Today, we hear a lot from televised Christianity and politically-conservative ministries about "moral absolutes." Are there moral absolutes in Christianity, especially those which must guide all personal (e.g., sexuality) and/or public morality? If any exist, what are they, how do we recognize them, are they as and when should they be applied, and does ancient Biblical morality still apply to us today? If you believe in moral absolutes, what is their Biblical basis? If not, why is the assumption of moral absolutes questionable?
From my perspective, personally, I would think that the only real commandment within Christianity which would be the Great Commandment found in Matthew 22:36-40: to "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' As Jesus notes, "All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."
I also note in Ecclesiastes that there is a time to everything under heaven--and that many things that would ordinarily be deemed moral absolutes may be quite questionable as such.
I appreciate your help in advance with understanding this issue better, particularly as I seek to understand points of view that may differ from my own.
Moral absolutes are always social constructs, which is to say that they arise out of a community’s power to articulate shared norms that support the good of the community. Good moral absolutes are those which adequately reflect the shared feeling of the community over its history; bad norms are those which represent unjust uses of power.
What is remarkable about the ten commandments and other instances of Israelite moral norms is that they have remained with us over many epochs. They represent the “classic” statement of moral absolutes—the statements that will always be with us, constantly demanding re-interpretation and understanding. To put it blandly, they have stood the test of time.
What we learn from the Rabbinic tradition, though, is that moral norms should never be ossified, treated as though they needed no comment. What gives a norm force is not its relation to the past, but its relevance for the present, and this necessarily means the task of interpretation (hermeneutics).
In my Catholic tradition, the key term is sensus fidelium or “shared feeling of the faithful” in matters regarding faith. It was an idea developed by the 19th century British theologian John Henry Newman, after reflecting on the Arian controversy of the fourth century. His observation was that even when many bishops were Arian, the sensus fidelium—the shared feeling of the wide body of believers, mostly lay people—was the robust, orthodox, Nicene-creed-saying faith that ultimately steered the Church.
All this is a way of saying that there are certainly moral absolutes for Christians, especially the ten commandments. Beyond that classic statement is a long history of interpretation, and at that point things get more complex. For interpretation of scripture is always at the same time a question about authority—i.e. who is charged with the task of authentically interpreting scripture? The short answer, of course, is the Church; the longer answer involves questions of who authentically represents the Church. In the apostolic period, it was the apostles; later, the bishops. By the second century the question of authority among the bishops became a key question, particularly as it touched upon the question of primacy (e.g. the papacy). That’s a long historical question which I won’t try to untangle here. I’ll speak more personally.
For me, moral absolutes in the Christian tradition are those statements which reflect the history of the Church’s wrestling with what it means to live the gospel, articulated by those who take seriously Jesus’ command to the apostles to preach the gospel. That is not to say that we always read scripture uncritically. Paul, for example, forbade fornication, but also the eating of meat offered to idols. I know what the first prohibition means, and think it’s right today; but the second I can only understand as something that was meaningful in the past, but not today.
The moral absolutes that we wrestle with today can’t just be our opinions on what people are talking about in the rest of the culture—they have to be conversant with our own past, our own struggles to be faithful to what Jesus preached. A safe fallback, for me, is this: do what the Church says. Don’t assume that your ideas trump the long history of reflection on the gospel articulated in the Church’s teaching. On the other hand, don’t forfeit your own thinking. Use the Church’s teaching to shape your own thinking.
Well, I think that there are moral absolutes, but they are rather high-level and require always application to specific life-settings and situations. Some are perhaps more easily handled. For example, taking things without the owners' permission is stealing. Violation of one's marital vow is adultery.
But, for example, although love of neighbor could be seen as a (perhaps the) core Christian ethical responsibility, in one situation that might call for succor and encouragement, in another situation forgiveness, and in another rebuke and admonition. (The biblical idea of "love" doesn't necessarily require liking someone or approving of their actions. Sometimes, the most loving thing to do is to warn and upbraid someone whose actions are wrong, injurious to them and/or others.) The absolute nature of right and wrong rests upon the eternal moral unchangeable God. But the flux and flow of historical situations requires that we work thoughtfully in living out God's will.
Oh, and one more thing: The working out of appropriate actions is best done coopeartively, by Christians in dialogue, and not lone-wolf style.
I must confess that I tire easily of discussion about "moral absolutes" when there is so much pain in the world: Haiti, Darfur, Iraq, Afghanistan . . . The list goes on and on, in our country and around the world. Indeed, the world itself, both animate and inanimate, is in pain. Sure, let's talk about "moral absolutes," but let it be in the context of what we could do toward the healing of the world.
Certainly the Great Commandment is central: Love God and neighbor, which Jesus quotes from the Hebrew scripture and expands to include the enemy. (See my post on "Is Religious Tolerance Christian?") Sometimes, though, I'm concerned that the word "love" is understood in an individualistic, emotional, "warm fuzzy" sort of way. A good synonym is "compassion," which literally means "suffering with." I highly recommend viewing the brief YouTube video of the Charter for Compassion. (Thanks to the Facebook page "Christians for Religious Tolerance at OSU" for putting me on to this.) Another synonym is "justice." The prophet Micah says, "What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" (6:8) For me the best illustration of that is found in Matthew 25:31-46, in which Jesus says that the standard of judgment is how one acts in love, compassion and justice to "the least of these" (i.e. the hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick, and imprisoned). Indeed, there is even a group of Christians on the web called the Matthew 25 network.
There is so much pain in the world, however, that is sometimes difficult to know where to plug in. Two of "the least of these" I am particularly concerned about are prisoners and the earth. In addition to Matthew 25, the Bible tells us to "remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them" (Heb 13:3). Many of the "heroes of the faith" were imprisoned: Joseph, Daniel, Jesus, Peter, Paul, and John of Patmos. I am involved in the Alternatives to Violence Project, which holds violence-reduction workshops in prisons.
I have also been moved in recent days by the plight of the planet. On Ash Wednesday we were told as ashes were placed on our heads, "You are dust, and to dust you shall return" (Gen 3:19). In other words, we are earth; we are one with the earth. ("Adam" literally means "earth creature," Gen 2:7). When we are compassionate toward the earth, we are compassionate toward ourselves. An excellent scriptural resource is the Green Bible, and a good place to explore the connections between ecology and economy is the Moral Economy Project.
That's "morally" absolutely all I have to say right now. Peace!
I agree that the imperative to love God and neighbor which is also expressed in the Old Testament (Deut 6:5, Lev 19:18, 34) is all inclusive. The issue is “how do we actualize that love?” Morality and ethics are about how we live together in community in a healthy and helpful way. In the Old Testament there are statements that prohibit killing, stealing, adultery, lying, etc. It is obvious that such behavior hurts individuals, families and communities. The Bible also contains positive statements that direct human behavior in ways that enhance life. For example, “”if your enemies are hungry feed them” (Romans 12:20a NRSV, see also 2 Kings 6:8-23).
On the other hand, The value of some Biblical statements of what it means to be moral or ethical may seem odd to us or irrelevant to the kind of life we live today. Usually those injunctions can be understood in the context of the ancient time period and its limitations. For example, the requirement that workers be paid daily, need not apply to us when workers are hired for longer periods of time at an agreed upon rate of pay. The point is that workers should be paid promptly for their work (Deut 24:14-15).
The book of Ecclesiastes is not a law book. Its genre is wisdom. The “time” poem to which you allude (Ecc 3) contains a series of observations, not commandments. There is no suggestion that there is a “proper” time to commit adultery. The author notes that these things happen and then asks, “What is the point?” He complains that God has given humans the frustrating but life giving task of always desiring to reach beyond themselves, to know the world, to know eternity itself (Ecc 3:11). Humans dare not be content with things the way they are (as in the Time poem).
Society needs generally understood and agreed upon rules to live by so that every human realizes his or her potential for the good of humanity. Moreover, it is the function of every community to be a gift to those who are a part of it. The Bible does not address ethical issues that interest us but were unknown in ancient times (artificial insemination, for example). This is part of the reason for the love commandment. It can be broadly used to address new issues in each generation.
Absolutes is a misleading term for describing permanently binding values because it disguises the actual process of decision making. Sometimes one permanently binding value cannot be met because one has to make a choice between it and another permanently binding value. A biblical example would be the conflict between following Jesus and filial responsibilities, which carry out the command to honor our parents. One might think of a mother seeing a murderer in pursuit of her child and intentionally misleading the murderer despite the definition of a lie (related to the command to bearing false witness), as to intentionally mislead someone.
A technical term in ethics for permanently binding values is prima facie duties. Prima facie means "on first appearance." They must always be taken into account when they appear in a situation of moral choice. If there is a secondary duty which conflicts with it, such as a claim of custom or etiquette, the prima facie duty will always be the actual duty. If it conflicts with another prima facie duty that is stronger, its claim remains. It is a "wrong making characteristic" of the action even if it is not the actual duty. The claims that can be fulfilled in the right choice are "right making characteristics" of the action.
The Ten Commandments enumerate several such duties. That the ten commandments in Exodus 20 is proceeded by the statement that the Israelites, who receive them are a "priestly kingdom" (Exod. 19.5) reflects their universal character. Human rights are prima facie duties. Scripture provides multiple commands of justice, of what is essential for the life in community that God wants for every human creature, that provide the basis for an expanded understanding of human rights. An obvious example would be food for the hungry.
The "Great Commandment" in Matthew 22:36-40 is not a replacement of such biblical claims, but the reason for doing them and the power to do them. This is why the other biblical moral injunctions "depend" (v. 40) on them. These moral injunctions nevertheless provide the content of that love, reflecting what God has indicated in Scripture for what love means in our choices. One cannot use the Great Commandment as reason for not seeing the permanent claim present by a human right.
Absolutely is a common poorly used term in our time, such as the Red Sox baseball announcer saying that a line drive was "absolutely smoked." A Greek Orthodox theologian and friend once told me something that I kept with me ever since. Absolute applies only to God.
Are there moral absolutes? Yes. Facing one's neighbor, with compassion and generosity, is an absolute. But it is one discovered not as a platitude but rather in relationship -- the moral injunction to "love your neighbor as yourself" implies that we are to love the one next to us. In our global age, that widens the scope immensely, since we find ourselves bound in connections that transcend the proximities of geographical location.
Jesus, when asked, "Who is my neighbor?" told a story that suggests: we discover our neighbor by being neighborly, which is to say by facing the other with compassion and generosity.
That is the way of life.