Contemporary morality

Evangelistic Momentum 3: Contemporary Morality

How do we shape our evangelism based on the trends we’ve seen in society over the past decade? Ray Evans and Jon Putt explore two books that help us to consider the times we’re living in.

In understanding some of the trends in contemporary society over the last five to ten years, we turn to Jonathan Haidt and his companion works, The Righteous Mind and The Coddling of the American Mind (the latter co-authored with Greg Lukianoff).

Both of these works have been summarised and reviewed very helpfully and examples can be found on the Gospel Coalition website and Andrew Wilson’s blog. You can listen to interviews and debates with Jonathan Haidt on Premier Christian Radio, the Joe Rogan show (be prepared for bad language), and the BBC.

But in this series, we particularly want to digest what the implications of his work might be for building evangelistic momentum.

Haidt is described as a social psychologist and Lukianoff is a lawyer, specialising in the First Amendment (which enshrines the rights of free speech and free practice of religion into American law). From their insights, we can see ways in which we may need to modify the method and approaches to our evangelism in order to connect and communicate effectively with those around us.

One of Haidt’s most helpful observations in The Righteous Mind (and it is the focus of The Gospel Coalition article mentioned above) is how different people approach questions of morality. He identifies six moral foundations to which people appeal when making moral judgments.

Let’s take each of them in turn:

  • Care/Harm: The first is the care/harm foundation. This simply means an act is moral if it minimises harm and maximises care.
  • Fairness/Cheating: On one hand this is often understood and applied in terms of equality. It’s not as clearly defined as that and some may equate this with equality of outcomes. On the other hand, it can be understood as people being rewarded according to their effort and achievement. This is more readily identified with equality of opportunity.
  • Loyalty/Betrayal: This foundation measures morality according to whether an act is loyal to a particular group/team or not.
  • Authority/Subversion: This foundation assesses morality by gauging to what extent it submits to rightful authority or to what extent it subverts it.
  • Sanctity/Degradation: This is concerned with those things/values/institutions that we hold sacred. What are they (the environment/life/marriage/choice) and does any given act respect those things or pollute them?
  • Liberty/Oppression: This is concerned with ethics and things that are moral which promote our liberty (however understood). That which is immoral oppresses us and acts as a tyrant in our lives.

Just from these six foundations we can already see how the gospel may be naturally unappealing to people on an ethical level.

So, take a foundational Christin tenet: Jesus is Lord. We immediately run into difficulty with those who think that personal liberty is a key moral foundation. On their measure, Christianity cannot be true because it appears to them to fail the ethical test. More specifically, it promises oppression through the introduction of One who will dominate the will of the individual.

Or consider the care/harm foundation. Jesus says whoever will follow him must deny themselves, pick up their cross and follow him. Pick up their cross? Deny self? What could sound more harmful to a culture brought up to believe in self-fulfilment, self-identification and self-promotion?

Implications for Gospel Ministry

For each one of the six foundations we could work-up a number of examples. The point is that when we come to communicate the gospel of Jesus, we must do so conscious of the specific ways it appears so counter-cultural in our time.

To borrow a phrase from Glynn Harrison, this seems to demand that we tell a better ethical story than our culture does. That means not just repeating the basic historical truths of the gospel more loudly, but drawing a picture to demonstrate that only Christianity can ultimately satisfy our need for ethical living (as well as an answer for what to do when we fail to meet that standard).

For example, we take someone’s desire for liberty and feed their imagination with Jesus’ promise of true Christian liberty where we are new creations, free to follow Jesus and love our neighbour in a new way, transformed by the Holy Spirit. Or in answer to someone’s ethical need to see that people are properly cared for, we connect it with Jesus’ lordship and show how trusting and obeying Jesus leads to our needs being properly cared for, in eternity but beginning now.

Dismantling Cultural Norms

Haidt followed his work from The Righteous Mind with The Coddling of the American Mind. The book has its genesis in Lukianoff’s experience with severe depression. Following treatment, including cognitive behavioural therapy, Lukianoff saw in society at large some of what he had experienced personally; namely anxiety and a tendency to catastrophise in reaction to external events and ideas.

In the book, Haidt and Lukianoff subsequently identify three bad ideas that our culture believes today.

1. What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker

The first bad idea means people are more closed to tasks or ideas they find difficult. People are increasingly fragile and more determined to seek out safety, something Haidt and Lukianoff term ‘the cult of safetyism’.1

Therefore, people are more likely to cast themselves as victims and shut themselves off from threats, real or imagined, physical, mental or emotional. The apologetic task becomes harder when people cast themselves as the perpetual victim, rather than the instigator of sin.

2. Always trust your feelings

The second bad idea elevates an individual’s feelings so they become the overriding factor in any decision making. Therefore, my interpretation of events and actions (as given to me by my feelings) becomes more important in assessing reality than another person’s intentions and motivation. So, we see the rise of ‘micro-aggressions’ – daily acts of minor aggression, as determined by the recipient, whereby they feel marginalised, insulted, aggrieved or degraded.2

Given what we have seen already about the inherent ethical implausibility of the gospel, it is not hard to see how evangelism can be seen as ‘micro-aggression’. The line of reasoning may run: “You’re telling me I’m sinful, that makes me feel bad, you must hate me.”

Just as a side note, for the purposes of discipleship it also encourages people to think the worst of each other, not the best. Hardly a recipe for a healthy, united family of Christian believers who all hope for the best in each other.

3. Life is a battle between good people and evil people

The final bad idea means we are more likely to be tribal and polarised. Haidt points out that whereas ethics based on a Christian worldview tend towards common-humanity politics (he cites Martin Luther King as a classic example), today common-enemy politics is coming to dominate the thinking of many. One of the first casualties is true tolerance, quickly followed by the ability to create welcoming, inclusive communities.

With such a framework, those we seek to evangelise are likely to see the gospel appeal as a power-play by Christians at their expense, rather than an invitation to submit to their rightful, loving servant creator. Christians are also more likely to self-censor for fear of running foul of the unwritten rules and regulations of the various sub-groups to which they belong.

But there is also an opportunity. Implicit in this outlook to life is a belief in a right and a wrong. That in itself may serve as a place to begin a conversation: “We both believe in right and wrong, tell me about what you believe and why, and I’ll try and explain where I’m coming from.”

Next time, we’ll consider how these cultural realities might shape our real-world evangelism.

1. The Coddling of the American Mind, p242.
2. ibid, p403.
3. ibid, p70

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