What do my three-year-old, Amazon Prime, and a sexual predator from Southern Malawi have in common? Together they echo what it means to be human. We are meant for greatness, but bent towards awfulness. We are fallen, and yet - through tremendous failure and the heights of victory - we are drawn into the discovery that we were made in the image of God.
The Voice Within
My oldest daughters are identical twins: Suzy and Elsie. They have blue eyes and goldilocks ringlets. Suzy has a superman curl that goes right over her forehead and would put Clark Kent to shame. She is the lover, and Elsie is the fighter. When I had Suzy and Elsie, my prayers changed. I want them to enjoy a better world. I want them to be innocent forever. Suzy, especially, has a soft heart. But this is not a soft world, is it?
She will not be 3 forever. She will learn to ride a bike, and fall, and I will bandage her wounds. She will back our car into the house, and I will fix the siding, and live with the dent.
But I cannot fix her world, and I cannot still something inside her. The historian and scholar N.T. Wright calls it the sound of a voice within us.[i] It will be in her like a dream once had. Like the memory of something sweet but faint. It will be a sense. A sense for justice. A yearning for righteousness. And before her: a world that ought to be put right, but is not. A world where there is not justice, and injustice cannot be bandaged or undented. No matter what I do, I will not be able to fix Suzy’s world.
The Line is Drawn
The Christian worldview affirms that such a voice is real, and that this voice which speaks faintly into every person’s heart spoke definitively in the person of Jesus Christ. Wrights says, “Christians believe that in Jesus of Nazareth the voice we thought we heard became human and lived and died as one of us.”[ii] It is, ironically, this world which is broken that echoes back to us the truth that lives within us - that there is a need for redemption because there is a Redeemer that waits for Suzy’s world.
But the world is catastrophically broken - not like a broken car, but like a shattered glass. There are pieces in us all, shards of what we ought to be. As Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn writes: “the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties, but right through the middle of every human heart.”[iii] Humans are contradictions of greatness: greatly powerful and yet deeply vulnerable, both awfully good and evil, passionately right and wrong.
Today, it is out with the black-and-white and in with the grey. We live in a grey world. Our Sunday-school morality is gone. Grey upon grey paint the human picture. We have all grown up now. We all watch murder mysteries and spend our days scoffing at crooked politicians and religious hypocrites. We all know who dunnit - The sweet old lady, the unbecoming clergyman. We are cynical and jaded. And yet, I want to argue that we are closer to the Christian worldview today than ever before.
Christianity speaks to a human condition where it is not Hitler on one side and Christ on the other. It rejects the idea of good guys and bad guys and affirms that people are always both. At the end of the day, we are more like Hitler than Jesus Christ. “But for the grace of God” replaces the black and white canvas strokes of a childish past. It confirms Christianity to be true and real. For if the grey assumes anything, it assumes the black and white.
Painting the Moral Landscape
Imagine two paintings of New York City. Inevitably, one painting will look more like the iconic city than the other. We might look at one painting and say, “This is a better representation, a better painting.” When we say this, we imply – by comparing them – that there is something they both are trying to capture on canvas. It implies that such a place as New York City exists. This is exactly what we do when we use concepts of good and evil. An action is right or wrong compared to a standard beyond itself. The inescapable conclusion is that moral absolutes are real. Morality is not a majority opinion. In fact, it is not an opinion at all. It is as real as the New York City skyline. This belief, called moral realism, is something powerfully confirmed by human history and philosophy.
Why Everyone Agrees
Historically, the universal belief in moral truths is telling. The condemnation of murder, theft, and falsehood is the verdict of human history. In his book, “Everyone Agrees: Word, Ideas, and a Universal Morality”, J.S. Morse argues extensively that the different expressions of human morality across the globe actually draw from similar concepts that all people alike value. We all think people should be modest, should be truthful, and should be moral, and yet we disagree on how these values ought to be expressed.
Furthermore, altruism plays a mysterious part in the story of civilization. We all value self-sacrifice, even though it counters our most basic Darwinian impulses. Under atheism, the entire evolution of our race depends on the kind of behavior that is the absolute opposite of altruism.[iv] And yet, even staunch atheists uphold self-sacrifice and honor. Even a thief thinks it is wrong when he himself is robbed. This shows the strength that certain moral truths wield over humanity. We cling to them, even when they make us inconsistent. We cling to them, even when they make us hypocrites. Only Christianity speaks into the quicksand of human morality. You cannot put a ladder on quicksand and hope to reach heaven. Redemption is not and cannot be human. It is God’s gift.
Some have of course argued that altruism is itself an evolutionary instinct, but even this leaves the experience unexplained. For example, you might walk down the street and see a little old lady being beaten and mugged by a purse snatcher, and you may have an instinct to sacrifice your safety for her well-being. But certainly you also have an instinct under naturalism to preserve yourself. The question is not about instinct, but why you would choose to pick one instinct over the other and why – most importantly – you reason and you know that it is right to help the woman, even if you do not act on that conviction. We do not reason to the point of believing that certain things are right or wrong. Rather, we reason from these beliefs to form other beliefs and influence our actions.
Philosophers call these kinds of beliefs “properly basic”. That certain moral truths at least appear to be of this kind is beyond question. The atheistic philosopher Michael Ruse says, “The man who says that it is morally acceptable to rape little children is just as mistaken as the man who says, 2+2=5.”[v] Some things in this world are truly wrong. The burden of proof is not with the person who affirms that rape is wrong, but with the one who denies it. If we cannot say that the Holocaust was truly wrong, we thereby rationalize atrocity. It is to lose our humanity. What good reason could we have to do this, to deny that raping a child is truly wrong? No proper rationalization exists.
Some might argue that certain things are only self-evidently wrong to us because we have been influenced by Western, Judeo-Christian values. However, this would not be an argument against moral realism – since it is possible that we could both come to apprehend morality through our culture, and that certain things really are right and wrong at the same time. This is typically referred to as the distinction between epistemology and ontology. The former refers to study or theory of knowledge, while the latter regards the study of being. It is possible that our knowledge of an object is formed by irrational processes while the existence of that object can still be deduced by rational means. To think or argue otherwise is to commit the genetic fallacy. We can know that not helping the little old lady is wrong because of Western upbringing, and it can also be an objectively wrong moral truth.
But even if we disregard this distinction of epistemology and ontology for the sake of argument, moral relativism – the belief that moral truths are relative to culture and not actually real – is not the consequence. Even moral relativists living under a Western morality think that they ought to impose Western morality on others. No moral relativist would visit an undeveloped society and sit idly by whole little children are tortured under some tribal form of morality.
A Man Hired to Have Sex with Children
Sound far-fetched? A BBC news story from July 21, 2016 centered around a Malawi “hyena” named Eric Aniva.[vi] A hyena is a man hired to do “sexual cleansing” in remote parts of Southern Malawi. He is paid to sleep with widows to cleanse them from the deaths of their husbands, with women who have undergone abortions to cleans them from impurity, and most shockingly, with young girls after they’ve had their first menstrual cycle. This is meant to initiate them into adulthood. Eric Aniva is in his late forties. He claims to have slept with 104 women and girls, some aged 12 or 13 – however, this is the same number he gave to a local newspaper in 2012, despite his continued employment as a hyena. Ed Butler, the news reporter, says: “I sense that he long ago lost count.”
Aniva is also HIV positive. Ironically, the rituals are believed to protect the family members of the young girls from diseases.
Would any moral relativist think these actions are morally acceptable? Of course not. But, what’s more shocking: neither does the hyena. Butler ends his article by describing and recollecting bits of his conversation with Eric Aniva and one of his two wives:
Their relationship looks strained. Sitting next to him, she admits shyly that she hates what he does, but that it brings necessary income. I ask her if she expects her two-year-old to be undergoing initiation too in perhaps 10 years from now.
"I don't want that to happen," she says. "I want this tradition to end. We are forced to sleep with the hyenas. It's not out of our choice and that I think is so sad for us as women."
"You hated it when it happened to you?" I ask.
"I still hate it right up until now."
When I ask Aniva too whether he wants his daughter to undergo sexual cleansing, he surprises me again.
"Not my daughter. I cannot allow this. Now I am fighting for the end of this malpractice."
"So, you're fighting against it, but you are still doing it yourself?" I ask.
"No, as I said, I'm stopping now."
"For sure. For real, I'm stopping."
On July 26, 2016 Eric Aniva was arrested by authorities. Peter Mutharika, the Malawian president, called the practice a “despicable evil”. He ordered the arrest himself. This highlights not only that we think Western morality is actually better in some way – which leads us back to the New York City skyline – but also that those who live under different systems of morality intuitively sense their systems are wrong.
Upon reflection, this makes sense. Western civilization, after all, was built on two pillars: Greek philosophy and Judaism, which historically reached beyond their cultures to achieve moral understanding. The great philosophers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were moral realists against the superstitions of their time. This trend remains. The majority of philosophers may be atheists, but they are still moral realists.[vii]
Finding Truth on Amazon Prime
The Amazon Series Man in the High Castle imagines a world in which the Allies lost and America is divided between Nazi and Japanese occupation. The story revolves around a Nazi spy named Joe who poses as a member of the resistance. As the story unfolds, Joe begins to question his loyalties to the Nazi powers. In one chilling scene, he is stranded on the side of the highway with a flat tire. As Joe gets out of his car, a man drives up and offers to help. While they finish replacing the tire, Joe notices ash raining down from the sky. He asks the man what the ash is from, and the man nonchalantly remarks that it is Tuesday – the day they incinerate the disabled and the elderly. Joe responds without emotion, gets in his truck, and drives away.
The world, had the Allies lost, could well be a world in which the extermination of the unfit and the elderly become morally acceptable. But surely majority opinion or the callousness of human conscience could not justify atrocity? Morality is not a pizza topping we favor or a rat in a laboratory to subject to whatever experiments tickle our curiosity.
But here lies the atheist dilemma. Under atheism, Hitler’s actions were not wrong in any objective, binding sense. They certainly were not inconsistent with Darwinism. We cannot say that he ought to have done otherwise in a universe in which we, like all other animals, dance to the rhythm of our DNA.
The Reflection of a Voice
But this oughtness – that we ought to be better, that we ought to be less like Hitler and more like Jesus, or that the world ought to be a better place – is not only prescriptive, but undeniable and personal. We sense it. We experience it - when we feel shame or remorse, when we are burdened by guilt; or, alternatively, when we feel the inner peace of a satisfied conscience. But what explains these sensations? We do not feel shame or guilt before a rock or a horse. We do not feel inner peace before material objects. We feel these before a Person.[viii] A Person we all appear to experience. So that in the deepest convictions of humanity we find the image of God. We chase after the picture of the divine, and we find, in ourselves, a tainted reflection.
Only Christianity speaks into the quicksand of human morality. Morality transcends mere instinct and culture and is universal, objective, prescriptive, and personal. You cannot put a ladder on quicksand and hope to reach heaven. Redemption is not and cannot be human. It must come from the ultimate moral being. It must come from God. Suzy’s world, in the experience of humanity, appears to be God’s world.
This article is an excerpt from the book, "From Darwin to Jesus".
[i] N.T. Wright, Simply Christian (New York: Harper-Collins, 2006), 3.
[ii] Ibid, 10.
[iii] Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago Two (New York: Harper and Row, 1975), 615-16.
[iv] Neil Shenvi, “Do Objective Moral Values Exist?” at http://www.shenvi.org/Essays/ObjectiveMoralValues.htm.
[v] Michael Ruse, Darwinism Defended (London: Addison-Wesley, 1982), 275.
[vi] Ed Butler, “The Man Hired to Have Sex with Children” (July 21, 2016), BBC News. See full article at: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-36843769.
[vii] Neil Shenvi, “Do Objective Moral Values Exist?”
[viii] Adapted from a quote by John Henry Newman, recorded by Michael Ruse in Atheism: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford: University Press, 2015), 98.