the Light of the World?

Christians since the Patristics have claimed that the moral superiority of Christians demonstrates the truth of Christianity. This idea partly stems from the teachings of Jesus that his followers were the salt of the earth and the light of the world. He says “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5.16).

I do not aim to correct Jesus or refute this teaching. It is possible that the behavior of some people who claim to be Christians convinces some non-Christians to worship the Christian God. Instead, I aim to examine how Christians’ beliefs and practices often undermine their morality. I argue that Christians do not demonstrate the ethics of Jesus better than other people overall, and thus Christians cannot claim their supposed moral superiority proves the truth of Christianity.

This post will be the first of perhaps a few on the subject. In this post, I consider how belief in original sin and the practice of prayer can allow Christians to shirk moral responsibility.

In god is Not Great, Christopher Hitchens relates a story in which a Catholic priest in a religious debate asks his atheist opponent “If you don’t believe in God, why do you not practice illicit sex? If there is no objective moral code, you have no reason to behave morally!” (paraphrase). Hitchens notes at least two problems with this: One is, in spite of denying an objective moral law, many atheists in fact do behave morally, and more so than many Christians. The second is that this priest is suggesting that he himself would become a lecher if he stopped being a Christian. He in effect says “(Because of original sin) The only thing keeping me from living licentiously is my moral code”. Many Christians share this belief: I did, anyway.

Belief in original sin seems to hurt the moral overtures of many Christians. In my experience as a Christian I would frequently find myself doing something naughty or outright wrong and then repeat to myself the words of John Newton: “What a sinner I am! But what a Savior my God is!” (paraphrase). Humility concerning moral capacity is a strength. But accompanying that humility was an excuse, this more hidden thought: “O, well. I can’t expect too much from myself — I’m only a sinner tainted by original sin”. And this subconsciously becomes “If I have done this once, I can’t blame myself for letting it happen again”. What happens is that I, and probably other Christians, start using original sin as a not-so-original excuse for being morally lax. If I am fundamentally prone to evil, I should expect evil.

The end result of this logic is that many people who deny original sin probably behave better than those who affirm it; original sin becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because deniers of original sin do not provide themselves that metaphysical excuse, they often strive to be better than Christians who make allowance for evil rooted in their lives.

Prayer also can show Christians shirking moral responsibility. James warns that if you see a fellow Christian in need and wish her well without providing what she needs then your faith is dead, but Christians still offer prayer first and service later, if at all (James 2.15-17). Instead of doing something of material benefit for a person or friend in need, we promise to request some material (or immaterial) benefit for that person (a promise probably more often forgotten than acted on). Prayer may actually be effective. Sometimes, probably rarely, it may be all we can offer. But Christians tend to use prayer as a psychological crutch — “I can pray that God would help this person”. As with the thoughts under-girding original sin this mutates into “I can help this person more by praying for them than materially assisting them” and eventually “I will pray for people instead of materially help them”. If faith does not have works, James asserts, it is dead (James 2. 17): Millennia later, dead faith lives on.

People who do not believe in prayer have no one to rely on when they or others need help but themselves. Some might casually wish others well. But many take ownership of their duty in the situation. I think this morally distinguishes many non-Christians over Christians.

Suggestions: I would recommend we choose to believe people both inherit some tendency towards evil but also — and mainly — are socialized into evil habits. I think believing you are morally flawed is helpful but you should believe that the wrong you do regularly or rarely is because of habits you have been taught or adopted. Observing our world, there is a strong case for this argument for nurture over-and-against nature as the reason for widespread wrongdoing. I would say people should believe like Augustine (emphasizing original sin and the need for grace) but live like Pelagius (emphasizing the power we do have/have been given to live morally).

I would encourage something similar when it comes to helping others. Hudson Taylor, missionary to China, was said to urge Christians to pray as if everything depended on God and work as if everything depended on them. I think this would be better than avoiding physically helping others by merely leaving matters to God.

Questions: A) Am I right that Christians are no more moral than other groups? B) Do Christian compassion efforts — e.g. following Katrina and other catastrophes, for the unborn, for the poor — complicate my claim and distinguish Christians over-and-against other groups; how? C) Are there any groups which distinguish themselves morally? How? Does this say something about the truth of that group’s metaphysical claims; if so, what?

1 thought on “the Light of the World?

  1. Jimmy

    Interesting thoughts! Your analysis of original sin is incisive and I think makes an important point which describes aspects of my own experience. I would add a couple details.

    First, you might distinguish between original sin and total depravity. I think the stronger view of total depravity is especially susceptible to your critique above, since it says that absolutely nothing Christians do is worth anything. Everything is purely a result of God’s grace. If so, despite the protests of the Reformed, there may indeed be less motivation to change. A more Catholic view of sin, however, at least in my understanding, would say that all humans are capable of good, and that Christians are called upon to behave justly despite the lingering effects of sin. They cooperate with the grace of God in their good works. It’s a paradoxical both/and (grace and human effort) rather than an either/or (grace or human effort). It isn’t Pelagian to say this, because Catholics still believe that good behavior in all humans is empowered by the grace of God. Catholics also believe, as Paul explicitly states in Romans 2, that Christians will be judged by their works. I don’t know how Protestants overlook this verse so consistently, but it establishes a clear connection between one’s behavior now and what happens in the afterlife. I think there is more to motivate just behavior than an egotistic concern for eternal bliss, but when combined with the idea that God’s grace is present to everyone all the time enabling them to behave justly (rather than the Reformed idea that everyone is so radically corrupted that God’s grace is totally absent), the idea that good works matter in more than an optional kind of way tends to undermine your analysis. In other words, if you get rid of total depravity and recognize that there is an important stream of the Christian tradition which more robustly affirms the necessity of “works,” there’s less reason to suspect that Christians will fall into the downward spiral you describe. That is, there are good theological resources on hand in the Christian tradition which are more inoculated against your critique than the Reformed tradition and its evangelical offshoots. I recognize I may be offering a caricature of Catholics and Calvinists here, but for the sake of this comment I think the general picture above will suffice.

    Another thing worth noting is that there is a reason why patristic writers may have used the “argument from morality” and why it really falls flat today. Before I give the reason, I’m curious who you’re thinking of that made this argument. In the Donatist controversy, Augustine, for example, argued that the Church was a “mixed body,” consisting of the righteous and the unrighteous. So that’s at least one counter-example. Who makes this argument from morality? Despite this question, things were different in the patristic period. In Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Christianity he talks about how in Late Antiquity, Christians, in fact, were the only ones doing certain sorts of charity. For Aristotle, pity for the weak was a vice. This mentality characterized the Roman world of the early Christians, and they really were the only ones caring for the poor. The emperor Julian “the apostate” (emperor from 361 to 363) finally recognized that the Christians were making the pagans look bad and started to implement similar practices ( My take is that care for the poor is a distinctly Christian idea. Christians of course got it from the Jews, and passed it on to the Muslims. Much later, Christians also disseminated the idea that people should care for the poor throughout the modern West, with the result that most people today, Christian or not, take it for granted. But they usually fail to realize the historical developments which made it possible for this belief to seem self-evident. I would include Hitchens among this group. He makes an important criticism by saying that Christians aren’t really much better than other people. But does he recognize that he would probably be worse off if it weren’t for Christianity? Does he recognize that his high ideals not only find their native soil in the Christian tradition but also that it is quite difficult to get the Christian idea of self-sacrificial care for others from evolution alone? Apparently not. But I doubt that Hitchens would be able to make this criticism of Christians if it weren’t for Christianity. You might consider adding David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions to your reading list as a counterpoint to Hitchens.

    I’ll look forward to reading more of your blog soon!


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