I believe it was one Edmund Browning who, around the time of his election as Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, said that Christianity is all about helping people ‘overcome their guilts’.  By ‘guilts’ I assume Browning meant feelings of guilt.  In any case, the statement is an almost perfect summary of the modernist, therapeutic reinterpretation of Christianity.  On this view Christ came to make us feel better and religion is about comfort.  It’s all about me, ME, ME!!!.  On the narrow matter of Browning’s statement, the traditional and alternative view is that Christianity is all about ‘helping people overcome their guilt.’  On this view, associated with much of conservative Christianity, the point is not that we should feel good but that we should be good.  This view is superior to the other in that it at least delivers us from an unhealthy emphasis on ourselves and our subjective feelings and recognizes that we are accountable to God and to objective standards of good and evil, right and wrong, which are embedded in God’s creation.  Both of these views are, however, forms of moralism, which treat Christianity as primarily a matter of human behavior.  We might call the Browning view subjective, therapeutic moralism, while the more traditional view might be called objective or traditional moralism.

Traditional moralism in some ways suffered a decline in the last century.  In the late 19th and early 20th century the Christian Socialist movement, associated in England with F.D. Maurice and other Anglicans, and the Social Gospel movement in American Protestantism were directed towards service to others.  Whether prudent or imprudent in their social nostrums, these movements were concerned with real problems in society, and they often were combined with great doctrinal seriousness and theological orthodoxy.  In recent decades the theological orthodoxy has disappeared, the doctrinal seriousness has dissolved into pop psychology and ‘liberation’ jargon, and concern for others has turned into moral navel-gazing and narcissism.  The idea of objective or natural norms implicit in the actual world has been abandoned and a solipsistic individualism has been enthroned as the only real good.

In any case, all forms of moralism tends to mislead us by reducing Christianity to its effects on us and by emphasizing man not God.  Both of these views are human-centered.  While conservative moralism is preferable to the essentially selfish contemporary quest to ‘overcome guilts’ and abolish natural norms, all of these views tend to turn from a beginning point in the glory of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ and towards human self-regard.

The tragedy of this turn from God is that in fact it is self-defeating.  The gospel in fact does liberate us from evil, does help us be and feel better, does inculcate concern for others, does humanize and improve societies, and does bring greater justice.  But the gospel only has the power to do these things because it is God’s work, not ours.  The moral effects of Christianity are secondary and are the consequences of its supernatural message.  If we aim primarily and directly for the social and moral and psychological benefits of Christianity, then we will not achieve them, will pervert Christianity, will reduce it to a human thing, and will empty it of its power truly to transform us and our world.  I think it was C.S. Lewis who said that if we aim at heaven we get earth thrown in, while if we aim at earth we get nothing. I know Lewis said, ‘Ask for the Morning Star and take (thrown in) your earthly love.’  Christ, of course, is the Morning Star.

In classical theological reckoning, ‘systematic theology’ has two components, namely dogmatic and moral theology.  One literal translation of ‘theology’ is ‘God talk’:  talk or reason or thinking about God.  In that case, dogmatic theology is talk about God and about what God has done and is doing.  Dogmatic theology is about the being and attributes of God, about creation, and about human beings and their character, and about God’s recreation of the world through his Incarnation in the world.  Dogmatic theology is about the exitus, about God and everything that flows out from him.

Moral theology, then, is about the redditus, the return to God, the response of the reasoning creation to God and what he has done.  Naturally the proper response to God is shaped by, conditioned by, limited and controlled by, God.  If we believe that God is loving towards us and cares for us, that should very much affect and change how we acts in the world and towards God and towards our fellow creatures.  Indeed response is the key word.  If at the heart of the universe we believe love is present, then we will tend to be quite different from people who believe the universe is without meaning or purpose.

In short, the Christian view of the world has moral implications, but these are matters of secondary response that are entirely conditioned by the primary understanding of God.  Moralism, by putting the human at the center, reverses the correct order.

We need to know ourselves and the spiritual dangers to which we are most prone.  Everyone in our society is influenced to some degree by the therapeutic culture that surrounds us.  For traditional Christians, however, the main danger is probably not this ‘left-wing moralism’, as we might call it, but rather conservative moralism.  We need to combat this tendency by cultivating the opposite virtues.  We need to hold together an emphasis upon God as the center and purpose of our lives and of our religion along with a recollection of the fact that God does call us to respond to his love with moral transformation of ourselves and with a concern for others.  The center of parish life always should be the Eucharist, the proper work of the people of God, which is in fact a divine work within the people to transform us and to assimilate us more and more to God.  The purpose of the Eucharist is to bring about a mutual indwelling of Christ and us, and that in turn is meant to transform us – body, soul, mind, spirit, socially, and morally.  If our religion is merely a matter of beautiful worship and orthodox doctrine, then we have begun well and failed to follow through.  If we begin with moralism, then we have not even begun well but are on the wrong path from the start.

 

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s