Ligon Duncan on the Non-Negotiables of the Gospel

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  • Wednesday, May 07, 2008

    Excitement & Caution in Regard to the "New Synthesis in Moral Psychology" (Human Morality)

    Philosophers, psychologists, neuroscientists, economists, primatologists and anthropologists, all borrowing liberally from each others' insights, are putting together a novel picture of morality—a trend that University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt has described as the "new synthesis in moral psychology." The picture emerging shows the moral sense to be the product of biologically evolved and culturally sensitive brain systems that together make up the human "moral faculty."

    One of the present and future battlegrounds in religious debate (as shown by the above quote, taken from here) is certain to be in the area of human morality.

    As with other areas of debate between Christians and non-Christians (especially those within secular humanism), this new area of study is nothing for Christians to be afraid of, only something Christians must critically scrutinize, or else risk giving up ground in areas which can be used in highlighting the glory of God, the truth of the gospel, and furthering the work of bringing others to Christ through the truth both revealed and confirmed.

    Here's what the battle is going to look like: One one hand you'll have those who seek to suggest that human morality is simply a result of biological factors and evolution (i.e., it has no ultimate standard but finds it's origin and source in matter ... or in man)... and on the other hand you'll have those who look to the evidence as support of what the Bible has always proclaimed - that morality's origin is found outside of matter or the universe in God himself, and the evidences when properly scrutinized not only point to but confirm the teaching of Scripture. The ultimate answer to this question (as it has been found in so many other areas) is going to come down to none other than (...Guess what??!!) a matter of FAITH!

    For example, as the article points out, "intuition" rather than reason is now being looked to as playing a significant role in human morality. The question is...what is intuition and where does it come from? Is it simply a something that has resulted in a materialistic world and is now biologically passed down through evolution, or is it the result of the law of God being written upon the hearts of men? You see, on one level, this new research can be exciting for the Christian apologist, because it points to what the Bible has been saying all along, and that is that morality is not simply based on "reason" and "cultural" factors (though these play a part in human morality (in the exercise of it, and to a small extent in the informing/storing up in the conscience, etc.)... i.e., we can confidently, joyfully, and unsurprisingly point to the fact that "evidence" now, even from the beginning of these studies, points to the truth of what the Bible states (even though others based on their presuppositions, rejection of the gospel, and opposition to it's truth ... while they must admit this [when pressed] to be a rational possibility... will argue and set out to prove otherwise ... that intuition is simply a factor, function, or product of man.

    Here's what Christians need to be concerned about and keep in mind as the findings of these studies continue to come forward and as the level of debate picks up in these areas:

    1. One must evaluate the presuppositions and evaluations upon which findings are determined.

    For example, in the article in regard to the examples given (the individual who failed to keep his promise to his dead mother, and the individual who had sex with a chicken before eating it), it states that "These weird but essentially harmless acts were, nonetheless, by and large deemed to be immoral." While the articles defines "harmless' as " no sentient being was hurt", we're reminded by this that at the same time that investigation will be to determine how individuals respond to certain scenarios, that at some point judgements of the findings may/will involve relationship to ethical judgments (and in particular to "a" standard of ethics/morality). Christians must be on their guard to evaluate not just "whether or not" some particular outcome was discovered, but if determinations are made in regard to those outcomes, that the "input" or "evaluation" criterias are themselves right. Put another way, if trash comes out, it could be because trash was put in.

    2. Christians also must be careful to evaluate issues concerning "cultural" factors to human morality. Without understanding that one aspect of the conscience is that one one level it is like a storehouse and especially in our fallen state must be filled with deposits (for good and better use)(i.e., the need to study and memorize Scripture); secular humanists will most likely deny the relationship between the law written on the heart and particular role and funtion of the conscience, and instead assert that morality is more just a factor of human evolutionary inheritance and cultural conditioning. An example of this can be found in relation to the issue of "moral dumbfounding". In the study where people acknowledged that incestous sex was wrong, but could not state why, ... some may try to argue that it's just "cultural" influence, i.e., biblical influence or it's effects. (Note - in such a position, nothing could ultimately be stated as wrong, just culturally relevant. This is the same thinking the prophet condemned) If one's presupposition is the law is not written upon the heart (i.e. rejects the truth of Scripture), then they would define the innate or intuitive knowledge of incestous sex as simply the result of brainwashing. However, if one recognizes the truth of Scripture, it's not unnatural for one to know things apart from sole reasoning.

    3. Finally Christians need to be careful in examining the studies and their findings that all factors involved are taken into account. For example, if "cultural" influences are mentioned, but the conscience all it's workings are not taken into account, then faulty findings will result.

    In the end, study in this new area is exciting and can be a great testimony in the arsenal of the Christian apologist and evangelist; however, as with other issues, be they in the field of science, literature, theology, archaeology, etc., the big question will depend on whether Christians are not only involved in the research and discovery (which helps by not having to correct and address errors and deficiencies later), but whether Christians critically examine not only the findings but all that been involved in reaching those findings.

    Two beautiful things that can already be stated:
    1. The position that secular humanists would ultimate argue for in this area is one that I don't believe anyone wants to live out... that being that there is no absolute truth, morals, or ethics.... for imagine a world in which this is the predominant mindset.

    2. Even the fact that this issue, along with all the other ultimate issues of debate, comes down to an issue of "faith" and one's "presuppositions", ought to serve as additional thought and motivation leading to one considering the wisdom and gospel of God, for is it by accident that so many of the the ultimate questions come to and arrive at this point, or is it the intended result of the wisdom of God, which manifests itself for the good (and salvation of man), and which one day will be revealed fully and finally for all the world to see?!

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