Morality Does Not Have a Reset Point

According to geologists, earth’s tectonic plates are in constant flux. The seven major plates (and many minor ones) move in relation to each other. This movement has in pre-history had a significant effect on the current arrangement of the continents.

Geologists believe the plates move as much as one hundred millimeters a year. That’s about four inches. Australia has, for some reason, been moving faster than the rest of us. Since Australian GPS was reset in the mid-90s, the folks down under have moved about five feet. That’s too little for people to perceive, but it is having an effect on systems that are highly sensitive to location.

Many current and developing technologies depend on pinpoint accuracy. A slight variance in GPS coordinates can, for example, lead a driverless tractor into a powerline pole. And consider emerging technologies like shipping drones and driverless cars.  Instead of delivering a valuable package to your front porch, a shipping drone might drop it off outside your garage, where you’ll back over it when you leave for work in the morning. For driverless cars, a variance of five feet could mean the difference between running alongside an 80,000 pound steel-hauling semi and being ground to powder beneath it.

It’s a little unnerving to realize that even the earth itself, its atmosphere and lithosphere, are in a state of flux. The philosopher Heraclitus saw this a half-century before the birth of Christ. He said, “There is nothing permanent except change.” The transience of life caused another ancient thinker to say wistfully: “Would that life were like the shadow cast by a wall or a tree, but it is like the shadow of a bird in flight.”

The fact that things are always changing leads one to wonder if morality itself might change. An answer to that question depends on what is meant by morality. If morality is defined as “beliefs about what is right behavior and what is wrong behavior” (Webster), it is obvious that morality does change, since such beliefs have always been fluid.

In the late seventeenth century, courts thought of themselves as morally upright when (and even because) they ordered the torture and execution of convicted witches. In the mid-nineteenth century, slave-owners and even slave-marketers could be considered principled and even pious members of the community. In the middle of the twentieth century, a person could be incarcerated for up to five years for marrying a person of a different race.

Many people who are unhappy with changes in the moral code think we would be better off to go back to a previous moral code. They may be right, but bringing back the old days is not a cure-all. In some cases, the old morality needed to be changed. Owning people was morally acceptable in 1840, but it’s a good thing that is no longer the case. The idea that America needs to go back to the old days is a misunderstanding. With apologies to Donald Trump, the challenge is not to make America great again, but to make America good again –good for the present time.

That goodness is not tied to some past standard. There is not a reset point to morality, as there is on a computer. As a Christian, I don’t believe that moral goodness is anchored to a point in time, but to the timeless God. What is morally right or wrong at any given time is based on God’s character and will – the way he is and what he wants – through all time.

Christians believe that God’s character and will have been revealed, at least in part, in the Scriptures. They are God’s self-revelation, conveyed through spiritually discerning people. But even more important is God’s self-revelation through Jesus Christ. He is the ultimate revelation of God in human terms and human flesh. If we are going to make our way through the tangle of modern issues on shifting moral ground, we would be wise to orient ourselves to him. In a world of constant change, he provides a fixed reference point.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 10/15/2016

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2 Responses to Morality Does Not Have a Reset Point

  1. Thank you, Shayne. There are many things in this piece that suggest further thought and prayer. I feel like I’m on a launching pad, invited to venture forth.

    Ron

  2. salooper57 says:

    Thanks, Ron, for reading and for your thoughtful comments. You have challenged me to think more carefully and deeply.
    Shayne
    P.S. Do I hear the countdown?

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