Do you know moral people who do not seem religious or believe in God? On what is their morality based? Today, we have competing views on what is moral. On one side is a belief in equality - that all ideas, all philosophies and all opinions are equal and should be equally valued. On the other side, the Bible declares that some opinions are worthy of eternal life and some worthy of eternal death. Equal opportunity is equal opportunity for salvation. Differences in life, even disabilities, are opportunities to bring glory to God. These are much different views of what is right, moral and just. Let's jump into our study of creation and the Bible and see if we can better understand this!
Creation and Morality
By Stephen Terry
Commentary for the February 2, 2013 Sabbath School Lesson
“So be careful to do what the Lord your God has commanded you; do not turn aside to the right or to the left. Walk in obedience to all that the Lord your God has commanded you, so that you may live and prosper and prolong your days in the land that you will possess.” Deuteronomy 5:32-33, NIV
While some may consider whether or not the Genesis creation account is to be taken literally, the issue of mankind’s morality is perhaps a far more important consideration. The entire Bible might be considered from beginning to end to be a morality play with Jesus as its central character with a whole host of supporting actors and actresses. The events of creation week are little more than the work of the stage hands setting the stage for the drama to begin. The curtain rises in chapter two and man steps forth surrounded by the beauty of that set. Man receives all the blessings that creation might provide, even a woman to share the beauty with but it is all one dimensional.
There is no morality play up to this point, because there is no choice to be made. Maybe we should understand what morality is before we go further. Per Wikipedia, “Morality (from the Latin moralitas "manner, character, proper behavior") is the differentiation of intentions, decisions, and actions between those that are "good" (or right) and those that are "bad" (or wrong).” One might deduce from this definition that morality is not possible without the ability to choose the moral as opposed to the immoral. In other words, one cannot have a moral robot. Free will must exist in order to make a moral choice. Thus one might question whether mankind was imbued with morality from the beginning or discovered morality after creation.
Since no opportunity to choose between good and evil is present in the Creation Story until the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is discovered in chapter two, the environment prior to that moment was not conducive to free will morality. Like a behavioral laboratory, God then constructs a special garden called “Eden,” which simply means “delight.” Into that experiment, He introduces the two humans called “Adam,” and “Eve.” So that they will have a choice between moral and immoral behavior, He also plants the aforementioned tree. Here a paradox exists because if one must know that alternative choices exist in order to make a choice, and one does not learn about good and evil until partaking of the tree, how can a free moral choice exist prior to tasting? Nonetheless, popular theology asserts this is the case.
Perhaps the idea is that God gives them a very little knowledge of good and evil in order to make a controlled determination of right and wrong in order to provide the opportunity to avoid the greater knowledge that might come from an incorrect choice. In any event, they chose in favor of having free access to the knowledge of good and evil. The fact that their choice caused them to realize that they were naked, whereas before they in their innocence did not, also demonstrates that their ante-Eden ability to understand and make a rational choice for good or evil was greatly restricted or even impaired. The entire story seems to be a moral awakening of sorts. Then as now, mankind’s choice demonstrates he apparently desired unrestricted freedom of will in his conduct and affairs.
Once mankind went down the road of free will morality, he made a profound statement about his relationship to moral choice. Prior to his choice, he was faced with an absolute moral code given to him by God. He chose to replace that absolute value with a relative one. He chose to base his morality on what he determines is in his best interest. To a large degree, this is the theme of the biblical morality play. It is the contrast between the idea of absolute moral values as in the commandments of the Decalogue or those of Jesus in the New Testament, as opposed to the moral relativism which often manifests itself in the gray and murky area of the “No Man’s Land” between the extremes of absolute good and absolute evil.
Of course since absolute values are not intrinsic even to enlightened self-interest, they are imposed from without. In this case, God imposes the values concerning the tree in Genesis, chapter two. Later they are imposed through the Ten Commandments and other statutory requirements of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Further commands such as Jesus’ “turn the other cheek” are often refinements of earlier absolutes. However, in the final chapters of the final book of Revelation, we again see absolute values imposed from without.
The conflict between the absolute morality and the relativistic morality based on self-interest provides the dynamic tension that makes the biblical story become multi-dimensional. This adds another layer to the original moral dilemma, as we see that the choice that mankind is faced with is not simply a choice between good or evil, but is actually a choice between two different moral codes: absolutism or relativism. The Jews of Jesus’ day understood this very well and saw absolutism as the only possible choice. When Jesus seemed to be endorsing some form of relativism through his teaching and actions, their heresy antennae began twitching.
Perhaps the most fundamental difference between these two moralities is in how free will is understood. In relativistic morality, free will is always active as each moral choice is independently and freely determined. In the absolutist system, once free will is exercised to choose that morality, it is no longer needed as every moral choice is spelled out beforehand. From that point on, the entire focus is on surrendering free will to absolutism. This leads one to conclude that possibly man was never intended to be more than a very limited free moral agent. Some rebel at this thought, but others find a measure of peace instead. Just as a cow or a horse may become unnerved if they somehow manage to escape their fenced pasture and express joy and relief once returned to the same, humans can also find that the strictures of absolutism provides comfort by placing the responsibility for the results of moral dilemmas on God. In absolutism something is always right or always wrong without regard to special circumstances.
There are dilemmas that occur for the absolutist when every moral situation is not codified. For instance, if a doctor must choose between saving a mother or the baby she is giving birth to, the simple “Thou shalt not kill,” is not very helpful as the choice to save the one means the death of the other. However, the absolutist can choose to save either one and find absolution by blaming the code that did not provide an answer. Effectively, then, the death becomes God’s responsibility rather than his since God imposed the code in the first place.
The relativist cannot abrogate such a responsibility and will attempt to make the best choice. However, no matter what choice the relativist makes they will always agonize about the “what if?” since almost never is the information available to them complete. For instance, if the doctor could know that the mother would go on to win the Nobel Prize, but the child would fail at everything, be a miserable wretch living a life of crime causing pain and suffering to others and ultimately dying in a back alley of a drug overdose, the choice might be easier to make. But man’s limited ability to even come anywhere near accurately guessing these things makes relative morality a slough of eddies and currents that can be impossible to navigate effectively.
We then seem to be faced with a choice between an absolute code that falls short in dealing with every situation we may encounter or a relativistic one that may attempt to relate to each possible situation but often does not have enough information to do so consistently and effectively. And the difference may be further clarified if we ask whether we want to bear the misgivings and even guilt of the relativist, or pass them on to God as the absolutist is inclined to do. The Bible’s answer is to choose the latter. “Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering…”[i] and “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.”[ii]
Both options require the exercise of free will. The relative option requires the use of free will for every moral decision. The absolute choice requires the use of free will only once to decide to surrender that free will to the absolute will of God and not to pick it up again. When we do, we re-awaken that ante-Eden experience complete with the temptation to once again choose free will and relativism. If we give in to the temptation, until the story is complete, we have the option of laying our will down again. The only problem is that we do not know when the story ends.[iii] We can go round and round as in a spiritual game of musical chairs, not knowing when the music will stop and leave us forsaken. The sooner we can decide and remain decided, the better the chance for our part in the morality play to have a positive outcome.
[i] Isaiah 53:4, NIV
[ii] Matthew 11:28-29
[iii] Matthew 24:36
"Creation and Morality" February 2, 2013
Genesis 2:16, 17; Genesis 1:26-28; James 3:9; Acts 17:26; Proverbs 14:31; Matthew 5:44-48; Revelation 20:11-13.
In our study this week we turn in our Bibles to find assistance with the word morality, the belief or recognition that certain behaviors are right or wrong, good or bad.
The Creator of the universe planted two extraordinary trees in the Garden of Eden, the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.1 God's first created beings were told they could eat the fruit of all garden trees except one. They were specifically instructed not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They were also told the consequence if they disobeyed their Creator. They would die.2 Why would God create such a tree?
Fast forward to three big stories being reported on the Internet and in news media recently.
Famous cyclist Lance Armstrong was recently stripped of his seven Tour de France medals for his use of performance enhancing drugs and blood transfusions. Now he is accused of lying, not only for years to the Anti-doping Association and his fans but also to Oprah Winfrey during a televised interview.3
Notre Dame Football star Manti Te'o's online "girlfriend" turns out to be a man.4
Protests over government gun control have heightened in the weeks since innocent children and teens were shot while at school.
Writing in the Adventist Review, Attorney Nicholas P. Miller asks us to consider several moral issues in the context of religious liberty such as gambling, drug use, violence and sex in the media. He points to the states that have now legalized the use of marijuana and same-sex marriage. He brings to our attention The Affordable Care Act which mandates that religious institutions provide coverage for contraception, including abortifacients.5
With no forbidden tree of the knowledge of good and evil in our gardens and surrounded by immorality, we turn now to Scripture for the Biblical view of right and wrong.
Romans 8:5 and 6 is one of the many passages in the Bible given to guide us. "For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace."
We are indeed moral creatures created in the image of God. We must constantly be on our toes lest we suffer the consequence of eating forbidden fruit.
1. Genesis 2:9
2. Genesis 2: 16-17
3. ABC News
4. ABC News
5. Nicholas P Miller, JD, PH.d., Adventist Review , January 17, 2013.
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