When postmodernism was at the height of its powers many of us feared that a loss of meaning would lead to a loss of morality. We were wrong. Instead of morality entering terminal decline, the loss of absolutes has led to its simultaneous intensification and misdirection. Morality or, more properly, moralism, is enjoying a major comeback in the channels of media, and in the mechanics of our minds. Whereas the shared narrative of my generation was the doubting of the viability of concrete meanings, the great fear in today’s cultural discourse is the loss of such certainty; where postmodernism privileged individual subjectivism today’s world lives in pursuit of a collective code by which to live.
Aside from the fascinating sociological about face this represents, it also has important things to say to the Christian and to the Church. In this article I want to highlight two issues which we face today, and to suggest some responses to them in terms of the gospel:
The new ethicism
‘Ethicism’ is, of course, a neologism, but it fairly represents the moral terrain which our world is currently traversing. Good and bad behaviour have seldom been such a hot topic, such headline fodder, and such a personal preoccupation for people in terms of the lifestyle choices they make. Outlets such as The Times and BBC News now regularly run pieces on the moral jigsaw which we have been given, doing their best to remember what the picture on front of the box depicted, normally with the preface ‘Is it still ok?’. Michael Jackson’s back-catalogue, movies which bear the name Weinstein, the conglomeration of statues which grace western cities and a whole host of contemporary dilemmas continually jam the phone lines of the way we live and think. What makes all of this more complicated is the fact that such moral choices cannot be privately held or personally cherished – we need to pronounce and signal where we stand on such issues, we are called on to placard our views on social media, and to correctly pronounce the shibboleth of whatever issues currently obsess those who generate such questions and stories.
Not only is all of this exhausting, but it is extremely telling. Not only might it point to our deep seated moral sense as broken image bearers of God, but it also serves to highlight the dreadful superficiality to which we are all prone. We now occupy a space where your average twenty year old can tell you what they think (and what you ought to) on major matters of public life, but have no clue how to regulate their personal lives. Many people wrestle with what they should listen to, what they should view, what they should support, but not with what they should do with the guilt and default of their own soul. We pitch our outrage at the pantheon of modern monsters who defile the screens of our phones and the top end of news bulletins, but we have lost the language of the soul, of how to decide on the most basic matters of daily life. We have a form of morality, but deny the penetration thereof to our own conscience.
For the church this presents a new and challenging opportunity in terms of sharing our faith. One major temptation might be to tap into the keg of contemporary moral vexation by emphasising that we have a code which tops all others, which offers cleanness and clarity, and certainty. While this should play a part in our evangelism, it must not be all that we offer. Our primary message is not about a code, but about Christ, not about a public ethical map, but about the profound spiritual provision that God the Father has made for us in his Son. The gospel will not let us whitewash the tomb, it will not let us sound trumpets for us to moralise on street corners, it will not permit us to shout our prayer of comparative morality in the presence of manifest wretches – it sickens the happiness of our personal holiness, it humbles our hubristic overreach for personal reformation, it zeroes us and bankrupts our reserves of self-righteousness, and makes us need and hunger and thirst after the righteousness that Jesus alone has lived and secured for us. Anything less than this is half the truth and none of the gospel.
Under such circumstances the ministry of the church is not to repoint the morals of those to whom we preach, but to demolish them in favour of the devastating dynamism of the message of Jesus. We don’t preach an ethic that any can keep, but the Law that all but one have broken.
The new asceticism
The morals of a godless world also need their own sacraments, their own community markers and means of grace, and this is being ever more realised in our world. External conformity, dietary denial, pins and badges, uniforms and agreed behaviours are the marks of a world which wants to strike out, but to still belong. There is nothing wrong, for example, with pursuing a vegan lifestyle for personal or ethical reasons, but the en masse migration to a world free of animal products is suggestive of more than mealtime choices. Major conglomerates are now exploiting the current trend in this direction, and there is more than the mere hint of moral denunciation in the marketing which is emerging as a result. The idea of self denial, of the expression of one’s commitment to the cause through some form of ascetic practice is as old as human society, and was alive and well in Jesus’ own day. Whether it is what we eat, where we source our produce, the amount of plastic we consume, our carbon footprint and a whole host of other external phenomena, there is a growing religious fervour to being socially kosher, and ethically right-on in our behaviour.
Such behaviour is powerless and deeply conflicted. We work hard to preserve our bodies and our planet, but nihilistically neglect our souls. A friend recently pointed out that people will demand Fair Trade in almost anything, apart from the illegal drugs which have broken the backs of communities in order to make it to market. We will be selective about those about whom we will speak with dignity, and we will demand kindness and fairness towards all apart from those with whom we shrilly disagree. Asceticism is another form of self-indulgence, self-ignorance, and sin-denial which nurtures rather than quashes vanity and veniality.
As Christians our best option is to do nothing different than what the New Testament does. The Galatian Christians faced an onslaught of legalism and asceticism which Paul viewed as a knife blade against the neck of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Where our world screams, streams, tweets and twitches out the word ‘Law’, we must proclaim ‘Liberty’ – freedom in Christ from the constraints of whatever hair shirt is being flamboyantly worn on our culture’s catwalk. One of the amazing features of the New Testament (think Acts 15) is the massive degree of variation there was in the life of early Christianity – and how little the apostles strove to enforce a single cultural perspective in local churches. What mattered was the revolution of the heart which coming to Christ represented, and the ensuing moral imperative that the human heart now entertained. Mere outward conformity was impotent by comparison with regeneration.
This means that our preaching must embody fidelity to the core doctrines of the faith, and our churches must emblazon diversity in terms of Christians living with liberty of conscience in obedience to their Head and Saviour.
These are days of continued ethical upheaval, and of social recalibration. Our grasp of the gospel of grace rather than the latest sacred cow will be the means of demonstrating distinctiveness, and of pointing to the uniqueness of Christ Jesus. Understanding our world’s desire for meaning, for morals, and for ethical markers, should lead us to steadfastly point to Christ Jesus and the constructively ruinous event it is to us when we see him in his glory and his grace.