moral values and christian perspectives in the 21th century

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1 August 2013

moral values and christian perspectives in the 21th century

The New Norms

The world is changing and it is changing too fast for some of us. In the process, it has opened up many issues which question established moral standards. In some instances and often in the name of “progress”, practices and norms which were once widely accepted have been thrown out of the window by liberal politicians, to be replaced by practices which now form the “new norms”.

Looking at the fast-paced changes and the introduction of “new norms,” one wonders whether tested and trusted Christian moral standards can withstand the pressure to compromise, or whether we will discard long-held beliefs. The pressure seems unbearable for some Christians, and that has made it easier for them to switch allegiances when adopting moral standards or to reinterpret their faith to fit the demands of a post-modern world. This is a world where moral standards are more likely to be measured by taste and tolerance than truth and trustworthiness.

In the current free market of morals, one often favours moral standards based on one’s subjective taste. Taste, of course, can vary or change according to trends. Morality in that sense is fluid.

“Tolerance” has been promoted to an almost exclusive standard to judge whether a person is “progressive” or “primitive.” The idea is to insinuate that anything that is “progressive” must be good, and one cannot be “progressive” unless one is also tolerant. Being tolerant means accepting anything that anyone chooses and leaving others alone to choose what they like, even if we don’t like what they choose.

We would have heard people say; “I will leave you alone to accept what you want to accept; to believe in what you want to believe. And you are to leave me alone to accept what I want to accept, and believe in what I want to believe. You keep your morals to yourself. Don’t impose your moral standards on me.”

Oddly, those who push for tolerance are often intolerant of others who disagree with them. But that is a matter for a separate discussion.

For now, looking at our world today, the state of morality seems to be in limbo. What had before been transmitted and accepted as truthful and trustworthy moral standards by the Church has become suspect in the eyes of those who are intolerant of the claims of people of faith. This is a major challenge which Christians who hold dear to the teachings of our faith have to deal with.

As if the shifting worldview is not challenging enough, questions on moral standards have also surfaced in other areas of human life. Let me name a few.

The frontier of life sciences has raised many questions regarding what constitutes a “person”, including whether we should support research using embryonic stem cells if such research can help to find treatment for some dreaded diseases, and whether we should legalise mixed species research where the gene of a different animal is mixed with the gene of a human. And how about the marketing of genetically-modified food which are sold without proper labelling, where people unknowingly buy and consume such food?

In the world of business, should the supposedly “free” market system continue to prevail in spite of the recent social economic upheavals and human suffering caused by the greedy bankers who thrived in such a market? Has the “free market” been manipulated to offer obscenely high pay packages and bonuses to top executives? Has morality a role to play in the market? In a consumerist world, have we been conditioned to value people’s worth by what we possess and what the business world wants us to buy and then dispose?

What about the impact of the fast-changing world of social media where people are no longer dependent on traditional media for news updates and where developments anywhere around the world can be disseminated instantaneously? How do we verify what is reliable from the voluminous and incessant output of conflicting reports? Are we morally accountable for what we post on different social media platforms or copy from websites?

The world of different cultures and religious beliefs has for a long time accepted only marriage between a man and a woman. Now, some countries have introduced new social arrangements to redefine sexuality, marriage and family. How do we respond to the legalisation of same-sex marriage and the re-organisation of what a family is?

Defining Our Moral Vision

Moral matters are of utmost importance. Our choice of moral vision will shape not just the kind of person we want to be but also the kind of community we want to build. When it comes to moral standards, this should not be left predominantly to liberal academics, the media and politicians to discuss and redefine, though such people seem to have dominated attempts at re-defining the boundaries of morality in recent decades.

Internationally-respected Anglican pastor and theologian, John Stott, in his book, The Living Church: Convictions of a Lifelong Pastor shares an observation: “One of the most important questions facing Christians in every age and every place is this: what values and standards are going to dominate our national culture?” (page 137)

He goes on to pose this question for Christians who should be concerned about Christian witness in a world of darkness and moral decay:

“Will Christians be able to influence their country so that the values and standards of the Kingdom of God permeate the whole national culture – its consensus on moral and bioethical issues, its recognition of human rights, its respect for the sanctity of human life (including that of the unborn, the handicapped and the senile), its concern for the homeless, the unemployed and people trapped in the cycle of poverty, its attitude to dissidents, its stewardship of the environment, its treatment of criminals, and the whole way of life of its citizens?” (pages 137 and 138)

The point which Stott makes in this book and elsewhere in his other books, like Issues Facing Christians Today, is that Christians should be interested in societal well-being and societal moral health. Our God Himself is concerned about human moral standards. Throughout the Bible, God has intervened whenever His people neglect their duties to care for the poor, work for justice or uphold His moral values. That is why He issued instructions like what we find in Micah 6: 8, “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” And that is why we are told by Jesus that we are to be the salt and light of the world.

Taking cue from Stott, as salt and light of the world, we have to be mindful of at least four truths:

a) “Christians are radically different from non-Christians.” (page 139) That is to say, if we are no different from what other people are doing and promoting, than we have compromised our witness as salt and light.

b) “Christians must permeate non-Christian society.” His advice is that, “Although spiritually and morally distinct, we are not to be socially segregated.” (page 140) Instead, we should contribute to enhance societal values and moral standards with our Christian input and teachings, without allowing ungodly values and standards to infiltrate and influence our Christian life and value-system. The counsel is that we are to impact the world and not be swallowed by it.

c) “Christians can influence and change non-Christian society.” (page 142) Of course, we should not be arrogant or insensitive in our social witness. Light and salt can exert both subtle and substantial influence. Furthermore, as we offer thoughtful Christian input, bear in mind that even if “we cannot perfect society… we can improve it.” (page 143)

d) “Christians must retain their Christian distinctness.” (page 149) This is a reminder that Christ has called us, in our pursuit of righteousness and public witness, to maintain and promote standards which should be better than what others may offer, including loving our enemies and seeking first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness.

We live in a trying time. Our members are exposed to all kinds of competing ideas and value-systems. Christians are tempted under pressure to follow what the rest of the world is doing and to embrace the morality of the gods of this age. But the instruction of our Lord remains valid. We have a responsibility, as light and salt of the world, to impact society and influence the world with the gospel of Christ and the righteousness and ethical standards of God’s Kingdom.

Over the years the Church has benefitted from the guidance of theologians, pastors, Bible scholars and evangelists. But John Stott gets it right when he says, “We need to pray that God will raise up more ethical thinkers, who will not just climb Mount Sinai and declaim the Ten Commandments, but will argue that God’s standards are best.” (page 147)

While we pray for more “ethical thinkers” to help the Church take on the challenge of our time and offer thoughtful Christian responses to social ills afflicting our world, it is the responsibility of every Christian to continue to provide faithful witness in the public arena. As our Lord has reminded us:

You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.

You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:13-16) n

Author: Revd Dr. Daniel Koh Kah Soon (Dr. Koh is a Christian social ethicist who is concerned about societal well-being and Christian social engagement. He teaches Pastoral Theology and Christian Ethics at Trinity Theological College, Singapore.)