“But is it biblical?” My Wheaton College friends and I would query each other in the dorm with this question. We were being mischievous; reacting in jest to the seeming evangelical obsession with “biblical morality”—and to the assumption that “biblical morality” was uniform, universal, and simple. But if it’s just a matter of reading it off the page, why are there so many debates and disagreements among Christians?
We’ve got Christian pro-lifers and pro-choicers. Christian capitalists and anti-capitalists. Christians for intensive ecological care and Christians for mostly unregulated economic production. We’ve got Christians against gay marriage, Christians for it, and Christians somewhere in between. We could go on in on. But the point is: In each of these cases, we can find Christians who claim biblical support and who insist their view reflects “biblical morality.”
At a more abstract level, we find Christians who emphasize holiness, purity, and separation, and Christians who prefer compassion, nurture, and inclusion. We have Christians who gravitate toward authority and hierarchy, and Christians who lean toward equality and democracy. Aren’t all these concepts in the Bible? What gives? So how—and why—and on what basis should we choose which moral impulses should lead us?
The interesting question is, and one that cognitive psychology is increasingly pressing upon is, how much does conscious choice and rational reflection play into our moral preferences? The answer they give: far less than we think. Much of our moral preferences and behavior are responses of intuitions and affective preferences, many of which were lodged into our brains long before we learned to speak. We enter human existence with a pre-formed moral architecture, which is mollified, shaped, and confirmed or challenged through the process of human development and socialization.
If morality is at least, in some sense, a product of evolution (or if its building blocks are) and if our moral responses comprise a combination of internal, emotive reactions and a developmental process of socialization, then this raises a number of interesting questions about “biblical morality.” Not only might we be quicker to reflect on our own moral preferences and impulses, but we might also slow down and think about how our biology and our social context impacts our interpretations of the Bible. I’ve seen a number of blog posts recently on the phenomenon of “cherry picking” the Bible to support our preformed moral preferences. We all cherry pick to some degree, but the more we are aware of the various factors undergirding and motivating our cherry picking, the greater will be our capacity to responsibly reflect on our biblical interpretations and moral conclusions.
Perhaps the best antidote to an unreflective, entirely intuitive moral structure is intentional exposure to alternate biblical interpretations and moral perspectives. As a white, male, American Christian, I ought to read and listen to perspectives on Scripture and morality from Christians and others who occupy contextually different perspectives on morality. This intentional exposure doesn’t force me to change my perspective nor does it require epistemic or moral relativism; it does, however, remind me of the possibility that I might not be in possession of the absolute truth. I might not have the correct “biblical” interpretation, and I certainly don’t have the only or final word on a complex, moral issue.
The mere recognition that morality has a basis in biology does not automatically lead to epistemic relativism, to atheism or to a reductive naturalism. It simply means that the brain and the body, as God’s creational gifts, function as instruments of moral behavior. The biological, evolutionary, and social influences on morality do not undermine its importance nor do they suggest that intuitive or inherited morality cannot or should not be altered to conform to God’s will. It does suggest that we should spend some time and effort considering not only what God’s will is, but how best to conform to it.
To point toward an answer, perhaps the most psychologically natural approach to nurturing a moral life (i.e. Christian discipleship and spiritual formation) is through story and symbol. This is convenient, since the Bible is chock-full with both. In this respect, I think narrative ethics (e.g. Stanley Hauerwas, James McClendon) holds the most promise for Christians and church leaders who desire to have and to commend “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16). I find compelling McClendon’s description of the task of narrative Christian ethics: It is “the discovery, understanding, and creative transformation of a shared and lived story, one whose focus is Jesus of Nazareth and the kingdom he claims—a story that on its moral side requires such discovery, such understanding, such transformation to be true to itself” (Ethics: Systematic Theology, Vol. 1, pg. 330).
Christian narrative ethics builds on the scientific understanding that all human beings inhabit a moral universe and come “pre-loaded” with moral impulses, leanings, and aversions. We acquire and alter those moral impulses through hearing and experiencing impactful narratives. Through evangelism and Christian discipleship, we invite people into the story of Jesus Christ, which has past, present and future ramifications for understanding what “morality” is and ought to be. To be a follower of Jesus is to seek the mind of Christ, to seek justice, holiness, to love with a sacrificial love, and to anticipate the coming kingdom of God in which human morality will happily submit and conform to the absolute holy, loving, will of God. In the interim, as individuals (shaped as we are by biology and everything else) and as communities of believers committed to following Jesus together, we are invited to think and pray very hard for discernment in navigating the moral universe and in constructing and reconstructing together (the moral structures we inhabit. We ought to have moments of intentional, serious reflection and self-criticism, being open handed about what we think we know to be the case and being willing to be led by the Spirit, shaped by the life of Christ, and impelled by the coming Kingdom, as we follow the Spirit and Scripture toward “biblical morality.”
 Here I am indebted to Jonathan Haidt’s essay, “Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of Religion,” in The Believing Primate, eds. Jeffrey Schloss and Michael Murray (Oxford University Press, 2009), pp. 278-291. Thanks to my colleague, Adam Johnson, for pointing me this direction.