I do not intend to prove or disprove the idea of Universal Morality (UM), the definition of which is more airy and difficult to grasp than one might imagine. I do intend to lay out and question the “standard” christian theistic arguments for the origin of UM and our basis for understanding it. The dialogue below is my way of doing this. I hope the scope of this dialogue is sufficiently narrow to hold our attention yet apply to enough interested readers for widespread consumption. I write this as a christian. I try to present a fair hearing of the more common christian views of UM to avoid attacking straw men. If I’m missing some major thoughts, let me know in the comments by all means.
Part 1 – From where?
Paul Matthews (PM): But you must admit that there are objective rights and wrongs outside the opinion of humans!
Roger Watts (RW): There are many questions to raise about this statement but too many for now. Let’s narrow this down a bit. What is the christian view of these objective rights and wrongs? Where do they come from?
PM: I’m glad you asked. They come from God.
RW: Do you mean God decides what is moral and what is immoral? Is morality so arbitrary that one personality in the universe simply gets to decide the definition?
PM: Some might say that, but I believe it falls far short of the truth. If the God of Christianity does exist, than He created everything else that exists. In my view morality is not something that God creates or decides to differentiate as a creative act. Morality is not part of the created world. Rather, I would say that morality as a standard is derived directly from God’s character. In other words, if any action or thought is in alignment with the pre-existent, eternal character of God, it is moral. If it falls outside of that character, it is immoral.
RW: I want to be sure I understand you. God does not create a moral standard by which all other things are judged as moral or immoral. All things are judged directly by their alignment with the character of God. If this is so, how are we to know if an action or thought is moral or not?
PM: The answer is in what you have already stated. You must evaluate your action against the character or holiness of God.
RW: You give me a very difficult task. I can’t comprehend the character of an infinite God. I would find it hard enough to comprehend my own. Is this moral standard to be known by my subjective understanding of God or is it revealed in scripture?
PM: I think it’s both. However, I would be very careful basing moral comparisons on a personal relationship with God or subjective understanding. After all, He is too big to comprehend fully and there is a great risk that you will completely miss His character. Because we are unable to fully comprehend His character, we must trust in what He has revealed of Himself through His word. If we followed His commands and teaching, we would certainly be in line with His character. Also I would warn that we shouldn’t fall into the trap of trying to do the things He does. Because we are a different order of being than God, the things that God does may be immoral for us to do.
RW: That’s a lot and we should painstakingly, or perhaps painfully, work through each point. Let’s take a step back though. Perhaps I won’t be swayed so easily that morality is derived from God’s character/nature. Let’s use the term nature instead of character. Why shouldn’t I simply believe that God created the difference between morality and immorality and mandates that standard to his creation? It seems like a feasible option.
PM: It may be feasible. But I think there are problems with it. First of all, the answer wouldn’t change the fact that the best way for us to know how we can live up to that standard is by following God’s revealed commands to us. Is that something we can agree on?
RW: Yes, I agree that this question wouldn’t change that idea. However, you have yet to show that we can know the standard by the method you suggest.
PM: Good, fair enough, I’m just trying to find our common ground of reason. So let’s tackle this question. Does God create a standard of morality, deciding that certain things are moral or immoral based on His own internal thought process, or is morality, as a definition, a standard that exists based on the very nature of God? I think this may be a false dichotomy. If we say that God creates the standard of morality using some Godlike thought process, shouldn’t we see that thought process as stemming from the nature of God? At some point, all the decisions that God makes find their source in His nature. Not that we are able to fully understand that nature, but all His actions certainly come from that nature.
RW: Ok, I’m not sure I have further argument to draw a distinction. Let us say that God does not act outside of his nature, and further, let us say that all created reality stems from his nature since he created it. That brings me to my next question, with that line of reasoning can there exist anything that doesn’t come from the nature of God? Can there exist anything that is apart from his nature, or by your definition, immoral?
PM: That will lead us to discuss the nature of humans. My short answer is yes. For example, I believe God’s nature is to tell the truth and He only tells the truth. By logical necessity that means He doesn’t lie. However, we know that people tell lies, so beings exist that lie, an action which is outside of God’s nature. The question is how does this work?
Part 2 coming soon.