What does a cinnamon roll have to do with virtue? What are the motivations that we have for being good? Just how much can we know what motivates us to be virtuous? In this podcast , Travis Coblentz and Matthew Burford talk to Christian Miller about his book “The Character Gap“.
When Bob was probing the possibility of homicide, we found that he could ask (at least) three kinds of why questions. One “why?” can be answered with an explanation about whether it is in fact legal or moral. Another “why?” could be answered with an explanation of why it is immoral to murder. If, after having the morality explained, he asked another question, such as “Why should I care if it is bad or good?”, then the only recourse is an appeal to the enforcement mechanism (punishment or reward).
In the 2nd post, we looked at how Christians are often criticized for holding to a childish kind of morality, because we have a tendency to point directly to God as the ground for morality, and both we and our critics tend to understand God’s place in morality as the ultimate enforcement mechanism. But we noted at the end of the 2nd article, that God grounds morality in a way far deeper than an enforcement mechanism. In fact, if we think that God is primarily a punisher of sin and rewarder of righteousness, his desire to show mercy and the self-sacrificial act of Jesus on the cross seem a bit out of character. But God’s forgiveness, his reckoning of faith as righteousness, is a sign that God’s relation to morality is not primarily as some transcendent lawgiver and judge.
So, what is God’s relationship to morality? In what way does God ground ethics?
In some ways, the answer I’ll give (and I hope I’m right!) is too obvious to be of much interest. In other ways, we seem unable to grasp it. But here it is: God grounds morality because all things exist as a result of his character and thus are sustained insofar as they function in accordance with his character, and deteriorate/die/are corrupted insofar as they function in a manner opposed to his character.
Most of us talk about this, but then we immediately fall into a discussion of a law as the standard. But the law isn’t the standard. God is the standard. The law is guidance—or instruction, as “Torah” would be better translated—to understanding who God is. For the key to righteousness is not following a law, but loving what is good, or, rather, he who is good—God—and growing to be more like Christ—the perfect image of God.
To take one more simple step: Humans were created in the image of God. Which means that we are fundamentally beings that are meant to reflect, to present, to image God. That, in turn, means that to be what we really are, we must reflect the character of God. And, of course, the clearest manifestation of God’s character is found in Jesus Christ.
What is that character, by the way? Love. All the Torah and the prophets are summed up in the dual commands to love God and love neighbor.
So, what does this mean about Christian ethics?
First, the law is not central—at least not in the sense in which we normally think of law. Law serves as instruction toward the character of God. It is not the case that “all have sinned and fallen short of the law.” It is, rather, that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” We have not been imaging God. We’ve turned against his character, by turning away from God, and ultimately becoming destroyers of his creation—by destroying ourselves, our neighbors (Cain being the first to do so), and the world around us.
Second, and this is the point of this series, the instruction we’ve been given in Scripture, and most clearly in the person of Jesus Christ, is tied to what we are.
This second point might seem kind of obvious, but the way Christians talk about and respond to ethics suggests that we’re not getting the point of it.
Let me offer a quick story to emphasize this point.
Some time ago, I was speaking to the senior class of a Christian private school. I was to talk about identity in Christ. In my usual thick-headed way, I began the discussion by asking the students what it meant to have their identity in Christ. They interpreted this phrase “identity in Christ” as being equivalent to “I am a Christian,” which seems to mean “I have made a profession of belief in Christianity.” But I pushed a little, because finding our identity in Christ must mean more than that some legal transaction has taken place in heaven’s books. Surely it means something like we see ourselves somehow united to the very person of Christ…that we cannot think of ourselves without thinking of Jesus, or something like this. Isn’t that what having some particular identity means?
What was interesting, though, is that it didn’t take long for these students—children of Christian parents who were paying good money to send their children to a school that would support their faith—to admit that they felt that being a Christian seemed to be against who they felt they were.
Consider that. Who are you? How does one define oneself? While some may reference some attribute that they have, it seems that who we are relates somehow to those things that we desire, that we love (from pizza to parents).
Now consider what these youth were bold enough to admit: They felt like God came into their lives primarily to stop them from doing things that they loved, or strongly desired. In fact, it was in those moments where they felt “most alive” or that they were about to do something in which they would become wholly transported into that act. Consider for example two unmarried teens who have been dating for years, they feel wholly in love with one another, and they have an opportunity to be alone one evening. It is in those moments that it seems Christianity comes in to say, “Stop! Hold back!” And, indeed, that seems to be the case almost all the time. Christianity, yes, is about faith and love—we are saved by faith in Jesus’ sacrifice, not by our own works. Nevertheless, the morality of Christianity seems to be a morality of living almost exactly like the world—but you can’t do quite as much.
So, is that what “identity in Christ” means: Being a little less than the world?
No, it is not.
Identity in Christ is at least like being part of a sports team. Would an Alabama football player think that he was just like the other college students (he enjoys good food and the various fun things that college students do), but does a little less (can’t eat all that junk food, has to avoid some fun things because he has to go to the gym or practice, etc.)? Of course not!
The life of the football player is only seen as less if we ignore the fact that he has a purpose, and that excellence in that purpose requires a different life from the rest of the world.
Christian morality is not about stopping people from doing things—though it of course calls for us to stop doing things. Christian morality is about calling us to something great—and this great thing to which we are called is hindered by all the vices that the world declares to be the stuff of happiness.
Now, I should launch into a long discussion of a Christian’s purpose—because even here the sense that Christianity is about becoming less infiltrates our understanding. What is the purpose of a Christian life? To reflect God’s glory, of course! And what does that mean? Don’t sin!
But “don’t sin” does not mean stop doing things—it means stop missing the mark! Which, simplified, means, “Hit the mark!” And, if I may interpret that, surely means something like, “Do that for which you were created!”
Thus, sin is about not doing that for which we were created. Sin is about becoming less.
Christian morality is about becoming those kinds of people who, like the well-trained and well-built football player, can carry out our purpose with that excellence and focus that gives us a fulfillment that a piece of cake or a night of binging alcohol and illicit sex could never give us. Christian morality is about becoming what we are.
So, why shouldn’t Bob kill Sam? Because Bob would be undermining both Sam’s being and his own. He would be acting against his nature—even if it felt good to do it—and so would be undermining the possibility of that rich fulfillment for Sam, Sam’s loved ones, and, of course, for himself as well. And such a loss of purpose and fulfillment, if not turned away from in repentance, will haunt him as he becomes that wraithlike shadow of what he could have been.
So, too, we can at least partly agree with Wittgenstein’s claim in the Tractatus with which we began this series:
There must indeed be some kind of ethical reward and ethical punishment, but they must reside in the action itself (6.422).
Thanks be to God that, if only we repent and turn to him, he forgives us and draws us out of that slavery to sin and death!
 That is, we hold in the highest respect Christians who are model economic machines—they make good money, plan a good retirement, possess nice things. It’s just that they should go to church, give a portion to charity and tithe, and don’t do as much of the stuff that the world does (keep sex within marriage, don’t smoke or drink—at least not too much, don’t use vulgar language—at least not too much, don’t watch too many rated-R movies, don’t get too ostentatious with your possessions, etc.).
 As most of you probably know, the Greek word for sin in the New Testament (transliterated as hamartia) means “to miss the mark,” as in an archer who misses the target.
 What, though, does it mean that our purpose for being created is to reflect the glory of God? Surely, it means that we image God in the same way as Jesus. So, too, it means that we are meant to rule over the earth under God, overseeing and directing creation in a way that reflects God’s creative activity (see Gen 1 and 2). So, too, we are meant for the redemption of creation (see Rom 8), indeed we are even participating in Jesus’ act of redemption (Col 1:24). That we are called to great glory and power is almost an understatement (see the exalted language of Eph 1:18-23—pay close attention to what Paul writes in v. 23!).
 As I learned while reading The Lord of the Rings, “wraith” has the same etymology as “wreath”—they both refer to something that is twisted. Thus, the image of the Ringwraiths is that of humans bent and twisted by a love that is itself bent and twisted.
Rather than continue the series on the moral argument with further takeaways—they are too numerable to include in a single post, and it would begin to look silly having a 10-part series—I have decided to develop these ideas as separate arguments in their own posts. I will make reference to claims made in the series on The Moral Argument, with reference specifically to Plato’s Euthyphro.
I want to begin by reiterating and expanding a bit on the contrast between the sophist’s view of human origins and Plato’s, because this shows a central contrast between contemporary Christians and atheists in their perspectives.
Christian Morality as Infantile, and Dangerous
The most frequent claim by atheists—from the everyday Twitter user to those with a huge hearing—is that religious morality (I’ll focus on Christian morality, since I’m a Christian) is childish.
“I don’t need a god to tell me not to murder. I can figure that out all on my own.”
Such a perspective is developed further in a 1961 article by the British philosopher Patrick Nowell-Smith entitled “Morality: Religious and Secular” in which he argues that religious morality is infantile. He defines infantility as being obsessed with laws rather than the more mature view that laws are meant to serve a purpose, and so may have exceptions, require development, changes, etc. Thus, Christian morality is infantile because we obey God like little children obey their parents—without knowing why, or even, perhaps, daring to question the commands.
Nowell-Smith doesn’t think religious morality is evil, just childish. But we could take things a step further and say with Steven Weinberg, “Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”
The immaturity of those obedient to religious precepts can cause them to do terrible things: from simple standoffishness and close-mindedness, to acts of terrible violence.
We can respond to these claims in a number of ways. There are elements in these critiques that are right, but they are mixed with error. And this becomes evident if we understand Christianity as more akin to Plato’s ethics than sophist ethics.
But first some throat clearing: Weinberg is partially right in a number of ways. Some of these will take us too far afield for this post, but we may come back to those in another article. The one that matters for us is that religion does indeed encourage decent people to do terrible things. But saying that religion makes people do bad things is kind of like saying that drinks cause people to have auto accidents. It is true that drinks can cause people to have auto accidents, but those drinks are most often alcoholic. Coffee is a drink, and probably helps prevent more accidents than it causes. So, too, Weinberg says that religion can make people good people do bad things. Yes, false religion and falsely held true religion. I may be accused of the “No True Scotsman” fallacy here, but that will have to be dealt with elsewhere.
As the Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga says in a piece on the evidential problem of evil, it is strange to critique theism or religion removed from the particulars of all the other elements of that religion. He refers to this as “austere theism”—a religion whose adherents number in the zeroes. Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Nordic, Greek, Roman, druidic, Wiccan, etc. etc.—these are all classified under “religions.” They are dramatically different. To critique all of them together is easy and essentially useless: Like critiquing drinks for causing accidents. Or complaining about objects for causing pain.
Morality as Natural
With that out of the way, how do we respond to the critique that Christian morality is infantile?
Unfortunately, people on both sides of the debate seem to agree on an erroneous understanding of the source of morality. It in fact comes from a problem noted by Wittgenstein in his Tractatus: For any moral claim, you can always ask, “Why?” Eventually, it seems we always end up with either “There is no reason” or “Because God says so and he’ll punish you for failing to obey.”
Nowell-Smith’s claim that mature people understand the reasons for morality is not the same as saying that mature people will always agree with that morality. One may know perfectly well that action (A) will lead to terrible results for society, but may do it anyway. Do I even need to list out examples for us to recognize that this is true? They are legion.
So, Nowell-Smith might be right in terms of knowing what morality is about, but he seems overly optimistic regarding how much concern individuals have about morality. And this is where a Christian might immediately yell, “See?! You need God to make sure people obey!”
While I think the Christian’s intuition is right—we need morality to be more than (broadly agreed-upon) opinion—to make morality simply God’s opinion, enforceable by his power to punish and reward, does not solve the problem. That casts us into the Euthyphro Dilemma which causes some significant trouble (see the posts on “The Moral Argument” for details).
What is right about the Christian’s intuition is that morality needs a ground that is somehow beyond human beings. The problem is that we keep trying to answer the question of “Why?” with the belief that power—the power to control, punish, reward, in short “lording it over”—must be the ground of morality, or the most fundamental quality of being. What I mean is that we see power as the primary, and therefore the most valuable, of qualities. I’ll write up a separate piece about that issue, because it is perhaps the most important basic idea to grasp when speaking about the one, true God.
But let us say that God is not first and foremost to be understood as powerful, but as loving, self-giving, creative. If that is the case, then how might we answer the “Why?” question?
When we ask, “Why?” we tend to think of motivations, and thus desires. And insofar as our desires are fundamentally aimed toward power—that is, the capacity for acquiring pleasure for ourselves and avoiding pain—then we will ultimately answer the question of “Why?” for morality with an appeal to power (punishment or reward).
But morality isn’t grounded in God’s power, but in his love, his self-giving creation. And so the appeal for morality is not that you’ll be punished for disobeying or rewarded for obeying, but that morality is tied to our very being. For God created us in love, and made us in his image. Therefore, to sin is merely to act against God’s nature, our own nature, and against the nature of the world itself.
Of course, that we are acting against our nature or the nature of the world is not obvious. The world seems to run on the power to possess, control, take. The world system is a mass of life and death struggle into which we fell. But “[b]y faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible” (Heb 11:3 ESV). The visible is the realm of power. But God’s Word—Jesus, who overcame death—has overcome the world.
So, we find in Christianity a transcendent ground that stands above human opinion or even human consensus, because it is the very stuff of which we have been made. This hearkens back to Augustine’s neoplatonic metaphysics: being is itself good, which means that morality is natural, in the deepest sense of the term. To do good is to bolster one’s very being (think C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce).
And so it is not surprising that everyone from Sam Harris to your unruly teenage neighbor has a sense that murder is bad, and can even reason through complex and rich moral ideas. What they lack is a ground. Which is why utilitarianism and moralities closely related to utilitarianism are perhaps the most popular these days—the deepest foundation we can think of in a world in which there is no God is social benefit. That is, of course, until the individual disagrees. And if the individual asks “Why?”, what ultimate answer can be given? Punishment or reward from society.
I’d rather be infantile before God than before society, since the former is far greater than the latter.
But far better to get away from morality that must appeal to power for its authority. Christianity grounds morality in love, which is the root of our being.
So how does the Christian answer Nowell-Smith’s claim of infantility, or Weinberg’s claim that religion makes good people do bad things?
Infantility has already been answered. Like a child, we may initially obey God because we are seeking to avoid punishment and gain reward, but once we come to understand that his commands—the greatest being to love God and love neighbor—are instructions on how to become fully what we are, our fear is no longer about punishment, but fear of our own attraction to un-being, nothingness, death. That is why the wages of sin is death—since sin is battling against our very being, death is the obvious result—but the self-giving creative act of God is eternal life—becoming fully what God has and is creating us to be results in life so full that it never ends.
Does religion cause good people to do bad things? Absolutely. Do good people who claim to be acting in the name of Jesus do bad things? Definitely. False religions and false worship—aimed toward that which is most powerful and seeks to emulate that power—will surely encourage people to lean on that power to justify acting upon selfish inclinations. In fact, they worship a selfish god, so why wouldn’t they do selfish things—such as killing noncombatants to secure a place in paradise, tribalism, hateful accusation without offering grace such as securing power through church division and division of the Church.
But being identified with the crucified and risen Jesus, worshiping the self-giving creator Father, through the Holy Spirit who binds the Church together in love—such can only encourage self-sacrificial love on behalf of even one’s enemies. Why? Because we see in the other person the image of the God we worship. And we identify with him who, on the cross, asked for forgiveness for his enemies. And we worship through the One who draws people together in love.
Would that make people do bad things? Surely not. But we are prone to (willful) misunderstanding. We twist. Because, despite what Weinberg says, we are all a mix of good and evil. And the bad is simply a twisting, confusion, breaking of the good (of being). Since evil is merely a twisting or a corruption of the good, when we come across a great good, the opportunity for evil to twist and corrupt grows. That is why, perhaps, those who initially seek power may begin with great ideals, and once achieving power—a place in which greater good can be done—very often and very quickly become corrupt.
A Low View of the Divine
The study of Plato’s Euthyphro in the posts on The Moral Argument noted how a low view of the divine is organically tied to the belief that “might makes right,” which is the sophists’ claim. We Christians have fallen for this view of power as central—which is why one of the biggest divisions within evangelicalism is a question of God’s lording-it-over power in relation to his creation. My claim is that viewing God as fundamentally power(ful) and love as a happy, but secondary or tertiary quality, is in fact a low view of God, akin to what Euthyphro held. This low view led to the fatal critique of the Euthyphro Dilemma.
Plato warned against this almost 2400 years ago. Genesis 1 showed it false well before Plato ever came on the scene.
We might perhaps need a bit more development of this idea that love is closer to the heart of who God is than power. For it might sound like I’m venturing into a universalist Santa Claus god, or perhaps a god who lacks omnipotence. I’m not. In fact, in a strange way, if God is primarily loving, it elevates his power and the demands of his holiness. That is, looking at God as primarily loving gives us a higher view of God. But that will have to wait for another entry.
 I could make a simple appeal to Jesus as the center of Scripture, his self-sacrifice and concern even for his enemies, but a critic would simply retort with references to the flood, Jericho, etc., in which God calls for violence. So, even though Jesus being the One to whom all Scripture points is correct and does, I think, deal with the problem, the meaning of this claim has to be fleshed out more to deal with a thoughtful critic of Christianity, which I will do below. Of course, I won’t deal with the violence of Israel’s conquering army or the widespread destruction apparently caused by God himself. That would require more work, but I will say that I do not think there is a real problem here.
 “There is no reason” is the substance of claims such as “society dictates such a moral claim” or “I feel like it”—that is, there is no reason beyond mere opinion.
 This is not a simple idea to grasp because it is terribly counterintuitive, or at least counter our habits of thinking. But we might say that God’s power arises from his love, rather than love being an admittedly happy, but still secondary or tertiary, property added to someone who is primarily power. Such an idea appears in poetry and stories, in which love is said to conquer all, even death. The resurrection of Jesus proves such a fanciful idea to be based in truth. The doctrine of the Trinity shows that the historical event of the resurrection is grounded in God’s very being.
 In Christians circles, we often speak of our having a “sin nature.” This term makes me a bit nervous, because it makes it sound as if we are fundamentally evil creatures (i.e. that God made us evil). Sin is unnatural. Having a “sin nature” therefore means that we have something like a cancer within us that is undermining our being. Of course, the point of the term “sin nature” is to emphasize how we are incapable of curing ourselves of this disease, but rather tend to act in such a way as to encourage the growth of the cancer. That I agree with wholeheartedly.
 One of the Ten Commandments is against this very thing (the prohibition of taking the Lord’s name in vain has nothing to do with bad words, and everything to do with declaring that one is acting as a worshiper of God and acting in a way that does not line up with his nature), so it shouldn’t be surprising that it happens.
 “Satan” in Hebrew means “accuser.”
 It also happens to be the claim of what seems to be the origin stories of the Ancient Near East and the contemporary materialistic evolution/utilitarianism marriage.