The cover headline said it all: “Whatever Happened to Ethics?” In that one phrase Newsweek captured the black mood of a nation that in the past year suffered a Wall Street financial scandal, a covert political operation built on systematic disinformation, studies detailing the effect of the public schools’ failure to teach values, arguments over the role of judges as shapers of the laws rather than impartial jurists, and televangelists whose financial and sexual greed startled believers and unbelievers alike. At the heart of all the problems, everyone agrees, is one of the worst ethical crises ever experienced in this country.
The black mood persists despite many good proposals for reform. Business leaders recommend tighter laws and closer supervision of maverick profiteers. Seminars and courses on business ethics have taken on heretofore unheard-of importance. Educators like Allen Bloom advocate a change in educational philosophy and technique. Jurists judge that we should return to the more pure intent of the founders of our country. Religion experts busily write new ethical codes and accountability procedures. Politicians vote for better, more honest politicians—like themselves, presumably. There is no shortage of new, improved programs to restore some semblance of ethical sanity to a nation neurotically bent on being dishonest.
So why don’t we feel better? Even though these reforms have value, an underlying cynicism persists. Many wonder if any of them have the turn-the-corner potential of reestablishing our ethical rigor.
Perhaps we are missing something obvious. New laws and new leaders are fine. But to draft regulations and select leaders we need a wider perspective than we are currently taking. We need to move beyond the quest for new tools to fix the problem.
Newspapers recently carried accounts of the Greek navy’s attempts to duplicate the remarkable shipbuilding technology used by the ancient Athenians, who dominated the seas during the golden age of Greece. They built ships (called triremes for the three rows of oarsmen who propelled them) so light, fast, and maneuverable that in 480 B.C., 400 of their ships defeated 1,000 Persian ships in a naval battle that established Athenian dominance of the known world.
Unfortunately, no triremes exist to study. The only evidences we have are archaeological remains of the sheds that housed the ships, slipways that define their length and width, and remains of pottery, granite reliefs, and other pictorial representations of the vessels. Naval inventories and classical literature provide sketchy descriptions of the number of rowers, battle strategies, and other tiny details that add pieces to the puzzle, all of which are important to the total picture. “Change any factor very much,” says one of the researchers, “and the results of the calculations tell you the thing will come apart or function inefficiently.”
Our current search for lasting ethical moorings should duplicate, in many ways, the archaeologists’ quest to rebuild the trireme. We need to do moral archaeology. Our golden age is described in the Genesis accounts of Creation, our golden rule for reclaiming at least part of that purity in the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.
But the Garden of Eden exists no longer. We have no extant pockets of Adamic purity. We can only look at the “archaeological” evidence for clues.
Fortunately, we have more than the Greek shipbuilders have. We have explicit directions in the Bible. We have stories of human models—“saints” some call them—who came closer than the rest of us to achieving holiness. We have within each of us remnants of an inclination to choose the good. Adam’s sin horribly defaced that desire, so much so that only with the help of the Holy Spirit’s discerning power can we detect its presence. And we have the perfect example of Jesus, who drew all these resources together in his life and teachings.
For many reasons, though, we have made ourselves blind to these key resources, indeed to the fundamental truth that it is to them we must look for our model. Instead of moral archaeology, we seem intent on engaging in moral creation. We look to a growing collection of social scientific insights for our models as if we are engaged in a quest for helping God perfect our moral nature.
Of course, better laws, better judges, and better educational philosophies will help. But the reason we don’t have confidence in them, the reason for our cynicism bordering on despair, is that we realize (perhaps only subconsciously) that we have cut these good things off from their proper root—God and his perfect intentions for us. We seem intent on growing huge oak trees in clouds instead of the soil of Scripture.
Man-centered optimism, of course, will be with us always. The modern experiment of trying to base ethics on the shifting needs of man alone has produced world wars, genocides, and failed social programs. It should not surprise us that Newsweek raises the question and then cannot provide any confidence-building answers. In fact, we should be grateful that at least the situation has been traced to its fundamental ethical root. C. S. Lewis noted in Mere Christianity that the truths of Christianity do not make any sense unless you start with the premise that something is wrong. Never before have even the secular elements of our nation been so aware that something is drastically wrong. That gives us a golden opportunity to present the gospel.
But there is also a danger, and it is this: If we join in the mad chase after modern answers without basing our wisdom on the fundamentals of our faith, we are guilty of a far more serious sin than the godless. To raise the question and say we no longer seem to have the tools to solve the problem is one thing. But to give religious sanction and endorsement to tools as if they were the final answer is far more dangerous. Especially when we do have answers.
What is the answer to reclaiming lost innocence? The Bible tells us how it happened (Genesis), what God has done to help us recover (by sending us a chosen people and a Chosen One), and what the future holds (biblical prophecy).
What is the answer to perverted desire and lack of will to do right? The Bible tells stories of hundreds of others just like us and gives us the promise and power of the Holy Spirit to help us rediscover and implement our God-fellowshiping heritage.
What is the answer to lost moral skills? The Bible teaches them in Exodus 20 (the Ten Commandments), Matthew 5 (the Sermon on the Mount), and 1 Corinthians (reconciling old law to new grace).
New programs built on anything less than these fundamental truths are doomed to fail. A church unwilling to do the moral archaeology required to lay the foundations—indeed, required to utilize the great modern insights of philosophy, sociology, and psychology—is abrogating its responsibility. Indeed, it is doing far worse. It makes itself part of an inexorable slide toward paganism and decadence.
By Terry Muck.
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