There’s a curious notion I’ve observed to be common among Evangelical Christians, if I can trust what I read about them online. They seem to believe that human beings have no notion of right and wrong. They think that atheists, without the guidance of divine revelation and the fear of divine wrath to restrain them, must necessarily be lawless savages, ignorant wretches who don’t know that some behaviors are morally wrong and therefore don’t hesitate to do, well, anything they want to do. (In my experience, atheists are often the kindest and most ethical people I’ve met.) Without God’s commandments, they insist, we would all be robbing, raping, and murdering each other, not to mention having sex with animals and celebrating same-sex marriage.
I’m sure my readers will agree that laws against behavior, whether divine or human, don’t necessarily prevent that behavior from occurring. Theft is illegal, but people do it. Some people do it out of need or desperation, food for their kids or a fix for their addiction, and some people do it out of greed, because they already have lots of money, but they still want more.
This notion that human beings won’t behave ethically if they aren’t frightened into it by the big daddy god is not one that other kinds of Christians share. Episcopalians sure don’t believe that. C.S. Lewis spends a lot of time in Mere Christianity talking about the moral law that all humans innately share. In his view, we know certain things are wrong not because God made a list and handed it to us, but because he created us to know them. My personal theory is that there *are* certain acts pretty much all cultures and ethical systems agree are wrong. They are murder, lying, robbing or defrauding people, and sexual shenanigans.
Now, of course, there are a lot of shades of nuance possible there. How do you define murder, for example? Does it include killing in self-defense? in wartime? to end the life of someone who’s suffering? aborting a pregnancy? And sexual codes of ethics are even more complex, but there is a general agreement that some sexual behaviors are okay, others are not. Marriage, in particular, is an oath or contract that should be respected by the participants and by other people. Some religions have groups of people who vow to refrain from sex, and it’s important to keep those vows.
But having a list of things one should not do is only the beginning of ethics, not the fullness of it. Sadly, many individuals, not to mention whole Protestant denominations, have never moved beyond that stage. There is a lot of territory beyond refraining from doing wrong for fear of being punished. I think a person enters that territory when they begin to ask not merely, What should I do, or not do? but, What kind of person do I want to be? To ask that question moves from the safe playground of rules into the open country of values. What kind of person do I want to be?
Back in January, I read a helpful post on The Golden Trail called “My religion has no moral doctrine”. Speaking particularly of Roman religion, blogger Helio Pires points out that the only thing which tradition defines for him is ritual praxis. Worshipping (mostly) Roman gods in a traditional Roman ritual manner makes him a Roman polytheist. It doesn’t prescribe or preclude his opinions about the gods, which are up to him; neither does it lay down an ethical code, which emerges from society. Thus he can, for example, support same-sex marriage and consider such relationships ethical even if the ancient Romans didn’t, and he can disapprove of gladiatorial games even though they enjoyed them. (Disclaimer: I do not know for certain the blogger’s opinions on either of these topics.)
Not doing wrong things is easy enough for me. Doing right things means, mostly, remembering that other people are subjects, not objects, just like me; they have needs and wants, they feel pain and pleasure, they deserve consideration. When I start to consider what kind of person I am and want to be, that’s when morality begins to overlap with my relationships to the gods. The gods to whom I am most devoted are gods who share my values: Creativity, inclusive community, free expression of erotic feeling, love as erotic. In my devotions to them, I therefore become more fully who I am and who I want to be. With those ideas in mind, one can move from “Thou shalt not” into, as the author of The Cloud of Unknowing put it, “what thou wouldst be”.