Tuesday, November 22, 2011

"Imposing" Morality??

Something I heard today got me thinking again about my basic "pastoral" stance, as it were. During a session with my personal trainer, I overheard some people at the gym saying something about conservative Christians trying to "impose" their morality (I think they were probably talking about sex; it always comes back to sex) on people, and laughing at the idea that you could ever "enforce" our standards on the general population.

And I just had to think: what an odd way to look things.

If practical success or compliance or "enforcibility" were the measure of a moral teaching, all moral systems would be screwed. Morality is about ideals, not the question of whether people are living up to them.

I don't think "ought" necessarily translates into "is" in our fallen world, and any concrete pastoral approach has to realize were dealing with sinful human beings, not pie in the sky models of already-accomplished perfection. (I think, for example Brideshead Revisited, though I wasn't enthralled with it the way some trads are, shows this understanding of grace working subtly and even in or through merely mediocre "results" quite well.)

But, being a "lamb in the confessional" doesn't mean you shouldn't still be a "lion" in the pulpit, and a subjective compassion for human weakness doesn't mean we change the objective standards. Trust me, I know my own weaknesses in various areas, but I also am not going to let them make me "give up."

The language of "imposition" is interesting, because I (at least) am not trying to "impose" anything on anyone. The conservatives in the institutional church, maybe; that sort of politicization of the Gospel (whether through the formal venue of the State, or informally through a mindset that expects to create heaven on earth) is exactly the problem that is in some ways at the heart of what this blog has always critiqued.

To me, a moral norm is just categorically different than that, does not constitute an "imposition" of any sort. It's more like an invitation. I'm not "trying" to "stop" anyone from doing anything, and neither was Christ. We can only live as examples and offer people a message. But hoping for their conversion is different from trying to "make" them change. The latter is not only an exercise in futility, but also in pride; it is not up to us to change people, it is up to God. Any evangelism that sees its goal as arguing or otherwise pressuring or coercing people into submission (intellectually or in other ways) is problematic, which is why I have a certain distaste for "apologetics" as a tool of evangelization; for me, apologetics is mainly useful for those who already believe.

Of course, there's a fine line. I was thinking about this when writing my recent posts on the question of tolerance and respecting people's beliefs in a pluralist society (while still holding our own very firmly) and about whether we must "hide from" the fact that bad things are going on (such as by attending the irregular weddings of those who don't even share our premises to begin with; I conclude it can be okay).

Obviously, there is no way to coerce belief from anyone. But is telling them there is a Hell and that they might be going there an "imposition" in the form of applying the force of fear or guilt? Is any "fire and brimstone" preaching bad, or is a distaste for it merely our modern political correctness showing itself? I tend to think more the latter than the former, though there is a balance. But, ultimately, I have to think, if the threat of Hell does get a rise out of people, then it means that they're conscience isn't quite dead yet. And at that point, how is making them face it an "imposition"? Can it be rude? Maybe. But rude isn't always bad when it came to saving souls. Christ had no problem being a scandal, a controversy, nor was He "nice" by modern standards. The morality of the nice/inoffensive is asinine.

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