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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Absolute Relative Certainty

Written by: on May 24, 2018

CHALLENGE: Read through each item on this list. After each statement, decide if Jimmy’s action is morally wrong:

 

Jimmy Burned an American Flag.
Jimmy is a vegan and ate bacon today.
Jimmy has two wives.
Jimmy worships the sun god, Ra.
Jimmy is a Muslim.
Jimmy is a Jew.
Jimmy killed a rat.
Jimmy killed a cat.
Jimmy killed an endangered white Rhino.
Jimmy voted for Donald Trump.
Jimmy voted for Hillary Clinton.
Jimmy goes to the park every day to watch children play.
Jimmy belongs to the N.R.A.
Jimmy donates money to Planned Parenthood.
Jimmy is gay.
Jimmy has one-night stands.
Jimmy came to America illegally.
Jimmy divorced his wife.
Jimmy asked his wife to have an abortion.
Jimmy killed his wife.
Jimmy smokes a pack of cigarettes every day.
Jimmy has beer for breakfast.
Jimmy is 19, his girlfriend is 16.
Jimmy is 21, his girlfriend is 16.
Jimmy is 31, his girlfriend is 16.
Jimmy is a television preacher who asks widows for money.
Jimmy claims to be Christian but never goes to church.
Jimmy weighs 350 pounds.
Jimmy tells gay people that they need to repent of their sins.
Jimmy smokes marijuana.
Jimmy steals food when he is hungry.

 

As you read that list, what emotions did you feel?

Was this exercise easy or difficult?

Did you find yourself rationalizing your answers (example: Jimmy steals food because he is a 6-year-old orphan living on the streets)?

As we think about morality, politics, and religion, most of us believe that there is a right and a wrong way to think and act. In fact, many people have strong feelings about a lot of the statements on the above list. Why is that? Why are some of the above statements “wrong” and others “reprehensible?” Why do some statements cause us to say, “that is his decision, even though I would not do that” and others cause us to say, “that behavior is absolutely repulsive?”  Why can one good person say that it is immoral to vote for Hillary Clinton and another good person say that it is immoral to vote for Donald Trump?

In his book, The Righteous Mind, social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt searches after the reasons that good, intelligent people have such strong feelings about morality, politics, and religion that are opposite of one another. By examining ethnographies, scientific studies, and philosophy, Haidt digs deep into some interesting material. In his research, Haidt asked participants to respond to outrageous and emotive moral questions. His goal was to determine what led some people to respond that, for example, incest is always wrong, and others to say that it is tolerable if birth control is used.

Haidt builds his theories around Scottish philosopher David Hume’s statement that reason was “the slave of the passions”. In other words, our gut tells us what is right and wrong, and our mind justifies what our gut tells us. He develops these thoughts more in the latter part of the book and concludes that individuals need to learn to understand what is referred to as the “righteous mind” of a people who belong to different groups.

Muslims believe that Sharia law is God’s plan for humanity, while Hindus do not. Christians and Jews believe that God Himself gave humankind the Ten Commandments. Taoists do not agree. In the end, Haidt basically says that we inherit our beliefs from the groups that we most identify with. He encourages all of us to be more tolerant of one another.

As Christians who are rooted in God’s word, we believe that morality and ethics is something that God cares deeply about. To take out all references to morality, behavior, and holiness from the Bible, and you would end up with a very thin book. Also, who wants to follow a savior who says, “Love your enemies…or don’t…you decide?”

Politics, morality, and religion are clashing in contemporary society. Courtrooms, the press, and social media are confronted with at hotbed of quandaries:

• Should Catholic nuns be required by law to pay for health care plans that include abortion?

• Should Muslim truck drivers be forced to transport beer?

• Should Christian adoption agencies be able to deny the placement of a child in a home based on their view of the morality of the parents?

• Should a Walmart employee who morally opposes the sale of guns be forced to sell rifles?

• Should a government employee who is overheard using a racial slur in a private conversation be fired?

• Should a Mennonite couple who owns a wedding chapel be forced to host a gay wedding?

• Should sports teams forbid any kind of social protest by players at athletic events?

• Should America stop accepting refugees in order to focus on the welfare of the people who are currently living here?

As I think about these buzzworthy questions, I both appreciate Haidt’s work and reject it.

Let me explain. I appreciate that my mind is stretched by Haidt’s intriguing research. A reader cannot help but to be challenged personally by A Righteous Mind. “Do I hold to my beliefs because they are right?” “Am I just a product of my upbringing?” These questions cannot be avoided. Haidt rightly challenges us to be compassionate with people who have different beliefs. This is something that we need to see more of in this world.

Yet, as a person of faith, I have committed my life to the God of the Bible. Scripture is filled with instructions about justice, moral purity, loving relationships, and holy living.

In addition to this, I have a relationship with God through the Holy Spirit which guides me in life choices. In my experience, the Holy Spirit has never led me to do something contradictory to scripture. At the same time, I do not think that the Holy Spirit has every checked the latest Gallup Poll before giving a Christian guidance.

Sure, there are parts of the Bible that are difficult to figure out…

“You want me to take my son, Isaac, on a hike up a mountain and do what?”

“What was that, Jesus? I almost thought that you said that I needed to pluck my eye out? I must have misunderstood.”

Even so, the Bible is filled with clear and consistent instructions about morality and relationships.

 

 

In the end, I reject Haidt’s premise that morality is a solely a matter of personal preference based on the group which I identify. I believe in a holy God who challenges us to lives of holiness… not by our definition but by His. Not as slaves to our desires, but as children of the King.

About the Author

Stu Cocanougher

10 responses to “Absolute Relative Certainty”

  1. Jim Sabella says:

    Stu, you make an excellent point.

    As Christians who are rooted in God’s word, we believe that morality and ethics is something that God cares deeply about. To take out all references to morality, behavior, and holiness from the Bible, and you would end up with a very thin book.

    The Bible would indeed be a thin book if we removed these references. Excellent post in a very complex discussion. Thank you.

  2. Lynda Gittens says:

    Preach Preacher!!!

    Your statement, “I reject Haidt’s premise that morality is a solely a matter of personal preference based on the group which I identify”

    What about the thought that we choose our group based on our personal moral choices?

    • Stu Cocanougher says:

      “What about the thought that we choose our group based on our personal moral choices?”

      Lynda, I would agree more with Haidt at this point. I believe that is it human nature to choose the path of least resistance socially. It is easier to choose friends who reinforce our moral choices than to invest in relationships with people who disagree with our choices.

  3. Mary Walker says:

    For people who do not have a personal relationship with Jesus, the Holy Spirit and faith that God has revealed to us what He wants us to know in his Word, Haidt’s arguments seem to explain why we live to “hive up”. I agree with you – Haidt’s starting premise is wrong.
    Lynda had a good question too. There is a sense in which we identify with the group that thinks like we do. We blessed to live in the US where we have choices; I’m not sure people in some places have a choice.
    I really like your intro – very thought provoking.

  4. Christal Jenkins Tanks says:

    Stu I do affirm that yes the Holy Spirit leads and guides us. However, I do think that by dismissing the fact that even believers make choices about who they associate with and what political beliefs they have. If we were to look at these groups of Christians who I do think would affirm your stance, we would see immense polarization between how they live, group themselves and even engage with those they feel are outsiders. What is your thoughts on that?

  5. d says:

    Christal, you and Lynda both point out something that I did not address clearly.

    I believe that humans are relational beings. We adopt vocabulary, values, and tastes from our friends.

    To paraphrase Cooley… “Our self esteem is really based on what we believe that the important people in our lives think about us.”

    So, yes, groupthink is natural to humans. The influence of our parents and friends our our values is vast.

    Yet, social dynamics are not the only factor.

    This is where the work of the Holy Spirit is counter-cultural. This is especially true as I regularly interact with Christians who grew up Muslim, Buddhist, or Communist. They are working out their faith in Christ in the context that many of their closest relationships are opposed to Christianity.

    Personally, I try to live this out in my life. I believe that I am a frustration to both Conservative and Progressives. I am in touch with my background and culture (how I was raised, who my friends are, etc.). Yet, I try to look at hard issues in the light of scripture via the assistance of the Holy Spirit. That does not mean that I have it all figured out. Neither does that mean that my views don’t change.

    If I make a statement that “________” is wrong, I need to give a solid explanation.

    Here is my biggest issue with ministers. I need to be able to admit “I don’t know.”

    For example, gun control is a complex issue. It would be easy for me to come up with a knee jerk statement like “Defend the second amendment at all costs.” or “Ban AR-15s.” Then again, I could say “we need common sense gun laws” without defining what the heck that means.

    What I don’t hear from a lot of people is “gun control is a really complex issue. I don’t have my mind made up, yet. I am open to hearing your thoughts.”

  6. mm Jennifer Dean-Hill says:

    Stu, thanks for those morality questions. It is interesting to note the emotions that each provokes in me.
    In response to your ending response that God draws the moral boundaries to holiness or righteousness, it is clear He has done that with the 10 Commandments that I believe are culturally relevant for any era. As I read your post though, I found myself wondering about the relevance of scripture on some current moral issues today that seem to counter biblical standards. Such as polygamy, concubines, child brides, or slavery. Sadly, religious groups have used the Bible to actually condone what our culture would consider immoral or unethical behavior. So how did we decide what is moral for our culture and our era? I think our constitution has been very influential in forming the morality of our nation. There are moral issues that seem to be relevant to each culture and generation, and each culture has had ways to develop moral behavior that exists outside or beyond biblical standards. So, it appears we need the Bible as well as other means to develop the morality that is culturally relevant. Our moral reasoning and moral intuition can be implemented to develop laws, judicial systems, and governing forces that uphold our morals, as well as integrating timeless Godly commandments that spans any era. What are your thoughts? How do nations, cultures develop a morality that is culturally relevant and God-honoring?

    • Stu Cocanougher says:

      “I found myself wondering about the relevance of scripture on some current moral issues today that seem to counter biblical standards. Such as polygamy, concubines, child brides, or slavery. ”

      Slavery, child brides, polygamy, and concubines are still practiced in our world today. Yet, these customs are mostly practiced in cultures where Christianity is not dominant.

      Why? I believe that the Bible, from cover to cover, speaks clearly about justice and the value of every person (who is created in the image of God).

      While Jesus did not seem to have any interest in overthrowing the Roman government and establishing a perfect political system, His teachings and his example planted the seeds that benefited generations to come.

      Paul continued these teachings. Read Galatians 3:28 with a first century perspective. This statement was RADICAL! It still is radical today. For example, about 1/5 of the world’s population live their lives today in a caste system.

      You mentioned the Constitution. You probably know that it was Baptist preachers, afraid of a state church being established, which led to the First Amendment of the Constitution.

      https://erlc.com/resource-library/articles/john-leland-how-a-baptist-preacher-helped-ensure-religious-liberty

  7. Kristin Hamilton says:

    “In the end, I reject Haidt’s premise that morality is a solely a matter of personal preference based on the group which I identify. I believe in a holy God who challenges us to lives of holiness… not by our definition but by His. Not as slaves to our desires, but as children of the King.”
    I really like the way you phrased this, Stu. I think I am personally in the same place, but I feel like it breaks down when it gets beyond just me. I’m comfortable living by the Spirit’s conviction and confirmation, but how do we translate that to community? Who defines holiness? We can’t even get communities to agree on translations! In the end, is Haidt correct that I simply gravitate to others who think like I do? Is there room for iron sharpening iron?

  8. Stu Cocanougher says:

    Once again, even though American Protestants disagree on some issues (alcohol, the role of women, same sex marriage, etc.), you see a more dramatic chasm when you compare them to foreign cultures that are not influenced by Christianity, you can see the difference.

    Forced abortion in China to couples the government deems unfit.
    Child brides in South Asia.
    Genital mutilation in North Africa.
    The rampant sex trade in Cambodia.
    The rigid caste system in India.
    Persecution of any type of faith practiced in North Korea.
    Slavery in Mauritania.
    Honor killing in Jordan.
    Genocide in Burma against minorities.

    Most people from nations with cultures and governments influenced by Christianity would agree that all of these things are morally wrong.

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