The Two Non-Changeables

January 24, 2018

I recently came across a sentence written by British philosopher Francis Bacon (1561-1626) which states: "The greatest vicissitude of things amongst men is the vicissitude of sects and religions," which, translated, means---among other things---men are forever creating new "sects and religions" to deal with the essential focus of all religions---human morality. What is right and wrong, sin and righteousness, morality and immorality. Humans will never cease creating such entities because we cannot cease doing what is perfectly natural to us: debating morality. It is probably a human universal. We moralize in every language spoken by humans, and thus, we create "sects and religions".

The big question forced upon us, then, is---given changing times, changing personal and cultural values, changing situations---can we ever be sure what is moral and what is not? What we should do and what we should refrain from doing?

I suggest two such solidities which never change, indeed, which cannot change, and which, amid the maelstrom of moral decisions---the various "vicissitudes" thrust upon us---give us moral light.

First, there is the nature of God. He is the one "true and living God" (to quote the apostle), distinct from the myriads of untrue and dead gods created by men, and He is unchanging in His divine character. If God is changeable, obviously, morality can never be defined with any certainty. We are left to the vagaries of men of human ingenuity, kaleidoscopically redefining morality on the run. The result is a moral morass, precisely what one observes all over the planet.

Second, there is the nature of man. Even if we grant that God is consistent, coherent, constant, what about man? Again, all the records we have of man, from the beginning of human history, tell the same story: at all times and in all places, he manifests that he is morally flawed. He is selfish, rebellious, capable of horrific brutality. That is what his own creation story tells us in the first pages of the Bible. Thomas Hobbes said that man's natural state is war. Sigmund Freud said that man's animalistic aggression is a given; it is "baked in the cake," and cannot, he says, be controlled. (See his famous "Civilization and Its Discontents") Lord Acton said: "No historian thinks well of human nature." Stuart Barton Babbage has a thought-provoking line: "Man is the only animal which blushes, or needs to."
There was a time, especially during "The Enlightenment---eighteenth-century Europe, when "the perfectibility of man" was commonly preached, especially among socialists and liberal theologians. H. G. Wells is an interesting study. After many years of passionately espousing the theory of humanity's unbounded potential through science and education, he wrote late in his life in his "Mind at the End of its Tether "...a final repudiation of everything he had ever said or thought..." about such illimitable potential, given man's essential nature. Most moderns agree with the late Wells position.

An acceptance of those two "solidities" give all men a basis for discovering what is right and what is wrong. If God can change, we will all live in a moral fog. If man can change his character, the same is true. The Bible says God's character is predictable, and so is man's. "The leopard cannot change his spots, and the Ethiopian cannot change his skin." (Nor can the non-Ethiopian!)

It must, then, be clear that the search for right and wrong is such a man pursuing such a God. And such a man believing such a God. And such a man obeying such a God. That does not change man's essential nature, but it does change his behavior.

But what about new sins? The short answer is---there are none. Such "modern" sins as price-gouging, incest, homosexuality, bestiality, etc., are explicitly proscribed in the Bible because they were practiced by biblical peoples, from the dawn of human history.

Modern vicissitude dwellers seeking moral clarity could do worse than to make a perusal of the Ten Commandments. They are first found in Exodus 20:1-17. Elton Trueblood called them "Foundations for Reconstruction." Are they still relevant? Name one which would not be seriously relevant, say, in Beijing? Or in your town. Or for any life. Yours. Or mine. Or anybody else's.

Bill Anderson
Grapevine, Texas