One of the results of the attempt to apply reason to religion in the 18th century by John Lock with his “The reasonableness of Christianity” and Matthew Tindal with his “Christianity not mysterious” was that the realm of Christian theology was narrowed down to morality. Although the high church party protested there was a strong and continuing element of English theology that placed great emphasis on living the good life in order to receive the heavenly delights after death.
The irony of this situation is that the exhortation to live the moral life with the view of the afterlife emptied Christianity of its richest aspects. Jesus became the moral exemplar whom we were called to follow. This reduction largely discounted classical theology with all its riches and its proclamation of the name of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The upshot was that if the essence of Christianity could be accessed by any thinking person and if that essence was reduced the moral life, then why was the church needed at all?
Thus the Enlightenment produced the individual who was his own orthodoxy and who could choose between the right and the wrong. The mind of man, being a clean slate and devoid of innate ideas such as the sin inherited from Adam or an idea of God could be moulded by education so that the individual could have all of the prerequisites for fitting in with society.
This was a highly optimistic view of humanity that insisted that we are responsible for our own life. Alas, our own experience of life and of those around us prove this not to be true. For, as St Paul observed; “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Rom. 7:14)
Our experience of life shows us that we are deeply divided against ourselves and that simply being told that you should be better is impotent, for surely we could tell that to ourselves. If it was as easy as this then surely the law would suffice and we would not have needed blood to be shed.
The decline of Christianity can be seen in part to be the result of this optimistic view of human behaviour and of our ability to reason even though there is not one definition of reason that covers all its applications. In other words, the appeal to an ethics based on reason is empty. Or, rather, any such appeal will result in the use of instrumental reason that is predicated by an outcome. There is no way that reason can come to the judgment about whether that outcome is good.
This situation is the final outcome of secularisation in which ethics may be based only on the action and outcome being considered. It is thus sealed off from any consideration that does not belong to the situation, such as stories of origin or law set in time out of mind, or vision of man being made in the image of God. Ethical considerations are sealed off from the transcendent.
This is why it can be said that ethics has nothing to do with God. But ethics has everything to do with God because God is the truth and the story of God tells us who we are and what destiny we may hope for ourselves. When we become dead to God (rather than God being dead to us) we find ourselves in a personal vacuum that can only operate out of instrumental morality.
I have said before that Christianity is not primarily a system of ethics, unlike Islam. Rather, it is a practice that transforms the individual by situating him in the story of God. It is this transformation that produces the moral life which we know we could not live if left by ourselves.
Another way of saying this is that Christianity is primarily a relationship with the living Christ, it is not just imitation on our own terms. At the Eucharist believers eat and drink the body and blood of their saviour so that he literally is in the believer. There is an indwelling of God in us and us in God that has led to some writers talking about our becoming godlike.
So Christians do not have to be obsessed with morality, we may leave that to the pietists and the puritans, that is not what we are about. For we know that any attempt at purity that relies on our own efforts is delusion. What we do know is that if we attend the Eucharist and listen to the Word we will be transformed, almost without our knowing, into persons who can lead a good life without having to think too much about it.
This is because the gospel forms our desires. We find that greed and the exercise of power have disappeared from our repertoire and we look forward to becoming people of peace, not people who are for peace but a people who are by their nature peaceable.
The current reaction against the Church is driven largely by the idea that it wants to impose morality upon us and it has good grounds for that reaction. But what the Church should be doing in its faithfulness is proposing a story which has as its end the true humanising of humanity.
This means that we discover that, contrary to Margaret Thatcher, it is not community that does not exist, it is the individual. For the individual exists only as he exists in relation, just as the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit only exist in relation. Of course we exist as bodies and consciousness but in biblical terminology we are in fact dead and it is only God that can raise us from our graves, hence the belief in the resurrection of the dead.
Church leaders are right when they point to the decay of society and connect that decay with the decline of the practice of Christianity. But they must do so with more nuance so that they do not fall into the trap of moralism. Christians do not believe in morals, they believe in, and are in relation with, one who was murdered by those who did believe in morals but did not believe in God.