Moral Authority?

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scales_of_justice_smallIn the last few weeks, the same question has come at me from a couple different directions in a couple different forms.

In a recent tete-a-tete I had with a Facebook friend and fellow scouter, he postulated that his morality was based on biblical teaching while mine was based on nothing but my feelings, and therefore baseless.

A blog post I recently read (Do Progressive Christians Have Any Moral Foundation?, by Tony Jones) asked this very same question.

But progressives then have a problem with the God of most traditional and especially Christian formulations – especially with retribution, punishments, curses, condemnations, as well as problems with the unfairness of the treatment of women, slaves, and other outsiders. This gives us a huge problem with the bible and the god it describes, which forces us to re-think everything. Thus our problem speaking much, or coherently about God. Where do we go for information?

The author did not attempt to answer the question in the post, but asked readers to comment, with a promise that he would post his thoughts on the topic the following week.

The question has been dogging me ever since.  I have not yet read Mr. Jones follow-up as I wanted to get my thoughts down on paper (so to speak) before finding how others have answered what would seem to be a rather fundamental question.

So, what ARE my thoughts???

After a lot of introspection, I finally realized what was bothering me about this question.  No matter how hard I tried to identify the authority (i.e. basis)  for my morality, each and every possibility fell short.  In the end, they all came back to my selection of the authority for my morality.  If I have the power to select the authority, then I have elevated myself over them… and thus, I become the real authority.  On further reflection, it became apparent that this must be true not just for me, but for everyone.  The fundamentalist chooses to recognize the Bible, the Torah, the Qur’an, or some other a holy text as the moral authority.  The progressive chooses to take the content of these texts (and other sources) and weigh them against some metric to fuse them into a morality that makes sense to them.  In both cases, the decision lies with the person choosing their authority.

I have been a Christian all my life (a Lutheran to be more specific.)  My faith has evolved dramatically over my life.  Through it all, I never questioned the idea that there exists some sort of moral authority.  The idea that this authority is necessarily myself was not an answer I was expecting.

Once I came to the realization that it was inevitable that any direction of thought on this question must end in this answer, I began to look at the question itself.  What I found surprised me.  We are asking the wrong question.  (Those of you who know me in “real” life know that it is not terribly uncommon for me to reject a question asked of me and substitute my own before answering it.  But… this time it felt different.)  The real question should be, “Do we need a moral authority external to ourselves?

So… Do we need an external moral authority?

I strongly suspect the answer to this question is going to depend highly on who you ask and where they are in their faith journey (and I’m including atheists here as well).   I also suspect that anyone who has actually spent time thinking about this question cannot come away with anything other than a strong feeling one way or another.

For me (at this point in my life), it seems that the very idea of moral authority has one very serious pitfall.  It opens the door to all sorts of evils to be committed.  When we abdicate our personal responsibility for deciding what is right and what is wrong, we permit the possibility of doing horrendous acts while wearing a cloak of moral protection.  We need simply point to our moral authority and say, “Nope, my actions are moral.  The Bible says so.”   If, on the other hand, we weigh our thoughts and actions against the metric of love (i.e. Christ’s New Commandment), we are forced to examine the impact our actions will have on others.

I haven’t completely given up the notion that there might still exist some moral absolutisms out there.  I simply can no longer go through life with the safety net (escape hatch?) of thinking any external authority can discern for me the answer to any question of morality.  I must take the responsibility.  And maybe… just maybe… if everyone would take responsibility for their own moral decisions, the world might become a more loving place.


What do you think?