödel’s theorem, shows that there is no identification of absolute truth as a set of consistent propositions.


The only instance of personal identification with absolute truth is Jesus Himself, who identifies Himself as ‘the’ Truth – not as a set of unattainable concepts out there to be searched for, but as the Person of God Himself – He is the only Absolute Truth with which we interface.  With that we can see that there is something even more profound to consider – our conscience and our moral intuition not only show that the atheists’ idea of a ‘moral compass’ is inadequate – it shows that it is a faulty compass too, and here’s how we can see why.  Let’s go back to the statement I made a moment ago; I said…


“The Christian ought to feel revulsion at a rape victim having to marry her attacker because in this day and age we would expect a rapist to be imprisoned, and a rape victim to be given professional care, tender medical support and possibly counseling, and love and support from family and friends.”


Where does the moral compass point to here?  It points us towards a set of actions that seem appropriate, but it doesn’t tell us how we ought to feel about grace and kindness and tenderness and compassion, because once we start thinking on those terms it then becomes as much about the rapist as it does the victim, at least it would in Christ’s eyes, if His ministry is anything to go by (which it must be).  In fact if one considers Christ’s claims about the sick needing a doctor more than the healthy, and St Paul’s edict that where sin increases grace increases even more, we soon see how vastly inadequate the moral compass is in providing a reliable pointer – because Christ would have it that the rapist needs His love and grace and kindness just as the victim does.  This Absolute Truth we find in Jesus is focused more on outrageous grace and love and forgiveness and compassion and kindness than it is the so-called moral law.  The moral compass no longer points north towards right and good, the needle breaks through the glass and points skywards towards the risen Christ – He is the Absolute Moral Truth because He is the whole Truth, and His Truth is a grace and love far beyond our biggest aspirations – yet paradoxically a Truth that every single one of us has spent our lives trying to gravitate towards – even fooling ourselves along the way with terms like ‘moral compass’. 


The problem with the moral compass is that it contains the notion that logic can lead us towards a set of moral precepts that can act as a benchmark for humanity, but at the same time take into account those cultural differences which allow pork and beef on one family’s plate and dog and cat on another’s.  Whereas the underpinning precept behind our assenting to Christ’s Truth is that the very things that seem logical at first are likely to be the very things (like the Old Testament laws) with which we will take umbrage in proclaiming our moral compass to be better.  How can Christ’s words that we must hate (that is, depart from) our family if we are to follow Him fully be cogent when one is thinking in terms of logic?  Or His announcement to His biological family that His ‘real’ family are the ones who are His disciples – how can that do anything other than offend? 


The same is true of the many other counter-intuitive edicts; losing our life to find it, being blessed by mourning, and being poor in spirit, and hungering for righteousness – none of these things are even considered with a moral compass that only seeks to find the best moral philosophies and put them into action in formalised systems throughout the world.  But when aligned with Christ’s teachings they retain a consistency because supreme grace and love and kindness and tenderness and compassion are the real branches connected to the Vine of Truth.  In comparison, the moral systems only act as secondary stabilisers to keep the balance of virtue from which we can be Christ-like.  If they weren’t then forgiving one’s enemies and showing compassion to those who most need it irrespective of their evils would be neuter because the moral compass would have virtually nothing to say about such virtues.


What on earth does it mean that "God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise"? (1 Corinthians 1:27).  And why on earth would St Paul teach such a thing when we are told that wisdom is the very thing we are supposed to be attaining?  The statement means nothing if you take out Christ’s teaching and just measure it up against the law.  When considered in relation to the law or the moral compass it is a statement of pure nonsense.  But when ‘wise’ is the most logical system of morality and ‘foolish’ is an outrageous assent towards an abundant grace that can forgive the most evil men their sins however many times they behave that way (Matthew 18:22) just as Christ did to those who tortured and killed Him, the statement in 1 Corinthians 1:27 is no longer nonsense, it is a signpost towards the Truth. 


That is perhaps why the thought of vicarious redemption is repellant to those who are so caught up in the moral compass – because without Christ’s teachings it is immoral to absolve oneself of responsibility and let someone pay the price for wrong we have done, just as it would be wrong for a rapist to have another man serve his prison sentence for him.  But I am reminded of a statement by Nietzsche that….


“Those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music."  


compassWe talked earlier about different cultures and the animals they consume.  Now imagine a culture whose citizens had always lived in isolation, adopting nothing but ‘reason and science’ as their moniker (much like Richard Dawkins attempts to do), and then imagine if they were brought to a nightclub or disco for the first time.  To them the phenomenon of dancing would probably strike them as quite insane – at a non-professional level there is nothing really logical about it, moving one’s body arbitrarily to background music, but to those accustomed to its culture and history dancing is anything but insane.


When Nietzsche said that those dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music he spoke an even more profound truth about how sanity is always seen in the context of what any particular culture seems sane or normal or acceptable, much like the distinction between eating pork and eating a cat.  And I think when it comes to those Old Testament laws that seem so shocking in this day and age, and the teachings of Christ that are on first inspection more absurd than the moral compass we use, it is equally true that sceptics think we Christians dancing to the tune of grace are ‘insane’ simply because they cannot hear the music of the Divine.  Even the very gifted writer and politician Robert Ingersoll noticed this, and he was not a theist, he said: “If a man would follow, today, the teachings of the Old Testament, he would be a criminal. If he would follow the teachings of the new, he would be insane." – and that brings us full circle to those outside perceptions of the moral compass and of outrageous grace – even agnostics like Robert Ingersoll are known to call the latter ‘insane’. 


What Christ showed is that there are aspects of our humanity (and elements of human history) where people transcend these every day moral issues (it's what Kierkegaard called 'the teleological suspension of the ethical') and that a rational assent to moral goodness is only part of the picture.  That is why we are told in Romans 3:23 that we have all fallen short of God’s glory, because our best moral efforts are no match for Divine grace, and thus our best moral efforts are actually concomitant with our deepest strivings for grace and love.


There is a wonderful example of this in Victor Hugo's great book Les Miserables with recidivist Jean Valjean and the hugely benevolent Bishop of Digne, who helps him off the streets, takes him in, and gives him shelter.  But in the middle of the night Jean Valjean steals the bishop’s silverware and runs. He is caught, but the bishop, even though he was badly let down after various acts of charity and grace, rescues him by claiming that the silverware was, in fact, a gift, and at that point gives him his two precious silver candlesticks as well, reproving Jean Valjean for leaving in such a rush and forgetting these most valuable gifts. As you can imagine, Jean Valjean is stunned by such an act.


There are all sorts of legal issues and moral questions in that incident, and yes it is only fiction, but that act of grace changes Jean Valjean's whole outlook on life and transforms his character (and no doubt many readers too). His life ethos is to emulate the grace and love of the bishop, just as Christians' life ethos should be to emulate Christ's outlook - the One who gave the greatest act of love and grace ever poured out on the world at Calvary.


And I’m moved to think of Corrie ten Boom and her outrageous grace in forgiving the brutal Nazi guards in the concentration camp in which she was incarcerated.  And I remember reading an amazing account of a Christian lady in America whose son was stabbed to death by a young man, who most would call a wicked thug, but who she saw as troubled and in need of love and grace.  I doubt whether rationality comes into it here – in fact, when one considers what our culture has conditioned us to be, and then finding ourselves pausing to think about what Christ wants us to be, one might even suggest that logic and rationality are the things that may impede the first thoughts of outrageous grace. 


This wonderful American lady (whose name escapes me) not only forgave the man who stabbed her son to death in cold blood, she visited him in prison regularly to let the man know that he was loved by her and by Jesus.  After a while he was released, and she took him in and helped him with his rehabilitation and, against what others were claiming to be ‘rational’, she loved him like a mother - trying to give him the kind of love that no one else had previously shown him.  This was her ‘son’s killer’, but the grace was effective because he repented and reformed and lived a life of grace himself.  Of course there are all sorts of issues with decision making and safety, and grace doesn’t mean suspending reason to the point that one’s safety is put at risk - but those acts of grace completely transformed this young man - he saw the love of Jesus in her, but most importantly he saw what God's outrageous grace is like - a grace beyond the orbit of law and moral probity - a remarkable vehicle of transformation.


Christ’s outrageous grace and love and forgiveness and kindness and compassion may well be ‘insane’ to people who have put all their faith in human efforts and the moral compass they have constructed.  But if the best they have is what they call ‘sane’ then I will choose the ‘insane’ grace and love and kindness and forgiveness and compassion every day for the rest of my life.



The views carried here are those of the author, not of Network Norwich and Norfolk, and are intended to stimulate constructive debate between website users. We welcome your thoughts and comments, posted below, upon the ideas expressed here. You can also contact the author direct at james.knight@norfolk.gov.uk  

James is a Norwich local government officer, author and Proclaimers church member in Norwich.
You can access his current collections of columns here

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