Category: ethics

Mind the Gap

By , 24 July 2009 6:30 pm

I have been reading through the 10 Commandments and the social legislation that follows in Exodus 20 over the last few days and happened to glance at the notes in my NLT Study Bible. The writer made the very interesting point that although many of the legal elements have parallels in other documents of the ancient near East, the cause and effect linkage between faith and ethics found here seems to be unique. In other words although there were religious practices elsewhere and legal rules aplenty, it seems that very few people connected the two. Yet in Judaism to be a believer in Yahweh was to live out his religious code. To some people this may come as something of a blinding novelty: after all isn’t religion all about ‘do this’ and ‘don’t do that’? Well apparently it wasn’t common then.

The interesting thing is it is becoming increasingly uncommon now. We are seeing – increasingly I fear – a split between ethics and faith. In other words we are coming to a point where belief is totally separate from actions. So we have all sorts of people engaged in all sorts of unpleasantness and immorality (and please remember that immorality is not just to do with sex) who are quite happy to call themselves Christian.

I was reminded of a classic example of this in my recent reading up on the Napoleonic Wars where towards the end the Duke of Wellington plays a major part. A few years ago I read a very fine biography of the great soldier (and not so great politician) called ‘Wellington: The Iron Duke’ by
Richard Holmes. Here, as far as I remember, on one page Holmes details the Dukes voracious sexual appetite: it was of such an extent that one suspects his genes are now widely disseminated throughout Europe. Then a few pages later he discusses his religious beliefs with a degree of care and concludes that he was a generally orthodox run-of-the-mill Anglican. The really striking thing is that there is not a single sentence to suggest that the biographer saw any contradiction between Wellington’s faith and his actions. For Holmes, religion is in one compartment; behaviour in another. Interestingly enough this is surely sloppy history. Even if a late 20th century author sees no contradiction in a promiscuous and openly adulterous man having a Christian faith, then surely the Duke himself and his contemporaries would have been aware of the tension.

Of course you don’t have to look into biographies to see such sentiments. Many religious people parade their spirituality and do not feel obliged to justify or excuse the evident immorality of their actions; whether sexual, financial or behavioural. We can easily be tempted to go along with this current mood. For instance I quite often get annoyed with my students, laugh at rude jokes or say things that I later think ‘Doh! I really shouldn’t have said that.’ Yet I don’t think in four years of teaching I have ever had anyone say ‘Chris isn’t that inconsistent with your Christian beliefs?’ But they all want to know whether I believe in the Big Bang. Maybe I should point out my own inconsistencies?

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