« On “Biblical Morality,” Cognitive Psychology, and Narrative Ethics »

“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.[1]  

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.”


[1] 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.

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Reader Comments (10)

Where do you think "conscience" fits into your picture? How come I don't hear evangelical Christians use this word, ever?

August 1, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMary

Mary, conscience certainly fits into the picture. The very idea of morality assumes that conscience is at work someway, somehow. Of course, differing moral structures will have conscience working at different places and being "activating" for different reasons. Theologically, it's important to distinguish mere human moral conscience from the conviction of the Holy Spirit. One might have an activated conscience for any number of reasons, but not always because the Spirit is convicting of sin (fundamentalist legalism is particularly susceptible to this conflation). Also, socially, conscience can erupt in collective cries against injustice or inequity or scandal, etc. In these cases, conscience is activated by what seem to be pretty basic biological and/or social reasons. Conscience is important, but what's key is learning to live into the narrative of Jesus and the kingdom and letting that narrative inform conscience--and how we understand and shape morality.

August 1, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKyle Roberts

Kyle, Why do you think a collective outcry against injustice can or must have a purely (or primarily?) material and biological cause rather than a spiritual one? Are there two types of morality for different types of people? Similarly, why must guilt or scruples driven by fear of shame or violating community standards necessarily be "legalism" and "wrong?" Because their source is not supernatural? How would you know?

I am troubled and curious about the apparent dualism in your view of the human person, the psyche or consciousness as expressed also in your response to Mary. I think you may be assuming "guilt" is the main activity of "conscience" while assuming the validity of the modern, Anglophonic separation of one, properly undivided consciousness (or soul) into a system that has a morality department called the "conscience." Over time and in different cultures these symbolizations change and have been subjected to over-articulation as reified concepts that come to take on an inappropriate concreteness. They are symbols for an experience--the tension between self, others, the world and the divine realm. They can be useful, but they can cause more trouble than they are worth as analytical concepts if you aren't careful.

TO THE MODERATOR: I am not getting email notification of followup comments. (I never have.) I do try to check in to follow the dialogue, but it is difficult with so many posts.

August 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDan

Ethics and science have different, what Dooyeweerd would call, nuclear moments. Within Dooyeweerd's system the biotic anticipates the ethical and the ethical presupposes the biotic. So certainly an irreducible relationship exists but must we not recognize that these are in fact two separate spheres/ modalities within the realm of theoretical thought. Theoretical thought holds no autonomy on truth (or perhaps Kyle would say perfect objectivity). Hence an appeal must ultimately be made to the theoretical thoughts correspondence to the naïve experience through philosophical inquiry not theological. All of which is subjected to the Creator in so far as all of reality is dependent upon such a being (a religious presupposition).
Therefore, why the pursuit to "integrate" these fields within the theological sphere?
Why the need to absolutize the scientific sphere as the sole source for truth, reducing the real phenomena (biblical morality) to a mere psychological phenomenon?
It seems to me that at the core the issue is fundamentally of a religious/ worldview origin. An orientation shaped by ones liturgical tradition but certainly not defined by it. Everything emirates from a particular worldview, nothing can be said to be religiously neutral. Therefore for some their is an absolutization of reason/ autonomy of theoretical thought that formulates the basis for their thought and in an intricate way their naïve experience (understood phenomenalogically under Dooyeweerdian categories). With this in mind, why does psychology with its given religious presuppositions need to be the only source for ones understanding of ethics? Psychology certainly has a right to believe as it is led by the data, but must it be treated as a religiously neutral source?

August 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterReggie

Dan, thanks for your comment.

"Why do you think a collective outcry against injustice can or must have a purely (or primarily?) material and biological cause rather than a spiritual one?"

Good point. I didn't mean to bifurcate too strongly between "mere" biological or social and the "spiritual" I'm not an anthropological dualist (or at least, I try not to be). However, I'm also not a pantheist so I believe the Holy Spirit, as personal agent, works within and through natural causes/instruments/realities but also transcends them--and "intervenes" or--if you prefer--"interacts" in some way. So, I do think it important to distinguish the Holy Spirit's agency in convicting of sin from simply or "merely" natural causes behind the formation of moral structures. Morality is an evolutionary feature which at least partly works to bind people together and rebuke, correct, or possible excise those who refuse to cooperate morally. So, I take your point (if I grasped it)--it's not that the Holy Spirit is not involved in this--who can say? But in communities formed and shaped by the narrative of Christ, that "conscious" which works its way through the community will be explicitly shaped by the symbols of that narrative and will therefore differ at key moments, it seems to me, from a purely secularly shaped moral structure. Agree or disagree?

"Are there two types of morality for different types of people?"

I would say there are various types of morality--some shaped by both "biological" and social factors (nothing against those things, necessarily) and some shaped by those things + the Holy Spirit via the Christ story. Thus, pacificism, it can be suggested, seemingly necessitates a cross-shaped symbolic world to transform or perhaps even upend the natural evolutionary moral structure.

"Similarly, why must guilt or scruples driven by fear of shame or violating community standards necessarily be "legalism" and "wrong?" Because their source is not supernatural? How would you know?"

They need not necessary be legalism or wrong. I don't think I said that. I said they might be--or are "often susceptible to." I don't always "know" legalism when I see it (or certainly don't know whether the Spirit is not behind it), but it certainly seems that biblically it is something to avoid--therefore there must be some way to detect it (and when we detect legalism, aren't we detecting something that is not driven by the Spirit but by some other spirit?)

August 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKyle Roberts

Reggie, thanks for your comment and questions.

"Therefore, why the pursuit to "integrate" these fields within the theological sphere?"

Because I have no interest in a dis-integrated theology.

"Why the need to absolutize the scientific sphere as the sole source for truth, reducing the real phenomena (biblical morality) to a mere psychological phenomenon?"

What makes you think I am doing that? I am suggesting that narrative ethics (living communally into a gospel, Christ-shaped narrative) builds on the natural narrative structure human beings inherit and develop early on. Given human finitude and inherited sin, narrative ethics will involve some serious re-shaping and re-formatting of "natural" morality (but not in every way, and not in every case). Sometimes there will be continuity, sometimes discontinuity, and there will be contextual variations in how narrative ethics is applied communally and cross-culturally.

Finally, why should I care about "Dooyeweerdian categories"? That's what's driving you, not me.

August 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKyle Roberts

Kyle, you dropped out. come back!

you said:

"socially, conscience can erupt in collective cries against injustice or inequity or scandal, etc. In these cases, conscience is activated by what seem to be pretty basic biological and/or social reasons. Conscience is important, but what's key is learning to live into the narrative of Jesus and the kingdom and letting that narrative inform conscience--and how we understand and shape morality."

I wonder if the Holy Spirit can work through biological or social avenues? Also I would love to understand better why Bethel or let's say evangelicals doesn't even use the word conscience? help me out.

good points, Dan.

August 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMary

I'm not sure it's necessary to avoid pantheism by erring on the side of dualism. Panentheism has some purchase within Christian thought and tradition too; it does not prohibit theological concepts like divine agency, the holy spirit, etc. I think it comes out as a kind of anti-reductionist "mystical materialism," which I don't mean as a pejorative. It might mean seeing the natural order as being full with the presence of God and most obviously so in the consciousness of its creatures, especially those capable of self-conscious reflection on their mortality, purpose and meaning. From this reflection arise all the moral, spiritual, and religious developments of sapient human cultures, including Neanderthals if they indeed had burial rituals and created things like the caves at Lascaux. You seem to relegate this to merely biological development devoid of any spiritual activity, and this seems highly eccentric from either a Christian or non-Christian perspective. It is as if you are a hard materialist looking at a world with no divine hand in its human and other life up until some point in the history of the people of Israel.

You have made what I read as a total distinction between the world of intramundane "material" experience (where you locate morality and guilt) and the world of "spiritual" experience (where you locate sin and the holy spirit). You allow for "spirit" to "invade" "matter" "from outside," which seems to presuppose a "supernatural" realm. That is an idea that coincides with the rise of empirical science in the early modern era. Is it part of the "narrative of Christ?" Is it "secular?" Is it true or helpful? I would suggest it is not true, helpful, Christian or secular. It is proving a temporary fragment shored up against the ruin of Christian philosophy following the 16th century. The supernatural is, as atheists are fond of pointing out, something like a reservation for God in the face of an expanding materialist account of reality.

I guess I disagree with the way you set up the question of Christian morality being in essence ontologically different than any non-Christian morality, where the former is a real spiritual experience with God/the HS and the other is not. Christian communities differ greatly from one to the next and over time; their language for talking about morality and ethics differs too. This surely has something to do with the anthropological or psychological models they use or assume, which are necessarily a composite of their cultural background. Christianity even in its earliest forms is a composite of more and less Hellenized Hebrew and Greco-Roman culture. A Chinese Christian may add to this some legacies of Confucian, Buddhist, or Taoist thought. To regard this as "contamination" is misguided and not a problem that can be fixed in any case. What is helpful is to clarify sources, models, terms, and the historical development of ideas so we can interrogate why we think and see things as we do.

It is this last point that gets at what troubles me most about your comments. You seem to be saying that the spiritual realm/the Holy Spirit is accessible only through "the Christ story" so everyone untouched by it is fundamentally, even existentially different from all other people. In this view Christians are different in a way that overrides the Hellenized Hebrew and quite literally catholic, ecumenic view from St. Paul. From the earliest days of the church it has been taught there is one human heart/soul/conscience that knows the moral law because God writes it in all human hearts. Within the boundaries of this language of the church you could say this "inscription" metaphor is not at odds with an evolutionary description. What you cannot do is posit a merely moral realm disconnected from "the spiritual" (and thus God). For Christians God is not in the business of restricting his activity to people who have read his very delayed gospel.

The main problem your model has is, I think, an anthropological or psychological dualism. (I.e., one model for those deemed proper Christians and one for everyone else.) The sectarian chauvinist tendencies of this sort of view become clear when you say things like "pacificism ... seemingly necessitates a cross-shaped symbolic world to transform or perhaps even upend the natural evolutionary moral structure." As a point of historical fact, pacifism has been taught, practiced, and cultivated as a religious/philosophical path in India and Asia far longer than in the West. Despite the comparative lack of aggressive military and colonial expansionism in Asian history, Buddhism, aspects of Hinduism, and Sikhism are all quite similar to Christ (or Socrates) in their non-violent rejection and confrontation of worldly power with a spiritual morality. Notably Christianity has not made much of the gospel as a basis for emanicpation and peace until relatively modern times and only in the hands of people regarded as heterodox or very close to it. This data does not fit your model, but it does work with an evolutionary perspective where human consciousness universally comes to realize it desires and is driven by spiritual dictates that are at odds with a purely materially concerned social order. Karl Jaspers' "Axial Age" and such.

August 7, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDan

Dan, I have to say, you've read far, far, more into my humble little post than I ever intended or even imagined could thusly be interpreted. I have no interest in denying the presence of God (and the Holy Spirit) throughout all of creational and human evolutionary history). This is why I said, in my post, "The mere recognition that morality has a basis in biology [note: I did not say biology is the *only* basis] 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." God's creational gifts? Product of evolution as "instruments of moral behavior"? How is that either strict materialism or trenchant dualism?

Further, I do not mean to imply that *only* Christians can be and are morally responsible--in fact, too often Christians should learn a better morality from others. I am a soteriological inclusivist, an epistemological postfoundationalist, and--while I'm still working out what this means-- an anthropological monist (psycho-somatic unity). Nonetheless, as a Christian I do believe that in the Christ-event and the Christ-story we have the summation of "morality" (the "fulfillment of the law"); we see the "icon" of God in flesh. As Christians we are invited to live into that narrative towards the eschatological consummation of "morality." Every religion has its own way(s) of framing morality (with many overlaps among them) and with endless contextual variations within those religions themselves (as I point out in my post) and yes, I believe that God (the trinitarian God, in my view) can and does work through them as creator of all things and the Spirit works in the world even apart from explicit awareness of the gospel narrative. I'm speaking here as an evangelical Christian to other evangelical Christians about the future of evangelical Christianity and how we understand these things in light of the story we live in and through. The "moral exemplar" atonement theory gets short shrift in evangelicalism; I'm suggesting that narrative ethics take note of the symbols and stories of Scripture (centered in the Christ-event) and therefore easily integrates with an evolutionary picture of morality. If you have a problem with Christ's incarnation as a pivotal point in the "evolution of morality" then we can just agree to disagree. Finally, it seems that your lengthy, erudite reply here is pretty much entirely in response to my point to Mary that the Spirit "intervenes" to redirect moral activity. I'm sympathetic with some of the panentheist conceptions (especially Moltmann). However, I don't think such conceptions rule out any sort of transcendent operation of a "personal" divine being in the world (i.e. "interactivity") even if that world only exists inside of God, so to speak. Can we not at least suggest that the evolution of morality towards greater justice, inclusion, human flourishing, etc. has possibly something to do with the interactivity or even intervention of the Spirit whose work might be more pronounced in various times than in others? Again, I do not claim that the Spirit only works through explicit knowledge of the gospel story--though the Spirit who works is always the Spirit of Christ.

August 7, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKyle Roberts

It's helpful to know how you define your perspective instead of trying to figure it out from your post and comments. It's especially the monism that does not seem to come through because you use terms that rely on physical/spiritual, inside/outside distinction to describe people and creation. The "Holy Spirit" really complicates things, and using "secular society" in opposition to "Christian community" (rather than secular vs. religious) suggested a related type of dualist reduction that is very common for Evangelicals and, to be fair, the writers of the New Testament as well.

What I've been trying to figure out is what a biological and theological account of morality might look like to you -- one that holds both perspectives together as an integral whole where the same experience of moral behavior can be understood simultaneously in both biological and theological terms. Rather than answer this question, your paragraph that begins "The mere recognition..." exemplifies the problem for me. In that paragraph I understand you're saying that biological and theological accounts of the origin and development of human moral reasoning can go together, but you do not show how.

For example, when you say the brain and body are divine gifts which after creation have undergone biological and social development -- including the development of morality -- I wonder what you think God has to do with these post-creation developmental processes. You indicate that intuitive or inherited [biological/evolutionary] morality "may need to "be altered to conform to God’s will," so it sounds like you think of biological and social evolutionary development as operating under defective, "fallen" conditions where devolution or regress is possible. Was there never any "unfallen" state then, other than the innocence of a less conscious, amoral/pre-moral, bestial existence? And is this really evolution/progress? Wouldn't it mean humans are "created sick and commanded to be sound?" What are we to make of peaceful polyamorous Caribbean islanders being enslaved and tortured by the first "socially evolved" people to show up?

If you think of the incarnation as "a pivotal point in the "'evolution of morality'" is that because -- as a story -- it helps people intentionally modify the default, "hard-wired" and generally self-interested, biological bases for their moral behavior? Jesus as moral exemplar saves us (or Paul of Tarsus does) by spreading a gospel meme to deconstruct our persecutory tendencies? If that is where you're coming from with narrative ethics I do see how it harmonizes an inclusivist soteriology neatly with a biological and anthropological, evolutionary account of human history -- but maybe not the actual historical record. It is also such a disenchanted, intellectual perspective, it is hard to see it being accessible or constructive let alone evangelistic for most people, especially the simple and the poor.

I don't see a global "evolution of morality towards greater justice, inclusion, human flourishing, etc." The historical record (and body counts) indicates the opposite with Christians often leading the charge to do injustice, marginalize and exclude the weak, and crush human flourishing where it does not square with the interests of money and power. Still the gospel predicts this and persists in the world through the work of a few heroic and "inspired" people. To me it's that prediction and perseverance, not the institutional and numeric success of the message that can seem miraculous and otherworldly.

August 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDan

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