In today's culture, how can we speak about integrity?
No doubt our people need more virtue, but how do we address the issue without our sermons becoming modern Aesop's fables?
Stephen L. Carter's (integrity) (Basic Books, 1996, $24) can help us understand some nuances of integrity, but the book raised for me a larger, more critical issue: Why is there such an integrity shortage?
In the opening section, Carter, a professor at Yale Law School, outlines integrity's steps:
1.Discernment. People of integrity act rather than react. They do not understand "the right thing to do" through mere tradition or trends, but through strenuous moral reflection.
2. Consistency. Carter relates the word integrity to integer and concludes, "a person of integrity, like a whole number, is . . . a person somehow undivided," a seamless weaving together of understanding and action.
3. Forthrightness. "A person of integrity," he writes, "is unashamed of doing the right." We must be willing to say openly we are acting on principle.
Carter ends his opening analysis by demonstrating that integrity is much more than mere honesty or forthrightness. One can be honest about one's lack of integrity!
In the next section, Carter provides case studies of integrity in the areas of academ-ics, journalism, marriage, law, and sports. Although I found a dozen relevant, useful illustrations in these pages, I was somewhat disappointed. First, Carter never applies his definition of integrity to the world of business—a rather large omission. Second, most of the examples cited are obvious. So the book raises a burning question that it never answers: If integrity is so important for a strong society, and if the path of integrity is fairly clear,why is there such an integrity shortage?
For answers, I suggest Cornelius Plantinga's Not the Way It's Supposed to Be (Eerdmans, 1995). He shows that sin by its nature creates delusional fields of self-justification.
The trouble with (integrity) is that Carter cannot tell us how to find the "good" with which we must live consistently. He is a Christian, but he insists we can recognize moral absolutes without religion: "Some beliefs and acts are morally better than others—and . . . it is possible to tell which are which."
How? He appeals to the Enlightenment tradition, saying we can know moral absolutes through the voices of reason and conscience. At one point he calls the responsibility of parents to children a "moral absolute" and at another he calls racial hatred an "absolute evil."
How do we know these things? Carter says we just do.
No warrant to know it
It would be a great mistake for preachers to argue this way. Not only have Christians questioned this Enlightenment ethic for centuries, but currently the educated classes are widely abandoning it.
The Bible says, of course, that people with no personal faith can clearly recognize the good, for our consciences know God's law in some way (Rom. 2:15). But when people assert and use moral absolutes, they are living as if there is a God, even if intellectually they deny him (Rom. 1:18-20). People who don't believe in God say, "I just know this is wrong." But, if there is no God, they have no warrant to know it. The conclusion: There is no non-religious, rational basis for moral absolutes.
If we are just the product of time and chance, what's wrong or unreasonable about racism? It's the natural evolutionary dynamic—the strong eating the weak. And is conscience a better compass than reason? Jiminy Cricket said, "Always let your conscience be your guide," but that's what serial killers do all the time.