Ethical Jazz or Moral Cacophony?

Will human reason prove sufficient to resolve the ever broadening struggle over moral and ethical standards?

The use of God in moral debate is so problematic as to be almost worthless. We can debate with one another as to whether this or that alleged claim genuinely emanated from God, but who can honestly adjudicate in such an Olympian debate? That is why it is better to leave God out of the moral debate and find good human reasons for supporting the system or approach we advocate, without having recourse to divinely clinching arguments.”

So argues Richard Holloway, the soon-to-retire Bishop of Edinburgh and Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, in his latest book, Godless Morality: Keeping Religion Out of Ethics (Canongate Books, Edinburgh, 1999).

Holloway divides the chapters of his book to cover a number of moral issues: sexual morality; substance use and abuse; abortion and euthanasia; and artificial insemination and genetics. His first chapter, “Ethical Jazz,” sets out his stall. He asks, “Is morality a science or an art, a technique we can learn by mastering the rules and applications, or is it more like mapping a strange country by a process of exploration, trial and error?” He highlights today’s moral confusion and crisis of authority. But does Holloway provide any guidance through this morass?

His discussion of the matters of substance abuse, abortion, euthanasia, artificial insemination and genetics is generally sensitive and sympathetic; some of these subjects touch more on the ethical than the moral. It is in the earlier chapters—when he gets into the church’s historical home territory of traditional morals—that the concept of “godless morality” is at its most controversial and questionable.

The Unseen Accompanist

In Holloway’s argument for situation ethics, God is sidelined by an amorphous, humanly devised morality. “If we reject God as micro-manager of human morality, dictating specific systems that constantly wear out and leave us with theological problems when we want to abandon them, we shall have to develop a more dynamic understanding of God as one who accompanies creation in its evolving story like a pianist in a silent movie” (p. 33).

He continues: “The genius of improvisation seems to be a better metaphor for actual human moral experience. . . . God invites us to join in the music, to listen and adapt to one another, to keep the melody flowing.” Holloway argues for ”a new moral ecumenism that would unite people on the basis of an agreed human ethic” (p. 34).

Exactly where and how God is involved in this invitation is not explained. It is strange, then, that Holloway should acknowledge the twin societal problems of erosion of tradition and moral confusion. Private choice, he acknowledges, has resulted in instability and anxiety. So, can “ethical jazz” really provide the fix, or will it just add to the moral cacophony?

Holloway is frank about the distorting role that traditional Christianity has caused in attitudes toward human sexuality. Referring to “the religious inversion, the root of the sexual pessimism that so disfigures the history of Christianity,” he describes the sexual suspicion of the early church fathers (particularly toward females) in a couple of telling statements: “The developed Christian understanding of the myth of the Fall [of Adam and Eve] is distinctive, because it renders sex problematic in itself”; and, “The Christian use of the myth of the Fall in the book of Genesis . . . has built into Christian anthropology the crushing idea that, simply by being born, human beings inherit a sinful, fallen nature, like a congenital virus that can only be remedied by extraordinary methods.” Holloway then quotes fourth-century church father St. John Chrysostom: “What else is woman but a foe to friendship, an inescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, a domestic danger, a delectable detriment, an evil of nature painted with fair colours!”(pp. 43, 46–47).

His argument for situation ethics goes like this: “We no longer believe that any sexual act, as such, can be judged to be right or wrong except on moral grounds. You cannot define its moral nature from the sexual content alone. The morality of the act lies not in its sexuality, whatever it is, but on whether it causes harm to persons or their interests or violates their rights or causes injustice” (p. 57).

Holloway claims to detect a clear sexual ethic in the apparently chaotic scene of youthful sexuality. This is surely situation ethics at its very worst. 

He describes the increasing sexual activity of the young, remarking that they have intercourse like they’d have a burger or coffee, sex being often a part of a good night out, like drugs and drink. Yet he puts forward the naive view that young people who adopt this approach are not necessarily without any sexual ethic. He regards “serial monogamy” as something based on commitment, and so claims to detect a clear sexual ethic in the apparently chaotic scene of youthful sexuality. This is surely situation ethics at its very worst—devising some kind of pathetic moral code in the midst of patent immorality. This godless morality is indeed aptly named. It is an ethic of shifting sands, where everything is justifiable provided there’s “commitment” and no one gets hurt or has his or her perceived rights violated.

Minimalist Morality

It is on reading Holloway’s attempts to explain changing sexual mores that one could wish he would indeed be consistent with his book’s title and keep God out of the so-called new morality he is putting forward.

Perhaps the bishop should heed his own warning: “To begin with, we have to exonerate the Bible. . . . It is only fair to point out that we probably read more into the Bible than we get out of it” (p. 49). How very true!

A couple of comments as Holloway nears the conclusion of his book are particularly revealing. He asserts that the “culture of [sexual] excess is absolutely consistent with the lack of balance that often characterises the young, and it will probably do them little lasting damage, though there will, inevitably, be casualties.” He goes on: “If we could initiate a discussion on the possibility of an ethic of sexuality that was based on the value of moderation as well as the goodness of pleasure, we might be able to develop a new morality of consent. . . . We have acknowledged the importance of relativism in moral systems” (p. 159, emphasis added).

Little damage? Which newspapers has Bishop Holloway been reading? Are the 90,000 annual teenage pregnancies in the United Kingdom little damage? And do the resultant 56,000 births and 34,000 abortions represent an acceptable number of casualties?

In 1996 the proportion of births outside marriage was 36 percent, compared with 9 percent in 1976.” 

Melanie Phillips, Sunday Times, October 17, 1999

Standing in the Gap

Melanie Phillips, a columnist who recognizes and laments the effects of British moral collapse—let’s call it what it is—has no such illusions. “British teenagers have the highest rates of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases in Europe,” she wrote in the London Sunday Times. “Impoverishment here [in Liverpool] is not so much economic as emotional, cultural and spiritual. . . . People spend their day watching soap operas in which sex, affairs and unwed pregnancy are staple fare.” Phillips pointed to a more optimistic climate in the United States, where, she noted, one hears of “abstinence campaigns and more conservative attitudes among the young towards sex. Yet mention abstinence in Britain, and ministers, with their terror of preaching, run for cover” (“Abstinence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder,” June 13, 1999).

In a later article, Phillips spelled out the cost: “In 1996 the proportion of births outside marriage was 36 percent, compared with 9 percent in 1976, featuring a six-fold increase for women in their twenties. Half of all conceptions now take place outside marriage, compared with one third in 1986” (“Women Behaving Disgracefully,” Sunday Times, October 17, 1999).

Why is a journalist standing in the gap that should be filled to the brim with our religious leaders?

Why is a journalist standing in the gap that should be filled to the brim with our religious leaders? 

Another journalist, Peter Hitchens of the London Daily Express, rightly ascribed the new morality to post-Christian Britain. He noted that “sexual liberation of all kinds is such an important part of the new post-Christian Britain. The arbiters of the new morality believed that one’s sexual life did not need to be regulated either by law or conscience” (The Abolition of Britain, Quartet Books, London, 1999, p. 248).

Considering Holloway’s book in the light of this observation makes one wonder if we have not ended up in an Orwellian Animal Farm quandary when it comes to comparing atheists and certain religious leaders. Orwell’s concluding words—“the creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again: but already it was impossible to say which was which”—are not out of place in the sellout of those endeavoring to hold biblical values against the moral slaughterhouse of humanistic situation ethics.

How long will leaders of Christian organizations continue to insist on turning wine into water?

It is lamentable to see ministers of some of the leading Christian denominations failing to make the connections that are so obvious to discerning journalists—and leaders of other religious groups.

Whereto, Morality?

The words of Isaiah 5:20 come to mind when we survey the abysmal moral sludge of an amoral and confused world as it moves into the third millennium of the Christian era: “Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; who put darkness for light, and light for darkness; who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!”

Morality is really very simple, if we will only allow the straightforward message of Scripture, God’s Guidebook for humanity, to come through—untrammeled, that is, by the hang-ups of church fathers like Chrysostom. Consider the moral simplicity of this statement from the introduction of the New Open Bible, Study Edition (Thomas Nelson, 1990): “God’s purpose in human government is that it serve as both a custodian and an enforcer of His eternal law. It has been correctly noted that all the thousands of good and practical laws passed by hundreds of legislative bodies and rulers throughout history are in reality only amplifications of the Ten Commandments.”

What’s so bad about your neighbor not having designs on your wife or husband? What’s so awful about respecting God—and, by extension, your own beliefs—enough not to use His name like some four-letter word? This kind of morality is very straightforward—and this world needs it desperately.

Holloway’s is just one more siren voice among many. His book is merely a marker as Western society slides further down the helter-skelter of social decline and deeper into a wilderness whose shifting sands are blown about by the ever changing winds of a godless morality.

If, as Holloway suggests, morality is an exercise akin to mapping a strange country by a process of exploration, trial and error, then sooner or later the explorers will find they have embarked on a journey through another “dark continent”—vast and dangerous.

Would it not be better to avoid this strange country altogether? Christian society has lurched from the extreme of suspicion about all human sexuality to tolerance of almost any sexual activity. The moral Guidebook that a loving God set before humanity in the very beginning provides the balance that humanity has desperately needed all along—a very loving, godly morality.