Goodbye to Moralism

“God made the animals to do each what it likes, without sin. But he made man to do more than what he likes; namely, to do what he ought.” — Charles Kingsley

I know a ton of people — perhaps most Christians — who would “Amen” this and think it captures something very profound. But if it does, it is profound falsehood. I do not disagree that doing what we ought is important. What I disagree with is specifically what Kingsley says, which is that we were created for that reason. We cannot get anywhere in the spiritual life if we start with sloppy theology like this.

We were made not to obey a moral code, but to live in love. Adam and Eve were created for fellowship with God. There is no mention of morality or purity because when we are living in right relationship to God, those things take care of themselves. They are good things, but we cannot find God simply by being moral. If we start with God’s love, we have a good chance of ending with it. If we start from a purity code, we can’t get to love from there.

FAR BETTER:
“Most of us were taught that God would love us if and when we change. In fact, God loves you so that you can change. What empowers change, what makes you desirous of change is the experience of love. It is that inherent experience of love that becomes the engine of change. …we’ve been given an inferior message—that God loves me “when” I change (“moralism”). What that does is put it back on you. You’re back to “navel gazing” and you never succeed at that level. You are never holy enough, pure enough, refined enough, or loving enough. Whereas, when you fall into God’s mercy, when you fall into God’s great generosity, you find, seemingly from nowhere, this capacity to change. No one is more surprised than you are. You know it is a gift.” — Richard Rohr

We have to start somewhere. Why not start with God and God’s love, instead of with ourselves and our own efforts? If what we seek is God, then let us begin with God and trust that we cannot but end with God as well. Starting with ourselves can lead to nothing but increasing rigidity, moralism, and perfectionism, since you will necessarily end with magnified versions of whatever you start with. When we don’t think we’re good enough, we’ll live in constant guilt and self-deprecation. In the rare times we do think we’re good enough, we will be arrogant, prideful, and judgmental of others who are less perfect than we are. This is how beginning with morality actually leads to the opposite of spirituality.

There is no future along the path of religious moralism. Since it does not and cannot lead to God, why walk that path to begin with? The question, then, should not be, “How can I do better?” The question should be, “How can I experience the love of God and come to live in it?” That path will create truly moral people — the kind whose morality does not come attached to strings of perfectionism, judgmentalism, and pride.

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  • Cheryl Carlson

    Amen.