I had the chance to run into a friend of mine today while I was out at a coffee shop grading papers. This was thoroughly enjoyable, and I continually find it amazing that some people are closer friends even though I don’t even have their phone numbers than other people whom I’ve known for years. Perhaps not closer friends… and I’m honestly hesitant to say better friends, but this guy and I have a connection that I don’t have with many of the people I’ve known for a very long time. I think this is born of a mutual understanding of some common concepts and trials, but I’m not entirely sure. I’ve mentioned before (I think) that sometimes I have a hard time connecting with people because I never know what they are going to be comfortable knowing, and what they will run away from. I think the connection I’m talking about is comfort. This particular person… we’ll call him Paul… Paul and I were pretty instantly comfortable with each other. No judgment, no anger, no misinterpreted attacks, we were just comfortable being ourselves. That is something very rare, and I’m going to miss that.
Anyway, while I was grading papers Paul was reading a book and would randomly ask me questions, and we got to talking about the importance of ethics in Christianity, and how scripture and tradition both play a part in this. However, the most important thing that we discussed, and something that I believe a lot of Americans (Christian or otherwise) either never realize or quickly forget. This is that Christianity is not a moral system. Obviously Christianity contains a moral system, but that moral system is not the core of the Christian faith.
Plato argued that ethical living is necessary for a fulfilling life. However, Christ pointed out that the ethical lives of the Pharisees, a group of people obsessed with ethics, were worthless. I find that Dante Alighieri makes this point extremely well in his epic poem Inferno. Dante’s pilgrim, who many scholars argue represents Dante himself, is guided through hell by Virgil, the Roman poet and one of Dante’s heroes. Through this journey Dante lifts Virgil to almost inhuman heights of virtue, and Virgil continually exhorts the importance of the classical virtues to Dante.
However, through the entirety of this, and especially at the end with Virgil’s last exhortation to courage, in the face of Satan himself, the poet expresses clearly that for all of his virtue, Virgil is still trapped in hell. This is not to say that Virgil’s virtue has no merit (I’ve made that claim before and been suitably chastised for it), but to say that Virgil’s near perfect virtue has not allowed him to escape from the place of torment. It may have brought him fulfillment in life, but it has not brought it in death.
This is the mistake that many people make. Morality is important. Virtue is important. However, these things are not the goal or the center of the Christian faith, they are tangential. The concept that a person must be morally perfect (or even ‘good’ whatever that means… I’m sure I’ll discuss the concept of natural sin on here sometime) before he can be saved is ridiculous. Even the concept that a Christian must be morally perfect is insane. This is why Christ was crucified in the first place, because we can’t live up to the standard, no matter what.
1st John tells us… well a lot of things, but one of those things is that those who claim to have no sin have no truth in them. John often (especially in chapters 1-3) sets forth very clear black and white distinctions. He who hates his brother cannot love God, and he who knows God will love his brother. He who sins does not know God, and he who knows God will not sin. Honestly, it’s fairly hard to read the first three chapters of 1st John and say with confidence “Yeah, yeah I’m a Christian”. However, after all of these black and white juxtapositions John then tells his readers that if we doubt, then we must simply trust God. This again returns to the concept that we are never capable of living up to the standards required, and if we think we are, then we’re missing the point entirely.
The goal of the Christian life is not moral perfection, it is to please God. Like making disciples, moral perfection is one of the ways that we do this, and it is certainly something that we should all strive for, but it is also a goal that we can never reach. So, does this mean that moral perfection isn’t important? No, of course not. Moral perfection is an important goal in the life of every Christian, and the fruits of the spirit generally show a greater striving towards that goal. Does this mean that we should all strive for moral perfection and beat ourselves up every time we sin? No, not at all. We will inevitably fail and this is what grace is for, while repentance is important, beating ourselves up over every sin is neither helpful nor realistic. Then what does this mean? It means that a strong moral character will be an inevitable outgrowth of our Christian walk, but that growth must be a natural process.
We don’t get to tell God which lessons we need to learn or when we need to learn them. God teaches us the lessons he wants us to learn when he wants us to learn them. Part of learning to trust God is learning to trust him with our failures, and this is often one of the hardest parts of trust to learn. We should be moral, but we will fail, and God will pick us up, dust us off, and tell us to try again. So, where do ethics fit in to Christianity? It is important, and we fail, always. When we fail… Grace.